Two halves of a Story: The Prize and the Public

How significant is the article The Iraq War and the American Elections in judging the appropriateness of the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo?

It depends on the authorship – if it was indeed written by Liu Xiaobo -, it would then still depend on what the article actually says, it would depend on the assessment of Liu Xiaobo’s work as a whole, and on the criteria on which the Nobel Committee, earlier this year, based its decision.

Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong offered an opinion for the Nobel Peace Prize debate this year, and the Guardian published it on December 15. That was five days after the Oslo ceremony, but the number of comments following it shows that it is still widely seen as a topic worth discussing.

This is what Sautman/Yan quoted from the Iraq War and the American Elections article:

[T]he outstanding achievement made by Bush in anti-terrorism absolutely cannot be erased by Kerry’s slandering … However much risk must be endured in striking down Saddam Hussein, know that no action would lead to a greater risk. This has been proven by the second world war and September 11! No matter what, the war against Saddam Hussein is just! The decision by President Bush is right!

No verifiable source here, either, and it is of course the job of Liu’s critics to provide a reliable source when quoting stuff that – or so JR believes – would have the potential to reverse a significant share of mainstream opinion.

But this issue aside, take the time to read the first 50 comments, and the way preconceived opinion, if not bare ideology, prevails there will be striking. There is one comment that is worth reflecting upon, by a certain HerrEMott:

If the Chinese government hadn’t locked him up incommunicado and allowed him to explain his point of view we’d be able to make up our own minds on the matter.

The Chinese and the global public, that is.

But most of the commenting thread that follows the Sautman-Yan article is anger, fear, and loathing, both from advocates of the award, and from its opponents.
Remarkably, none of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize advocates questioned the authenticity of the article Sautman and Yan quoted from. The logical implication of that would have been to address the contents in question. That didn’t happen either. There was no genuine debate.

One can blame that, to an extent, on the way the Chinese authorities and many Chinese individuals reacted to the prize. One can blame it on Beijing’s human rights violations, too – HerrEMott has a point there.

But that’s only half the story. The other half lies with those who are free to discuss and explore these issues, and to oppose, or support the 2010 award based on their own views, and information of their own. That half lies with us – in North America, Europe, and many other places outside China.

JR believes that there will be one impetus first of all that wants to suppress any questions about the appropriateness of the award to Liu. He can feel that impetus himself. After all, Liu Xiaobo is a man who is in prison for reasons Beijing and their party-controlled judiciary haven’t been able to explain.

But those of us who appreciate the prize for Liu Xiaobo (and sure, this blogger is one of them) shouldn’t leave the need for their own homework out of the account.

There is no use in restricting ourselves in a public debate that involves China – neither to please its leaders, nor to avoid “playing into their hands”. The former reason is probably neither a great concern for this blog, nor for most of its readers anyway. The latter one, the worry that something said might help totalitarianism or hurt its victims, may be a concern. But whenever that concern is allowed to determine a debate, it is likely to result into some kind of McCarthyism.

An open society needs its secrets, when it comes to security, or research and development, etc. What matters is that they are processed under the law. But debates as the one about Liu Xiaobo require no secrecy. If the desire not to address certain issues and keeping them down is really the motivation – this is JR’s guess, unless he’s told otherwise -, and if you think this concept out, this approach would be pretty CCP.

Even if your main concern is how to “beat China”, rather than about a performing public in your own country, undue secrecy can’t be the weapon of choice, even if our deliberations were merely practical or cynical. Secrecy and a refusal to address actual issues is a discipline in which China will outperform most other societies and countries.

A public that deals with its real issues (not least issues of its own), needs news readers who are demanding, in terms of information. Hans Leyendecker, a journalist with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, addressed the way our public is  underperforming.

Describing the coverage after 9-11, in a speech to Netzwerk Recherche (inquest network, roughly translated) in Hamburg in April 2002, he pointed out that most information that the media got about the terror network came from intelligence services, where disinformation was part of the business.

The way he described the public debate seems to suggest that many intellectuals and soap boxes happily worked with whatever they got from the media – both advocates and opponents of the Iraq.

But Leyendecker saved most of his criticism for his own trade. Even though much of the information the media got came from intelligence services, where disinformation was part of the business, readers and spectators were bombarded

with alleged revelations. There was a race for the placement of exclusive inanities with the aid of news agencies. Horror scenarios were to generate attention: fear of fear sells.
(….) Increasingly, media refer to other media which don’t know anything either. Something that could at the most be speculation is presented as fact. For a long time, there has been that mainstream named self-reference by communication scientists. Media refer to media, and that becomes news once again.

But how prepared is the public to pay for investigative journalism, online or offline? And how prepared are we to handle information of that kind? Free Internet content and blogs can’t replace the classical press. And the mass media as they are today aren’t up to the job, either.

The European public hasn’t looked good in the Nobel Peace Prize debate. That China looks worse is no excuse.

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