Thursday, June 4, 2020

Tiananmen 2020, Have You No Sense of Decency, Mr. Trump?

"We will never forget." I vowed solemnly and publically. I have never forgotten the horror of the Tiananmen massacre. A world seeming to move toward the light had suddenly turned to shade.

It is hard now to write about something that I was so certain of when it was happening. We thought the world was awakening, and we thought that it had started in China. But who were we?

People had called me because I was the new teacher of Chinese in town. I wasn't terribly well informed. I wasn't very politically sophisticated. Those events restarted my education. My education remains a work in progress.

I had assumed the headmaster's spot in the school where I taught. It was a wonderful school "for gifted children," though I thought it was just a wonderful school. By the time I took over, it had been in financial trouble for a long time. So was Buffalo.

Now at the far end of a varied and often satisfying life, I still struggle to inhabit Chinese and to understand China. I still struggle to understand America. The school didn't last. My marriage didn't last. The downward slide arrested by Obama reverted to form. But America must last.

A year after the events in 1989, while struggling to keep my troubled school open, I helped to organize a commemorative event near the Rose Garden in Delaware Park, Buffalo, NY. Our nearby school provided dressing rooms and costume storage for Shakespeare in the Park. Attendance at the commemoration was boosted by Mayor Jimmy Griffin trying to block the event. Who can understand the motives of a petty tyrant?

I was the plaintiff against hizzoner, in a court case brought on constitutional grounds. The front page Buffalo News coverage of that leadup to our event assured that the commemoration would be well-attended. We won the court case, though I still had to sneak in with the borrowed key to the power box for Shakespeare's stage, the night before. The portable stage that the county supplied needed power for its PA system.

There were tensions and disagreements among the mayor, the county executive, and the Buffalo police. These worked in our favor, though I was a little nervous about what I had gotten myself into. I'd talked my board into indemnifying the event. I was no longer a friend of the mayor, but the police force was our friend, as was the country executive, Dennis Gorsky.

My certainty that China was turning a corner in the direction of democracy had slowly turned to horror the year before. The efficiency with which they turned to holdout astonished me, even while the Soviet Union fell and the Berlin Wall came down. 

I would address a crowd in Buffalo's sister city Tver later that summer, as hizzoner's representative. We also taught Russian at Calasanctius School. I was selected to speak by the mayor of Tver, among all the representatives from all over the world. Yeltsin had not yet mounted the tank. Glasnost was in full swing. The mayor of Tver liked me because I was young and looked very American. 

I spoke from the plinth of a massive statue of Lenin. I spoke of minds opened which could never again be closed. I was the young schoolmaster. My translator shrugged and let me go ahead. In my memory, the hordes roared. 

The Resolution Trust corporation was in process of unwinding all the failed banks in Buffalo after the Savings and Loan disaster, while I was in Russia. Still, there was hope somehow. And Buffalo may be coming back now.

But this year, even Hong Kong won't be able to hold their commemoration of June 4, 1989, by virtue of COVID-19. My daughter won't be able to proceed with her wedding which was planned for the Rose Garden in August. I will transition to Medicare.

I am baffled that with so many of our paycheck to paycheck workers out of work, my minuscule retirement fund has climbed back up to where it was at Christmas. How can this make sense? With over 40% of our sub $40K workforce unemployed, the stock market remains alive?

The center of gravity has shifted. The economy has grown strange. Things are grave indeed here in these United States. China rising. I remain confident that our military brass, familiar all with the events of June 4, 1989, would never allow our armed forces to be deployed on our own soil to stop protests. Two of my uncles attended West Point, and two cousins taught there - one from either side. These are honorable people. They understand the promise of America, not only to our citizens, but to the world.

It is possible that I have become a revisionist on China. I understand the importance of stability to peoples' daily lives. Having lived for a while in Beijing in 1986, I understood something of the volatility that was brewing there. 

Later on - still prior to the massacre - I led a group of my students and some interested adults on a tour of China. The group included a young black man from my own class. I was glad he didn't know enough Chinese to hear the comments made as he walked along the streets. One day, on our bus ride to the Great Wall, we passed a group of naked African 'streakers' who were protesting their treatment as supposed guests of the government. They were intending to bring Chinese engineering knowhow back home to Africa.

Still, the Chinese government has been orchestrating steady improvements to the lives of their citizens, and I remain stubbornly confident that the slow arc of Chinese history will turn in the direction called out by Dr. Martin Luther King. For me, the right direction remains the promise of the United States. 

