How Rubik’s Cube saved my lecture and my face

The Snowden case is not black and white; it’s green, orange, yellow, red and blue

I’m on a Fulbright this semester in China, teaching data journalism and social and mobile media at Northeast Normal University in Changchun, in the country’s northeast corner once known as Manchuria. It’s a school not unlike my own in the States — Virginia Commonwealth: not at the top, not at the bottom, regressed toward the mean, or maybe the 65th percentile.

The Fulbright program encourages us to visit universities beyond our host institutions and give guest lectures. I’ve lined up several. One was Friday at Jilin University — convenient for a couple of reasons: It’s just across town in Changchun; and the university invited me to participate in a panel discussion on a topic I had been shopping around (Snowden, WikiLeaks and freedom vs. security).

The flier for the event said it would be a round-table discussion about the “Edward Snowden Accident.” OK — accident, incident, affair; close enough.

When I arrived at Jilin, I found that one panelist — a history professor and the dean of Jilin’s School of International Affairs — had a conflict and had to cancel.

The other advertised panelist was Dr. Daniel Druckman, a professor of political psychology at George Mason University. (I came 6,740 miles to meet somebody who works 150 miles up I-95? What are the odds?) Druckman, a scholar of international negotiations, spends half the year in Australia and was in China for a lecture tour.

But when Druckman showed up at Jilin University’s Friendship Guesthouse, he said he wasn’t planning to talk about Snowden; he thought he was speaking on conflict resolution.

So that left me with two hours to fill. And I had maybe 10 minutes of talking points, mostly cribbed from the Vanity Fair article I had read about Snowden the night before.

Ah, but I had one surprise (well, make it two): a Rubik’s Cube I bought at a campus shop at Northeast Normal U.

I figured I’d kick off the discussion by asking if anyone knew the significance of the cube and its relationship to the Snowden affair. (Snowden was holding one when he met reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras in Hong Kong to leak them the National Security Administration documents he had downloaded. It was Snowden’s tipoff that he was their Deep Throat.)

But more poignantly, Rubik’s Cube seemed like an apt metaphor for the Snowden/NSA controversy and the privacy/security conundrum: These are complex issues; there’s more than meets the eye; what we have here is a puzzle difficult to solve.

The Chinese love metaphors and analogies; I like them because they eat up time.

I bobbed and weaved through my lecture, along the way hitting Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers, prior restraint, the My Lai Massacre, Ron Ridenhour (the soldier who triggered the investigation that led to William Calley’s conviction; Snowden was awarded this year’s Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling), Bradley/Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks. The history and ethics of whistle blowing. Governments spying on their own people. Governments trying to prevent terrorism. The ideal of objective, independent reporting, and the rise of advocacy journalists. The need for a public debate over the trade-offs between safeguarding individual liberties and protecting the public against bad guys.

Thank you so much for inviting me. I welcome your comments and questions.

And there were some. The audience consisted of about 50 graduate students from Africa, Europe and India as well as from China. The discussion Ping-Ponged from one side of the room to the other. I moderated, nodded my head, pensively screwed up my face while I thoughtfully twisted the faces of my Rubik’s Cube.

One of my Rubik’s Cubes. The other was in a side pocket of my backpack on the floor, under the table, at my feet.

When you buy a Rubik’s Cube, it comes “solved”: One side has nine red squares, another nine blue squares, and so forth. I guess they’re trying to show you that it can be done.

The cube in my backpack was pristine, unspoiled, un-manipulated. I had been careful not to shift any of the blocks to one of the other 43,252,003,274,489,855,999 possible positions.

I kept the cube I was playing with mostly on top of the table in the seminar room. But occasionally, I’d drop it to my lap and give it an especially tortuous twist.

The discussion was winding down. Time for one last question. Yes, the woman in the back, please. It was a student from Russia. How perfect is that.

While all eyes turned to the Russian speaker, I saw and seized my chance. I dropped my hopelessly messed-up Rubik’s Cube into the unzipped pocket of my backpack and pulled out the virgin cube.

“… And that is why President Putin gave Snowden asylum,” the student from Russia said.

Time to wrap things up. “Thank you for your comments, and your attention,” I told the group. “I think we’ve made some progress today working through the Edward Snowden puzzle.”

I held up the perfect Rubik’s Cube. “With hard work, these things can be solved.”

Everyone in the room gasped, then stood up and applauded. I tossed the cube to the Russian student. The seminar broke up; the students went off to dinner or another class.

In Chinese culture, there is a strong sociological concept called “face,” as in “saving face” — to protect one’s reputation, maintain a sense of honor, avoid embarrassment, give the appearance that you’ve got your act together.

Why are Chinese so Concerned About Saving Face?” the website eChinaCities asks. A site by Mike Lin, a well-traveled American who goes by China-Mike, answers the question this way:

“Of all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture, the concept of ‘Face’ is perhaps most difficult for Westerns to fully grasp. And because ‘saving face’ is such a strong motivating force in China, it’s also one of the most important concepts in understanding the Chinese Mind.”

For me, the lecturer without a lecture, I managed to save face thanks to a six-sided toy and a sly sleight of hand. Thank you, Ernő Rubik, for the cube you invented 40 years ago.