In this week’s episode, the editors discuss Luke Syrianos’ “Virtual Reality and Christian Politics,” Mark Melton’s “Cold War with China Hits Fashion Industry during H&M Boycott,” Alan Dowd’s “China Takes Aim at the Postwar Order,” and Jimmy Lewis’ “Christians Must Not Be Silent on China’s Human Rights Abuses.”

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, with another episode of Marksism, with fellow editors and fellow Mark(c)s, Marc LiVecche and Mark Melton. This week, we are reviewing three pieces from Providence, starting with an article by Luke Syrianos on Christian reality politics versus Christian religious politics. The former embodied by QAnon and the events of January 6, in which many American Christians are detached from literal reality and live within their own universe governed by conspiracies and insider knowledge, versus, as the author puts it, Christian religious politics, also governed by a confidence that Christians do have access to the truth through the Gospel, but also restrained by the awareness that Christians are still sinful and finite in their knowledge. And also, that those who do not believe the Gospel, nonetheless, are still persons created in the image of God, with all the dignity and rights that flow from that assumption. And our author contrasts these two realities and dissects their influence in American politics today. Of course, reality politics versus religion politics does not just apply to Christians, but can be projected much more widely. So, Marc LiVecche, where do you land? Are you a virtual reality Christian or a religious Christian in your politics?

LiVecche: I love to indulge in my illusions, and I have absolutely no ambitions to divest myself of them.

Tooley: Just like Reinhold Niebuhr.

LiVecche: Precisely that. I’m an ostrich, really that’s how I approach reality, head in the sand. Now it’s a nice contrast. I think they’re useful terms. I like what he says about reality. Reality is normal. That’s a Christian premise. It goes beyond Christianity, but it ought to be at the core of any sort of especially Christian realist disposition. We ought to, if we think reality matters, then reality ought to be knowable if our political disposition is to have any sort of traction or coherence. So, reality is knowable. Getting to know it requires all sorts of acceptance of certain facts. One of the facts he elucidates is human fallenness. We’re going to get reality wrong. It’s a complicated thing, because there’s reality, there’s our experience of reality, and then there’s even our description of our experience of reality. And those are several little pitfalls that we could also already fall into and just get details wrong. You add to that the human propensity to lie about what it is we think we know, not to lie only to other people, but to lie even to ourselves, and our ability to accurately articulate an accurate experience of reality becomes problematic. And that’s just a basic human fact that he stresses we ought to take in hand from the beginning, and he’s right. It also requires a certain intellectual humility, therefore, to be able to go out into the world with an understanding of reality that we can hold with conviction. There’s no point in having a conviction if you don’t hold it with conviction. While at the same time recognizing that we don’t have all the information. That even if we do, we’re fallen. We’re going to misinterpret it. We’re going to lie about how we interpret it. All of that. And so, the diagnosis is something that’s not wildly popular today if you look at the news, in that you have to approach one another with a certain kind of empathy. That I have to ask you questions and then I have to listen to your answer. I have to hold at the same time my own convictions with conviction, resolutely, while somehow at the same time holding them kind of loosely so I’m open to the possibility that I might be wrong. That there are aspects of my thinking that need to be reformed. That I don’t have access to all the information, on and on and on and on. It’s kind of empathy, but it’s something that’s been in a crisis I think within the human condition forever. Plato’s Cave, I think one of the elements that is drawn from that is that perception affects our ability to know the truth. Our ability to accurately perceive is contingent upon our own willingness to even contemplate life, and I don’t walk around in the everyday world right now and see a whole lot of people seemingly eager to contemplate life. Too often they’re interested in yelling a lot and digging into their own conceptions of the truth. So, his request for empathy, intellectual humility, and open dialogue, an open mind without letting our own brain fall out, is I think a welcome prescription.

Tooley: Mark Melton, virtual reality politics, Christian virtual reality politics even, tends to not just demonize the opposition, but to ascribe to them almost super naturally evil powers. Obviously, reality Christian politics, or rather religious Christian politics, as our author puts it, restrains us from necessarily projecting that expectation is supernatural evil upon all opponents. But what are your thoughts?

Melton: One of the things is virtual reality is a very interesting concept, but it also ties into a continuing trend that I think we’ve seen for centuries, this idea of communities that are developed that are well beyond the people that we can actually know face to face. We have the printing press, and so people are reading stuff, newspapers, books, of people they’ve never, met people who are probably dead a lot of times. And so, you have these communities that kind of develop around this. And the telegraph, the phone, TV, and other types of media. Now the Internet is an interesting new layer where its global, but it’s also incredibly siloed where people are getting to know others who only really engage with their own ideas. And so, this is a continuation of a trend, but it’s also a new development. So, I think this article kind of helps look into that a little bit, and I think that kind of keeping in mind that some of these trends are not I don’t think necessarily new can also help us understand that they’re not unprecedented. But it’s also a challenge, especially when we can be incredibly siloed and only engage with content that agrees with us. And like on the QAnon stuff, it’s sometimes hard to know, like you might hear a friend or someone you know kind of mention an idea, and you’re not quite sure where this idea comes from, and through a little research you might find out it originated on QAnon, but that that person didn’t necessarily receive it from QAnon. So, these ideas and how they can spread can be dangerous, but this virtual reality aspect of it kind of helps look at this problem that is a continuation I think of a long existing trend of these communities. How this develops in the future is an interesting look.

