Author Archives: Ryland L

About Ryland L

Transport and geography enthusiast. Politico. Current affairs junkie. Poet. Foodie. These eclectic interests define my blogs. I look forward to receiving feedback and engaging in thoughtful and, at times, provocative discussion.

Why the Left needs to Talk about China

A lot of the rhetoric from segments of the Left around China lately has bothered me.

I’m not just talking about the tankies.

A couple weeks back, Peter Beinart, the liberal journalist known for his courageous support of Palestinian human rights, blamed American fears of China’s ascendancy for a recent spate of anti-asian hate crimes. Beinart’s post linked to one by the Quincy Institute’s Jessica J Lee, who asserted—with little evidence–that the Biden administration’s “toxic” discourse on China caused last year’s increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.   

Others, like Princeton human rights scholar Richard Falk, have argued that China’s success in lifting its lower-classes out of poverty (a weak claim given the persistence of grave inequality) compensates for its gross infringements on the rights of individuals and nations.

While China rhetoric on the right often veers into racist territory, and while demonization of “China” as a nation (as practiced by Donald Trump) can easily breed xenophobia, China’s trend towards revanchism and repression—at a moment when it has achieved Great Power status—deserves an accounting.


Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai scuffles with police during a march against new security laws in Hong Kong, China May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China’s recent “national security law”, which allows Beijing to prosecute Hong Kong citizens accused of “subversion”, “seccession” or “collusion with a foreign power” (all loosely defined so as to accommodate the authoritarian sense fo arbitrary) on the mainland, not only severely erodes Hong Kong’s formal democracy but violates the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration (which, as a condition of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong, stipulated that Hong Kong’s representative government would be retained until 2047).

Just this month, the Chinese air force has engaged in repeated incursions of Taiwan’s air space, potentially foreshadowing an aerial assault. Should China follow through on its threats of invasion, it would set a chilling precedent to jingoistic governments from Azerbaijan to Israel that might makes right.

(And yes, international law never extends farther than the world’s nation-states permit. However, China’s unilateral invasion of Taiwan, if successful, would provide further precedent for states seeking to settle disputes via land grabs.)

Finally, China’s ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority from the Xinjiang autonomous region, which includes extensive forced sterilization and the largest mass detention since the Holocaust, makes a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides yet another blueprint for chauvinist states in an era of democratic backsliding.

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Again, none of what China’s doing is particularly novel. The United States has also committed thinly-justified, unilateral invasions. The Soviet Union maintained a nightmarish gulag system whilst occupying a seat on the UN Security Council.  

And yet, though politics may be legitimated in the past, it is actualized in the present.

The world that China wants is one in which ultra-nationalism, police brutality, Islamophobia and racism are normalized, and respect for “sovereignity” trumps adherence to international norms on social and political rights.

Such a world is fundamentally at odds with the Left’s political values.


While China does not pose a threat to most liberal or social democracies (being militarily weaker and far away), it is able to instutionalize its world view through a strong presence in international bodies (like the UN and World Health Organization) and a lucrative consumer base.

Understandably, many on the Left who don’t sympathize with China may still fear that a vocal response would provoke war. I too oppose military escalation with China (which will cost countless innocent lives, increase sinophobia and, more likely than not, entrench repression across the pacific).

China’s integration with the global economy gives the US and international bodies multiple a strong level of economic leverage, fortunately. Aggressive carbon emission reduction policies desired by the Chinese and foreign governments can be used as a means to deter military adventurism (with war being one of humanity’s most carbon-intensive activities).

The American Left can counter China’s illiberalism while staving off the threat of a Great-Power conflict by promoting non-militaristic measures to restrain China.

But first, the Left needs to speak out, firmly and clearly.

West Coast HSR. Why Not?

Alon Levy did a cool Twitch stream of a nationwide, shovel-ready HSR buildout yesterday. I highly encourage everyone to check out their map.

