Two Travesties

December 10, 2010


This has not been a particularly good week for free expression.

First, China has forbidden any representative to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo. Of course, Liu himself cannot travel to Oslo because he is in prison for the crime of circulating a petition. The petition called for the Chinese government to recognize certain fundamental freedoms, such as free speech and freedom of assembly.

China has tried to justify its reaction by cynically accusing the Nobel committee of bias against China. The government has asserted that the award was an effort by the West to embarrass and humiliate China. This transparently nationalist spin on the award is obviously designed to appeal to the home audience—to foster an “us versus them” attitude. It’s a tactic often used by dictatorships, in part because it has proven reasonably effective.

But, in a notable combination of falsehoods and farce, China went beyond the expected denunciation of the Nobel award and decided to support the creation of a rival award— the Confucius Peace Prize. The Confucius Peace Prize (CPP) is designed to give “a Chinese perspective on peace.” Indeed.

Interestingly, the recipient of the first CPP, a Taiwanese politician, failed to attend the ceremony and collect his dubious award. Perhaps next year, the government should bestow the CPP on some stooge they can count on to show up—maybe the judge who sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison.

Given China’s status as a world power, its continuing embrace of authoritarianism is especially disturbing. It is not the only regime in the world that denies basic freedoms, but it is the most powerful one to do so. Its apparent ability to violate human rights routinely without any significant repercussions must surely encourage lesser tyrannies.

Although there is no comparing the human rights situation in China with that in any Western democracy, we do have our flaws as well. In particular, speech about religion continues to be a source of controversy, and social, if not legal, pressure is often brought to bear on those whose expression is deemed insufficiently respectful of religious sensibilities.

As many of you may be aware, the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, removed from an exhibit a video by deceased artist David Wojnarowicz that contained a brief (11-second) scene of ants crawling on a crucifix. The Catholic League and various members of Congress had vigorously objected to the video, resorting to the currently fashionable justification of censors: the video constituted “hate speech.”

Exactly why the clip was “hate speech” was never adequately explained. Sure, the ants on the crucifix suggested suffering and helplessness (the artist was dying of AIDS at the time he created the video), but for that matter so does much “accepted” religious art. The crucifix itself is a display of a suffering and helpless individual. Arguably, a pagan could hardly think of a better way to mock Christianity than by showing its god naked and nailed powerless to a piece of wood.

The accusation of hate speech, of course, is just a way to mask the fact that some believers don’t want their claims criticized in any way, directly or indirectly—just like the Chinese government’s claim of a plot to humiliate China is an attempt to obscure their refusal to tolerate free speech. The effort by the Catholic League and various politicians to impose their standards of decency on the rest of us is as farcical as — well, as the Chinese government’s creation of a Confucius Peace Prize.

Perhaps an artist can foster collaboration between the Chinese government and the Catholic League by creating a video showing Liu Xiaobo on a cross.



#1 Ian (Guest) on Monday December 13, 2010 at 3:12pm

You missed the continued assault on WikiLeaks which represents another assault on the free press.

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