Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Garton Ash’

Free-speech champion Timothy Garton Ash: Are we in a “post-truth media world”?

Saturday, October 8th, 2016
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He’s rather “robustly civil” himself. (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

Last week, Timothy Garton Ash called for a “robust civility” – he added “that’s the gamble of liberal democracy.” But how does that play out in a social media avalanche of images, tweets, and hit-and-run postings?

Tim was here at Stanford in-between lectures, readings, discussions, and book-signings for his newest, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, and that lauded 480-page volume was the subject of his talk at Cubberley Auditorium Wednesday night.

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Nix the “heckler’s veto.” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

We live in an age, he noted, where 1.7 billion people are on Facebook. “Facebook is the empire on which the sun never sets,” he said. In today’s world, “one sleazy little video uploaded by a convicted fraudster in southern California” can cause dozens of deaths in demonstrations half a world away – and also result in the offer a $100,000 bounty for killing the filmmaker who exercised his freedom of expression. Such are the asymmetries of our global society, where “a Youtube video is as mighty as a fleet,” he said.

In 2000, president Bill Clinton had scoffed that China’s attempts to control internet freedom within its borders would be like trying to “nail Jell-O to a wall.” China’s reply: “Just watch us.” Today, Tim said, China runs “the largest apparatus of censorship in world history. It’s not true for the long-term, but it’s true for now.”

In the West, we’re living “a market failure in the marketplace of democracy.” Political coverage has become polarized, creating two echo chambers in the “post-truth media world.”

Online shouting earns “eyeballs, ears, clicks,” he said. “If it bleeds it leads, if it roars it scores … reality has overtaken satire …truthiness made flesh.” The sheer scale, intensity, and repetition of a 24/7 news cycle presents us with daunting challenges. He recommended George Orwell‘s essay, “Politics and the English Language” (it’s here) as a counterbalance to cant and a way “to purify the language of the tribe” (which is of course T.S. Eliot).

We’ve already written about his recent words on the cult of “safe spaces” and banning campus speakers in our previous post. (Sample quote: “It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be ‘unsafe’ because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.”)

This presentation was a more systematic and comprehensive presentation of his thought on the issue of free speech. He outlined ten guiding principles, also on his free speech website here (it’s been translated into thirteen languages to date).

  1. A discussion seminar featuring Timothy Garton Ash (Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution), Joshua Cohen, Faculty, Apple University, and Jennifer Granick, Director of Civil Liberties, The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School on October 6 2016 at Encina Hall. The discussion revolved around Garton Ash's most recent book Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press, 2016). Photography by: Christine Baker-Parrish

    “Eyeballs, ears, clicks” (Photo: Christine Baker-Parrish)

    Lifeblood: We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. He put particular emphasis on “and able” – many in the world are illiterate, or without internet access, which can be as effective as censorship.

  2. Violence: We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation. “We don’t accept the heckler’s veto,” he said, nor the “assassin’s veto.” The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder of Theo van Gogh have a massive chilling effect of on free speech. Anyone remember Molly Norris? Read about her here.
  3. Knowledge: We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge. This includes considerations of the currently fashionable discussions of safe spaces, microaggressions, hate speech, and so on.
  4. Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
  5. Diversity: We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.
  6. Religion: We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.
  7. Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.
  8. Secrecy: We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.
  9. Icebergs: We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.
  10. Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences. He cited Pericles: “The secret of happiness is liberty, and the secret of liberty is courage.”

Watch the video below. He wants to hear from you.

Timothy Garton Ash: “Universities should be safe spaces – safe spaces for free speech.”

Sunday, September 18th, 2016
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Contributor Tim Garton Ash of st Antony s college Oxford Pic Rob Judges

Man of the hour.

I had lunch on the Stanford campus with historian, author, and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash a week or so ago. We had passed each other in Kraków and at Stanford, so I thought it was high time we actually sat down together to talk.

