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The True Colors of a Citizen

wuming's picture

Crossposted from Occupy Oakland Media

Last week I wrote about the importance of seizing the American identity.

This week, I want to talk about the necessary tension between personal loyalty and institutional loyalty in oppositional politics.

Throughout left wing politics, it's common to hear people call for solidarity. But what does solidarity really mean? Does it mean falling in line with the loudest voices in the room, who declare their actions must be supported by all? Or is there something more?

Oppositional political work is only possible with an understanding of obligation and personal loyalty. This is because even non-violent oppositional political necessarily carries risks. It is only with support from a group can an individual maintain such activity. Personal loyalty is a two way street between individuals, and it comes not from outside, but from the normal give and take of life. That is, people learn to trust each other over time, from seeing that when they help someone else, that person in turn will have an obligation to pay them back when the time comes. This specifically does NOT refer to the kind of twisted personal loyalty that people who've been through mindless hazing rituals endemic to some elite social organizations. Rather, it is the kind of personal loyalty that comes either from living life side by side with a community, or from the bond a group of people feel when they engage in a focused struggle to better themselves in some way.

This is very much contrary to the thrust of modern life, especially in the United States, where the dominant culture of consumerism is more about positioning oneself properly through the purchase and display of the appropriate symbols, anything from clothing, cell phones, specialized education, leisure goods and travel. For many people that I have met, they don't have any other way to relate to other people, such that almost all their personal relationships are based on such status positioning.

Perhaps some people will say that I am being overly harsh, and that people have other motivations. In response, I would point to the social science survey data that shows most adult Americans have fewer than 3 close confidents. See

In talking to people at Occupy, I have met more than a few people who felt isolated, and who acutely felt the isolation of life in today's America. It seemed especially acute among the college educated under 30, which I found interesting. I suspect it has to do with the hothouse competition for approval that characterizes modern elite education. As a friend of mine observed, too, if on the other hand you don't have much, you have no choice but to depend on your friends to survive-- it's essential.

The flip side of this discussion, is the people who scream "solidarity" as a reason for the rest of us to endorse, tolerate or encourage their destructive behavior. And here, I am not only speaking of property destruction, but of emotionally abusive and disruptive behavior in a group setting. I understand that for many people who are breaking free of the consumerist culture, they are for the first time seeing the power of working in a group, and of shedding the atomized, isolating popular culture.

All the same, to me there is profound misunderstanding of the role of group solidarity and personal loyalty. Part of personal loyalty isn't just demanding that other people do what you want and protect you, but also what you give-- and giving lipservice to "serving the people" and some kind of transcendent ideal isn't enough.

[Shorter-- if you've never acknowledged me, handed me a plate of food or helped me clean a sidewalk, or had my back when someone rushed me, then don't fucking talk to me about how I owe you. ]

At the same time, personal loyalty alone isn't enough. We can easily imagine a society where all that counts is personal and family relationships, and there is no thought of a wider good outside of those personal networks. In fact, that is part of what has created the current crisis, in that the elite have demonstrated repeatedly that their loyalty is more to themselves than to the common good.

Personal loyalty must, and does exist in tension with institutional loyalty. Institutions, are really collective agreements, between people who share a common orientation. What institutions allow, is for people who have never met and share no personal relationships or personal obligations, to work together collectively. They can be as small as a minor religious sect, or as large as an international movement with branches on every continent. Nation-states are institutions too.

Cooperation that exceeds personal networks is pretty powerful, but at the same time it carries certain risks. Across the political spectrum, you'll find there is much skepticism of institutions, both on the left and the right. This is justified, because institutions can also be oppressive. Everyone is familiar with institutional abuse. In those situations, institutions demand that their members, if they want to remain members, follow dictates that are injurious to some of the members. The only real defense in that case, is the personal networks of the targeted individuals, which is to say, the networks based on personal loyalty and obligation. Totalitarian governments, for this reason, seek to eliminate the bonds of personal loyalty and obligation as a way to maximize social control. The United States is a somewhat different situation, in that personal loyalty has been destroyed by the consumer culture. Whether that was by design or by accident is a question for another day; suffice to say that it happened, and we're seeing the consequences today.

