I trekked down to our nation's capital earlier this week to cover a rally in protest
of the absence of human rights in the Far East as a paramount point of
discussion between President Bill Clinton and his White House guest Chinese
President Jiang Zemin.
Since then, I've paid closer attention to the events surrounding Jiang's
stay than I probably would have. I watched intently as Clinton told Jiang during
a press conference that the Chinese government was "on the wrong side of
history" when it gunned down hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy
demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. I read with encouraged surprise
as Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell said he sympathized with his city's
demonstrators against Chinese Policy. "It was not an easy thing to do, to follow
protocol and welcome him," Rendell said.
As I followed Jiang's visit and its accompanying protesters, I thought back on
the rally I attended in Washington, D.C. Organizers couldn't have asked for a
more beautiful day. The sky was a crisp blue, and the warm afternoon sun
combined with the crisp, clean smell of fall made the whole event feel somehow
cozier than one might expect. It may have been the warmest protest I've ever
attended, not because of the temperature, but because so many political stripes
were united in a common cause. Conservatives pressed for religious freedom
in China; labor leaders called for worker's rights; environmentalists demanded
a halt to the destruction caused by Three Gorges dam. On stage, Chinese
dissidents recounted their struggles, as, all around us, Buddhist monks and
nuns chanted for their brethren in Tibet.
But after the rally, it wasn't these scenes I returned to; rather it was a sound, a
question posed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch as he finished his address to the
protesters that continued to ring in my ears. Yauch, who earlier had spoken to
me in a voice as quiet and soft as velvet, asked with resounding indignation,
"How dare President Clinton go into negotiations about selling nuclear
technology to China without having human rights on the forefront of that issue?"
Actually, it was the words "How dare?" that I kept coming back to. It was
easy for me to fill in the rest with my own ponderings, especially those related to
my own shortcomings. "How dare I live my life of many freedoms without trying
to assist these people who are being denied the very things I treasure?"
Fugazi singer Ian MacKaye told me during the protest that he thought of the
event as just one of the thousands of things that go into living an examined life.
"I didn't think it was particularly more important than anything else I try to do
anyway," he said. "It just seemed like a really logical place to be this afternoon."
MacKaye wasn't suggesting that everyone live the kind of microscopically
reflective life he leads. To the contrary: "I think at this point just taking the time to
read about the situation [in Chinese-occupied Tibet] would be an enormous
help," he said.
He's right. Personally, I know little about Tibetan art, literature, morals, history,
government, religion. I know little about the people whose culture, I've been
told, is in danger of being eradicated. I also know little about what's happened
to the pro-democracy movement in China since Tiananmen Square; or about
the wanton use of the death penalty in that country. Obviously I can't know
everything. But it would be easy for me to learn more, and I have to think the
world would be a better place for taking time to do so.
A colleague suggested to me earlier this week that musicians working for a
free Tibet need to put a new spin on their cause to reinvigorate U.S. music
fans who've now watched two summers of Tibetan Freedom Concerts and are
in danger of burning out on the issue.
That sentiment stuck me as grievously self-centered. How dare we
burn out on a people's freedom?
I get paid to sit in my house and write nearly whatever I choose about the art I'm
most passionate about. Meanwhile, somewhere in China, a person is getting
beaten while sitting in jail for writing or speaking about freedom of speech;
freedom of religion; freedom of assembly; the right to a speedy trial by jury -- the
very things that most of us would agree we should be most passionate
How dare I -- How dare I turn a deaf to the news? How dare I plead too little
time to read a story about it? How dare I cry there's no time to write a letter?
How dare I not do my part?
If you'll excuse me, I have reading to do.
[Sun., Nov. 2, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]