Why I WILL Vote for Hillary Clinton

Found an article this morning excoriating Senator Elizabeth Warren for her endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons License: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/5471912349/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Caricature of Donald Trump by DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons License: https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/5471912349/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Although I’m a strong Bernie supporter, I disagree with the article’s sanctimonious tone. Sometimes, you do have to suck it up and vote the lesser evil. I personally think this is one of those times. After California, Bernie has to accept that he made a really good run, but it’s over. He got farther than pretty much anyone thought he would, and I’m glad.

I’ve voted third-party before, and might do so again. But not this time. Yes, even though we’re faced with two secretive people, each with a history of serious ethics breaches, I will vote for the Democrat this time.

Clinton will be reasonably good on domestic policy (and will recognize that the Left brought her to power) if elected. As a consistent war hawk who can’t see any fault in Israel’s ultra-right-wing government, she’ll be horrible on foreign policy, which ought to be her strong suit–and especially bad on the Middle East. I predict another war during her term. She’ll be middling-poor on energy policy. These are issues that mean a great deal to me.

But she will appoint decent people, including to the Supreme Court. She’ll be socially liberal on a number of issues, and will likely do some good for poor people as long as it doesn’t bother her bankster friends. Ordinary people’s lives are likely to get better under her administration, as they did under Obama.

And most of all, voting for Hillary is the best thing we can do to prevent President Trump.

Trump and his very scary supporters smell like fascism to me. A Trump presidency will very quickly displace GWB (who I used to refer to as His Imperial Delusional Majesty) as the worst president in history. Trump will be far worse on energy, on poverty, on international relations (where he really doesn’t have a clue), on immigration, on minority rights, women’s rights,  and almost every other issue you could name. He might be slightly less willing to go to war than Hillary, but when he does, it will be much uglier. And his response to international incidents will be belligerent enough that other people will start wars with us and he won’t have a choice.

And his thugs will roam the streets, enforcing their brand of nativism, attacking people who don’t look or think like them.

Hitler took power in an election. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

If the US had proportional representation, instant runoff voting, or any of the other reforms we’ve been working for over the decades, we’d have a choice. But in a faceoff between a no-ethics/me-first bullying fascist and an ethically challenged secrecy-loving corporate neolib, to not recognize the very real difference is slitting our own throats.

I want Trump’s margin of defeat to be so crushing that his movement goes away for 20 or 30 years. For that, I’m willing to hold my nose and vote for Hillary. This time.

Posted in Activism, Democracy, Ethics in Government, Peace and War, Politics, poverty, Social and Economic Justice Tagged with: , , ,

Enough Massacres Already!

Orlando was merely the latest chapter in a bloody saga of a country that allows pretty much anyone to get not just a gun but a military assault weapon capable of killing large numbers of people in moments.

One of the great failures of the Obama administration is the failure to push through any meaningful gun legislation in the wake of Newtown and all the other horrible massacres. What is wrong with our country that we can watch first graders mowed down by a madman with an assault rifle–a weapon whose only purpose is to destroy the maximum number of human lives in the shortest possible time–and we still have not reinstated the assault weapon ban. We still have not closed the loopholes around background checks, so any idiot with a history of mental health problems can get his or her fingers around the trigger.

Protest against violence (photo by Jason Cross)

Protest against violence (photo by Jason Cross)

According to CBS news, most mass shootings involve assault weapons. The ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. Within three years, the Washington Post reports, the number of mass shootings skyrocketed. The average number of mass shootings per year nearly tripled, from 6.4 to 16.4.

These are not hunting rifles. These are not self-protection handguns. They exist only to inflict misery. In this country, you need to prove you’re qualified to cut hair or to drive a car. Why is it so easy to get a death machine like an assault rifle? And more fundamentally, why do we expect parents to automatically know how to parent? I wonder how much violence could be avoided if we provided free training in parenting skills to pregnant and newly parenting couples.

Let’s stop the madness! Let’s get sensible gun legislation into place.

Posted in Activism, Democracy, Ethics: General, General Commentary, People Helping People, Politics, Protests and Crackdowns Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Are Your Brand Ambassadors Helping or Hurting?

In one day, I had two interactions with people reaching out on behalf of their employer that made me scratch my head.

