With all our e-devices, why don’t we hear from more voices like Yan Lianke’s in China and Russia? + can The Guardian’s ‘membership’ scheme set an example?

- postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

– photograph by postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

-- MIL22

— photograph by MIL22

Commenters on Yan Lianke’s poetic essay from China in Thursday’s New York Times — about the task of writers — spoke for many and maybe most of his readers in expressing fears for his safety. Why, in this age of magically flexible and ubiquitous post-Gutenberg communication tools — of which China is the leading manufacturer — do we hear so seldom from voices like his in China and Russia, supporting writers like him, and giving us essential information?

A small child who has only paddled in a bathtub can have no idea of what swimming in an ocean is like. Still, the experience of being immersed in water does supply an atom or two of useful comprehension. In this way, anyone in the liberal West whose thoughts typed into comment boxes on media sites have been stifled — persistently — by ‘community moderators,’ solely because they do not suit the politics and editorial policies of a powerful newspaper, has had a taste of actual censorship, and of refusing to let the fear of humiliation, punishment and banishment (deleting a commenter’s account) shut down the flow of words.

No one expects to have to be a heroic Yan Lianke in any proud Western democracy. Yet even in these, the suppression of inconvenient views in the most scrupulously polite debate gets hardly any attention. This week, The Guardian has again been promoting the paid, tiered ‘membership’ scheme it is offering readers. No one yet knows exactly what this club is going to do for free expression, and for reining in this paper’s notoriously trigger-happy moderators (of whom we at post-Gutenberg must admit that we have no recent first-hand experience, having decided to stop going there and say what we want to about The Guardian on this site, instead.) In a post here a few weeks ago — ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism’ — we expressed our hope that there is substance behind the alluring advertisement.

No ‘membership’ scheme will be worth the attention of thinking people unless ‘members’ are allowed to help The Guardian’s policy-makers ensure that its ‘Comment is Free’ section lives up to its name. Yan Lianke’s New York Times contribution shows just how much thinkers like him count on the West for inspiration and support. Never mind China’s grand, ancient philosophical tradition. Confucianism was never about individual freedom.

With marvellous economy and a soulfulness rarely found in Western editorialising, he has reminded us of what we forget at our peril – the importance of unencumbered truth-telling. Please pass on the link to his piece after you have read the extracts below, and a sample of readers’ comments on them – including one from someone not fluent in English, who is owed our thanks for pointing out why some of his criticisms of China could be mistaken. We wish it was within our power to invite Yan Lianke to respond in this space.

BEIJING — China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.

Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”

Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.

[…]

China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry?

It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.

I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.

I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.

At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”

But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.

Some comments by his readers (not in their original order):

William Hathaway

… Despite the unfashionable earnestness in this essay, I applaud its plea for cosmopolitan artistic freedom in the tradition of Romain Rolland. I’m sure that Yan Lianke will pay a real price for it.

ronnyc

I was hoping to read that his name was a pseudonym, but I didn’t. It is a beautiful and incredibly brave piece of writing. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his freedom, or worse.

Andre

Absolutely correct…. Confuciusm can’t mesh with the mordern global system… Neither can traditional Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Te only thing that meshes is money. It’s the new world order…

Tim McCoy

“…now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism…

Though Yan Lianke seems like writer of some brilliance, I think the above statement is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism is nothing if it is not about money and power.

Stranger [ someone apparently posting from California ]

The author only pointed out one side of the problem.

Why the old man fell on the street and nobody dared to help him? Because there was a famous lawsuit in Nanjing in which an old lady framed a young guy who actually helped her get up and the judge condemned him to pay about 12,000USD to that old lady.

And why the medical technicians flee when the pregnant woman died? She died from amniotic embolism which is difficult to diagnose and extremely dangerous. A hysterectomy surgery might have saved her life but unfortunately her husband refused this option because he was worrying about if his wife was going to be able to have the second baby. After the pregnant woman died, the family sent dozens of relatives trashed the hospital, that was why the doctors and nurses had to flee. IN china, every year several doctors died of medical disputes, most of them are stabbed by angry/crazy patients or their family members.

well, the other side of story only makes China even a worse country. That’s the reality of China. Democracy is not the medicine for its illness right now, seriously. With such a low level civil consciousness, democracy will just be abused. china has a long way to go. let’s take it slowly.

A Sincere but Puzzled Han Chinese Girl [ Guangzhou, China ]

Stranger, you speak out what i’d like to clarify here. Many thanks

Richard Luettge 

The author may be fated to perceive darkness, but if so, he would perceive darkness wherever men walk in numbers, and not merely in China. The challenges he writes of aren’t uniquely Chinese challenges but human ones and timeless ones. We study these challenges in every society, in part through art, in part through philosophy, and the purpose of such study is to find the “delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness”. More, it’s to find purpose in the darkness.

