Awakenings

Yesterday we featured the personal reflections of William Shawcross on his new book, Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11, and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Shawcross is the author of many interesting books. Those of us of a certain age are probably most familiar with him from his book Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia.

Originally published in 1979, Sideshow was a huge hit among the left. It gave rise to a memorable review by the late Peter Rodman in the pages of the American Spectator, and a subsequent exchange with Shawcross that was equally interesting. Shawcross has included the review and exchange in the paperback edition of the book, which is still in print. There aren’t many authors of prominent books on public affairs who would give a critic the last word, but that’s what Shawcross has now done.

At the time American Spectator editor R. Emmet Tyrell named Sideshow the winner of his J. Gordon Coogler Award for the worst book of the year. Whatever its merits, I don’t think anyone reading Sideshow in 1979 would have anticipated Shawcross’s turn toward America in his most recent books, including Justice and the Enemy. He writes as an unabashed, unashamed supporter of the United States. In recognition of Shawcross’s turn, this past June Tyrell rescinded the 1980 Coogler award in a column paying tribute to Shawcross. Tyrell explained:

…he has uttered such good sense for years across a whole range of vital issues. Not only that, but he writes commendable prose. What am I to do? Members of the Coogler Committee want their handsome award back. Let bygones be bygones. I am off to London and shall very gingerly bring the matter up with Shawcross. “Where is your award, and may I have it back?” I shall say. Probably he has it in an honored spot in his London home, perhaps on a mantle piece, possibly on display with other literary and humanitarian awards that he has won along the way. I shall offer him a replacement. How about a portrait of President Barack Obama, coming down from the heavens, with copies of Shawcross’s later books in his hands. Mr. Shawcross, all things are negotiable. We just want our award back. The year 2011 is the year the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee flip-flopped.

China expert Jonathan Mirsky, whom I have been citing here in my Thomas Friedman series, also experienced some such awakening after the conclusion of the Vietnam War. In the late 1960′s and early 1970′s Jonathan (as undergraduates like me knew him) was teaching Chinese and leading opposition to the war as a member of the faculty at Dartmouth. After Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, Jonathan traveled to Hong Kong and sought entry to China himself by boat. (I’m writing from memory here and the details may well be off.) When the boat was stopped by the Chinese authorities, Jonathan jumped out (or so we heard) and sought to reach land in China.

I can’t remember the rest of the story, but I believe he made it. In any event, he returned to campus that fall with a number of authentic Mao jackets that he wore around town along with his cordurroy trousers. It was a fashion statement that unmistakably advertised his reverent attitude to the Chinese authorities.

Shortly thereafter Jonathan left Dartmouth and went to work as a journalist in London. He used his expertise to cover China as the Observer’s China specialist and as East Asia editor of the Times. Over the past 30 years he has become a formidably learned critic of the Chinese Communists’ atrocities and repression. In 1989 he was named International Reporter of the year, an award he won the hard way. He was badly beaten up in Tianemen Square during the bloodbath that year.

He must now have published as many as a hundred essays and reviews on China in the New York Review of Books alone. To get the flavor of these pieces, see his Standpoint essays “The long shadow of Tianamen” (June 2009) and “Still haunted by the ghost of Mao” (July/August 2011). Most recently, Jonathan filed a report on the NYRB blog proudly proclaiming that he had been “Banned in China” (“friends and colleagues are telling me what an honor it is to have one’s writing banned in the People’s Republic”).

We all know how much our political views are bound up with our sense of ourselves. Change doesn’t come easily. Something seems to have happened to these honorable men along the path of their adult lives. Whatever it was, it gives their work a special power.

Responses