Last week, Owl found this Economist article on China’s response to the Egyptian riots. Namely China has clamped down on reporting so that it focuses on stranded Chinese and the instability rioting has on daily life. Commentary on how this is a fight for a new government is eliminated or downplayed. Search results redirect you to a government warning or articles that deal lightly with the topic. Owl was horrified. The evil government! The innocent people who don’t know what their government is up to!
Then Owl read the comments. In brief, The Economist has an agenda when it writes about China. Chinese search engines do indeed generate articles on the Egyptian riots. Chinese commenters pointed out they’d been involved in heated and deep online discussions about Egypt. In fact, they are able to access this article.
Such is the strength of the printed word that now Owl is thoroughly confused. Her instinct is to believe the article. She does not think the commenters are lying, but perhaps they are part of an elite who can hack the censor. Does the average citizen have the same access to news? The Economist is a well respected magazine. It would not be full of lies and slander.
|No lies and slander here.|
Owl sent an inquiry to her friend Kate who is living in China. This is her response:
Economist is a little bit full of crap - I tend to think that a lot of what they write on china is pretty hysterical and ooga-booga, like OHHH the CHINESE they are COMING FOR US!!!!! Which may in some ways be accurate but it just isn’t the full story, it's very one sided. Not that Economist is the only one guilty of it, NYTimes is no better, much less CNN etc. WRT Egypt, AFAIK it's just on Weibo that you can't search for Egypt, and even so last I heard you could still search "Egypt," just not "埃及“. Also, they only blocked search results, but not actual postings about Egypt. Also, AFAIK Baidu can still search Egypt riots…That said, official news media in China is focusing on the rioting, violence and anarchy more than anything else. Most people I've encountered in China are pretty conflicted about the government - on the one hand many of them recognize how much good the CCP has done for the country in such a short span of time, lifting millions out of poverty and developing huge cities in only 30 years. On the other hand, they are deeply cynical about the CCP and realize that they have no say and no voice, and are blocked from information via the "great firewall" and other kinds of censorship...and recognize the abuses of the government, and their powerlessness against it…
What frightens Owl is that if she’d read the print magazine which has no commentary, she’d never have thought to question the article. How can you question when you don’t even know what you don’t know?
And even when she read the commentary from Chinese people, living in China, Owl did not fully believe it. She had to ask someone whom she knew personally and trusted. What happens when people have no Kate?
Owl figures they must read. That’s what she does. Clearly it is working well for her. Owl wonders about business leaders who make deals with foreign companies, politicians who shape policy, and intelligence officers who provide these politicians with information. These people shape the world. These people get to declare war. Owl hopes they have far more comprehensive reading material, far less biases than she does, and the ability to question everything they read. It would be a tragedy if bad information led to a war and civilians and soldiers went up in flames because of some erroneous report.
Actually, Owl had a high school teacher who followed several major news networks to avoid the problem of bias. He would bring in clips from CNN, the BBC, the major French networks, and Al-Jeezera.
Owl admires him. He also reads the news until it explodes out of his ears. Owl has other interests like sleeping in or partaking in pie. She is not interested in giving these up to spend more time reading the news. Worse, Owl admits, even if she spends a lot of time reading the news or puzzling out all the layers of complexity that make up a full story, there is no proof that when push comes to shove she will remember the layers of complexity and act on them instead of the simple facts that are served up to her on a silver platter as the Sovereign Truth.
Recently Owl’s cousin from India asked her when America became independent. Owl floundered. Owl had vague memories of all of her history classes where her teachers promised her the only date she’d ever have to remember was July 4th, 1776. She also remembered her teachers telling her to be canny because July 4th wasn’t independence. Owl struggled. She knew July 4th was important because people eat hot dogs and fireworks and Owl always eats too many hot dogs and gets sick, but why? Why so many hot dogs in July? Owl prayed no one would shred her passport. Owl decided July 4th meant independence and she was hallucinating the part about being canny.
Owl consulted yahoo answers and saw that other people wanted to know when America gained its independence. Owl felt comforted. She wasn’t the only one! Then she thought about that again and stopped feeling comforted. She also noted that the answers to the question fell into three categories:
(1) Shock and outrage. Tell me you aren’t an American. What are our kids learning these days? Idiot!
(2) July 4th, 1776, duh!
(3) It’s up for debate. July 4th, 1776 was when America decided it was independent and gave the memo to Britain, a.k.a. The Declaration of Independence. Sept 3, 1783 was when the Revolutionary War ended, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Britain accepted the memo. January 14th, 1784 is when the Continental Congress ratified the treaty officially establishing the United States as an independent country.
Owl will let you guess which two answers were the most common. (Owl also finds it psychologically interesting America celebrates the day it decided it was independent, not the day of actual independence.)
Owl is left with an uncomfortable realization. Despite the amount of time she spent studying history in school, despite the immense effort her teachers took to impress upon Owl that the truth has multiple layers, what Owl remembers years later is the simple facts, the ones that have been repeated over and over until they are embedded in the canon as the de facto truth, so obvious they can not be questioned.
American Independence. July 4th, 1776. Duh!