Darren Huang reviews Chinese historian Cho-yun Hsu’s multifaceted critique of inequality and fragmentation in American society.

Cho-yun Hsu. American Life, trans. Carissa Fletcher (The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2021), pp.343.

From 1835 to 1840, the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote and published Democracy in America – his landmark study of American life and its young democratic government. The sweeping social commentary is known for its praise for the American democratic experiment, particularly its lofty ideals of freedom, equality, and respect for the rights of its people. A more obscure aspect of the study is its clear-eyed diagnosis of the maladies of American democracy. Tocqueville critiqued the potential for liberty to degenerate into excessive individualism, resulting in fragmentation within the community of the nation. He also predicted that such individualism and unconcern for the common good could lead voters to elect unqualified legislators who would act for private gain on behalf of the majority, evolving into what he called a tyranny of the majority, or despotic rule by the majority at the expense of minorities.

Tocqueville’s concerns for extreme individualism, fragmentation, and the disproportionate influence of personal interest in democratic politics form the underpinnings of Chinese historian Cho-yun Hsu’s American Life, a trenchant critique of modern American society, its ills, and possibilities for renewal. Hsu’s analysis joins critical examinations of American society published in the last decade, including Jill Lepore’s These Truths and George Packer’s The Unwinding. Hsu adopts a similar historical perspective to trace social inequality, politics, and culture from early colonial settlements to twenty-first century developments, most notably the 2016 presidential election. Hsu’s book is unique among recent dissections of American society for its Chinese perspective. Though Hsu has called America home for the last 60 years, he remains invested in Chinese cultural traditions, as evidenced by his extensive writing on Chinese culture in such books as The Transcendental and the Mundane: Chinese Cultural Values in Everyday Life. As a result, Hsu’s book is characterized by a humanistic Chinese-American lens through which it views America’s entrenched sociopolitical problems – one that is informed by both the author’s faith in American progress and his commitment to Chinese cultural values of Confucianism and the harmonious coexistence with others and nature.

Hsu adopts an ambitious, multifaceted approach by isolating the ills of American society across politics, culture, and economics. The chapters are structured as analytical narratives of America’s historical development with respect to a diverse range of sociopolitical issues, including imperialistic expansion, industrialization, ethnic diversity, class alienation, and culture. Though the chapters grapple with distinct issues, they interact in complex ways. For example, Hsu demonstrates how industrialization has resulted in ecological destruction due to large-scale agricultural cultivation, the widening of income inequality due to the concentration of wealth in a nouveaux riche class from the development of information technology and other industries, and urbanization leading to an urban–rural divide. This interplay between economics, social relations, and environment is reflected in Hsu’s foreword, when he remarks on the “complicated system of interaction” formed by “politics, together with culture, economy, and society.” Hsu’s comprehensive method for diagnosing American society is through unpacking this system of interaction and teasing out the common threads of dysfunction from these interconnected categories.

One of the central themes that emerges from the author’s historical narratives is the problem of demographic fragmentation. Hsu argues the roots of fragmentation lie in a misinterpretation of freedom as an unrestrained individualism without obligation to a larger community and the widening of wealth inequality resulting in class alienation. Another deep-seated cause is racial division due to structural racism and feelings of exclusionism among Whites towards immigrants and non-Whites. Hsu contests these ideological causes of fragmentation can be traced back to manifest destiny and the Protestantism of the first colonial settlers, who believed in the superiority of their faith. Hsu’s argument builds upon Packer’s 2013 The Unwinding, which argued that loss of former community-binding institutions such as churches resulted in fragmentation along class and ideological lines. Hsu contends fragmentation has progressed rather than been reversed or halted. This continuous disintegration of community is strikingly illustrated by the 2016 election’s polarization and animosity between red and blue, a state of division commonly characterized as a civil war. For Hsu, fragmentation has been inadequately addressed since Packer’s warning and has only been a continuous unraveling from the founding of America to the present.  

Nevertheless, Hsu does offer glimmers of hope amid his despairing diagnosis of American society. In an analysis of his hometown of Pittsburgh, functioning as a microcosm of America for ethnological study, he describes communities that remain tightly bound despite the ubiquitous forces of fragmentation. In particular, Irish-American communities are cohesively maintained through ties to the Catholic Church, while Italian-American communities are characterized by strong family bonds and enduring connections to their old home. Hsu also cites examples where declining cities have been rebuilt into more equitable and unified communities. Notably, after the disintegration of the Pittsburgh steel industry, community members formed the Urban Coalition, which connected unemployed workers to public work, promoted the development of local artists, and supported young community members to become visionary leaders in Congress. These salient instances of community rebuilding attest to Hsu’s faith in the possibility of healing fragmentation.

One of the most unique virtues of the book is its juxtaposition between American and Chinese societies. This method provokes a complex dialogue between the two countries, while identifying their pathologies as well as solutions for their revitalization and future well-being. In this comparison, America represents a later stage of modernization and therefore a cautionary tale as China continues along similar trends of industrialization and urbanization. Nevertheless, though Hsu does lament the American predicament has degenerated to a difficult impasse, he believes its society can be rejuvenated through reforms he derives from the Chinese world – notably, local empowerment for community rebuilding, strengthening of social welfare, and a humane social ethic giving individuals the opportunity to thrive without depriving others. To adopt Hsu’s metaphor, if America can be represented as a growing individual that matured as a young adult after the Second World War, then it now suffers from an intractable but treatable sickness whose primary cause is the fragmentation of its body.

Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in New York. His work has been published in Bookforum, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Gathering of the Tribes, and other publications. He is an editor at Full Stop and an editor-at-large for Asymptote.

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