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Twitter’s Theater of Radical Cruelty

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo’s death is the latest occasion for social media-propagated callousness and ignorant moral arrogance

Jamie Palmer
July 26, 2017
Photo: Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture of Liu Xiaobo seen inside the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, 2010.Photo: Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture of Liu Xiaobo seen inside the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, 2010.Photo: Daniel Sannum-Lauten/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 13, the Chinese human-rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died a prisoner of the regime he had been jailed and tortured for criticizing. Within hours of the news emerging, a former Salon writer named Benjamin Norton had taken to Twitter to register his disapproval—not of brutal Chinese authoritarianism, but of its victim. This was the latest example of a specious moral equivalence, particularly prevalent on the radical left, that continues to corrupt our discourse.

Liu Xiaobo wanted China to be a society that afforded its citizens the same rights, freedoms, and protections that Benjamin Norton has always been fortunate enough to enjoy. In pursuit of that cause, he was stripped of the freedom to write or teach and repeatedly incarcerated. He refused to renounce his views in exchange for his release, and so he became the first Nobel Peace laureate to end his life in custody since Carl von Ossietzky died in a Nazi prison hospital 79 years ago.

Norton’s curt Twitter obituary acknowledged none of this. Instead, his four interlinked tweets occasioned by Liu’s passing were devoted to a list of denunciations, which Norton barked out at his 43,000 social-media followers like a charge sheet of crimes against the Party:

Tweet one: Nobel-winning Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo just died. He was a US-funded, hard-right, pro-colonialist warmonger.

Tweet two: Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo loved war—defending US bloodshed in Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, etc—and justified Israeli crimes against Palestinians

Tweet three: Nobel-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo loved Western colonialism & hated Chinese culture, calling his own people “wimpy, spineless & fucked-up”

Tweet four: Warmongering pro-colonialist Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo wanted to privatize everything. His orgs were funded by the US gov, naturally.

And then … silence. If Norton’s thoroughgoing disdain for Liu’s political opinions is mitigated by compassion, he did not say so. Nor was he able to muster even perfunctory indignation about the injustice of Liu’s treatment by the Chinese state.

By way of substantiating his charges, Norton linked to a 900-word Guardian article by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong from 2010, and attached a screenshot of the relevant paragraphs to each tweet, helpfully highlighting incriminating words or phrases. Back then, the authors argued (wrongly) that Liu’s politics ought to have precluded him from winning the Nobel Prize. Today, Norton implies, they make him unworthy of commemoration or even pity.

And what were Liu’s deplorable opinions? Well, the Chinese dissident had supported America’s anti-Communist wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the post-Sept. 11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But for a democratic activist living in a police state, this was hardly unusual. Many prominent former dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe—including Lech Wałęsa, Adam Michnik, and Liu’s hero, Václav Havel—did likewise. Not because they were “champion[s] of war, not peace” (as Sautman and Yan would have it) or because they “love war” (as Norton would have it). They did so because they believed democratization to be both a moral imperative and a necessary precondition to societal peace. Dissident intellectuals who have spent their lives under totalitarian regimes tend to be anti-totalitarian. Having suffered and struggled against the agonies of dictatorship on their own behalf, they felt honor-bound to support its overthrow on behalf of Afghans and Iraqis. One might object that this view of American democracy promotion in the Middle East was hopelessly naïve or practically unworkable, but it was hardly ignoble.

What seems to have really excited Norton’s disgust, however, is that Liu believed that human rights are indivisible and universal and nowhere better protected than in Western liberal democracies. “The Difference between the Western and the Chinese governing system,” he remarked in a 1988 interview, “is humane versus inhumane, there’s no middle ground. … Westernization is not a choice of a nation, but a choice for the human race.”

