Three years ago, the College of Arts and Sciences, HKUST, and Peking University entered into a trilateral partnership. The idea was to create research and teaching collaboration among the three institutions that can be enduring. The Jefferson Global Seminars is part of that effort. I want to thank Philip Zelikow, Associate Dean of Graduate Academic Programs in Arts and Sciences, for creating this program with stellar curricular content; and James Lee, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at HKUST, who worked hand and glove with us to make it all possible—administratively, financially, and above all, intellectually. - MW
This is the “First Lecture,” which is a College convention—a dean provides the first lecture to the incoming first-year students. I have titled it “Leaving the Comfort Zone,” to state the obvious: you have left the comfort of your homes in Virginia and elsewhere in the U.S., to arrive in a city that in the last two centuries went from a barren piece of rock to being a shining metropolis open to all cultures and peoples; and since 1997 it has managed all that while being part of a country that is ruled by a communist party. This city will present you with mind-boggling complexity—in more ways than one.
A week ago I would not have guessed that I would be arriving in Hong Kong, following in the footsteps, as it were, of Edward Snowden. A 29-year old American with a rapid succession of careers—in the military, the CIA, the National Security Agency and then Booz Allen Hamilton—he is also perched somewhere in this same city. He leaked documents revealing that the United States government has engaged in surveillance of citizens—its own and others—in an effort to thwart terrorist plots. Instantly a debate ensued; it was a familiar debate on the fine line between “privacy” on the one hand, and “national security” on the other. Trying to find a few needles in the tetra-bytes of haystacks, the government was riffling through emails, Facebook, twitters, and phone calls of a multitude of foreign suspects, and the American citizens they might have contacted. The idea was to look for patterns in the communications and store them in case they prove useful in the future.
The new modes of communication arriving in the past fifteen or twenty years provide such instant connection and gratification that we ease into an intellectual comfort zone without much concern. Then someone downloads confidential information, and the notions of “privacy” and “national security” are instantly juxtaposed in adversarial and oppositional ways. We are now forced to question the meaning of privacy in the 21st century, in a digitally interconnected world where citizens give up their privacy unknowingly to the government, but also willingly and effortlessly to commercial entities who trail us through myriad social networks. Our conceptions of individual inviolability and privacy, rooted in eighteenth-century dictums, encounter a world flung open to anonymous servers, humming quietly along and grazing on our every word.
We also search, in this new century and this Brave New World, for a new meaning of the term “national security.” The onset of the Cold War in the 1940s wrought dramatic changes akin to those we face today, as the U.S. for the first time developed a permanent standing army, hundreds of military bases abroad, and a new national security state at home. This new world was understandable because security was a matter pitting one nation against another; in many ways it merely brought the U.S. into the great power milieu that Europe had known for centuries. The primary adversary was also a modern state, the Soviet Union; the U.S. and the Soviet Union offered two alternative, top-to-bottom models of what modernity meant.
Now our enemies are not other states, but inchoate, invisible, implacable foes who seem to abhor everything we stand for, and who fight by means fair and foul. By these standards, the zone of Cold War rivalry was comfortable, at least in its boundaries. The threat of communism stimulated a vast expansion of the American state and its intelligence apparatus, dealing with existential threats abroad. But now the apparatus doesn’t know where to look: the quarry might be an Arab-American citizen in Yemen or a college kid wearing a backpack on his way to the Boston Marathon. So in a world where everyone can be both target and targeter, no one can escape. We need somehow to leave the comfort zone of Cold War and par-for-the-course national security dilemmas, rethink our assumptions, and start an important debate on the meaning of the national security state in our time, a very different and unprecedented era. That is the responsibility of the democratic citizenry, which is after all the purpose of the liberal arts education.
From his hideout in Hong Kong, Mr. Snowden also leveled charges against the United States government for hacking into government, business, and university computers in China, when our news media had it the other way around—one article after another about China’s assault on our cyber-system. The question has become whether Snowden is a concerned citizen and patriot speaking truth to power, and in so doing disclosing a new surveillance campaign in American history, or a traitor aiding and abetting another sovereign government. And if the international system is no longer a system of nations acting as separate agents, but a shadowy world of clandestine digital break-ins by public and private entities, one might ask what is left of the meaning of nationalism and patriotism.
