I was belatedly reading “Digging a Hole all the Way to America“, an esquire article on Shenzhen, when I suddenly realized how many of the articles about Shenzhen are written by men, who don’t seem to know anything about China in general and Shenzhen in particular. Instead, the articles consist of reproducing sarcastic stereotypes about the city, without contextualization and/or documentation. So on his trip to Shenzhen, Colby Buzzell watched migrant workers, mused about his Vans being made in China, talked with foreign men in Shekou, visited Working Girl Street, compared the quality of his made in America bicycle with the made in China thank God was stolen bicycle he bought in Shenzhen, and then returned someone’s hospitality by griping about how much he dislikes karaoke. The only person who accorded respect in his article was a Chinese interlocutor who told him what he expected to hear: most young people don’t know about 6.4 and Shenzhen people only care about making money.
I’m not sure why sarcasm–or snark as the case may be–sells in the conventional media. I do know that in Buzzell’s article, sarcasm functions not only to distance the reader from Shenzhen, but also to establish his authority to write about a city he clearly doesn’t understand. Indeed, sarcasm is a rhetorical devise that excuses the author from learning about the city through more conventional routes. Why should he bother interviewing historians of the city, reading published materials about the city, arranging a visit to the factories, and hiring a qualified interpretor, for example, when the city is so obviously beneath contempt? Nevertheless, Buzzell managed to write nine pages without any sign of investigative journalism. A simple been there done that sufficed to represent China’s 4th city. It was as if the Shekou expats’ sexist racism inspired the form and content of Buzzell’s article, which in turn does little more than justify learned and continued ignorance about contemporary China.
The repetition of sarcastic tone, superficial facts, sexist comments, and the wow factor in reports about Shenzhen has me wondering what about this rhetorical mode appeals to American authors and audiences. Who do we think we are when we mock what we don’t understand? Mockery is clearly a rhetorical devise for establishing dominance and asserting one’s superiority. Indeed, it is one of the most effective forms of verbal abuse, serving to dismiss other people’s perspectives and experience by asserting one’s own perspective and experience as the absolute standard.
Sarcasm allows Americans to maintain a sense of superiority in a world that is clearly changing in ways and directions not necessarily to the benefit of the United States. Perhaps this is the point: the world is changing and we don’t understand what it means for us. What kind of world leader would China be? Indeed, a sense of fear permeates Buzzell’s and like-minded articles. It as if America cannot remain American because more and more classical Americana is made in China, generally, but Shenzhen specifically. In this reading, any Chinese success harms the United States and any sign of Chinese failure helps us; suddenly, the best defense of America becomes an uninformed offensive against Shenzhen.