Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Generational Shift?

This evening at The Asia Society, a panel discussion co-hosted by Stanford about the changing conditions and outlook in East Asian countries revealed a perceptible shift in perspective between two generations of experts in America.

The panel of highly sophisticated and eminent scholars, including a former senior diplomat, was moderated by
Coit Blacker and explored the relationships between economic development and polity, as well as the emergence of new styles of nationalism across North and South East Asia. The two younger members of the panel appeared to take the position that they serve as expert facilitators, advisors and observers. Their elders, variously, still brought to the discussion an assumption that the role of the US remains a supervisory one, requiring an ROI, as it were, in terms of support for US foreign policy, or a belief that emerging democracies remain in substantial need of American guidance.

Michael Armacost praised the speed and efficiency with which the Japanese National Diet had passed laws to facilitate non-combat support for the war on terror. He measured the success of America’s decision to support Japan’s Imperial house in the aftermath of WW II in terms of Japan’s ongoing diplomatic collaboration afterwards, and in that vein also expressed a little impatience with Yoichiro Koizumi’s present insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine. In a nearly contemporaneous though substantively different style, Donald Emmerson noted that the emergence of democracy in Indonesia did not guarantee the rule of law, but rather it often opened the door to corrupt practices.

Harry Harding, on the other hand, spoke about the uneven effects of industrial and commercial development in China, both with respect to environmental issues and political questions of equality of access and agency. Yet he also noted the emergence in China of professional classes as intermediaries, including litigators who are nowadays ready and willing to work pro bono to take on the Chinese Government on development-related issues. He also spoke of his obviously well-measured perception that there is a need and preference among Chinese citizens for a continuing American presence. Gi Wook Shin pointed out that the average Korean is much better informed about foreign affairs than most Americans, and that this deficit needs to be addressed. He described the new generation of South Koreans’ belief that their blood ties to North Koreans supersede the hostilities which were concluded over fifty years ago. This put me in mind of what is happening now between India and Pakistan, regardless of who takes credit for the move to reconciliation. Boundaries drawn by Western powers will inevitably be challenged or rendered redundant or otherwise amended over time– I am always amazed that there is no ongoing hullabaloo about the fact that the Durand Line expired ten years ago...

Agreeably, every one of these expert observers noted that nationalism is not always linked to martial initiatives or to a search for strategic advantage in regional affairs, but can function effectively as a spur to economic growth and political development.

serendipitously, this event put another discussion I went to last week into perspective. Tom Webber, whose book, 'Flying Over 96th Street', is out now, addressed Spence parents at a meeting of the PA subgroup called TAPESTRY, about his experiences growing up between East Harlem and Collegiate, and summering in Maine. As a bona fide resident of East Harlem from the late 'Fifties onward, he understood many subtleties about the lives of his contemporaries in the 'hood, and about their families too, which eluded his parents -- learned and hard-working as they were. At first, he made contact with boys his own age at the basketball courts, but eventually relinquished basketball for academic work, so as to follow his forbears to Harvard, the better to return to East Harlem, where he still lives. He was a trifle shy about sharing his argot, and seemed pleased when we all burst out laughing.

It seems that in order for Tom of El Barrio to return to his neighborhood, in those days the best alternative for him was to assume an instructive and ameliorative role in the community. This he did as the founder and Executive Director of The Edwin Gould Academy at 104th and Lex, a coed boarding school for teens in the foster care and juvenile justice systems -- until institutional foster care was supplanted by family therapy programs.

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