Sadly, I missed the actual stream. However, I did catch up to some of the comments this afternoon on his tweet. A few of the comments questioned why Alon did not bridge the Cascadia and California HSR networks, to form a single West-Coast HSR. Alon justified their decision by pointing out the low population between Portland and Sacramento.

While the Portland-to-Sacramento corridor is no Blue Banana it is not empty either. The metropolitan areas of Yuba City, Chico and Redding, California and Medford, Eugene-Springfield and Salem Oregon have populations ranging from just shy of 100,000 (Redding) to over 350,000 (Eugene).

The longest distance between any two cities in this strip is that between Medford, Oregon and Eugene, Oregon (166 miles following Interstate 5’s alignment, which the existing freight line between the two cities parallels). The Roseburg-Sutherlin micropolitan area (Roseburg’s population is around 20,000) potentially allows for a stop in between.

Again, while these are not the Korean- or German-level figures that Alon prefers, they are actually greater than the urban populations along Sweden’s Stockholm-to-Malmo high-speed light line. Google Maps shows that the five-times-a-day X2 trains call in eight cities along the 400-mile journey. The most populous city, Linköping, has around 160,000 inhabitants. The other cities on the corridor all have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. Mjölby (pop: c. 13,000 ), Nässjo (pop: 16, 678) and Alvesta (pop: 8,017) are practically villages!    

Like Sweden, the US is a low-density country, with long-distances connecting highly-integrated metropolises. Furthermore, federal and state governing systems that overweight representation for rural areas mean that any sustained investment in high-speed rail will have to have some distributional equity. Amtrak has never run at a profit: nor should high-speed rail (even though cost control should be pursued to allow for maximal construction). Finally, the existing affordable metros along the corridor could provide an alluring magnet for people (and even firms) trying to escape the high-cost-of-living in the major urban areas of California and Cascadia. This would reinforce ridership.

With these considerations, it seems a corridor with a string of mid- to small-sized metros running between the two target megalopolises, and that effectively “completes” a rail route along the West Coast’s main transportation axis, should make the cut.

Note: I have not studied this extensively, so I’m open to pushback and engagement.

Stop Excusing Anti-Asian Racism!

About two years ago, when I was still on Blogger, I penned a piece on how my compatriots on the Left/Liberal side of the spectrum in the US was largely indifferent to the prevalence of anti-Asian racism in US society.

Since then, the COVID pandemic has both upended and confirmed those priors. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see president Biden and other prominent Democratic elected officials forcefully condemn the post-COVID spike in Anti-Asian hate crimes. 

At the same time, much of the discourse on the Left about anti-Asian racism can be awfully blase. 

Responding to a recent spate of vicious attacks on elderly Asians in Oakland, Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife denied the existence of anti-Asian bigotry among the Oakland’s African-American community. The attacks were not the result of racism but of “survival-of-the-fittest capitalist culture” (a justification that mirrors the anti-woke left’s defense of Trumpism). 

Speaking of one of the assailants, Yahya Muslim, Fife “immediately assumed” that Muslim’s mental illness was the culprit, rather than latent racial animus. Fife’s definition of capitalist exploitation includes “generations of stolen labor from Black communities,” through slavery and Jim Crow, but excludes the indentured servitude experienced by Asian-American laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad and the “Bamboo Ceiling” that limits Asian-Americans’ professional advancement. 

Meanwhile, in the journalism world, Mehdi Hassan dismisses Asian-American Teen Vogue staff’s concerns about an editorial hire’s revolting past comments about Asian anatomy, by arguing that the hire had previously apologized (echoing Glenn Greenwald’s defense of wife-beater Aaron Coleman). 

Even worse are those who latently indulge in anti-Asian xenophobia, as many left-leaning housing activists do when complaining about foreign-owned vacant units.

Yes, African-Americans/the Left/etc. are not solely or chiefly responsible for anti-Asian racism. But having lived for generations in a society defined by Orientalism, it would be surprising if our political allies had not internalized some of it themselves.

