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Self-Reflection in the Age of Self-Isolation

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects prevention and control work against the new coronavirus in Beijing on Feb. 10. Pang Xinglei/Xinhua via Getty Images

Brent Cameron is a Senior Advisor with Concierge Strategies, and a local councillor in Ontario, Canada. The second edition of Brent H. Cameron’s book, “The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade: Options for a new globalization” is available now on Amazon worldwide.

Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates was quoted as saying something about success that echoes my own thoughts. He once said that “success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

My own unvarnished version was that winning teaches you nothing because you can’t know for certain why you won. Maybe you were better, or maybe the other person just had an off day. In elections, I have observed that sometimes it isn’t how popular Candidate A is, but how despised Candidate B happens to be. In truth, you can be a winner simply by doing nothing and letting your opponent sabotage themselves. There is no prowess or skill involved in that – save for knowing when to be quiet and sit down.

Losing, on the other hand, is an advanced level master course that’s not for the faint of heart. It is the ego-bruising, soul-crushing exercise of self-examination where you must confront your mistakes, naming them and claiming them. It is about acknowledging the metaphysical stove is hot, while you slather on the mental equivalent of aloe and gauze on the third degree burns on your psyche.

This dichotomy of what winning and losing does to you explains much of the current geopolitical mess we are in. And, as with almost every great tale of hubris and revenge – from the plays of Euripedes to some of the more contemporary Hollywood fare – it almost inevitably begins with a grievance and a loss. From there, it builds slowly and methodically into an all-consuming quest to erase the stain and to exact a high penalty on the person – or persons – who put it there.

Whether or not one appreciates it, our tale truly began in 1989 – the year ‘we’ won, and – by extension – they ‘lost.’ When I say, ‘we’, I mean the western liberal international community, and when I say ‘they’, I am referring to the totalitarian Communist world, as represented by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.

After five decades of Cold War tension, which nearly veered into the realm of nuclear annihilation, we defeated the East in the great ideological battle of the 20th century – all without firing a shot.

Like the previously mentioned adage about winning, our victory owed to a combination of factors. But we were in a celebratory mood, in the heady days of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Francis Fukuyama wrote of the “end of history,” Charles Krauthammer declaring the arrival of the “unipolar moment,” and British pop group Jesus Jones chortling about “watching the world wake up from history.” We won because they were evil and we were not, and that our victory has some sense of cosmic inevitability. We lived an existence scripted by the Gods, where our enemies – whether they knew it or not – were doomed, and by the pureness of our thoughts and deeds, the result was never in any doubt.

A career KGB officer named Vladimir Putin had a front row seat to the chaos that seized the government of the former East Germany. He saw the great Soviet superpower he swore to defend reduced to a diminished rump – where Soviet republics broke away to declare independence, and even the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, would be relegated to the indignities of staving off a coup and appearing as a cameo in a Pizza Hut commercial. Early in the Cold War, Soviet client states in eastern Europe belonged to a pact specifically designed to counter NATO – the “Warsaw Pact”. Today, Warsaw itself lies within a NATO member state.

That same year, Xi Jingping was the ranking Chinese Communist Party official in Fujian province. He would have seen the collapse of the Communist bloc in eastern Europe, and the chaos seizing the Soviet Union. He would have also seen the pro-democracy activists gathering in Tiananmen Square. One can never perfectly know the mind of another, but we can only surmise the mindset of a man with high rank in a system that was facing a point of crisis. During the Cultural Revolution, his family home would be ransacked, his sister killed, and his father paraded through the streets as a traitor, while his mother was forced to publicly denounce him.

What happens to a man or woman who see their world crumble before their eyes, when everything they committed their heart and head to descends into turmoil, or the threat thereof? And what happens when one’s adversaries stand at the margins, basking and luxuriating in the ensuing chaos and humiliation – much like an NFL running back who hotdogs in the endzone after scoring a touchdown?

The behaviour of the Russian and Chinese governments toward the West is almost an homage to Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’, with each seeing themselves as a latter day Edmond Dantes, transforming themselves into a formidable presence that can both reclaim what they feel is owed them, and to exact punishing revenge on those who they hold responsible for their misfortune.

Dantes could not – as Dantes – pull it off. Luck would allow him to escape and obtain the wealth needed to accomplish the task. He needed to transform himself into the Count in order to complete his tasks. Russia and China also needed to transform themselves. The initial opening of those economies to Western investment almost seems inspired by the book – enough to gain access to the global economy, but not enough to relinquish the levers of power needed to accomplish the goal.

Like Danglars, the wealthy banker who Dantes manipulates into destroying himself financially, we have been manipulated as well. Dantes – as the Count – secured credit from Danglars after flaunting his wealth. We extended market access and all number of concessions to a regime who promised us a billion consumers and that they wanted to someday be just like us. 

