Journal Entry #48

Memory and forgetting, power and the press.

NORFOLK, CONN., JUNE 6—The New York Times carried an interesting opinion item in its Tuesday editions. This is worthy of comment all by itself, of course: Reflecting the Times’ very essential duties in maintaining the prevailing orthodoxy, its anal retentive editorial pages rarely carry anything that moves the needle more than two degrees either side of the approved perspective. Unless a head piques my curiosity, I do not bother to read the section anymore.

Louisa Lim’s piece on the Tian’anmen events thirty years ago this week is among the exceptions proving the rule. The head atop her piece is “China Conquers History Itself,” and I was instantly eager to see what she did with the theme. Her column is here.

Lim lectures in journalism at Melbourne University—an interesting credential given her argument. She describes Beijing’s regrettably successful effort to obliterate Tian’anmen from the Chinese consciousness in the intervening three decades. “History has become an ideological tool,” Lim observes, “with certain episodes celebrated for showing the party’s best version of itself, while others are rooted out and erased…. All of this is in the ultimate service of legitimizing the party leadership.”

Lim’s reflections were prompted by encounters she had with Chinese students in her classroom. After she lectured on Tian’anmen’s significance in history, several students confronted her with the argument that there was no need to recall the events at the Gate of Heavenly Peace on June 4, 1989. “Why do we have to look back to this time in history?” one asks. “Why do you think it will be helpful to current and nowadays China, especially our young generation?”

I know quite well how shocking it is to confront Chinese whose minds are pockmarked with vast lacunae in matters to do with the People’s Republic’s past. It is astonishing to converse with people who know nothing of events that were instrumental in the making of revolutionary and post-revolutionary China. One sips one’s tea while nursing an immense sadness that must not be expressed as a matter of courtesy.

There is a common habit of identifying modern Chinese according to their generational identities: There are the “50ers,” the “60ers,” the “70ers,” and so on. You can talk to octogenarians about the Long March and Mao’s caves at Yan’an. These people are treasures—living memorials to the truly lovely idealism that infused the revolution and the early years of the P.R.C.—the years before all the mistakes were made. But the 50ers and 60ers will know nothing of the Anti–Rightist Campaign or the Great Leap Forward. The 70ers and 80ers will be wholly ignorant of those events and also the Cultural Revolution. The 80ers and those born after them—those taking Lim’s lecture course—will be wholly unaware of Tian’anmen 1989—and wish to keep it that way, it seems. This reflects the shocking mutilation of Chinese consciousness during the Communist era and since.

The paragraph you just read is a slight rewrite of a passage in my most recent book but one, Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post–Western World, which Pantheon brought out in 2010. Lim’s opinion piece prompted me to take it down from the shelf where it resides. If I may make bold to say, the essay I just quoted, “The Buddhas at Qixia,” derives from a lengthy study of China’s incessant abuses of history. These extend back millennia before 1949, when Mao took Beijing. I found a renewed impulse to remember when I spent many months going to and fro in China in behalf of the just-mentioned book. But this was incipient at best. The desecration of history and memory alike continues more or less unbridled.

“There are many kinds of forgetting in China—a reality familiar to anyone who knows the Chinese and their modern story,” I wrote. “There is forced forgetting, pretended forgetting, genuine forgetting, the forgetting of never having known—forgetting as erasure.” Lim’s students suffered the last variety. It is their distinguishing mark to side with those doing the erasing.

Lim is astute in connecting the matters of history, memory, and forgetting to power. A people deprived of their past are marooned. They cannot authentically seize control of their present and future. Both belong to the power that can manipulate the past. Nobody has made this point as well as Kundera. It is a passage many of Cú Chulainn’s readers will know. “The struggle of man against power,” he wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

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IN THE DAYS SINCE Louisa Lim’s piece appeared, another story finds its place on the foreign pages. Its connection to the questions Lim raises is not to be missed.

Just as The Times was publishing Lim, the Australian police raided the home of a journalist who reported last year on classified correspondence among government officials planning to augment the surveillance powers of Australia’s intelligence agencies. A day later came a raid on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which had disclosed, two years ago, an investigation into allegations that Australian special forces had murdered civilians, including children, in Afghanistan.

