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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Chinese Dream

In the December 5-11, 2015 issue of The Economist (p. 44), there appeared a little article entitled “That’s entertainment”, about the Chinese Communist Party’s enforcement of morality in the state-run entertainment industry. In part, this is not new. The Party has always enforced moral standards over what can be portrayed in film and music, to make sure they conform to moral standards. In addition,

“A new ‘Joint Pledge of Self-Discipline in Professional Ethics’ for the press, publishing, broadcasting and film industries has recently been signed by 50 official media and entertainment organisations. They, in turn, are expected to enforce the pledge among performers and other employees. Works must refrain from vulgar words or images, instead promoting ‘healthy’ and ‘advanced’ aesthetics, whatever they are.”

Leave aside for now the contestability of the meanings of such terms as “healthy” and “advanced”. Leave aside too the question of whether the Chinese Communist Party is the best arbiter of them. Yet, given the moral filth and degenerate aesthetics I am daily exposed to by the North American entertainment industry (no matter how hard I try to keep myself unpolluted by it), I can’t help but sympathize with the intention of the Chinese authorities.

If you have read this blog long enough, you will know that I am not a liberal in the classical sense: I believe there is a place for the legal enforcement of morals, and that, as a matter of fact, we do so whether we like to admit it or not. Indeed the only way we can make sense of many (if not all) of our liberal social policies is in moral terms. The very appeal to liberty is in fact itself a moral appeal, at least where it is not, for example an economic one (though even here, as I have argued before, I believe economic arguments are almost always reducible to moral ones). In this regard I am a conservative, or perhaps a liberal in the style of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. I further believe that liberty is not a trump card. Liberty ought to be the first word in any argument over the bounds of legislation. But it is not the last word. “Liberty”, much like “God” or “Jesus” or “religious faith” is not a magic talisman with the power to ward off all scrutiny or criticism.

Returning to the Economist article, as I said, the Communist Party has been overseeing the moral content of the end products of the Chinese entertainment industry for some time. What’s new is that it is now extending this role to the industry’s off-screen activities. Movie and pop stars will now have to live up to a certain (admittedly fairly minimal) level of moral good conduct:

“Also out is behaviour that 'violates morals or public order'. Pornography, drugs and gambling are spelled out. Even before the pledge, libertines have paid a price. Last year one big-budget film was in the last stages of editing when its star got arrested in Beijing for smoking weed. The film had to be reshot with a new leading man. Organisations that have signed the pledge are now bound to blacklist violators for up to three years.”

The tone of the article seems to more than imply that this is somehow onerous or overly intrusive, or at best quixotic. And yet, how many of us are subject to just such restrictions in our own employment relationships? Is it really asking too much? The only real difference here is that the enforcement is coming from the government rather than from the industry’s or employer’s own self-regulation.

I think that in conveying the view that the Chinese government’s initiative is somehow ridiculous, The Economist is implicitly depending that we will compare this moral regulation of employment not to ourselves, but to the North American entertainment industry. “Look,” the magazine seems to be saying, in a self-congratulatory way, “at how much more virtuous we are in the West, because we’re an open society that allows its entertainment industry to purvey whatever morally corrosive and degenerate filth the public desires. Is liberty not a grand thing?” I am less sanguine about the virtues of such liberty.

There are some who might say that what a Hollywood star does in her private life is her own business, and that we should separate the role on screen from the private life lived off it. It would be nice if the public and private spheres were that easily separable, even in our own lives, let alone Hollywood.

This relation between the public and the private is the major point of contention between, say, a John Stuart Mill and a James Fitzjames Stephen: The former says that whatever happens in the private sphere, not negatively affecting others, ought not to be the subject of government legislation. The latter says, that (i) there is effectively no such thing as an exclusively private sphere, (ii) that morality is not only other-regarding, but is also self-regarding, in that one’s behavior towards oneself is a valid subject of moral regard, and (iii) that legislation is not the only, or even the main way morals are enforced.

To be fair, I’m not sure that Fitzjames Stephen would agree with (ii), since he is in the end a liberal, just a different kind of liberal than Mill. But as a conservative, I believe that it is a legitimate object of government to try to legislate, insofar as it is practical or feasible, for the better moral health of the citizenry (I use the term moral “health” because I can’t think of a better concept to apply here). Indeed, I believe government has a duty to do so, one of its few legitimate duties in my view.

