Saturday, April 21, 2007

The three Ts

I don't link particularly often to New Yorker articles, mostly just because I figure almost everyone who likes that kind of writing is either a subscriber if US-based (best reading-material value for money, bar none!) or a website-viewer if not; but there's a really stunning essay by Jianying Zha in this week's issue that I commend to your attention. It's about her brother Zha Jianguo, a democracy activist serving a nine-year sentence in Beijing Second Prison, and it touches (beautifully and--I suppose I shouldn't use the word "honestly" to describe an essay whose factual basis I have no access to other than what the essay itself provides--but yes, the quality of the writing is exceptionally honest and psychologically stringent on these difficult matters of loyalty, family and principle) on very deep questions about idealism, personality traits and the motives that drive one person rather than another to pursue a political cause at great cost.

Here's a taste, at any rate:

When I first started visiting Jianguo in jail, I could tell, despite his disavowals, how much he cared about the outside world’s response to what he’d done, and to what had been done to him. So I tried to tell him every piece of “positive news” I could find. His eyes would light up, or he’d assume a look of solemn resolve. My task got harder as the C.D.P. faded from the news. In late 2002, Xu Wenli, the star dissident, was released on medical parole and was flown to the United States on Christmas Eve. Afterward, coverage of the other jailed C.D.P. members largely ceased.

Once, I had a sobering conversation with a woman while waiting for the prison interview. She was visiting her younger brother, who had killed another man in a quarrel and had been sentenced to twenty years. “He was in the restaurant business and the guy owed him money,” she explained. “He was young, too rash.” She asked me what my brother had done. When I told her, she was flabbergasted. “Organizing a party?” she said, and blinked as though I were speaking in tongues. “I didn’t know our country still had political prisoners. I thought everyone here got in trouble because of something to do with money.”

The last time I saw the C.D.P. mentioned in a major publication was in March, 2002, in a profile in the New York Times Magazine. The subject of the article was my friend John Kamm, a former American businessman who became a full-time campaigner for Chinese prisoners of conscience. The article dismissed the C.D.P. as “a toothless group of a few hundred members writing essays mainly for one another.” The line made me wince. The C.D.P. men could take pride in their status as “subverters” of a totalitarian state. And they could forgive their countrymen for not rising up with them: they are heroic precisely because most other people are not. But how could they face this verdict—of laughable irrelevance—from the Times, a symbol of the freedom and democracy for which they’d sacrificed everything? Toothless men writing for one another: the words were heartless. They were also true. And perhaps it didn’t much matter that these men were toothless because their powerful opponent had rendered them so; that they were writing only for each other because in China a message like theirs was not allowed to spread further. I felt like weeping. But I wasn’t sure whether it was because I was sorry for Jianguo or angry at him—for being such a fool. While he sits in his tiny cell, day after day, year after year, the world has moved on.

It's funny (this is somewhat off-topic, and even may be deliberately obtuse about the point of the essay): when I'm just blissfully writing in peace & quiet with few other obligations I revel in my doing-what-I-want-ness, I am rather a believer in it being more useful for people to do what they do well rather than immolating themselves on the altar of principle (unless of course that is what they most wish to do, and what most suits them); but when I find myself particularly thronged about with responsibilities and obligations and deadlines, as at this time of the school year, I find myself deeply discontented--not with the job and its responsibilities, to which I feel I am exceptionally well-suited, but with my failure to pursue some higher and more heroic cause!

It's slightly ludicrous, I do not have a very heroic bent in any case, and education is a worthy project of course, but I find myself recently (and if I had a journal of thoughts in other Aprils I suspect I'd hear an echo) feeling very guilty that--given that I am not luxuriating in endless reading and writing time, which always (however culpably!) makes me feel I am doing what I particularly should be dedicating myself to in life--I am not, oh, coming up with a massive and exhausting and entirely self-sacrificing plan to fight for prison reform or combat US imperialism overseas or what have you. I am hereby making a (slightly mutually contradictory) double resolve, on the one hand to just lavish myself on writing this summer and on the other to become a more socially useful person, so that five years from now I can look back with some modest sense of accomplishment about a thing in the world that I have helped improve (a thing beyond the normal sedate and more or less domestic improvements of politeness and education and light reading and so forth, to which I guess I contribute as much as the next person).

One thing's for sure, I have hitherto been able for various reasons to justify the extravagance of dedicating lots of resources to the problem of exercise, but it's coming to where I should really find some less selfish and more beneficial-to-others mode of pursuing it to the next level! (Is this purely a delusional symptom of overwork?!?) Like, you know, being the runner on the other end of the tether for a blind person who's doing marathon training, or whatever (a rather slow blind person!); or being the non-athletic coach's helper and morale-raiser for a team of marathon-training average city kids who otherwise wouldn't be getting any exercise; or raising money for medical research or something... My normal cynicism has deserted me!


  1. After my years in Africa - where I saw both extremes - I feel that small measures can have far-reaching effects, and you may find that, even if frustrating, they will enrich your life as well. And I know this sounds horribly idealist!

  2. One you might think about (as a runner) is to run for a cause - the Juv Diabetes Research Foundation has all sorts of walkathon/bikethon/marathon type stuff every year.

    Run for my son, Jenny. We would certainly appreciate you.

    Colleen aka Chasing Ray

  3. I always think I should be working for Doctors Without Borders. Or with urban public school kids.

  4. I already gave up my self-indulgent life to work for Doctors Without Borders. I like the work, but Ive found the types of feelings you are describing do not go away. Now I'm self-indulgent in a poor war-torn country. Perhaps save yourself some trouble--just block out those intrusive altruistic feelings.(How's that for cynical?).
    Just keep advising us on what to read; a good book makes it all bearable.