Wei Jingsheng, photographed here with U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997, is one of China's most prominent dissidents. (White House/AP)
It's a story made for the movies: A brave Chinese dissident, long harassed by his government, arrives in the United States and takes up residency at a prominent New York City university. At first, the arrangement seems to go well. But soon, problems emerge: the university feels that the dissident isn't contributing much to the academic life of the school, and ultimately decides that it'd be best for him to leave. The dissident reacts bitterly, accusing the school of buckling from pressure from the Chinese government, a claim the school denies. Unable to return to China, the dissident then has to decide his next professional home in the United States.
At a glance, this appears to summarize the recent experience of Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident currently squabbling with New York University. But in fact, this is the story of a different man: Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese dissident who, following his exile to the United States in 1997, completed a brief and unhappy stint as a visiting scholar at Columbia University. Wei and Chen's experiences are not identical, but the similarities between their experience are eerie, and provide insight into the difficulties high-profile Chinese dissidents face in adjusting to their new lives as normal, ordinary citizens.
Wei Jingsheng now lives in Washington, D.C., where he runs a foundation promoting democracy in China. A slight man in his early 60s, Wei's unassuming nature belies his status as arguably China's most prominent dissident. In 1978, the year Deng Xiaoping consolidated power in China and launched the economic reforms that would ultimately transform the country, Wei Jingsheng was working as an electrician at the Beijing Zoo. One day, he approached a brick wall in the city's Xidan District and wrote a passage calling for China to implement democracy. Unlike the many other notes plastered on the wall, Wei's included his real name and address, and before long he had emerged as the unofficial face of a new movement challenging the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly of power. A few months later, though, Wei was arrested and sent to jail, where he would remain for most of the next 18 years.
Upon his release and subsequent deportation to the United States, Wei found himself sought after by a number of universities, ultimately choosing to work as a visiting scholar at Columbia. Problems arose almost immediately, ranging from the mundane (Wei, a heavy smoker, successfully earned the right to smoke in his office on campus) to the question of what Wei would do at Columbia. Though not a faculty member, and thus not obliged to teach a course, the university still expected Wei to contribute articles and books to the university as well as meet with students. This didn't happen. Two years later, the collaboration not working out, Columbia asked Wei to leave.
Wei doesn't deny his lack of activity at the university. But, in an echo to Chen Guangcheng, he claims that his departure had more to do with politics than with his performance. "When they asked me -- plead with me -- to leave, the reason was because board members didn't want me there anymore," he says. Wei's outspoken views about the Chinese government -- he believes, for instance, that the U.S. shouldn't engage with China economically until China improves its human rights record -- place him at odds with conventional attitudes in academia. Andrew Nathan, a longtime Columbia China scholar, told the Taipei Times in a 2003 interview that Wei's views on China were "unrealistic."
Reconciling the experiences of political dissidents -- men and women who risk their lives for their political beliefs -- with American university life is challenging enough. But for men like Wei Jingsheng and Chen Guangcheng, both of whom lacking a formal education or the ability to speak English -- adjusting to their new situation proved exceptionally difficult. For Wei, nearly two decades in prison had left him ill equipped to deal with his new-found freedom, much less the usual difficulties expatriates face in a strange country. As for Chen, his relatives in China have continued to suffer abuse and harassment from the local government officials who once enforced his house arrest.
NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen, the man most responsible for arranging Chen's passage to the university, claims the school treated its famous dissident well, telling Foreign Policy in an interview that Chen was "obviously being guided by people who have a different point of view from [Cohen's] own." Cohen may be referring to Bob Fu, the Chinese-born director of ChinaAid, a Christian organization which has worked with Chinese exiles in the past. Though Fu denies that his organization is political in nature, he has spoken out against Chinese government influence on American academic freedom.
