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October Diary
On China, tyranny, and unique Hong Kong.


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John Derbyshire

Moral equivalence. A young Chinese acquaintance who is hyper-nationalist and doesn’t mind the Commies (you’ll never find any Chinese person who admits to liking the ChiCom leadership, but nationalists of this stripe don’t mind them) pulled moral equivalence on me in re the Occupy Wall Street shenanigans.

Thus: “You made such a fuss about the 1989 movement in Peking: going to the Chinese Consulate to demonstrate [well, we went to mingle with the demonstrators for an hour], writing it up for your magazines — heck, you even wrote a sympathetic novel about it! And now, here’s the same thing happening in New York and you’re calling for fire hoses and SWAT teams.”

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Where does one start with this? The OWS crowd have everything the protesters in Tiananmen Square wanted: freedom of speech and assembly, freedom to travel, choose a career, publicize grievances, vote out the government . . . These young OWS punks don’t know they’re born. If they are well-behaved and hygienic, and the owners of the spaces they’re occupying have no objection, I’d leave them alone. Since none of that really applies, I think fire hoses are entirely appropriate. A fire hose isn’t a tank, after all, and Wall Street, with all its innumerable faults, isn’t the ChiCom politburo.

The definitive rebuttal to moral equivalence was given by the late Bernard Levin back in Cold War days. Some BBC blowhard — I am pretty sure it was David Dimbleby — had produced a TV “documentary” about Germany, deploring that nation’s division into “two militarized blocs,” or some such, and noting what a shame it was that the Berlin Wall was dividing Germans from Germans, obliging people to risk their lives to cross it. There was, of course, nary a mention of the political differences between East and West Germany.

Levin passed some withering commentary on that program, noting, inter alia, that, to the best of his knowledge, all those who had risked their lives to cross the Berlin Wall were headed in the same direction.

Liberty vs. order. A more thoughtful observation came from a Radio Derb listener who had heard my praise of Oakland police chief Howard Jordan. He: “Are you sure that the protesters really were endangering the public and property? Sounds like a good excuse for the police to do violence upon the people that they are paid to protect.”

My listener included a link to this piece from Reason magazine. It seemed overwrought to me. “In fact, the police intervention has echoed around the world.” Oh, really? Sure: “Protestors as far away as Tahrir Square in Egypt have expressed their solidarity with the Oakland protestors.” Well, isn’t that special. Which Tahrir Square protesters are those, I wonder? — the gropers or the Muslim Brotherhood?

Freedom of assembly stops well short of a right to riot. If, as is well-reported, some demonstrators were throwing bricks and bottles at police, the police were right to respond with force.

The balance between liberty and order is always a hard one to get right. For anyone with some generalized sympathy for libertarianism (e.g., me, with numerous reservations), support for the police is always guarded. George Orwell — who, in spite of being a socialist, was of this same general temperament — said that the policeman is a working man’s natural enemy. When Robert Peel established England’s first regular police force in London, there was a widespread feeling among ordinary people that this violated ancient liberties. To quote Victorian Web, “‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ were not immediately popular. Most citizens viewed constables as an infringement on English social and political life, and people often jeered the police.”

That returns an echo from the heart of anyone who cherishes liberty. Order is worth something, too, though, and when those challenging order are a rabble of Marxists, anti-Semites, and (Orwell again) sandal-wearing vegetarian bubble-heads, it’s hard for a conservative not to find himself sympathizing with the police.

I wouldn’t deny anyone the freedom to assemble and march. Let them apply for a permit; let them organize and behave themselves; let them make their case. If lefties do things properly, I’ll concede them some brief control of a city center to add to their already near-total control of the universities, the schools, the media, the churches, the unions, the courts, the federal bureaucracy, and most of the other commanding heights of our society. At the first sign of rowdiness, though, I want fire hoses and SWAT teams.


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