Anti-Asian racism is as prevalent in the west as anti-black racism and deserves to be condemned just as strongly (and unequivocally) as the latter.

What Biden Needs to Do

Two words: crush COVID

Its killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, costing millions of jobs and separating families everywhere.

Biden knows this. “Our work begins with getting COVID under control,” he said in last night’s victory speech.

Candidate Biden’s 7-point program however, does not deviate much from the current approach being conducted many of the states. It proposes a national mask mandate, guidelines on when to open and close (and how to safely operate) businesses and institutions, and rapid testing expansion. As Commander-In-Chief, Biden additionally pledges to increase PPE manufacturing via the Defense Production Act and to efficiently distribute working vaccines (when the time comes).

While a dramatic improvement over President Trump’s do-nothing approach, the bulk of the plan rests on a combination of behavioral encouragement and at-will testing that has so far failed to stem the virus in most of the competent (i.e. non-denialist) states.

Not only Biden’s legacy but his prospects for re-election (and thus, the survival of American democracy) hinge on suppressing COVID. To do so, he will have to go above and beyond the existing containment approach.

Biden will need to take bold measures to ensure the survival of the Republic. Source: WIkimedia

While social distancing and masking help limit the virus’ spread, they provide no surefire guarantee that infected individuals won’t spread the illness. While mass masking can limit transmission of the disease in public, studies suggest that a substantial amount of spread occurs between members of the same household.

Suppose everyone in the country avoids all non-essential business and dons a mask in public. The million-plus confirmed cases don’t just vanish into thin air. Rather they are largely confined to the abodes they share with their partner or family. Even the most careful patient risks infecting their partner or housemate through prolonged cohabitation in a poorly-ventilated indoor space.

Image by manuel ramirez from Pixabay

Every country that has successfully suppressed COVID has used “central’ quarantines, mandating that positive cases isolate in designated “quarantine” facilities.

As it is, the CDC has 20 quarantine stations for travelers returning from abroad and many hotels lay vacant. While a federally-run quarantine system would be cumbersome to implement, both politically and logistically, it has sound constitutional merit. Biden and his team can release guidelines laying out standard procedures and best practices for states to follow and clarifying the constitutionality of various quarantine practices. They can supplement this with a federal quarantine program for travelers entering the country from overseas.

By publicizing and promoting quarantine policies, Biden and his team can significantly reduce the spread of COVID, to the point where the general public no longer has to socially-distance.

Alternatively, the federal government can enforce quarantines virtually. For instance, Taiwan (which has had the fewest COVID cases of any industrialized country) tracks incoming travelers, during their mandatory 14-day quarantine through cellphone geo-fencing. Such enforcement needs to be done carefully, to avoid infringing on civil liberties. It should be noted that even a seemingly-intrusive cell phone quarantine can increase civil liberty in the aggregate, by shortening or precluding lockdowns that impinge on personal and economic freedom.

Digital technology also plays a role in the second critical element in virus suppression, contact tracing. Each positive COVID-19 test is the tip of an infection iceberg. Unlike influenza, COVID-19 spreads unevenly, with as few as 10 to 20 percent of cases (“superspreaders”) responsible for 80 to 90 percent of infections. The focus of American contact tracing needs to shift from identifying the contacts of each discovered case to deducing which superspreader (or superspreading event) infected the individual, and subsequently testing anyone possibly infected as part of the spread. Such “backwards tracing” ensures that vectors of infection are swiftly tested and quarantined, limiting their potential for public spread. Countries such as South Korea use mobile notifications to warn citizens who may have been in contact with a superspreader. The Center for American Progress has proposed a similar “Surveillance Testing App” (run by a third-party non-profit organization that would guarantee privacy) for the federal level.’

Schematic of a COVID-19 Contact Tracing App. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Biden will have to work to limit spread between regions. One of the frustrating aspects of America’s fight against the virus is the matter in which states get the virus under control only to be re-infected by visitors from neighboring states. For instance, returnees from South Dakota’s Sturgis motorcycle rally re-introduced the virus to neighboring Midwest states.

