The day after the spectacular Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, most conversations were awestruck.
The ceremony was too perfect to be true, as we learnt soon enough. We were shown some superimposed images on TV screens, just in case the actual fireworks failed to explode. There was Bollywood-like playback singing, with a cuter child lip-synching while another child that the state thought wasn’t as attractive, sang the actual song. Earlier we learnt how journalists could not access many websites. An American tourist was stabbed to death. An ITV journalist filming a protest at Tiananmen Square was roughed up. And without a trace of irony, a government official said: “Of course we haven’t had any protests; protesters have to apply to the Public Security Bureau for permission, and they haven’t given permission to anyone.” A friend of mine who is a leading dissident novelist had all his books confiscated when he reached Beijing.
And yet, most people talked about the image of thousands of people flawlessly performing in perfect harmony and unison, each one a cog in the wheel, the wheel in perpetual motion, without blemish, symbolizing perfection, of what we can achieve if we don’t get too individualistic.
Where have we seen such orchestration before? In Berlin, in 1936, certainly; but also in Moscow, in 1980. We feel awe when we see such epic synchronization because we know how hard it is to discipline individual anarchy, how tough to make sure that the individual submits his or her will to the greater common weal. Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks, hardly a fan of authoritarian regimes, noted how the Chinese performance would reignite the debate, where people praise collective harmony over individual excellence.
Some pop sociologists might even see the end of open societies in this, where the individual disrupts harmony. Closed societies offer simple, absolute answers. The one raising a complex question is asked to shut up. That does not seem quite right, but witness China’s economic rise. Should the hammer nail in the one that sticks out? Don’t we chop off the tallest bamboo shoot?
And then there is that student who walked up to the tanks at Tiananmen in June 1989?
Open societies seem fragile and weak because their disharmonies are visible. Opaque systems conceal weaknesses; open societies celebrate differences. And those differences which make open societies look fragile, actually underline their strength, not weakness.
During the Cold War, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel wrote a book called How Democracies Perish, in which he somewhat anxiously feared that the Soviet bloc would one day overwhelm the West because it was disciplined, united, and willing to use its might. Market-oriented democracies were noisy and messy; they fought within, not without, and their interminable debates would leave them far behind, he was worried.
Revel wrote his book in 1983; by 1989 the Berlin Wall had crumbled, and two years later, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. That is the ultimate triumph of countries that value individuals and their freedoms.
Open societies challenge consensus; they don’t like tranquil equilibrium. They like the disruption, because it is that stress that allows imagination to flourish, creativity to flower. You make mistakes, but you also thrive. Only in capitalism a crisis can be termed a process of creative destruction, which in many ways it is.
In Salman Rushdie’s novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech is called Khattam-Shud, ruling a land called Chup (silence), which has a cult that promotes muteness. It is a land which is at peace, in harmony.
But outward stability conceals inner fragility. Such societies force people to live a lie: that their contrived cheer and forced harmony are superior. Open societies appear brittle and frail because they are cacophonous, where everyone can contradict everyone else. But, Rushdie writes: “All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them... The Chupwalas (those from the silent land) turned out to be a disunited rabble, suspicious and distrustful of one another. The land of Gup (talk) is bathed in endless sunshine, while over in Chup, it is always the middle of the night.”
We don’t see that darkness because of the computer-generated eternal sunshine, where lip-synched patriotic children smile endlessly, revealing perfect teeth.
And then there is that student who walked up to the tank.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.