25 January 2009

Chinese Democracy, Part II

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It’s Sunday now, not Tuesday. Several days later, I am still sifting through the mental carnage wrought by President Barack Obama's inauguration and speech. That's carnage in a good way, a tableau of pleasant disbelief at how stunning—peaceful, engaging, inspiring—the inauguration was, and at the effective eloquence and intellectual honesty of Obama's speech.

The famous 1963 “March on Washington” has been a prominent discussion point around the inauguration, for obvious reasons. It has also been on my mind for purely personal ones: my grandmother traveled from Buffalo to Washington to be there for it. She was 57 at the time, and had been in the U.S. for 25 years, and I can only guess at her motivations—but it was an experience she spoke about with reverence, and she gave me the button she kept, proudly. Much as I can picture her shouting about the intifada, I can imagine her level of excitement had she lived to see Obama’s inauguration. It would surely have affirmed for her once again an unwavering belief in the strength of American democracy and society (and she would no doubt share in the collective relief that whatshisname has now left the White House).

BUT, I can also imagine that my grandmother would have seen in Obama's election and inauguration an opportunity to point to a vital lesson, one that Americans might have heeded more carefully in 2004, when we should already have detected that the presidency of George W. Bush was going terribly awry. She would have said: we must not, can not, should not take life and liberty for granted. And she would be right.
A few days ago, I posted a brief item about the “communist” Chinese government having censored part of President Obama's speech. This is sad if unsurprising, and at the same time it reminded me of how much I feel like our nation had a close call with a terrible, alternate destiny. When Obama said that “we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals,” the Chinese had not yet cut into the speech. The Russians seem to have taken a different approach, simply steering clear of emphasizing the event, according to the BBC.

Unsurprisingly, China and Russia are two examples that come to mind where both governments and citizens have, for decades now, contended with false choices of the kind Obama meant. (The citizens, it must be said, with rather less choice in the matter than the those in government.) In both cases, there is a kind of national, propagandized mythology that strong leaders are needed—and in both nations, “strong” generally means “too weak to risk being criticized by the citizenry,” and “too weak to risk having citizens hear opposing ideas.”

I reject the Philip Roth-ian notion that there is (or was) the likely potential in America for an apocalyptic shift towards fascism. Fascism is not the danger. Instead, we should fear the deadening nature of a government that had trouble acknowledging its failings and failures, that responded to criticism—internal and external—with bluster, and that sought to increase the power of the governmental-individual (the so-called “executive”) at the expense of any deliberative process. That would be the government resoundingly removed from office on November 4, 2008.

So when Obama said “We will restore science to its rightful place,” I took it to mean not only that science would be treated with respect, and that empirically derived data would no longer be abused for political purpose. I took Obama to mean that his administration will be one in which answers and actions will be derived from what we know, not merely what we believe to be true—or wish were so. That questions and basic premises will be tested, not just the likely success of a given solutions.

And when Obama said “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” that too was more than just an unprecedented presidential acknowledgement of those who do not believe in a god. It was a statement of the importance of our differences, not just of our similarities, and an assertion of intellectual principle from a self-professed believer who also believes he is strong enough, sure enough of himself and his nation, to engage those with other views.

And? These are all words, true. But words matter. If words did not matter, China would not have censored the speech, and Russia would have focused more attention on Obama's inauguration in general.

I think we Americans are—finally, again—off to a good start.

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21 January 2009

Chinese Democracy

The New York Times reported today that "China Central Television, or CCTV, the main state-run network, broadcast the [inaugural] address [by President Barack Obama] live until the moment Mr. Obama mentioned “communism” in a line about the defeat of ideologies considered anathema to Americans. After the translator said “communism” in Chinese, the audio faded out even as Mr. Obama’s lips continued to move."

Brilliant maneuver! Surely that will keep the Chinese people from ever discovering that at least one person on the outside world thinks their repressive system of government is flawed. Reminded me of James Fallows' terrific essay from the November 2008 issue of The Atlantic on how the Chinese manage to screw up so consistently in managing public communication(s) and messages.

I'll have more thoughts on Obama's inauguration and speech coming in the next few days.
Stay tuned.

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