Reading Joel Stein in Beijing

Or: How I Learned to Stop Being an Elitist Dick and Start Listening to Other People

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12:24 AM HKT, Tue December 24, 2019 5 mins read

“You foreigners think everything is so great. But your subways are shit.”

I deserved that. I was back home in New England for the summer and, in a moment of supreme dickishness, reminded a group of Mandarin-speaking tourists that in Boston most people wait for the occupants of the car to disembark before barreling through the door.

I’m right of course, but any random thirty seconds spent on Twitter is a good reminder that “being right” isn’t always enough.* And this guy had his point. There have been plenty of times over the past few years riding the subway in Boston where I’ve wondered if the water dripping steadily from the ceiling wasn’t, in fact, the city’s eponymous Harbor.

Besides I wasn’t really concerned about spreading the gospel of subway etiquette as I was asserting a perverse kind of moral superiority.

Basically I was being a dick.

We live in a morally superior era. Not that, as the morally superior history teacher in me would like to remind you, the present is a priori morally superior to the past. Just that we live in an age of tribalism where the all-too-human desire to assert our individual and group superiority has been amped up to become the defining zeitgeist.

(An example of this desire might be dropping a priori into the last paragraph even though I’m only 85% sure I used the term correctly.)

I just finished reading Joel Stein’s In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. I bought it because the title makes Stein seem like my kind of morally superior dick.

Stein’s work focuses on Trump-era America. He wants to understand the divide between urban, coastal elites who despise Trump and the communities, many rural and most in the middle and southern parts of the United States, who supported Trump in 2016.

“I was very, very, like, legitimately scared. Like, I didn’t know if a nuclear war was going to happen. I didn’t know if globalization was going to end, and we’d have an economic collapse,” Stein said recently in an interview with NPR (the Xinhua of the Coastal Elite).

Stein started his project with the required sense of moral superiority. Hence the dickish subtitle for his book. But after spending time with good folks in places like rural Miami, Texas, and with less good folks like Tucker Carlson and Scott Adams, Stein’s view of the problem fundamentally changed.

“The fuel of populism is rage at those who claim higher status. To extinguish the populists’ fire, we have to stop dismissing them as deplorable, racist, ignorant, unsophisticated, sexist, and I’m going to stop here in case someone tweets this sentence, which will impede my strategy. We have to bite our lips, feel their pain, and do that thing where you slowly nod while squinting.”

Or, as he puts it later, “I fail when I’m smug.”

I feel his morally superior pain.

The resentment that middle America feels toward coastal elites in the United States would not be unfamiliar to many people in China and how they view the West, especially the Anglosphere. Consider the term: 白左 or “White Liberal.”


Political scientist Zhang Chenchen has researched the term “White Liberal,” which has become a common epithet in the Chinese-language online world. According to Zhang’s research, “White Liberal” is generally used:

“to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

Zhang goes on to describe how the users of this term share common traits with members of the Alt-Right in other countries, including a sense of shared frustration with elites.

While Stein limits his book to the American experience, it’s easy to spot the global implications of his exploration of elites versus populism. At one point Stein visits an elite conference and attends a session called “Why Do People Love Dictators?”

The conversation turns to populism, so I ask the ten people in the conference room why the people in Miami, Texas, would think this conference is a scheme to keep power from them.

The answers tend to run the gamut of empowerment, education, and economic adaptation that would fundamentally change rural America into a bucolic version of America’s coastal cities. But, Stein writes, people in Miami do not want a rural Silicon Valley.

They want their way of life to thrive, not to live in cave wall shadows of our world. “What do you think the people in Miami, Texas, would call those people next door?” I ask. They’re quiet for a second. Then someone says it: “Missionaries.”

That person gets it. And that person would also get why so many people in China are frustrated with the West.

Most of the ideas about China coming from the West still sound, intentionally or not, as coming from a place of moral superiority. Our language today may be coded differently than in the days of the missionaries (“developed” rather than “civilized”; “democratic society” where “Christian nation” used to be), but the tone is there.

The problem is that a lot of the commentary coming out of the West about China is valid. As Stein told NPR, sometimes he’s right and the people of, say, Miami are wrong.

I would say that the elites have not done a great job of thinking about you when they pass laws. These people knew more about me and my life, both from visiting cities and watching television, than I knew about theirs. And they’re right. But I would also say that if they want a world in which they can use their smartphone and they can shop at Walmart and they can have peace, then you have to embrace globalism. And you have to embrace immigration. And you have to live in a modern world. Like, their world is basically still in 1985. Like, when I walked into the cafe in town, they were showing “The Andy Griffith Show” on the television. And that’s fine for them. But to try and create the rest of the world as if it was still 1985 is going to have disastrous consequences for America and the world.

And there’s the rub. International media coverage of current events in China, while sometimes a bit tone-deaf, is not wrong. Dangerous things, especially in terms of ideology and the rights of citizens and non-citizens, are happening in the PRC right now. Living in China involves greater personal risk than it did three years ago or ten years ago.

But attempts to raise the alarm internationally are all-too-often met with stony silence or hostility by Chinese audiences. There are systemic reasons for this to be sure, but blaming it entirely on propaganda or “brainwashing” is counter-productive, just as Stein learned that dismissing Trump votes as entirely about “racism” or “nativism” misses a bigger picture.


There have to be ways for the world to understand better what Chinese people want. For example, how to build a society that is both fully modern and fully Chinese? What does a world fully inclusive of Chinese voices look like? There’s a dialogue waiting to happen. There may also likely be answers to these questions out there which aren’t allowed to be discussed in the current (and increasingly repressive) political culture of the PRC.

But smugness makes dialogue impossible.

The first rule of cultural adaptation is not linguistic fluency or mastering 50 rules of etiquette. The first, and really, last, rule is: Don’t be a dick.

Something I would be wise to remember more.


In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book by Joel Stein is available from Grand Central Publishing.


*The other day, I took my dog to the “unofficial dog park” near Ditan Park in Beijing. I watched how, when one dog pissed on the bush, all the other dogs, including mine, ran over and sniffed the spot. Then another dog pissed in a different place, and the dogs all scampered over for a whiff. Finally, one pooch took a big old dump, and that was VERY exciting, with one dog, fortunately not mine, even rolling in the fresh pile.

This was the moment I realized I spend way too much time on Twitter.

Cover photo by Zain Lee on Unsplash

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