Tuesday, January 12, 2021
Editors' Note: The following is Part One of Prof. Ho's reflections on recent events.
by Associate Professor Jeremiah Ho
Because I had spent my early childhood years outside the U.S. in a country that was, at the time, ruled by martial law, I experienced quite a few instances of cognitive dissonance when I started elementary school in Southern California in the early 1980s and learned about the American ways of life. In one instance on my very first day in my American elementary school, I specifically recall being told to stand up with all the other children in the classroom, to face the American flag hanging in the classroom corner, and then to place my right hand on my chest. My classmates seemed to know exactly what to do, and not wanting to stand out, I mimicked them. What I couldn’t get away with was pretending to recite the Pledge of Allegiance that came next. English was not yet a familiar language. I mouthed it, watching and listening to what came forth from the other children’s lips.
It wasn’t hard to discern that this was some sort of ritualistic act of patriotism. After all, only a month before, I was leading morning salutes to the Taiwanese flag at the beginning of the school day in Taipei. The dissonance came from feeling like I was giving something up—indeed acknowledging a brand, new allegiance. Those early years were filled with those kinds of moments of translation and equivalence. By the following month, the morning pledge of allegiance with my new American classmates became second nature. About a year later, I could tell you mostly what the pledge meant—in English, no less.
Another example of cognitive dissonance was when one of my grade-school teachers taught us that American citizens were free citizens living in a free country. At first, that seemed strange and almost weirdly liberating because the country I had left was filled with so many governmental restrictions and rules that even as young children we knew we wouldn’t call ourselves “free.” It didn’t feel oppressive—I had a pretty happy childhood in the Taiwan of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But you knew there were many rules and even more “swift-justice” consequences for breaking them. The portraits of authoritarian leaders hung in many public spaces. You intuited your place.
When hearing that America was a free country and that its people were free, I thought it was too good to be true. But then there were things about America so far that had seemed to bolster this unbridled level of freedom—school seemed a lot less rigorous, the teachers weren’t allowed to spank you if you misbehaved or missed problems on a test, and children dressed up in costume on a holiday called Halloween where you asked for candy and got it. Perhaps this was a free country! Perhaps this was the reason why the name “America” when translated into Chinese meant “Beautiful Country”! But just as I was in a rising moment of grade-school-level political exhilaration, I heard my teacher also say, “We’re a free country and the people are free citizens under the law, of course.”
I don’t know how my other classmates thought or felt at the moment. But that was a let-down.
What Donald Trump did in the last decade building up to this past week was to help his supporters forget that phrase “under the law.” Time and time again, he’s emphasized “freedom” divorced from the rule of law and has himself demonstrated his disrespect for the law—and by extension our democratic norms. His allegiance is to himself and his brand. What’s so artful is that he did it in a way that stuck with his supporters at a pitch that parallels fevered religiosity. But his version of “freedom” was a lie, repeated through disinformation and conspiracy theories enough times that the lie became the bedrock of the white supremacy that brought on the lawlessness we saw at the Capitol last week.