What matters most

Via Grist magazine.

A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate.  We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror.  I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign.  On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country.  On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.

It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters.  But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others.  The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things?  Why don’t we all think the same way?

This is a substantial issue.  I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris.  I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people.  But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.

This was not a matter of self-justification.  When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply.  I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts.  The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me.  More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I.  This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.

My initial query stands:  why do we feel differently about these things?  Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children?  Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues?  When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.

But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society.  There are more than enough problems we face to go around.  It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time.  While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time.  That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality.  Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions.  Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress.  Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.

What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective.  It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances.  But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence.  It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists.  That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed.  Imagine if they worked together.

More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life.  We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.


Politics, Propaganda and Pornography on the Web in China

China Daily front from May 2012

A recent New York Review of Books post by Perry Link is worth reading to learn the lengths and depths to which the Chinese government will go to control content and opinion on the Internet in that country.  China has learned to embrace the Internet in some ways, recognizing that the government in some sense can’t live without it and can’t deprive the people of it. But the central authorities view the Internet in much the same way that the Nazis and Soviets viewed the emerging art and technology of the movies in the 1930s: as a powerful tool to augment propaganda, which is, in the mordant definition of Hitler message man Joseph Goebbels, “a means to state control”.

Link is drawing attention to the work of his colleague Xiao Qing at the University of California, who has received, archived and catalogued thousands of “directives” from China’s propaganda officials to central and regional news and Internet officials to play up, play down, censor, muzzle, close comment, applaud or condemn various bits of information that are vacuumed up in the social space of the Chinese Intranet. It is impossible to read these directives and not think of Winston Smith, alone at his cubicle next to the memory hole, carrying out similar directives in the Ministry of Truth. Indeed, Xiao calls his unofficial repository the Ministry of Truth. He provides an extraordinary glimpse inside perhaps the largest and most sophisticated propaganda machinery in the world.

Link, an academic and translator of Charter 08 into English, provides some additional insights based on a conference that Xiao hosted last month in Berkeley that included several additional scholars who helped analyze his archives. The insights they brought are additionally worth reading, if for no other reason than it is an additional reminder that we do not bring every perspective required to this material. Perhaps the most important insight rendered is this:

“One of the principal aims of the government directives is to prevent unapproved groups from organizing through the Internet (noted as “incitement,” “gatherings,” etc.); some of the scholars argued that this goal is even more fundamental than prevention of negative comment about the Party.”

That is, among the government’s top priorities in Internet control is not censorship for its own sake but to break up any nascent attempts at independent organization, which is the true and ultimate threat to the government’s control. Information, opinion and communication do not undermine the government on their own, but by how they help individuals understand, come together, and take collective action. No wonder, as Link notes, the government has lumped “political speech” in the same web category as pornography as “unhealthful to society”.

Another chilling observation in the age of the NSA revelations relates to the activity of Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. In a country where all media is state-controlled, Xinhua is effectively an open-source intelligence agency. The Internet has changed that, Link notes. Ten years ago, Xinhua’s mission, in part, was to report to China’s leadership on its own population. In the Internet era, it no longer needs to do that – the people are in effect reporting on themselves through social media, chat rooms, comment boxes and microblogs. The government only needs to read them to understand their subjects.

That’s a Thought Police even Orwell didn’t imagine.


“A Theory of Deeds” Threatens the Russian State

The web site of Togeza (Together), a Russian civil society organization.

Could helping your neighbor deem you an enemy of the state? The Duma, Russia’s legislature, is leaning that way by trying to regulate what de Tocqueville admired in early America: the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings” that constitute community, what we today call civil society.

Today’s Washington Post front page carries a story about a handful of Russians trying to do for their communities what their government and others have manifestly failed to do: caring for the sick in a remote, rural village; donating delivery services to those who can’t afford them; searching for the missing whom the police have given up on.

“This is our theory of small deeds,” said Yevgeny Grekov, the philosophically minded assistant to the delivery group. “It’s pure human energy.”

Unfortunately, these organizations and individuals have attracted the attention of the Duma as well as Vladimir Putin, who has personally harassed democratically minded non-profit organizations who monitored the last elections that made him President again. In Putin’s Russia, more control has been centralized in the Kremlin over wider aspects of human affairs.

