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Saturday, June 05, 2004

It's all mixed up, but it's all connected, somehow.

It's fifteen years since Tiananmen Square.

The year before, I was in charge of a Chinese exchange student who was sponsored by the law firm I worked for. It was organized by Columbia Law School, six months of exposure to the U.S. legal system, plus six months as a trainee in a New York law firm.

Peter said "Let's take the girl, she must be smarter than the boy." Wan worked for an official Chinese organization, therefore she was automatically treated as a "communist party member" by the American immigration authorities, consequently it took forever to obtain her routine student visa and she arrived after all the other Chinese trainees had already settled in. This meant that she had last dibs for a room in the apartment set aside for the students by Columbia, and since a wild card from Shanghai had invited a bunch of Chinese squatters to join them ("not allowed" was not a part of her vocabulary), my Wan was left with a tiny little storage room with hardly enough space to walk around the single bed.

I wanted her to feel at home. I bought special teas for her in Chinatown, and bath goodies, and snacks, and flowers. And I went to meet her at the airport: "I shall be wearing a white dress," I let her know.

Making polite sounds in the cab into Manhattan, I found out that Wan was married and had left her husband behind (hostage?). I must have said something bland like "I didn't know you were married, I guess you will miss your husband while you are here."

The complete stranger, the "Inscrutable East", puckered up and burst into sobs, tears running freely down her cheeks. "Oh, yes," she snuffled, "I had no idea how I would feel until I kissed him goodbye at the airport, and then I suddenly realized how long it would be."

I was so ashamed to have made her cry, but there was an immediate rapport established between us, she was immediately adopted in my heart as one of my daughters.

Wan and I became quite close. Through her, I met all the other Chinese students, they would invite me over and cook for me, and we would all of us traipse up to the roof of their building and party al fresco.

After a while, Wan asked me whether I could get her husband a visitor's visa, and I agreed to try. Mysteriously there was a window of opportunity, and her husband was allowed out of China. If I had not done it right away, we would have failed because just a few weeks later, the departure of husbands and wives were turned down inexorably by the Chinese authorities.

Wan's husband was extremely charismatic, but he didn't speak a word of English. You were stuck with body language. Still, they had a good time, they were even able to visit Washington, where I was able to arrange a special visit of the White House for them, and they also went to Niagara Falls in freezing weather, to satisfy a lifetime dream of theirs. Disney World in Florida was as far as their tourism reached because the husband was pulled back before plans could be made for the Grand Canyon.

Wan was very smart. Before her husband went back, we made her an offer to remain in the U.S.A., if she should so desire, we would facilitate everything for her. She discussed it with her husband and turned us down: "My husband and I are most grateful and appreciative," she said, "But we are Chinese, and our country is on the brink of many changes, and we want to be a part of all this."

Eventually, Wan's time was up and I invited her to spend ten days in Paris on her way home.

"America is not the only thing of interest in the world outside China," I told her, "There is a whole 'nuther world out there with a very different flavor. You will probably never come out of Beijing again, I would like you to have a glimpse of Europe, please be my guest in Paris."

She was overjoyed. I had an old friend in Paris, and I asked him to find us a small hotel in the center of Paris, somewhere in the very heart of the historic foundation walls. He lived in a small studio on the Ile St. Louis, and he offered it to me since he was going to be gone during the time of our visit.

This made me very happy, it meant my money would go further, and it also set us in the most exquisitely perfect spot to enjoy Paris.

At the very last minute, the old boyfriend reneged on his offer, and the day before our flight, I was frantically calling around for substitute lodgings. But those were the days when I laughingly could assert that no matter what I needed, or needed to know, it would be just two phone calls away. By the time Wan and I flew off to Paris, I had two apartments available to us, one off the Champs Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe, and the other one--on the Ile St. Louis!

"We can sleep wherever we want," I laughed, "We can bivouac just like Napoleon!"

That was the good news. The bad news struck when we landed in Paris and were greeted by an impromptu general strike. This meant there were absolutely no public transports and we had to walk everywhere.

The stay was a great success. The apartment on the Ile St. Louis was stocked with wines and champagne, and the owner had generously said "Help yourselves! Make sure Wan has a great time!"

A very good friend of mine was in from Iceland with a boyfriend, and we joined forces and had a zany wild time. The Louvre, Versailles, home-cooked meals, here, there and everywhere, midnight mass for the tourists at Notre Dame, lunch at one of the most famous bars in Paris, surrounded by journalists from French radio and TV stations and the models of Dior, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower.

