Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ma Channels His Inner Pangloss

"I have seen the worst," Candide replied. "But a wise man, who since has had the misfortune to be hanged, taught me that all is marvelously well; these are but the shadows on a beautiful picture." – Voltaire, Candide

The “wise man” in question is Dr. Pangloss, the fictional philosopher who has had the greatest effect on the hero of the eponymous Candide. Armed with Pangloss’ assertion that “All is for the best in the best of all worlds”, the unfortunate young man, with his head held high, braves persecution by the Inquisition, earthquakes, slavery and more while seeing his friends touched by rape, murder, gambling, mutilation, syphilis, and, in the case of his beloved Dr. Pangloss, hanging. After all, how could any of these troubles really be bad if they happen in our world - the world our God has created for us?

Of course, the character of Pangloss is Voltaire’s creation - the ideal vessel for ridiculing the optimism of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). Leibniz believed that our universe was the best one that God could have created because God could not create a universe that is less than perfect. He IS the Supreme Being indeed!

We shouldn’t misinterpret Voltaire’s ridicule. The Frenchman is merely criticizing excessive optimism, not all optimism. However, this distinction raises an important question: Under what situations does one's optimism (or pessimism, or any other sentiment) become excessive? Since, depending on the situation, everyone has a different opinion, there is no correct answer. A good rule of thumb: When in doubt about the excessiveness of your emotional expression, err on the side of caution. If you fear that telling the man who has lost his whole family that "every dark cloud has a silver lining" might not be appreciated, just don't go there.

Politicians who owe their careers to the votes of the masses, and who therefore know how to play a crowd, should know this better than anyone. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou should be no exception. Alas, Ma is gaffe-prone. During an August 7 visit  to Majia Township, a village reconstructed following the catastrophic destruction of Typhoon Morakot, he said:

Last night was cool. I didn’t need to cover up. I didn’t feel hot at all. I was very comfortable. It was also very peaceful. I very rarely have this experience. It was like the feeling of being in Provence.
In this election year, Ma’s detractors were quick to jump on this statement as evidence that Ma was out of touch. "How could he make light of such a bad situation?" they wondered.

Not everyone shared this concern, as a news report about the controversy surrounding his Provence statement shows. Neither of the interviewed villagers in the report seems outraged by Ma’s comment. The first doesn’t really know what Provence is like. The second gives the government mixed marks on reconstruction, claiming that the reconstruction itself is ok but wishing the government would provide work opportunities. This is not explosive stuff. Furthermore, we might forgive Ma by imagining that he was perhaps merely commenting on the natural surroundings. The controversy sounds more like a storm in a teacup rather than an indicator of Ma's poorly placed optimism.

So it is all the more mystifying that, having been slightly burned by his word choice last week, Ma chose to put his hand back in the fire on August 15 by likening another rebuilt village to Peach Blossom Spring, a pastoral utopia that is described in a fifth-century fable by the Han poet Tao Qian.

Now, I don’t think that Ma, channeling some inner Pangloss, really believes that the rebuilt villages are like Provence and Peach Blossom Spring. Despite criticism from the opposition, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in this regard. I think it is more likely that Ma feels compelled to say something positive to the media about his experiences in the villages, just like any politician in his situation would, but lacks the rhetorical finesse to import the expected touch of gravity into his sound bites.

I am more troubled by what this double gaffe says about the president’s ability to learn from his mistakes. After all, what makes Pangloss (and, by extension, Candide) so ridiculous is not his initial optimism but his incapability to adjust his worldview, and the naive behavior that results from this worldview, in the face of overwhelming evidence that his optimism is excessive. If invoking picturesque Provence earns you jeers of ridicule, why switch to the utopian Peach Blossom Spring? Why not show you identify with your audience instead by adjusting your rhetoric with care?


  1. Why not show you identify with your audience instead by adjusting your rhetoric with care?

    How about this:

    Back in 2009 when a storm caused many people to be buried alive, Ma visited one of those area. A little girl was dig out from the mud, still alive. Ma approached and said,

    "Wow, you are so good! You can pause breathing for that long !!" (rough translation)

    In an international media conference, referring to the loss of lives due to the storm and Ma's sluggish response(he went to a wedding party when the storm came), Ma said,

    "Now people have taken their lessons!"

    And how about this:

    When a wide-spread food poisoning -- due to chemical additives used by the food industry -- brings fear and pain to the people, Ma talked about it in his speech tour in college:

    "I am so glad that when I was young, the food I took had no such additives so I didn't take any of the polluted food." (rough translation)

    There are more. You can arrange them into a long chapter. To many who witness them, "identifying self with the people" is something beyond his capacity.

  2. That was kind of what I was alluding to in the last paragraph. Ma's problem with audiences is that he seems to be incapable of effectively demonstrating empathy. If I were confronted with that girl, I might actually wonder how she managed to survive under the mud and marvel at how she was able to breathe. I probably would not express this to her face. Similarly, I probably would not blame farmers complaining about low banana prices for their supposed failure to tell me that banana prices were too low, although I might secretly steam about losing face in public under the surface.

    What makes Ma ridiculous is his inability to learn from these mistakes. He is probably ahead of Tsai in the polls anyway, but with the total control the KMT has over the levers of power in Taiwan, he should be much further ahead of her than he is. But he is afflicted with a chronic case of wooden-ness. Instead of making people feel good when he opens his mouth, he makes them feel as though he is distant.

  3. I doubt that there's a Pangloss within president Ma - unless, that is, that Pangloss is a very anxious personality. (As I haven't read the book, I can't tell, but I find it interesting that Leibnitz co-shaped a very optimistic worldview in Germany while Voltaire co-wrote a view which many Germans at the time, and even more so from the 1970s to 1930s, considered "corrosive".) Ma and many of the KMT may consider the Taiwanese press "corrosive", too.

    Confucianism of the more orthodox leaning (and I'm not sure if there is any other kind of Confucianism) prescribes an optimistic attitude, and its dowdiness, too, has been targeted by wittier contemporaries. Ma looks Confucian to me.

    I don't think that he is optimistic. If he was, it would come across more convincingly. I think he's afraid of many things - not only the presidential elections.

  4. Germans at the time, and even more so from the 1970s to 1930s, (...)

    1870s, not 1970s, of course.

  5. JR, I totally agree with you. And Pangloss is not anxious at all. He is totally relaxed. When confronted with an event that is truly lamentable, he calmly notes that the event could not be bad because we are living in the best of worlds. Clearly, this is not Ma.

    In fact, nobody is like Pangloss. He is an example of an extreme personality that Voltaire creates to make a point. The other characters are also examples of extremes. In fact, the hero of the book, Candide, is named Candide because he is unbelievably naive and trusting.

    Actually, the "panglossian" behavior to which I was referring was the tendency of certain politicians to overplay their "optimism" (in quotation marks because this optimism is not serious but feigned for the consumption of the media). This "optimism" is less a sign of a personal belief system (such as Confucianism) than it is the outward expression of a desire to maintain a public image.