A long time ago, when I was a working journalist, I agreed to meet an official for an East Asian government who wanted me to stop writing about the political prisoners in his country’s jails. He invited me for drinks at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and when we met in the bar we spent the first fifteen minutes comparing our drinks. He claimed his was more delicious because he had chosen a Singapore Sling and I had ordered a Gin and Tonic, which, let’s face it, is not as sugary as a Singapore Sling—which happened to be the kind of drink I drank when I first started going into bars. My companion politely asked me to stop my work for Amnesty International, and sipping my G and T, I just as politely inquired why his government felt the need to put their countrymen in prison for expressing their views. He answered that his country was young, and dissent wasn’t helpful at this period in its growth. I told him that my country was young too, but we didn’t put people in jail for dissent. At least, not on the scale that his country did, and he nodded sagely. “Some day,” he said. “Some day, we, too, will allow dissent, when we are strong and prosperous.”
He was very patient and kind, and he even showed me some aerial photographs that he thought would reassure me about the conditions in the jails. From the air, the buildings could have been small cabins at the fishing lodges in northern Ontario where I grew up, and I thought my God, he really believes the tripe he’s telling me. I was young then, with long blonde hair that I had ironed so it would fall almost to my waist, and perhaps he thought he had lucked out with a bimbo he could tell any dumb thing he wanted. (This was the Sixties, the height of MAD MEN days, and as a reporter I often found men misjudged me and I was just as happy not to point out their mistake. Instead I counted on making use of the information they passed on because they thought there was nothing but air between my ears.)
However, my companion, the East Asian official, seemed too sincere and naive for that kind of cynicism. He shook my hand like a gentleman when we parted and I said good-bye with the proper WASP manners I’d been taught as a child. He knew he hadn’t convinced me and I knew his government was going to go on torturing and killing people like me, and it seemed ugly and strange to me that such a cruel barbarous business had been going on all the time we were sipping our drinks.
It still seems weird to me that people meet in civilized ways to discuss the fate of journalists and other dissenters who are doing what someone like myself does as a matter of course even in a conservative climate such as the one we have right now in North America. Why is the human race so cruel, and why do persist in hurting each other? Perhaps, I too, am as naive as that well-meaning but misguided official because I have never got over this truth about human beings. THE NEXT POST WILL DEAL WITH A JOURNALIST WHO RAN FOR HIS LIFE ACROSS HIS DESSERT BORDER AND LIVED TO TELL HIS TALE.