I got telemarketed by a woman who claimed to have sent me some stuff I never received. She didn’t understand the simplest questions like “was it by postal or email?” (answer, repeated 3x: “Mail”) “What domain was it coming from?”

To top it off, the follow-up email, or what I believe was the follow-up email, came from a different domain and was signed by a different person, but it mentioned a conversation with their office.

And then there was the person who private-messaged me on Facebook about her social media marketing services. When I clicked the link, I was appalled at the sloppy grammar–NOT a way to get me to do business. When I told her that careful writing matters to me and that I wouldn’t be doing business, she started asking whether I would scout for her as an affiliate.

Who vets these people? If you have people representing your company, they should leave a GOOD impression with prospects. Yet over and over, I see businesses being harmed by the clueless, aggressive, unhelpful people they hire.

Gotta wonder.

Posted in Branding, Business-general, Customer Service as Marketing, General Commentary, Marketing Trends/News, Shel's Personal Life Tagged with: , ,

Candy-Coated Popcorn, Peanuts—and WHAT?!?

I’d hazard a guess that most US natives between the ages of 40-80 can still sing the jingle: “Candy-coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize. That’s what you get with Cracker Jack.” It was a big part of our childhoods, back in the days when three TV networks controlled the entire universe of video and national advertisers bought saturation advertising programs that aired the same commercial many times a day. Cracker Jack was immortalized in the song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in 1908, started bundling the prize way back in 1912, and began its national TV advertising in 1955.

The Cracker Jack box as it appeared during my 1960s childhood (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Cracker Jack box as it appeared during my 1960s childhood (courtesy of Wikipedia)

It didn’t matter that the prize was something worth about 2 cents, something not even worthy of being called a tchochke. It was the thrill of the hunt, searching through all that icky sticky stuff to locate the prize—and the thrill of mystery, never knowing what, umm, “treasure” you’d find. Sometimes it would be something really cool, like a spy decoder ring. But like any other grab-bag item, sometimes it was truly worthless. I knew kids who bought CrackerJack just to get that prize.

At that time, the company was owned by Borden, whose Elsie the Cow was another advertising icon of the period. It’s now owned by Pepsico’s Frito-Lay division

Well, here’s some shocking news: Despite its wildly successful run of more than 100 years, the Cracker Jack toy is now an endangered species. As Bob Dylan sang during the Cracker Jack saturation TV period, “The times, they are a changing.” Cracker Jack is replacing the “tchochkette” (if I can coin a word that merges Yiddish and French) with a slip of paper bearing a QR code!

I’m sorry, but that is just not the same. From a branding point of view, I think it’s a huge error. Cracker Jack’s whole brand is built around nostalgia, Americana, baseball, and that unforgettable jingle. Sure, digital natives will redeem their QR codes and not think twice about it. But they won’t know what they’re missing. And those who can’t afford or choose not to use smartphones are left out entirely. Plus, their kids will never hear their parents scream at a bad driver, “Did you get your license in a Cracker Jack box?” A piece of American culture is disappearing.

In Cracker Jack’s earliest days, during a baseball corruption scandal known as the Chicago Black Sox scandal, a fan reportedly went up to the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson and begged, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!” Maybe now, we need to say, “Get back on the track, Jack!”


Posted in Advertising, Branding, Demographics/Psychographics, Diversity, General Commentary, Marketing Trends/News, Shel's Personal Life Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Finding Magic in Strange Places

I’m speaking at a conference in beautiful Brattleboro, Vermont—but staying in a motel in the ugliest part of town, sandwiched between a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s. Still, when I got back to my room last night, I was low on exercise for the day so I decided to take a walk. Fortunately, the motel is very close to the Seabees Bridge across the Connecticut River, so I decided to walk to New Hampshire, about ten minutes of strolling in each direction.

It was a very good decision. The Seabees Bridge turns out to be a double span: a new, wide bridge carrying cars, and an older one just south of it, narrower, unlit, and blocked off from vehicles. The newer one closely resembles but doesn’t exactly duplicate the original bridge.

The pedestrian bridge has a number of amenities such as benches and picnic tables. And in the dark, both the double span itself and the river and shorelines below were powerfully evocative. I tried to photographic it, but my phone wasn’t up to the task. CAUTION: I found out the hard way that those amenities are hard to see on an unlit bridge at night, just as I stepped back off the bridge onto the Vermont side. OUCH!