The discussion so far has been at the abstract level, but social relationships are anything but abstract. The concrete display of social relations is most notable in art, and we can say that art often transmits these values to a wider society. Because the conflict of personal loyalty and obligation is so denigrated in American culture, it is difficult to think of any mass market films that clearly highlight it. Instead, we must turn to Asian cinema. Two films, one old and one recent, provide some of the best examples of what I am talking about.

Those films are A Better Tomorrow, and 13 Assassins. John Woo directed A Better Tomorrow, and Takashi Miike directed 13 Assassins. Both films feature highly stylized violence, and indeed, that is often the main drawing point for American audiences, who exoticize the films as merely an excuse to watch bodies fall. That is, the characters are not seen as human characters, but just as cardboard cutouts waving guns around in what might as well be a video game. However, at their core, both films are about the tensions between personal and institutional loyalties.

Mainstream American reviewers often talk about the "balletic" gun fights of John Woo's flms, and the effortlessly cool demeanor of Chow Yun Fat. However, A Better Tomorrow is ultimately a drama, focused on three men, Ho, Kit and Mark. When the film opens, Ho is a gangster, along with his good friend, and sworn brother, Mark. Sworn brotherhood meant an obligation to look out for the other person under all circumstances, in a self-sacrificing way. As way of background, during the early 20th century, sworn brotherhoods were the only way for young males in rapidly urbanizing China to survive. Many people migrated from farms to cities, where jobs were scarce and government institutions unsteady. Some of these had criminal undertones, while others were akin to proto-unions for various blue collar occupations like dock workers.

Mark and Ho are trusted subordinates of a Triad gang with a counterfeiting operation. Kit is Ho's younger brother. Kit does not know his older brother is a gangster, and as the film opens, is preparing to become a police officer. Ho encourages his brother to study hard and improve his life. Kit is loyal to the institution, in this case, the old colonial Hong Kong government. When Ho is betrayed by members of his own gang, and future Triad boss, Mark avenges him, it sets into motion a story of conflicting obligations. Ho ultimately tries to quit the gang to protect his brother's job, yet the gang knowing this threatens Kit as a means to bring Ho back to the fold. Kit is angered by what he sees as Ho's betrayal and also, by the fact that his brother's criminal past stalls his career-- even though he is taken off the case, Kit doggedly pursues the head of the Triad in an attempt to bring him down. In the end, all of the men have to navigate the conflict ridden territory of loyalty to family, friends and institutions.

The tension between the Hong Kong government and organized crime was a real one at the time, as the HK colonial government and society had previously been immensely corrupt. The story goes that during the 1970s, you had to bribe ambulance drivers if you wanted them to take you to the hospital. Essentially, people lived within their personal networks only, and there was a minimal sense of the common good. After an epic fail wherein a senior member of the police service was caught taking bribes and managed to sneak past customs, the HK colonial government founded the now-famous Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to eliminate corruption at all levels. So severe were the threats that ICAC agents reputedly would take elaborate security precautions involving multiple car switches, just to get home from work. A Better Tomorrow is a dramatization of the tensions that existed in many people between the pull of personal networks and obligations and institutional loyalty. It wasn't an easy thing to negotiate either, as HK had been built by refugees fleeing civil war-- and people in those situations must depend on personal relationships and obligations to survive when all else has failed. It can be the difference between life and death.