China spoke of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, where that country would gradually transition to a multi-party liberal democracy, as to avoid the chaos and anarchy that befell the USSR. And we believed it – or at least our elites did. That is why they thought the handover of Hong Kong would not be an issue, because with a period of forty years of transition, we were told that the PRC would be so much like Hong Kong, one would not know the difference.

Our business and political leaders were lobbied, flattered, and compensated to look the other way, to make excuses. Even when the unequal trade killed jobs in the industrial heartland, and the trade in illicit fentanyl killed the body and soul of what remained, they still looked away. Their egos prevented them from admitting they had been played, and their sneering contempt for the less affluent among us made them immune to the suffering and desperation of those whose democratic birthright they shared.

And now, as the world lives in fear of sickness, as a pandemic forces young and old, rich and poor, to hide in their homes, fearful of the future and waiting for relief that we optimistically hope will come, we face uncomfortable truths.

What we fail to understand is that as in the case of Dumas’ literary creation, there is a fine line between ‘justice’ and ‘revenge,’ and that while one may speak of the former, their actions and intent belie the latter.

Last year, in a local paper, appeared an article entitled A Deeply-Rooted Canada-China Tension in the Eyes of a Chinese Immigrant. In it, the author wrote the following:

“China was the primary target of Western invasions historically, primarily because of its huge wealth. China’s economy was the largest in the world in the beginning of the 1800s. The British empire launched the First Opium Wars between 1839 and 1842, which saw Hong Kong ceded to the British. Between 1856 and 1860, the British, French and Americans launched the second Opium War, with the participation of many other Western nations. Then in 1900 … the eight-nation Alliance, invaded and occupied Beijing, ransacking the Forbidden City, and looting the Old Summer Palace before burning it down to cover up their plundering. Can you imagine if the Louvre was ransacked and burned down? The difference is, the Old Summer Palace was much bigger and richer, and it took 4,000 troops and 3 days of active burning to destroy it.

The wars imposed on China resulted in significant loss in Chinese treasury in the form of war compensation to western nations, significant land sovereignty loss, and nationwide long-term opium addiction, which was eradicated only after the communists took power. And today, many stolen Chinese treasures are still held in museums in western countries, and numerous more are lost in private collections.

The wars may be over, but the memory lives on, especially with the new threats from the US following the economic rise of China.”

Each of you can decide from yourself whether or not this sounds like an appeal for justice or just a good old-fashioned defence of settling scores.

The hard truth is that we have now become Dantes, imprisoned in millions of “Chateau d’If’s”. Whether or not our prisons have internet and video gaming systems is immaterial. We are not free and will remain so until the danger has passed. And like any prisoner, we are alone with our thoughts – of what led to this plight, how to free ourselves of it, and what we must do to right this wrong.

In 1989, we won the Cold War because we capitalized on the mistakes of our rivals. We let them defeat themselves. In 2020, that is precisely how they are beating us.

No doubt, there are officials in Beijing who – like our leaders in 1989 – are becoming arrogant and triumphal at the spectacle of all this. Will they learn of the paradox that you are at your weakest when you believe yourself to be strongest? Will they realize that they engaged in a massive overreach that has resulted in a global consensus to contain their avarice?

Not unless we learn from this loss and build it.

 

About Brent Cameron

Profile photo of Brent Cameron
A writer and commentator on Commonwealth trade issues, Brent Cameron is the author of 'The Case for Commonwealth Free Trade' (2004, 2018) and numerous essays and articles. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of Commonwealth Exchange, a London, UK-based research group. Cameron worked as Telecommunications Coordinator for the Federal Ministry of Labour in Ottawa, Canada before joining SES Canada Research (now Nanos Research) as a Research Associate. He also worked as an assistant to former Ontario MPP Harry Danford, Member for Hastings-Peterborough and Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Cameron was a member of the Advance Team for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney during the 1988 Canadian federal general election. During the 2007 Ontario Referendum on Electoral Reform, he acted as Coordinator for the 'No MMP' campaign for eastern Ontario (excluding Ottawa). Cameron has also served as a member and contributing columnist on the Community Editorial Board of the Kingston (ON) Whig-Standard newspaper. He holds an honours degree in politics from Queen's University and a Certificate in Municipal Administration from St. Lawrence College (Kingston, ON). In 2014, Brent Cameron was elected to the municipal council for the Township of Central Frontenac, in southeastern Ontario, Canada, and serving as Deputy Mayor in 2017.

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One comment

  1. “Losing, on the other hand, is an advanced level master course that’s not for the faint of heart.” Well put.

    Putin and Xi are victims of the fallacy of historical responsibility – see http://www.dailyglobe.co.uk/comment/the-political-fallacies/ . Or using the fallacy to spin a tale of their nations as eternal beings that demand revenge and dominance.

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