Fear and Loathing in America
Image Credit: Patrick Hoesly

Fear and Loathing in America


For my winter vacation, I spent a month in the United States, taking in Texas, California, Arizona, and Las Vegas. While walking along the ever luminous and crowded Las Vegas Strip, I was proffered a brochure. When I refused to take it, the man shouted after me, ‘Yeah, don't act so proud—if we didn't buy your things, you wouldn't have any money to spend.’

That, really, is the New Year's message I'd like to bring back to my fellow Chinese when I return to Beijing. 

In 1949, Mao Zedong announced to the newly-established People's Republic of China that the Chinese people, after a century of humiliation, had finally stood up. But it was only in 2010 that the rest of the world seemed to really look up and take proper notice of everything that’s been going on with China.

Chinese military aggressiveness, economic muscle, and diplomatic triumphs (particularly President Hu Jintao's recent visit to Washington) were supplemented by Shanghai being placed at the top of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's global test of academic achievement. Some US commentators called the OECD announcement a ‘Sputnik moment.’ Yale academic Amy Chua, meanwhile, caused controversy when she penned her article ‘Why Chinese Mothers are Superior’ for the Wall Street Journal, a piece that only added fuel to the fire that is fear and loathing in the United States. 

It's easy to theorise why many in the United States are so angry and fearful right now.  Americans see their country as being strangled with debt, while the financial elite—Ivy Leaguers who shipped all the manufacturing jobs abroad, while devising complex financial instruments that bankrupt their country—continue to be overpaid and obnoxious. But it’s only if you walk around US cities, shop at the malls, and eat at the restaurants that you see that the country is skydiving without a parachute.   

I like to eat well, and that can be hard to do in the United States, considering American restaurants—no matter where you go—typically offer mostly salt, sugar, and fat. Scientists have long known that those three substances are what humans most crave, and because they were previously so scarce in nature, we humans yearn to stuff ourselves with them. This has led to an obesity epidemic in the United States. But a much more disastrous upshot is ‘The Biggest Loser’, a US game show where obese people compete to lose the most weight for cash prizes.

The shopping mall's equivalent of salt, sugar, and fat are sales, advertising, and new product lines. A friend took me to an outlet mall where I splurged on Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein—all items half price. I knew I was still paying a lot, but thanks to my MasterCard it was all quick, easy, and painless. Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m in desperate need of new clothes, but that mall was packed with Americans who were dressed in nice clothes anyway—shoppers there seem like they just can't resist either a good deal or a greasy burger. 

Coming from China and having grown up in Canada, it's unbelievable to me how much Americans consume—their houses, their cars, and even their dogs are all so big. And this is at a time, as one American friend told me, when the United States is no longer manufacturing anything, and its kids can't seem to do math. Meanwhile, in China, you have hundreds of millions of Chinese leaving their tiny farms to work in sweatshops in Shenzhen or on construction sites in Beijing. On the backs of China's migrant workers, China is re-inventing itself overnight and reported a $14 billion trade surplus in December. No wonder many think China will overtake the United States soon. 

But they forget something important. The engine of the global economy is the American consumer— the US market isn’t only responsible for the rise of the East Asian tiger economies, but of China as well. After World War II, the US consumer middle class expanded, and corporations and government policies sought to facilitate this expansion.  Corporations were making life faster, cheaper, and more comfortable for middle class Americans with fast food (MacDonald's), suburban housing (Levittown), and discount stores (Wal-Mart). Buying goods from East Asia was good government policy not only because it made South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore much less susceptible to Communist infiltration, but because it made life cheaper and more convenient for the American middle class consumer. The Southeast Asian economies have since moved up in the production chain, and it's primarily Chinese sweatshop labour that fills discount store shelves. 

The relationship between the two main players in the global economy—the Chinese migrant worker who has sacrificed his health and happiness to make things, and the American consumer who has sacrificed his health and happiness to buy things—is what psychologists call ‘co-dependency,’ meaning two individuals who might hate each other but can’t seem to separate. 

Because the American family each ‘owes’ an average of more than $10,000 to China, this co-dependency is a perverse economic situation as well: if either the Chinese migrant worker decides to stop making things or the American consumer decides to stop buying things, then the global economy risks collapsing. The relationship is thus unhappy, tense, and above all unstable.

