Sunday, September 25, 2005

Reality is Getting Used to Reduced Freedom

I witnessed a fascinating conversation last night between three players: a scientist from China, a scientist from Russia, and a scientist from Canada. I was at a dinner party for Za's work, and when Za abandoned me to get some wine, I found myself in the middle of one of the more interesting conversations I been privy to: a Chinese man and a Russian man discussing their views of Communism and their native countries. The scientist from Canada offered interesting perspectives on how poorly news is reported in the U.S. compared to Canada, and the scientist from China responded that in the U.S. "reality is getting used to reduced freedom."

I tried not to think too much about what that statement meant, for fear that I would lose the thread of the conversation, which was so uncommon to the sorts of political discussions that I am used to among my mostly American, lefty colleagues.

The whole conversation started with a discussion about tap water. Our Chinese scientist remarked that given he was from a rural, small village in China, and grew up as a farmer, he was happy to drink tap water. He didn't see any reason to drink bottled water. Then, the Russian scientist slinked up to the conversation (I was sort of frightened by him at first), and he pointed out that nowadays, people might want to drink tap water because they are frightened that the water supply could be contaminated by terrorists. He was from Russia, we soon learned, from another small village in the Urals. Contrary to how this statement might sound, he wasn't really paranoid. I later found out that he was simply annoyed, at first, with the Chinese scientist, so he decided to contradict him.

The conversation evolved into a debate about how the U.S. journalists depicted China before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the collapse, although China was still a Communist state with human rights' abuses, the U.S. journalists didn't decry these because they preferred hating the Soviet Union. Our Russian scientist then suggested that our Chinese scientist friend was a bit too sympathetic to China; China deserved all of this negative reporting since living in a state with a totalitarian government is awful.

Chinese scientist argued that because the Chinese were gaining more freedoms since the government changed its economic policies before its political system (the opposite of the former Soviet Union), that citizens would no longer tolerate extreme fascism from the government. The Russian wasn't sold.

The particular case to think this through was the internet. Our Chinese scientist claimed that even in rural, tiny villages that his country men and women had reliable and cheap (25 cents an hour) access to the internet. And, that while the government did in fact limit certain word searches, that citizens could nonetheless access almost everything.

Russian scientists, tainted by his own experience of living under Communism, pointed out that the Chinese government could decide to totally control peoples' access to the internet as well as take away whatever freedoms they had gained thus far. Chinese scientist didn't think that was likely. (We all joked about the possibility of a second Tiananmen square over internet access). Moreover, our Chinese scientist (who, btw, is now an American citizen, who works at the NIH, and so is our Russian scientist, who works with Za) defended a strong central state government, which is good for the country. His case in point was how dastardly Russia collapsed into greater poverty and chaos after the fall of Communism. If Chinese scientist could do science in China, that is, if the Chinese government could afford the infrastructure for science, he would go back.

This was interesting. Our Chinese scientist did not hate the idea of living in his native country as much as our Russian scientist did. I made some stupid comments about the different attitudes toward Communism being the result of very different cultural values, e.g. loyalty, duty, community in China (blah, blah, blah).

However, when the conversation was ending (just before the food was served), all three scientists (remember the Canadian) turned to a discussion of how similar they found U.S. news to the news in Communist states. The government creates a fear among citizens of a threat, e.g. terrorism. Then, they give themselves more power to fight that threat, and keep the citizens constantly insecure in their reporting as well as build a patriotism for the state.

This conversation is what lead to the observation that Americans are being taught by their journalists that reality is getting used to reduced freedom. That is, we are being taught to give up our liberties in order to empower the state to fight the terrorists and other potential threats. Hence, we are giving up liberty and, through militarism, building a strong, central government.

While I have heard this account of our media before, it is much more telling to hear it from a Russian and Chinese citizen, both who lived under Communism and have different views of living under that system.