Others labor elsewhere, but his challenge is to find these qualities in China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on virtually equal terms - Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on nearly equal terms
– Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

It is the next stage in the rolling out of The Guardian’s new ‘paid membership’ scheme for readers and commenters that we want to see. This was the summary of the plan by The Financial Times last week — unaccompanied, as far as we know, by any comment or analysis, so far:

The Guardian has launched a paid membership scheme, as it seeks to narrow operating losses that reached £33.8m last year.

The newspaper, which has resisted charging for access to its online content, will offer readers access to events and a new purpose-built venue near London’s King’s Cross.

Top-level members, known as patrons, will be charged £60 per month and will also have access to tours of the Guardian’s newsroom and print site. Mid-tier “partners” will pay £15 per month, while non-paying “friends” will also be able to book tickets to events.

The Guardian has no pressing need for profitability, with £842.7m in cash as of March, after selling its stake in car magazine Auto Trader.

We hope that there is more to this idea than supplying forms of theatre – either professional entertainment, or the thrilling chance to watch genuine Guardian journalists and editors tapping at their computers. We resist cynicism, at post-Gutenberg. Yet the reminder that came instantly to mind was of the ancient ruses in Europe for diverting the populace from noticing social inequality – known as ‘bread and circuses’. This was an accusation also levelled at the splendid Medici family, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power in Florence during Italy’s Renaissance:

… The days of adventitious sharing in the noise and warmth within an open palace door and a hand-out of the leavings were over; the populace was firmly excluded from the pleasures of the rich.

A similar withdrawal took place with publicly organized occasions of holiday mood. Bread and circuses: Lorenzo de’ Medici was accused of soliciting in the 1470s and 1480s the support of those excluded from a voice in government by lavish public entertainments: tournaments, street pageants. … In a republic that had been subtly manipulated into a narrow oligarchy it was natural … for opponents of this tendency to remember with alarm how the emperors who subverted the republican constitution of ancient Rome had employed gladiatorial and wild beast combats to occupy simple minds. A century after Lorenzo, however, with the rising price of bread and popular insurgency that rose with it, the issue of diversion was seen in terms of practical contemporary politics. ‘Because the common people are unstable and long for novelty, wrote Giovanni Botero in 1589 in his Reason of State, ‘they will seek it out for themselves, changing even their government, and their rulers if their prince does not provide some kind of diversion for them.’

The Civilization of Europe at the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Bread-and-circuses is surely not what Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has had in mind, in his speeches and interviews about the ‘mutualisation’ of journalism. This is what he said on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, in replying to a British commenter on a blog post about turning readers into paying members as an economic survival model for media organisations (part of their exchange):

Han Gough

It’s certainly interesting. And I’d be happy to support the Guardian. But I can’t for the life of me work out what benefits I would gain from membership. I live in a university town in the south west of England and there are no events scheduled in a 300 mile vicinity! And that building looks nice but I’m never going to get to use it. To be a Guardian “member” must one live in Islington???

I feel that the Guardian’s values, and it’s history as the Manchester Guardian, have been somewhat lost in translation. […]

alan rusbridger •

Han, this is a beta launch of something that will become more interesting in a few months and still more interesting once the Midlands Goods Shed is up and running. We haven’t forgotten the rest of the country (or the rest of the world) and will announce further and better plans. This is just the initial announcement…. a *very* soft launch. And thanks for kind words about the Guardian.

Han Gough •

Wow. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I only posted here because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to comment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. And I can see how it would be really exciting if I lived in central London. But £15/month is quite a lot of money. […]. And even if you did put on an event at some point in Exeter (which is where I am), will you ever manage to put on £15-worth of events every month?

Also one of the reasons I like and read the Guardian is for its socially progressive values but this feels regressive at first sight. It’s providing opportunities for an already privileged segment of people: those who are cash-rich and live in London. That’s what I meant when I said it seemed out of step with the spirit of the Manchester Guardian. I can really understand why the Scots have had enough. It is this mentality that London and the south east of England gets the lion’s share and the rest of us roll over and pay for it. […] Thanks again for your reply.

The reason why Han Gough living in Exeter, in England, had to go to a site owned by an American university to react to the Guardian scheme is because that newspaper did not allow public comment on it. A box beneath the notice about it on The Guardian’s site invited readers to submit feedback on a form whisked invisibly into the paper’s mysterious innards. Ah so!

What would be better – much better – than what we have seen, so far, of The Guardian’s plan? Strangely enough, it was from the comments section of that Nieman site at Harvard that someone outstandingly practical contacted post-Gutenberg with the answer, three years ago. This is how our report about this most helpful encounter began:

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral. …

[ continues here: ‘Co-owning media is on the horizon …‘ … ]

Also see:

Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?