Friday, April 2, 2010

Decent Democracy

An essay inspired by the book To the Edge of the Sky by Anhua Gao

Our U.S. neighbors have changed for the worse during this past year. Besides feeling unhappy with the changes, I also feel foolish and defensive, since many people would say nothing's wrong. If only the changes  were to things I can plainly see, such as more handheld gadgets. Sadly, there are confusing changes to stuff I can't so easily see or measure: I am unhappy with the new decline in politeness in U.S. public discourse. I can't prove this decline, but it's important to me. Of course, it would be easy for me to escape from confusion, easy to escape into the cliche, "What is not measurable does not exist."

As for politeness, it's a pity the book I've just finished, a "best seller" according to wikipedia, probably was not a best seller over in the U.S. I am moved by To the Edge of the Sky, an autobiography by Anhua Gao, a sweet pretty lady. In her book she is "I," while to me she is "Anna." She tells of surviving a harsh life under communism. Anna loses both parents, "revolutionary martyrs," at a  young age. Just like when I read of orphans like Pollyanna or Sara Crewe, my heart goes out to Anna.

She had a good mother. A good person herself, Anna spent her life rejoicing in what very few good people she was able to find. Too few. I wish I had been there, perhaps as part of the embassy or a trade mission, so I could have offered Anna my heart and taken her away from it all. Unfortunately for Anna, so many people under communism were so horrid. To call them "impolite" would be the "understatement of the year."

I wonder: What makes North Americans so optimistically oblivious to the fact that mass oppression, be it  political or economic,  affects masses of individuals?... Sometimes, on the breeze, I catch overly optimistic ideas about the world. I think such optimism is magical thinking, suitable only for children, but perhaps, I say with sarcasm, they are right.

Perhaps individuals and groups are supposed to bravely carry on with complete disregard for their circumstances, like so many machines. Perhaps workers, off in a collective or here at home, should be able to completely surmount any difficulties, and bravely redouble their efforts when needed. Like that horse in Animal Farm. Obvious question: but wouldn't this require they be only trying at 50-80 per cent effort in the first place, not already idealistically striving 100 per cent? ... And perhaps all nations are equal, equally healthy, all carbon copies of each other. And perhaps that's all so much horse carbon.

Overly optimistic slogans, however liberal and  politically correct, may serve to  help oppressors, such as the government, while serving to allow harm to real people. And so I have been considering...

The personal:

A for-profit agency like mine, which in good faith cut costs idealistically right to the bone, is now being expected to start shaving off calcium. I guess we could have secretly held back some reserves when directed by the government to cut costs the first time. Now our clients are starting to pick up on the stress although we are trying to shield them. A colleague tells us of her symptoms, including requiring supreme effort just to get out of bed: She doesn't need to tell us the D-word. (Depression) I find myself eating junk food at home for the first time in my life. For those overly optimistic readers who need numbers, my boss reports a measurable decrease in the number of employees who stop by to chat. She thinks people are "assuming" more than usual, and that feelings are being hurt.

The political:

Meanwhile, down in the States, where they did not, before the recession, have the healthy banking system we did, things are now worse. Journalists report measurable increases in the number of folks requiring social services for things like domestic violence; meanwhile I'm finding a sudden increase in new hard-to-measure "aggressive" political Internet writings, such writings as I never saw during the past eight solid years of Bush. I think my findings are important. People have gone crazy, with some of them (healthcare) seemingly regarding their own government as being an occupying power. I sense a surge of impoliteness.

The World:

Can a nation, under a Muslim theocracy, or communism, suffer a national decline in mental health, citizenship and overall civilized behavior? I think so. I won't optimistically blame everything on something as fixable and simplistic as "poverty," not when the East Germans, despite their European standard of living, had a staggering number of people in the secret police files. Remember? Wikipedia reports, "When part-time informer adults were included the figures reach approximately one spy per 6.5 citizens." I forget how high the figures climb when you include people who had informed once or twice after feuding with a relative, ex-boyfriend or coworker. A quarter of the people? A third? There was much anguish after tons of police documents, "measurable proof," were revealed after the eclipse of Berlin.

I have never come across first person accounts of life in East Germany, but I have for Iran and China. In recent years the spotlight, as part of the war on terror, has been on Iran. I am not optimistic about Iranians, not after they went from walking bravely into the future to violently spinning in place, striving for an Islamic past. To me Iran is a sick place, with happy moments and memories and bouncing babies, to be sure, while such moments are embedded in a sick nation. Here at home a fool might optimistically think those Iranians are happy from their censorship, from not knowing any better, but I don't think so: Of course they are conscious that something is wrong! Maybe the tension of having this knowledge, but without having freedom of speech, is why the religious officials, if they see transgressors on the sidewalk, beat them so hard.


As a young man in the port of Vancouver I occasionally saw old male communists in little groups going slowly down the sidewalk. They would be wearing blue pants with matching blue Mao jackets while walking solemnly with their hands behind their backs. At the time I never guessed that one day, at university, I would be in a toastmaster club where young married Chinese students, on visa from mainland China, would wear ordinary colorful western clothes, and be lively, smiling, and well liked. They fitted right in to the club. Each one, during their first speech, the "get to know you" one, mentioned living through the Cultural Revolution. No one ever gave details: Too horrible, too long ago and perhaps generation Y students are too innocent. I don't think anyone ever asked the Chinese students any cold war questions such as, "Have you ever seen a secret  policeman?" or, "Is your child still back in China to keep you from defecting?" Times have changed. I can't prove the change, but I feel I can relate better to those colorful students than to those old men in Mao jackets.

