Friday, August 8, 2008

Motes and Beams


The Beijing Olympics open today at 8.8 pm local time; some of the British athletes have written to the Chinese President asking him to brush up his attitudes on human rights. I am not very impressed - and I do not think he will be either. Our capacity to detect motes in other people's eyes while disregarding beams in our own never fails to impress.

It is extremely unwise to preach to Johnny Foreigner about freedom of speech and the need for unfettered political expression when we not enjoy nearly as much freedom as we talk about in Britain.

What follows is the draft of a letter that I did not send to the Editor of the Financial Times in June, 2008. The FT is a very conservative newspaper - I did not think the letter had much chance of being published. Also (let me be straight about it since I am laying down the law about hypocrisy) I wanted to submit a proposal for an article about sailing to the FT and I thought submitting a simultaneous political rant might queer my pitch. But the opinions, the points I am making, remain valid in spite of my own pusillanimous nature.

The Letters Editor,
"Life and Arts" section,
The Financial Times,

Rana Mitter’s excellent review of the Penguin History of Modern China in the Weekend edition contained the following words:

“ ... the killing of unarmed protesters, for whatever reason, tells us something fundamental and disturbing about any regime.”

The suggestion is that only brutal dictatorships commit such acts, as the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Has everyone forgotten about Blair Peach, beaten to death in the street in London by a policeman in 1979? Or about Peterloo a little earlier (1819)? Or about Kent State University and the students shot by the National Guard in 1970? Is it a coincidence that America, the land of the free, is now (as another of your excellent reviewers put it), "a land where torture is debated rather than outlawed"?

Of course we don’t have a ‘regime’ in Great Britain. Our unelected Heads of State are, ultimately, kept in office by unelected military forces but that somehow bears no comparison with the unelected Heads of State in Burma or Pakistan who are also kept in office by military forces. Those people wear uniforms. They serve in the armed forces ....

OK, the Queen wears uniforms and Prince Philip (and Prince Charles) are Admirals of the Fleet or something. And Prince William is currently doing a grand tour of the Armed Forces and used a military helicopter to fly himself to a stag night party. But of course they are not spoiled, opulent, idle, unthinking, insensitive figureheads (apart from Prince Harry). It is just a coincidence that the Windsors have more medals and military ranks between them than any Burmese General or President (ex-General) Musharraf of Pakistan.

No, there’s nothing significant about all that. It’s fine for Britain to have a Parliament full of people recruited from the privileged classes, judges and lawyers who were largely educated at private schools and exclusive universities, surveillance cameras on almost every street corner and a police force that can hold you without charge for 28 (soon to be 42?) days without cause and that managed to shoot an unarmed civilian on a tube train by mistake.

Who would want it otherwise?

Also it’s ridiculous to compare the political turmoil in China in the twentieth century with the turmoil throughout Britain in the Seventeenth Century. Isn’t it? Or the Gadarene rush to industrialisation in Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with what India has achieved in a fraction of the time during the last 30 years? Or the story of Britain’s colonial enterprises (especially in Ireland) with what China is up to in Tibet? Shipping native Chinese into Tibet? Disgraceful! Almost as bad as shipping Protestant Scots into what became Ulster.

I rest my case.