Since the Beijing massacres, the question has already been put bluntly to me several times: “Why were most of our pundits so constantly wrong on the subject of China? What enabled you and a tiny minority of critics to see things as they really were, and why did hardly anyone ever listen to you?”
At first I declined the invitations to write on this theme. The idea of sitting atop a heap of dead Chinese bodies to cackle triumphantly: “I told you so! I told you so!” like a hen that has just laid an egg, is not particularly appealing. Furthermore, for the first time in many decades, there is a remarkable and truly moving unanimity on the issue of China; this should be a cause for some comfort—actually it is the only heartening aspect that can be found in the present nightmare. With such unanimity, it should even become possible to exert some useful influence on public opinion, and then also on our politicians. Thus, this is certainly not the time to settle old accounts, or to revive ancient polemics. In fact, there never should be a time for such a mean and destructive exercise; when it is a matter of finally arriving at the truth, there can be no late-comers, and we know from the Gospel that the workers who come only at the end of the afternoon are entitled to the same reward as those who have been laboring in the vineyard since daybreak.
If we consider it from a more universal and philosophical angle, however, one question might be of real interest: How and why do we usually endeavor to protect ourselves against the truth?
It would be grossly unfair to ask, for instance: “Why did Shirley MacLaine or Professor Fairbank make their notorious statements about China?” (One will remember, for example, that at a time when China had sunk into an abyss of misery, oppression, and terror, the distinguished historian from Harvard wrote: “The Maoist revolution is, on the whole, the best thing that has happened to the Chinese people in many centuries.”) A more pertinent question would be: “Why are we forever willing to vest Shirley MacLaine and Professor Fairbank with so much intellectual and moral authority? For, in the end, the only authority they can ever possess is the one we are giving them.
What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism. They follow their own visions because doing so satisfies their religious cravings, and also because it is expedient. They seek beliefs that can exalt their souls, and that can fill their bellies. They believe out of generosity, and also because it serves their interests. They believe because they are stupid, and also because they are clever. Simply, they believe in order to survive. And because they need to survive, sometimes they could gladly kill whoever has the insensitivity, cruelty, and inhumanity to deny them…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.