He was having a short spell in Palo Alto before resuming the on-the-road lectures, readings, interviews connected with the promotion of his new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Yale University Press) – and eventually he’ll return to Oxford, where he spends most of the year. Edmund Fawcett, writing in The New York Times Book Review called the book: “Admirably clear, . . . wise, up-to-the-minute and wide-ranging. . . . Free Speech encourages us to take a breath, look hard at the facts, and see how well-tried liberal principles can be applied and defended in daunting new circumstances.”

Naturally, our conversation revolved around issues about free speech and the social media –  for example, what exactly, are the obligations of Facebook or Twitter when it comes to tweets or posting that are violent? We also spoke about George Orwellbecause by curious coincidence I had been reading his renowned essay, “Orwell’s List,” in his previous book, Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from the Decade Without a Namethe day before.

His new book is winging its way to my house, but meanwhile, you can get a taste of the direction of his current lines of thought in this weekend article in The Guardian, “Safe Spaces Are Not the Only Threat to Free Speech. An excerpt about the cultural debate surrounding free speech today [British spelling retained]:

gartonashbookOne trouble with this debate is that the important and sometimes difficult balancing judgments that should be its focus are obscured by the silliness, hyperbole and hysteria that accompany it like the raucous camp followers of a medieval army. It also comes with a whole new jargon: trigger warnings, safe spaces, no-platformingmicroaggressions.

And it is highly politicised. At this year’s Republican convention in Ohio, speaker after speaker garnered a surefire round of applause by attacking “political correctness”. No one had to explain what they meant: just spit out the two words and trigger the Pavlovian response.

But what might loosely be called the other side is often its own worst enemy. The New York Times recently reported a presentation to new students by the chief diversity officer at Clark University. Among her examples of microaggressions to be avoided, she included saying “you guys”, since the phrase could be interpreted as excluding women. One female Hispanic student, who had repeatedly committed this heinous error, commented gratefully: “This helped me see that I’m a microaggressor too.” What a dreary, anxious, puritanical kindergarten a campus would become if students were constantly worrying whether this or that word might cause offence to someone or other.

Maybe what we need is a “safe space.”  Maybe the whole campus must be a “safe space.” He objects:

gartonash2subversiveHere, anyone who believes that free speech is vital to a university must draw the line. For what these student activists are claiming when they insist that, for example, Germaine Greer may not speak on a particular campus (because of her view that a woman is not “a man without a cock”), is that one group of students has the right to prevent another group of students hearing a speaker whom the second group actually wants to hear. Such no-platforming is, in effect, student-on-student censorship. It is an abuse of language to suggest that anyone can seriously be “unsafe” because someone whose views they find offensive or upsetting is speaking in a room on the other side of campus.

In fact, one underexamined question is precisely this: what kind of space is a university? And the answer, which also explains some of the confusion, must be: several different kinds of space, which should have different standards.

 Overall, Garton Ash isn’t staying awake at night, worrying about all this: “I think it’s fair to say that the erosion of free speech is still only at the margins in major western universities, and mainly concerns a few particular subjects. But we must always watch out for the thin end of the wedge, whether it is being pushed by student activists or government.”

Read the whole article here. Or come to his talk at at 7 p.m., Wednesday, October 5, in Cubberley Auditorium, here.

Indefatigable spirit: Remembering the legendary Robert Conquest (1917–2015)

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

My favorite photo of him, by the matchless Linda Cicero.

 

To each of those who’ve processed me
Into their scrap of fame or pelf:
You think in marks for decency
I’d lose to you? Don’t kid yourself.

Robert Conquest wrote these lines in his last collection of poems, Penultimata (Waywiser, 2009). I suppose, although he was too polite to say so, I might be included in his roster, since we met when I interviewed him – here.  Although the interview form is a kind of exploitation, I suppose, it didn’t exactly bring me either fame or pelf, but something much better. I expect my own “processing” will continue for some time now, as I digest, in future years, his work over a long lifetime. As everyone now knows, the Anglo-American historian and poet died on Monday, after long illness. He was 98.  (Obituaries from the New York Times here, the Wall Street Journal here, and London’s Telegraph here.) He was working until his last few weeks on an unfinished memoir called Two Muses. I hope there’s enough of it to publish.

