August 20, 2011
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Gary Locke and his Backpack

Yi-Fu Tuan

[Dr. Tuan is no longer writing regular Dear Colleague letters. This is a special essay written for his readers.]

A summer of discontent--economic woes made worse by political deadlock–prompts the world to wonder whether America is indeed in decline. Economic woes, however serious, are solvable if there is political will, backed by a political culture that is fundamentally sound. The sight of politicians, in their ignorance and arrogance, damning their opponents in crude language,  turning “compromise” into a dirty word rather than a willingness to listen to the other, and then to see such speeches received with standing applause is a shock to America’s friends and a delight to America’s rivals.

China is a rising power. Its leaders–and maybe its people too–as they watch the tacky political theater in Washington DC and Iowa may think, well, democracy is not all good and authoritarianism is not all bad. That is, until August 17, 2011, when a businessman in Seattle’s airport captured the image of a man carrying a backpack and buying coffee at Starbucks, and within minutes, that image spread through internet China and made the Chinese wonder again, “Hey, maybe America does have something we sorely lack, namely, humility in a nation’s leaders.” This humility is so deeply ingrained that the man carrying the backpack wasn’t the least conscious that he was being humble. Who is this man? He is Gary Locke, newly appointed American Ambassador to China. In China, even the lowliest official stands on his dignity, will have an underling carry his bag and bring him coffee. Locke, however, is no lowly official: in the diplomatic world, his full title is no less than His Excellency, the American ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary! Arriving at Beijing airport, the ambassador and his family slipped into a minivan rather than use the official limousine. All of this is quite normal from Locke’s point of view. After all, his boss, the President of the United States, carried his own umbrella in a shower that greeted him as he emerged from his airplane in Shanghai.

Political culture is everywhere rooted in religion. That of the Western world is rooted in Christianity. In all religions, God–that is, power–is to be worshiped. The traditional posture of the worshiper is kneeling. One kneels to Power. Christianity is unique in that it is God who kneels; God who bends low to wash the feet of his disciples. Christ’s example has not undermined the class structure of Christendom. Far from it. Nor has it destroyed the arrogance of power–alas! Nevertheless, it has implanted a core belief–lukewarm but never totally cold–that says, “all human beings are made in the image of God, therefore, all are au fond equal.” Consider Louis XIV. Who is more an embodiment of absolute power than he, the Sun King? Yet, he takes his hat off to the maid when he happens to run into her in a corridor of Versailles. He is deferring to his equal in the eyes of God. Madame de Maintenon deems her sister-in-law unspeakably vulgar because she fails to thank the footman who performs a service. Remember Marie Antoinette?  She is so out of touch with reality that, when told that the people have no bread, she is reported to have said, “Let them eat cake.” Bad, very bad. But the following story makes me think that even she, unknown to herself, is affected by a sense of fundamental equality. The Queen sits for her portrait. The young artist is nervous and drops his brush. The Queen picks it up and hands it back to him. What? Is that all? But my point is. That small gesture of picking up the brush is utterly inconceivable in imperial China. Can you imagine the Dowager Empress Cixi doing that for her portraitist? He is lucky if he escapes with his head intact.

Now, my worry is this. With the dimming of Christianity and its radical social values, will American officials eventually become as standoffish, as insistent on the perks of office, as officials in other cultures and civilizations, including the Chinese? In the United States, politicians on the stump still carry their own bags. But for how long? Arrogance is indivisible. To be so full of oneself as to refuse to countenance an opponent’s viewpoint  is political arrogance, but one that easily transmutes into arrogance in social manners–that is to say, in everyday human relationships. When I feel depressed by the present political culture in America, I cheer myself up with the image of Gary Locke at Starbucks. There has to be something right in a political culture that puts an African-American in the White house and has the son of Chinese immigrants be America’s ambassador to China!

Yi-Fu Tuan


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