Monday, January 30, 2012

"Unleash Ch(i)ang"

A Q&A with Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and Tea Party darling, in Sunday's New York Times Magazine included a puzzling anecdote about former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and an ancient Chinese warrior:
After you became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2006, your mentor, Jeb Bush, presented you with a sword. What was that about?
Chang is a mythical conservative warrior. From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, “I’m going to unleash Chang.” He gave me the sword of Chang.

From which mythology does this conservative warrior hail?

I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.
Indeed, Bush described the legend of Chang at some length at that event: 
“Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. 

“I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.”

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift.

”I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,” he said, as the crowd roared.
It turns out, though, that Jeb most likely inherited the catchphrase "unleash Chang" not from ancient legend or from a kung-fu movie, but from his father. As Timothy Noah writes:
"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got..."

"Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao.
Evening Independent, 10/7/66
Noah scolds Rubio for being ignorant of this meaning, although that seems a little harsh; as Matthew Yglesias notes, it's rather more embarrassing that Jeb (the "less stupid" Bush) himself doesn't appear to know what it means. 

What I'm most interested in is the little Legend of Ch(i)ang that Jeb has substituted for the real Chiang--a story that has at once nothing and everything to do with the original context, and that goes some way to explaining why contemporary American conservatives love to unleash their inner "Changs."

Jeb Bush's "Chang" is a "mystical warrior," a sword-wielding badass ripped straight from martial-arts stereotypes. But he is also, of all things, a champion of "entrepreneurial capitalism," an ideal that doesn't really feature in your typical Hong Kong action flick. What's that about?

Here's where Jeb's Chang meets up with a statement recently attributed to his fellow Republican, Newt Gingrich. In comments written for (then deleted from) a 1993 speech, Gingrich remarked:
For poor minorities, entrepreneurship in small business is the key to future wealth. This is understood thoroughly by most of the Asians, partially by Latinos, and to a tragically small degree by much of the American black community.
For both Gingrich and Jeb Bush, being Asian has some "mystical" connection to being an entrepreneur and capitalist--one that, in Gingrich's elaboration, is not shared by other non-white racial groups.

What we're seeing here, of course, is yet another version of the model minority stereotype, in which Asian Americans rate as "whiter" than other minorities because of their supposed allegiance to values of hard work, self-reliance, and accumulation of wealth. Because these traits are often attributed to "Asian" cultural values ("Confucianism"), they're often extended to Asians in Asia--an extension often abetted by Asian leaders (most famously Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew) who attribute their nations' booming capitalist economies to Confucian values.

All of this helps explain why conservatives like Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Rubio would not just admire but identify with Asians--at least as imagined through figures like the great warrior "Chang." Bush speaks of Chang as a kind of conservative conscience, a mystically pure version of the Republican platform...who just happens to wield a sword.

But the resonant slippage from "Chiang" to "Chang" shows that this caricatured Asian has a more vexed background. To American Cold Warriors, Chiang Kai-shek, and other right-wing Asian strongmen like him, represented bulwarks against a much more sinister image of the Asian: that of the Yellow Peril, here embodied by the advance of Chinese Communism. To "unleash Chiang" was to sic the good Asian on the bad Asian, to defend capitalism against communism.

Noah notes that the elder Bush would have employed "unleash Chiang" with a healthy dose of irony, having served as envoy to the People's Republic of China during the normalization of relations. Jeb's warrior Chang, as a sword-wielding cartoon, has no such irony about him, but he still fills the role of the good Asian, one who is both a reflection and a purification of the values of the American right. It's likely no accident that as China is on the rise again--now as a (threatening) economic power--that anxious American politicians are searching for another, easily domesticated version of the good Asian, and conservatives like Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Gingrich are unleashing Ch(i)ang.


Wendy said...

Thanks for posting this and for your analysis. I read that Q&A on Sunday and was struck (yet again) by the weirdness of GOP orientalism.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

My jaw drops, but a fascinating look at it all. Thanks! I can only imagine how it would fly in China or elsewhere if we had some reform-minded fellow uttering 'Unleash Johnson'

Steve Sailer said...

"Unleash Chang" was George H.W. Bush's joke he used while playing on the White House tennis court when he tried to summon up an unreturnable serve. Bush conflated the 1950s GOP slogan "unleash Chiang" with the name of the 1989 French Open winner, 5'7" Michael Chang, a persistent baseliner without much of a power game. It's a pretty funny joke, poking fun simultaneously at the 6'3" President's own declining power game, at old Republican faith in Chiang Kai-shek's military prowess, and at the unlikely tennis star Michael Chang.