The short quatrain above refers, I expect, to his dirty limericks and light verse, rather than his sobering prose and more serious poems. “Limericks are not very gentlemanly – or it’s a special kind of gentleman,” he told me. But perhaps the lightness of much of his verse was a necessary psychological counterbalance to the grim history he relentlessly documented in the books that were his major achievement, chronicling the devastation caused by the Soviet regime, throughout its existence. His landmark book, The Great Terror reads like a thriller, and is a detailed log of Stalin’s assassinations, arrests, tortures, frame-ups, forced confessions, show trials, executions and incarcerations that destroyed millions of lives. The book instantly became a classic of modern history, and other titles followed, including The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1986) and a 1977 translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn‘s 1,400-line poem, Prussian Nights, undertaken at the author’s request.

The late Christopher Hitchens, a close friend, praised Bob’s “devastatingly dry and lethal manner,” hailing him as “the softest voice that ever brought down an ideological tyranny.” Timothy Garton Ash said“He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn.”

When he revised The Great Terror for republication in 1990, his chum Kingsley Amis proposed a new title, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.” Catchy title, although Bob settled for the more circumspect The Great Terror: A Reassessment. 

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Mentor and mentee, 2009.

“His historical intuition was astonishing,” Norman Naimark told the New York Times (we’ve written about Norm here and here and here). “He saw things clearly without having access to archives or internal information from the Soviet government. We had a whole industry of Soviet historians who were exposed to a lot of the same material but did not come up with the same conclusions. This was groundbreaking, pioneering work.”

My 2010 interview, however, wasn’t my first encounter with the poet-historian, although it was his first encounter with me. I was one of a throng of people who attended a 2009 ceremony at Hoover event when Radosław Sikorski, then Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, awarded him the country’s Order of Merit. (I wrote about the occasion here. Incidentally, Bob received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.)

“His books made a huge impact on the debate about the Soviet Union, both in the West and in the East. In the West, people had always had access to the information about Communism but were not always ready to believe in it,” said Sikorski at that time. “We longed for confirmation that the West knew what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. Robert Conquest’s books gave us such a confirmation. They also transmitted a message of solidarity with the oppressed and gave us hope that the truth would prevail.”

An excerpt from my 2010 article:

Susan Sontag was a visiting star at Stanford in the 1990s. But when she was introduced to Robert Conquest, the constellations tilted for a moment.

“You’re my hero!” she announced as she flung her arms around the elderly poet and acclaimed historian. It was a few years since she had called communism “fascism with a human face” – and Conquest, author of The Great Terror, a record of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, had apparently been part of her political earthquake.

Sitting in his Stanford campus home last week and chatting over a cup of tea, the 93-year-old insisted it’s all true: “I promise. We had witnesses.” His wife, Liddie, sitting nearby confirmed the account, laughing.

Conquest, a Hoover Institution senior research fellow emeritus, moves gingerly with a walker, and speaks so softly it can be hard to understand him. But his writing continues to find new directions: He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year, finished a 200-line poetic summa and is working on his memoirs.

He’s been a powerful inspiration for others besides Sontag. In his new memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens described Conquest, who came to Stanford in 1979, as a “great poet and even greater historian.” The writer Paul Johnson goes further, calling Conquest “our greatest living historian.”

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He deserved the medal. In 2005.

I made a few return visits to that immaculate and airy Stanford townhouse on the campus. Liddie was always bubbly, intelligent, and hospitable – a thorough Texan, and always a charming and welcoming hostess. Often the two of us were talking so quickly and with such animation Bob couldn’t keep up – he spoke barely above a whisper. He was still a terrific conversationalist, one just had to listen harder. Among his considerable gifts, “He had a wicked sense of humor and he loved to laugh: the look of playful delight that animated his face as he nailed a punch line is impossible to forget,” said Bert Patenaude (I also wrote about Bert here). “His poems and limericks convey a sense of his mischievousness—and naughtiness—and his late poems chronicle the aging process with sensitivity and, one is easily persuaded, acute psychological insight.”

