On the Events in Egypt

I ride a train some mornings, hurtling south in darkness toward the port of Tacoma, past shadowed bridges, around fields glazed with frost, through tentative and unheard bird songs.  Today, for the first time this winter, the journey ended as a portent of a sunrise began to glow behind the mountain screen in the East.

After the burning oil wells and wrenchingly uniform destruction of 2010, the year of 2011 is already ablaze with an optimism that cannot be quenched, that refuses to be contained.  Just read Pierre Haski’s missive today on Rue 89 [translation by Adam Cathcart, some Chinese terms added to the original French] :

How can one fail to be  transported by the images from Cairo? How not to share the joy of millions of Egyptians of all social classes and of all faiths who, from weakness in eighteen days, with their bare hands, have rid themselves of a dictator who had seemed so immovable, so sure of himself, that he had even been preparing for a dynastic succession?

How, too, can one fail to be impressed by this revolution — the second peaceful in the space of one month — which overthrew the presidents who had been in power for three decades, authoritarian and corrupt, protected and coddled by the Western powers for their role as a bulwark against radical Islam?

Tunisia took everyone by surprise.  But experts warned against the domino theory, stressing that Tunesia did not weigh heavy geopolitically, that Egypt remained something else … Whatever they said, the same causes have produced the same effects, and in Egypt, the largest Arab country that has always set the tone, events have shifted even faster than in little Tunisia.

These revolutions are unlike any other. No charismatic leader, no secret organization, no secret army …

Comment ne pas être transporté par les images en provenance du Caire ?  Comment ne pas partager la joie de ces millions d’Egyptiens de toutes catégories sociales et de toutes croyances qui ont abattu en dix-huit jours , à mains nues, un dictateur qui semblait inamovible, si sûr de lui qu’il se préparait même à une succession dynastique ? Comment, aussi, ne pas être impressionné par cette deuxième révolution pacifique en l’espace d’un mois, renversant des présidents au pouvoir depuis trois décennies, autoritaires et corrompus, protégés et cajolés [cajoler: 爱抚;奉承,谄媚] par les puissances occidentales pour leur rôle de rempart [rempart (n.m.): 城墙,围墙,壁垒,防御] contre l’islamisme radical ?  La Tunisie avait pris tout le monde par surprise, mais les experts avaient mis en garde contre la théorie des dominos en soulignant que ce pays ne pesait pas lourd [重的,沉重的,笨重的]  géopolitiquement, que l’Egypte c’était autre chose… Rien n’y a fait, les mêmes causes ont produit les mêmes effets, et le plus grand pays arabe, celui qui a toujours donné le « la », a basculé plus vite encore que la petite Tunisie.Ces révolutions ne ressemblent à aucune autre.  Pas de leader charismatique, pas d’organisation secrète, pas d’armée clandestine…Mais plutôt des groupes sur Facebook, des tweets, des vidéos sur YouTube, et beaucoup d’idéalisme d’une jeunesse qui aspire à vivre autrement.  Les réseaux sociaux n’ont pas « fait » la révolution , ils ont permis à une génération de s’inventer un espace de liberté virtuelle qu’elle n’a eu de cesse de vouloir faire passer dans le monde réel.

Two questions remain in the wake of the Egyptians’ exploit: What happens to the tyrant once he leaves? And what will happen in other Arab countries, of which none, absolutely none, can remain immune to the shock of events in Tunis and Cairo in particular?

…No country is immune to the cocktail that caused the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt: a thirst for freedom of youth on the world, a rejection of nepotism, corruption, censorship, the system’s in-built dumbing down…There remains the geopolitical impact of this huge event….which even shook all dictatorships, all authoritarian countries, regardless of their latitude and culture, beyond the Arab world and Islam.

J’en veux pour preuve ce magnifique message some lu surTwitter, par dessus les continents, les langues et les cultures. C’est un dissident chinois, dont l’avatar est orné d’un ruban ja

une en l’honneur du prix Nobel de la paix emprisonné Liu Xiaobo , qui retweete (retransmet) un message de Wael Ghonim , le « héros » de la jeunesse égyptienne, l’homme qui a fait basculer [摇摆;翻倒,翻转] la situation avec son intervention télévisée à sa libération de détention.

For proof of this beautiful message which transcends continents, languages and cultures, we need only read Twitter.There a Chinese dissident [the ubiquitous Michael Anti], whose avatar bears a yellow ribbon in honor of Nobel Peace imprisoned Liu Xiaobo , retweets a message from Wael Ghonim, the “hero” of youth Egyptian man who tipped the situation with his televised speech to his release from detention. His message (on the screenshot below) is clear:

« Les vrais héros sont les jeunes Egyptiens de la place Tahrir et du reste de l’Egypte. Ce message est devenu universel.