To address this issue the federal government would either have to lock down the whole country or impose interstate travel restrictions, limiting travel to and from high-infection states or locations. The former would be more logistically challenging to implement than the latter. Restrictions on inter-regional movement have helped contain the virus in several countries.


Quarantining, backwards tracing and travel restrictions will all require significant coordination of federal and state resources. All three strategies are likely to face political pushback. Biden should make clear that these measures are the ONLY way we can shorten lockdowns that have separated families and hurt the economy.

When Biden’s efforts pay off, he might be able to show even the most dogged Trump supporter that his presidency works for everyone.  

The Danger of Normalizing Trump

One interesting development during the Donald Trump presidency has been the rise of an “anti-anti-Trump” camp.

Past administrations have polarized the public binarily, between supporters and opponents. If you’re a democrat, you typically support Obama, and if you’re a Republican you typically oppose him (even if you disagree on specific policies).

Trump, himself a master at polarization, has certainly intensified the partisan schism. However, the Trump years have also bred a vocal tertiary force, a group of center-right and far-left intellectuals who purport to dislike Trump but spend the bulk of their energy dismissing Liberal-Left critiques as “hysteria.”

Perhaps the most vocal of this crew, in the last couple months, has been the Brookings Institute’s Shadi Hamid. In an article he published last week, Hamid argued that Americans had no business calling the Trump administration “fascist” when Xi Jinping commits genocide in XInjiang.

Hamid followed up by tweeting that Americans should not let their disagreement with Trump and his supporters fester into hatred.

The “fascist” analogy is far from perfect for America (where, as Jamelle Bouie notes, the Jim Crow South employed an equally-vicious strain of authoritarianism into the 1960s). And for the sake of one’s mental health, one should do their utmost to morally oppose evil, rather than “hate” it.

And yet, both now and in the future, liberals who treat Trump as a “normal president,” with whom they merely disagree, forego the opportunity to use this presidency as a teaching lesson, to ensure that future generations don’t enable an even more destructive leader.


“Impeach Putin’s Puppet”. Source: Wikiwand

As president, Trump has violated countless democratic norms. He has maintained investments in an international hotel chain while in office, enabling politicians and foreign leaders to easily bribe for favorable treatment. He distributed COVID-19 funding in a way that favored the states that voted for him. He has called the media the “enemy of the people” and incited violence against political opponents.

In referencing to Trump calling for Clinton to be thrown in jail. Source: WIkimedia

Most ominously of all, by flagrantly violating the rule of law on a daily basis, he has accustomed our country’s citizens to presidential rule-breaking. If Trump leaves office with ‘nary a peep from the Left, the public will tolerate even worse misconduct in the future.

Hopefully, the electorate votes out Donald Trump in a landslide today. If and when he finally leaves office, it is imperative that the opposition not simply “forgive and forget.” That we do our best to hold him, members of his administration and the party that supported him accountable. And that we teach future generations about Trump just as we have been taught about Hitler or slavery.

If Trump, god forbid, wins or (even worse) refuses to leave, we must stay out on the streets 24/7, protesting every executive order and court ruling that make a mockery out of democracy.

If we, instead, follow the advice of the Shadi Hamids of the world–capping the election–with a conciliatory gesture, we signal to Republicans that their rule-breaking is acceptable. As with petulant toddlers, we can only expect worse to come from such laxness.

Don’t Let the Experts off the Hook

Last week’s Last Week Tonight episode encapsulates a consensus view among my fellow liberals that Donald Trump botched his COVID-19 response by failing to heed public health advice.

While Trump’s record on COVID is indeed atrocious (not in the least for the President’s sociopathic acquiescence to the virus’ continual murder of his subjects in order to save face), I am not certain that the US would have fared much better with a more competent president. Even European countries like Spain, which has a moderately left-leaning prime minister, are seeing sharp second waves, that have no sign of relenting.