My club included a nice man my age who was not on visa - he is a hospital technician - who would have seriously considered returning to China (defecting in reverse!) to resume being a physician, except his teenage daughter was Canadian and would not be happy. Everybody thought it would great if I went over to China to teach English and enjoy good food. ( A lady in my club who immigrated years ago was recruiting for her old high school.) Forget the frozen war: I felt happy to live in peacetime, in the here and now.

Anhua (Anna) Gao:

Today, after finishing Anna's book, I'm feeling grim. I haven't read any first person accounts of China in so many years. Except that, a few years ago, I read an account by an (initially) idealistic Mao-loving Canadian journalist, Jan Wong, about the horrors of the 1970's. She published her book after the events were safely past; she offered further "reader safety" by combining a funny cover and the title Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now.

To the Edge of the Sky offers no such safety. It's gripping for me because not only were the earlier passages a part of my  youth—like yesterday to me—but Anna's miserable story goes on past the Cultural Revolution, past the eclipse of Berlin and well into the 1990's - where "today" starts for me. (Because I reached middle-aged cruising speed in the 90's) What struck me most was not the politics, not the party members, but the impolite, indecent behavior of everyday people under communism. Anna's book is subtitled A Story of Love, Betrayal, Suffering and the Strength of Human Courage.

When Anna was still a girl her sick mother needed a medical test. She and her child traveled far away, to an uncle's luxurious house, to stay there for a week to be near a hospital. Unfortunately, the uncle had to go away on business after the first day. And  then came something out of a Grimm fairy tale. All through the next week the Wife of the house made the girl's sick mother use only cold water, no warm bath, and have only one small thin blanket for two. So the mother, although she had just been living for two years in a dry aired hospital, gave the blanket to the child and lay awake shivering each humid night, getting sicker. Soon after returning home, she died...

This is only the first of many examples of people behaving badly under communism. Down the years Anna, as girl/youth/woman/wife, finds that rages, misuse of power, grudges and malice are common. And beatings are as intense as they are commonplace. I guess power corrupts; I think of a dysfunctional family, or a brutal boarding school, only here it is as if the whole nation was one great residential school... Maybe this was "merely the Chinese culture" but no, I think the whole nation was suffering. Anna describes all too well how the evils of communism were systemic. The "worst of times" was the Cultural Revolution. I hadn't realized it lasted as long as our Great Depression. During America's Depression the suicides ended a few weeks after the Wall Street crash; during the Revolution the suicides went on and on.

Anna survives the Revolution by sheer luck. It is in the 1980's, after the Revolution is finally over, that her luck runs out. She becomes an innocent political prisoner, in a torture prison, for long time. Only by incredible chance is she released...

... Anna now finds herself having a political stigma, her life ruined. She starves. One day a group of secret policemen take her to a government building—not the prison—for further "questions." They try to make her betray someone who had helped her.

In this passage, with simple declarative sentences, Anna sounds so weary; yet she still thinks of others:
After that I was allowed to go. No ride home. No escort. I was of no further interest. I was glad to be free of them at last. That day had seemed like a month, and I was exhausted from so much questioning and lying. I walked from the court building and followed the sounds to where the basketball game was being played. About fifty young people were enjoying themselves. I stood and watched for a while. I hoped they would never have to live through such repression as I had survived.

As a man I love poor Anna's generous heart; as a sensitive reader I feel grim. If I had a guitar I would reach for it and play a sad song. Instead I reach for my blessed laptop. When my guitarist friend sings once again that war is not glorious, or when I type once again that non-democracies are not pretty, it must seem redundant. We would sure hope so; but we won't stay silent.

Not now, not when our U.S. cousins have begun shredding their democracy, shooting themselves in the foot. Why? Why is their social decline—a decline hard to prove, one which most of them still can't see—happening now? Certain Americans—a precious few—have begun offering guesses.

I firmly believe the mental health of nations can differ across time and space. I don't expect my home town will become as bad as Orwell's future London or Anna's old Nanjing. (Nanking) But neither do I blandly assume the U.S. will stay magically frozen and unchanging.

U.S. Americans, these days, don't seem to realize how politeness is precious in a democracy, or how liberty depends on decency. How far will they decline and change? I don't know. Yesterday I caught a YouTube video of someone with scornful laughter singing, "There's a communist in the White House...."

Some folks... don't realize how lucky they are.

Sean Crawford,
April 2010,
~For more on Anna see my essay of July 2010, entitled Recent Quotes.

~In fairness to the Americans, recently (March 24) some Canadian professors in Regina—16 of them— were equally crazy. Obviously these eggheads think not only is our government "separate," like an occupying power, but the soldiers are separate too. They signed a letter saying the children of soldiers killed in Afghanistan should not be allowed to have university (heroes program) scholarships because the war was "imperialism." Clearly they have forgotten the average soldier can't even define "imperialism," while the rest of us regular Canadians are also shaky on that word... Surely it is the responsibility of the professors, as a part of our community and our body politic, to educate the rest of us. But no. Instead they feel separate, off in some alienated ivory tower. Wimps.

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