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…but orange now and black

Obama’s speech and the spirit of Tiananmen Square, Ctd.

The comment I made yesterday here originated as a response to my friend DM who posted as his facebook status:

“I appreciate Obama’s speech in Egypt and all, but I think it’s insulting to the victims, to have scheduled his visit on the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.”

A pretty interesting debate ensued (transcribed below):

Me: You think that it is against the spirit of the Tienanmen protests to address people living overwhelmingly under repressive regimes about the values of democracy from a platform that allowed his voice and arguments to be heard everywhere in the world?

DM: Are you really suggesting that anyone listening to his speech is thinking about China?

His speech focused on US Middle East policy — The war in Iraq, the illegitimacy of Al Qaeda, Muslim – US relations, the and issue of Palestine and Israel. These are all good things to talk about, particularly while in Egypt, but none of them amount to addressing peaceful protest in China.

I am critical of his timing, because it deflects media and world attention away from the anniversary. It AIDS the Chinese CCP in their attempt to let the anniversary pass unnoticed, because it refocuses media attention on “oh, look at what Obama is saying in Egypt,” rather than where it should be — solemnly commemorating the death of the best opportunity to giving Chinese citizens real civil rights in the last 50+ years. In this way, it’s worse than if he had said nothing at all.

Just what is the value to being in the middle of a Mid-East tour on June 4?

AK: June 4, 1967. The last day before the six-day war started and Israel ended up occupying Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank and Gaza. 42 years ago today, the borders of the Middle East were different – and it is Obama’s (and many others’) hope to return to those borders. Check out Roger Cohen’s op-ed in the NYTimes for more on this.

Me: On your first question, I bet a lot of people in China–especially those with the skills to by-pass Chinese media controls through proxy-servers–can manage to walk and chew gum in that way.

Where remembering Tiananmen really matters is mainland China, and they’ll have their bots program to screen any international press coverage of Tiananmen anyway.

And on a day when the proxy-using subversives are going to be particularly interested in finding international news, there’s going to be, next to the Tiananmen articles, a transcript of a speech containing a crap load of explicit pro-democracy argumentation that, while details may differ, applies in a lot of way no less to China than to the Middle East

And beyond the content of the speech, the fact that Obama is able to give a speech like that is itself, I think, a powerful performative argument for democracy that defies a lot of the stereotypes that the Chinese authorities propagate.

DM: “remembering Tiananmen” matters everywhere, not just China. “The Chinese government will block it” is not a valid excuse not to commemorate the massacre. According to your logic, we should never mention any case of genocide, because the perpetrating government will block coverage.

Your third point is inapplicable, and far too generous to Obama. 1) the chinese would edit those parts of his speech out, following your logic. 2) don’t give credit to Obama for something he did not do — addressing US Middle East policy is NOT the same as talking about democracy in China.

Me: You think it matters equally if Bhutan remembers Tiananmen to if the people of Beijing or Xian do? Of course it matters most that its lessons are learnt in China. And I don’t know if you noticed, but the commemoration of Tiananment was on the frontpage of all of the major news outlets I read today, right next to Obama’s speech.

And I’m not talking about excuses, that’s a gross mischaracterization of what I’m saying.

What I am saying is that, if what Tiananmen was about was emancipating the people of China from domination by an authoritarian regime, having an incredibly potent speech that is fundamentally (implicitly and explicitly) about democracy is 100% in the spirit of the movement, and a fitting way of marking the event, and in no way disrespectful of what the protesters in Beijing died for.

Re: your last paragraph… (1) reread my previous post; (2) reread Obama’s speech. The principles that underlie his arguments are far broader in scope than the Middle East.

DM: Actually, what I noticed was Obama’s speech and the death of David Carradine, because the Chinese state blocked any meaningful foreign reporting. We should have foreseen that, and made a point to talk about Tiananmen.

It’s not a gross mischaracterization. You are attributing something to Obama’s speech that simply is not there. I read it, Ben. And then, at your insistence, I read it again. A breakdown:

Total Speech — 10 pages, single spaced
First 3 pages: US-Islam relations/coexistence
First mention of democracy: page 7
Space dedicated to the issue of democracy: 1/2 page.

That’s 5%. The rest was dedicated solely and explicitly to issues surrounded M.E. foreign policy.

5% does not a “critique of the Chinese crackdown in 1989” make. Delivering this speech on the 20th anniv. represents a sorely missed opportunity to reaffirm US support of human rights in China. I still haven’t heard a rational reason for why he couldn’t have made it on any other day.

Me: Of course the state blocked meaningful foreign reporting, I was talking about world media. NYT, BBC, WP, the Canadian news outlets… all featured major stories on the Tiananmen anniversary along side coverage of Obama. So did the cable networks.

I’m not going to disagree that an explicit mention of the massacre by Obama would have been good. Clinton made a statement. I don’t think any of it wasn’t the subject of some serious diplomatic calculus.

To argue that what I’ve been saying can be reduced to apologizing for not commemorating Tiananmen because the Chinese authorities will block it /is/ totally a mischaracterization.

You’re reading the speech like a computer programmed to do content analysis. Democracy isn’t just the word democracy. The tone of the speech, the approach to policy and diplomacy, the admissions of American culpability in fucked up history of the modern M.E… the appeal to popular reason… these are all performances of an honesty that is off limits for any authoritarian leadership or bureaucracy that wants to stay dominant. When was the last time a Chinese leader gave a speech that was anything like that?

DM: I was also talking about world media. Specifically, the websites of CNN and the NYT. The asian papers I read of course mentioned the anniversary, but largely in the context of reporting on the vigil in Hong Kong, because it was exceptionally large this year.

If you’re posting this on your blog, I should restate my initial critique. But I’ll wait for you to actually post it, so I’m not limited to the tiny space within this comment box. Let me know when it’s up.

I would respond to DM’s last point by noting that reporting on the vigil in Hong Kong is effectively reporting on what the vigil was about. I don’t see why that needs to be distinguished.

Over to you DM…

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2 Responses to “Obama’s speech and the spirit of Tiananmen Square, Ctd.”

  1. Hey Ben, I think I’ll refrain from saying anything else, since my comments would largely be a re-hashing of what I said before (except with a bit more clarity). Since our discussion during Croquet, I sorta feel this debate is over, and at an impasse. But thank you for the lively discussion!

  2. For anyone who’s interested–and Dane, let me know if this is a mischaracterization–where we ended up was a realization that we had dramatically different expectations for what the American government would ever do (though I think we were in agreement on the point that Obama /should/ have said something explicit). Since the treatment of Beijing during the Olympics last summer by both the media and the governments of the world, the speech, in a lot of ways exceeded my expectations. Dane’s not as cynical.


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