Thursday, April 2, 2009



“Freeman's only qualm about the killing of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen in 1989 was that the Politburo waited too long before ordering the People's Liberation Army to start shooting. Even a hard-headed realist ought to distinguish between the need to cooperate with China and a betrayal of America's true allies. Freeman was brought down by the wrong forces for the wrong reasons."

--Boston Globe editorial, March 30, 2009

It’s editorials like the one quoted above, in which the Boston Globe viciously attacks veteran diplomat Chas Freeman for alleging that the Israeli lobby influences US politics-- that makes me despair for the future of newspapers.

It makes the Boston Globe sound like a blog, and not a very good one at that, not so much a respectable rant written by a gentlemen in his bathrobe as a cheap, anonymous, ad hominem attack on a US statesman which doubles up as a veiled attack on China.

Does the Boston Globe really want to telegraph to the world its provincial and deeply prejudiced anti-China, pro-Israel lobby stance? It does that already in the stories it chooses to commission and highlight in its pages, need it be any more explicit?

One could make a cogent argument to the effect that China, not Israel, deserves a special relationship with the US. That it is in the interests of world peace and prosperity that the richest country with the biggest arsenal be at peace and constructively engaged with an up and coming economic giant that is the world’s most populous country.

As for the allegation that Chas Freeman wanted the PLA to shoot at civilians, it’s libelous and deliberately twisting nuanced things he has said on a complex topic.

I was on a campus in Beijing during the 1989 street protests and I joined fellow students in marching from a gated educational enclave to Tiananmen Square, fully expecting the police to stop the march and perhaps even to swing a few batons and toss some tear gas canisters to push us back. That we could march to the Square, day after day with impunity, then set up a tent city on the scale of Woodstock, was exhilarating and uplifting and rather odd.

One can make a good argument for governmental tolerance; letting the demonstrations take wing, letting students vent their grievances, establishing an honest dialogue or at least showing restraint until the demonstrators played themselves out, and that would have been my preference.

Conversely, in the realpolitik view that I think is in accord with what Mr. Freeman reports hearing from Chinese interlocutors, one could argue that firm police cordons and strict back-to-school orders observed fairly and consistently from day one might also have avoided a tragic showdown on the Square.

The point is, a firm but restrained handling of the unrest from the outset would have been preferable to what instead took place; mixed signals leading to a debacle. Government dithering, due to factional fighting as we now understand it, led one hand of the state to slyly encourage, the other hand to viciously crack down. This allowed things to escalate to the point that put thousands of lives at risk, in the end hundreds of demonstrators and scores of soldiers were killed in a melee of violence.

Just as liberal humanitarians might have wished for more tolerance, diplomatic realists such as Freeman bemoan, and not without wisdom, the lack of a benign crackdown at the outset; the point being that a large scale bloody uprising and military crackdown was in no one’s true interest, except perhaps for well-paid editorial writers in their New England armchairs who want to say tsk tsk to the Chinese government.

There were no winners at Tiananmen, it was a tragedy for all sides, soldiers included. The Boston Globe has no high moral ground in this instance.

Indeed, if recycling hateful cliches is the best the Globe’s editorial writers have to offer, --and it comes on the heels of an even more odious and withering ad hominem attack on the same foreign policy expert by the Washington Post— then maybe slashing staff and letting the moribund, increasingly insolvent opinion leaders stew in their own juice is just desserts.

It’s like raising the old canard about Iran wanting to “wipe Israel off the map,” a devious soundbite that Juan Cole and other linguists have demonstrated to be an inaccurate translation, but it keeps getting circulated anyhow. If it serves its purpose to rally readers in a desired direction, what matter the truth?

Why should what precious credibility the Globe or the Post has earned through the reliable writing of its reporting staff be sullied by editorial cheap shots and anonymous attacks?

The Wall Street Journal has made an art of such distinguished mud-slinging but I would hardly consider it an exemplar of good editorial policy.

There is a place for signed opinion and signed commentary in newspapers, but it increasingly seems to me that unsigned editorials, the sort of diktat from above that one associates with Pravda or the People’s Daily of old, are dinosaurs that should go the way of dinosaurs.

Given the economic downturn and pressures on papers to survive, I suggest the hacks who write unsigned editorials at the Washington Post, Boston Globe and other big papers be given their pink slips. Save the money for reporting or honest commentary. Forget about what the “Globe” thinks, or what the “Post” thinks, --do newspapers really think? Instead, keep a small editorial staff sufficient to sift through letters from readers and signed commentary with diverse authorship (not agented hack pieces and PR pabulum of the sort that the New York Times, owner of the Boston Globe, routinely trades in.)

I love newspapers. Delivering them was my first job, reading them gave me a rudimentary education in world affairs, saving old copies on historic dates a hobby and writing for them has been not so much remunerative as a pleasure in itself.

But hate speech of the sort emanating from editorial board rooms in recent years, the kind of speech that contributes to a country going to war or slapping sanctions on people they don’t know and don’t understand, is unacceptable. If newspapers don’t reinvent themselves in a more equitable fashion, they deserve to wither on the vine.