The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Saturday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central Time (8-11pm Eastern Time) on ShockNetRadio.com.
She stood in the square in her pretty white dress, dampened slightly by a soft morning rain, and gazed over the barricades at the soldiers massing. Yesterday the square had been filled with pro-democracy protesters, the largest number since marshal law had been declared on May 20. Last night, the loudspeakers and radio had urgently repeated the order to clear out or face “serious consequences.” But when she parked her bike there that damp June morning, she found the stone plaza, in her language known as the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” brimming with students and citizens facing off determined-looking, armed soldiers – more than she had ever seen in her 25 years of life. As she stood in the square in her pretty white dress, watching the protesters approach the soldiers across the barricades, she knew there would be no peace today in Beijing.
She witnessed the to-and-fro over the barricades, the faces bloodied from military truncheons, the red-stained stones in the street. She heard the shots, saw bodies wheeled away in carts, the protesters cursing and throwing stones and bottles at the soldiers. She was in the thick of it. What she saw would be known in China as the “June Four Incident” (六四事件) – when the Communist government would let you talk about it at all – and few before or since could quite grasp the brutality of the government crackdown on its own people. From the military assault on Chinese citizens in Tiananmen Square (天安门广场) over 3,000 were injured. Anywhere from 180 to 500 died.
What I want to ask is, while she knows first hand that “freedom isn’t free,” how well do we Americans know it? Do we know it? I mean, really know it?
I asked my 84-year-old father what he did to support the troops during World War II. He said he sacrificed through rationing of gasoline, sugar, butter and meat. He recycled tin cans. He remembers letter-writing to our troops overseas and war bonds to actually pay for the war. In fact, it was called the War Department, not the Defense Department. And there was a draft. So everyone knew someone involved in the war effort.
What about us today? We’ve pretty much extricated ourselves from the senseless 8½-year war and occupation in Iraq, but the U.S. remains in Afghanistan. And we are so far removed from these wars that “support the troops” comes down to making some entrepreneur rich buying his yellow ribbon bumper magnets, the ones shaped like the Christian fish symbol, with not a penny going to the troops. There are no sacrifices, no war bonds, no draft. And very few of us know anybody involved in the war. And, from the start, that was by design: the wars were as off our minds as they were off budget.
After Tiananmen Square in 1989, China changed forever. But so too did the rest of the world: that November, the Berlin Wall was pulled down. Eastern Europe would shake off its Communist yoke. Russia would disunite a Soviet Union. There would be sputterings of freedom in an unfree world.
But not in China. Not on June 4, 1989, anyway. Following the massacre in Tiananmen Square, after the purges of sympathizers, nothing durable would be done in China until after the death of Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), the leader who gave the order to fire. Gazing over the square more recently, as I did with the woman in the beautiful white dress – the one who witnessed that massacre 23 years ago – we saw a China having grown economically by leaps and bounds, but politically only by baby steps. And I wondered which is worse: not having freedom and failing to achieve it, or having freedom and failing to fight for it.
We Americans have our July 4th. The Chinese have their June 4th. Our American anniversary has become a mere background decoration – an occasion to set off fireworks (a Chinese invention) to the tune of a Russian overture to mark a largely forgotten blood sacrifice ten generations old. For the Chinese, it’s been barely a generation: the blood on the street is relatively fresh.
What have we Americans done, lately, to preserve freedom and liberty for all?
Did we insist that those who profit the most from the American commons contribute the most to pay for it? Did we resist allowing our leaders to fracture us along racial and ethnic lines in order to divide and conquer us? Did we call out our leaders on choosing foreign wars that enrich only the wealthiest among us and spill the blood of only the poorest among us? Did we challenge the un-American voter suppression laws designed to restrict the franchise to one ruling class? Did we confront the religious and political forces combining to control the reproductive choices of women? Did we defy bigoted, religion-based limits on the definition of marriage and family? Did we fight against the sale of American democracy to the highest bidder?
Or did we kowtow? It was the Chinese, after all, who invented the word (叩头) describing complete abasement before your master.
Will we face down our misrulers in our own Tiananmen Square? We’re already feeling the “serious consequences.” Is there an American summer coming, to follow last year’s Arab Spring? What will we do to preserve freedom and liberty for all?
I predict there will soon be blood on your pretty white dress. But I’m not sure from which side of the barricade it will come.
Copyright © 2012 Ronald Bruce Meyer. To hear an audio version of this Reflection, click on this link: Freedom Isn't Free
In her 1991 Nobel lecture, Gordimer makes a brilliant if veiled charge, using theistic language, that writers are more powerful with their words than religions are with their dogmas.