It is a truth universally acknowledged in the realm of international relations that any gap left unchecked in a security vacuum will be filled by competing forces. This is exactly what is happening, and has already happened in northern Syria. With Donald Trump announcing the complete and total withdrawal of all United States forces from Syria, others, mainly Russian-backed Syrian forces will be poised to gain the most from the unfolding chaos. The United States backed Kurdish forces now left to fend off for themselves against the vastly superior Turkish military, have little choice but to align themselves with Syrian leader Bashar-Al-Assad’s forces in hopes of retaining any sovereignty. This abandonment of American leadership fits a growing trend long underway under President Trump’s leadership, that has seen America give up its position as the leader and a bulwark for stable international order.
On a wall in Israel’s Haifa Museum of Art hangs a life-sized sculpture depicting Ronald McDonald crucified on a cross. While this kind of art is not shockingly unusual in Western society (consider the urine-soaked Piss Christ or the gigantic sex toy Tree), Christians in Israel have not responded well. In fact, the installation is so controversial that violent protests have erupted between hundreds of Arab Christians and police, accompanied by calls from both Christian leaders and Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports to remove the sculpture. However, even amidst all of the negative press, the provocative McJesus bears testament to the dangerous entanglement between religion and art.
The artwork, created by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, was originally meant to be a criticism of society’s obsession with consumerism. NPR clarifies that the exhibition that displays McJesus:
employ[s] religious symbols to criticize the encroachment of the consumer culture on our lives in general, and on the religious sphere in particular. . . The artists also criticize the way religions use consumer values and practices in order to prosper in the contemporary reality.
For all intents and purposes, McJesus takes a stab at capitalism and materialism. Specifically, McDonalds represents a larger-than-life corporation that has permeated popular culture. McDonalds has become synonymous with Americanization and has expanded to over 100 countries. In this context, it can be said that McDonalds has conquered most of the world the same way Christianity has. But Leinonen’s work merely uses a crucified Ronald McDonald as a medium; he could have easily used Mickey Mouse or Captain America instead. The debate of McJesus extends deeper than just the union of art and religion—the work forces a discussion of deeply held values and the influence of consumerism in our lives.
McJesus was installed in Haifa in August 2018, with the Washington Post claiming that more than 30,000 have viewed the artwork since then. Museum director Nissim Tal has said that the installation has been displayed in other countries without any incidents. So why are the protests unique to Israel?
Christians in Israel make up just 2% of the country’s population. The fact that the artwork has been displayed for five months before protests broke out suggest that complaints have gone unanswered and official responses have been slow from predominantly Jewish politicians. And while some believe that Israel is not a Christians-friendly country, it is worthwhile to consider the cultural context of Israel’s dilemma with provocative art. As stated above, Christians are the clear minority in a Jewish country, which itself exists in a primarily Muslim region. As an adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land explains: “We are Christians, and we are also part of a traditional Arab society where freedom of expression is relative. . . Every society needs to develop at its own pace. It is quite possible that in another 50 years, no one would care.”
So the backlash that McJesus faces is not without reason; it would be ludicrous to depict the Jewish or Muslim faiths in a similar satirical fashion. Yet because Leinonen himself is from Finland, it is more likely that he genuinely wanted to draw a comparison between the cult-like obsession of capitalism and religion, rather than offend Christians worldwide. With that said, the creation of the piece was possible through the Western principle of freedom of expression. Perhaps other Western societies are not as offended by Leinonen’s work because of the seeming self-evidence of this principle.
There are a few lessons to take away from the McJesus debacle. First of all, Leinonen’s artwork is not an object of reverence to the Christian faith—it is a satire of life itself. Both symbols depicted in Leinonen’s work cater to the masses: people indulge in cheap fast food the same way they indulge in pious soul-saving practices. Are people more faithful to consumer trends than their own religion? Secondly, it raises an important question on censorship and artistic expression. Are artists capable of creating provocative work that critiques our society? More importantly, are we—as consumers of both art and fast food—capable of accepting those works for what they are? These are necessary questions to consider when contemplating the clown on the cross.
Washington, D.C.’s preeminent role in American diplomacy often obscures the importance of another power nexus of the Sino-American relationship: Silicon Valley. Yet the technology ecosystems in China and Silicon Valley are strongly connected and interdependent, with funding, ideas and top talent continuously circulating between the two.In his talk titled “Silicon Valley’s China Paradox” at the UCSD School of Global Policy and Strategy, former Huffington Post reporter and Paulson Institute fellow Matt Sheehan outlined the key linkages between the two dominant tech hubs. He also emphasized the relationship’s great paradox: While money and employees navigate the oceanic divide with relative ease, the major tech companies fail in their attempts to cross over between markets. Working in China as a reporter for HuffPost before returning to his native Bay Area, Sheehan’s experience in the two tech hubs lends him an insider’s perspective on the complicated dynamics at play. He shared some of his analysis and personal experiences with the GPS audience.
A popular view taken by scholars of US-China “great power relations” is that American geopolitical dominance is shrinking as China’s rapid development brings the two states closer to parity. Sheehan’s talk demonstrated how the Silicon Valley-Beijing tech relationship closely mirrors Washington-Beijing political ties in this regard. In the 1990’s when the internet was being popularized in the US, China was still an economic and technological backwater. Yet it didn’t remain one for long. While America’s PPP GDP was 5 times greater than China’s GDP in 1991, today China’s PPP GDP has overtaken America’s.
Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs played a large role in the origins of the Chinese tech scene. China’s first internet connection was established in 1994 through a partnership between the Institute of High Energy Physics at China’s Academy of Sciences and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. Endowed with better education and superior technology, opportunistic expats arrived in China during the dot-com boom to monetize their expertise. As America’s tech obsession caught on in China, the rise of homegrown Chinese tech companies ushered in a more competitive era in the US-China tech relationship. Unable to compete with American technology from Yahoo and Google, new early-2000’s players like Alibaba and Baidu nevertheless dominated market share by copying technology and better adapting services to target Chinese consumers. While Chinese tech today has outgrown its infancy to reach near-parity with Silicon Valley in terms of talent, money and creativity, the narrative of copycat China has endured.
Sheehan identified artificial intelligence and emerging internet markets as the arenas of US-China tech competition moving forward. While Silicon Valley retains the most innovative and top-class researchers, it must contend with China’s sizeable government subsidies of tech research and the sheer volume of Chinese researchers. Simultaneously, investments and employees cross between markets seeking the greatest returns. But companies like Facebook and Google remain conspicuously blocked or absent in China while China’s Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) have failed in their attempts to attract the American consumer.
I believe the importance of the Silicon Valley-China tech relationship is greatly underestimated in the International Affairs community. This belief is informed by my childhood in the Bay Area and a few months last year spent working in Washington, D.C. Growing up, I experienced a Silicon Valley bubble where Oval Office decisions were overshadowed by the happenings in offices of tech CEOs. Washington lent little weight to the business affairs of Silicon Valley in return. While countless analysts build their careers on the back of US-China diplomatic relations, few study China’s tech connection with Silicon Valley outside of the business world or niches within the national security community. An full understanding of Sino-American relations is incomplete without an increased focus on the Silicon Valley-China tech relationship.