(13 min read)
“These men are all talk. What we need is action—action!”
— John Brown, slavery abolitionist
Over the past weekend, I met up with Paget Kagy, my co-host for Not Your Asian Sidekick¹, at Sweetea Bar on the corner of W 6th St and Westmoreland in K-Town LA. I hadn’t seen Paget in a while since she got busy with the second season of her romantic comedy series Kat Loves LA, and it was good to catch up again over lattes and tea. I noticed immediately as I walked in that she had a shiny diamond engagement ring on her finger, which meant that her white boyfriend had proposed to her.
Paget has always been fun to talk to, but I could tell that the time we’d spent away from each other had changed her. She immediately curtailed my talk about ProAsianVoice and community organizing to ask me about my personal life and seemed preoccupied when I went on a harangue about the various online personalities I’ve met that have stabbed me in the back out of cowardice. I’m currently putting a roof over the head of both my ailing father and my girlfriend, who is studying to be a nurse, and I was furious at the fact that a bunch of narrow-minded, selfish, ignorant, and conniving Asian Americans posting anonymously on social media and internet forums had seen fit to organize themselves into a collective faction to bother me in real life. Paget listened to me rant but continued to ask pointed questions about what separated them from her. Because she kept asking, I began to wonder myself.
We eventually dropped by my apartment, where I showed her my dad’s collection of 300 books on political philosophy and continued the conversation in the presence of my girlfriend. It was there that I heard quite literally the wildest things come out of her mouth. “Not all white people!” “What does me being with a white man have to do with anything?” “I can’t hate all white people because I’m going to be marrying one!” “I can’t generalize groups of people!” “I’m not virtuous enough to risk myself and my career.”
The barrage of excuses caught me off-guard, but not my girlfriend Xiao Yun, who immediately launched into counter-arguments and rebuttals. The conversation dragged on longer than any of us would’ve thought, and when I walked Paget back to her car, the parking lot had already closed with her ride locked inside it. She took an Uber home, and later texted me the next morning that she had been able to get her car out of the garage, which was a relief. At the same time, I felt uneasy. Was it so easy to turn your back on the community when shit gets real? It sounded as though she had given up on any shared dreams of activism in favor of a life of marginal comfort and selective colorblindness.
The thing that stuck with me most was her moral reasoning. As we texted throughout the following week, she explained again how she did not have it in her to risk herself or her potential future career. She would also downplay anti-Asian racism, going into all-too-familiar spiels about how we don’t “have it as bad” as Black people, to which I sternly responded that this was simply her own ignorance about the matter. Although she did thank me for educating her about white privilege, anti-Asian history, and racism, she insinuated she knew more than I did about the social and political conditions of Asian America. The compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance were on full display.
My saga with an aspiring, second generation Korean American actress that took up the better part of 2018 was, once again, a reminder that Asian Americans as a whole have a fundamental lack, a gaping hole, in three foundational areas of the human spirit:
1) a sense of moral duty;
2) imagination; and
3) moral courage, which is expressed in heroic (self-sacrificing) action.
“Not everyone can be as virtuous as you” is a dreary little refrain I’ve heard my entire life. This has always struck me as absurd. I believe I was born a mortal sinner, like every other Christian, but all folks have a moral duty to abide by, regardless of their personal feelings on the matter — a categorical imperative². Paget’s defense of what philosopher Shelly Kagan calls “ordinary morality”³ — a morality that is not a morality at all but is simply a life of private hedonism occasionally checked by constraints (“thou shalt nots”) and “special obligations” (saving a drowning child, helping a spouse or family members) — wounded me deeply, as it always does. “Ordinary morality”, after all, is fundamentally a mass morality, a slave morality, which we should be all too aware of, given that we once were slaves to Europeans. It is an incoherent and inchoate justification of personal cowardice and venality, one that does not recognize higher principles such as Honor, Duty, Loyalty, and Service.
These principles are what Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo, of the famous Zimbardo Prison experiments⁴, called the “heroic imagination”. Where are all my Asian American heroes?
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A HERO?
“The very same situations that inflame the hostile imagination in some people, making them villains, can also instill the heroic imagination in other people, prompting them to perform heroic deeds.”
— Philip Zimbardo
Chiune Sugihara was an Imperial Japanese government official who defied his own country in order to issue 6,000 visas to Jewish refugees to travel through Japan and saved an estimated 40,000 people from the horrors of the Holocaust⁵. In their profile of this remarkable hero, the New York Times describes him as an unconventional non-conformist with a strong independent streak from a young age, who had a deep thirst for language, literature, and travel, and resisted his father’s desire for him to be a doctor by leaving the entire answer sheet blank on his medical exam. This pattern of willful defiance towards authority is on display throughout his entire early life, giving us a clear outline of the man’s personality and character. In 1934, he resigned in protest from his position as vice minister of the Foreign Affairs Department for Japan in Manchuria, over the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. Compare his actions to that of the Jewish American villain Samuel Gompers, who whipped up the predominantly racist white labor movements during the latter half of the 19th century to pass Chinese Exclusion and eradicate and exterminate Chinese American men.⁶
According to Mr. Zimbardo, the capacity to act differently in the assistance and defense of others is the “heroic imagination”. This ability is exceptional and is reliably found only in a very small proportion of the population, as demonstrated by the Solomon Asch experiments on conformity. Yet often, the people who possess this heroic quality are quite unimaginative. Years after the war, Sugihara spoke about his actions as simply natural, no thought required, no choice at all.
