Never Apologize to Goons and Thugs
by Michael I. Niman
CNN's Jack Cafferty has China's number
What do you do if someone calls you a “goon” or a “thug”? If you’re a real thug, a Tony Soprano sort of character, you have them whacked. End of story. Yes, you’re a thug. Everyone knows it. But no one dares voice it. The more people point out your brutish ways, the more you prove them right, and the more you terrorize others into an uncomfortable silence. Empires, albeit fragile ones, have existed by these rules for generations. Whether you’re talking about corrupt municipal patronage machines, brutal police forces, repressive monarchies, or totalitarian bureaucracies, the rules are the same. Never voice the obvious.
If you’re not a goon or a thug, however, you don’t have to worry much about people calling you a goon or a thug.
Y’all know where I’m going with this. Last week CNN’s Jack Cafferty, in an on-air editorial, called the goons and thugs that run China’s one party state “goons and thugs.” And right on cue, these autocrats—the ones who still hold survivors of their 1989 massacre of nonviolent, pro-democracy activists locked away in a mysterious gulag system replete with slave labor factories—proved Cafferty right, demanding that CNN retract his remarks and apologize to the offended goons and thugs.
Cafferty specifically charged that the Chinese government was run by “the same bunch of goons and thugs” that “they’ve been for the last 50 years.”
Let’s look critically at Cafferty’s charge. Clearly China has changed quite a bit since the days of the Korean War and, later, the Cultural Revolution. But what hasn’t changed is the one-party system that runs that country and its iron-clad intolerance of dissent in any form.
Sure, the party leadership has developed a tolerance for Western decadence in the form of opulent displays of wealth by successful entrepreneurs who curry their favor. And they’ve developed a tolerance for poverty, which provides cheap, disposable labor to be ground up in some of the world’s most toxic trinket factories. But one thing has remained a constant, as China moved from being a social egalitarian regime with political repression to a nation whose great disparity of wealth is enforced by repression of a brutally impoverished majority, and that’s repression. It appears that Cafferty is on the money here. Anyone who doubts this should try to build a papier mâché replica of the Statue of Liberty in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Cafferty’s other blaspheme was his allegation that we import Chinese “junk,” making specific mention of products tainted with lead paint. Of course not everything we import from China is “junk.” I’m writing, for instance, with a Chinese-made keyboard, on a Taiwanese computer packed with Chinese components. I ride to work on a Chinese bike. I sometimes eat off of Chinese-made ceramic plates. And I’m happy with all of these products. But that doesn’t alter the reality that the nation’s Wal-Marts and Dollar Stores are packed with Chinese-made crap. Anyone who ever had a barbecue spatula break apart in their hands or watched black smoke rise from their meditation candle knows China produces, among other things, a steady stream of junk. Not everything China produces is crap, but most of the crap we consume is produced in China. Cafferty’s on the money again. If the Chinese government wants their nation’s products to be known for their quality, they need to stop exporting flotillas of crap. Put in business terms, their branding strategy is obviously flawed. Chastising journalists isn’t going to change this.
On one level it’s hard for me to support Cafferty. Quite frankly, I think he’s a scumbag. In 2003, for instance, he pled guilty to leaving the scene of a hit-and-run collision in Manhattan after he ran down a bicyclist with his car. Five pedestrians chased after him as he sped through two red lights, dragging the bicycle under his New Jersey-plated Cadillac.
But he is a journalist who made accurate statements in an editorial opinion forum, and that concept—the right of a scumbag to mouth off against a powerful government—is alien to China’s autocrats.
In the one area where Cafferty was literally wrong, he was dead-on figuratively, which I believe was his intent. He stated that we’re buying Chinese products in Wal-Mart made by workers who earn a dollar a month. Well, actually Chinese workers producing products for the US market often make $75 to $110 for a month of grueling 80-hour weeks. The truth is that the main victims of the Chinese regime are the vast majority of Chinese citizens who labor their health away to make sweatshop owners rich, yet can go to jail for trying to organize a real union.
Whatever else China is, however, it is the world’s emerging economic superpower. CNN recognizes this and groveled appropriately, issuing an apology packaged as a clarification—a sort of Media 101 for the Chinese government—explaining that Cafferty’s forte is expressing his controversial opinions and engaging in robust discussion, and that no offense was directed against the Chinese people. This, however, wasn’t good enough for the goons and thugs, who are pressing for CNN to do more to take back what the Chinese government calls “vicious” and “vile” remarks.
The Chinese establishment seems hell-bent, however, on proving all of Cafferty’s “vile” remarks absolutely true. Toward this end, the All China Journalists Association (ACJA), the acquiescing body representing China’s heavily censored “press,” jumped into the fray, condemning CNN and Cafferty for having “disregarded a journalist’s professional ethics to attack a country with insulting words.”
China also accused CNN of trying to sow discord between the Chinese government and its people. Such tension, however, is the hallmark of democracy—and it’s the responsibility of a free press to maintain a healthy level of tension. A relationship based on fear and silence is not a healthy one.
When I read the ACJA statement all I could say was, “Those poor bastards. Is the concept of a free press so alien to these self-proclaimed journalists that they can’t fathom it?”
Or are they just shameless puppets lending their name to whatever stupid drivel their puppeteers pen? How are those for “insulting words”? Maybe I’m too harsh. Maybe these so-called journalists are just like many members of our own corporate press—weak, frightened people trying to make it in the middle-class, selling out their fellow citizens in the process.
The government that Cafferty attacked, however, is the same government that has made a mockery of journalism in China. It’s the government that turned China’s would-be journalists into groveling stenographers. It’s the same government that currently supports brutal repression in Burma, Darfur, and Tibet, not to mention China. It’s the same government that is currently selling out the Chinese people’s future by poisoning its environment. It’s the same government that jails Chinese activists who stand up for the rights of China’s horribly impoverished and exploited majority. This is a government that, because of its actions, deserves “insulting words”—lots of them. If we are to stand up and support the Chinese people in their struggle against repression, we have to hurl “insulting words” at this repressive regime—if for no other reason than that the Chinese aren’t free to do so.
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