Tooley: The piece by Alan Dowd on the China challenge shares a quote from Robert Kagan that “an international order only lasts so long as its chief architects are willing to defend it,” and also “an international order always reflects the values and priorities of the chief powers who lead it and sustain it.” Obviously, that’s problematic if China would become the chief governing power of the new international order, with the principles and priorities very much at odds with Anglo-American democracy. So, Marc LiVecche, do we look at the China challenge as Alan Dowd puts it, “a long twilight struggle,” or is there a distinctive Christian realist approach to this issue?

LiVecche: Hmm… can I just say yes? Is that an option? Yes, I think it’s going to be a long twilight struggle. What Alan Dowd lays out is not a blueprint for the faint hearted. It’s not for the lazy liberal who thinks we can just continue with the status quo and everything’s going to work itself out. History is, by history I mean today, yesterday, and tomorrow, history is up for grabs. We’re not preordained to be the preeminent world power. Our way is not always, and it’s going to take work. And I think Alan Dowd, rightly I think, buried within his critique of the crisis with China is at least an implicit question as to whether or not Americans will continue as we’ve always continued, which is to delay until the last moment the doing of the right and hard and necessary thing, or if, finally, we have grown too exhausted that were unwilling to do that. So, are we, as the architects, finally no longer willing to defend the edifice? And you ask me one day how I feel about that and I’ll give you an optimistic, not to say wishfully thinking, hope that we still have what it takes, and will come around in the end, and will defend democracy, and we’ll get things right. But you ask me on another day and I’m less confident. He says we can’t retire; there’s a lot to do. We have to continually fend off challenges that are real, that are to varying degrees existential, and it’s not going to be a cakewalk. But he lays the terms fairly well.
Somebody is going to lead the world. Is it going to be a totalitarian nationalistic regime with a general disposition toward trampling on anything that stands in the way of its ideology, including the welfare of its own people? Or are we going to choose the liberal order, which is not great, has got a lot of bugs, some of those bugs might be features within it. All that. The new old conversation that’s going on. But he points out that if these are two options, liberalism is certainly the least bad of these two options. And it’s the one, of all the options that are seeming to be available, is the one that has the best chance of, and cast this how you want, of defending natural rights, or human rights, or what have you. But there is a choice to be made and we have to make it, otherwise, it will make itself.

Tooley: No doubt, Mark Melton, there are some articles from Reinhold Niebuhr post-World War II addressing this temptation by America to simply rest on its laurels and to withdraw, having been exhausted, triumphantly exhausted, from labors of World War II. But again, having to address that history moves forward, and once one demon is cast out, twenty more will move into its place, or so we are warned in the Gospels.

Melton: Right. So, also in some of those articles in 1946, Reinhold Niebuhr, and honestly a lot of the other writers I think, are a little too optimistic, a little too idealistic, about what relations with the Soviet Union are going to be like. And I haven’t looked at his later writings, but I suspect he comes around and kind of realizes what a lot of the government officials had realized, with the Long Telegram and whatnot, that Russia would have to be contained. I think now we have probably a more realistic idea of what China is going to be like, and no doubt this article lays it out, but I do think that the challenge from China is going to be a good bit different from the one with Russia in at least one aspect. And that is I think the conflict with China will be much more of a maybe mercantilist or an economic conflict. And a lot of American businesses are going to have to decide who they want to kowtow to, the Chinese regime, do they want to repeat Chinese talking points, or are they going to be forced to recognize the human rights abuses. I wrote an article last week that address this with H&M, who was boycotted last week, and also Nike and some others, but H&M was the main headline there. And what happened is in Xinjiang last year, there were reports about forced labor. And now this isn’t necessarily slave labor. It does appear that these people, these Uyghurs in Xinjiang, were paid, but they did not choose to go pick cotton. They were rounded up and forced, and if they didn’t then their communities could be forced through some thought education. We also have satellite images of factories being built next to prisons and then seeing the lines of people going from the prison to the factory and back and forth. There’s just a lot of question marks there, and there’s basically no way to verify that this cotton that’s being harvested, picked, and processed in Xinjiang is done without forced labor. So, a lot of companies last year decided to stop using this cotton, or they just said we don’t use it at all. And this is actually a bad thing. 20% of the world’s cotton comes out of this area, and most, almost all, of the Chinese cotton does. Because of some recent conflict between the West’s sanctions on China, China, basically their state broadcasts, called for a boycott, dragged up these old comments and called for a boycott against H&M and all these other companies. Now these companies are trying to backtrack. One company, I can’t remember which one, basically deleted their comments about the forced labor there. And so, I think this is going to be the type of episode we’re going to see again and again and again, where private businesses are going to have to choose. So, if this is an ideological conflict, I think America can rally around like a liberal ideal, but if it becomes much more of a mercantilist or economic conflict, then I think there will be businesses that will choose to be silent about human rights abuses for the sake of making money. You think of Disney with the Mulan movie, where they thanked security officials who are in that region of Xinjiang, and the NBA silencing critics of China, and so, I think this is going to be a key dynamic of the long-term competition that we didn’t necessarily have with the Soviet Union. I don’t think we had a lot of businesses that were trying to decide, do we want to do business in Britain and West Germany or do we want to get to this economy that frankly isn’t doing that great. But now we do have this competition, especially if China is on pace to be larger than the American economy, this is the big challenge for the next several decades.