Another of our mutual friends, the poet R.S. Gwynn, agreed: “As a poet Bob is funny, intensely lyrical and deeply reflective,” he said. “Whenever I read him I think of how rarely we are allowed to see a mind at work, and what a mind it is.” (I’ve written about Sam Gwynn here and here.)

Bert said that Bob’s final speaking appearance on the Stanford campus may well have been his participation in an annual book event, “A Company of Authors,” where he discussed Penultimata on April 24, 2010. “Bob seemed frail that day, and at times it was difficult to hear him and to understand his meaning, but no one in the room could doubt that the genial elderly man up there reciting his poetry could have carried the entire company of authors on his back. Seated next to me in the audience was a Stanford history professor, a man (not incidentally) of the political left, someone I had known since my graduate student days—not a person I would ever have imagined would be drawn to Bob Conquest. Yet he had come to the event, he told me, specifically in order to see and hear the venerable poet-historian: ‘It’s rare that you get to be in the presence of a great man. Robert Conquest is a great man.’ Indeed he was.”

In the last few months, I tried to visit – but the Conquests were either traveling or packing, or else, more distressingly, he was in the hospital or recovering from a round of illnesses. And finally time ran out altogether. Time always wins. We don’t have time; it has us.

Postscript on 8/7: My publisher Philip Hoy pointed out in the comments section below that Penultimata was not Bob’s final collection of poems, it was (as the name suggests) a penultimate one. Blokelore & Blokesongs was published by Waywiser in 2012.

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A pleasure to know you, sir. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

 

But what did Leszek Kołakowski really mean?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014
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They didn’t get it. (Photo: Piotr Wojcik)

“The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was ‘The Devil in History.’ For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. ‘I’ve got it,’ he whispered. ‘He really is talking about the Devil.’ And so he was.”

– From Tony Judt‘s “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)” in the NYRB (hat tip to Artur Sebastian Rosman)

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Salman Rushdie, Timothy Garton Ash chat at P.E.N. festival in NYC

Monday, May 5th, 2014
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He’s still here, 25 years after the fatwa. Rushdie and Garton Ash chat. (Photo: Zygmunt Malinowski)

“If we all had a right not to be offended by anything that offended us, no one could say anything,” said Salman Rushdie at the P.E.N. World Voices Festival in New York City, in an onstage conversation with Timothy Garton Ash.  The man who has lived under a fatwa since Valentine’s Day, 1989 hasn’t given an inch: “I would not allow one of my books to be published with passages missing,” he said.

placard-1Zygmunt Malinowski recorded the event yesterday afternoon with scribbled notes and photos – alas, that appears to be the only recording of the event. However, Garton Ash’s “Basic Principles of Free Speech” are here. The Guardian columnist discussed how our idea of privacy has changed because of the internet and “that’s the side effect that we created ourselves.” Rushdie was amused at the modern “obsession with selfies.”

For its 10th anniversary, the P.E.N. Festival celebrates those who have dared to stand “on the edge,” risking their careers, and sometimes their lives, to speak out for their art and beliefs – the website is here.

Since we couldn’t attend in person, we’ll settle for Zygmunt’s account: “As I approached the stately Public Theatre downtown on Lafayette Street, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large colorful billboard advertising P.E.N. World Voices Festival. The photo on the placard, taken by the innovative photographer Sylvia Plachy, who lives near my neighborhood, is unusual. It depicts a mountain climber’s feet dangling over a precipice. It reminded me when, a few years ago, I was in an open-door vintage helicopter with my feet over the floor edge, photographing Colca Canyon in Peru, considered deepest canyon in the world. ‘On the Edge’ was the subtitle of the placard and it seemed such an appropriate image for this afternoon’s event. Weren’t writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vaclav Havel, Czeslaw Milosz or Joseph Brodsky pushing the boundaries of literature, courageously ‘offering a vantage point from which to develop a deeper understanding of the intellectual landscape around the world’?”

Václav Havel, the dissident writer: “metaphysics more dangerous than a direct message”

Sunday, December 18th, 2011
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Havel: "warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy"

Václav Havel is dead.  All the talk about the man as activist, leader, the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president, tends to overlook the playwright and writer, renowned in the Cold War for his 145 published prison letters to his wife, Letters to Olga.

