Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
July 1 marked the two-year anniversary of my life of nonstop round-the-world travel. In that time I have visited countries from Ukraine to Uruguay, Armenia to Argentina, Estonia to Ethiopia, the Netherlands to Nepal.
Also in that time, to my surprise, travel has become a political act.
Or perhaps, as we live in the age of the unending War on Terror, travel has long been a political act. Terrorists would have us be too afraid to travel; they would have us avoid airports and train stations; they would have us tremble with anxiety in our window seats, eyeing our bearded neighbor with suspicion.
After all the horror stories I’d heard in the last few months about people getting detained trying to enter the US or having their visas revoked on arrival, I worried that I might run into problems myself.
After all, I have some pretty colorful stamps in my passport: Iran, Afghanistan, and a whole lot of Arabic lettering. The US consulate in Rio de Janeiro had granted me a visa, after a moment of hesitation. But that didn’t mean that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, a separate agency, had to honor the State Department’s decision.
There was a tank outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution with a bilingual sign next to it that said, “from [this tank] Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.”
Wow, I thought. Really? Fidel Castro, commander in chief of all Cuban forces, personally operated a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and personally fired on, and hit, a US ship. I was skeptical.
A bit later, a stone’s throw away and still on the museum grounds, I found another tank. It had a nearly identical sign next to it. Apparently Fidel also personally operated this tank and personally fired on and hit the Houston.
I like to play music on my laptop when I write. And the other day, for whatever reason, I started playing, over and over, a song from my high school days in New Zealand. I went to a church school, you see, although I’m not religious. An Anglican school, or Episcopalian, as Americans would say. And twice a week and sometimes on weekends we had to go to chapel. And every time we went to chapel we had to sing hymns. Some hymns stuck with me, including this one: “I Vow to Thee, My Country.”
But is it even a religious hymn? Some would describe it simply as a British patriotic song. Some call it one of Britain’s unofficial national anthems. Indeed the song came to prominence in the UK during WWI, when patriotism was all the rage. If you’re wondering why we kept singing it in New Zealand, well, as the New Zealand prime minister during WWII, Michael Joseph Savage, said when declaring war on Nazi Germany, “Where [Britain] goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
A few weeks ago I was in Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Fin del Mundo, they call it, the End of the World. Ushuaia’s geographical location meant that it was, and still is, an Argentine naval base. As such it played a suitably significant role in the Falklands War of 1982, or Guerra de las Malvinas to the Argentines. So much so that a memorial to the Argentine war dead stands in the middle of the city.
And the Falklands War remains one of the purest and most obvious examples of wagging the dog—the term from the 1997 comedy has by now entered common English usage—of a government bumbling into war against a foreign “enemy” for no better reason than to distract its own citizens from problems at home.
The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges had an even better epithet for the pointless war: It was “a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
Kenneth Arrow died last week.
Professor Kenneth Joseph Arrow of Stanford, naturally the son of immigrants (in this case Romanian Jewish ones), in his lifetime won the John Bates Clark Medal for best economist under 40, the John von Neumann Theory Prize, and, oh yes, the Nobel Prize for Economics. In fact, he remains the youngest person ever to win that particular award.
Arrow was 95.
I discovered Arrow in college, as so many other did as well. It was hard to study social science, any social science (political in my case), without coming across Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. And for a college sophomore coming across the Theorem for the first time, the idea of it is deeply disturbing, like tremors beneath your feet where you didn’t realize there was ever a fault line.
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem:
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
Now Trump has proclaimed America’s institutional press “enemy of the American people,” using that Bolshevik term that Lenin had used. He ought to say it in Russian, vrag naroda, so that his boss Vladimir can hear him clearly.
But freedom of the press is as American as apple pie. It predates even the founding of the Republic. Indeed, Mar-a-Lago’s war on the media reminds me of the first major test case of press freedom in the Thirteen Colonies, that of John Peter Zenger.
Like Donald’s grandfather Friedrich, Zenger was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States at a young age. Friedrich was 16; John Peter was 13 in 1710 when his family arrived in New York. The government of the colony of New York, in a time more welcoming to immigrants, arranged apprenticeships for all the immigrant children. So it was that teenaged Zenger found himself apprenticed to William Bradford, the first of New York’s printers. Eventually Zenger followed Bradford’s footsteps and became a printer in his own right.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."