“The real heroes are the young Egyptians in Tahrir Square and the rest of Egypt. ”  This message has become universal.


As if to prove its own sense of apprehension, Xinhua covers this huge story with a five sentence press release.

Time Magazine Asia has a story on China’s strangely spotty coverage of the Egypt protests, featuring plenty of quotes from my friend Jeremy Goldkorn at Danwei.org; the China Elections and Governance page has several well-thought-out essays on the same topic.

Meanwhile, in my own current North American backyard, some prominent people have taken the opportunity to piss on the whole proceedings.  Although (like the more cerebral but as ubiquitous Thomas Friedman) most of his faux-prophetic work is neither worth listening to nor reading, occasionally it is good to get an earful of what Glenn Beck, Zeitgeist-man of the paranoid right wing, is promoting.  Today, Beck is peddling a wholesale historical revisionism whereby George W. Bush’s call for sweeping democratic change across the Middle East is completely forgotten and Barack Obama’s alleged “community organizing” strategy to turn the whole world into an Islamo-Socialist state — replete with brainwashed young footsoldiers — is placed at the root, yes, the root! of the democratic revolution in Egypt.   (Here, for the record, is what Obama said today about Egypt, calling for true democracy and encouraging young Egyptians to start businesses.)   In comparison to Mr. Beck (no advanced degrees here!) and his paranoid ravings, Xinhua’s coverage of all of this appears to be positively tactful, not to mention more accurate.  And that is saying quite a lot.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”: The View from China

I spent about an hour yesterday at China’s biggest mosque, which is located not in Beijing or Urumuqi, but in Xi’an, the hub of Shaanxi province and the gateway to the West.  I had been thinking over in my amateur way a few issues relating to Islam recently and, after gathering in the preparation for a call to prayer near one side of the mosque whose wall was, like so many other locations in Xi’an, partially smashed in the process of reconstruction, I thought it might be good to share this op-ed here.  If by chance it appears in print in a modified form, I’ll be sure to post the information. I was fortunate to get some feedback on an earlier version of this piece from Chuck Kraus, a young Xinjiang expert/China hand at George Washington University.  The New York Times, in the meanwhile, has a new blog post up about global views of the same debate, a post which includes some decent links to new animated videos from Taiwan about Islamophobia in the U.S.

The “Ground Zero Mosque”: The View from China

The recent furor over the proposal of a mosque and Muslim community center two blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has attracted global attention, but few commentators seem to understand the potential potency of the issue in our relationship with China.  Like the United States and our European partners, China continues to deal with questions about the relation of Islam to the body politic and the proper role of that religion in public life.  In the wake of an uprising in Xinjiang, the Muslim region of China’s northwest among angry Uighurs last July, in China the answer has become, simply, repression towards and oversight of Muslims.  The Chinese government absolutely regulates the construction of new mosques.  The Uighur umma (religious community) is beholden to the edicts of Han-ethnicity bureaucrats from Beijing.  Uighur students and government officials are even not allowed to worship in mosques.

This is not a model which the United States should seek to emulate.

Moreover, to the extent that the US injects government control where it does not constitutionally belong, offering a mistrustful profile toward Muslim-Americans, we greatly weaken our ability to speak directly and forthrightly to China about its aggressive atheism, institutional racism, and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Do Chinese really care about the “Ground Zero Mosque”?  Certainly Chinese elites are appraised of the issue.  If recent press reports are any indication, they are devoting particular analysis of late to the area that George W. Bush used to call “the broader Middle East.”  The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq has elicited scepticism from the favourite newspaper of liberal intellectuals here, Southern Weekend, which yesterday opined that the American pledges to “build democracy” in Iraq had given way to a kind of cynical neo-Vietnam withdrawal, if not outright defeat of American principles.  U.S. commitment to democracy in Iraq may be perceived in China as a wash – in spite of the fact that it has yielded lucrative contracts for Chinese oil companies – and steady Chinese news coverage of the U.S. in Afghanistan does not seem to be favourable in the least in its emphasis on institution-building.  Recent US military drills in Kazakhstan garnered criticism as well.  If anything, scepticism toward American intentions in countries with Muslim populations seems to be rising.

