Thursday, June 20, 2013

Where we part

Hard at work on a hot summer day
He certainly doesn’t know everything, but he knows enough about Taiwan to treat its immense complexities and people with humility and respect 

For years this writer was a good little soldier from the green camp working at a green organization. With the exception of the very occasional snipe from the enemy blue camp — which reached its apex with the threat of deportation over an article on Chinese espionage in September 2011 — he was cruising: he regurgitated what his employer expected of him, and what readers of his employer’s publication looked for, i.e., confirmation and reinforcement of their preconceived ideas.

Then something odd happened; the blue camp left him alone, and instead the animosity increasingly came from within the green camp. That this would occur should not come as a surprise, for his views on the touchy questions of Taiwanese politics, identity, and self-determination matured over the years. In other words, his writing became less a matter of black and white, of antipodes, as it sought to better reflect the huge complexities that underscore the Taiwan “question.”

Of course, this maturing could not have occurred had he chosen the path of least resistance, or if he’d contented himself with keeping his employer and followers happy. Instead, as someone who regards his work as a responsibility (as much to himself as to his readers), he used the access that his position as a journalist gave him to deepen — and in similar ways widen — his understanding of Taiwanese (see the upcoming Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan, for more on this journey). While those who think little of journalists are legion, there is no denying that very few professions provide as much access to a variety of sources as journalism. Granted, that can be abused and misused, and it often is, but in the proper hands, it’s an instrument of undeniable power for those who truly seek to learn, to understand.

What came out of this was the conviction that Taiwanese are much more resilient, self aware, and capable of charting their future, than most people believe. And it was this very realization that got him into trouble with the green camp writ large. A special class of his new critics are expatriates (by no means all of them) in Taiwan, many of whom seem to assume that marrying a Taiwanese and spending a few years teaching English are sufficient, in and of themselves, to make them experts on Taiwan capable of discussing its politics, history, and identity. Profession, training, education, all are irrelevant, as if Taiwan had the unique property of being thoroughly understandable by virtue of proximity alone.

All of them indisputably “love” Taiwan, its people, its ease of living. But many among them also have a sense of superiority that frankly smacks a little of colonialism, of that which Orwell lamented in his fellow British countrymen (and women) abroad. Old habits die hard. The very same people who praise Taiwanese “kindness” and “loveliness” then turn around and accuse them of being ignorant, of being easily bought, of not knowing their own history (as if Canadians or Americans knew more about their own history!). Or worse, of being “brainwashed” by a nefarious KMT which they cannot conceive of being other than a monolithic copycat of its past (interestingly, those people never manage to explain the contradiction: if the KMT were so successful at controlling the minds of Taiwanese through the media and the education system, how could Taiwanese identity and support for independence have continued to grow under four KMT administrations, first under Lee Teng-hui [李登輝], and later under Ma Ying-jeou [馬英九]?)

The armchair experts, despite their lack of access, their long absence from Taiwanese soil (this includes a number of Taiwanese who haven’t lived here for decades), their inability to understand the local languages, resent the notion that Taiwanese are as alert as they are to the challenges ahead. This is especially true of those who, like recent converts to Christianity, feel an urge to prove that they are greener than the greenest among Taiwanese, an affliction that makes extremists of them and sidelines them to the point of irrelevance.

How do they know, to use a recurrent example, that the Taiwanese military has given up, that morale among the troops is low, when they’ve never set foot on an army base, had lunch with recruits and generals, soaked in a pool with soldiers, or traveled with them to various exercises, something journalists do routinely? How can they know that the KMT is betraying Taiwan (or conversely, that there is room for cooperation) if they don’t interact with government officials and party members? And yet, among them one will find those who argue that Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is a sellout who supports unification with China, and that anyone in Taiwan who doesn’t actively call for the release of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) is a traitor.

They mask their lack of access (“Hello Minister —, I’m a blogger in Chiayi and I’d like to ask you a few questions about your policy on the Diaoyutais”) through intransigence and by passing judgment on everything, often from the comfort of their living room, without every having done the legwork that is a necessary part of journalism. And deep inside, they cannot countenance the notion that Taiwanese, or any other “yellow” or “brown” being, are their equals. Their love for Taiwan is equaled by their belief that as superior whites they are here to “educate” the Taiwanese, to open their eyes, and ultimately to save them from themselves. Perhaps this stems from a sense of having failed back home, and the need to make oneself more relevant here in Taiwan.

This isn’t everybody, of course; there are laudable exceptions, and they know who they are.

That’s where he parts with those who have criticized him and his work in the past two years or so: he refuses to regard himself as superior, in any way, to Taiwanese, especially when it comes to questions such as their identity, their political choices, their past, and their future. In other words, rather than lecture them (or berate them when they “misbehave”), he has dialogue with them and seeks to learn from them, which, fundamentally, is what journalists are supposed to do. His eyes and his brain are open, he is an equal, not anyone’s superior, not a Jekyll and Hyde, who one day loves Taiwanese and the next stabs them in the back by treating them as inferior.

He certainly doesn’t know everything, but he knows enough about Taiwan to treat its immense complexities with humility, and to give Taiwanese of all stripes, from farmers to senior government officials, the respect they deserve. How ironic that such an admission would lead to accusations that he has sold out! If the belief that most Taiwanese are intelligent enough to handle the great challenges that confront them, and aware enough of the dangers that lurk out there, is selling out, then yes, he’s guilty as charged.

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