So I turned to the only Havel book in my library, Living in Truth, a collection of 22 essays by and about him, published on the occasion of the award of the Erasmus Prize in 1986.

In “Prague – A Poem not Disappearing,” Timothy Garton Ash recalls that, during the 1980s, he was  “determined to visit Václav Havel.”  This is what he found:

“Havel is a short, stocky man with curly blond hair; his moustache and lower face remind me of a friendly walrus.  … He is warm, intense, a concentration of nervous energy. …

He talks about the nervous strain of writing under these conditions, when at any moment the police might walk in and confiscate a year’s work. How he has crept out into the woods at night and buried parts of his typescript in the hole of a tree.  How as a manuscript piles up he writes faster and faster: the fear of a house search concentrates the mind wonderfully. Far more effective than any publisher’s deadline. Just yesterday he was writing about this nervous tension. Then his wife came in and said ‘The police are outside again. I’m afraid they aren’t our usual ones.’ …

Determined to visit

This is nothing compared with the conditions under which he wrote in prison. There he was not allowed to write at all, except for one letter a week to his wife – maximum four sides, and only about ‘personal matters’, as the prison regulations specify. This was his only opportunity to express himself as a writer, over a period of almost four years.  If any part of a letter was unacceptable, the whole letter would be confiscated. The commandant of the prison camp at Hermanice took a sadistic delight in enforcing this instructions. … His particular delight was censoring the writer’s letters. Havel started writing a ‘cycle’ of letters about his philosophical views. He mentioned the ‘order of being’. ‘The only order you can write about’, declared the commandant, ‘is the prison order’. Then he decided Havel should not write about philosophy at all.  ‘Only about yourself.’  So Havel designed another cycle of letters on the subject of his moods: sixteen of them, two to each letter, one good, one bad. And he numbered them.  After eight, the commandant called him in: ‘Stop numbering your moods!’  ‘No foreign words!’ he ordered one week. ‘No underlining!’ the next.  ‘No exclamation marks!!'”

"an end to the finite"

A chapter earlier, Nobel writer Heinrich Böll, in “A Courtesy Towards God,” quotes Czech politician Jiří Dienstbier that “Václav Havel was a particular target for persecution.’ His overall manner of courtesy, of having been ‘well brought up’, gave the impression that he was ‘soft and easily broken’.  It was seductive.  ‘Those around him reacted all the more excitedly to Havel’s unyieldingness, to this “inaccessible systematist”, who even tidied up his prison cell in so precise and presentable a fashion that it could have served as the model for the graduates of an officers’ training school.'”  Then Böll adds:

“Havel nevertheless managed, in spite of the censorship, to smuggle out a scale of his moods … he devotes himself at great length to the ‘dejectedness of Sunday’, to what he calls this ‘problem of civilization bearing the name Sunday’. These moods, in particular those on Sundays, are to him ‘the typical cracks through which nothingness finds its way to man, this modern face of the Devil’.  He does not shrink from calling it by name.  …

‘The global wonder of existence’, that peace of mind which ‘Christians call mercy’, was also allowed through. One would have had to be a censor in order to review these letters.  Is not so much metaphysics more dangerous than many a direct message?  The following resulted from a particularly beautiful moment in the prison yard: ‘The more beautiful the moment, the more distinct is the growth of the eerie question:  What else? What more? What now? What next? What am I to do, and what will I achieve? I would describe this as the feeling of having arrived at a kind of end to the finite.'”

 

Bei Dao: “Each language keeps the secret code of a culture”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
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Reading at St. Catherine's Church, Kraków (Photo: Droid)

In an early poem, Bei Dao wrote, “freedom is nothing but the distance/between the hunter and the hunted.”

All too true, as he soon found out.

Protesters once shouted his poems in Tiananmen Square, and after his exile (he had been in Berlin during the 1989 uprising), he continued to write in Scandinavia, the U.S., and France.  He now teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, since the government allowed his return to the PRC a few years ago.