Where A Better Tomorrow looks at the interactions between the criminal underworld and the police, 13 Assassins looks at the conflicting loyalties between members of the elite. Miike sets the film in late 19th century Japan, at a time when the country was on the verge of modernization. The modernization would sweep away the samurai based feudal government and replace it with a modern nation-state, removing the privileges of the samurai elite. A prominent member of the ruling family Lord Matsudaira, is a ruthless sociopath who tortures his subjects for his own entertainment. . Under the government of the time, samurai had the power to kill commoners should they so choose, and Matsudaira exploits this to the maximum, much to the horror of all around him. Because he is so-well connected (the younger brother of Japan's military ruler), Matsudaira cannot be sanctioned through official channels. In the US (and Japan as well, to be fair) the samurai and their government are often lionized as models of conduct. Miike's film displays the ugly side of the samurai legend, mainly, the unquestioned prerogatives of the samurai elite to kill and rape at will.

A senior government official, Doi realizes that Matsudaira is insane and a threat to the well-being of all Japan, should he ascend to a higher office. He therefore hires a trusted samurai to kill Matsudaira. Doi's choice is Shinzaemon, a steadfast old samurai who has fallen on some hard times. On the other side, is Matsudaira's head of security Hanbei. Hanbei realizes that his master is insane, but by the samurai code he must obey. Hanbei and Shinzaemon also share an old tie-- they once trained in the same sword school. In Japan at that time, this was a serious bond of obligation, in that joining a sword school often involved swearing a blood oath of permanent obligation to the school and to the fellow members. Junior members of the school would follow and obey senior members-- this was fundamental to the entire Japanese feudal system. Senior students had an obligation to teach the juniors to the very best of their ability, and in turn juniors had to obey seniors. Shinzaemon sets about recruiting his team for the mission. While some of the assassins join alone, others join primarily because their seniors have chosen to go. 13 Assassins presents the conflict not only between personal loyalty and institutional loyalty, but between various institutional loyalties. Shinzaemon ultimately betrays the institution of feudal Japan, out of a belief that rulers must also be accountable to the people at large. Arguably, he acts out of loyalty to what today we would call the democratic ideal.

Stepping back for a moment, we should pause to note that East Asia has its own problems, and that the culture of personal obligation is often honored more in the breach than in actuality. Living in a web of obligation can at times, be stifling, as both 13 Assassins and A Better Tomorrow show too. But all the same, organized human activity can't happen without it. Especially organized human activity in stressful, high pressure situations.

In real life, as in films, personal obligation and institutional loyalty can be used for good or for ill. In the end, it is the effects that matter. The tension between institutional and personal loyalty can only exist where people share a common orientation, and that will be the subject of next week's piece-- We're Not Comrades.

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Submitted by lambert on

Random comments:

1. "Colors" in contradistinction to gang colors?

2. I love the exposition of Asian cinema. But I could use a little more direct parallels between concrete situations on the ground and the moral dilemmas in those movies. If you don't want to mention names, by all means fictionalize.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

The Chinese title of A Better Tomorrow, translates to "The True Colors of a Hero."

The idea is that a true hero is loyal. People who don't want spoilers should stop reading now.

Okay, so Ho is loyal to his brother, Kit. Kit is loyal to his brother, but also to his duty as a policeman. Mark is loyal to his friends-- there's one notable scene that takes place in the harbor which demonstrates this conclusively.

As far as incidents, it's more like, people have to understand what it means to be loyal, and what you have to directly do for someone to be able to ask for something big. The more you ask people to do (more risk/cost to them) the more you have to have done for them first, is the basic idea. That's about all I can really say. Will try to think more about this.

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

I heard Ed Schultz (blowhard extraordinaire!) say:

Fall in love in the primaries. But fall in line in the general.

To which I respond: Bullshit.

PUMA (in the original sense of that phrase...Party Unity My Ass! H/T to Riverdaughter!!!)

Submitted by Randall Kohn on

Once again, an attempt to be classy falls flat (sigh). And of course by "shit" I mean, NAFTA, Welfare Deform, financial dereg, and all the rest.

Seriously, Clinton used that same exact line ("fall in line") or something very close to it.