Ironically, we’re in this mess not because governments cared too little, but because they cared too much about what their people wanted. The US government and corporations were merely pandering to that American middle class desire for cheap and convenient instant gratification. The Chinese government was merely trying to give their 800 million peasants an opportunity at a better livelihood, and working in the factories did indeed permit them to build bigger, better houses with satellite TV back home in their villages. Throughout human history, people at the top are no different from people at the bottom: they want to get along and to please, and they'll do what seems convenient and expedient at the moment. 

So what do we do if we're American? Do we blame our leaders for giving us what we want, or do we blame ourselves for always succumbing to our worst instincts? No, let's blame immigrants and foreigners for stealing jobs and not being like us. Above all, let's listen to Glenn Beck, because with his schizophrenic screeches he captures best the fear and loathing of government, of foreigners, but mainly of ourselves.              

And how about if we're Chinese? Well, this is our moment in the sun. But our economy is in many ways just a lie—and we know it. So let's take out our fears and insecurities on Americans by calling them fat and lazy. We'll wave our sword frantically and buy Hugo Boss in bulk before the sun sets on us once again.

On second thought, I don't really think ‘Yeah, don't act so proud—if we didn't buy your things, you wouldn't have any money to spend’ is a New Year's message. It feels more like a prophecy.    

Andre M. Smith
January 2, 2012 at 15:41

Why is the art of music required to endure the ill-informed antics of such inartistic imbeciles as Amy Chua? Her lust for fame as an old-fashioned stage mother of either a famous violinist (yet another mechanical Sarah Chang?) or a famous pianist (yet another mechanical Lang Lang?) shines through what she perceives as devotion to the cultivation of the cultural sensitivities of her two unfortunate daughters.

Daughter Lulu at age 7 is unable to play compound rhythms from Jacques Ibert with both hands coordinated? Leonard Bernstein couldn’t conduct this at age 50! And he isn’t the only musician of achievement with this-or-that shortcoming. We all have our closets with doors that are not always fully opened.

And why all this Chinese obsession unthinkingly dumped on violin and piano? What do the parents with such insistence know of violin and piano repertoire? Further, what do they know of the great body of literature for flute? For French horn? For organ? For trumpet? Usually, nothing!

For pressure-driven (not professionally-driven!) parents like Amy Chua their children, with few exceptions, will remain little more than mechanical sidebars to the core of classical music as it’s practiced by musicians with a humanistic foundation.

Professor Chua better be socking away a hefty psychoreserve fund in preparation for the care and feeding of her two little lambs once it becomes clear to them both just how empty and ill-defined with pseudo-thorough grounding their emphasis has been on so-called achievement.

Read more about this widespread, continuing problem in Forbidden Childhood (N.Y., 1957) by Ruth Slenczynska.

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.

September 2, 2011 at 08:25

Hi, I’m Nicholas and I live in Europe. I’m sure that the biggest problem of my society is the excessive consumerism. I hope that asian societies will avoid excessive consumerism, or you will become a copy of the west.

April 3, 2011 at 10:20

I apologize for the Vegas guy. That said, I abstain from the mall, and most new items. So I don’t have such a smug attitude. I admire the organization China has, but know that America can never have that without sacrificing a lot of what we hold dear…and I am not talking about chili dogs and American Idol.

April 2, 2011 at 04:59

Great article. I’d like to point out, though, that the US is still the top manufacturing country in the world (at least for the near future):


With current trends, though, it looks like this’ll be changing pretty soon. Notice on the graph the constant move upwards of the red line – China.

April 2, 2011 at 01:28

Wow, this article is horrible. It must be fashionable to bash the US. Sure the US can be, and has been, pretty damn horrible at times, but this statement:

“The US government and corporations were merely pandering to that American middle class desire for cheap and convenient instant gratification.”

Is the dumbest thing I have read in years. Neoliberalism was a way to crush unions in the US and increase corporate profits. The author makes it sounds like the poor corporations and government were just doing what the stupid Americans wanted…come on, does anyone believe this? Try reading ‘Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism’ by Ha-Joon Chang. Neoliberalism does not just rear its ugly head because a bunch of average citizens demand instant gratification.

April 1, 2011 at 21:43

“The US government and corporations were merely pandering to that American middle class desire for cheap and convenient instant gratification.”