Throughout the west, public health experts showed hauntingly relaxed attitudes through February. As the pandemic spread in March, top public health officials’ disregard for common-sense measures like masking suggest that the virus would have gained ground under any administration. A Vox article from March 3rd read that “experts doubt it (the disease) can be totally contained and stopped (through isolation of the sick),” quoting an epidemiology professor who declaimed that “there (are) already too many undiagnosed cases out there.” (this being back when the US had under 30 confirmed cases).

And we shouldn’t forget the disease modelers who insinuated (at the end of February!) that air travel could be conducted safely.

None of this is to let Trump or the GOP off the hook. Their callous disregard for the virus’ seriousness has deprived our country of national leadership and engendered fatal skepticism of the virus among the sizable pro-Trump constituency.

And yet, public health professionals–whose career mission can be summarized as fighting pandemics–should aim to perform better than an incompetent kleptocrat.

This requires that they acknowledge and reflect on previous failures. That they evaluate which pieces of advice or approaches currently work and abandon the ones that do not.

It necessitates, on the one hand, a degree of humility and, on the other hand, a faith in concepts that work empirically, even if they have not passed a textbook-style research experiment.

The results of this introspection will not only affect how we fight this pandemic but how our policy-makers govern.

On a host of areas, from housing to public transportation to social services, both America’s Republican and Democratic polities govern with abject failure.

Especially for those of us on the left, who cherish social progress and equity, it is imperative that we do better.

And that starts with some introspection on what went wrong.

And how to fix it.

Falling Back to Blog

I have been beset by crises.

Personal, political and moral.

Six months of quarantine have amplified my sense of loss, from relationships severed by sickness, distance or lack of attention

The mismanagement of the pandemic has hit a nerve.

The racism, authoritarianism and incompetence of our government over the last nine months (at all levels)… And the loss of life and property they’ve exacted on this country have pushed my pressure cooker past the highest setting

Add in Americans’ continued ignorance of East Asian COVID policies that could get us out of this mess (or of best practices from non-white countries in any policy area), and I am on the brink

Righteous anger can motivate creative outpouring, but it can also degenerate into a bottomless pit of contempt and misery

I’ve been wallowing in the latter state for several months now. My energy has plummeted, causing creative paralysis. I indulge in social media or sweets or substances, mistaking the instant high for productive energy. It creates an illusion for one minute, until I get distracted.

The only solution is to write as often I can. It doesn’t have to sound pretty. But it does have to speak for my heart and the principles I value.

At this juncture in history, silence is complicity. Therefore, I am obligated to dust off my pen.


I started this blog with the lofty goal of creating an interdisciplinary intellectual space, where people could engage with “great questions” in multiple social, political and personal spheres on their own terms. For the sake of efficiency, I feel compelled to narrow my scope for the short-term to the following areas:

  1. Comparative analysis of transportation and housing issues (with a focus on LA vs. foreign countries)
  2. Random urban planning, history and food trivia
  3. Causes of American political decline (entre-pocalypse series will come out of the woodwork!)
  4. Political ideology vis a vis the election

For the same reason, expect my writing to be less formal and more blunt. As always, comments are welcome. No snark without provocation.

Entre-pocalypse:The End of America’s Long Twentieth Century (1898-2020)

In historical parlance, the term “century” denotes less a block of time than a zeitgeist, that roughly corresponds to the contours of a particular century.

Thus, Europe’s “long nineteenth century” spans the 125-year period from 1789 and 1914–a time when the (most of the) continent’s societies transitioned from semi-feudal monarchies to industrial democracies. The Storming of the Bastille and World War I provide meaningful start and end points, the former birthing Europe’s first bourgeois democracy and the latter marking the climax of Europe’s industrial militarization.

