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Our Debt

June 2, 2009

I hope today you will forgive me a slight divergence from our normal task of delivering helpful information on the creation of the written word, but this week my mind had turned to history.

Thursday is my birthday, and a few days ago someone sent me a link with a series of birthday trivia—what bread cost when I was born, the price of a new car—and it included historical events that happened on June 4. Several of the events I was unaware of or didn’t remember. But one, I will never forget, as I watched it unfold on TV.

Twenty years ago, on my seventeenth birthday, as I waited for my father to pick me up to go see the third Indiana Jones movie, around the world from me a young man—of immeasurable bravery—stood his ground.

It was twenty years ago this week that the People’s Republic of China brought a violent end to the peaceful student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.

For most of the people reading this post, the fight for your ability to think what you want and say what you want, was fought and won long before you were born. In my case (U.S.) the closest connection I have to many of them are the faces on my currency. As a young man it was difficult to understand the need to fight for such basic freedoms, and a world without those freedoms seemed abstract.

But watching as thousands of young Chinese put their lives second to the idea that they and their countrymen should be able to express their ideas, and seeing the brutal suppression of their protests, made it clear to those of us who were listening that the rights we take for granted are far from universal.

I’m a fanatic of free speech—the ACLU would consider me liberal on the subject. I can name many of the legal cases, decided over hundreds of years, that have codified my right to say what I want. But even I take them for granted—it’s inevitable when you’ve never had to fight for something.

But I’m not sure those of us who watched Tiananmen Square—who saw the Berlin Wall become irrelevant in a few short days—are able to overlook the rights the same way we did before June 4, 1989.

The West will never know how many people, students and soldiers, died at Tiananmen Square, but the number certainly reached into the hundreds—some say into the thousands. And we don’t know precisely what happened to the brave man who stared down a line of tanks (though most intelligence agencies report that he was tortured and killed). But we do know that in the 20 years since Tiananmen Square freedom has not come to the men and women who stood their ground.

It’s unfair to say the victims of Tiananmen Square died in vain, as their sacrifice gave a taste of freedom to more than 100,000 young Chinese—and freedom is a taste not easily forgotten.

But freedoms are like muscles—occasionally, they must be exercised or they will wither.

So this week, 20 years after 100,000 people you have never met, stood their ground and risked their lives for just a few moments of freedom, I challenge each of you to remember their fight by exercising your freedom. This week, stand up and say what others can’t.

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Dale has the freedom to say things that are critical, unpopular, ill-informed, off-topic, challenging, controversial, worthless, ludicrous, insane, political, sarcastic, inelegant, divisive, disruptive, badly written or just plain dumb—and sometimes he says them on Rough Draft.
  1. June 2, 2009 2:19 am

    My basic freedoms of thought and speech were hammered home last year when I attended the Byron Bay Writers Festival. At the beginning of each session the “empty chair” was introduced and we were told of the plight of someone on International PEN’s list of persecuted writers.

    I was truly impressed with the work of International Pen – an Amenesty International of sorts for writers and thinkers.

    Thanks for the reminder of this. I was 15 at the time and it is all a bit of a blur for me – though I remember vividly the Berlin Wall coming down at the end of the academic year and the conclusion of a year of Modern History Study. I honestly believe history should be a standard subject for all students – because you can never appreciate what you have if you don’t understand where you have come from (this historical foundation of your ‘now’)

    And of course – a very happy birthday to you Dale for tomorrow.

  2. June 2, 2009 5:45 am

    oh my – don’t I feel old? I was a second year Uni student when this happened. I have very strong memories of it being broadcast in the refec. Shortly after the event, we had guest speakers – Chinese Students who had been there and wanted to share their story. I remember the cold shiver of horror as these brave young people – the same age as we all were – recount the details of the day, how they felt, what that saw – all in a clipped, stilted manner as they held back the tears recalling how friends were soaked in blood in their arms as they ran. Its given me shivers now just writing about it.
    Thanks for bringing this up Dale – we do forget how blessed we are with the freedoms we enjoy.

  3. June 2, 2009 7:20 am

    I have a poster of that photo, black and white, on my wall in my bedroom. I can stare it long and hard sometimes and still get chills. It was a very inspiring and tragic event and like you I will be remembering it.

    Jodi, I saw the empty chair at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last year too. Very chilling.

    On a kind of related topic, but whilst I was at Melbourne’s Emerging Writers’ Festival last weekend, it shocked me to find, on the other side of the world, that the Palestinian Festival of Literature was nearly shut down in the West Bank. A writer’s festival seems like such a harmless thing.

  4. June 3, 2009 2:54 am

    You went to the Emerging Writers’ Festival Benamin. Brilliant! How was it? I follow them on Twitter.

    I wanted to get down there but as a Mum I have to juggle daily responsibilities with the things I’d really like to do and more often than not the things I’d like to do get put on the back burner. Perhaps next year. Having said I will be going to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival in August (again!)

    And yes – the Empty Chair is a very tangible reminder. A well thought out concept if ever there was one.

  5. June 3, 2009 4:15 am

    It was awesome. I got lots out of it. I follow them on Twitter too, and you might’ve seen that two of my reviews of their events was linked to from their Twitter which gave me a heap of hits.

    Writers around Melbourne seem to know my name a bit more now 🙂

    I even found it hard to find time for the EWF and I don’t have kids so can’t imagine how hard it would be for you.

    The Byron Bay Writers’ Festival does look impressive.

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