“Scarily insightful and hopefully wrong”

…another must read from David Brooks.

David Brooks’ Olympian musings in today’s New York Times could be moved to the Science Section without a ripple. “Scarily insightful and hopefully wrong” was my note to my self after I put down my morning Times and coffee.

David Brooks has proposed the case for neurological collectivism – we might call it the Manchurian Wiring Syndrome – in a brilliant piece posted from China, “Harmony and the Dream”, NYT August 12, 2008. It is linked at -http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/12/opinion/12brooks.html?_r=1&ref=opinion&oref=slogin .

The essence of David Brooks’ argument is this:

“When the psychologist Richard Nisbett showed Americans individual pictures of a chicken, a cow and hay and asked the subjects to pick out the two that go together, the Americans would usually pick out the chicken and the cow. They’re both animals. Most Asian people, on the other hand, would pick out the cow and the hay, since cows depend on hay. Americans are more likely to see categories. Asians are more likely to see relationships.

“You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other.”

Science confirms that the brain is a plastic neuro-processor, capable of rewiring itself based on experiences and other challenges.

At the risk of offending the political correct police (an epithet, you might recall, that was appropriated from the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution) I would mention our common experience with Asian drivers. Many of us can report that first generation Chinese drivers in this country tend to be overcautious in the extreme while negotiating American traffic, but their children, ah those Chinese youth; they have been rewired. Second generation Chinese under 30 are fully capable of driving like ruggedly individualistic capitalists.

With that preamble, here is David Brooks’ challenge:

“If Asia’s success reopens the debate between individualism and collectivism (which seemed closed after the cold war), then it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge.”

My two comments:

A market system by itself (the Chinese are pre-wired capitalists in this sense) is about buying, selling, haggling and managing resources via a price system. This, alone, does not explain the staggering innovation that has propelled American-style capitalism for the last century. Collective innovation is an oxymoron.

The brain self-wires, in part, in response to the invasion of ideas, fruitful and otherwise. I believe that individualism and collectivism each have religious and quasi-religious underpinnings.

The Judaic model (intensified in many versions of its sister tradition, Christianity) in which an individual man or woman engages in a dialogue or personal relationship with deity strongly encourages an individualist mindset, mediated by a moral perspective or authority that does not depend on the collective.

I sometimes refer to this divine-human relationship as the “Tevye dialogue” after the character Joseph Stein’s “Fiddler on the Roof” best known from the musical version by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.

It is hardly a surprise that the nervous collectivists who run China’s bureaucracy are frightened to the core by the startling growth of underground Christianity. They fear Falun Gong and every other idea system or practice that might produce accidental individualist rewiring.

David Brooks has put his finger on the Darwinian drama of the next 100 years.

Chastened as I am by our lame duck President’s well remembered challenge, I hesitate to say, “Bring it on!”

But I will say that until collectivism solves the innovation problem, the Chinese brain wiring diagram will become increasingly obsolete.



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