This is totally ludicrous. You should know that it was Nixon who decided to subsidize heavily food production in the US, and therefore fill our shelves with cheap calories in the true spirit of Panem e circensis. It’s the lack of bread that dragged the French into the street during the French Revolution, ideas came second. As an european living in the US, the shelves around here is a sorry sight. And I know is only due to the complacent American people always gullible when someone tells them, “but this is what the people wants!”

April 1, 2011 at 19:09

It’s an important concept to remember: the reduction in prices via cheap labour weren’t necessarily about delivering NEW conveniences to America’s middle class. Rather they were keeping the conveniences cheap enough that the ILLUSION of middle class success was achievable/maintainable at a much lower wage.

By reducing the barrier to entry, the placating effect of “middle class” comforts were extended to a much larger cross-section of the populace—reducing dissatisfaction and radicalism. You know… precisely what China has been doing, too.

It feels good when you’ve gone from Lower class to Middle class. You’ve now got *enough* to lose, you don’t complain. Or demand change. Or equality.

VMitchell, MD
February 16, 2011 at 17:16

Many, many reasons to understand the extraordinary strengths of the US and for optimism in the future most lost on the writer here:

1) The US is the world’s largest manufacturer, with a gross output of nearly $5 trillion ( >$2 trillion in GDP contribution) producing 20% of all the world’s manufactured goods, a market share it has held for decades – Japan and the EU have had their shares decline precipitously, something rarely noted – also America produces one-third of all the world’s high tech goods. (manufacturing jobs have been lost in less competitve industries, yet has remained strong in higher value industries)
2) The US spends 35-40% of the world’s research and development money, guarenteeing future prosperity
3) At $15 trillion, it remains by far the largest economy in the world, 3x’s larger than China
4) The US is deliberative, self-critical, and self correcting, and so unlike those in Europe and the Middle East incessantly criticizing the US, it is dynamic and fluid, changing as it needs to–identifying problems and rapidly fixing them
5) Its unmatched culture of leading universities, think-tanks, public debates, entrpreneurship, coupled with its domination of technology and science provides it with an extraordinary productivity and potential.
6) Despite what some may say, the US, without imposing, has the most attractive culture the world over; this is a reflection of the overt and subtle things about America and Americans which makes it so emulated and great.
7) The net worth of Americans even after the ‘Great Recession’ is some $60 trillion, a sum equivalent to the entire world’s annual output (GDP).

And regarding China:
1) It will be the first nation in human history to become old before it became rich, an enormous and techtonic shock to its already fragile social fabric
2) As of 2010, China has peaked in its labor force – every year going forward, their will be more ‘pensioners’ (although there is no safety net) than productive laborers
3) Tibet, Xinjiang are just two most restive regions – political stability is a shame there – read the most authoritative strategic analyzers today, STRATFOR, as they have repeatedly predicted massive calamities for China ahead.

February 15, 2011 at 21:45

@stubbs.”The US is an immigrant-based nation”

The claim that all Americans except Indians are descended from immigrants is simply wrong. Huntington points out, correctly, that America was founded not by immigrants, but by “settlers” i.e., colonists from Great Britain. The difference is substantive, not semantic. Settlers leave an existing community and create a new one elsewhere. Immigrants, by contrast, simply move from one society to another one already created by somebody else, and typically experience “culture shock” on arrival.

Moreover, in terms of actual bloodlines, the “nation of immigrants” cliché is quite literally only a half-truth. Statistical demographer Campbell Gibson concluded after careful study that 49 percent of America’s 1990 population was “attributable” to the 1790 colonial and black populations and 51 percent to immigration since 1790. Huntington concludes that “To describe America as a ‘nation of immigrants’ is to stretch a partial truth into a misleading falsehood, and to ignore the central fact of America’s beginning as a society of settlers.” (p.46) This is a devastating demolition job on a central immigrationist claim.

@stubbs.”What if 100 million Chinese immigrated to the US over the next 30 years? How would that change the situation?”

If America had not been settled by British Protestants, “it would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.” Huntington, 59.

Anglo-Protestant people are in fact of central importance to our identity.

For most of America’s history, the lion’s share of her population was Anglo-Protestant. Surely this is of decisive importance for our national identity.

Culture is grounded in ethnicity. Just how would America have created an Anglo-Protestant culture without an overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestant population?

