Sunday, May 14, 2006

MIT Dower, Update

from popyard.

H-ASIAMay 12, 2006

Further thoughts on the MIT controversy (by Wang Zhuoyi)

With all respect to Professor Peter Perdue and the other professorswho have posted messages on the H-Asia List, I would like to expressmy reservations about his open letter and the messages on the H-AsiaList supporting it. For the record, I am the sort of "Chinese student" who is being routinely invoked in these exchanges.

I appreciate the great effort that Professor Shigeru Miyagawa and Professor John Dower have gone to in order to help the students within their physical classroom understand the images historically. Yet history as a productive discipline is not only about interpretations of the past. It also seeks to provide us with a historical understanding of our contemporary world. In this way the MIT issue isa contemporary historic event and each one of us is not only anobserver but also a participant.

On April 25, the CSSA at MIT submitted a letter making two formal requests. These were one, that "the authors should provide the proper historical context for the prints as an introductory paragraph at thetop of the page," and two, that "MIT should pay special attention to the presentation of culturally-demeaning content, particularly to its emotionally-damaging potential."

Shockingly, neither of these modest requests is represented in theopen letter that Professor Perdue posted on April 28. That letterbegins in the very first paragraph highlighting ONLY the "extremely abusive messages," and later it lists a number of "unacceptable" demands. At no point does Professor Perdue address the formal requests which the student group actually presented to the MITadministration.

I can easily imagine what kind of an unbearably noisy process accompanied the formulation of these two formal requests. However, inattempting to be careful with their language the students in factstruggled precisely with the need to register dissent withoutemotionalizing the debate. While they are not engaged in humanist scholarship they nonetheless made every attempt to imagine thehistorical stakes. By the same token, Professor Jing Wang, Professor Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor John Dower acted swiftly and decisively to further the historical opening that the students forged and to bringthe dialogue to a more constructive level.

So how should I understand Professor Peter Perdue's open letter? Ihave struggled to see why it points to "the historian's responsibility" and characterize that as the effort "to describe theentire truth of a complex relationship as best she can," yet at thesame time presents such a biased account of a real, immediatecontemporary historic event. Professor Perdue's open letter did notdisclose the real evidence. It did not cite the actual points thatthe students had raised. It obscured the stake that the students hadraised. Why?

Historians should realize the emotionality of the response is acomplex phenomenon. In this event, the Chinese government endorsing anarrative of victimization is of course one of the factors that shouldbe considered. But this narrative would never have been effectivewithout the political behaviors of the Japanese government and theU.S. government and the dynamic relations among the three. Let mecite Takeuchi Yoshimi on this matter of historically causal factors:

"It is thought to be enough that Japan has made peace with the ChiangKai-shek government of Taiwan, but this is really to get thingsbackward since it is this very peace with Taiwan that prevents allpeace with China. The root of the problem here goes back to the SanFrancisco Peace Conference, where Japan decided to recognize Taiwan asthe legitimate government of China when it really would have beenbetter to defer this issue. This could have been done by claming towait until the end of the Korean War when the world was at peace."

("Asia as Method")

It is thus clear that when Takeuchi Yoshimi regretfully points outthat "Japan is still at war with China" in this essay written in the1960s, the "war" is not only a sort of continuation of World War IIbetween China and Japan, but also the Korean war and ultimately thegeo-political structure of the cold war. This ongoing warsignificantly contributed to the stereotype of "unapologizingJapanese" and the Chinese people's "emotional memory," to borrow theterm from Sun Ge.

I would like to make such a suggestion. Its roots lie in my growingappreciation for the larger, longer historical context of conflictslike the MIT controversy. Let us all, including Professor Perdue,examine this situation historically. Let us not respond in anger, or fight emotion with an escalation of emotion.

In the spirit of civil and informed discussion let me ask how toanalyze Professor Perdue's claim that "American academic freedom"means that "ultimately, no one can tell [the scholars] what to study,or demand that their work be suppressed."

How, in that case, do we understand the real horror of the UMassDartmouth recent "little red book" incident? A professor involved inthat travesty was quoted; "I shudder to think of all the students I'vehad monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think ofthat." [ED. NOTE: My recollection is that ultimately the student at UMass Dartmouth admitted that his claim of investigation for having checked outthe "little red book" was a hoax. However, no one should discount thepressures on academic freedom that are in play in the current time. FFC]

At the current historical stage, is a top-down suppression theonly manipulation against "academic freedom" that should be realizedand resisted? How do we understand "free choices" in a context wherefund raising has long been an integral part of academic productions?When it comes to the "area studies" at stake in this controversy, howdo we understand the institutional and economic formation of this verydiscipline, which surely has produced influential arguments such asthe one this open letter reconfirms, namely China, Japan and theWestern industrial nations can all be placed on a single, evolutionarytrajectory, which leads to the "wealthy, strong, democratic, andopen," and ultimately, "truly modern" status?

I would like to close with some ruminations on the question of areastudies. This current MIT controversy appears to pit an areaspecialist, Prof. Perdue, against engaged intellectuals who hold PRCpassports. I have suggested that the crisis did not have to end thisway. It did not have to lead here, to a conventionalized relationshipbetween the expert and the natives. In truth this conflict did notoriginate in a discussion of relative degrees of modernization ordifferentials of development. On the contrary, Professor Dower,Miyagawa, and Wang sought from the very beginning to frame thisrequest from the student committee appropriately, as a student requestfor dialogue and education. The collaboration of the politicallyastute graduate student committee (for all its emotionality) with theresponsible, generous and learned professors in the humanities wasnever about area specialization versus nationality. Unless evidenceto the contrary is presented I will have to assume that the moment ofpolarization came much later and with the intervention of a highlyemotionalized and inaccurate version of that conflict.

Wang, Zhuoyi

Candidate in Philosophy

Department of Comparative Literature

University of Washington

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