The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent uprising against police brutality, seem to bring about a major rupture in American history. With our federal government failing to provide its citizens with the most basic safeguards against the pandemic, yet capable of inflicting gratuitous violence on them, it seems clear that America’s 122-year reign as a military and economic superpower and, as a so-called “leader of the free world,” has concluded. It is time to start talking about the end of America’s Long Twentieth Century.


The Long Twentieth Century began in Havana, then part of the Spanish colony of Cuba, on the night of February 15, 1898.

The US had just come of age, economically (having surpassed Britain in manufacturing output in 1885). Militarily, the US was still in infancy-with a navy and army smaller than Italy’s. Despite having catapulted to the apex of the world’s economy, the US neither pursued colonial expansion nor exerted cultural cachet.

At 9:40 P.M., the U.S.S. Maine, a Navy ship berthed in Havana harbor mysteriously exploded. 251 of the 290 sailors on board perished.

Copyright Tim Evanson, Flickr

By morning, the Hearst newspapers were clamoring for revenge on Spain. Two months later, President McKinley declared war. By the end of the year, America had seized control of the Phillippines, Cuba and Guam. Spain surrendered in September. The US now had an empire, and a military, to reckon with.

Over the next half-century, America’s global military and economic influence grew in tandem. America won two World Wars, hosted historical peace conferences and laid the foundations for a new international order.

Domestically, presidents like Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt established anti-trust and social welfare legislation that allowed all of America’s citizens to share in its riches. The impressive economic expansion during World War II-the closest thing to a “people’s war” in Howard Zinn’s reckoning-yielded economic prosperity at home while furthering democracy overseas.

And in a corner of the country called “Hollywood”, motion pictures created an alluring image of this country that won hearts and minds across the globe. Jazz (and later, Rock) music, sports, and even modernist architecture came to convey a similar type of “soft power.”

It wasn’t all a big band show, however.

The President who issued the “Fourteen Points“, demanding the right to self-determination in Central and Eastern Europe, entrenched (anti-black) racial hiring practices in the federal post office and Treasury Departments. Well into the middle of the twentieth century, Americans of color in most states lived under an apartheid regime, with restrictions on everything from where they could buy a home to whom they could marry.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s sought to vanquish institutional racism. Martin Luther King famously declared that freedom for people of color would constitute the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream.

However, even King’s lauded non-violent protest marches received tepid public support from white Americans. While civil rights legislation outlawed overt segregation, neighborhood- and school-level segregation remain pervasive in American cities. Police brutality and mass incarceration of persons of color have replaced Jim Crow as a means to repress and control the black and brown underclass.


The last paragraph may seem like a tangent from my previous thread.

But the white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement proved to be the ultimate undoing of America’s 20th-century growth trajectory.

Starting with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, Republican Party politicians capitalized on white grievance to drastically roll back the post-New Deal welfare programs.

Meanwhile, the military arm of the American state grew more powerful and more removed from civilian oversight. In the 75 years following World War II, the US military engaged in more than 220 foreign interventions-all by bypassing Congress’ War Powers’ authority. This does not count the numerous covert operations carried out be US intelligence agencies,-who tampered with elections and assassinated politicians from Italy to Iran.

Throughout the Cold War, America’s martial imperialism left its white herrenvolk unscathed, even while the COINTELPRO program surveilled and harassed Civil Rights.

Following September 11th, however, Congress–in a moment of patriotic zeal–passed the Patriot Act, which gave federal agencies the power to requisition citizens’ business records and wiretap phones with little to no due process. Edward Snowden found that the government had obtained records of every single Verizon customer.

A government that could extensively spy on citizens and militarize its police force could only cobble together a patchwork “universal” health insurance system under a progressive president Obama.

But Tony Stark was a hit in China. Brooklyn’s culinary and creative ferment maintained the Big Apple’s status as the global capital of cool. And Silicon Valley drew the best and brightest from East and South Asia.

Now, even Marvel has stopped filming. The Momofukus and Robertas are shuttered. And with the American economy shut down (and the Trump administration sending hostile signals to immigrants) the talented masses are staying away.

Our time is finally up.