It reminded me of other moments finding magic in strange places. In chronological order:

  1. A moment bicycling through the Bronx as a child of maybe 13, where I suddenly experienced a sense of freedom and joy.
  2. Another Bronx childhood moment, exploring an abandoned railroad track in Van Cortland Park and feeling like I was way out of the country in the time of Tom Sawyer.
  3. A Quaker meeting in the parking lot of a nuclear power plant construction site, in 1977 before 1414 of us took over the site in a protest against this horribly unsafe technology, and were arrested—almost 40 years later, still the most powerful spiritual moment in my memory.
  4. Staying at a cheap hotel at Disney World so I could attend a conference at an expensive Disney hotel about a mile away, and feeling the magic of the numerous small natural habitat spots left undeveloped here and there among the acres of manicured and probably pesticided lawns—perhaps especially powerful because of contrast with their sterilized surroundings.
  5. Just last month, another evocative dark bridge over a river—in Beijing, one of the largest cities in the world.

In that Disney trip, I used my powers of observation to notice far more than the habitat. Go back up to #4 and click the link, if you want to see what else I learned, and what business lessons I applied.

If you look at the world with observant eyes, hear with aware ears, touch with sensitized fingers, it’s amazing what you can discover. I remember one more incident that wasn’t magical, but tingled my senses. My wife and I (both writers) were walking through the woods many years ago, discussing ideas. I said that ideas were easy to find, and challenged myself to name (out loud) ten ideas in the next 100 feet of our walk. I stopped around 20. That incident led to a new folder in my crowded file drawer with ideas for books I may write someday: “How to Find Your Next 10,000 Ideas.”

If magic can be found in a parking lot, where else can you find it?

Dar Williams, author of "The Christians and the Pagans"

Dar Williams, author of “The Christians and the Pagans”

I love this line from Dar Williams’ song, “The Christians and the Pagans”: “You find magic in your God but we find magic everywhere.”



Posted in Innovation, Psychology, Shel's Personal Life, travel Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Hey, Hillary–Listen to the REAL Message

Bernie Sanders said two things worth noting the other day, at the same event. When asked at a Town Hall meeting how to convince Bernie supporters to vote for Hillary if she’s the nominee, he responded, “it is “incumbent on her” to win over his supporters. Specifically, he pointed out that he doesn’t exercise control over his supporters and nor should he, and that many have a deep suspicion of a candidate with such close ties to Wall Street. He even gave her a road map: endorse his Medicare-for-ALL healthcare plan.

At the same event, he announced that he would do “everything in my power to keep the Republicans out of the White House.”

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders

Hillary responded only to the first, pointing out that she did not put any conditions on her endorsement of Obama in 2008. And analysts agree that she worked very hard for Obama after the convention. However, she didn’t seem to hear the second.

She still does not get that Bernie is not a politician in charge of a machine in the old style of politics. He finds himself at the forefront of a people’s movement that he does not control. Bernie can endorse and I’m sure will endorse Hillary if she is a nominee, but that doesn’t mean he is able to overcome his supporters’ massive and justified skepticism of her belief systems and her actions. Once again, he has spoken the truth; she does have to win them over.

And Hillary needs these people. Independents and left-leaning Democrats will be major factors in November. If they stay home, we get whichever monster emerges from the Republican convention. If they show up, we get a Democrat.

I have serious issues with Hillary Clinton, and particularly her foreign policy. I worry that she’s too much of a war-hawk and way too comfortable with the worst excesses of Israel’s ultra-right government. I don’t love her cluelessness about people’s movements and her coziness with Wall Street. And while she’s obviously extremely smart, she’s done some really dumb things over and over again. I don’t expect any significant progressive shift under a Hillary Clinton administration.

In the past, including in 2000, I’ve voted 3rd party. Of course, I have the luxury of living in a state where my vote doesn’t count anyway. Knowing that Massachusetts was safely Democratic made it easy to vote my conscience and cast my vote for Nader.

Yet, if she’s the nominee, I will hold my nose and vote for her. The prospect of either a Trump or Cruz presidency is so distasteful that I want the margins of victory to be enormous; this year, I want to be counted in that victory margin, and not pushed off to the side with a Green Party vote that nobody pays any attention to. Under Clinton, I would expect some attention to economic policies that help poor people—as a sop to Sanders supporters, if nothing else—and some good stuff on women’s issues. I would expect excellent Supreme Court nominees.

