“As we meet today, Chinese citizens who had the courage to speak their minds on the Internet are in the Chinese gulag because Yahoo! chose to reveal their identities to the Chinese government,” Congressman Tom Lantos said. “My message to this company today is simple: Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.” Lantos then suggested to Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang that the firm censure employees responsible for the disaster. Yang’s response: “I feel that everybody was doing the best they can given a difficult situation.”
Jerry Yang is not an evil man. Faced with question of morality, he equivocated, refused to identify participants, relied on his feelings rather than his reason and doubted the ability of anyone to fix the situation. Surely he was just itching to get out of Washington and get back to something easy — like the business of making money. Thomas Peter Lantos was in a different business.
Congressman Lantos died this week of esophageal cancer. Many will note the long-term Democratic Congressman’s status as the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress, as if first-hand experience with evil were prerequisite to condemning evil, as if we children in the playground of Yale leisure are allowed to exercise our morality only when The Doodle closes and Holocaust survivors to protest when Darfur burns (as Lantos did in 2006, resulting in his arrest at the age of 78.)
Lantos saw evil and sought to end it. Just as the very real decisions of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who issued false papers to 100,000 Jews, saved Lantos from the Nazi death camps, so did Lantos try to save lives. He did not avoid hard decisions, he made them. He fought for increased funding against the AIDS epidemic in Africa, for military support for the Israeli democracy against its enemies, for negotiations with Libya when they might yield human rights, for Iraqi Freedom. Lantos expected Yang to act as he did: morally.
Faced with a systemic problem, we who live in the so-called “Yale bubble,” which funnels quite nicely into the “Manhattan bubble” or the “Beltway bubble,” too often complain and wait for some outside agent to solve it for us, rather than take find and end the individual actions that perpetuate the problem.
Perhaps this is a function of our high-school educations. Elite American schools reward students who demonstrate “hard work” more than they do students who demonstrate effective work. Each of us had the fourth-grade teacher who wanted us to “show your work.” Even if you got the right answer. (I got the right answer.) So we learned that if we show pencil marks below the problem, we must be solving it, right?
At the same time, our schools emphasize our feelings. When you counter what Howie said in a discussion, you had better not hurt his feelings. Your teacher didn’t care that Howie was a snot-nosed know-nothing whose ideas were poorly thought out at best and downright stupid at worst. Calling him out hurt his feelings, and nothing could be worse than that.
Thus goes the best thesis I have heard so far to explain the otherwise baffling phenomenon that the University administration, which commissioned rallies and panels and sights and sounds in response to the obscene graffiti which appeared on Yale buildings, has done absolutely nothing in response to the hateful speech in front of the Women’s Center.
Perhaps the administrators are the types who would rather hurl invectives at imaginary foes from behind their New York Times barricades in between sips of their cosmopolitans than tell individuals that their day-to-day actions perpetuate misogyny.
It is easy to rally against “hate” when we don’t know the haters; when they are named and pictured, it is harder. It’s hard to look in the eye someone you know and call him wrong. How uncomfortable it makes us when the board members of the Women’s Center take them to court!
This is not to say that the accused brothers are evil the way that the Chinese censors are evil — far from it. It is to say how much easier it is to rally against nameless enemies than real ones — whether they are the mythical “Republicans” the far left seems to name but not to know, the “immigrants” of the far right’s imagination, or Yale’s obscenity-tagging whipping boys, whoever they were.
Tom Lantos, requiescat in pace. Like Raoul Wallenberg, you were a hero not because you were a congressman, but because you did right even when it was hard. You taught Jerry Yang that the gift of America was that everyone can be a hero; everyone here is free to do good. It’s our business too.
Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.