Tuesday, January 29, 2013

One Voice

I was listening to a song.  I don't remember the name or artist, but there was a line about how a single voice in a sea of voices could make a difference.  President Obama said something similar in his 2008 campaign - If one voice can change a room, it can change a city... and so on until it changes the world. 

Chalk it up to middle-aged cynicism or just my mood today, but I immediately dismissed this idea as naive.  I like the song and I appreciate its inspirational sentiment.  But this artist's intended audience is probably adolescent girls facing peer pressure and a life of possibilities rather than powerful, entrenched interest groups who are highly motivated to maintain the status quo. 

What is a single voice in the face of that?

The other side of my brain immediately went to work answering that question.  I am often of two minds for a bit.  It makes for lively internal debate.  What about all of history's dissidents and revolutionaries and whistle-blowers, I countered.  What about Martin Luther King?  He was one man, but only the most prominent voice in a much greater movement that outlived him.  What about Nelson Mandela?  Again, a determined, unifying, persuasive mouthpiece for a greater popular movement.  What about Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar?  I could go on.  These people risked everything, spoke truth to power, and helped usher in nationwide transformations.

Then the image of "Tank Man" popped into my head.  That is the name given to the courageous, iconic, unidentified man who stood down a column of Chinese tanks rolling toward Tiananmen Square during the 1989 student protests in Beijing.

What an image.  Could it be any more symbolic of what was at stake?  One simple man in simple clothes dwarfed by a machine of war backed by the might of one of the world's last remaining super powers.

And look what he has in his hands.  Just bags.  He's not holding a sign.  He doesn't have a weapon.  He has no visible symbol of protest anywhere on his person.  There is absolutely nothing about him that makes you think he had anything to do with the student agitators in Tiananmen Square.  I imagine that he was just an unsophisticated every man on the way home from the grocery store who witnessed something his conscience couldn't ignore and he literally took a stand against it.  Nearly 14 years later, that image is just as moving and just as powerful.

Isn't that one voice making a difference?

Let's consider that.  14 years later, the Chinese Communist Party remains one of the very few totalitarian Communist regimes to survive beyond the early 90s.  China is more powerful and influential - militarily, economically, politically - than it has ever been.  It's biggest export partner is the world's only other remaining super-power, the self-declared champion of democracy. 

And what of Tank Man?  Neither his identity nor fate can be definitively identified.  If he is alive, it's unclear if he even knows of his own international renown as all discussion of the '89 Protests is forbidden and information of the events is censored within China to this day. 

So, can one voice transform to world?  Undeniably.  I am a jaded, somewhat pessimistic atheist, but would our world be the same without the Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Lao Tzu, Muhammad, Confucius? 

I'll niggle on one fine point, though.  It may be nothing more than semantics, but it seems to me that it is not the singular voice that transforms the world but rather the countless listeners who change themselves.  If a man shouts fire in a burning building, he cannot save a single soul if the listeners do not get up and save themselves.  His voice only has consequence when it moves others into action.

I'll leave you with another photo of Tank Man.  This gives the moment new perspective, revealing just how stunningly bold it was for this small man abandon caution and confront the machine.  Change is coming very slowly to China.  We can hope this man's defiant example will someday bear fruit, if not in China then hopefully here at home. 


  1. This is a poignant post. There's so much that needs fixing in our world, both abroad and at home. This reminds me of that teaching tale, Without a Nail a Kingdom was Lost. It does take just that final ounce or inch or mile to reach the tipping point. AKA Jude

  2. I'm often of two minds about something. Opinions should take time to percolate through the system.

    Now we need to do some research to see what happened to Tank Man after his bravery.

  3. I bet he was just worried about the one tank right in front of him. Agree there is lots going on in the world. China's state-planned economy interests me more than threatens me. They've seemingly made some moves to hold corrupt politicians accountable recently which I think is important. I think information should be free, though. So, I've got that beef, but as bad China can be at Individual rights from the US POV, they can be equally good at making both quick smart tactical economic action and long term economic planning decisions. China is also almost always an extremely safe place for foreigners to visit, which cannot be said about a lot of places.

  4. Delighted to see you blogging again. Great post. Enough thoughts,ideas and meditation to sustain your blogging for months to come. Post more often, one song at a time...

  5. "...14 years later, the Chinese Communist Party remains one of the very few totalitarian Communist regimes to survive beyond the early 90s" ??
    I beg to question that.
    The crush of Tiananmen was the turning point point of the great capitalist transformation of China, blessed by his holiness Milton Friedman, who personally advised Chinese government (more details are in "Disaster capitalism" by N. Klein).
    Tiananmen has evaporated from Chinese mind, quickly replaced by mindless pursuit of material happiness (American style). Isn't that is what "true democracy" is about?