Columnist Jay Fleitman: Musings of an American in Shanghai 

  • View of the Shanghai skyline at night from the Crystal Symphony. CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS/Jerome Levin

Published: 11/5/2018 4:55:29 PM

We’ve just returned from several weeks in Asia. Some of that time was in the area of China around Shanghai, and the rest of our stay was divided between South Korea and southern Japan.

The biggest surprise was how familiar and comfortable it all seemed. There were certainly reminders of a rich history and the traditions of Buddhism under the modernity of South Korea, and the persistence of traditions stemming from Buddhism and Shinto in Japan. In the region around Shanghai, history seems to have started with World War II —a war that still resonates across all three countries. The overwhelming sense, though, was that we were in the modern world with a feel that was very similar to being in New York or Chicago.

It was Shanghai that was the most striking part of this trip. This is a huge, sprawling city with a beautiful downtown filled with remarkable buildings of interesting design and architecture. The downtown was clean, the avenues were broad and downtown shopping was centered along extensive pedestrian malls and open spaces. The river that runs through the center of the city has beautifully maintained older architecture on one side, a new pedestrian walkway along the riverbank and a neighborhood of ultramodern buildings on the other side. The modern subway system was inexpensive and, with its English signage, was very easy to navigate. The highway system that led around and out of downtown was extensive. We took a bullet train on a side trip to the neighboring city of Suzhou.

In short, the infrastructure we saw in and around Shanghai was remarkable, and most of it was not there 30 years ago. What we saw was clearly a successful national effort to build a world-class city.

During the time we were visiting China, we were following the last throes of the hearings on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The contrast between the dedicated building effort visible in Shanghai and our national preoccupation with destructive politics in the U.S. could not be disregarded.

When I was young, America was about building. The highway system had been recently built under Eisenhower. New airports were being constructed, new schools and hospitals and public libraries were going up everywhere. The ultimate building project was announced by President Kennedy with the space program dedicated to landing a man on the moon. 

This impetus to build for the future seemed to disappear from national consciousness with the political upheavals of the 1960s. Other than a hiatus during which the Reagan administration seem to establish a national goal of destroying the international Communist movement and dismantling the Soviet Union, we as a nation since then have otherwise seemed satisfied with engaging in internal political warfare as the national pastime. In retrospect, it is hard to know when this became established, but certainly the pedigree works back through the Clinton impeachment proceedings, the relentless media attacks on the George Bush presidency, the unwillingness of the Obama administration and the Republican Congress to find common ground, the Benghazi hearings, the Mueller investigations, and most recently, the Kavanaugh hearings.

Perhaps this derives from complacency in a society that has become used to sitting on the top of the global order. We may feel that we have the luxury of being preoccupied by political gamesmanship, while not having to concentrate on preparing the ground for our nation’s future.  

This is not to say that we should be emulating China. This is a nation that is now reestablishing a dictatorship, is building an intensive surveillance system on its people, has a huge national debt that dwarfs that of the U.S., and that is putting a Muslim minority in reeducation camps.

On the other hand, we have glaring needs for building towards our future. We have an aging infrastructure, an educational system that needs vast improvement, environmental problems, energy requirements and a space program that needs reinvigoration. While we’re doing this, we need to find a way to reduce our national debt that we are passing onto our children.

This segues into today’s midterm elections. I hope that the Democrats are not successful in winning a majority in the either the Senate or the House of Representatives. This is not because of my underlying disagreement with the Democrat party on its approach to the role of government or with many of its policies. I recognize that Democrats make up a large percentage of the nation, and discussions over policy differences are in fact quite valuable. I am, however, quite worried about the unresolved indignation and vindictiveness over the last presidential election as expressed by the leadership of the Democrat party and what that may mean to the legislative process in either house of Congress.

Several Democrats positioned to become chairmen of major House committees, should Democrats become the majority in the lower house, have repeatedly expressed their intent to pursue yet more investigations and a futile impeachment effort in order to undermine the results of the last presidential election. This includes Jerrold Nadler on the House Judiciary Committee, Adam Schiff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Maxine Waters of the House Financial Services Committee. 

We do not need a new round of political resentment while other nations build for the future. We owe this to the next generation of Americans.

Jay Fleitman, MD, of Northampton writes a monthly column. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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