Vancouver Sun/The Search: Chinese evangelicals for Trump

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Photo: Nick Procaylo/Vancouver Sun

Well, friends, it’s hit the fan. The Vancouver Sun‘s religion and diversity columnist Douglas Todd has published a piece of mine titled ‘Law and order, stability and prosperity: Chinese evangelical Trumplicans in Metro Vancouver’ – or as they shortened it, ‘Chinese Christians for Trump’ – on his blog, The Search. The photo is one that they’ve had on file for about three years; it was taken by photographer Nick Procaylo at Richmond Public Market when Todd wrote a story about my doctoral work on Cantonese-speaking Protestants engaging Vancouver as a civil society. The post is about a certain ideology associated with voting for the United States’s Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that is circulating among – of all places – Chinese evangelicals in Vancouver.

The comments are still rolling in, and as I suspected, this little 700-word discussion piece is not only causing a discussion, but I’m probably going to get into a little bit of trouble for it too – not legally, financially, or materially, but ideologically. I used to be afraid of such trouble, but then I started reading Slavoj Žižek, and now I know that whatever trouble I get into, I will never be in as much trouble as him.

In fact, the takeaway quote from my piece is from Žižek’s recent book Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (p. 19, if you must know). Žižek has gotten into so much trouble for using the late long-time Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew’s catch-phrase ‘capitalism with Asian values’ to describe a more efficient, if not totalitarian capitalism that is uncoupled from a democratic civic polity, and qualify it as he might to say that it has nothing to do with ‘Asian people,’ he’s caught quite a bit of flak for it.

Some wish that I had qualified which Chinese evangelicals I was talking about when I attributed the support of Chinese evangelical Trumplicans to ‘capitalism with Asian values.’ The trouble, of course, is that I did:

  • ‘I don’t have the quantitative survey instruments to determine exactly how many Trumplicans there are among Chinese evangelicals in Metro Vancouver, but I’m pretty sure that most of them (an estimated 16% of the 400,000 or so Chinese Canadians counted in Metro Vancouver) can’t vote in the United States.’
  • ‘But what I don’t have in terms of statistics, I do have in social media posts.’
  • ‘I am told by both this woman and a financial planner in Richmond – and others still, for that matter…’
  • ‘Of course, such comments indicate that these Chinese evangelicals come from a particular class of people with wealth to protect (raising questions, of course, about whether there’s room in the religion for Chinese people who don’t have wealth to protect). But for this particular class of ethnic Chinese migrants, stability was why they moved to Canada in the first place. (They wanted to get) away from, say, the possible political upheavals of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, or the strangely personal dialectical politics of the market socialist mainland.’

In other words, the contingent of Chinese evangelicals propagating this pro-Trump material is by and large a wealthy class of persons that fled from Hong Kong or China in order to protect the stability of their capital from specific geopolitical processes. What I am saying is that these networks of ideological propagation are specifically Chinese evangelical because they tend to be run by such persons in association with an evangelical Protestant ideology (but often dissociated from the church, because they’d never want the church to get involved in politics).

Because I researched Cantonese-speaking Protestant engagements with Vancouver’s civil society, I have been part of the public that these ideological informational networks address for quite some time. An interesting turn over the course of my research has been a slow transfer of this material from email lists to social media platforms, especially Facebook. It is surprising how much of this material is sourced from conservative United States sites; I wrote about Trump, but I could have gone much deeper into their opposition to Black Lives Matter and their sharing of material meant to defame Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

When Douglas Todd and I spoke with each other about this phenomenon, it became clear that this was a fascinating turn for a network of people that had historically participated in Vancouver‘s civil society and were generally concerned about Canadian politics. Indeed, I have written and spoken quite a bit before about how I think that all of this participation on the Right is an investment on the part of Cantonese evangelicals into becoming Canadian. But what was striking to Todd and me was that the concern from this population was really about Trump in an election in which they could not participate in any meaningful material way.

Todd suggested that I write a short piece exploring this ideological phenomenon. What you see on his blog is what he got.

I’d like to thank Douglas Todd for this opportunity. I also want to thank my friends in Metro Vancouver for helping me keep my ear to the ground. Last but not least, I want to thank the various Chinese evangelical Trumplicans who have voiced their ideological takes on Facebook; it is because of them that this piece was written.