In Sautman and Yan’s telling, this remark becomes “to choose Westernization is to choose to be human” which doesn’t mean quite the same thing, especially when lifted out of context and embedded in an entirely critical article. And as Sautman and Yan must know, Liu’s attitude changed considerably only a year after he gave that interview. His own travels in the West led him to write a 1989 essay, in which he subjected his previous analysis to unsparing criticism:

My tendency to idealize Western civilization arises from my nationalistic desire to use the West in order to reform China. But this has led me to overlook the flaws of Western culture. … I have been obsequious toward Western civilization, exaggerating its merits, and at the same time exaggerating my own merits. I have viewed the West as if it were not only the salvation of China but also the natural and ultimate destination of all humanity. Moreover I have used this delusional idealism to assign myself the role of savior. … I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense. If we stand back from Western civilization for a moment, we can see that it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general.

Such a passage speaks to Liu’s intellectual integrity and humility, which is probably why Sautman and Yan decided to overlook it. That Norton was happy to take their article as the last and final word on Liu’s politics and character speaks to his laziness and credulity. Had he wished to be fair-minded in his assessment of Liu’s legacy, Norton need only have ventured as far as Wikipedia.

But Norton showed no interest in fairness, or even in the appearance of fairness. He was in too much of a hurry announcing himself as an independent moral mind, undeterred by the hypocrisies of bourgeois sentimentality. To condemn his response as callous would be redundant because callousness was precisely what he wanted to advertise.

It is, of course, galling to see Norton arrogate to himself the right of self-criticism even as he denies that right to Liu, not least because vilification of American democracy costs Norton nothing, while opposition to Chinese authoritarianism cost Liu everything. But as a self-regarding bit of political theater, Norton’s petulant tweet-storm counts for little. He is not an especially consequential media voice, and his doctrinaire articles at Alternet have zero bearing on American policy or on the struggles of persecuted democrats in China, or anywhere else. His tweets about Liu are, however, an expression of a profoundly ugly mode of radical thought, which holds pity and fellow feeling in contempt and ruthlessness as a mark of virtue.

This is not an entirely new attitude on the American left. During the Cold War, stone-hearted Western radicals who had never experienced despotism denounced dissidents from the Soviet bloc as liars and quislings of Western imperialism when they testified to the horrors of Communist misrule. In more recent years, this sanctimonious contempt has metastasized to encompass ever-expanding categories of people deemed—either by their political views or their unalterable characteristics—to have forfeited the right to life, liberty, and human charity. Consider three recent examples:

1. When Islamist assassins executed the staff of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, the atrocity provoked a gruesome arms race on the far-left as radical commentators and bloggers competed to see whose attacks on the stricken magazine and its bereaved staff could be most heartless, most vulgar, and most cruel. The alacrity with which ignorant calumnies were marshaled in the hasty attempt to defame the departed was unnerving. More unnerving still was the evident pride these writers took in subordinating the weaknesses of compassion and decency to their solipsistic rage against France, “the West,” and other papier-mâché piñatas. Colonialism! Racism! Neoliberalism and neo-imperialism! The chickens, we were told with palpable satisfaction, had come home to roost (again).

2. In March 2016, the American student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for a petty (and almost certainly trumped-up) transgression by the Stalinist regime in North Korea—and naturally, a noisy contingent of post-colonial social media “activists” gloated over his misfortune. Pictures of Warmbier’s face contorted by anguish and fear were circulated on social media and his “white tears” were mocked. Salon (in a since deleted post) jeered that Warmbier was “America’s biggest idiot frat-boy” and, in the Huffington Post, a writer named La Sha from something called the Kinfolk Kollective helpfully instructed her readers in “The Revocation of White Privilege in North Korea.” All declared themselves unmoved by Warmbier’s plight, which was instead an occasion for scornful condescension and delighted schadenfreude. Seventeen months later, the 22-year-old student was returned to his distraught parents in a persistent vegetative state; he died within the week.

3. Days after the shooting of Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, Sha retweeted a post by an anonymous blogger titled “Let Them Fucking Die.” The author denounced Scalise as a homophobe and a racist before going on to declare himself weary of co-existence with “white/cisgender/heterosexuals” who “subvert, undermine, corrupt, and desecrate the virtues they extol [as a] matter of course by the very nature of what they are.” The only ethical course of action, he explained, was for the oppressed to purge themselves of mercy. “The merciful have no sway over the merciless. Give their constructions back to them. Turn your compassion inward.” And turn your hatred outward. If you see the oppressor in peril, he concluded, “Do nothing. … Let. Them. Fucking. Die. And smile a bit when you do.”

