Scholarship and education
Posted by Jeremy Goldkorn on Monday, July 24, 2006 at 4:19 PM
A few weeks ago, Danwei published an article by Philip J. Cunningham in a post that your correspondent titled Kicked out of Chinapol.
Cunningham was attacked in the comments section by several anonymous readers, some of whom were Chinapol members. The comments became nasty enough that we switched them off. However, I was left feeling that I had somehow hung Cunningham out to dry, by allowing some rather vicious attacks on his integrity from anonymous writers without allowing him a proper reply.
I was relucant to publish the piece below when he first sent it to me, feeling a little weary of the nastiness that the affair had caused. But the original decision to publish the piece was mine, and the decision not to delete some of the comments despite their anonymity was mine too, so today I risk bringing the nastiness back again by reigniting the debate.
Here then, is Cunningham's response to the comments. Criticisms and complaints are welcome, but no anonymous attacks on the writer will be entertained.
Chinapol: Comments on the Commentsby Philip J. Cunningham
I will try to address some issues raised by Danwei reader comments in order to continue the conversation and genially ignore the posts that were designed to be conversation-stoppers.
Chinapol is not just another chat group; it is a hidden locus of power, influencing what you read in the media, what books teachers chose to teach in the classroom and what actionable advice is being spoon-fed to Congress and various US agencies that in turn influences US foreign policy.
The gist of what I said first to Chinapol and later to Danwei in "Chinapol has an America problem" is not a critique of one particular Chinapol thread or another, though some are truly objectionable, some truly comic, and some just plain condescending, but the Chinapol paradigm itself. Worse than any individual illiberal argument is the faulty narrative frame for the entire listserv conversation. And this is an elusive and difficult point to express, for if there's one thing that's hard to see it's the frame through which one views the world.
Yet the frame, even if sight unseen, inexorably shapes the patterns of dialogue that take place within its limits. It's a bit easier to notice such things as an outsider who temporarily inhabits the frame and then moves out of it again, or as is said in Chinese, pangguangzheqing.
To reiterate, I joined Chinapol with a clear and curious mind, interested and willing to engage in discussion and debate about China and its place in the world, and left, yellow-carded for criticizing Dow Jones, red-carded for submitting "Chinapol has an America Problem" to the group. Before UCLA professor and former White House advisor Richard Baum, known to Chinapolers, mostly affectionately and somewhat Maoistically, as "Chairman Rick" issued his "non-negotiable" expulsion notice, I was an active member of the list long enough to get an idea of how it works and where it's dysfunctions lie.
Even after Rick Baum's assistant slammed the electronic gate, barring my access to Chinapol, I got dozen of comments off-line sent by ordinary email expressing appreciation from Chinapol members who felt similar frustrations with the limits on dialogue but were not in a position or of an inclination to go public about it for reasons of their own. Still at least one person quit in protest of Chairman Rick's handling of the matter, and numerous emails were sent to him, unprompted by me, aksing him to reconsider the matter. I appreciate the moral support I continue to get from individual members of Chinapol who share similar concerns, but I honestly feel more comfortable outside the circle.
Although the illiberal bias of the organization as it now stands leaves me without any lingering desire to be part of Chinapol, I do think there is a great need for discussion about China and its changing place in the world. Not within the frame as Rick Baum implicitly and explicitly defines it, --excluding Chinese from the discussion while exempting the US government from serious criticism-- but in a more open format.
To those invisible correspondents who have written in Danwei's in comment box requesting to to see specific conversations from Chinapol, I can understand the desire to peek into an opaque organization but concomitantly have to weigh the merits, if any, of disclosing largely banal, largely private correspondence to prove a point; it's not so much any conversation as it is every conversation, not so much what has been said as what goes unsaid, It's not so much the incessant bashing of Beijing, sometimes justified, sometimes not, as the consistently warm coddle, the get out of jail free card given to the powers that be in Washington, even as they influence China by trying to contain it.
Danwei is not stuck in the old paradigm, it's open to the public, savvy, self-knowing. But individuals who post on Danwei frequently sound old paradigm in their shouts and screeds. As Philip Roth has noted in his biographical writing, it was his identity as a Jew writing critically and candidly about Jews that invited, mostly from other Jews, fiece and irrational criticism I find that as an American, trying to write critically and candidly about my own kind, at a time when America is riddled with insecurities, with real and percieved, a similar pattern emerges.