Heather's picture
Submitted by Heather on

Speaking of ideas from East Asia, here is a quote from a famous East Asian ( whose name I will withhold lest it take away from the brilliance of this idea)
all correct leadership is
necessarily "from the masses, to the masses". This means: take the
ideas of the masses (scattered and unsystematic ideas) and concentrate
them (through study turn them into concentrated and systematic ideas),
then go to the masses and propagate and explain these ideas until the
masses embrace them as their own, hold fast to them and translate them
into action, and test the correctness of these ideas in such action.
Then once again concentrate ideas from the masses and once again go to
the masses so that the ideas are persevered in and carried through.
And so on, over and over again in an endless spiral, with the ideas
becoming more correct, more vital and richer each time.
As I see it, the best leaders are those that can follow. I would much rather have people drawn into mass action because they feel it is an expression of their own idea than out of loyalty or support.

Also, to give another contrary idea from East Asia (indiscriminate good instead of loyalty), one of my favorite verses from the Tao Te Ching:

The sage has no concern for himself,

But makes the concerns of others his own.

He is good to those who are good.

He is also good to those who are not good.

That is the virtue of good.

He is faithful to people who are faithful.

He is also faithful to people who are not faithful.

That is the virtue of faithfulness.

brucedixon's picture
Submitted by brucedixon on

and old lefties like me don't even need to use Google to know Mao said that stuff. Attributing it correctly does not detract from the insight, though it might make it inaccessible to some folks who just ain't ready to suppose a lot of the stuff they learned in and after school was just plain wrong. So I'd say in principle, don't hesitate to attribute stuff like that.

Heather's picture
Submitted by Heather on

It is nice to see a fellow American who doesn't buy into the BS! Two of my foreign acquaintances have told me that the discourse here in the US is different and full of left taboos because the McCarthy Era was so effective. Having spent some time living overseas myself, I too can see the difference.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

I have some thoughts on Mao, some of which will be some discussion of his writing in the coming weeks. Suffice to say, for now, that it's a very mixed legacy.

Heather's picture
Submitted by Heather on

Would especially like to hear your thoughts on how the 100 Flowers degenerated into the Anti-Rightist Campaign.

Submitted by lambert on

... why not just say "the people" or "people"?

The nice thing is that the people are sovereign. At least when there are nation states, and nation states build on that idea.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

I can't give any good examples, because in written form it doesn't make a lot of sense, nor does if have the same emotional impact. I think the best thing to do is to watch the films; that is the easiest way to see what I'm talking about.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

Friendship, true friendship, is understood differently here. I think of it as a heavier version of our "lite" Western style American friendships. For instance, it is taken for granted that if I were to need anything--monetary assistance, being taken to hospital, emergency help--that my true friends here would provide this without thinking, without questions. It is also understood that if the situation were to be reversed, that I would do the same.

This character of friendship is the last thing you'd expect to find in a city that on the surface is so relentlessly materialistic. But the memory of need, and even hunger, is just under the skin of all these shiny surfaces. Hong Kong people have gotten this far by mutual assistance. This is a Chinese tradition, but what makes it interesting is that here, due to the circumstance of migration, urbanism, etc, the links and networks don't only run through families, but also to neighbors and friends--and the occasional curious expat like me. The depth and thickness of my friendships here is one of the main reasons I value Hong Kong.

The John Woo films aren't just about institutional loyalty, but also this deep friendship which creates a kind of honor among thieves. (The subtext of Woo's film, the Killer--a film that arguably is a better illustration of Asian friendship than A Better Tomorrow) is that the contemporary gangsters have lost their sense of brotherhood, turning the gangster scene into chaos. Obviously there's a very male-centered cast to this brotherhood and honor stuff, which does tend to blow over into real life. For a lot of my Hong Kong guy pals, the friendship between men who are "brothers" really does trump all others, including relationships with their wives.

