Are The American and Chinese Dreams That Different – You Can’t Tell From Obama’s March on Washington Speech Yesterday
Yesterday, the U.S. marked the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It was in that event 50 years ago that King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech. By most accounts, Obama’s speech is well-delivered and well-received – albeit “not as good.” It could not be, Obama would explain, “[b]ecause when you are talking about Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, you’re talking about one of the maybe five greatest speeches in American history. And the words that he spoke at that particular moment, with so much at stake, and the way in which he captured the hopes and dreams of an entire generation I think is unmatched.”
If King’s speech 50 years ago was among the “five greatest speeches” in American history, the Obama’s speech today is a present-day synthesis of all that Americans hold most dear. If you listen, you will glimpse the American Dreams and feel America’s soul. Here is an excerpt of the speech 1.
Five decades ago today, Americans came to this honored place to lay claim to a promise made at our founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In 1963, almost 200 years after those words were set to paper, a full century after a great war was fought and emancipation proclaimed, that promise — those truths — remained unmet. And so they came by the thousands from every corner of our country, men and women, young and old, blacks who longed for freedom and whites who could no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of others.
Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability.
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. (Applause.)
For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? This idea — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood; that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new. Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms — as a promise that in due time, “the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an
And Dr. King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races: “Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.”
What King was describing has been the dream of every American.
And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks could join the ranks of millionaires. It was whether this country would admit all people who are willing to work hard regardless of race into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.)
The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many — for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call — this remains our great unfinished business.
Throughout the speech, the ideals of equality and the opportunity shone through. And it struck me how close the ideals Obama evoked matched the ideals of China. The American Dream – despite the pompous Universal Declaration of Freedom and Universality- summons so much of traditional (and contemporary) Chinese conceptions of xiao kang (小康). The notion of xiao kang can be loosely translated as a “moderately or commonly well-off society” in which the people are able to live peacefully, orderly and comfortably, albeit ordinarily. This should be contrasted to notions of da tong (大同), roughly translated as “Great Unity”, “Great Community”, “Great Universality”, “Great Similarity”, “Grand Harmony” – which form a political framework for big thinking about justice and legitimacy. (Think of da tong as China’s contribution – albiet much unexplored in the modern world – to political notions of universalism). In many ways, da tong can only be an ideal, where the measure of any government must still be judged against how much of xiao kang it can deliver.
A lot of Americans – especially those in the blogsphere and the media) – tend to look down on the Chinese Dream or notions of xiao kang and harmonious society. To them, the CCP’s relentless focus on economic development is a sort of “buy off” – a devil’s bargain of material comfort for freedom. Such talk is unfortunate. For one, it is disingenuous. Despite the West’s grand talks about liberty and human rights, economics progress, rather than ideology, is the most fundamental the underpin of Western / modern society. As Robert Samuelson has noted,
What we are witnessing in Europe — and what may loom for the United States — is the exhaustion of the modern social order. Since the early 1800s, industrial societies rested on a marriage of economic growth and political stability. Economic progress improved people’s lives and anchored their loyalty to the state. Wars, depressions, revolutions and class conflicts interrupted the cycle. But over time, prosperity fostered stable democracies in the United States, Europe and parts of Asia. The present economic crisis might reverse this virtuous process. Slower economic expansion would feed political instability and vice versa. This would be a historic and ominous break from the past.
Secondly, it is demeaning. Chinese people are real human beings with real dreams. For the average Chinese, notions of xiao kang and harmonious society – after centuries of civil strife and foreign invasions – are concrete and real. They are as much about justice as the Civil Rights Movement is for the Americans and evoke just as much emotions and longings as the Civil Rights Movement does also.
Thus, scrape away sufficient historical context of what freedom and equality means, the Dreams of both Chinese and Americans look increasingly similar. In current vernacular, that Dream is about the building of a society that is able to put a comfortable middle class lifestyle within reach of people from all walks of life – irrespective of ethnicity, religion, class, etc. In other words, it is about xiao kang.
So Chinese and American Dreams – or that of Westerners in general – are they really that different?