When it comes to China’s perceptions of the US relations with the Muslim world, the appearance of Barack Obama and the President’s early speeches in places like Cairo have has hardly made a dent.  This is unfortunate, because, in the past, American policy toward human rights and democracy has served as a rallying cry for Chinese intellectuals and posed a clear theoretical alternative to a Chinese dictatorship that has no problem stating that “our policy towards ethnic minorities is 100% correct.”  In the wake of the Iraq fiasco and while prosecuting a war in Afghanistan, the United States should remain committed to repairing relations with Muslims around the world, particularly those in China.

The mosque issue – and the questions of some misguided Americans about Barack Obama’s alleged zeal for Islam – represent an opportunity for the United States to enjoy a “teaching moment” with China.

In a recent prominent full-page article in China’s top foreign-affairs newspaper, the Huanqiu Shibao (also known as the Global Times), Chinese journalists explained in great detail the attacks which the Republicans were levying on Obama over the Manhattan mosque issue.   In a keen choice of words, the article explains that the mosque question is “torturing the United States” and that it represents part of “the Muslim problem” in the U.S.  Amazingly, detractors of the mosque get most of the column inches.  Translated into Chinese, people like Rep. Peter King of New York State, a frequent guest on CNN, sound even more dogmatic about bringing Muslims under control than Hu Jintao, China’s General Secretary.  Fortunately, President Obama’s remarks at the Ramadan dinner at the White House are excerpted briefly, allowing for a discussion about the role of religion in the American constitution and Islam’s place in American culture.  Such allusions are the best that Chinese state media can do to lay out alternative models to China’s method of dealing with its Muslim population in the northwest.

We should not underestimate the power of American debates in providing fodder, if not some proscriptive road map, for Chinese elites in their own discussions about Islam and public life.  When FOX News commentators assert that every mosque is a terrorist feeding ground or make linkages between anti-state violence and practicing Muslims, these assertions are echoed in China.  In the Chinese context, views voiced by Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and Peter King allow the Chinese Communist Party to point to American hypocrisy while tacitly spreading the idea that surveillance and government regulation of mosques is both necessary and constitutes a global norm.

In a long epilogue to the Global Times analysis of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” an anonymous Chinese source actually goes so far as to point to the debate in the U.S. as being indicative of a “Western sickness” in dealing with Muslims, as opposed to the enlightened policies of the Chinese Communist Paryt.  The US is then explicitly linked to recent enactment of restrictive policies toward Muslims in France, where veils have been banned in public schools and the executive branch has been aggressive in removing public expressions of Islamic faith (apart from a huge mosque constructed in Marsailles).  American racism is likened to anti-Arab racism in Sweden, and so on.  But even within this discouraging discourse, the American constitution is discussed, and the possibility of the U.S. building the mosque and moving forward with a more “harmonious society,” to use a common phrase here, is raised.

It is doubtful that American conservatives and opponents of the “Ground Zero Mosque” recognize that the content of their critiques is so heartening to repressive elements in the Chinese government and demoralizing to liberalizing elements in the PRC who, more than ever since 2001, are looking to the U.S. for the possibility of an alternative in its relations with the Muslim world more broadly.  The extent to which Americans tacitly or explicitly agree that all Muslims could be terrorists is the extent to which they help China to justify its repression of the Uighurs.  Rather, we should firmly stand on the side of religious freedom in China – as well as the United States.

Chinese Mosque

Nazi Propaganda and Fox News

In researching a previous post, I became curious about the following image used by Glenn Beck in his bizarre equation of President Obama’s health care legislation with Nazi eugenics policies:

Nazi Propaganda

Nazi Propaganda

To summarize: Beck fought back tears as he related how this specific image caused him a great deal of personal pain, on the grounds that the hand of the disabled man in the Nazi poster reminded him of his daughter’s own hand. (As Beck revealed in a spectacular play for sympathy, and as a means of establishing his emotional investment in the issue, his daughter suffers from cerebral palsy.)

Because I am a university professor who partially makes a living analyzing wartime propaganda, and because I am always looking for reasons to use German, I did some research about the image used by Beck.

I found that the Fox Network does not simply pull up Nazi propaganda from the past to impugn Obama, the network actively manipulates images to make them even more racist than even the Nazi propagandists intended.

The image in question was originally published in Germany in 1938 as an two-pronged advertisement. First, the image and text point out (and Glenn Beck is entirely correct in this particular characterization) that disabled citizens cost the tax-paying public money, and then questions the need for such expenditures. But the second message, in large type on the bottom half of the image, is in fact the main point: “Read ‘Neues Volk [New People]‘, the monthly publication of the Ministry for Racial Politics of the Nazi Party.”