"Please go to the bathroom," I ordered Wan when we reached the top platform.

"I don't need to go," Wan protested.

"You must go," I insisted.

"Why?"

"Because when you go home, every time you see a photo of the Eiffel Tower you will laugh to think your pee somehow made its way all the way down all those iron girders," I said.

Wan laughed. She saw my point and went to the bathroom.

We walked everywhere, there was no choice. The avenues were filled with soldiers patrolling up and down, in full riot gear, shields, truncheons, submachine guns, helmets, leg webbings filled with gobs of hand grenades, the works. Young conscripts, 18-19 years old, they had never had their hair cut so short before in their lives. When you met their eyes, you could see fear, anxiety, stress, nervousness.

On the park side of the Champs Elysees, we crossed a small group of these young recruits walking in silence. Wan burst out laughing.

"What's the joke?" I asked. I had no idea.

"Those young boys," she was choking from laughter, "The way they are dressed."

"What's so funny?" I continued, "Don't you see how scared they are? Don't you see they are out here, dressed like this, because the whole city is in a state of siege, they are expecting bombs to explode all about them at any moment?"

"Oh, yes," she said, "That's what's so funny."

"It isn't funny at all," I said coldly.

"It is to me," Wan said with finality and without a hint of remorse, "It's funny to me because I don't have to live here."

I have to admit I found it hard to be friendly with Wan for the rest of that day. I remembered this incident most vividly a year later, when Tiananmen took place. I thought: "Of course. 'They' did this because 'they' think we don't care because it's not happening over here."

During our many discussions on this, that and the other over the months with Wan, she had told me certain things that I had not focused on before.

Foreign newspapers and magazines: unavailable in Beijing. Why ever not? Because of the advertising. So what? Well for instance, if you were to advertise--let's say Coca Cola, everybody would want to try it. That's no big deal, but the big deal is ice. Nobody drinks Coca Cola hot, so you need ice, so you need refrigerators, so you need more electricity.

She didn't say: Of course, you also need water. Ask any Coca Cola man, Coca Cola is mainly marketed in the form of a syrup, and you bottle it where you consume it. At the time of Wan's visit to New York, Beijing, the capital of China, did not have public drinking water, you had to boil every drop, even to clean your teeth. I don't know whether this is still the case today

Another matter: dissidence and dissidents. What's the big deal? Well, said Wan, if you have 1% of dissidents among the population, that may look like a very small percentage, but in China this translates into blah millions, a small army. "We cannot afford to have any dissidence if we are to live peacefully."

* * * * *

Sixty years ago, a quarter of a million men died liberating Europe from Hitler. That's just through the Normand invasion, and it doesn't include the civilian victims.

In less than three months at Monte Cassino in Italy, almost half a million men died in uniform. That does not include civilian victims there either.

I don't know what the grand total of World War II victims might be, armed forces and civilians counted together.

One fact lurks beneath this horror: there were a few wealthy men who had helped bring Hitler to power, out of their self-interest, or personal ideological bent (for instance, capitalists scared shitless of the possible spread of communism, who loved Hitler because he hated communists), among whom we may count Prescott Bush, grandfather of our present President George W. Bush.

Everybody likes to scare themselves with the scarecrow of communism. The ones who agitate the scarecrow most are the capitalists, because the first thing a socialist state does is nationalize the industries, the mineral wealth, the infrastructure, so-called for the benefit of all the people, based on the promise that everyone should share in the wealth. What actually happens, however, is that in such socialist states the bureaucrats end up becoming the plutocrats, and the people become enslaved just exactly in the same way as they do in capitalist states.

In Nazi Germany, the first victims of the concentration camps were the communist refugees, survivors of the Spanish Civil War. Then came the homegrown German communists, and thereafter all the many other categories of victims, but basically nobody had spoken up from the beginning because capitalism was only too pleased to get rid of the Reds.

Why anyone should be scared shitless by the Reds beats me: they only want every single human being to get a fair deal. Is that so very threatening?

Of course, humanity being characterized by greed, anger and stupidity, it also means that every communist or socialist state ends up with a huge gap between the haves and the have nots, just like in capitalist states, it's just not based on the same criteria.

The constancy between both systems is: "Them that have, Get".

