Charting a course for liberalism in the information age

Nov 29, 2018

The New Gatsbys: A review of The Souls of Yellow Folk

Who can win in the new American economic order?

The New Gatsbys

Much has been written in the past two years about the losers of the American economy. Bestsellers have documented in detail the lives of the men and women left behind by free trade, globalization, and deindustrialization. A series of books, ranging from the saccharine to the condemnatory, promise to definitively explain the losing experience to those who get their reading recommendations from the Times best-seller list.

Author and essayist Wesley Yang is the rare bird who chronicles the opposite: the pathologies, inadequacies, and burdens of those who can be said to have, in one way or another, won at the new American economic order. Based on the title alone, readers of Yang’s new book The Souls of Yellow Folk might expect it to be predominantly about the Asian American experience. While that topic is indeed given treatment, what binds the four sets of essays together is an interest in the kinds of people who have “won” – at education, at sex, at tech – and appear nonetheless to still be cast out, or downtrodden, or miserable.

Of course, society has always had “winners” and “losers,” whether measured in annual salary or the accrual of status. But in the 21st century, a coalescence of factors has substantially altered the social mechanisms which determine how winners and losers are chosen. Education has been reframed as essentially egalitarian – the site of “equality of opportunity” – and so universities have gained an unprecedented power to determine status. The rise of the tech sector has created the richest men in human history, upending traditional hierarchies based on outmoded skills. And the sexual revolution, with its deconstruction of many norms that constrained conduct, has changed our means for success in the coupling marketplace, and with it how we engage in that most basic of human behaviors.

Each of these changes has given us heuristics for measuring success and avenues along which to pursue it. Of necessity then, liberalism – and to be sure, it is liberalism that has ushered in all of these changes – produces its own elite, the men and women who know how to operate within the nominally meritocratic educational system, or leverage an understanding of tech, or learn to play The Game against the opposite sex. Yang’s broader body of writing, of which The Souls of Yellow Folks is just a sampling, adroitly documents these changes. Out of it emerges a picture of those who can navigate the new system, but who nonetheless suffer from a profound sense of alienation. It reveals a contradiction, embodied in those who both follow the well worm path to meritocratic achievement and simultaneously find themselves excluded from its rewards.

Yang is American and of Korean descent, and Asian-American culture is often the focus of his work (a fact which has led to some profoundly uninspired criticism of TSOYF). By many measures, Asians do well under  contemporary liberalism: taken as a collective, they have the highest household median income; the lowest poverty rate; the highest rate of college graduation.1

In 2011, Yale Law professor Amy Chua published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book which attributed Asians’ success in large part to the parenting style of their mothers: harsh, unyielding emphasis on repetition until a child finally grasps a concept and can execute it perfectly. “Paper Tigers,” which ran as a response to an excerpt of Chua’s book and is the second essay in The Souls of Yellow Folk, is Yang’s clearest elucidation of how this regimen produces a generation of kids well-equipped for academic success, but fails to prevent a sense of deep alienation.

“Asian-American success is typically taken to ratify the American dream,” he writes, “and to prove that minorities can make it in this country without handouts.” But this model-minority status papers over the ways in which Asian-Americans are still essentially excluded from society.

Take, for example, a young man to whom Yang introduces us, Jefferson Mao. Mao is a graduate of New York City’s highly competitive Stuyvesant high school and the prestigious University of Chicago. Access to these institutions is strongly determined by test-taking ability, and Mao, like many of his Asian peers, spent hours and hours studying for standardized exams in “cram schools” in Flushing and Bayside. “You learn quite simply to nail any standardized test you take,” Mao tells Yang.

But when he got to Stuyvesant, Mao began to realize that it was not like the high school movie that ended with the nerds ruling the world. Rather, there was a whole set of implicit norms and rules which governed success. And Mao, because he was Asian, had never had the chance to learn and internalize these strictures.

“You realize there are things you really don’t understand about courtship or just acting in a certain way. Things that somehow come naturally to people who go to school in the suburbs and have parents who are culturally assimilated,” Mao told Yang.

In one sense, the moral of this story is that while explicit meritocracy legitimates the system, implicit social norms still produce white hegemony. And Yang makes no bones about the role that racism (e.g. the “bamboo ceiling”) plays in this arrangement. But “Paper Tigers” has a broader focus than this: the experience of doing everything to be on the inside, but somehow still being on the outside.

The Souls of Yellow Folk shows us a gap: the gap between where young men like Mao expect to be, and where they actually end up, between doing everything that is expected to acquire social status and actually reaping the promised awards. The nominal paradox of Asian-Americanness – socioeconomic success despite minority status – becomes re-expressed as this distance, where one does all the work perfectly, but still finds oneself excluded from America.

