Whose Past? Whose Path?

One of my addictions is my walk to the library on a Saturday afternoon to read the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. The addiction stems from my reliance on their Review section to let me know if there is a new book of inordinate promise for my reading interests and pleasure. In case this seems like a source for capitalist consumption only, I must point out now that I learned about George R. R. Martin through WSJ long before Game of Thrones was a mega hit for HBO as well as the works of Bernard Cornwell without the knowledge of Sharp’s Rifles having been a popular series of lesser status on the more cultured PBS network.

I mention this as the setup for the articles which absorbed my attention in the June 1-2 edition of the paper. Front page and occupying a large part of the Review section was a group of articles about the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations for democracy, which prompted the brutal crackdown by the Chinese ruling party. This was at a time when the mainstream news outlets in America were still committed to reporting the news and those of us old enough to cherish those times of a reputable free press remember the televised image of a single man confronting a line of tanks. The exhilarating promise of the birth of democracy within a totalitarian regime gave way to censorship during a bloody repression tantamount to a botched abortion.

This being the first weekend in June 2019, space was also made available for reviews of five new books about the 1944 D-Day invasion of the Normandy coast in France, which ultimately led to the defeat of the German army the following year. As something of a sidebar there was also a review of a book entitled The Washington War by James Lacey about the inner workings of President Roosevelt’s administration during the entire conflict. The timing of the books’ release is easily understandable since this is the 75th anniversary of the allied armies establishing the much hoped for western front by the launching the most complex logistical invasion ever undertaken in human history. The result bequeathed to the world a largely free and independent Western Europe. Those nations liberated by Russia didn’t fare so well.

The contrast between the two anniversaries can only be described in polar opposite terms. If there be any point of commonality between them it is only in the bloody nature of the fighting which accompanied the clash between ideologies on the shores of the French coastline and later in the streets of Tiananmen. The absence of events commemorating the sacrifices made by the exuberant Chinese students who launched a peaceful protest for democracy thirty years ago gives silent testimony, mercilessly enforced, to the basic contrast between the two events. We cannot say enough often enough to memorialize what was done seventy-five years ago, hence the issue of new books about a day in the life of freedom.

There is much about Chinese culture that we praise, sometimes to the point of envy. The ancient nation’s achievements in the arts and sciences dwarf American aspirations when the comparison is based on their longevity. But the disparate legacies of a June day in 1944 and that of one in April 1989 should tell us about whose path we wish to take based on whose history portends the greatest promise for a free and prosperous future. America the upstart is still the beautiful and sometimes wonderfully boastful to the point of national arrogance. But as long as our good intentions continue to let freedom ring, then I can join in with a little flag waving and even dare to kneel at the sound of our national anthem in prayerful gratitude for the time and place of my birth.

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