What is a perfect product? A product that meets existing unmet demand. And if that perfect product is matched with a superb marketer, you have a terrific success story. That is our story of two books and two authors.
Today Asia looks like a wreck. India was the first BRIC to fall from its pedestal. But India was never the torchbearer for the Asia movement. China was the true great story, a ginormous success that delivered several hundred million people from poverty of undeveloped hinterlands to gleaming new cities with superb infrastructure. But that was yesterday’s China.
Today, China is a regime in crisis, a crisis that reminds many of Japan in 1988-1990 with its financial system clogged with bad loans and its housing sector suffering under the slow bursting of a credit bubble. This month, China also looks like the Germany of early 20th century with its bellicose actions against Japan in the East China Sea. But that is today and we see it.
The First Product
The world didn’t know this or even think about it as a possibility back in 2008-2009. America was in the midst of its financial crisis. The vaunted American financial system was seemingly in tatters. American capitalism was the subject of worldwide ridicule. In contrast, Asia was doing very well. China & India were growing and growing fast. The Asian countries showed strong growth. It seemed as if Asia was the story of the future and America was passe.
America’s fall was a tale foretold for years by America’s self-proclaimed intellectuals, the crowd that gathers around the New Yorker, the New York Times crowd that thinks it knows best. This crowd needed proof, they needed evidence from an unimpeachable source. That was their unmet demand.
That demand was met by an excellent marketer, a man with perfect credentials, a proclaimed thinker who brought his vision to the yearning intellectuals in America. That man was Kishore Mahbubani and his product was his book, The New Asian Hemisphere – The Irresistible Shift of Global Power To the East. The title sounds absurd today with every South East Asian country and Japan desperately seeking America’s return to Asia.
But 2008 was different and the book was the perfect product for that time. And Mr. Mahbubani was the perfect salesman. He is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He was previously Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
The sales tour was something to behold. Mahbubani was feted across America and an adoring Charlie Rose listened to his words if they were gospel. We heard Mahbubani at a New York event sponsored by a group of Indian-origin journalists. While he was thronged by young and middle aged journalists during the reception before his talk, we actually went through 279 page book.
To our surprise, it was an exceedingly superficial book. It was full of unsupported assertions, it provided raw numbers without any discussion about the validity of the numbers. It simply exuded the basic message that it is Asia’s time. We found the book so trite that we expressed that opinion during the Q&A session. We also asked a couple of pointed questions about Tibet which Mahbubani brushed away by comparing Tibet with America’s “annexation” of Southwestern US states. The 2008 Tibet revolt began a couple of months after his dismissal of Tibetan concerns.
We urge readers to get this book from their local library and read it. Only then you will see how stupid it sounds today, just 4 years after its publication. Mahbubani’s notion of a community of Asian nations led by a peacefully rising China lies shattered by China’s bellicose actions against Japan this month. Mahbubani called Iranians “the most sophisticated people he has ever met” and called America, “the main obstacle holding back” Iran from its road to modernity.
Mahbubani’s book offered his idea of a “new global order” in which “all 6.5 billion inhabitants of our planet should become equal stakeholders” in a new “one person, one vote” global democracy. He believes “the world has changed irrevocably” from the old notion of “a nation-state“. How dumb does this sound today? Europe, the largest and most-important experiment in combining nation-states into a community, has demonstrated the fallacy of Mahbubani’s vision. Rather than combining into the community Mahbubani extolled, Asian nations are fighting among themselves while seeking American help against an expansive Han-nationalist China.
The above comments may seem harsh but, believe us, we are trying hard to be charitable. Mahbubani’s book is far more superficial, far more trite than what we describe. In fact, it may be the worst serious book we have ever read. But that is besides our main point.
We still hail it as a superb venture, a product created for the times, a product that satisfied the unmet need of an influential, rich audience and marketed by a fully accredited marketer with perfect credentials. Kudos to Kishore Mahbubani, the man who proved to be brilliant at American capitalism while describing its obsolescence in the face of a China that “should eventually take over the mantle of global leadership from America“.
The Second Product
We were reminded of the glorious Mahbubani tour by an equally successful, testimony filled product tour last week. The marketer in this case is Pankaj Mishra, an angry man from India who now lives in London, the city of dreams for India’s intellectuals. His product is his new book, From the Ruins of Empire, The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.
Unlike Kishore Mahbubani, Pankaj Mishra has no track record except an articulated rage against his perception of America. That rage makes him the perfect marketer of his product. Unlike Mahbubani,
Mishra’s case is not based on logic or facts. It is based on emotion. It
is based on an underlying jealousy, an irrational anger that tells him
America should not be so dominant while Asia and Africa falter
despite their vaunted intellectualism.
That emotion, that
inner rage when couched in intellectual-sounding rhetoric is welcomed
and cherished by the New Yorker & New York Times crowd, the crowd
that wants to hear “what Asia’s thinkers make of western colonialism”,
to borrow the words of one Julia Lowell of British Guardian.
Like Mahbubani, Mishra asserts the inevitable retrenchment of America and the emergence of a newly assertive Asia and Africa. Like Mahbubani, Mishra believes that the 2008 financial crisis in America laid bare the weakness of America. In his recent New York Times op-ed, Mishra blamed Republicans and Liberal internationalists for their “exaggerated idea of America’s financial clout after the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s.”
This alone shows Mishra’s ignorance and his refusal to look at today’s reality. Literally every other region in today’s world is suffering a much worse, much more malevolent version of what America suffered in 2008. The rest of the world, almost all of Europe, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, faces an interlocked sovereign debt & banking crisis. America’s crisis was much simpler and far easier to solve. That is why American banks are the strongest in the world today. There is no evidence that Mishra knows this or even cares. Because facts or reality are simply immaterial to his emotional sense of it should not be so.
Unlike Mahbubani’s book, this book by Pankaj Mishra is not trite. Because it is simply a tale, from Mishra’s perspective, of what three men from Asia thought and wrote. These three men are Persia’s Jamal al-Din, al-Afghani, China’s Liang Qichao and India’s Rabindranath Tagore. Mishra calls these men “the Intellectuals who remade Asia“.
Having read this book, we understand why so many self-proclaimed European-educated intellectuals liked it. Mishra writes well and he brings the rage of these men and their intellectual journey to the reader. We would have fallen into the same trap that these intellectuals fell into. When you don’t know the people Mishra describes, when you don’t know their relative place in their societies, you tend to believe what Mishra writes.
We do know about the real Indian intellectuals who had an enormous impact on the Indian mind during British rule. We do know about Rabindranath Tagore, both his achievements and his relative place among the thinkers who remade India. So we can see how Mishra manufactured his case about Tagore to fit his own inner rage. This makes us doubt what he wrote of al-Afghani and Liang Qichao.
Our detailed review of Mishra’s book is the subject of our next article. What we think of his book doesn’t impact the central thesis of this article. That Pankaj Mishra, like Kishore Mahbubani, has achieved the American Capitalist dream of discovering an unmet need, building a product to meet that need and then selling it in America via superb marketing. Kudos to both of them.
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