Tooley: Speaking of human rights, Jimmy Lewis calls our attention to persecution of Christians in China, persecution of Muslims, the suppression of human rights in Hong Kong, a long litany of persecutions and torments by the Beijing regime that aren’t going away. And ultimately, there’s not a lot the U.S. or the West can do about it beyond offering moral or spiritual solidarity with the victims, which we are called to do. But it’s frustrating I think especially for Americans who like to see like the gratification of some immediate consequence to their protest. Marc LiVecche, again, the Christian realistic approach to these kinds of protests?

LiVecche: Yeah, lots of torn clothing and frustration, because, as you say, there’s something that ought to be done, and then there are things that can be done. And to sit on that is uncomfortable. I was watching a movie yesterday about General Dallaire out of Rwanda, the Canadian commander who was on the ground when the Hutus first moved into the genocide, and I watched it with the idea of moral injury in mind, the knowledge that there is something that ought to be done but I can’t do it. And he can’t do it for a variety of reasons, although I think he wonders to this day whether or not he could have done more, which would have been in defiance of orders and all sorts of things. But it’s a similar situation where there is a clear crisis, and the crisis has to be acknowledged and ideally resisted, overcome, but there are practical reasons you can’t do it. In this case, it’s a Great Power. And we can’t easily hold our military deterrence over them to get them to behave in humane and responsible ways. So, you do what you can for sure, which is to loudly denounce. It is to show the solidarity that those calls for. “Weep with those who weep” and all of that. That’s not nothing. It is to build coalitions where you can to get world opinion collectively to begin to push against China, which seems, on the one hand, that that ought to be a bit of an easy lift. Who tells the better story, the better human story? Chinese totalitarianism or the West, which can draw on a classical and a Hebraic tradition, and can describe a set of ideas about what it means to human, to be a human being, what is significant in the world, how we ought to respond in history to one another and to the conditions of history. I think we have a better story, but then Mark Melton’s worry, and you know actually we might not, because really the compelling story right now is dollars and cents. And if that’s the case, then China has got a lot going for it. So, I think the Christian realist struggles to find the coalitions that can stand up and coerce a nation into behaving in responsible ways. We build the capacities in other areas to be able to increase our own ability to do that, which means consistently attempting to be able to stand from a position of power. So, that means military strength, that means economic strength, and it means doing the good you can where you can, resisting the evil where you can, and when we have to, compelling probably, and this goes against the open market commitments or fetish that we often have, but it may mean restricting people’s abilities to do business in China. But again, there are people who need to be cared for, and we need to be able to find ways to do that without blowing up the whole world.

Tooley: Mark Melton, final thoughts on human rights in China, what should we do?

Melton: I mean, it is a difficult question, right, because we can’t go to war over this. And even some of the economic stuff is difficult choices, because, like last year, no that was two years ago with the trade deal, part of the trade deal was that China would buy a lot of goods from us, farm goods and whatnot. And China didn’t necessarily follow through on that. You can blame the pandemic for that, but perhaps there’s other reasons. But the fact is like that trade deal essentially tied us closer together to China in a way that many people thought we were trying to decouple from them. And so, I said it’s going to be a long-term conflict. It’s hard to tell a business or to tell people who are trying to save for retirement that we can’t do business with China, and that’s going to hurt your 401k. It’s going to hurt the price of goods. Because there’s also going to be knock on effects of that. And so, do you target or say focus in on the cotton of Xinjiang, or do you allow some areas that we can do trade with? It’s not going to be an easy question, and a lot of businesses may end up choosing, well, I’m not going to domicile in the U.S., I’ll domicile in Singapore or somewhere else where I can do trade with China. And so, I think the best option right now I would say is the fall of the Soviet model of containment. Trying to pressure, try to shine light on these issues, try to develop alliances with other countries in such a way that they are willing to do it, and I don’t think escalating it to that the ultimate like “we’re going to completely embargo China” is going to be a sustainable solution. I think that would cause a lot of divisions, not only in this country but amongst our allies, whereas if we do a piecemeal bit by bit to show that China is willing to play ball, then we’ll play ball. But if they’re not then we’ll kind of demonstrate that. I think it’s going to have to be a steady escalation of tensions. I don’t think we can jump too far ahead, if that makes any sense. But I’m also kind of spit balling here, and maybe this will be a better topic for a longer piece.

Tooley: Marc LiVecche, Mark Melton, thank you for another episode of Marksism. Until next week, bye-bye.