And just how would the Americanization of immigrants their assimilation of Anglo-Protestant culture have taken place, if America had not had an overwhelmingly Anglo-Protestant population, living that Anglo-Protestant culture and thereby providing a model for immigrants to emulate; enveloping immigrants in that culture; creating, operating, and manning the institutions that promoted Americanization; and sufficiently aware and proud of its Anglo-Protestant identity to deem it worth preserving and to insist on immigrants’ conformity to its ways?

If Anglo-Protestants had been at best in a slim majority and had not controlled America’s institutions, the Anglo-Protestant culture Huntington stresses could not conceivably have become central to America’s identity. The Anglo-Protestants simply would not have been able to make it so.

Until the triumph of the cultural pluralist model with the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s, there were three competing models of American identity:

1. the “liberal” individualist legacy of the Enlightenment based on “natural rights”;

2. the “republican” ideal of a cohesive, socially homogeneous society (what Prof. Kevin MacDonald has identified as the prototypical Western social organization of hierarchic harmony);

3. the “ethnocultural” strand emphasizing the importance of Anglo-Saxon ethnicity in the development and preservation of American cultural forms.

From the present perspective no fundamental conflict exists between the latter two sources of American identity; social homogeneity and hierarchic harmony may well be best and most easily achieved with an ethnically homogeneous society of peoples derived from the European cultural area.

Indeed, in upholding Chinese exclusion in the nineteenth century, Justice Stephen A. Field noted that the Chinese were unassimilable and would destroy the republican ideal of social homogeneity. http://www.euvolution.com/articles/lastchap.html

February 15, 2011 at 02:39

The USA is still the #1 manufacturing nation in the world. We just use less people to do it because our manufacturing is highly mechanized and high tech. I’m sure you will see people shopping in a mall in Beijing and Shanghai too so I’m not sure what was shocking about that. Am I the only one who sees a place for both China and the USA as prosperous successful countries. More cooperation and understanding throughout the world is necessary; not this BS America bashing article. You may also realize Las Vegas has very little in common with most places in the country; it is more like an amusement park than a regular city.

February 15, 2011 at 00:03

You write as if China and America are the same type of entity. They’re not. A Chinese can become an American, but an American can’t become a Chinese. Many Chinese immigrate to and become citizens of Western countries, but Westerners who move to China, except maybe some ethnic Chinese Westerner, could become permanent residents at best.

What if 100 million Chinese immigrated to the US over the next 30 years? How would that change the situation? The US is an immigrant-based nation, while China, like the countries of Europe before it, is an ethnic-based nation. Perhaps the US could still be the world’s only superpower in 2100 only if its president and vice-president are both ethnic Chinese.

February 14, 2011 at 23:36

I want to disagree with you on one point. I think that your assertion that the Chinese economy is a lie is a bit of an overstatement. Right now, the Chinese economy is oriented towards the American consumer, but I don’t think that should be the explicit focus. Anyone can consume, being American doesn’t make you any more proficient at it (maybe just less cautious). A child can consume, but it takes a great amount of capital investment and savings, and work ethic to be able to produce. Right now the Chinese economy is facing issues due to Americans exporting dollars (and hence) inflation to China. If China were to let it’s currency appreciate and lose the dollar peg, I think that appreciating Chinese incomes would be quite able to supplement what is a reduction in American demand.

This is not to say that I don’t believe that the current economy is forming a bubble around cheap manufacturing for Americans, but I doubt that it would take much effort to retool and redesign factories to produce more goods for European/Asian nations as well as Chinese consumers themselves.

As an American, I am actually excited to see the downfall of this nation because I believe that our attitudes of minimalist savings and overconsumption must reap what they have sowed. I can’t wait to get out of this country and watch it tank. There is no way that I am going to be on the hook for our global debts and internal entitlement programs. It is either time for us to begin to allow our own country to retool to a more balanced service/production economy or face the consequences of ignoring capital investment and savings. We have been living off of the Fed printing press for too long, and many people, both internally and globally, have suffered from our foolhardy policies.

February 13, 2011 at 07:08

I don’t think my country perfect in anyway (American here) but it is articles like this that validate those in my country who are anti-immigrant. We often feel like we’re in a damned if we do/damned if we don’t position. Oh no, America, quit interfering! Stop thinking you can boss people around! And then Egypt happens and all of a sudden the questions are “Where are the Americans? Why aren’t they supporting democracy” and pictures of gas canisters made in America make the rounds of the internet.

