Wednesday, March 05, 2008

China Hands Aren’t Very Bright: Parsing John Pomfret

...Or, How Dumb Can We Get?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anybody who achieved notoriety in the political blogosphere quicker than John Pomfret.

Pomfret, of course, is the editor of the Washington Post Outlook section responsible for the much maligned Charlotte Allen piece about women entitled “Women Aren’t Very Bright” (belatedly retitled “We Scream We Swoon How Dumb Can We Get?”).

It’s hard to get Michelle Malkin and the Dailykos on the same page, but in Pomfret’s case they all piled on with expressions of outrage.

The estimable Laura Rozen was also compelled to put the boot to Pomfret’s slats, not once but several times, both before and after Pomfret e-mailed her his excuse/explanation “it was tongue in cheek”.

By the WaPo’s own accounting, the article garnered 1000 comments and over 10,000 blog posts.

The rule of thumb, of course, is there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Nevertheless, I imagine that smiles are getting rather forced at Castle Frankenstein a.k.a. the Washington Post as the baron observes the swelling ranks of torch and pitchfork-wielding villagers and begins to wonder if the edgy, high profile rollout of the new monster was such a great idea after all.

In the debate over whether turning over the opinion page of one of America’s leading newspaper to Allen, apparently a sloppy and cynical Kulturkampf provocateur, was a good idea or not, China Matters notes that John Pomfret is a genuine China hand.

He studied at Nanjing University in the 1980s, speaks Mandarin fluently, served as AP’s Beijing correspondent during the democracy movement, and then returned to China in the late 1990s to work for the Washington Post.

In 2006, Pomfret produced a very interesting, informative, and well-written book, Chinese Lessons.

It provides an inside look at the exciting and rather craptacular world of rising China as viewed through the lens of his enduring friendships with his Nanda classmates, who emerged from university to become apparatchiks, exiles, entrepreneurs, and academics.

They carried scars and a lot of baggage from their life under Mao:

[In 1966, one of Pomfret’s classmates] Wu came home from school and was told by his mother that he and the rest of the children would have to denounce their dad publicly as well. So that night, with their father upstairs in his room brooding, Wu and an elder brother spread large sheets of white paper on the dining room table, took out their father’s calligraphy brush and ink, and scrawled in giant characters, “Down with the Feudal Capitalist Education Line of Department Chief Wu.”...While the boys worked on the posters, [their mother] hovered nearby to ensure that her son’s wording was sufficiently harsh. “Call him a black hand,” she urged them under her breath so her husband would not hear.

Two weeks later, Wu’s mother and father were humiliated, beaten, and dragged through the streets of Nanjing. His mother died in the street of a broken neck. As for his father:

The gang returned him to the stage, which faced a hall where Wu had lectured...Lashing him to a chair, they broke his back. The students punched him, puncturing his bladder. When he fell off the chair, they jumped on him and fractured both of his legs...Two days later, he died in the hospital...

Pomfret also had to deal with his own anguish and guilt when one of his sources, an officer in the Chinese army, was detained and jailed for two and a half years, for meeting with Pomfret and passing documents to him during the democracy demonstrations.

I had been blithe, naive, and careless because underneath I never thought it would happen to someone close to me. Liu’s imprisonment was an important lesson, which came at a great price; what was worse, the price was not paid by me.

In the context of the amazing and horrific things he heard and experienced in China, it’s somewhat understandable that Pomfret might be cavalier about offending the sensibilities of the Washington Post readership.

While an individual in China can be destroyed for telling the truth, it’s perhaps liberating to realize you can publish something stupid in the United States without getting jet-planed, kneeling on broken glass, denouncing your parents, going to jail, and/or getting dragged through the streets and beaten to death.

But that, of course, doesn’t make publishing crap right.

Recognizing and enjoying the advantages of our system shouldn’t mean shortchanging a journalist’s obligations to report and edit with intelligence, compassion, and responsibility.

An anecdote from Pomfret’s book stuck with me.

One of his classmates—a journalist—has been driven into exile. He wants to return to China, has the opportunity, but his unease is palpable.

[We] went for coffee at a Nanjing Starbucks. As we savored our espressos, Song told a Taoist fable about a young boy who goes to another country to learn their way of walking. Before mastering the steps, however, he forgets his own and has to crawl home.

“Perhaps,” he said, “I am this boy.”

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