The Washington Post places blame for this concentration and expansion of political dominion on a lack of individual trust among Russians and the reassertion of powers familiar from the Communist era. I’m more inclined to argue again that in repressive regimes the concept of civil society, civic action, and even individual initiative does not really exist — that in such a context, everything has political value as defined by the Center, and that all aspects of civic action are a means for state control over society. Therefore, anything or anyone acting independently of the state is a threat to the state, an independent and autonomous power base separate from — and necessarily opposed to –the Center.

This illuminates both Masha Gessen’s comments about the lack of “real politics” in Russia and Hannah Arendt’s definition of true and healthy politics as space, the commons.  The Duma is trying to subsume all civil society by dominating collective moral action in the same tiny, claustrophobic political box. After taking control of the Kremlin, the intelligence apparatus, the military, the parliament, the media and the church, that leaves just ordinary people working together for some common purpose.  After that, Russia will look very much like Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

It may seem counterintuitive, despite all this I remain optimistic for Russians, mostly because in a country so large and with so many people, that noble “multitude of small undertakings” will always outstrip the ability and comprehension of the state.  Call it the power of the powerless or the weakness of strong states, but the Duma’s action against these individuals only demonstrates the fear of a sclerotic state against an increasingly confident society that has abandoned the government to take care of itself. And that, in the end, that may be the greatest threat the Kremlin faces.


Hemlines, Symphonies, and Nuclear Weapons

A female worker in the Pyongyang subway. (New York Times)

The New York Times’ recent article about rising North Korean hemlines and the speculation they raised about changes in the country’s leadership under Kim Jong-Un was a journalist’s device for exploring the opaque nature of a hermetic and paranoid country.  Unfortunately it also perpetuated the popular notion that there is a fundamental division between the aesthetic and the political in a nation so thoroughly permeated by the regime, and that a change in something as mundane as women’s style could be a sign that Pyongyang was on the verge of “opening up”.

We’ve seen such “signs” of North Korea on the verge of “opening up” for decades now, as the country engaged in fits of family visits, nuclear negotiations, tourism, and cultural exchanges. But nothing has really changed the essential nature of the regime: it remains the world’s last bastion of Stalinism, the planet’s only Communist dynasty. As a result of its backwards, chauvinistic policy of Juche, two million Koreans who might be alive today starved to death during the 1990s.

A few years ago CNN and the redoubtable correspondent Christiane Amanpour were granted extraordinary access to the country as North Korea prepared to host the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in what was a truly dramatic display of cultural public diplomacy. To its credit, the Philharmonic held its ground on a play list which included the North Korean national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and a folk tune common to both Koreas as an encore. It is clear from CNN’s footage that the concert was a big hit with the Philharmonic’s audience.  It was impossible not to feel that art had bridged something.

Amanpour could not help but speculate whether the Philharmonic’s visit and the concert signaled new political changes afoot in North Korea.  It was extraordinary, for example, that the concert was broadcast on North Korean television (at least in the homes where CNN could film) and abroad.  But even for her experience in the country, under close watch by North Korean minders, she may still have missed the complete control the state had over the arts and communications.  This was demonstrated in CNN’s interview with Kim Cheol-Woong, a North Korean piano prodigy who defected to South Korea after he was caught practicing jazz licks.  She assumes that he defected “for artistic reasons”.  What they both miss is that his desire for cultural expression was entirely political, at least according to the regime, and diametrically opposed the national ideology. In a nation like North Korea, nothing is inherently “creative”: everything is political.  This understanding was neatly summarized by Ji Hae Nam, sentenced to prison for three years for singing an “unsanctioned South Korean folk song” in her own home. “You can only sing songs about the party, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il,” she told Amanpour.  After she was released, she fled North Korea for China and eventually South Korea.

While it was dramatic that the Philharmonic concert was broadcast — all other music is normally banned in the country — the fact that the state allowed it to be broadcast is impossible to escape.  There is only one television channel in North Korea (two on Sundays), and only one radio station (on a dozen frequencies in Pyongyang).  North Koreans may be aware of other forms of expression, but the purpose of regime control and propaganda is not necessarily to convince the population of the truth, but to consistently demonstrate its authority and communicate acceptable modes of thought and expression.

