0. Terms of Engagement
yunnuhstan dem doidee
yguduh ged riduh
ydoan o nudn
LISN bud LISN
lidl yelluh bas
tuds weer goin
So wrote E. E. Cummings in 1944. The poem, entitled “ygUDuh”, appeared in Cummings’ collection 1 x 1 and it is taken to be a written imitation of a New Yorker giving his opinion on America’s involvement in the Second World War. The line “Lidl yelluh bas/tuds weer goin/duhSIVILEYEZUM” gives the game away. We are dealing with a drunken slur: Little Yellow Bastards. We’re Going To Civilise ‘em. These kinds of racist sentiments percolate effortlessly through the body politic at times of stress and torment. We are unhappy. We are in pain. It isn’t our fault. It is theirs.
As a Victorian, Arthur Conan Doyle was no stranger to this kind of thinking. In last week’s column we looked at the first episode in the BBC’s new Holmes-inspired mini-series Sherlock. The episode “A Study in Pink” is based upon the novel A Study in Scarlet, in which a series of murders are found to be the work of the Latter Day Saint movement or, more informally, the Mormons. In a move that continues to provoke controversy, Doyle presented the Mormons as a sinister international conspiracy not averse to kidnapping and murdering anyone who stood in their way. What made depicting an eccentric but relatively harmless religious sect in such terms acceptable was the sense that the Mormons were Other. Different. Disturbing. Threatening. Very much like the Chinese… apparently.
Having disentangled itself from Doyle’s beliefs about Mormons in the first episode, Sherlock promptly impales itself upon an even more offensive set of stereotypes for its second episode “The Blind Banker”. This episode pits Holmes and Watson against a series of murders carried out by a sinister international conspiracy of Chinese criminals. We know that they are Chinese because the episode is cloaked in the kind of faux-exotic imagery that you might find in down-market Chinese take-aways. In fact, the episode keeps showing us images of down-market Chinese take-aways:
However, lazy visual composition aside, it would be hyperbolic to accuse the series of being racist (particularly when the murders actually were conducted by a gang of Chinese criminals). Indeed, the problem is not that Sherlock presents the Chinese as morally decadent or somehow inherently untrustworthy, but rather that it presents them as almost inhumanly competent: When a murder takes place in a locked apartment, Holmes immediately concludes that they are dealing not with suicide but with a near super-human assassin. When a bunch of squiggles start turning up on walls around London, Holmes immediately concludes that the squiggles are a sophisticated code.
In Todd Solondz’s beautifully twisted film Life During Wartime (2009), one of the characters explains that he is not seeing anyone because he is ‘more focussed on China’. Later in the film he councils someone to forgive a trespass against them on the grounds that “Forgive and forget, it’s like freedom and democracy, in the end China will take over and none of this will matter”.
This idea that the Chinese people/government are not only supremely competent but ultimately destined to take over the world is not your traditional form of racism. Indeed, most racist thought seeks to dehumanise racial others by assigning negative characteristics to them. This process of dehumanisation fosters in-group racial solidarity by not only emphasising the differences between Our Group and Their Group but also playing down the real differences within Their Group thereby making it easier to talk about large and arbitrary chunks of humanity as discrete entities. However, characters such as Solondz’s are not seeking to dehumanise the Chinese by painting them as moral, physical or intellectual degenerates. If anything, they are dehumanising the West by exaggerating the power and sophistication of the Chinese. In a brilliant piece written for the London Review of Books, the Marxist historian Perry Anderson diagnoses such thinking as a form of ‘Sinomania’, a cultural tendency that emerged in the wake of Marco Polo’s return from China. Most of the information that Polo brought back from China turned out to be propaganda and hearsay that exaggerated to the point of lunacy the levels of wealth and cultural sophistication attained by China’s Middle Kingdom but it was not until the 19th Century that China’s aura of preternatural competence began to fade. Anderson argues that the West’s current lack of familiarity with modern China has contributed to the emergence similar feelings of awe. Feelings of awe that manifest themselves as a bizarre belief in the inevitability of Chinese hegemony and the superhuman competence of Chinese people. The kind of bizarre beliefs that might make a Westerner leap to the conclusion that a gang of Chinese smugglers deploy a superhuman assassin to murder people.
What if Holmes was just as prone to this kind of sloppy thinking as the authors of the books reviewed by Anderson? What if Holmes had been hoodwinked into Sinomania? What if Holmes was wrong?
1. The Facts of the Case
Holmes and Watson are called in to solve a mystery by one of Holmes’ old acquaintances. This acquaintance works in the offices of a large corporate bank. The offices of this bank are electronically surveilled and monitored and yet — somehow — someone managed to break in and vandalise a portrait of the bank’s founder.
Holmes and Watson are tasked with finding out a) How the vandal got in and b) why they decided to deface that particular painting. Within minutes, Holmes has worked out that the timing as well as the positioning of the vandalism suggest that the graffiti was designed to send a message to a particular person. A person who, the pair later discover, is dead. An apparent suicide. Not only is he dead, but a journalist is also dead. Both died in mysterious circumstances. Both had matching oriental tattoos on their feet. Immediately, Holmes reaches the right assessment: The marks on the painting are a code, the code is used by a gang of Chinese smugglers and the Chinese smugglers employ the services of an acrobatic assassin who can climb up buildings and let themselves in the window thereby circumventing all security.
2. How Things Might Have Been
Sinomania is a part of the body politic. It is a topos in the landscape of our cultural nousphere. People know this.
What do we know about bankers? We know that individuals such as Nick Leeson and Jérôme Kerviel had enough autonomy within their banks to run up such colossal debts that they alone could cause entire banks to fail. We also know that collectively the banking industry were capable of pouring good money after bad until the entire infrastructure of capitalism was teetering on the brink of collapse. We also know that they are, in the presumed vernacular of the City of London (and this episode of Sherlock) “clever chaps”.
Imagine that you operate the Hong Kong desk for a major merchant bank. This is a position of some authority. Some prestige. People listen to you. Maybe one day you will get a knighthood. You lose millions one day and make it back the next. You are a thoroughly clever chap. But then one day, you don’t make the money back. In fact, you keep losing money. Day after day, the money flows out and it never shows any sign of flowing back in. You are a clever chap and so you manage to hide it from your bosses. If anyone asks any questions you mutter something about accountancy techniques and moving money from one account to another. But the longer it goes on, the bigger the losses become.
You’re not getting away from this.
You also realise that a journalist is on your trail. He knows about your dodgy dealings and your decision to smuggle something into the country in order to pay off some of your bad debts.
The walls are closing in.
You decide to kill yourself. It’s either that or prison. But you can’t face the truth getting out. You are a thoroughly clever chap. You want them to put that on your gravestone. So you kill the journalist. Then you kill yourself. But first you use your access to the computer system to scrawl some chinese symbols on the walls. You even leave your window open. Your death looks like a suicide because it is one. But it also looks like murder if anyone takes too close a look.
You are not some failed banker. You are the victim of a criminal conspiracy. A conspiracy involving some of the thugs you got in trouble with.
They’re Chinese… there’s no telling what they can get away with if they try hard enough.
When you die, the headlines speak of assassins and cartels. Not of billions in losses.
You are a thoroughly clever chap. It takes one to know one after all.
Jonathan McCalmont is a critic whose work has been published at Strange Horizons, The SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Vector and The Escapist. He maintains a film and literary blog entitled Ruthless Culture and he writes a monthly gaming column at Futurismic entitled Blasphemous Geometries.