At last month’s Czesław Miłosz Festival in Kraków, he participated in a panel called “Place of Birth” with Lithuanian Egidijus Aleksandravičius, English Timothy Garton Ash, and Polish Irena Grudzińska Gross, hosted by Italian Francesco Cataluccio.  Although some of the estrangements from native realms were more voluntary than others, the team discussed their sense of displacement from homeland.

But the most haunting words of the evening belonged to Bei Dao:  “It’s mysterious. Why do we think about birthplace, mother tongue, the origin of life?” he asked.  And then he gave his answer.

“Each language keeps the secret code of a culture,” he said.

“China is unified by a written language,” he said.  “The local accent keeps their secret, keeps their code.”  That’s what he cherishes, and that is what the world is most at risk of losing.

His words returned to me today as I read an unusually eloquent McClatchy Newspapers article, “Silenced Voices,” by Tim Johnson:

Some linguists say that languages are disappearing at the rate of two a month. Half of the world’s remaining 7,000 or so languages may be gone by the end of this century, pushed into disuse by English, Spanish and other dominating languages.The die-off has parallels to the extinction of animals. The death of a language, linguists say, robs humanity of ideas, belief systems and knowledge of the natural world. Languages are repositories of human experience that have evolved over centuries, even millennia.

“Languages are definitely more endangered than species, and are going extinct at a faster rate,” said K. David Harrison, a linguist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of the book When Languages Die. “There are many hundreds of languages that have fewer than 50 speakers.”

Language is an invisible triumph of humanity, and its disappearance brings only silence.”It’s not as flashy as a pyramid, but it represents enormous human achievement in terms of the thought and effort that went into it,” said Daniel Suslak, a linguistic anthropologist at Indiana University…

Miłosz knew this:  This is why Miłosz wrote in Polish throughout his 40 years of exile in California, said the Chinese poet.

In 1999 at Stanford (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Bei Dao was born in 1949 in Beijing.  “As Chairman Mao declared the birth of the People’s Republic of China from the rostrum in Tiananmen Square, I was lying in my cradle no more than a housand yards away. My fate seems to have been intertwined with China ever since,” he wrote in the festival’s 100-page companion book. “I received a privileged, but brief, education. I was a student at the best high school in Beijing, until the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.  All the schools were closed, and three years later I was assigned to work in the state-run construction industry.”

In those harsh circumstances, at the age of 20, the young construction worker began to write at a site in the mountains more than 200 miles from Beijing.

During the conference session, he recalled visiting his dying father in a brief respite from exile, but Beijing was a disappointment:  “It was not my city anymore.”

“The Chinese people do not know how to rebuild,” he said, praising the preservation of Venice and Florence.  The Chinese, by contrast, “build like Las Vegas – very, very ugly buildings.”

Left to right: Francesco Cataluccio, Bei Dao, Timothy Garton Ash, Egidijus Aleksandravičius, Irena Grudzińska Gross (Photo: my Droid)

“We were drawn by the concept of progress from the West and from Marxism.  Progress became the canon for Chinese people. There was more attention on GDP and new buildings.  Materialism and consumption destroyed Chinese culture.”

At Stanford over a decade ago, he remarked, “I don’t have a motherland now.”

“Someone recently said to me that I am like a man to whom the whole world has become a foreign country, and I like that.”

But things change, in our heads as well as in the world.

Detroit, the notorious city of my birth, is now as much a gutted ruin if it had been destroyed by enemy mayhem – which in a sense it had been.  And as some of the speakers mourned their lost homes, I wondered if they were actually mourning the passage of time as much as they were exile and upheaval.

Political exile is poignant, but disguises a more inexorable reality: We are exiles in time as well as in space.  Both are excruciatingly transient.