The North Koreans tried, and failed, to launch an ICBM in April this year. (Getty Images via Heritage Foundation)

Amanpour’s visit coincided not just with the concert but with a fresh round of nuclear negotiations.  She was granted access to the decrepit reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, then about to be dismantled. Watching this now, it is hard not to feel taken.  Four years after this documentary was completed, the North Koreans claimed to detonate a nuclear device.  The North attacked the South.  Last year, Kim Jong-Il died, but was immediately replaced with his son. Earlier this year, the North test-fired another ballistic missile.  In other words, looking for signs of dramatic change after the concert and the visit to Yongbyon was like expecting actors in a play to continue living the characters they’ve inhabited on stage. We’ve confused tokens for effects.

The hemlines, the concert, the nuclear plant: each may have been a diversion, but internally they primarily have a political function.  In a state like North Korea, that function is control.  They communicate to a supine populace that the regime remains fully in charge; what norms of behavior and thinking are currently acceptable; and that anyone (and their entire family) who diverges from the norm will be dealt with harshly.


History as a Presence

While living and working in Memphis, Tennessee, I moonlighted as a book reviewer for the local broadsheet, the Commercial Appeal. In retrospect I’m amazed I was able to do it, now in a time when The Washington Post no longer has a separate book review section. There was no money (as I recall), but I got to keep the books and see my name in print on occasion. And I certainly expanded my horizons, not just to unseen lands but to realms of politics at their absolute extreme.

For reasons I can’t imagine, the books I was assigned to review focused on the horrors of savage regimes: Rwanda, Nazi-occupied Poland, Stalin’s Russia. They were pretty obscure titles, too, not even one-off from the mainstream bestsellers that The Post and The Times flog every week.  But they roused ghosts, disinterred secrets, and illuminated passed-over crevices of history that still chill my memory more than 15 years later.

Fergal Keane’s Season of Blood was one of the first book-length narratives about Rwanda before Samantha Power’s and Philip  Gourevitch’s searching works.  I still recall Keane’s opening passage of the Kagera river which carried thousands of bodies into Lake Victoria. For many downriver and for those living on the lake, the first indication that anything was happening in Rwanda was the congestion of bloated corpses on the waterways.

For those who keep a diary — or, for that matter, those who blog — Intimacy and Terror should strike them where they live.  Laboriously curated from hundreds of personal diaries held in the former Soviet archives, this book focuses on only a very few representative diaries from the height of Stalin’s Terror. Some are brilliant and exceptional, including a diurnal-nocturnal diary kept by an artist who recorded his daily doings as well as the dreams that reflected his waking life. But as Winston Smith’s treachery in 1984 taught us, keeping a diary condemns oneself in such a regime. The editors found one of these diaries underlined in red by the NKVD officer who had seized it. It had been submitted as evidence in the trial of its author, who was executed as a counterrevolutionary. Thought crime was a fact in Stalin’s Russia.

Theo Richmond’s Konin resurrects an ancient center of Jewish learning in Poland which was completely obliterated by the Nazis. The few survivors scattered around the world — Britain, Israel, Brooklyn, Australia — and attempted to preserve this razed city as best they could. Richmond, the son of Koniners, collected their memories for this book. They are often too horrible to relate, but one story stayed with me and I hoped against hope it might show up in the recent film Defiance (it wasn’t). It was the story of one Koniner who escaped the liquidation of her ghetto, survived five days with her child in the Belarussian winter, and stumbled across a group of Jewish partisans sabotaging Nazi columns who saved her from certain death. She married the group leader and after the war settled anonymously in the American Midwest.

It is always comforting to cling to individual stories of heroism or conscience against the backdrop of moral calamity. But Hannah Arendt argues convincingly (see my previous post) that under these circumstances there is very little space for moral agency as we understand it.  I would argue that Arendt’s implications suggest heroism and conscience have much more to do with chance and luck under terrifying conditions than personal moral action. The real heroes, I think, recognize this.  Which may explain why those partisans lived so quietly in the Midwest until Theo Richmond found them.

I’ve posted these reviews here (a fourth is of Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth) because they have disappeared from The Commercial Appeal’s site. I’m sure someone could find them in a library or on a Nexis search, but the latter is by paid subscription only, the former very likely limited to microfilm collections in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.