A copy of the original image is held in the German Historical Museum in Berlin as part of an exhibit on euthanasia. Generally speaking, when we look at art or propaganda, we need to ask ourselves about the context in which it was viewed. Unfortunately it remains unclear to me if the advertisement was a stand-alone poster which an average German would see on the street in Berlin in 1938, or a one-page advertisement in Neues Volk or other Nazi periodicals. (The museum describes it as a “Werbplakat,” which can mean both “advertisement” or “poster.”)

But that is beyond Beck’s portfolio. He’s fine so far; he hasn’t gone over the line yet.

Here’s the problem:

Here is how the image looks on the German Historical Museum website and the associated, somewhat clearer image on Wikimedia Commons, which is almost certainly where Beck got it, unless he sent a staffer to Berlin to snap a photo:


Compare the above image, the original, with the one used by Fox News and Glenn Beck. On examination, it is obvious that the Fox News graphics staff decided to whiten the face of the disabled person in the poster and darken the face (though not the hands) of the nurse behind him.

Let’s put this in the context: The host of a nationally syndicated television show goes on the air, raises parallels between Obama’s health care proposals and Nazi euthansia, and does so with the accompaniment of a Nazi propaganda image. Not only does the host explain the meaning of the propaganda (and accurately so), he makes a deeply emotional appeal identifying himself and his family with the man pictured in the image, the man seated in front of a doctor/nurse figure who is, presumably, going to put the disabled man to death. The subtext here is that Obama, representing the state, is going to put “undesireables” to death if the new system is implemented. And what better way to drive this point home than to darken the face of the doctor/nurse/custodial figure in the Nazi propaganda, closing the circuit fully?

I’m stumped and dismayed by this and would like to hear some explanation from Fox News as to why this is encouraged or allowed. Obviously Glenn Beck is more intelligent than this, and some flimsy explanation will be made about the graphic, or I and others will be accused of stirring up racial paranoia. No. I simply saw a discrepancy in the images and, given the context, I think it speaks of one subtle piece of a much larger and broader effort by Fox News and others to heighten perceptions of Obama both as some kind of incipient dictator and as racially and nationally something “other.” And the facts bear this out.

This is no small feat. Someone who is able to heighten racism in Nazi propaganda has got to make a serious effort; like turning an amplifier from 10 to 11, there is usually no way to amplify Goebbels, but Fox has succeeded in this particular case.

Why do I think this is important? Today I write from Bismarck, North Dakota, the state where blazing through the night in my Hyundai west on I-94, I was regaled by conservative talk show host Cunningham who immodestly calls himself “A Great American” and who complains that any criticism of President Obama now risks being labeled as racist.

That’s fine, Mr. Cunningham, and other more intelligent conservative writers have made a similar point.

It’s just when people on your side start putting blackface on Nazi propaganda while talking about eugenics and Obama, it sort of wrecks the whole notion of neutrality and brings me down. Let’s have an honest, factual debate about health care, the wars, and everything else, but don’t resort to making Nazi propaganda even more racist than it actually was. That’s odious.

One final note on the image: Fox and Glenn Beck might have been alerted to the image from an editorial by conservative Pamela Hennessy, a Fox News guest who used an unedited version of the Nazi advertisment in a 2006 editorial about the Terry Schiavo case.

Nazi Propaganda, East Asian Dictators, and Glenn Beck

Today I spent some time leafing through a solemn black notebook filled with sketches made primarily in the stacks at the University of Washington Suzzalo Library, reminding myself that not all good research is immediately digitized.

Suzaalo Library, U. Washington, Seattle

Suzaalo Library, U. Washington, Seattle

Notes from a Jackson School lecture

Notes from a Jackson School lecture

Sometimes it takes a few months before a certain concept can swim down to the bottom of one’s consciousness and take root.After all, in the intervening time between the initial scribble and the considered return, new experiences are had which illuminate old notes freshly.

For instance: one casually turns on a cable-equipped television in the United States in August 2009, and is assailed by programming on a major network of what amounts to gross historical distortion, hate speech, incitation to violence, and the unrelenting equation of the country’s first African-American president with the genocidal German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

(Having once thought this line of thought to be too obviously ridiculous or self-referential for anyone to take seriously, I found in a conversation with a fellow hard-working American in the Long Beach Airport bookstore that there are people out there who eager lap up the above line of reasoning. Moreover, these poor people will sloppily and readily interchange Adolf Hitler with his existential foe Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt in deciding upon historical parallels for our current president.)

It does seem awfully odd to be lectured by someone who speaks neither German nor holds a graduate degree about how the Obama years are simply a replay of the Weimar era in Germany. Wouldn’t that make G.W. Bush the Kaiser of a defeated state? In these weird historical comparisons, Bush is somehow absent: only Obama holds the match to the Reichstag when “the future crisis” occurs.

