Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Freedom of Tyranny, the Tyranny of Freedom

It has been ten days since I left China and I kept meaning to gather some final thoughts on my visit. School and jet lag and life intervened. But I feel impressions still echoing and the short version is this:

By my standards of social justice, free speech, democratic process, public discourse, China is in the Dark Ages. The government seems afraid of the free exchange of ideas, of their citizens forming their own thoughts and speaking them, of encouraging multiple points of view to arrive at a greater or more honest or more inclusive truth. Facebook and Youtube are shut down not only for practical business purposes of cornering the Internet market, but from general fear of ideas different from the Party Line entering the national dialogue. People speaking out against the government or questioning a decision will have their e-mails shut down or lose their job or get sent away or have their family members threatened, whatever the tyranny-du-jour is at the moment. The President decides to abolish term limits (one of the three pillars of a government made safe by checks-and-balances I mentioned in a former blog) and the people have no choice but to shrug their shoulders and accept it. Indeed, the people I spoke with said plainly that the population is apolitical because they know that their opinion means nothing and their ability to influence government is non-existent.

And yet. I walked through the night streets of Shanghai on my last night and they were spotlessly clean. Not a single homeless person was to be seen (indeed, never saw one my whole trip). I never worried that people in the crowd might by carrying assault weapons and to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single school shooting in a nation with the largest population in the world. No families were torn apart by identifying as red or blue, the outer appearance was prosperity and the few hundred teachers I met were uniformly friendly, generous, spirited, thoughtful and eager to teach their students well. Though I believe to the marrow of my bones that the one-party-line-or-else attitude of the government is harmful to the human spirit, intelligence and just government, the outside appearance is that something is working pretty well.

Especially in contrast with the “freedom” of the United States, where corporate greed overshadows human sympathy even in the face of innocent children gunned down in schools, where you are free to criticize, but unless you have a couple of billion dollars behind you like the NRA or Walmart or the like, you ain’t gonna change much, where you’re free to shut off Fox News or right-wing talk radio, but the brainwashing is doing its work masterfully in ways that any totalitarian government would admire. My streets in San Francisco are every day more littered and more peopled with homeless, I have to spend staff meetings talking about lockdown procedures, my public school teacher colleagues are at the mercy of a clueless and heartless and incompetent woman. So are we really that much better than China?

I still stand by free speech, the legal system and term limits as the beginning points of civilization, alongside public education, health care and fair elections, I still believe that dialogue and discussion is better than unilaterally shutting down dissent and demanding obedience and compliance. But when such discussion is tainted by lies not even trying to disguise themselves as truths, with sheer stupidity not even trying to aim for intelligence, with shouting matches not even aiming for civil discourse. The way free speech is working—and rather, not working— in the United States, is it really so much better than having your voice shut down?

Well, time will tell. Tyranny and justice, prosperity and poverty, independent thought and the party-line, have many different faces and many different effects on a society. I think I know where I stand, but China caused me to re-think my assumptions. There's a kind of freedom inside their tyranny and a kind of tyranny inside our freedom. It’s complicated. But still I stand for the end of tyranny and the rebirth of genuine freedom. And you?

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