The political costs of self-deception, one more day.
June 4 is now iconic, at least for those who pay attention to the way the world is and ought to be. On this day in 1989 the Chinese government massacred their young, the hopeful, visionary students who came to Tiananmen Square yearning for a part in their nation’s future.
A few years later I was drawn into this history, meeting with the leaders who survived. They longed to return, knowing that they couldn’t—until things changed in China. But their love for China sobered me, and instructed me. We spent hours talking about hope and history, wondering if and where they might meet.
In today’s Washington Post there are two articles worth noting. One on the front page, yet another window into the social and political tragedy of the Syrian people being brutalized by President Bashar al-Assad for daring to call his tyranny into question. The latest heartbreak is the massacre of children a few days ago, shot in their homes, their throats slit. And his explanation? That history requires “surgery,” therefore a surgeon is not guilty for having blood on his hands when he is forced to take action to save the body. Well, not the body politic, clearly– tragically, it is more his skin, and the pride of his power.
A few pages into the first section is a long article about Tiananmen, on this day of remembering. The former mayor of Beijing has written a memoir re-telling his story of those tragic days, now wanting to be on the other side of history than where he was in 1989. He revisits the main players of the day, from Zhao Ziyang to Deng Xiaoping to Li Peng, the latter who “expresses no remorse over the Tiananmen killings and defends his actions as a dutiful official.” The conclusion, from as inside as we will get, is that “the Party shows no sign of wanting to grapple” with Tiananmen. Still too messy a moment it is, and still unwilling to tell the truth about what happened and what it has meant.
Who knows the human heart? What is profoundly painful for all of us is the reality that we are so able, so prone, to lie to ourselves about ourselves. As Francois de La Rochefoucauld once observed, “We are so much accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that at length we disguise ourselves to ourselves.”
And when we do, there are consequences, not only for us as persons, but for the polis—not only for every human heart, but for the history that belongs to all of us.