More on Katyń …

Saturday, April 17th, 2010
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More on Katyń from Timothy Garton Ash in the London Guardian hereGarton Ash focuses on the complicity of Western powers in the Soviet cover-up of an atrocity, particularly Britain.  He reflects on how the echoes of Katyń reverberate in the present:

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Timothy Garton Ash

In 1943, confessing that “in cowardly fashion” he had turned his head away from the scene at Katyn, the head of the British Foreign Office wondered in an internal memorandum “how, if Russian guilt is established, can we expect Poles to live amicably side by side with Russians for generations to come? I fear there is no answer to that question.” But history may even now be producing a most unexpected answer, out of a second Katyn disaster.

The difference:

The first Katyn catastrope was concealed for decades by the night and fog of totalitarian lies; the second was immediately the lead item in news bulletins around the world. Most extraordinary has been the reaction of the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, who has gone to exceptional lengths to demonstrate Russian sympathy, repeatedly visiting the crash site, announcing a national day of mourning today, and ordering Andrzej Wajda‘s film Katyn (which spares you nothing of the cruelty of the KGB’s forerunners) to be shown on primetime Russian TV.  [Will no one bring this film to Palo Alto? Please?  — ED]

Garton Ash is taking some hits for describing last weekend’s plane crash as a “second Katyń” — though of course, he wasn’t the first to coin the phrase.  An intelligent outlook on the future by Adrian Pabst in “This Is No Second Katyn” in Telos.  And a victim’s grandson, Kris Kotarski, remembers Katyń in another Guardian article “Memory Is Sacred Again in Poland“:

In the aftermath of the crash, Poles are avoiding the “second Katyn” moniker that was used by Timothy Garton Ash, calling this the “tragedy in Smolensk” instead. This is apt, since this time the victims do not have to wait decades for information, and people both in Poland and abroad have publicly poured their hearts out while the Russian authorities are assisting the families at every turn.

Postscript: Katyń is now available on DVD, and watching it tonight, it’s even better than expected — and I can expect a lot.  (Hadn’t seen anything by Andrzej Wajda since Ashes and Diamonds.)  Best after a bowl of borscht, “with an egg in it,” as Cary Grant says in Talk of the Town.  The only vodka in the house was, alas, Russian — not quite in keeping with the mood of the film.  Unforgettable movie, by an unforgettable director — one whose father, incidentally, was a Polish cavalry officer, murdered in 1940 during the Katyń massacre.


Lazy winter hours with the TLS

Saturday, December 26th, 2009
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carnochanAhhhhhh, the long winter break.  One of its underrated luxuries: the opportunity to slog through piles of the magazines, newspapers, and journals that accumulate, unread, on one’s sidetable, or chair, or bed.  So I discovered in the December 4  Times Literary Supplement a review of Bliss Carnochan‘s new book, with the unlikely title, Golden Legends: Images of Abyssinia, Samuel Johnson to Bob Marley.

Reviewer Felipe Fernández-Armesto found it a “capricious little book,” and “jolly reading.”  Though he chides Carnochan blissfor overlooking works in Latin and Portuguese that had an English-speaking audience before the publication of Job Ludolf’s 1681 History of Ethiopia, he is intrigued by Carnochan’s account of those early travel writers “escaping reality, creating or burnishing golden legends of a land almost as isolated or enclosed as Johnson’s imaginary Abyssinian valley…”

“Against this background, the Rastafarian project of ‘return’ to an Ethiopia that never existed, ‘thou land of our fathers’, where Haile Selassie was a god ‘who liveth and reigneth I-tinually’, seems hardly more mad than those of the white pilgrims who preceded it.”

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The TLS also features — in an issue that has yet to reach California mailboxes — an article about the latest book of Timothy Garton Ash, “the scholar of velvet revolutions.” George Brock’s review of  Facts Are Subversive is online here.

ash2Particularly cheering words for those of us in the word trade:  Ash has “placed himself at the intersection of journalism, history and literature … If not quite no-man’s-land, this frontier territory is sparsely populated; few writers succeed in the delicate balancing acts involved in working there. Quite apart from the unusual talents required for what he calls this ‘mongrel craft’, employers with patience and resources are vital; the longer pieces in this collection appeared in the New York Review of Books. Those anxious about the businesses that sustain journalism in print should pray for the continued health of the small band of periodicals that fund such long-form reportage.”