ESWN has once again tossed some bait my way with another translation “explaining” Taiwan affairs from The Journalist.

It’s hard to know where to begin with a piece like this because it is bad on so many levels and in so many ways. The author begins the piece with a tactic that every skeptical reader ought to grasp at once: self-validation by identifying oneself as “above the fray” (disclaimer: I am not above the fray. I am passionately pro-democracy and pro-DPP). I’m shamelessly stealing ESWN’s translation. Here’s the first paragraph:

A friend said that he does not read political news or commentary in the newspapers or magazines, because “they are often full of hate. For me, it is not a smart thing to pay money to bring hatred into my home.” The clash between political ideologies has made many people unhappy. If the struggle was limited only to the fight between unification and independence, or the political power struggle between the blue and green camps, it would not be as bad. Most citizens would know at least which topics upset them and they can filter out those kinds of information. Unfortunately, though, the elements of unhappiness are like randomly discarded pollutants that have seeped under the ground to all areas of life.

There seems to be a growing mythology in Taiwan’s society that Taiwan’s problems stem from the media. It is certainly true that the print media here is not of the highest quality, and the broadcast media is unmentionable, treating potential news like a 12 year old who has just found his father’s cache of Playboy magazines.

The comments in here are quite interesting: “The clash between political ideologies has made many people unhappy.” Hey, no kidding. When one side consists of a corrupt authoritarian party that hates Taiwan and wants to annex it to China so it can stay in power, unhappiness is bound to result. This is not the ordinary case of two parties disagreeing on policy, but the unique case of one party disagreeing that the nation has a right to exist. The media are not to blame for this problem….

Water shortage should be an economic problem. Water works and water resource management are mature subjects of knowledge. The provision of water is a highly technical problem, and the mature government bureaucracy in Taiwan should have the technical expertise to deal with the matter. But the whole thing was positioned as a political struggle between the central and local governments from the very start, or even an internal political struggle within the central government. This was how the government officials behaved, and the media also looked at this economic problem from political angles. The black-and-white political positions restricted any professional and technical discussion.

The commentary here is frankly, naive. It reflects the long-discredited view, still current here in Taiwan, that public policy is really a question of technical matters and that “politics” is something that interferes with the smooth process of public choice under expert guidance. This narrative of technocratic triumphalism went out sometime between Ellul and Kuhn, propelled by Mumford, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. Public choice — public policy — is a matter of values, which cannot be settled by technological expertise. Your expert can tell you the conseqences of different water management policies, but she cannot tell you which one you should choose, because that is a matter of values, not expertise. The media can be criticized for its lame-brained presentations of public policy issues, but it cannot be criticized for politicizing them. That is the inevitable result of public policy in a democracy.

The fact is that water policy does reflect the struggle over centralization in Taiwan’s government structure and cannot be de-linked from it. Taiwan’s counties are laid out along water basin boundaries and are essentially creatures of water policy. To claim that local government can be delinked from water policy is to argue that Taiwan’s county borders have nothing to with local government, a position of immense absurdity. The tussle between local and central government also reflects the inherent tensions that have arisen as the DPP attempts to find a formula that will enable Taiwan to democratize without it spinning out of central government control, a serious problem when so many local governments are corrupt beyond belief. But I suppose it would be ‘hateful’ to point out which political party was the cause of that problem.

Which brings me to my next point, which is that much of the criticism of public discourse in Taiwan by locals actually reflects uneasiness with its freewheeling nature. The pundits who lord it over local discourse came of age in an authoritarian society where discourse was defined by limits everyone understood. But those limits, whose ultimate bound lay in a swift clubbing and a body dumped off the local beach, have gone. As I’ve said before, many locals interpret the freewheeling savagery of local discourse as an anarchy to be shunned rather than a potential democratic discourse to be embraced and elevated. Let us see which way the writer in The Journalist takes it….

The media are like groundwater carrying the pollution of hatred everywhere. Of course, the politicians themselves are the source of the pollution. In Taipei City, a police informant for stolen cars wanted to deliver results and went into Taipei County to steal cars himself. After the case was exposed, the Taipei County head and the Deputy Police Director held a press conference to accuse Taipei City. It is astonishing that the very busy Taipei County head would make time to hold a press conference and use this hot headline news to poke at their neighbors who are ruled by a different political party. Should not the Taipei County head be spending his effort to get the county police to have closer liaison with the city police in order to close the loopholes?

All sorts of things are happening here…..first, the author, having conventionally blamed the media, can now even more conventionally blame the politicians. “Of course, the politicians themselves are the source of the pollution,” he says. This obnoxious shallowness precisely reflects the type of discourse the writer imagines he deplores, but is actually a prime exponent of. We’ve seen this problem before, of course, in ESWN’s previous translation discussing Apple Daily. Note that the article from The Journalist is composed entirely of unsupported claims, and that there is no reference to history, except as a vague Golden Age prior to the intervention of the horrible media driven by those horrible politicians, a time, presumably, when public policy was made by brilliant technoscientific elites who had no need to reference politics in their choices, instead merely handing off contracts for concrete and fertilizer to close associates of the ruling party. A sure clue that an article is bullshit is that it makes no concrete reference to history, establishing its bona fides only in relation to current events. Here The Journalist has waved his rhetorical wand and history has disappeared.

