Reality is the best friend of liberty
The Olympic Games, disputed maps, and words that must not be spoken lest they reveal the truth
The Olympic Games are supposed to be apolitical, but that ideal has rarely been achieved. Even when it is accomplished on the field of play, what happens in sports invariably finds its way into relations among countries, as well as into the domestic politics of individual nations.
■ Just as sports reveal differences between athletes, so do international affairs reveal differences among governments. The People's Republic of China (PRC), for example, is governed by a regime that hates to be criticized. How much does the regime hate it? So much that censors cut off the broadcast of the opening ceremonies when the delegation from Taiwan was introduced.
■ On the matter of Taiwan, the PRC's government is extremely touchy. Domestically, a memo was circulated at Radio Television Hong Kong warning against any hint that Taiwan is an independent state. Abroad, the Chinese consulate in New York has complained that NBC's map of the PRC omitted Taiwan and other territorial claims, "hurt[ing] the dignity and emotions of the Chinese people", and tweeting a complaint at NBC as if it manages American diplomacy. And the PRC has blasted Japan's public broadcaster for using the word "Taiwan", as well.
■ It's a recurring theme for the PRC: Image above all. The dispute over international recognition of Taiwan's independence is complex and has a long history, but the plain reality is that it is an island of 23 million people with their own government and legal system that does not behave like the PRC's.
■ Taiwan's path to a high rating for freedom was long. It got there not by disputing reality, but by embracing it: Reality is the best friend of liberty.
■ That statement has meaning on two levels. First, nobody has to run away from reality in order to embrace liberty. Human liberty is the natural order of the world. The more you see of reality, the more the truth pushes you in favor of a paradigm of ordered liberty ("ordered" in the sense that one person's rights end where another's begin). It can be complicated, tumultuous, and noisy, but we possess rights merely by cause of being born as human beings, and nobody is entitled to take those rights away.
■ The other meaning is that illiberal systems of government get by via deprivation. Individuals can be deprived of their natural rights for a long time and not fight back, but ultimately, when a political system fails to deliver the goods (so to speak), people get angry and revolt. When the Soviet Union failed miserably in its duties at Chernobyl, people revolted against the system.
■ What happened to the USSR could happen to the PRC, if the government shows itself incapable of delivering competent responses to reality. If it cannot show itself capable of preventing or responding to catastrophic floods in a city of 12 million people, that reality is pretty hard to hide -- even if the state-controlled television news tries to distract the audience with 29 minutes of news about Xi Jinping going to Tibet before talking about the disaster.
■ Sooner or later, systems that deny basic human dignity and natural human rights fail to deliver results as a practical matter. They cannot do otherwise, because they require a denial of reality -- not just the reality of those natural rights, but often a denial of realities as plain as the nose on one's face. When photographs must be erased because of the inconvenient realities they display, then the detachment from reality is terminal.
■ Personal liberty inevitably invites conflicts -- conflicts that we choose to resolve through ordered processes, like courts of law. Liberty does not require words to be rendered taboo or elections to be "fixed" to protect the interests of the powerful. Instead, it requires the attitude expressed by Theodore Roosevelt: "[W]e must face the facts as they are." Reality is the best friend of liberty.