Saga and Beata have made another installment in the avant-gard series of seasonal poetry. Now it’s time for winter. Or rather, “Winter’s last butterfly.”
Matthew, working at Pierson’s, a big publisher’s, got in touch and wanted to clear the copyright for a quote from A Blogger’s Manifesto that they want to include in forthcoming examination paper at GCE/GCSE level for students in Britain. This is the quote:
“There was never such a thing as freedom of speech. In order to speak freely you had to have access to a printing press, a newspaper, a radio or a TV station. Ordinary people themselves never had a chance to speak publicly. Not until now. Today the internet revolution, led by a disorganised army of bloggers, has given us all a chance to be irreverent, blasphemous and ungrammatical in public. We can reveal secrets, blow whistles, spill beans, or just make stuff up.”
Funny and weird to end up on the exam. What kind of question could they possibly make out of that?
I’m in the US! Giving talks on my new book — in Ann Arbor today, at NYU on Thursday and at Yale on Friday. Today and at NYU there will probably mainly be historians in the audience. It’s always a challenge talking to them. Not that I don’t feel confident about the facts. It’s just that facts aren’t enough. I want to add interpretation too and that usually makes historians pretty nervous. They don’t like my “thought pieces.”. Oh well, we’ll see how it goes.The Yale crowd will be sociologists. They should be easier to convince — not necessarily less critical though of course. Reports will follow.
In addition to everything else, Saga is a very good poet. No, not poet in a teenage girl sense, but a real poet. Someone who can really see the world in a way that others don’t. And this is not just a proud father saying this — Saga just got news that she was shortlisted for the Foyle’s Young Poets Prize. They have real poets as judges and, get this, more than 7,000 submissions from all over the world. The letter congratulating her called it a “great achievement.” Yes, I’m proud, but I’m also not very surprised. She really is that good. Read this:
Thrones of Mortality
For there comes a time
When one must realize, that the Chinese emperor
Was just a man who sat on a chair.
A chair that – yes,
Could conjure up the vicious howls
Of ancient phantoms,
And exercise incantations from years of yore –
But was, in all simplicity,
Just a chair.
And there comes a time
When one must realize that
Confucius was merely the sweet aftertaste
From a night of
And that the lump on his bald head
Was nothing but a mother’s swollen womb
Where a baby girl once slept
Before she was swallowed by her quiet mistake.
And there comes a time
When one must venture to the
Realms of death and admit that –
Yes, there is a silence separating us and
Mortality, that spreads across the mind of
man like a black mud –
But we must focus on the important things,
The grass beneath my feet, for example.
It was weird to be back at Yale after two decades. I lived in New Haven for five years but coming back it was like I visited for the first time. The entire campus has been gentrified, spruced up, country-club-ified. OK, it needed it badly, but now the entire feel is different. More than anything the campus transformation tells the story of the last 20 years — how the American upper-class is looking after itself and its progeny. But I realize of course that these are first-impressions. If I actually stayed here longer, I’d learn to go beneath the surface and discover the real and abiding merits of the place. It was always thus. Yale is mainly hot air, but not exclusively so. After all, I had Jim Scott and Charles Lindblom as my teachers.
And the greatest shock of all: Ashley’s Ice cream Parlor, on York Street, is a mere shadow of its former self. Now their products are way too icy and cheap tasting and they have even started selling frozen yoghurt. That place was such a perennial of my evenings, especially when I lived in the Hall of Graduate Studies next door. An increasingly ironic sign on the pavement outside still says “voted the best ice cream in Connecticut.”
Universities all ultimately rely on the activities taking place among the invisible republic of scholars. The people who do the actual intellectual work — the hard-working researchers, the mad-cap thinkers, the people who approach all problems from a different angle. The actual institutional structure of the university is often in acute tension with the invisible republic. Its members are difficult to control, to confine, and often they don’t behave with the required decorum. Proper members of the invisible republic of scholars never take themselves very seriously. University administrators always do.
The problem with Chinese universities is that the form all too often is mistaken for the content. There is no acknowledgment of the invisible republic. What at first looks like intellectual pursuits turn out to be ridiculous attempts to maintain face. It looks like a conference, a seminar or a lecture but it is nothing of the sort. I wonder what the old-time scholars would make of it all, people like the Daoists? They drank more rice wine but they also did more actual intellectual work.
That’s right! The right not to be poised by horrible air has made a gain in the last week. The Chinese authorities have started publishing detailed information regarding the air pollution in Shanghai. The Americans have done this for a long time already, via a Twitter-feed at the US Consulate, and for a while they were threatened by the foreign ministry in Beijing who argued that “accurate pollution data are unnecessary in a developing country.” Now, however, they seem to have changed their mind, and the data is indeed very detailed and seems accurate (meaning that it’s close enough to the American data) Good for them! Now I know when to stay in-doors. All that remains is to actually do something about the pollution problem itself. Today, btw, is “unhealthy,” (as show by the sad-faced girl above).
Surely I cannot just leave China. Surely I have to get myself thrown out. It’s a matter of self-respect really. After all, if I could get into trouble at the London School of Economics for advocating freedom of speech, how difficult could it be to get into trouble for the same thing here in China? And I know exactly how to do it!
I stage a demonstration, today on May 1st, in favor of Communism, workers’ rights and the right to vote. Preferably right there on Nanjing Road. Wave a few red flags, shout a few radical slogans, perhaps even a few quotes from Chairman Mao. Surely I’d be rounded up by the police in a matter of seconds. You can do many things in this country, but don’t advocate Communism, especially not on May 1st.
Or perhaps I would get a guitar and start playing a song down by the Bund. I’d make up some silly lyrics like “Chairman Mao, a good guy/ Chairman Mao, not a cow” (but in Chinese, obviously). Here too an arrest would be immediate. The authorities would surely suspect that I was making fun of them. Making fun of the authorities is the supreme crime in a one-party state. As Roger Caillois once pointed out in reference to the Nazis, the biggest problem with dictatorships is that they take themselves far too seriously. All their crimes follow from this fact.
“No,” says Diane, “lets just leave the country like normal people. Getting into trouble at LSE wasn’t fun, no matter how just the cause, and can you imagine what getting into trouble in China would be like?” “OK,” I say, “I won’t actually do anything, but let me at least think about it.”