The major problem here is that the hatred is not the result of politicians but the legacy of fifty years of KMT rule, and ongoing KMT policy. Many Taiwanese hate mainlanders passionately and for entirely understandable reasons, and many mainlanders hate the DPP for no other reason than that it is slowly removing them from the places of power they once held in Taiwan society. The Journalist simply glides past all this passionate feeling with the brilliant and historically sensitive explanation that it is all due to those politicians. If only they would stop producing poison, and if only the media would stop spreading it and intensifying it, then all would be well. Note how The Journalist carefully stops short of explaining what it is that politicians do that produces all that hatred. To do that would be to enter the realm of the Concrete, and there There Be Dragons of a very nasty kind, the Reality Kind that Bites You on the Ass. Like my students, The Journalist would prefer to live in a Laputa of abstractions rather than dirty himself with things like legislative vote patterns, political corruption, and Chinese cultural patterns of political interaction. Good writing is concrete….

Also like my students, The Journalist has selected an example that doesn’t fit his case very well. The Taipei City and Taipei County governments blaming each other may reflect party divisions, but anyone who has lived in Taiwan will also recognize the deeper pattern of pre-emptive finger-pointing that often goes on in Chinese institutions, in which party A quickly organizes to blame Party B before Party B can get its act together and blame Party A. Further, here the media in this case is obviously and only the tool of the politicians — if the Taipei County Police organize a press conference should the media stay away? Isn’t it the media’s job to report events like this? I’m a little confused by The Journalist’s idea that perhaps the media should not report that the Taipei County Police are blaming the Taipei City Police for the antics of one fruitcake police informant. Another thing I often tell my students — make concrete and positive recommendations. But our heroic analyst for The Journalist has none, of course. He concludes;

The quarrels in Taiwan can no longer be described as 口水 (literally, saliva, but refers to free-swinging opinionating). Taiwan has been poisoned by hatred. The politicians create it and the media spread it. The haters are especially sensitive to it, they react strongly to it, they become more obstinate in their positions and they insist on disagreeing rather than agreeing. Who can say: Taiwan is a “body with a common fate”?

The quarrels in Taiwan never were described as 口水 so again we have the writer referencing a Golden Age that never existed. Prior to the advent of real party palitics there was one-party rule and 口水 got you locked up, exiled, or killed. Like so many Chinese writers I have read, the writer here has become drunk oncheap moralizing and abstractions, and forgotten that true insight dwells in reflecting on, and interacting with, the world of the concrete.

It is true that Taiwan has been poisoned by hatred. Unlike South Africa and other one-party states, the White Terror has not resulted in a Truth Commission whose express purpose is to heal society. The high-ranking KMT members who were responsible in their younger days for the application of martial law and its violent arbtrariness have never been punished for their evil, nor has the KMT ever really apologized for what it did to Taiwan. Nor has the party abandoned its dream of crushing Taiwan’s democracy and annexing the island to China. In the absence of concrete gestures from the KMT to heal the breach between the mainlanders and the Taiwanese, naturally hatred will remain. And that is not a bad thing, for the opposite of hatred is not love, as people are wont to think. No, hatred and love are complementary passions, as one turns constantly into the other — in Taiwan, the three most passionately anti-mainlander and pro-Taiwan independence women I know all married mainlanders. No, the opposite of hatred is resignation, just as the opposite of love is apathy. And with the KMT determined to sell the island to China, and 700 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, resignation is not what the island needs right now. As a motivator, hatred will do very nicely, thank you.

ESWN ends with his own commentary on the issue:

But the fact that Apple Daily is succeeding means that the the younger generation are being turned off from politics. Not only do they refuse to hear about party politics, they don’t even want to deal with anything else that is contaminated by partisan politics, when in fact those are critical issues in their lives (such as water management, environmental pollution, and so on).

Quite true, and a trend long predating the arrival of Apple Daily. But locating apathy among the young, a universal problem, in hatred fostered by the media, is absurd. The young in Taiwan are apathetic because they have no control over their lives, dominated as they are by an authoritarian family and social culture, a school system that offers them few choices, a lack of civic culture that encourages growth as a politically involved citizen, and a culture that does not permit the kind of self-expression they need to develop their own autonomy, and also because the previous ruling party encouraged the habit of apathy among the young. They have been trained to apathy by their elders. The shallowness and nihilism of Apple Daily, with its negative, anti-Taiwan politics, naturally appeals to that. But the young are young, and someday, like all young everywhere, they will outgrow that. And like the old everywhere, we will deplore the slow, lazy curve of that growth. That is what that thing that has vanished from this discussion — history — teaches us.