the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world













After the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, it became extremely difficult for anyone claiming to support freedom and democracy to support simultaneously the détente with the regime which carried out the massacres. But logical difficulties have never been a particularly strong obstacle for the conservatives in Yankeeland, and too many to count actually argued for continued engagement. Their argument was based on the most preposterous cultural fraud I can remember. Supposedly, there was something about Confucian culture which required pandering to the Chinese regime. “If we behave confrontationally, they will sense a loss of face, and act belligerently in return. If we behave cordially (read: obsequiously), they will have preserved face, and be inclined to cooperate.” Of course, these conservatives were all business conservatives, interested only in furthering the economic interests of themselves or their constituencies. To recommend obsequious behavior would be natural to them, because it is part of entrepreneurial culture; that is how they behave. They fawn, they coddle, they flatter, they debase themselves, because they want something: they want money. They will do whatever humiliating thing is required to convince a person to part with its money. Their recommendation was worthless for several reasons, though.

First, they were not advocating that the democracies cajole the Chinese government to get something that the democracies wanted (human rights) but to get something that the business conservatives wanted (sales, contracts, exports, raw materials ― money). Does an entrepreneur fawn over customers on behalf of another company? Should a liberal-democratic government really be coddling dictators for trade relations?

Second, even if the democracies were coddling the Chinese government only for human rights, there was no significant behavior by the regime, before or after the implementation of the policy, to suggest that they would respect human rights under any circumstances. After many years, the dictators are still in power, there is nothing like human rights in China, and at most a few dissidents have been (temporarily) released. The sporadic release of political prisoners is, if anything, reason to believe that the game is unnecessary. The rulers of China are playing it themselves. The democracies have something they want, and they are trying to curry favor to get it. Every prisoner release has been staged just before an important decision which could turn in the regime’s favor. It has never represented a change of heart; the changes were not permanent, and if the decision was negative, there was always backsliding.

Third, it was both hypocritical and wrong to state that the matter of face was peculiar to Confucian culture. All tyrants, like most persons, like to be flattered and coddled. They thrive on formal respect, mistaking it for actual respect. They create fear and take it for love. They all respond negatively to confrontation. Those who are used to adulation do not cope well with its opposite. They become defensive when they cannot intimidate. But none of these is a good reason to participate in the adulation. These individuals and regimes are immoral to the extreme. They are beyond redemption. When we confront them, it is precisely what they need and deserve. Why is it that the same conservatives who would stand up to Brezhnev and Castro and Saddam would suck up to Deng and Li and Jiang? Whoever told these idiots that they knew anything about humanity, Confucian or otherwise?

Fourth, even if all of this sycophancy succeeded in obtaining the gratuitous release of a few dissidents, it would be a mistake in the long run. I have great concern for the lives of individual dissidents; to suggest that one of them should stay in prison would to me be asking a member of my own people to suffer. But I, and they, know the value of sacrifice, and they would be serving a higher purpose. The urgent thing where tyrannies are concerned is to remove the tyranny, not to save any individual victim. This is not ruthless; it is far-sighted. Save one victim today, or a thousand tomorrow? Every day a tyrant stays in power brings more victims than could be saved with the life’s work of an entire delegation of truckling dignitaries and industrialists.

I find the idea of formal respect, and those who demand it, extremely nauseating. The thought that someone could be murdered for showing disrespect to (“dissing”) another is perhaps not far removed from the cowboy ethic of punching someone in the face for an insult; perhaps we should be a little slower to applaud every time that happens in a movie. To suggest that the democracies in the world should refrain from humiliating behavior even when it might save a life is superficially an overvaluation of formal respect and dignity. But symbols do have meaning, and they occasionally have physical consequences. To play into the dictator’s hands by showing the same adulation which it must otherwise terrorize entire populations to get is not doing those populations any favors. How can any potential dissident have the heart to protest injustice if the supposed bastions of justice are more concerned with commerce or geopolitics, and will not stand up to the tyrant even when they have the power and freedom to do so? Why would a dictator ever give up its position if every party, including those not forced or terrorized into doing so, does everything possible to make its life pleasurable? And tyrants ultimately know how thin and empty is the worship of their slaves. But the clubby collegiality of the world’s leaders must be an immensely gratifying experience for anyone, and especially for the paranoids and megalomaniacs who end up ruling such tyrannies.

Paying formal respect to those who murder, torture, imprison, oppress, invade, and destroy is not merely unseemly and undignified. It is, simply, immoral. Injustice must be protested. Grave injustice must be protested loudly. And eventually all injustice must be opposed by stronger means. Those who have not the stomach for violence should think first of the violence suffered by the nameless, faceless, countless victims of tyrants everywhere, throughout history. Tyrants do not respond to the silver tongue. They respond to the silver hammer. And they unquestionably have it coming.


Original version


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