11 September 2009

The liberty that is foreign to us in Hong Kong

When everybody here is talking about the shits our journalists faced earlier in Urumqi, and the foreign news section of the local media only briefly talked about Obama's healthcare speech, I found something extremely interesting to share with you, also about the US President.

The US President Barack Obama delivered a speech to the school kids on 8 September in a Virginia high school. The speech was also broadcast throughout their country. The key message of the speech is basically telling their kids to stay in school and work hard, do their homework and revision, etc. If you care to read the full text, the link is here via BBC.

Most of us in Hong Kong would only find such a speech normal, if not praising Obama for his encouragement to the kids. But in US, the speech stirred a wave of criticisms.

Some of the criticisms of course came from the Republicans. They claimed that Obama is trying "to indoctrinate children to serve his political agenda."

I know some of you are rednecks, like my colleagues who spent an hour talking about the possible methods of slicing open a woman, a gross bitch talk which I had to shove down with my breakfast. So I give you an example on what's the deal here. Imagine one day, DAB's Tam Yiu Chung goes to your kids' school and tells your kids to study hard so that they can serve the country and the Party better when they grew up, because the Party has been giving so much love to and putting so much hope on them. That is a political indoctrination. Get it? (If you don't, you're too thick for the stuff below, you might as well head to the TVB forum for something you will understand.)

The attack by the Republicans was doubtlessly a storm in a teacup. The speech was, in my opinion, an honest message about telling their kids to study hard.

But some opined that the problem of the speech is precisely that it is not political, but parental.

Brad Smith wrote in Redstate:

This is a President who once again shows that he has no idea of the proper role of government. If the President wants to talk about governmental affairs, great. I'd love for him to stop by our school to do so. That would be a great experience for the kids. But I do not want the President trying to raise my children. When people ask, "how can you object to the President urging kids to stay in school," I ask them what they'd think if I stopped by their house one night, uninvited, to tell their kids how to behave.
He also wrote here:

What I dislike is the idea of the President trying to serve as some sort of surrogate parent. I don't try to lecture his kids on how to be a good person or a successful student, and I dislike him trying to lecture mine. That's the real and invidious indoctrination - the idea that the President is our national parent, our "commander-in-chief (beyond the military), that he "runs the country." And now he tells us how to live our personal lives. Ick.
I know most of us here don't understand why such a common speech would get on the nerves of these US people. Read the scenario Smith set out above. What would you think if I stopped by your flat one evening, uninvited, to tell your kids how to behave?

The key of the problem is that Obama is the head of the US government, and having the government to bother with the individuals' personal lives is irritating to those who believe in liberty (like us). In a truly liberal society, there is always a healthy tension between the authority of the government and the freedom of individuals.

Haruki Murakami gave us a very fine and lyrical metaphor of the situation we are facing in his Jerusalem Prize speech:

Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg...Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is "the System." The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others -- coldly, efficiently, systematically.
Government by definition is a body that has an authority to control a country/location and enforce its rules. That authority makes it a "high, solid wall". Most of the time, this wall serves to protect the individual "eggs", but the extent of control the wall has over the lives of the eggs calls on a reflection.

That famous John Stuart Mill wrote in his great work On Liberty:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...
Let's forget about the above quotation if you don't care, I know it makes some eyes bleed.

The key point is, if it's not about preventing any harm to others by a person, nobody can exercise any power over that person. There is a certain sphere called private life for each of us, that nobody has the right to bother with. That is basically the principle of liberty.

So when the head of the government, this time, President Obama, who has the right to exercise an authority, says something about the private lives of the citizens, some liberals will certainly be annoyed. Think about it, you'd be pissed-off if I came over your flat uninvited to give your kids a lecture on behaving themselves, even when I have no potential authority in doing anything but the talk. Isn't it reasonably worrying if somebody instead has the authority to cane your kids came over and did that same thing? If your kids don't behave, or even give that person a middle finger high in the air, will that person beat the shit out of your kids?

I trust that the speech by Obama was in no sense intended to mess with the private lives of the US people, it might only be a political insensitivity. But the folk in Hong Kong who claimed that they treasure liberty so much have something to learn from this incident.

Are we sensitive enough in protecting ourselves against the potential threats to our freedom?

Some of us said "yes" to the privacy devastating drug test. We invited the authority to control what we read. We let them censor our movie posters. Nobody cares about what is taught in school that is wrong, we simply trusted the education authority. We did nothing when the gays and lesbians are discriminated. We only care about shits like the Nina Wang court battle.

It's time for us to start caring about our freedom, to be fussy about our private lives. If your kids are not behaving, you hold the responsibility. Do talk to the school and professional social workers about the problem if needed, but never invite the authority to mess with your kids when it's not criminal.

Let's all stand on the side of the eggs.


  1. Very valid points. which reminds me when i was in the u.s, people actually opposed to their water department to put fluoride in their water, because it's exactly what you were saying- Government interfering private life.


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