So, you and I seem to have left our comfort zones by arriving in this city, just as a new world drama crashes on our familiar shores and unfolds before our very eyes. I do hope that you will pay very close attention to the events of the last couple of weeks, and continue to do so even after Mr. Snowden departs Hong Kong, as he likely will. This is not a comfortable discussion but a necessary one; from it you will learn a great deal about relations between our government and China, and between China and Hong Kong; and you will learn a lot about their legal systems.
“Leaving the comfort zone” is the essential means that we deploy in seeking truth, which is the aim of our education—our liberal arts education. For all the ink spilled to define the purpose of a liberal arts education—and there is an ocean of it—nothing is so fundamental and important as our quest to understand the truth about ourselves, our circumstances, and our predicaments. Inside the comfort zone, that truth is impossible to obtain. To cite the venerable metaphor of Plato’s cave, you can see the shadow on the wall, but cannot discern the truth of the shadow without stepping out of the cave and into the light.
I envy you for having a great summer curriculum. Many of you are taking a course on Max Weber, jointly taught by Professors Krishan Kumar of UVA and Joshua Derman of HKUST. Max Weber pioneered something called comparative sociology. His core idea was stunningly simple; cognition is not possible except through comparison—you know what is, by knowing what is not. Weber claimed that there was a profound relationship between a particular kind of culture and religion, and the rise of capitalism. To establish a truth that could withstand scrutiny, he had to study the major religions of the world, to argue why Protestantism and its work ethic was conducive to material accumulation under capitalism—but not Catholicism, not Islam, not Hinduism, and not Confucianism. He stepped out of the Prussian intellectual milieu, his comfort zone, to read the best scholarship on the religions of the world.
You will be reading his “Religion of China.” An Occidentalist to the core, Weber found it difficult to assign rationality to the world outside of the European tradition, and his “Religion of China” is, in my view, a deeply flawed account of Chinese culture—as flawed as the best writings on China in the late nineteenth century, which is to say, very flawed. But there are brilliant passages in this book, transcending passages of comparative sociology. And even when he was wrong, Max Weber had more interesting ideas in his little finger than many of the sociologists in the decades that followed. I hope so much that you will delight in all his ideas, interesting when he was wrong as when he was right. Regardless, you will appreciate the effort he took to discover and express truth according to his own lights.
You will be taking “A New History of China, 1700-2000” by Professor James Lee, one of the greatest historical and economic sociologists of China. In that course you will explore an entirely different way to perceive global history, a quantitative route to making explicit comparisons between China and the West. Rather than recast the trajectories of modernity through ideal types as Weber did—some composite pictures of the “west” versus the “rest”—you will learn to anchor your analysis on hard data to the extent that we can excavate them: living standards and human development as measured by consumption, life expectancy, and literacy (which in China were roughly comparable to the West until the mid-19th century). Looking at modern history through the Chinese prism—community, ethnicity, family, freedom, gender, life, power, property, religion, rights, rules, sexuality—one begins to accumulate more evidence, allowing us to think more fully and maturely about how societies evolve and are structured. We shed light where we once looked through the glass darkly. In other words the study of modern China should help us better understand our society and ourselves.
The professors at Virginia and HKUST have also come together to offer courses on the environment, to provide historical perspectives on pollution control, water quality, and food security. I know you will explore firsthand the wild life refuge between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and marine fish culture management zones.
In another one of your classes, you will develop tools for thinking about complex technological systems as they adapt to change. You will think deeply and carefully about the implications of the rise of megacities: energy and water systems, natural resource availability, transportation, health and population—and how they all relate to climate change. In the next twelve years, China plans to move 250 million people living in rural areas to cities; our classes will provide ways for you to understand the transformation of this great mass of peasants into urban citizens.
In closing, allow me to recount in one more way the virtue of leaving your comfort zones. You are the first generation of the Americans whose lives will be affected in so many important ways by the country where you stand today: China. It may not seem so now, but the peace and prosperity of the United States depends very much on understanding China. In no small measure the effective collaboration between the two countries—or their effective estrangement—will determine whether we will have a peaceful twenty-first century, one of cooperation in a US-Chinese condominium; or a falling away from each other into a perilous future. I sincerely hope that the inaugural class of the Jefferson Global Seminars will be agents of peace and collaboration, as you must.