In the first quarter of the book, Yang introduces us to the Asian men struggling to cross this gap. In “Paper Tigers,” they are the guys who take J.T. Tran’s “ABCs of Attraction” workshop, where attendees pay to learn “the lessons in masculinity taught in the gyms and locker rooms of America’s high schools.” But we also meet fashion designer and restauranteur extraordinaire Eddie Huang, who seems deeply uncomfortable with the way in which he has been offered success are all-too-often contingent on his conformity to popular expectations of Asianness.

And then there is Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter whom Yang profiles with a tender empathy for what it feels like to be “the loser whom everyone is shutting out… one of the disadvantaged of the fully liberated sexual marketplace.” Cho’s sense of alienation – before his suicidal rampage, he imagined himself a martyr whose death will ignite class consciousness and revolution among losers everywhere – seems to be shared by many of Yang’s subjects, Asian and White alike.

A similar sense, for example, suffuses Yang’s profiles of men like hacktivist Aaron Swartz and autodidact “terrorist search engine” Evan Kohlmann. These men made or make their livings off of 21st century tech skills. Why, Yang seems to ask us, do they appear embittered and disconnected in the same way as Cho?

For many of the aforementioned men (lord forbid anyone should write about men), sexual frustration is a common theme. From Cho to the high-status men who take Tran’s course, there is a feeling that sex is something everyone should have access to but which they can’t seem to grasp. The Souls of Yellow Folk is at its best in its essays on modern elite sexual culture. Here the nexus of status and technology is most apparent, as Yang argues in “Inside the Box” that the rise of mass media directly facilitates the rise of a more consumerist model of sex (“Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture”).

“On Reading the Sex Diaries,” Yang’s synthesis of the New Yorker’s reader-submitted diaries of their sexual encounters, is a searching, unflinching analysis of the results of this transformation. “Has the search for erotic gratification ever been so efficient?” Yang asks. But with this efficiency comes new, deeper anxieties: the fear that you are too attached, that the other is too attached, that you might make the wrong, or too few, or too many choices. The diaries that Yang reads are written by high-status New Yorker readers in the most powerful city in the world. Yet among these elites, there is also a profound sense of something missing – of a gap between their status and actual fulfillment.

And if you are a “winner” of the economy, and yet you cannot get laid, how to go about rectifying this unfortunate situation? “Game Theory,” the last essay in the sex section, documents the escapades of the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) community – men who believe they can apply the latest in social science to get a woman into bed, guaranteed. PUA is the cram school of sex, the meritocratic educational scheme applied to the sexual domain. And, like a peculiar permutation on Goodhart’s law, its most devoted practitioners find themselves more beholden to the Game than to forming actual human relationships. They have been taught that to win is to “quite simply nail” whatever challenge is in front of you – either a person or a test.

This same line of analysis can be applied to the book’s last section, concerned with the new campus radicalism, and which cannot help but be read as an exploration of the downsides of the peculiar glamor now afforded to the Ivy League and its ilk. Yang is sympathetic to some of the social justice warriors’ goals – opposition to racism should be uncontroversial. But he seems to worry that campus radicals’ illiberal methods will simply reinforce the broader structures which induce their anger. There is a certain Great Gatsby quality to the whole analysis — not in that Yang’s subjects are layabouts or liars, but in that their unhappiness seems so intimately tied up in their status and the paths they pursue it along.

This Gatsby-esque alienation has a complicated relationship to other historical forms of alienation. W.E.B. DuBois begins the first essay of The Souls of Black Folk (a book to which Yang has, admittedly, disclaimed analogy) with the subtextual question that suffuses others’ view of him: “How does it feel to be a problem?” DuBoise is talking about the experience of blackness, but this phrasing invites a general question: what does it mean to be a “problem?”

Within a given system, problems have a special character: not as less important components of the system, but as things which exists inside it yet altogether do not belong to it. Within hegemonic white society, blackness is problematized not merely by being rendered second-class, but by being excluded from the system as such, by being the thing which does not belong and therefore has no place, no rights to be present.

The status of blackness as problem is not incidental to white supremacy, but a necessary component of it – an identity which is excluded from society to define a boundary, to set up an outside against which the inside can be constructed. DuBois presents blackness as a kind of “included exclusion” – that which is incorporated into the system by its existence as a thing severed therefrom.

Such “included exclusion” is a well-explored theme in the diverse world of post-modern, post-colonial thought. What the Souls of Yellow Folk shows us is that the rise of modern meritocratic liberal society has facilitated the emergence of its opposite: the excluded inclusion, the person or institution at the “core” which is nonetheless somehow simultaneously on the outside.

Modern society legitimates itself through certain ideals: equality of opportunity, inclusion, sexual liberation. These goals define paths to success, to being a “winner.” The Souls of Yellow Folk does not deny the laudability of those goals per se, but asks us to consider why those who have met them are still on the outside. It is a portrait of the new alienation, the gap between “having it all” and actually having a happy life. In that, it well recommends itself as a vital analysis of modern liberal society, and what it means to live in it.

1.These statistics are more complicated if one disaggregates them by national origin or citizenship status.