And, unfortunately, I would expect once again to be out in the streets with thousands of others, doing my best to keep us from being sucked into whatever war HRC would get us into.

Posted in Activism, Democracy, Peace and War, Politics, Protests and Crackdowns, Psychology, Shel's Personal Life, Social and Economic Justice Tagged with: , , , , ,

China and Dissent

All my life, I’ve heard about the authoritarian Chinese government micromanaging every aspect of everyone’s lives, the government’s total control over career options, and of course, the “reeducation” of intellectuals and destruction of cultural resources during the Cultural Revolution.  Getting a visa was a major and expensive hassle that had to be set up weeks ahead, and there was no way to get a business visa without an invitation from someone.

The other obvious difference was the way China blocks many key Internet sites, including all Google sites, Facebook, and Twitter. LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Bing do work, however.

And yet, during our brief visit, the society felt very open. While there are plenty of cops and security guards (including community volunteers who have almost identical uniforms to the police but with the addition of bright red armbands), most whom we saw were not obviously armed and seemed for the most part to be a force for peace, not repression. We’d often see cops joking around with passers-by or chatting amicably with each other. And mobility was almost totally unrestricted, other than at paid attractions. As visitors, we felt no police presence singling us out, had no “minders,” and we were unrestricted even when we went to meet a young couple that a friend of ours had met through Couchsurfing.

Even when our entire group of 26 struck up a conversation with a red-robed Tibetan monk (in the government’s eyes, a potential dissident) who happened to walk through Tiananmen Square with a stylish female companion, there was no feeling of being watched. Since I briefly had a Tibetan housemate and know how to say hello in Tibetan, I even greeted him in his own language. His face lit up—but he got frustrated and disappointed when he tried to answer back and realized that was the only Tibetan I knew. (China claims Tibet and has often considered organized Tibetan Buddhism a hostile force; the Tibetans see themselves as an occupied nation, and govern the religious aspects from exile in India.) He spoke fluent Chinese, so our tour director interpreted for us. He posed for selfies with all those in our group who wanted one and was with us for about ten minutes. Plenty of cops were on the plaza, and none took the least interest in this interchange.

I’ve seen photos of China in the 60s and 70s with Chairman Mao’s picture everywhere, providing a Big Brother is Watching motif. We saw exactly two pictures of Mao, other than on the 1 yuan bill: a giant portrait on Tiananmen Gate into Forbidden City,

A guard stands near the Gate of Heavenly Peace and its giant picture of Mao. Photo by D. Dina Friedman.

A guard stands near the Gate of Heavenly Peace and its giant picture of Mao. Photo by D. Dina Friedman.

and a modest poster in a random store window. We did not knowingly see a single picture of current Chairman Xi. Our tour director told us that the Cultural Revolution is definitely considered a mistake, and that the current government rates Mao “70 percent good and 30 percent bad.” He confirmed my suspicion that the prosecution of the “Gang of Four” (Mao’s widow and three comrades) a few years after Mao’s death was as much about repudiating Mao as anything else.

I noted only these very minor incidents:

  1. An officer on Tiananmen spun rapidly in an about-face when a tourist tried to take his picture; the cop Dina managed to catch in the picture shown here suspected he’d been photographed and glared at her, but made no attempt to engage.
  2. An annoying beggar outside the Shanghai Museum was told firmly to go elsewhere and leave our group alone.
  3. I was told to put my camera away after taking a photo of an ad inside a subway station—but I was not asked to delete the photo.

Street crime seemed to be nonexistent. The only threats I felt to my safety had to do with driving patterns, and particularly the very challenging lane-by-lane crawl across a completely uncontrolled eight-lane rotary to get between our hotel in Xian and the subway entrance one block away. Wasn’t too thrilled about silent electric mopeds sneaking up on both sides of what I’d thought was a one-way bike lane either.

Quite frankly, St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002 (long after  the collapse of the Soviet Union) as well as New York and Washington post-9/11 have felt far more invasive. It is, however, the first country I’ve ever visited that routinely x-rays all bags belonging to subway passengers before allowing them to board.