2016 Conference on Critical Geography: Situated Solidarities

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I’m taking the Greyhound home right now after attending a very interesting Conference on Critical Geography at the University of Kentucky in Lexington just this last weekend on October 14-16. I submitted an abstract at the last possible moment when I saw that my friend and interlocutor in geographies of religion Anna Secor had shared it from her home department. This made the preferred transportation method from Chicago to Lexington the Greyhound, which unfortunately meant that I missed Paul Routledge’s (Leeds) brilliant keynote, as well as this morning’s pancake breakfast (a tradition of these Critical Geography conferences). However, I have appreciated the University of Kentucky’s generous hospitality, especially the wine and generous helpings of Mediterranean food to which I arrived late on Friday night.

Secor chaired our morning session yesterday on Activist Imaginaries. The abstract that I submitted focused on a key problematic of my second project on contemporary occupy movements and ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ and because it is so provisional, I won’t post it at this time. Indeed, Anna circulated an email shortly before the conference to encourage us to bring to the table a problem with which we have been struggling in our current research. The talk didn’t have to be a polished academic talk; it was a five-minute introduction to our work. I jumped at the opportunity to talk about how the global Left seems to have labeled two of the social and political movements that took place in 2014 in which I am interested – the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine (which started in 2013) and the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong – as reactionary and regressive in their politics. The question that I asked was: can social movements labeled as ‘reactionary’ and ‘regressive’ still be part of the ideological constellation of the Left?

The conversation that we had throughout the day suggested to me indirectly that this was a bit of an elephant in the room. In fact, we did not get around to discussing my question explicitly in the panel. I learned instead that – to the express dismay of some of the more senior scholars at the conference – what is really meant by critical geography at this moment is the attempt to theorize affect – the way that material and bodily masses react to an external stimulus – as political. Affect, as I have been learning from my friends and colleagues in feminist geography, has to be defined this way because it is not the same as emotion, which is the way that the consciousness of your feelings leads to action in space.

Of course, what all this talk about affect means, as one person put it, is that it’s a bit like Marxism without Marx, materialism without material.

But in the discussion about the possibility of affective politics, I heard quite clearly a debate about the Right. Scholars on the Left (especially those associated with Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies) have long shown that the Right has been very good about using affect to make people react politically. If it was the moral panic of the 1970s (as Stuart Hall had it in Policing the Crisis), it’s (as Secor put it in her five minutes) now as much pictures of refugees as the Trump phenomenon. The question, as Paul Routledge raised in his keynote, is whether these affective phenomena can be mobilized; though I missed the talk, what was reiterated throughout the day was Routledge’s prescription to mobilize anger. In one telling quote from a critical geography conference that happened in Palestine, Palestinian scholars and activists were remembered saying to fellow attendees who cried for their plight, We don’t want your tears! We want your anger!

What this affect means, of course, is that the boundaries between Right and Left in terms of political modes are being erased, which I noticed made some people at the conference decidedly nervous about the implications of politicizing affect. One would, of course, hate to be a conservative in critical geography!

But of course, all that’s to say that I came away with tools to continue to probe my question, and for that, I am thankful, although since I’m known as one of the ‘religion guys’ in geography, I’d hate to become known as a ‘conservative guy’ too.

I also decided to take advantage of my time in Lexington to do some other fun things. I discovered, for example, that my friend, the Rev David Moe, had recently moved to Lexington to be the youth pastor at the local Korean Presbyterian Church while studying at Asbury Theological Seminary just up the road. David and his wife Prissila took me out for Korean food, and over coffee afterward, we spent about three hours discussing Asian American liberation theology. I also found out that the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Kentucky houses a fairly diverse parish community called Holy Spirit Parish, and their assistant priest is a very gentle and thoughtful Sri Lankan priest, flanked by a delightful deacon who can really preach and whose participation in the liturgy helped me to see that the Latin Church still does indeed have a use for deacons going between the people and the altar. Finally, I found a place for Kentucky barbecue and bourbon, where I got to zone out after a long day of processing all these thoughts.

I am grateful to Anna Secor for bringing me onto this panel, where more interlocutors in critical geography have been brought into my life. I also want to extend a special thanks to Laçin Tutalar, a PhD candidate in human geography who is doing very exciting work on the soundscapes of Istanbul, for doing so much of the logistical work to make my stay at the University of Kentucky very pleasant – from organizing lodging to making coffee for those of us staying in the residences yesterday morning.