Wed 30 Mar 2005
Since 1977, the United States State Department has issued an annual global report card called the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.
The document has long been a thorn in the side of authoritarian governments, including China’s, which responds with a nettled review of its own, called “The Human Rights Record of the United States,” the 2004 version of which was recently released. (It is available in English at http://english.people.com.cn/200503/03/eng20050303_175406.html.)
China’s assessment, unlike the sober State Department tome, is a frank indictment and draws a picture of America that approaches caricature. But that doesn’t mean it won’t buttress the negative image of the United States held by its critics around the world.
Excerpts follow, with the document’s grammatical and other errors intact.
Peter Edidin, The New York Times. Mar 27, 2005.
In the contested weeks following the U.S. Presidential Election of 2000, the Onion ran a front-page article that claimed Fidel Castro had offered to send election observers to the U.S. for help in the recount. On first read, the article seemed to be satire, but in the wake of the 2000 election, the resulting confusion no longer seemed anamolous. That is not to say that the winner was a nefarious conniver who orchestrated the reversal of Florida in the wee hours of the morning; however, the imbalance of power between the electorate and elected was laid bare for all to see, as Supreme Court justices de facto selected the next President of the United States.
While it is easy to look at trouble outside our borders and to criticize those in power, it is hard to cast the light on our own, to look at our country the way others around the world see us: not the mythic “City on the Hill,” but a bully swaddled in platitudes and oversimplified soundbites.
China, itself a notorious violator of human rights, has revealed to the Emperor (and to those who both love and hate him) how very invisible those swaddling garments truly are. But if The New York Times‘ reaction to China’s “The Human Rights Record of the United States” is any indication, that very invisibility eludes our perception.
In the quoted passage above, Edidin frames the excerpts of “The Human Rights Record of the United States” that the Times ran on March 27, 2005. This framing is meant to discredit the document and to restore faith in this country’s most sacred self-misperceptions. Edidin’s mission is self-evident in his prose, so perhaps a quick explication is in order. (Such a gesture is, I think, warranted, especially considering the Times‘ final qualification that preceded the excerpts: “Excerpts follow, with the document’s grammatical and other errors intact.”)
Edidin opposes the two documents (The U.S.’s “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” (oddly un-quoted in Edidin’s article) and China’s “The Human Rights Record of the United States”) through metaphor. The U.S. report is a “thorn in the side of authoritarian governments,” while the Chinese document is a “nettled review.” Here, the U.S. report is a tool for justice and liberty: A “thorn in the side” suggests a nagging complaint, a beneficial monkeywrench in the works, that engenders positive reforms among “authoritarian governments.”
Phallocentrism (not) aside, Edidin subordinates the Chinese report by describing it as “nettled.” A nettle (noun) is “any of a genus (Urtica of the family Urticaceae, the nettle family) of chiefly coarse herbs armed with stinging hairs,” while nettle (verb) is “1 : to strike or sting with or as if with nettles” and “2 : to arouse to sharp but transitory annoyance or anger.” Thus, the Chinese report becomes a mere “annoyance” adorned with “stinging hairs” that, it would seem, are not as noble, righteous as our own terrible swift thorn.
Edidin continues his misinformation campaign by claiming, “China’s assessment, unlike the sober State Department tome, is a frank indictment and draws a picture of America that approaches caricature.” First, as a writer, one might expect Mr. Edidin to interrogate (or at least to know) the ways in which the U.S. State Department might willfully deploy a “sober tone” in its document in order to enshroud the political document in an air of objectivity and rationality.
Second, with regards to cariacature, apparently Mr. Edidin has been content with the distinction that only “evildoers” oppose U.S. policy—that taxonomy has been used so frequently, one wonders if Stan Lee has been named Presidential speeachwriter. Nor does Edidin seem to bristle at the “You’re either for or against us” dichotomy that smacks of the worst of the Cold War. The U.S. government routinely cariacatures both our friends and enemies toward our own ends.
Such an aggressive framing suggests that this document struck a chord somewhere. While Edidin claims the report is grossly inaccurate, he concedes that it will “buttress the negative image of the United States held by its critics around the world.” It wasn’t so long ago that we openly quesitoned our cultural values, wondered whether we truly were, as a nation, moving in a positive and ethical direction. In the weeks after 9/11, men and women openly wept on television, decrying the values that they had come to hold as inviolably good, the values Al-Qaeda claimed to have attacked on that barbarous day. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we are able to admit outside criticism, to admit that once in awhile we may not be as noble and democratic as we see ourselves, we might end some of the suffering at home, end more of it abroad, and return to building a more perfect union.
For another analysis of Edidin and the statistics in that “nettled review,” read Dave Lindorff’s article here.