A digression: the ICAC recently has been known for going after the easy corruption cases,chasing and convicting low level figures rather than high profile ones. But last week they did something extraordinary--they arrested two of the richest property tycoons in Hong Kong along with a former government Chief Secretary, for allegedly fixing property prices. Of course everyone is skeptical--why these tycoons, when the whole system is riddled with corruption, and why now?--but it's the equivalent, locally, of the "perp walk" that we have all been longing to see. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.

wuming's picture
Submitted by wuming on

Thanks for your thoughtful comment about your experiences in HK. I haven't been spending much time reading the news over the last few days so I missed the ICAC arrests. I had seen a few reports over the last month about the completely awful property situation on the ground in HK, subtitled newscasts. I also saw, appropriately enough, an interview with Chow Yun Fat himself in TimeOut HK where he complained about the "4 property developers" who control land in HK and how the rising property prices are killing the HK movie industry.

Your point about the male friendships to the exclusion of their wives is also well taken, and it is a problematic aspect of the tradition. I don't like it, as a friend of mine says, in some of the classic stories "women have no voice." In modern America this is totally unacceptable. It goes without saying that the ideals of personal obligation should apply equally in cross-gender relationships.

Heather's picture
Submitted by Heather on

The "From the masses, to masses" approach invites the public to participate much further downstream than most governments or social movements do. Policies or projects are too often formed by a well connected small group and then taken to the public. It is like " Here's the menu. Would you like a Big Mac or a Big Whopper? Those are your choices." or "Here is our cause. Are you with us are against us?" What I would like to see is the facilitation of the public taking part in the idea formation itself. Here is why:
1. There is value in the information and ideas that the public could contribute. Besides, trying to act on someone's behalf with soliciting their input can be stupid or
2. Asking the question "What do you care about and what would you like to see be done?" helps to change the framing away from the acceptance of a narrow range of possibilities where crazy things seem inevitable.
3.When people think and say for themselves what they care about and want, it puts them in a much more honest position where they are not compromising their beliefs to be team players. It also encourages more active participation in thought and a broader feeling of ownership (as opposed to followership) of the project.

I am currently trying to work towards more of this in the Bay Area. I could use all the help I can get, Bay Area Correntians!

Heather's picture
Submitted by Heather on

Thank you Elbert! I do indeed have the beginnings of a concrete idea. (Tim, sorry to hijack your post!) It is to have a 3 part conversation. I will be lazy and copy what I posted to the Occupy Berkeley google group about it:
Here is an outreach idea I have, a 3 part conversation to welcome
people to Occupy and bring people together for positive change.
Roughly, my idea for the 3 parts are:

Part1- What do you care about?
a meeting to just allow everyone to say what it is that they most care
about. It could be availability of jobs at a living wage, the
environment, etc. This would be a meeting to get it all out there.

Part 2- Prioritizing and refining:
taking the top priorities from the previous meeting and picking out a
few ideas that we can think about acting on.

Part 3- How do we get there?
For the key points that we have chosen, what do we need to do to get
closer to where we want to be? For this meeting we could reach out to
experts and community leaders who might be able to help us.

Here is what I hope it will accomplish:
1. Putting the focus on our top priorities and how to acheive them
2. Increasing Occupy's responsiveness to the community
3. Building the culture of consensus. The way it usually happens, a
small group plans out the action and then the community is invited to
join in the end action, just feels insufficient to me. I want people
to go through the difficult process of defining what is important,
hearing what other people think is important and finding that common
4. Bringing more people together. There are so many fabulous people in
Berkeley doing good work. There are also no doubt lots of people like
me who had not been involved in activism or politics before that have
potential to contribute. Imagine what could happen if a large number
of them started working together?

I will need help to make this happen. Logistically it could be as
simple as dedicating 3 GAs to this purpose. But with good outreach and
good facilitation planning, the impact could be greater.

Please let me know if you would be interested in working with me on
this or know of someone else who might be.

My thinking is that the first step is outreach. For starters, I have reached out to the 5 Ideas Convergence facilitators for their ideas on facilitation, since they did an amazing job with the 5 Ideas Convergence.

Please write to me (and others from Occupy Berkeley) at if you are interested in helping or even just have ideas to share.