When no news is bad news

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I shouldn’t be surprised. So much breaking international news seems to pass Taiwan by.

This afternoon I taught a unit from a textbook that I have taught perhaps 20 times over the last couple of years. It includes a quiz question about Nelson Mandela. In classes of 20-plus, there are frequently no more than a couple who have ever heard of him.

Man De La (曼德拉). It draws nods and vague looks from some of them; occasionally someone knows the answer to the question: “Nelson Mandela didn’t become president of South Africa until he was 76, because he was in jail.”

Clocking out a couple of hours later, I voice my incredulity to the older and, surely wiser, admin staff: “They didn’t know who Man De La was.”

Blank looks and shrugs. “We don’t learn about that at school.”

So I shouldn’t be surprised. But I am disappointed. The news that Ratko Mladić (姆拉迪奇) had finally been arrested deserved more column inches than what it got, which – from what I could ascertain by browsing the major Chinese-language papes over the last couple of days – was roughly zero. I didn’t do a proper survey of the news channels but I doubt it was much better.

Perhaps it was the timing and the proximity – a year after Rwanda, Srebenica delivered Europeans a system-scrambling jolt, disabusing many of the deep-rooted notion that, like polio, savagery on this scale had been eradicated with the close of WWII, and remained the preserve of backwater savages.

Or maybe it was the personal connections that I felt – I worked with Bosniak and, later, Kosovar asylum seekers, some of whom had seen and experienced some horrific things; and I travelled in the region  in ’97, meeting Canadian peacekeepers on a train who told me things were looking up, as people were finally starting to replace their windows.  

Whatever the case, the crimes of Mladić, Arkan and the rest of these genocidal maniacs should never be forgotten or glossed over. I know several foreigners here who, like me, felt strong emotions on hearing Mladić was finally being brought to book.

Cultural and historical insensitivity are rife in Taiwan. Flippant Hitler references have featured in advertisements, youth politics campaigns, smears on political opponents, and intra-party bickering*. There was even a tasteful death camp-themed restaurant.

An argument I frequently hear trotted out is that most Westerners know nothing about, say, Nanjing or 228. But those espousing this line fall on their own sword: If you don’t know what you’re on about, shut up.  True, no one is using Mladic’s grotesque racial distortions for political gain just yet, but you can bet your life if they thought it would make for a good sound bite, they would.

The point is, when politicians with doctorates in political science from American universities demonstrate such a poor grasp of history, what hope is there for a public that is not exposed to this information? If the media and classrooms aren’t doing the job, then maybe it’s up to us all to try and chip away at the willful insularity that pervades this country to its detriment.  

 * As an aside, Annette Lu – just the latest in a long line of Taiwanese politicans to invoke the Führer’s name for no good reason – was speaking in front of a gathering organised by DPP legislator Chai Trong-rong (蔡同榮). As the former chairman of FTV, Chai is often seen in my office building, stripped to the waist following his morning jog.

My colleague recently bumped into Chai in the lift and asked him if he was following the latest political developments. His interest initially piqued, Chai’s face dropped when he realised my colleague was speaking about the U.S. “Oh, I’m not interested in American politics,” sniffed the  former Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York.

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