Some of us are idiots with malice, some of us are idiots with genuinely good hearts. No one is perfect. I worry about the anti-immigrant sentiment in my country. But as the writer shows how economically we are intertwined, our attitudes are intertwined as well.

February 11, 2011 at 02:51

“American restaurants—no matter where you go—typically offer mostly salt, sugar, and fat.” You manage this claim despite growing trends in health food, organic farming, nose-to-tail eating, food co-ops, farmers’ markets etc. The trends in American consumption and gastronomy are very much away from fast food and highly-processed foods. Any American city-dweller would know this. In China, the trend is very much the opposite, with the proliferation of fast food chains in cities across the country (and not just American brands, mind you–have a look at the fat, salty, sugary offerings at Kung Fu), increased meat consumption, increased levels of diabetes and obesity, etc. The next generation of Chinese will have obesity levels rivaling, if not exceeding, the developed world. See Paul French’s book Fat China.

February 8, 2011 at 15:19

If I were a PRC Chinese and I was shouted at by an American the way Mr. Jiang was shouted at in Las Vegas, I wouldn’t be upset.

On the contrary, I would be very delighted.

I would be delighted because that would be one more stupid person that America has. One more stupid person to rot the American system from the inside. One more stupid person to vote for the next President Dubya Bush or Sarah Palin, one more stupid person to dumb down his fellow citizens, one more stupid person to need immediate pampering, relief and support from an over-burdened welfare system, and one more stupid person to spread his stupid seed into the rest of America.

As long as the Chicoms continue their good work in the fundamentals of their country – education, jobs, increase in R&D, economy, etc., and as long as the Americans continue producing more and more stupid people in their country, the rise and dominance of China is virtually ASSURED!

So if I were a PRC Chinese, I would take pleasure at getting shouted at in America.

Sunil Vincent
February 8, 2011 at 12:19

What’s the solution?
China develops it’s own consumer market, but that would take decades and would inevitably mean it becoming more like the US. And the Economist argues that China is the reason inflation’s been so low for the recent past. So that would mean kissing goodbye to low prices and low inflation.
The US meanwhile makes some seriously tough decisions, similar to what the UK government is doing (indeed I would say the UK is doing far too much, but at least they’re doing someting) probably leading to consumer spending falling of a cliff, sending knock-on effects through the rest of the world economy because the US is the world’s consumer engine.
So it wasn’t a rhetorical question, what’s the solution?

And I’m sorry about your Las Vegas incident. Something similar happened to me on a business trip to New York City. I mean if that sort of thing can happen in NYC, the US zeitgeist must be in pretty strange and scary shape.

February 7, 2011 at 19:58

Having had the opportunity to briefly visit Beijing by this point I can honestly say my first impression of it was ‘they’re every bit the consumer that an American is’. America might be showing vanity and arrogance but let’s not try to pretend that the part of China that holds the real political power is any different.

February 7, 2011 at 18:13

Very sound and in-depth article!Perhaps, it’s about time for politicians of both countries to take responsibility and fix all the problems caused by themselves! America needs more savings, more exports while China needs more consumption, more open market for American goods. China needs gradually adjust its currency, increase wages for the workers in all of its sweatshops to improve their living standards and at the same time help reduce the trade imbalance between the 2 countries. Smiling diplomacy is always better than assertive and bullying one!Any way, true statecraft to all intents and purposes is for serving the welfare of the people and the country’s well-being not the leadership’s vested interests and priviledges (True Confucianism:”First in order of priority is the PEOPLE; next is the country; and the LAST is the leadership.” Any reversal of this order is only the FAKE one!!)!

February 7, 2011 at 16:34

@Jiang: I’m sorry to hear you were abused in Las Vegas. This seems to be happening pretty often.


I hope the government and the media have the sense to tone-down its anti-China rhetoric because its creating a lot of racial hatred against Asians.

February 7, 2011 at 10:48

So the little Mexican lady on Las Vegas Blvd. who slaps the escort service brochures twice before offering them to passersby actually uttered the phrase:

“Yeah, don’t act so proud—if we didn’t buy your things, you wouldn’t have any money to spend.”

How ironic! ;)

On a serious note…how would this person know you were Chinese from the three words “no thank you?”(well, Canadian actually…though one has to pay close attention–your overuse of the word ‘we’ and ‘our’ when referring to Americans is confusing.)

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