Why is this so? Well, Americans have a deep investment in the American identity as it has been constructed over the years and any truthful comment, or attempt at unearthing certain unpalatable truths about America is not just an intellectual exercise, it touches on identity issues. All the more so if you have been "in government" as many Chinapolers have.
For those Americans whose innate sense of pride and comfort is couched in the terms that US president Bush bandies about with such abandon; freedom-loving, democracy-supporting, generous and benevolent in helping foreigners to a fault, what I have to say is going to shake some deeply-held convictions, convictions so deeply-held that the unreflective are not entirely sure what makes them upset; thus the rants, the lame insults, the flames, in and out of Chinapol. Internet discourse is overloaded and burdened by such hate speech, and I credit Danwei's Jeremy Goldkorn for trying to combat this quietly in his own way.
I'm am offering my view of things; reasonable people can disagree reasonably. But I would suggest to those internet correspondents who offer up cliched insults or feign outrage while hiding behind tags and pseudonyms that reciprocal transparency and sincerity are minimum requirements for a decent conversation. Although Danwei seeks to be transparent and open to the same degree that Chinapol is obsessively secretive, a similar dynamic can be observed when conversation-stoppers and malicious jokers step forward to ruin an otherwise vital discussion.
Is America special? To the unexamined mind is it still the city on the hill, the world's Camelot? If it is, the flip-side of this is the oddly comforting core belief that lands foreign, like China, can't get their act together and never will. Even the French stir tsunami of intolerance for the America-firsters.
Is China special? Is it the ultimate other? I have been an expatriate for a quarter of a century, long enough to understand the stages one must go through, loving, hating, loving to hate, hating to love the host country that one makes a temporary home of. And China, its faults being numerous, it's elite political landscape littered with injured people who have dropped stones on their own feet, its size and scope almost beyond human ability to grasp, is rich fodder for such musing.
But when otherwise intelligent people rest comfortable in old assumptions based on old evidence that China's take on the world is always propaganda, while deluding themselves into believing that America's take on the world is the news, if not reality itself, then you have a serious perception gap.
Yet when the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal launched its dirty war, CCTV offered viewers a rare taste of neutrality and attemped objectivity largely unavailable in the US television media, especially in the early days of freedom fries and journalists in bed with the military. But that doesn't count, because China can do no right.
Chinapol's unexamined self-identification with Washington, it's unwillingness to speak truth to power, puts it on a slippery slope, implicitly defending the war machine and war crimes being commited in the name of the American people. Even at a time like this, a time when the world's most powerful country insists on its right to use its might, a time of international crisis, a time of great injustice, a time when the civilian ideologues in positions of power prod the US military to engage in horrifying bloodletting and violence, the underlying ideology that animates Chinapol discussions is that America can do no wrong (or if it's doing wrong it is not right to make reference to such) while China, the ultimate other, just can't do right.
This, even when, most pointedly in the case of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, US government-funded and supported human rights groups, including Human Rights in China and recepients of National Endowment for Democracy funding and various think tanks and Naval Academies where would-be Chinese Chalabis are being groomed by proxies of the Pentagon, the US claims a right to violate the very human rights it pays others to complain about in foreign countries. We're different, you see?
China has not invaded any sovereign state recently, nor has it had in my memory the temerity to roll its tanks down the streets of someone else's capital city, shooting and killing foreign civilians with impunity, but the US gets away with such abominations in the name of spreading freedom and democracy. Increasingly, in no small part because of the mean-sprited, divisively-partisan Bush administration, American self-confidence in America's proud manifest destiny has had cause to be shaken. Yet for the recalcitrants, it's shaken but not stirred. For many Americans, despite a distaste for Bush, remain mired in a self-perception of unspoken superiority, assuming the American governmental bureaucracy has genuine altruistic intent and presumed democratic benevolence, which if ever was the case, and I'm not entirely sure it was, would have been a cogent argument only for a brief window of time, sometime between the liberation of Nazi death camps and the start of the anti-communist witchhunt and the wars it engendered in Korea and Vietnam.
Chinapol, like much of the US defense establishment, has not fully emerged from the straitjacket of Cold-War style thinking; although composed of minds more subtle, supple and generally more liberal than those who currently run the Pentagon and lord over the American public from the White House, it is mired in the same expired paradigm. In essence, China can never do right and America can never do wrong.
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