Our tour director, who had been at the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989, even told us that when someone steps out of line on social media, all that happens is eventually the dissident’s account is closed. However, in the aftermath of 1989, friends of his were jailed.

Still, every resident of China we discussed it (a limited number) with felt oppressed by the government. One family we met with is actually arranging to relocate to Canada. So obviously, there’s more repression than meets the eye.

Shel Horowitz’s latest book, Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, shows how to turn hunger and poverty into sufficiency, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance—using the power of the profit motive.

Posted in censorship, Democracy, Diversity, Ethics in Government, language, Politics, privacy, propaganda, Protests and Crackdowns, Psychology, Transparency vs. Secrecy, travel Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

Media Double Standard—And They Wonder Why We Don’t Trust Them

Here’s the opening paragraph from the Associated Press report on yesterday’s Wisconsin primaries:

(AP) — Republican Ted Cruz stormed to a commanding victory in Wisconsin Tuesday, denting front-runner Donald Trump’s chances of capturing the GOP nomination before the party’s convention. Democrat Bernie Sanders triumphed over Hillary Clinton but still faces a mathematically difficult path to the White House.

This is entirely too consistent with a long-running pattern in the mainstream media: anything that gets in the way of a Donald Trump nomination is heralded, even though the mainstream Republican Party loathes Ted Cruz—and I and many other progressives find his brand of religious extremism as much of a threat as Trump’s racism and misogyny. I’m sure they would rally much more happily around Kasich, if he could only get non-Ohioans to vote for him.

A voter marks a ballot. Photo by Kristen Price.

A voter marks a ballot. Photo by Kristen Price.

Yet the mainstream media continue to trivialize Sanders’ victories—in 7 of the last 8 contests—and talk about how difficult it will be for him to overcome Clinton’s delegate lead.

A more honest reportage would note that Trump and Cruz have swung wildly back and forth, neither emerging as a clear victor, and both wildly unpopular with mainstream voters.

It would also note these key differences in the Democratic race:

  • Sanders has been remarkably consistent on issues for his entire adult life, going back to his days marching for civil rights with Martin Luther King; Clinton has changed positions frequently (moving left under pressure from Sanders in her rejection of the TPP trade partnership, embrace of same-sex marriage, and energy issues—even outflanking him from the left on guns
  • Much of Clinton’s delegate strength is in “superdelegates” pledged to her, but not bound to her; this same group switched to Obama in ’08 and will switch again if Sanders enters the convention with a commanding lead among elected delegates, because they don’t want to give away the presidency to the scary and fractious Republicans
  • The mainstream media continually says that Clinton does better with black voters and urban areas. Yet, some of the most highly urbanized and ethnically diverse states have gone for Sanders, especially Michigan, where a “close race” turned out to be huge for Sanders—and my own diverse, urbanized state of Massachusetts was a virtual tie (as were Iowa and several others)
  • Clinton has consistently benefited from early voting, gaining tallied votes while Sanders gets his campaign warmed up, while same-day voters in several states have overwhelmingly supported Sanders; Daily Kos calls this “Hillary’s Surge Protector.”
  • Clinton’s greatest strength has been in the conservative South—but those states aren’t likely to go blue in November; in likely Democratic states, Sanders has an enormous edge

So hey, AP, hey, New York Times [“Mr. Sanders’s win is so surprising that it’s hard to know what to make of it. Are we learning, for the first time, of a big latent advantage in the Rust Belt? Was it a fluke?”], hey, Washington Post [“Bernie Sanders may be drawing thousands of people to his rallies and raising millions of dollars online, but increasingly he’s also having to make the case that his campaign isn’t a lost cause.”], and hey, CNN [“Trump remains the Republican presidential front-runner, but he didn’t clean up on Saturday…Sanders still a thorn in Clinton’s side”]

—how about if you use the same standards to judge Sanders’ rapid ascent against Clinton as you to for the anyone-but-Trump pushback that has given legs to the Cruz campaign?

Posted in Democracy, Politics, propaganda Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Branding and the US Presidential Race

The 21016 US presidential race shows that branding repels as well as attracts.