“We had thousands of people hanging around the windows of our residence,” he said in a 1977 interview⁷. “There was no other way. I told the Ministry of Foreign Affairs it was a matter of humanity. I did not care if I lost my job. Anyone else would have done the same thing if they were in my place.”
Of course, many were in his place, and very few acted like Sugihara. He was 38 at the time he nonchalantly betrayed his own government, in order to stay loyal to humanity.
In his book “The Limits of Morality”, professor of philosophy at Yale University Shelly Kagan calls this sense of Duty an “extremist morality”. “Extremist Morality” — Service — requires that one does, at all times, everything he or she can in order to bring about the best possible results. It requires one to always and forever “promote the greater good”. This is a very different conception of morality than “ordinary morality”, which requires no self-sacrifice, except in a small and extremely limited set of circumstances. Kagan spends his book demonstrating how “ordinary morality” is indefensible, even if perfect Service is unachievable except in spurts and flashes. Again, this is a simple concept to grasp to me as a Christian; you can never be Christ, but you must always aspire to His example.
This does not necessarily mean self-immolation, although heroes and heroines like the Burning Man in Tunisia who ignited the Arab Spring which overthrew the imperialist U.S.-backed government⁸, as well as Asian American political activist Kathy Change who doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of the University of Pennsylvania in 1996⁹, clearly demonstrate that real human beings exist who are willing to sacrifice everything in order to fulfill their Moral Duty here on Earth. Kathy, incidentally, was also briefly married to revolutionary Chinese American playwright and writer Frank Chin, demonstrating once again that in racist, anti-Asian America, it is Asian women who love Asian men that empirically are willing to go the greatest lengths in order to secure freedom and humanity for our people (see also the radical activist Yuri Kochiyama, who met her Japanese American husband Bill, a fighter in the 442nd Regiment¹⁰, while both were interned during World War 2).
Even if one allows for a small degree of obligation to our personal selves and private relations, the nature of a Hero is the recognition of the reality that public Duty trumps all personal feelings and reservations. When the Call comes, Heroes Answer, and they answer matter-of-factly — without thought, without fear, without anxiety or insecurity or prejudice — because to them, there is no other choice.
The lack of personal integrity and a basic moral compass is one of the major stumbling blocks to collective Asian American consciousness and attaining political freedom in 2018. So long as Yellow Men and Women believe that the mean material and psychological comforts of “Honorary Whiteness” are worth forsaking Duty and our moral obligation to Justice, there can never be a uniting force within Asian America. That unity of moral imagination is imperative because out of our collective imagination grows the Power that turns heroes into Superheroes.
“All that you have and cling to in fear is as worthwhile as a poisoned pie. A universe full of love and wonderful possibilities would be yours, if only you would reach for it. You are sitting in timid conformity, on a hayride to hell. You’re just about there. Get off that truck now. Break out of the ranks of evil. Do a dance for freedom.”
— Kathy Change, Asian American superheroine, last words
HOW DO HEROES BECOME SUPERHEROES?
“Everything you can imagine is real.”
— Pablo Picasso
In her 1970 book “Developing New Perspectives on Race”, Patricia Bidol-Padva¹¹, an organizational psychologist from the University of Michigan (my parents’ alma mater), defined racism as “prejudice plus institutional power”¹². Institutional power, of course, refers to those specific institutions and patterns of institutional behavior that regulate the allocation of material resources in society and control positive and negative outcomes, rewards, costs, and information. There are four major bases of institutional power, according to Michael Mann, who refers to it as “social power”¹³: the corporations, the military, the government, and the universities and media. In order to challenge social racism, therefore, it is not enough to simply challenge individuals such as your racist neighbors and co-workers. One must accurately identify what we in business call “the throats to choke” in society and challenge them — the people at the heads of these institutions that act as representatives for the collective behaviors of society as a whole. To challenge white supremacy, an all-of-society menace in America, one must challenge powerful people, the ones in leadership positions at the bases of social power.
As the New York Times said, they are “nearly as white as the Oscars”¹⁴.
How can one challenge power, if one has no institutional power? That is the central question confronting all dissidents, freedom fighters, and civil rights movements. After all, only power can confront power, and those tyrants who only believe in the morality of force must be met with force in return. In that case, how can we acquire power, if all social power is held in the hands of our racist oppressors? After all, an individual hero with no real, material power has another name: martyr. Only armed prophets are ever successful.
