Personal Efforts for Democracy

April 9, 2009
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In an article about life in China today you wouldn’t expect to find a reminder of 1930s America and the Writers’ Project, but yesterday’s New York Times had this article, about a 75-year-old retired professor, Sun Wenguang, who was beaten while making a private visit to a cemetery to commemorate a sympathizer of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiannamen Square (not a student leader of the protests but a Communist Party leader sympathetic to them). Mr. Sun’s action wasn’t a public statement, so the brutality of thugs who didn’t want him to remember that episode — who wanted to erase the memory of pro-democracy sympathizers 20 years ago — took him by surprise. “I didn’t expect this,” he admitted. “It was just a personal visit to a cemetery.”

It can be easy to underestimate the power of private actions and seemingly apolitical thoughts. But in the 1930s when many Americans felt beaten down, the WPA guides and “life histories” documented ordinary people’s experiences to show that they mattered. Benjamin Botkin, who led the effort to collect those life histories (or “oral histories”) called them the country’s living culture, and said that they show how a democracy functions. Soul of a People is a testimonial to that power of telling people’s stories.
“In order to fight for democracy,” said Mr. Sun from his hospital bed the other day, “we need to make personal efforts.”

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