The connection between entertainment and people’s behavior is real, though it is not nearly as simple and direct as the purveyors of various moral panics would have us believe. Still, nobody disputes that Hollywood can get people to buy things, so in that sense we know they can influence behavior. Therefore, it seems Hollywood is worthy of moral scrutiny, and indeed, worthy of governmental moral scrutiny, given Hollywood’s reach and potential influence.

I say this with obvious important caveats: The first caveat is that I am assuming that there are certain shared core values that we, upon rational reflection can all agree on. This is a huge assumption. I believe it’s a warranted one, but I haven’t the space to argue that here (though I have elsewhere on this blog). For now, all I’m saying is that there are certain behaviours which, even if done completely in private and which affected nobody but the person(s) willingly engaging in them, we could still agree in saying that all things considered, a world without these behaviours is, in some morally significant sense, a better world than one with them. For example, imagine it were the case that prostitution involved no occupational hazards such as violence or disease, and that it was engaged in as a voluntary activity, free of coercion, economic or otherwise. Imagine an alternative world in which there was no such activity as buying or selling sexual favours. Which is the better world? I leave you to consider that question yourself, and to apply it to other behaviours, such as drug use, pornography, and self-mutilation (which is notably a private sphere matter in the liberal view of things).

Second, as Fitzjames Stephen recognized, government legislation is not always the appropriate, efficient, or effective vehicle for enforcing such values. Often, the most effective moral sanctions are societal ones. Many people would do things to avoid paying taxes to the government, but would blush with shame at the thought of being discovered doing so by their friends and neighbours.

I largely agree with The Economist’s implication that government is likely the wrong agent to effect moral reform in the entertainment industry. Government is often heavy-handed, too blunt an instrument to accomplish such a delicate task — especially a government that is unrepresentative and indistinguishable from a mere political party, as is the case with China’s. (I was tempted to mention corruption, but I’m not convinced that Western governments are much better in that regard, just more discreet).

However, interestingly, what The Economist seems to forget is that for several decades Hollywood conducted its own experiment in moral codification, the Motion Picture Production Code (or so-called “Hays” Code), in operation from 1930 to 1968. This was an industry-imposed measure intended to obviate the need for a government-imposed one. It was in response not only to a perceived moral decline in the content of films, but also to a perceived moral decline in the quality of Hollywood stars themselves, particularly in the wake of the Fatty Arbuckle affair.

Was the Hays Code a failure? Was it quixotic? Did it kill the motion picture industry? Did it lead to dull movies? The answer to these questions seems to be a resounding “no”. In fact, according to Jon Elster, in his book Ulysses Unbound: Studies in Rationality, Precommitment, and Constraints (Cambridge University Press, 2000), it arguably led to better movies. It is no coincidence that the Hays Code was in place during the so-called “Golden Age of Hollywood”. Elster argued that working within constraints (moral codes, for example) can actually enhance rather than stifle creativity. For instance, many movies made during this period still managed to include risqué and even subversive content, but such content had to be presented in indirect, roundabout ways. For example, the constraints meant that methods had to be found to suggestively leave things to the imaginations of viewers. Such suggestion was more likely to induce thought rather than mere titillation, thereby preserving both good art and good morals.

There is another bothersome thing about this Economist article worth mentioning. The author writes:

“China’s top official in charge of ideology and propaganda, Liu Yunshan, held a gathering with leading figures in art and literature with the aim of promoting the ‘prosperous development’ of those fields. Mr Liu wanted to encourage works embodying the ‘Chinese dream’ and ‘positive energy’. These terms come straight from the dogma factory of Xi Jinping, China’s president. He has spoken often — if vaguely — of the Chinese dream as an organising principle for the country’s development.”

Again, as with much else in this article, one can sense the author’s sneering tone, as if an appeal to the “Chinese dream” is something laughable. In truth, is the “Chinese dream” any more vague or dishonest or vacuous than the “American dream”? And is the American political establishment any less a “dogma factory” on this score than the Chinese one? The “American dream” is a term that The Economist employs regularly in its publication without the least sense of irony. Why is the double standard?

I’m sorry to point out that to uncritically invoke the “American Dream” puts one in the same dubious company as Mr. Donald Trump, entertainer par excellence:

"'The American Dream is dead,' said Trump near the end of his remarks. 'But we’re going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before.'"

Are the Chinese not allowed to do the same?