Incessantly arbitrary distortions of the past and marshalling of pure hatred for the head of state make Fox look worse than Xinhua. This is pure propaganda, reminiscent of an anti-Japanese paroxysm in North Korea or China (on guard against a fascist revival!), but directed within. Why is it necessary to torpedo any semblance of rational debate by implying that the President of the U.S., sworn to protect the country and uphold the constitution, is a foreign communist engaged in some sinister plot to revive the Holocaust? It’s just not funny anymore: We are losing face as a country because of jackasses like this.
In any case, Hitler was my the brain thanks to the propaganda trust at Fox, and my own foolish curiosity to see just what some Americans were watching as “news.” (Apparently meeting Fox news anchor E.D. Hill face-to-face in May 2007 at Hiram College, the same one who later analyzed Obama’s greeting of his lovely wife after his acceptance speech in St. Paul was “a terrorist fist jab,” and basically hearing her call for an invasion of Iran while Christianizing China wasn’t adequate for me.)

Hitler Reflects on East Asia

Last spring, in search of references to Japan in World War II, I spent a couple of hours taking notes during the reading of transcriptions of Hitler’s monologues at his headquarters [Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Fuhrerhauptquartier (Hamburg, 1980)].

Hitler recalls a moment in his adolescence when he first identified with Japan (watching Chechen children weep in his classroom with hatred for Russia, recalled in a conversation of 21 September 1941) and goes on to spell out a few clichéd ideas about Japan’s role in race war. He likens the Japanese to the Dutch as “a people of small capitalists” who therefore “do not wish for a National Socialist revolution” (conversation at Wolfsschanze, 31 December 1941).

“]Adolf Hitler visits an exhibition of Japanese art in Berlin, September 1939 [Source: Bundesarchiv, Berlin]But perhaps most interesting in our current condition is Hitler’s expressed notion of states and charismatic leaders. At the end of a long rant on the night of January 3 which extended into the early hours of January 4, 1942, Hitler identified himself with the Japanese emperor. Noting that the state religion in Japan centered around the emperor, Hitler asserted that the state had to be personified by an individual: “Die Volksfuehrung under die Stadtsfuehrung muessen in einer Person indentifizierst sein!”

We see the same form of hero-worship running though German culture in the late 1930s; even enunciations of German praise for Chiang Kai-shek centered around this notion that an individual could incarnate the will of the nation. And Chiang ate it up, as we can see in his China’s Destiny.

And this notion of a state cult centered around an individual suddenly took on more clarity for me in the light of another essay I have been turning over recently, one by Brian Myers.

North Korean Dictatorship and the Shadows of Imperial Japan

In his recent work, Myers argues that likening the North Korean state system with its imperial Japanese predecessor yields an understanding greater than simple comparison to a Stalinist system or South Korean dictatorships. We really need not take juche seriously, he notes, because the North Koreans themselves do not really take it seriously. What we ought to pay heed to instead is the racial and racist aspects of North Korean nationalism, and these clearly are rooted in Japanese ideologies of the past rather than supposedly race-neutral Stalinism, for instance.

If the violent and paranoid wing of U.S. public opinion which is not wholly encompassed by the Republican Party is able to do so, they might take a closer look at North Korea through this prism. President Obama is a democrat with a small “d,” which is to say he is a consensus-builder, not some supreme dictator. To liken Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler or Kim Jong Il is to diminish the historical lessons of the Second World War and to grossly underestimate the sickness of totalitarianism which is afflicting the DPRK. Reinstating the old bracket of tax deductions for Americans making over $250,000 per year is not the equivalent of Mao’s killing 700,000 landlords, etc.

It is almost as if, lacking a monarch, the desire of some individuals to be controlled by some strong hand has been thrust upon Obama in the Jungian phenomenon of transference. And the desire to rail against state power, repressed during the war whoops and drowned out like speech while stealth bombers fly over the World Series of the Bush years, has somehow returned.


Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Fuhrerhauptquartier (Hamburg, 1980).

Brian Myers, “Ideology as Smokescreen: North Korea’s Juche Thought,” Acta Koreana Vol. 11, No. 3 (December 2008): 161-182.

E.D. Hill, Commencement Address at Hiram College, Ohio, May 12, 2007.

Foreign Ministry [Auswaertiges Amt] Files, Inventar 64, German Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

Coda: Someone inculcated with propaganda might watch this clip and recall that (unlike Hitler) Kim Il Song was also great with kids. I would prefer to take it for what it is, a good conversation between two citizens of different ages about the state of education in the U.S.