Conservative Aussies have a streak of authoritarian control—and take a delight in uniforms, if I may say so—that is singular among “the Western democracies,” as the phrase goes. But as The Times pointed out in a second-day piece, what is going on now in Australia is going on elsewhere. “The aggressive approach… fits with a global trend,” the paper reported. “Democracies from the United States to the Philippines are increasingly targeting journalists to ferret out leaks, silence critics, and punish information sharing.”

The Gray Lady then took its customary swipe at President Trump for his constant complaints about press coverage of his administration, but this is more complicated than Cú Chulainn’s friends on Eighth Avenue care to acknowledge. The complicity of American media in the fabrications known as Russiagate should be evident to anyone who can look without ideological limitations. As someone wrote in the social media the other day, renaming Russiagate for what it is, “Spygate is the first American scandal in which the government wants the facts published transparently but the media want to cover them up.” And the Celtic brute will leave further comment on this matter for another conversation.

The two Times piece are here and here. Reuters published a useful follow-on this morning, noting that Australian journalists will now discharge their duties with the risk of jail time hanging above them. That is here.

How are we to understand these developments?

It is a feat of journalistic acrobatics that The Times’ generous coverage of the doings in Australia and elsewhere fails to mention the Julian Assange case even once. Assange is nothing if not a tragic victim of an incremental assault on the press by those wielding power. John Lyons, who runs the A.B.C.’s investigative reporting operations, offered a good summation of the import here: “What they’re trying to do, I think, is essentially send a message to people doing their job, journalists, that ‘From now on, you’re on notice that anyone you talk to, anyone you have text contact with, any digital footprint at all, we will know about it.’” This is precisely the message the American, British, and Swedish governments intend to convey by way of their grossly unjustified treatment of Assange.

Vital as it is that we all get clear as to what we witness, there is a larger matter to consider, I would argue. It has to do with secrecy, the sequestration of political power, and the question of erasure just as Louisa Lim raises it. Ultimately at issue is the efficacy of democracy itself in our “Western democracies.”

In the last years of the last century, the late Pat Moynihan published a book he titled Secrecy: The American Experience. The Democratic senator was at the time chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Moynihan, who wrote with a little of the Irish gift, recounted the creeping problem of secrecy as an instrument of governance since World War I, noting along the way the disastrous consequences this has had for Americans and American democracy. There are chapters titled “Secrecy as Regulation,” “A Culture of Secrecy,” “The Routinization of Secrecy,” and—Moynihan’s argument to counter the secrecy phenomenon—“A Culture of Openness.”

For the present purpose, I especially like a section of the Introduction, written by Richard Gid Powers, called “Secrecy and Memory.” Powers writes: “Americans’ experience with secrecy during the Cold War was, as Moynihan amply demonstrates, catastrophic…. But that story is part of a larger story. If official secrecy had a devastating impact on American history, its impact on Americans’ understanding of that history was a collateral disaster.”

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LOUISA LIM’s REFLECTIONS and Moynihan’s book urge us toward two conclusions.

One, what is fundamentally at issue as governments make a gruesome example of Julian Assange and take increasingly hostile steps to limit press freedoms is power of a certain kind. Secrecy has served over many decades to leave political power in the Western nations progressively more sequestered—that is, remote from the citizenry such that those with power are able to act with ever more evident impunity. This process is grimly close to completion. The objective is the establishment of unlimited prerogative—which is to say the transformation of democracy into nothing more than a Potemkin-like display. Ours becomes a society of spectacle, in Guy Debord’s famous phrase. The practice of democracy becomes mere spectacle.

Two, government by secrecy is at bottom an exercise in erasure. It is to obliterate history even as it occurs. We are made victims of “the forgetting of never having known.” And we, too—look around—are marooned in the present, with ever less power to act upon our circumstances and our future. The worst of this tragic predicament is just as Lim found in her lecture hall: Ever more of us participate in our own deprivations, for we do not wish to know.

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