Thursday, June 5, 2008

A New Confucian Journalism

Fall semester of my senior year in college, I took a class in Confucian Ethics with a visiting professor named Henry Rosemont, and, like no other professor I'd had before or have had since, he sucked us in. By mid-semester, we were hypnotized, thrilled to have supplementary sessions in his apartment three nights a week, drinking warm beer and cheap red wine from coffee mugs with he and his wife. There were more than a few moments at which he had us thoroughly convinced that nothing short of heroic embrace and evangelical perpetuation of the worldview at the heart of the Confucian tradition would save the world from the poisonous Western obsession with instant economic gratification.

No disrespect to Professor Roth and Laozi, but it was Henry Rosemont that first got me thinking hard about a trip to China.

After spending close to four years in Beijing, however, I'm sad to say that the most noticeable vestige of Confucian society is the aspect of Chinese culture that I consider most disturbing. Children in China, good, obedient Confucians that they are, still respectfully refrain from asking their teachers why.*

That said, I still do have big love for Professor Rosemont, Confucius, and their philosophical minds, and I still stop and read whenever I notice Singapore's elder statesman, the first modern Confucian political leader, makes news.

Passed from journalism.sg to Imagethief to my friend Dan's Google Reader Shared Items to me, I offer you the latest from Lee Kuan Yew:

So when you write an article with a little sting at the end, which is not true, I claim the right of reply. You have written 5,000 words, I claim 500 words. They refused, and in that case, I will restrict you. I will not block you because you will say I'm afraid of what you said. But I will restrict you and allow the other people, the other subscribers to photostat, fax, and now scan. So now you allow me the right of reply, I get the right of reply, the writer who puts in all these poison barbs no longer appears so smart. You can twist my arm, I'll wring your neck.


Hmmm. Right of reply. For the government. Sounds suspiciously like the propaganda machine wants the last word.

But I wonder if it has to be that way. I wonder if a right of reply like that could be a step in a good direction.

I like the idea of giving a writer's audience the opportunity to stamp its thoughts right there on the published work. Like comments on a blog, right? If I write something stupid or wrong or offensive on here, you can step in and dispute or correct me, and you can do it right there ON the article, right there for everyone to see.

Giving a semi-authoritarian government the ONLY right of reply is obviously problematic. The goal of the published response model is discourse. It's recognition of disagreements. It's quick paths to common ground. It's accountability. It's openness. It's digging past the surface level. And, no question about it, Lee Kuan Yew's proposal is more likely to lead to to greater conservatism on editorial boards than any of that.

But you never know. I reckon give it a try. See what happens. Maybe Singapore will hire Professor Rosemont to write its responses.

*Note: I'm clearly not adhering to best blogging (or conversational) practices here by dropping this in here and just leaving it hanging, but I'm going to have to get into it another time. If anyone emails or comments about it, however, that'll definitely spur me to write more about it soon.

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