Last week the world noted two signal anniversaries in the fight for freedom. First, there was the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Second, was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II. There are important parallels between these momentous acts.
To begin, both represent the sacrifice necessary to secure democracy. Both events claimed many lives. Both were undertaken in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Both now occupy a place in the annals of courage.
D-Day showed the world the power of a determined international coalition. The Allied forces confronted a well-defended French coastline. They were not only up against the villainy of the Nazi regime, but they also faced terrible weather, unfathomable logistics and uncertainty on multiple fronts.
Even so they prevailed. It took the bravery of warriors acting not for self, but for their brothers and for the idea that humanity should not bend to the will of a few well-armed madmen. Their heroism and planning paid off in spades.
The success of D-Day arguably shortened the war in Europe by a year. It paved the way to topple Hitler.
The bloodshed in Tiananmen Square stands on a different footing. In the case of Tiananmen, we don’t see grand armies amassed against tyranny. We see tyranny amassed against civilian protestors.
The most enduring image from that time is one showing a lone protester standing defiantly in front of four Chinese military tanks. It was a selfless individual act in service to a collective good.
As the ugliness unfolded, Chinese soldiers opened fire at thousands of student protesters who had gathered at pro-democracy camps inside the square. Officially, the Chinese government claims 246 people died during the protests, but the actual number could be as high as 2,000.
Either way, the death toll represents something most Americans would find intolerable — the suppression of speech and the right to confront one’s government. We hold these values so dear that we have ensconced them in our Charters of Freedom. They are permanently emblazoned on our national ethos and identity.
The entire cultural milieu of Communist China is something different. Where we trumpet dynamic individualism, they prefer submersion of the individual into the collective. Such is often the case in places of a more homogeneous culture.
Paradoxically, the position of the individual relative to society is dysfunctional at both extremes. In the Chinese example the individual can become invisible. With that invisibility often comes a devaluation of liberties. The collective “good” always comes first. The individual is largely irrelevant.
In the culture of Western democracy, the extremes of individual dynamism lead to a society comprised of egoists who recognize no law, no order greater than themselves. This yields a nation where immediacy of individual desires transmogrifies into xenophobic intolerance, paranoia and protectionism.
Neither polar extreme serves a nation well, but nuance and subtly are tough tricks in a world hungry for sound bites and slogans fit for poster board. It is far easier to rhetorically transform difference into threat, and by extension to justify eradication of those deemed threatening.
Good government isn’t easy. Sometimes it takes an army to secure freedom. Sometimes it just takes a few intrepid individuals who are brave enough to light the torch. While the people of China are still pinned under the heavy veil of oppression, we have allowed our hard won freedom to be co-opted by politicized gridlock.
To be sure, they have it far worse, but with each increasing step toward a polemical extreme we creep closer to their position. The more we adopt an “us” versus “them” ideological frame, the more we surrender the freedoms secured on those bloody beaches in France.