I am happy for China that they are not saddled with the distortions we suffer from our inheritance of Platonic philosophies and religions. They don't imagine a fulfilled and perfected scientific understanding of everything in ideal terms. They've long since grown beyond any notion that there is some personal God as agent for cosmos. I find the Falun Gong just as objectionable as does the Chinese government, and I've nearly lost my certainty about what is right for Tibet and for the far west of China, Xinjiang.

In some ways, I long for the certainties of my youth. I was evidently smart, but I know that my parents were assembling teachers to get me somehow to start reading. They wanted to send me to the school that I later headed. I was far more interested in building gocarts and riding my bike. I wanted to be an engineer.

Of course I could read, but I didn't. My first real book was Plato's Republic. I have no idea what moved me, but I pulled it from the shelves of Britannica "Great Books" in my father's study, and read it in a single night. I remember being thrilled that I could actually understand it.

Everything is so manipulated now. We can use the "concentration camps" in the Chinese west to deflect attention from what we do by imprisoning blacks here at home. Meanwhile, we live out the Chinese playbook for what is wrong with American-style democracy. They have long pointed out our racism as our ongoing flaw, even as they value Han ethnicity - as fictional and constructed as any race could be - and harbor their own prejudices against blacks.

Some of us have called witness to America on our disheartening slide since the days of Richard Nixon. Since the days of assassination. We know that Ronald Reagan sold out our fourth estate. We know that it wasn't China that stole our jobs, but that it was our own greedy capitalists; the ones who were always happy to employ child labor and pay slave wages. Now Rockefeller and Carnegie have transmogrified into Zuckerberg and Bezos.

I was working near LA when China's now Chairman Xi was making his pre-ascendance rounds. My Chinese colleague - an American citizen - wouldn't wash her hand that shook Xi's hand for weeks after the banquet at the consulate, where she was seated at table number one.

I know that Xi is a better man than Mitch McConnell. That is despite Xi's ruthlessness in sweeping away his rivals. Despite arrogating power for life. Despite cracking down on the liberties that we cherish. He genuinely cares for his people.

Trump is beyond the pale of any human reckoning. I hold him responsible for tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. 

Once while deplaning from an international flight to the U.S., I found myself next-in-line behind Lindsey Graham as we passed through the newly implemented security protocols, soon after 911. He was unshaven and friendly, and the customs officials recognized him. I pointed him out to my daughters. I had good feelings about him then, as an intelligent and principled conservative.

So, I've watched Graham's career, and no matter how hard I try I can't understand what's happened to his soul. I don't understand the certainties that so many in our country seem to have. I don't understand how everything decent about their beliefs, religious or political, can be tossed so easily away because of the electoral power of a scoundrel. As Joseph Welch asked Joseph McCarthy, "have you no sense of decency?"

So ended the communist witch hunt. And now once again, on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, we are asking the same of our own President. He cleared a path with rubber bullets and teargas so that he could pose for yet another photo opportunity. With a Bible! As many have observed, he held the Bible as though it were just another of his political wares that he is putting up for auction.

I busted my hump for President Obama, despite older wiser friends telling me that he would break my heart. But he is a thoroughly decent human being. He will finally get the leadership from the people that he was begging for from office.

Meanwhile, so many black voices are ringingly clear. I hear kindness and I hear resolve, and I especially trust the women's voices. So must we all. We white folk only know how to apologize and rationalize and explain how things should work. Meanwhile, black Americans and all Americans of color have learned how to lead and lead they shall. Black voices ring. They call for freedom. They call for decency.

There is an obvious genetic connection between Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump by the name of Roy Cohn. There is an obvious genetic connection between Mark Zuckerberg and the political advertising which killed Truman's attempt at universal healthcare. There is an obvious connection between money and power and souls for sale.

It must be that these Republicans so truly believe in the existing order that there is nothing they won't do to stay in power. It must be that they have lost all hope for reform and for the inclusion of all lives in the American compact. It must be that they have lost any American ideals that they must once have had.

While I waver now on whether China was wrong, I don't waver at all about the United States. We must rise to the power of the moment and march to the polls in hordes. We must take back our country. And we must allow those who have suffered oppression for so very long to lead us. Their certainty must become ours again.

As the Chinese anthem calls; "Rise Up, Rise Up!" I have hope again today.

No comments: