I do not know what US officials are saying to Chinese rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and is believed to be in US custody in Beijing. But I can report first hand what they said in a strikingly similar case twenty-three years ago, when the physicists and human rights advocates Fang Lizhi and Li Shuxian took refuge at the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
So far discussion of the Justice Department’s suit against Apple and several major book publishers for conspiring to fix retail prices of e-books has omitted the major issue: the impact of digitization on the book industry generally. The immediate symptoms are Amazon’s own pricing strategy—which, unlike Apple’s and the publishers’, is to sell e-books below cost to achieve market share and perhaps a monopoly—and the federal suit challenging Apple’s and the publishers’ counterattack. This is more than a conflict between Amazon and publishers. It is a vivid expression of how the logic of a radical new and more efficient technology impels institutional change. Though Amazon’s strategy might force publishers to shrink or even abandon their old infrastructure, demand for physical books, printed and bound, will not disappear.
“I love the new DeLillo.”
“And I hate it.”
It’s a familiar conversation: like against dislike with no possible resolution. Or alternatively: “I can’t see why Freedom upsets you so much. I didn’t like it either, but who cares?” Interest against disinterest; as when your wife/brother/friend/colleague raves about some Booker or Pulitzer winner and you feel vaguely guilty. “Sure,” you agree, “great writing, intriguing stuff.” But the truth is you just couldn’t find the energy to finish the book. Is there anything we can say about such different responses?
Or must we just accept De gustibus non disputandum est? The fact is that traditional critical analysis, however brilliant, however much it may help us to understand a novel, rarely alters the color of our initial response. Enthusiasm or disappointment may be confirmed or attenuated, but only exceptionally reversed. We say: James Wood/Colm Toibin/Michiko Kakutani admires the book and has given convincing reasons for doing so, but I still feel it is the worst kind of crowd-pleaser. Let me offer a possible explanation that has been developing in my mind over a decade and more.
The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.
We keep being told that the general election is underway, though in a sense it never wasn’t. The candidate often referred to as “presumptive”—so much so that one might think that is Mitt Romney’s real first name—a Romney adviser tells me, all along campaigned as much against Obama as he did against his primary opponents. Meanwhile the President and his advisers only briefly considered that the opponent would be other than Romney, and so the President got off a few barbs aimed at him—such as mocking Romney’s describing his own budget proposal as “marvelous”—not a word, the President said, one would use about a budget, or at all. However now that both candidates have all but officially nailed down the nomination, there are some important things to keep in mind as we watch the national campaign unfold.
Google “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad” and you’ll get over 590,000 hits. You’ll find full-text English language translations of this Arabic document on the Internet Archive, an Internet library; on 4Shared Desktop, a file-sharing site; and on numerous Islamic sites. You will find it cited and discussed in a US Senate Committee staff report and Congressional testimony. Feel free to read it. Just don’t try to make your own translation from the original, which was written in Arabic in Saudi Arabia in 2003. Because if you look a little further on Google you will find multiple news accounts reporting that on April 12, a 29-year old citizen from Sudbury, Massachusetts named Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison for translating “39 Ways” and helping to distribute it online.
When I arrived at the London Book Fair on Monday, I saw a huge sign outside showing a cute Chinese boy holding an open book with the words underneath him: “China: Market Focus.” The special guest of this year’s fair was the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship bureau. What has caused a bitter public wrangle in London is that Beijing not only chose—with the full approval of the fair itself and of the British Council—which writers to bring to the fair; it also excluded some of China’s best-known writers. Among these are two Nobel Prize winners: Gao Xingjian, China’s only Literature Prize laureate, who lives in nearby Paris, and Liu Xiaobo, the Peace Prize winner who is now serving out an eleven year prison sentence.
Has there ever been any survey conducted among those who lock themselves in the bathroom inquiring how they spend their time? Do they read, smoke, talk to themselves, think things over, say their prayers, or just stare into space? If not, how come? All those lights burning in bathrooms late at night in large and small cities must indicate someone is doing much more in them than just answering the call of nature. Wives slipping away from husbands who snore, husbands kept awake by their wives grinding their teeth, or just plain old insomniacs, they seek a refuge, a quiet place to read and meditate. With all the surveillance that dozens of government agencies and countless private companies are subjecting every American to, I would not be surprised if they are not already tearing down the veil of secrecy from these late night activities and have a certain dentist in Miami, a farmer in Iowa, a showgirl in Vegas, and thousands of others around the country closely monitored to determine the level of threat they and other bathroom readers may be posing to our country that may require congressional action once their findings are made public.
There is so much action in New York one is sometimes perversely excited by those moments, or those places, when one is not part of it. Where nothing is happening. These places, in turn, become little air-pockets of possibility—what I call negative space. They are unidentified, off the grid, the staging areas for trysts, seductions, encounters. They are the places where crimes are committed, of one kind or another. The most conspicuous, hiding-in-plain-sight negative space in New York is Central Park.
Fang Lizhi’s path through life observed a pattern that is common to China’s dissidents: a person begins with socialist ideals, feels bitter when the rulers betray the ideals, resorts to outspoken criticism, and ends in prison or exile. Liu Binyan, Wang Ruowang, Su Xiaokang, Hu Ping, Zheng Yi, Liu Xiaobo, and many others have followed this pattern. Most have been literary figures—writers, editors, or professors of Chinese—who base their dissent in the study of Chinese society and culture. Fang was a natural scientist, and this made him different in important ways.