In 2009, everyone’s favorite mustachioed goofball Thomas Friedman wrote a truly regrettable column suggesting that the Communist Party of China was better equipped to handle the problems of the 21st century than the U.S. This week, history repeats itself with another ignorant dope as racist right-winger and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen weighed in on the passing of Singapore’s late benevolent dictator Lee Kuan Yew, who ran the country with an authoritarian fist from 1959-1990.
There’s a lot to unpack about Lee, who managed to turn around his country’s economy in dazzling time and implement a repressive regime characterized by the undermining of political opposition, sparse freedom of speech or the press and executions of drug dealers. But while Lee’s authoritarian policies leave a muddled legacy (and Singapore’s economic success had more to do with innovative policy as it did cops beating down protesters), Cohen looks at coverage of his death and concludes we have a case of “authoritarian envy.” Cohen’s core thesis is that Lee’s rule demonstrates America’s real problem is “an excess of democracy.”
In a dazzling display of jaw-dropping stupidity, Cohen manages to both favorably compare Lee to Mussolini and suggest that the root of America’s problems is that we have a surplus of political rights we don’t deserve:
But his administrative brilliance and his economic success are what earned him such adulation. He rose in stature not just on account of what he did but on account of what we could not. Lee, as they once said of Mussolini, made the trains run on time. America’s trains too often don’t run at all.
We suffer from an excess of democracy. We have a Congress that has been gridlocked for as long as anyone can remember. It is at the mercy of any extremist from anywhere in the country who can threaten a primary fight. Our infrastructure is eroding, yet we seem incapable of doing anything about it. Lee Kuan Yew knew what to do about it. If you need a bridge, build it.
First of all, Mussolini didn’t actually make the trains run on time. That was fascist propaganda.
Second of all, this is an unbelievably stupid assertion. Dictators from time immemorial have decried the fecklessness of democratic representation and assured us that all there is standing between a nation and unparalleled social progress is a lack of will.The myth goes that if you cut out the debating and political infighting, the special interests and the whining constituents, and simply order something to be done, then it will be accomplished much more efficiently.
You know, will to power and all that!
Then Cohen gets all racist Tiger Mom, suggesting that Singapore has a superior culture that values hard work, discipline and obedience and presenting America’s racially-mixed melting pot as a point of weakness:
Lee’s pragmatism is what commended him to so many thoughtful people. Singapore had nothing in the way of mineral wealth, but it did have a culture based on Confucian precepts. (Singapore may be ethnically mixed, but it is 75% Chinese.) This meant that hard work, discipline, family values and obedience were cherished.
One can see the effect of that in New York, for instance, where a minority of Asians disproportionately win admission to the city’s elite public high schools.
In America, it is considered highly offensive and deeply retrograde to value one culture over another and to search always for economic reasons for disparities. In Singapore, Lee knew he had a winner in the Chinese culture and promoted it. Indeed, he made it the national ethic…
Lee got the job done. Too often, it’s more than we can say.
Right. There couldn’t possibly be a correlation between this fabled ethnic work ethic and the sorry state of Singapore’s labor unions, or what the Harvard Crimson’s Chou See Ahlek described in 1975 during the heyday of Lee’s rule as a “combination of carrot and stick measures” in which “most of the carrot has been offered to Western and some Asian businessmen, while the stick has been exclusively applied to the working class of Singapore.” Key to this policy, Chou wrote, was convincing international corporations that Singapore could offer the “abundant, cheap, docile and increasingly skilled labor force of Singaporeans and temporary migrant labor from neighboring Malaysia.” Singapore’s growth in income inequality is the fastest in the world.
By the way, the Chinese work model that Cohen is squirming with delight over isn’t healthy. By Chinese state media’s own estimates, about 600,000 mainlanders die every year from overwork. One survey of Chinese IT workers noted by the Financial Times found that approximately 98.8% of them reported health problems. China’s own model for success — economic liberalism sprinkled with a hefty dose of political terror and repression — was based partially on Singapore’s tactics.
There’s no doubt that Singapore emerged from Lee’s rule poised to be a major economic success, thanks in large part to the city-state’s relentless pursuit of policy options that work. But Cohen apparently thinks that one of the highest execution rates in the world, draconian anti-protest laws, widespread corporal punishment and horrible exploitation of migrant workers are merely regrettable necessities of this orderly and efficient society. Stalin supposedly used to call American communists useful idiots; Cohen is a useful idiot for neoliberalism.
But instead of making an omelette by cracking some eggs, Cohen wants us to just start cracking our eggs ex post facto. Even if you believe authoritarianism is ruthlessly efficient, we’re already one of the richest countries in the world. Why should we envy the “benevolent” dictators of the world?
Cohen thinks we all have a case of “authoritarian envy.” I think he’s just projecting.