Three of the five remaining candidates have very strong brands. Trump has the strongest, clearest brand: “it’s all about me; the issues don’t matter.” I found him repugnant 11 years ago when he keynoted a conference where I was speaking, and find him even more so today. What part of his brand that is not based in Donaldism is rooted in misogyny and racism. His cult of personality is far too reminiscent of dictators in other countries, other centuries. His cluelessness on the issues, tolerance of violence at his rallies and in his campaign leadership, and his blatant disregard for truth create a strong brand indeed—but it’s strong like the odor of raw sewage, a push-away. This is not who I want governing the country!

Next strongest is Sanders, who is all about integrity, consistency, and giving a leg up to those who’ve been squeezed out by the 1%. And who got my vote in the primary. While just as much an outsider, Sanders is the opposite of Trump. I think ultimately Sanders’ “we” will trump Trump’s “me.” Win or lose, he is out there to build a movement, and is universally respected for it.

Interestingly, both of these two have built brands on their outsider-ness. Not a good year for the mainstream candidates, even those who are the son/brother—or wife—of former presidents.

The third brand-builder is Clinton. She is very much a mainstream candidate and has built her brand around “isn’t it time for a smart, powerful woman to be in power?” Like Trump, she’s a “me” candidate, but with more appeal to constituencies that vote. Unfortunately for her, it’s been wrapped up in a package of entitlement, incompetence, lack of transparency, and settling for crumbs.

That Sanders has even been a contender, let alone actually won so many contests and nearly tied several others, shows some of the flaws in Clinton’s strategy. Without resorting to attack ads, he has successfully pointed out that she is a Janey-come-lately on issues ranging from LGBT rights to the TPP trade agreement, where he has been forthright and consistent for decades. He is the first serious contender in decades to raise a viable campaign budget from a broad base of millions of supporters. Meanwhile, she tells the American people to be satisfied with what they have, while he talks about redistributing wealth from the 1%.

There is certainly some part of the Clinton brand that is wildly successful. She is perceived as greater a friend to people of color, while even though Bernie grew up in ultra-diverse New York City and marched with Martin Luther King while she was working for Barry Goldwater, he is perceived as trapped in whiteness. And she has successfully outflanked him from the left on one issue: guns. But the perception is that she doesn’t see the big picture, doesn’t understand the shift in the culture, will be at least as obstructed by the other side as Obama, and expects people to vote for her just because she’s been waiting so long.

Of course, two other candidates still remain on the Republican side: Cruz and Kasich. Neither has really built a brand. What Cruz stands for—a hard-right agenda fueled by religious conservatism (and, seemingly, some personal unlikability)—is not widely known around the country. If he becomes the nominee, the Democrats will build his brand for him, warning of the apocalypse to come (as they’re already doing regarding Trump).

As a relatively personable moderate with a reasonable track record, Kasich would actually be the Republicans’ best hope if he had any marketing traction. Of the three remaining, he’s the only one who could get independents and centrist Democrats aboard. Fortunately for the Democrats, he doesn’t. The GOP clearly wants an extremist this year, and Kasich has won only his own state of Ohio.

Posted in Branding, Democracy, Demographics/Psychographics, Diversity, Marketing Techniques and Philosophies, Politics, propaganda, Psychology Tagged with: , , , ,

China and Westernization/Modernization

Through the 26 dynasties that made up its history until 1911, China developed a unique culture, strongly rooted in a visual aesthetic and a behavior code rooted in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The 20th Century saw several massive shifts. The Qing Dynasty fell and the Republic of China was formed under Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. The Japanese invaded in the 1930s. Led by Mao Tzedung, Communists forced out Sun’s successor, Chaing Kai-Shek. Mao’s 1960s-70s Cultural Revolution deliberately abandoned (and criminalized) both Chinese and Western traditions. After Mao’s death, new leaders starting with Deng Xao Ping began to embrace western-style capitalism, both by encouraging Chinese entrepreneurs and by inviting western companies in.

One of the many pieces of public art in the Beijing subway system. Photo by Shel Horowitz.

One of the many pieces of public art in the Beijing subway system. Photo by Shel Horowitz.