Power, money, supplies, freedom, education, whatever.

My parents met working for a capitalist. He had gone bankrupt three times (dishonest partners, apparently, according to him, what a recidivist, hey?). When he died in the late 50's, it took more than ten years to settle his estate, he died so rich.

He had wrangled for himself a sweet oil deal which means that he collected a percentage of the price of every single gallon of oil bought and used in North Africa during World War II, whether used by the Allies or the Germans.

On the matter of oil, while we are about it, I don't mind betting that if you were to superimpose three world maps indicating: 1) Oil resources, whether exploited or merely proven; 2) Poverty and lack of public services such as infrastructure, education, health services and human rights; and 3) War, civil war, civil unrest, insecurity, these three maps would fit together pretty well.

A few facts are in evidence about oil:

1. Exploitation started a bare 150 years ago, in the 1850's, and already the existing deposits have all, or in great part, peaked. Nobody is sure how much is left, exactly.

2. Oil is non-renewable: it was created originally over a period of thousands and thousands of years, it can't be done again. Not in the lifetime of our civilizations.

3. All our modern industries, technologies, comforts, methods of transportation, etc., are dependent largely on oil and the development of possible alternative sources of energy have been neglected except for the odd "succes d'estime" prototype (chicken gizzards, wind power, solar power, hydro electric power, etc.)

4. Those who control the oil today do not want to lose out on the headstart they have on cornering the wealth. They don't care. Their attitude is "Apres moi le deluge", "after me, let the rains come". Whether they are in position in a capitalist state or a socialist or communist state, their declaration might be: "What's yours is mine, and what's mine is my own."

So, for instance, from an American point of view, the Cato Institute is correct in saying America does not need Iraqi oil. No, it doesn't. But someone who does not have access to the oil resources of America does need Iraqi oil. Maybe the Chinese do, so as to be able to drink ice-cold Coca Cola... Can you blame them, should they ever have a slogan like "A refrigerator for every family"? So, maybe if we control the oil, we can also control how much Coca Cola they can get from us.

* * * * *

As I was saying. Sixty years ago the world order had to be wrested from Hitler's grasping hands. It could be said that at that historic moment, even the German people themselves needed to be liberated from Hitler.

To compare the war on Iraq to this European liberation is a total shame: there is absolutely no comparison.

All the young men who died in 1944 sacrificed themselves for something that had honor, from the ground up.

The young coalition soldiers who have selflessly sacrificed their precious lives this time for their countries have done it for the dishonorable intentions of the leaders who sent them to their death.

Their deaths are honorable. Their leaders are dishonorable. We should not allow this to happen. Period.

The notion of honor, of course, varies from country to country, and from time to time.

An English politician or newsman resigns as a matter of honor.

An American never does. But sometimes, he is instructed on the Q.T. to resign, and he does so, "for personal reasons".

The notion of honor is something that one breathes in with one's education. It's a cultural bias, it isn't improvised like courage on the spur of the moment.

Looking through the material that has appeared on the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings, I came across the testimony of a 19-year old German soldier who was moved from Brittany to Omaha Beach by Rommel just before D-Day. I fantasized that he might have been the very same young man who lay in wait for me in the hedges around where we lived, to give me half of his loaf of bread. He is an old man now, and he concluded wistfully that even though we commemorated the event, nobody appeared to be remembering the horror of the reality of the fact of war.

Some of the British veterans said something similar: "Seeing the state of the world today, was it worth it?"

I shall end by quoting from one man's account: Able Seaman Ken Oakley who was on Sword Beach on D-Day.

"The night before we landed the senior army officer gave us a talk. He told us that many of us in the first wave would not survive, but that we were not to worry because they would send a second wave and if that did not succeed they would send a third.

We couldn't say or think much then. It was bedtime and we got what sleep we could on those not very comforting words, before being woken at 0330.

To be told most of us would be wiped out was a very sickening thought.

* * *

At around 0830 I heard the sound of bagpipes. I looked over my shoulder and there was the piper walking up the beach in his kilt and beret. I couldn't believe my eyes. He was playing as if he was on Horseguards Parade.

It was fantastic. I thought it was an indication of how in control we were at that moment. We all felt ten feet tall after hearing that."


That was Lord Lovat's piper.

We should all of us be standing ten feet tall. We should all of us remember the sacrifice these men and women made, and stop trashing our beautiful world.
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