In 2005, John C. Turner presented a possible solution in the European Journal of Social Psychology, in a revolutionary paper entitled “Explaining the Nature of Power”¹⁵. In his search for the locus and origin of power, Turner describes what he calls the “three process model” of Power, which inverts the classical conception of the paradigm of power. Previously, social power was reified in the personages of individuals already in positions of power, and observing and studying their movements, habits, mannerisms, dress, and so forth. This has been true in modern European political philosophy from Machiavelli to Nietzsche and is captured in the thoroughly debunked “great man theory”¹⁶ of history. However, this is completely wrong, since it does not interrogate its inception — “from whence does Power actually originate?”
Control over resources alone is not a satisfactory answer, since that defines Power as a causa sui, something that drives and reproduces itself. And while there is absolutely a reproductive element to Power — see the Economist’s article about America’s “hereditary meritocracy” — this notion that mere control over the means of production and society as a whole is the original source of all future generations of Power is a tautological farce. Where is the material, human element? After all, with no actual real human people to recognize Power, or people to enforce its Decrees, can a Man truly be said to have any Power at all?
Give a human being all the powers of the Superman, and then strand him alone on a desert planet with no other sentient life. Can all his awesome Might be meaningfully called Power without anybody else there to witness it? Beyond that, from a Marxist perspective, how did powerful individuals gain control over all the world’s immense public resources in the first place? How much wealth can a man personally amass, without an army of underlings and underwriters propping up his gilded coffers, whether physically or digitally? Someone who sleeps on top of a literal bed of gold can scarcely be called a Croesus next to mega-billionaires like Jeff Bezos.
The tragic flaw of the traditional model of power is that it myopically focuses too much on the manifestation of Power, otherwise known as Glamour. Glamour, which consists of those dazzling displays of wealth and social pageantries put on by the people that control resources and therefore influence everyone else, bewitches the observer into thinking that the source of all social rules and behaviors originates in those individuals possessing Glamour. In the case of a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, those individuals would be of course the gleaming, bone-bleached white composite mugshot that the BBC put together of American Congress¹⁷, as well as all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, military generals, and Ivy League Presidents.
Instead, Turner focuses more on root cause analysis to discover the process that leads to someone or a committee of people gaining control over collective resources in the first place: the collective imagination of the people, otherwise known as Faith.
In sociology, the imaginary is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbolic boundaries that define any particular social group¹⁸, as well as the corresponding society through which individuals imagine their connection to a social whole. It forms a central strand of self-categorization theory¹⁹, a theory in social psychology that describes the material and psychological circumstances under which a human being will perceive collections of disparate and diverse people (including themselves) as a group, as well as the material consequences of perceiving people in group terms: Power. The wellspring of Power is a group of people imagining themselves as a group of people, and re-organizing their whole lives and surrendering their own means to an entrusted set of individuals in order to produce and reproduce a corresponding society of that group.
The individual heroes that arise at the heads of these self-categorization and self-definitional movements — so-called “identity entrepreneurs”²⁰ of identity politics, are then imbued with the material resources of the society that a group of people are dreaming of and producing in material reality through their actions. Perhaps the greatest symbol of this self-categorization process and the control over material resources it confers can be seen in the social ritual that periodically occurs every 4 years that is the election of the President of the United States of America. Millions of human beings hallucinating an imaginary of a nation-state spend a couple seconds in a private booth marking small little circles on a tiny slip of paper with a pen or pencil. The collective pencil-marking actions of these millions of diverse individuals, on a given time, at prescribed locations across this landmass imagined to be “America”, imbues a single human being that they imagine to be a “countryman” with control over the most terrifying and destructive material powers on Earth.
With one sweep of her arm, thanks to the collective action of millions of individual human beings imbuing her with their Faith, a single individual can move 6,000 tanks across landmasses separated by thousands of miles of ocean, can rain down death from 10,000 predator drones in the farthest corners of the Earth, and can launch over 4,000 nuclear warheads that will end all human civilization on this planet as we know it. This is all powered by the collective delusions and phantasies of millions of human beings acting under the mass hallucinogen of self-categorization. Power, it turns out, originates in the brain.
What Asian Americans lack, therefore, is quite simple. They lack a collective imagination, the wellspring of all Power, and therefore, remain powerless. They, fundamentally, do not see themselves as Asian American due to severe and pervasive ignorance of their own material conditions, and this severely cripples and limits the community at large. After all, individuals may have some modicum of personal power, some material dollop of wealth squirreled away in homes and rental units and 401ks, but these are all but drops in the vast Pacific that is American society. Apart from one another, with no imagination in our heads and no sense of higher duty but to our own personal selves and our private relationships, we can never cultivate and collectively pool the material ways and means necessary to directly confront social racism and white supremacists.
In order to muster the political power to challenge racists, we must first have Faith in ourselves, as a collective. Because Faith demands sacrifice, and when all sacrifice their means in the name of Duty, suddenly, individual men and women will become imbued with material Power, which can present a real Threat.
Only then will individual heroes — lonely voices and lost souls — become avatars, champions, and Representatives. Only then will Asian America have real Superheroes.
Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur
[Edited by J]