This past Sunday’s New York Times’ “Week in Review” printed a feature about the reinvigoration of “soft authoritarianism” (my own term). The Times’ argument more or less rests upon the recent Russian invasion of Georgia, and the relative ease with which the Chinese pulled off the Olympics without having to ease any of their restrictions on freedom of speech and protest.
Now, before I begin any real exculpatory remarks in defense of Russia and China’s seemingly ‘new’ form of governance, I think a small amount of perspective on these two events would do well to put peoples’ minds to rest on the matter.
First of all, a few words on the conflict in Georgia. The Western media has been spinning this conflict as a resurgence of Russian power. While it would have been much better for the West had this conflict never occurred, a little bit of perspective will immediately show just how much Russia’s power has been in decline. 25 years ago, the ‘doorstep’ of Russia was Eastern Berlin. Georgia was considered to be little more than a passageway to Turkey for Russian generals. The fact that we are now warring (more or less) with Russia about this parcel of land should actually be a reassurance for Western governments.
Now, China. I think that the biggest reason behind all this worrying is a lack of understanding amongst Westerners of how Chinese society works. I don’t consider myself an expert, but I think that what to us falls under the category of fair political dissent and dialogue is to the Chinese embarrassing and unharmonious. I don’t think that the Chinese government’s intolerance of protest is on account of a genuine desire to quash any dissenting opinions. However the importance of “saving face” (丢脸) in Chinese society is something that transfers over to their ways of giving and receiving criticisms. To think that the only way of achieving societal change is by sometimes-violent protest is to be churlish and bigoted. The Chinese government (much though it may not want to) can trace its “mandate” as the governor of society and its prerogative towards maintaining a harmonious political dialogue to well over 5,000 years ago. The Chinese are not in any rush to affect sudden changes in their social plan.
This all said, I think that there is much that Western democracies can learn from these two resurgent ideologies. More than anything else, I think that the incomprehensible and unorganized nature of liberal thought right now is owed to the fact that there is little structure to our social and cultural dialogue. It isn’t difficult to see what affect unrestricted speech has had on our culture. It has, on the whole, dumbed down our national dialogue. I find the biggest problem with liberal thought today is its inability to grasp this simple fact. By unwaveringly supporting freedom of expression, liberals make two inadvertant concessions. Firstly, in their quest for unfettered free speech, they make concessions to people like movie raters and television watchdogs to prevent themes such as overt sexuality and violent language from appearning on television. But because conservatives do not seem to have a problem with wanton violence, this is permitted freely, and as a consequence television and movies have become little else than a medium to convey horrible violence and barely-concealed bigotry against women (in order to satisfy ratings agencies while also driving up ratings).
The result? By refusing to acknowledge that some modicum of restraint is required in order to prevent our entire national dialogue from being cheapened, liberalism loses to conservatives who have no qualms with moralizing on mass media.