In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, a grassroots movement called weiquan (“supporting rights”) has spread widely, and it seems clear that China’s rulers are helpless to reverse it. Even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago this week. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.
In 1966, a little-known young Egyptian named Sonallah Ibrahim self-published his experimental first novel, That Smell, at a small printing press in downtown Cairo. It was a time of crisis and change in Egypt, as the country negotiated a transition from British occupation to Nasserism, much as today it struggles to deal with a shift from the Mubarak era to an emergent Islamist authoritarianism. Ibrahim, a former student activist and journalist who had spent five years in prison on charges related to his activity in the Communist party, was sensitive to the omnipresence of the state in everyday life, but also to the inability of Arabic literature to express and capture that reality. That Smell—now published in English in a brilliant new translation by Robyn Creswell—was Ibrahim’s breathtakingly subversive answer to this problem and met with immediate censorship.
Today, when the acquisition of wealth, quickly and in large amounts, is admired above any other human endeavor, every medical emergency or catastrophic illness is seen as an opportunity for some to enrich themselves beyond their wildest dreams. It’s no wonder that our healthcare is so much more expensive than that of every other developed country in the world, where the costs are not only much lower, but people also live longer than we do. Unlike us, other countries have the peculiar notion that profit has no place in any situation in which the basic decencies that human beings owe to one another ought to be the first consideration, and for that reason regulate the cost of lifesaving drugs and operations. In other words, they are less greedy than we are and far more humane.
Insouciant New Yorkers—here is another pending disaster to shrug off with characteristic brio! There is a huge, ongoing gas leak beneath your very feet. A team of natural gas experts recently commissioned to survey the New York system has found vastly elevated levels of methane in locations all over Manhattan, a clear indication that Con Ed’s 4,320-mile network of pipes, dating back to the 1800s, is corroded, full of holes, and spewing methane into the atmosphere. The main danger here is to planetary, not personal, safety: though it has received relatively little attention, methane, the primary component of natural gas, is second only to carbon dioxide on the list of greenhouse gases that are inducing climate change.
Perhaps the most prescient question in two days of oral arguments in the Supreme Court this week about laws forbidding same-sex marriage came, unwittingly, from Justice Antonin Scalia, who asked, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” To Scalia, if it wasn’t unconstitutional when the Constitution was drafted, it cannot be unconstitutional today. But at some point in the not too distant future, it seems likely that the correct answer to Justice Scalia’s question will be: “When the Supreme Court announced that it was.” The year of that decision, however, may not be 2013.
Spring Breakers, the new film by Harmony Korine, opens with an impressively staged shot of pure pulchritude—a mass of golden bodies gyrating on a Florida beach—rendered somewhat absurd by the cartoonish sounds of Skrillex’s wacky techno distortions. The luridly saturated colors are pure Pop Art. The casting is conceptual. Korine employs a pair of Disney teen princesses—Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens—along with TV soubrette Ashley Benson and his wife, Rachel Korine, to play a quartet of co-eds who escape from their emphatically non-Ivy League college to join in the spring break frenzy. That these students are too busy establishing their sexual bravado to heed their professor’s droning lecture on the civil rights movement, however, signals that Spring Breakers has more on its mind than youth’s inalienable right to party.
Leopardi was special to the point of idiosyncrasy. By age ten he had mastered Latin, Greek, German, and French. Hebrew and English would soon follow. Thinking aloud, as he seeks to turn intuition and reflection into both a history of the human psyche and a coherent but very private philosophy of nihilism, he latches on to any syntax that comes his way to keep the argument moving forward. Some sentences are monstrously long and bizarrely assembled, shifting from formal structures to the most flexible use of apposition, juxtaposition, inference, and implication. How do you translate him?
The trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from the time he seized power in a military coup in March 1982 until he was forced out in another military coup in August 1983, began on March 19 in Guatemala City. The prosecutor alleged that Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, his chief of intelligence, were responsible for the killing of 1,771 Ixils—one of Guatemala’s twenty-two distinct indigenous peoples—and the forced displacement of another 29,000, many them tortured or sexually abused by the army. For the first time, a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country.
In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure,” the examiner wrote, encapsulating a sentiment about Derrida’s work that has since become a commonplace: “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy….Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.”
Whatever real chance there is for peace remains in the hands of the Palestinians. They gave up long ago on Obama. They’ll have to do it themselves, though some Israelis will be there to help, if they’re needed and wanted. One has to hope that when the third Intifada comes, as it will, it will have at least a component of nonviolent popular resistance. In the past the Israeli army has sometimes successfully turned nonviolent protest to violence, which it clearly prefers. Maybe it’ll be able to do this again. But growing numbers of Palestinians, both the leadership in Ramallah and village councils on the West Bank, have come to the conclusion that mass nonviolent resistance may be their best bet.