Today, in Shanghai, it’s hard to find the old China. The wide boulevards are lined with stores like H&M, Apple, and Starbucks (we were told the coffee chain has over 180 locations in the city). Billboards advertising glitzy western luxury goods—and using about 15 western models for every image of a Chinese. Recent construction waves favor enormously tall highrise apartment buildings going out for miles from the city center (and we were told that most have only two elevators). If the residential areas are not 60-storey megatowers, they’re either Soviet-style cheap apartment buildings of 20 storeys or so, or six-storey walk-ups—both constructed in massive numbers following the Communist takeover. Bicycles have been largely pushed out by electric mopeds, and cars are crowding those off the road. Highways are layered up to four deep at some complex intersections, with crazy systems of ramps spiraling from level to level.

In Beijing, the situation is similar, but many old hutongs—close-knit neighborhoods in one- and two-storey buildings—still flourish. Of course, the majority have been torn down for new construction, but the remaining ones are easy to spot. Also, many important historic sites and temples remain open in and around Beijing.

But in Shanghai, the extremely toursity neighborhood of Old Shanghai—with 500-year-old buildings hosting a lot of western quick service restaurants—is almost the only respite we saw from new construction except the Bund, whose riverside prerevolutionary hotels and trade edifices are mostly about a century old. The entire Pudong (eastern) side of the city is new, with some 8000 skyscrapers constructed on former farmland since about 1990, and the population doubling from 12 to 25 million.

We saw surprisingly few industrial areas (of course, we weren’t in factory cities like Guangzhou or Wuhu). And we also saw remarkably little evidence of China’s role as a world leader in solar. While most buildings have visible solar hot water systems, we saw almost no photovoltaic. Given China’s major air pollution problems and its heavy reliance on dirty fuel (especially coal), it’s surprising to me that more solar hasn’t been installed where it’s suitable (and there are plenty of them).

One of the West’s more obvious exports to China is status consciousness. Although places to live are expensive and hard to find, motor vehicle registration plates cost up to $15,000 in Shanghai, and imported luxury goods are taxed at 300 percent even if they’re made in China in the first place, all four cities we visited include a significant population that buys expensive clothes and expensive cars. In Shanghai, I saw a Ferrari, three Porsches, numerous Audis and Mercedes, a few Range Rovers, and several other luxury/sports cars I couldn’t identify. Of course, there were plenty of cheaper cars. In the business districts, the streets are full of fashionistas—not to the extent of Milan or Barcelona, but far more than, say, Boston. Chinese women with lots of disposable income shop at Prada and Sephora, while those with fewer resources go to the many bargain stores. Two of our guides made the same joke about getting to work by BMW: Bus/Metro/Walking. One of them also told us that single Chinese women in their thirties (who can be pretty choosy, because men outnumber them significantly) look for men with “five cs:” Condominium, Cash, Career, Car—and Cute (in that order).

We heard that people who go abroad bring back as much as they can and share it with their friends, to save on that 300 percent tax.

In some ways, the country is modernizing and westernizing rapidly. A lot of people drink western-style soft drinks as well as coffee, and the cities are full of large hotels now.—many of them connected with an american or European brand. Public bathrooms in many tourist attractions and better restaurants include at least one western-style toilet.

Yet at the same time, the average wage for people outside the capitalist sector is quite low, and those who were not into fashion were often somewhat shabbily dressed.

And while the subways are fully bilingual, it was shocking how few people even in high-tourist-contact jobs had any English at all. The hucksters knew how to name prices and negotiate them, but even staff at airlines and hotels often had no English. I don’t go around the world expecting English to always be available. I was not shocked that our innkeeper in remote Goreme, Turkey or a store manager in a small town in the mountains of the Czech Republic spoke no English—but I do expect that the cabin crew on a flight from Shanghai to New York will have basic conversational English. This was apparently unrealistic. Over and over again, we encountered people who simply did not have the language to answer even very simple questions. However, even ordinary folks in non-tourist neighborhoods were skilled at communicating despite the language barrier. Talking at us nonstop and gesticulating, they usually got their point across. And those few we encountered who do speak English had excellent fluency; we didn’t encounter any half-baked attempts of people with just enough English to confuse.

Although China recognizes more than 40 ethnic groups, Han Chinese make up 92 percent of the country. Considering that some areas, like Tibet or the Muslim Uigur area bordering Central Asia, are majority non-Han, that means the cities I visited are almost monoethnic. As white westerners, we were constantly gawked at and asked to pose for selfies, especially by Chinese tourists from far-away regions. A young blonde in our group got it far more often than the rest of us.

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