Thursday, 26 November 2009

Phew! Just Flew Back from China and Boy My Arms Are Tired

Or however that joke goes. Right now I'm de-jetlagging after a seemingly endless flight from Hong Kong and trying to catch up on what I missed. I spent a week in China. For today, just a short odds-and-ends entry...

(1) When did passengers turn into "customers"? I noticed this on the Continental flights I took. Had it been only one flight, I would have just written off the incident as someone on the flight crew remembering some half-digested bit of marketing political correctness. But this practice was apparently part of some memo because the "customers" references came up on different legs of my journey. "Customers, please be seated." "We thank our customers for flying with us." That sort of thing.

One thing you gotta understand about me: I love the English language. I love it on a number of levels, right down to the sound of words knocking together. Further, I believe in simple, direct, effective communication. I grit my teeth when corporate America keeps trying to put lip gloss on the fact that they're terminating workers. We have gone from "firings" to "layoffs" to "downsizing" to -- a particularly odiously bland term -- "rightsizing."

Who the hell came up with "rightsizing"? It sounds so laudable. As in: "We were wrongsized before, and when we realized this, we rightsized, and now as a company we feel soooo much better." Compare that to: "We just fired 200 workers." The trouble is, "rightsize," besides having that fuzzy feel-goodness of Newspeak, is maddeningly imprecise. "Rightsize" could mean that you added 200 workers, if your company felt it was too small. Or it could mean you opened another plant, or acquired a rival. I think there should be Useless Euphemism jars, like swear jars, for awful euphemisms. Every time a flack tells you his company "rightsized," he should have to put a buck in the Useless Euphemism jar.

But back to the customers sitting on the airplane, waiting an hour on the tarmac twice on delayed Continental flights (whoops, wrong peeve) ... why not just ditch the marketing PC and call us what we are, most accurately, in our current role? Maybe when we're buying the ticket at the counter, we deserve to be referred to as "customers." But once we're on the plane, we become passengers. There's no shame in that. And the word best reflects our role at that moment.

Say the plane smacks into the side of the mountain, killing 230 people aboard. When Continental holds a media conference on the disaster, are they going to say, "We lost 6 members of the flight crew and 224 customers."

Of course not.

(2) China, tear down this wall! By "this wall," I am referring to the Chinese firewall of censorship on the Internet. While on vacation, I looked forward to keeping current on my favorite blogs only to find the large blogging communities -- WordPress, blogger -- blocked.

Why? Because China, despite its emergence as a global power to be reckoned with, is still a politically immature country, its leaders fearful of independent thought, criticism and debate. As far as they are concerned, the state news service (Xinhua) tells its citizens what they need to know, with an appropriate viewpoint. "Question Authority" is not a fashionable slogan over there.

I'm not trying to China-bash here. Often the Chinese look at Westerners and protest, "You don't understand our country." And I respect that point of view. There is much that we don't understand. I think the U.S. makes its worst blunders abroad when it assumes that the yearnings in the hearts of our citizens are exactly the yearnings of men and women everywhere, and that what is good for our country must be good for any country. It is hubris bordering on madness to think that we can neatly and simply transplant a Jeffersonian democracy to the harsh sands of Iraq for example or to the desolate strife-torn mountainous region of Afghanistan. America would do better with a little more humility.

Yet -- yet -- at some kind of baseline, there should be principles that reasonable men can agree on that make for a better society. One is the open, independent, vigorous sharing of ideas and opinions, I strongly believe. In America, I think we have open and independent sharing, though its vigor has somewhat been sapped by a culture narcotized by entertainment. In China, they have none of the above. I wonder sometimes if they realize the cost.

There is a real cost in lost innovation, across so many spheres: not only economic, but social and cultural too. There is a cost as well in human development of one's citizens (I am sometimes surprised at the number of very smart Chinese I have met who are not particularly nuanced thinkers or debaters; they have never been taught to question and examine things). Then there is the most ludicrous of costs -- the tangible cost of repression: of maintaining the spy networks, of paying the censors' salaries, of having to constantly screen what is acceptable and not -- a cost akin to buying the bullet that you then use to shoot yourself in the foot.

I think China contains the seeds of greatness, but first must have the courage to let a thousand flowers bloom ... from within.