This happy sentiment is echoed across social media by users who openly identify as misandrist or who post tweets enjoining their followers to #killallTERFS. Such tweets are rarely a meaningful incitement to violence—they are better understood as a way of affirming in-group solidarity through squalid expressions of out-group hatred. When angry young Stalinists flick their middle fingers at a memorial to the victims of Communism, it’s a left-wing Quenelle—an expression of puerile effrontery for its own sake.

But these theatrics are no less sinister for being theatrical. Dehumanizing one’s political adversaries is the sine qua non for their persecution. And it has allowed for the veneration of those for whom pitiless violence and cruelty are not simply a pose. Convicted PFLP terrorist Rasmea Odeh and unrepentant Stalinist Angela Davis are routinely glorified from (and sometimes present on) progressive-rally platforms; genocidal anti-Semitic organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah are romanticized as the foot-soldiers of justice and liberation; the Black Lives Matter movement bends the knee before Castro’s Cuba and the Black Panthers; ‘social justice’ activists publicly align themselves with Louis Farrakhan and his openly racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic cult; and last week, the Women’s March blithely tweeted birthday greetings to Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, a convicted cop-killer.

This furious stoking of resentment and rage is invariably justified in the name of retribution. When these writers and activists examine their own societies, the benefits of liberal democracy and free enterprise entirely escape their notice, taken for granted even as they are ferociously denounced. They see only what is wicked and corrupt—a past of slavery, colonization, and plunder, and a present of exploitation, greed, hypocrisy, and racism, which are held to be the unique inheritance of the West. Anyone who admires such a system, or willingly submits to it, is either ignorant, malevolent, or a moral idiot. Anyone, like Liu Xiaobo, who peacefully agitates to visit this plague upon his own society, must be something considerably worse.

It should not be surprising that dissident intellectuals who have survived or fled tyranny often have a clearer view of the value of free societies and, consequently, little use for radical chic of middle-class radical Western activists. As the Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked when a Canadian news anchor scoffed at her professed love for the country that gave her refuge:

I don’t find myself in the same luxury as you. You grew up in freedom, and you can spit on freedom, because you don’t know what it is not to have freedom. I haven’t.

Liu Xiaobo had also experienced liberty in the West and oppression in his own country, and like Hirsi Ali, he had resolved that the former—for all its shortcomings—is better. He returned to China in 1989 to participate in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. When others fled before the Chinese army, Liu remained behind and helped negotiate protesters’ safe passage out of the square. For this, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Committed thereafter to political and social change through nonviolence, he was rearrested in the 1990s and sentenced to undergo re-education through labor. His final arrest and 11-year jail sentence were for his participation in the drafting of the Charter ’08 manifesto, which called for the liberalization of China’s economy, the democratization of its political model, and steps toward truth through reconciliation.

When Liu stood trial in December 2009, accused of “inciting subversion of state power” he prepared a final statement, which would be the last words anyone heard from him. The court did not permit him to deliver his remarks, but at his Nobel ceremony the following year, Swedish actress Liv Ullman delivered them on his behalf. Liu’s statement spoke movingly of his optimism for the opening and reform of China. It reaffirmed his belief that “freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.” And it concluded with a beautiful paean to his wife, whom he would never see again. But his statement’s most humbling passages were those devoted to the subject of hatred:

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies. Although there is no way I can accept your monitoring, arrests, indictments, and verdicts, I respect your professions and your integrity …

Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. The enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.

Can the nobility of these words simply be swept aside with the spiteful epithet “warmonger”? It cannot.

Surrendering to bitterness and hatred is easy. Humanity in the face of inhumanity is not. The dignity and fortitude with which Liu bore his persecution were a demonstration of moral courage, the likes of which only exceptional human beings are capable. It stands as an indictment of his totalitarian tormentors and of all those who scorn the liberties he could never afford to take for granted. His enemies know this, and it is why they despise him.


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Jamie Palmer is a freelance writer and independent filmmaker. His twitter feed is @j4mi3p.