This, too, is a viewpoint shared by both Chen and Wei: that the Chinese government exerts a growing, and malign, influence on American universities. But it's far from clear whether this accusation is valid. Schools in the United States have accelerated their engagement with China, both from admitting more Chinese nationals as well as by building satellite campuses in cities like Beijing and Shanghai. However, according to Professor James Feinerman of Georgetown University, a person like Chen would have "no way of knowing the extent of NYU's relationship with China". Noting that Chen and Wei come from a society in which the government plays a large role in all levels of education, Feinerman notes that it's only natural for a person like Chen to be suspicious that the same principle applies in the United States.
Wei Jingsheng has never met Chen Guangcheng, and claims that the younger man has not reached out to him since moving to the United States. But while he is sympathetic to the pressures Chen has faced, Wei also believes Chen should limit his criticisms of The United States, even if he does not agree with Washington's policies toward China.
"People might say to me 'Hey look -- you too criticized President Clinton'. But I criticized him only on the issue of his cooperation with Chinese government. I never criticized him for rescuing me from China."
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.
Cinderella marries Prince Charming. Aladdin weds Princess Jasmine. In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana falls for Christian. From bedtime stories to films, we are exposed to a repeated idea: that love, or at least lust, crosses class lines. In fiction, cross-class relationships either end in marriage and happily-ever-after, or else in dissolution and even death. But what happens in real life?
Last year, I set out to answer this question by interviewing college-educated men and women who had married partners from different class backgrounds, for my book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. Not surprisingly, their relationships had little in common with the romances we see in the movies.Class had shaped each spouse so much that the people I interviewed had more in common with strangers.
On Monday, Americans watched televised images of riots and looting in Baltimore, Maryland, where days of peaceful protests sparked by the killing of Freddie Gray gave way to mayhem in at least several locations. As CNN broadcast scenes of young people looting a CVS pharmacy and police cars burning in the streets, its commentators, including anchor Wolf Blitzer, criticized Baltimore officials for allowing such flagrant lawlessness to transpire. "I keep asking where are the police," he said. "They seem to be invisible." In fact, law enforcement had come under attack by high school students throwing cinder blocks, dispersed that crowd, and had officers massed at several spots, just not the particular corner where the news helicopter trained its cameras. The anchor treated truths not captured on CNN's video feeds as if they didn't exist. Americans should avoid that sort of myopia.
“As a basic principle, we can’t tell you to stop recording,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of D.C.’s metropolitan police union and a 21-year veteran on the force. “If you’re standing across the street videotaping, and I’m in a public place, carrying out my public functions, [then] I’m subject to recording, and there’s nothing legally the police officer can do to stop you from recording.”
“What you don’t have a right to do is interfere,” he says. “Record from a distance, stay out of the scene, and the officer doesn’t have the right to come over and take your camera, confiscate it.”
Officers do have a right to tell you to stop interfering with their work, Burton told me, but they still aren’t allowed to destroy film.
Does Adam Sandler have an expiration date? Does his particular brand of slapstick—humor that's infused with a wan self-deprecation, that manages to be simultaneously silly and sociopathic, that once found Sandler punching Bob Barker in the face while informing him that "the price is wrong, bitch"—hold up? Is Sandler's own price now, finally, wrong?
Recent events would suggest yes. Late last week, in the course of filming Sandler's newest project, the made-for-Netflix Western spoof The Ridiculous 6, a Native-American cultural advisor and several performers and extras walked off the set in protest. (Sample characters: Beaver Breath, No Bra, Sits-on-Face. Sample line: "Say honey: how about after this, we go someplace and I put my peepee in your teepee?") As Allison Young, a Navajo actress who quit after being asked to do a scene "requiring her to fall down drunk, surrounded by jeering white men who rouse her by dousing her with more alcohol" told the Indian Country Media Network, “We talked to the producers about our concerns. They just told us, ‘If you guys are so sensitive, you should leave.’”
Police say that intentionally banging a suspect around in the back of a van isn't common practice. But the range of slang terms to describe the practice suggests it's more common that anyone would hope—and a roster of cases show that Freddie Gray is hardly the first person whose serious injuries allegedly occurred while in police transit. Citizens have accused police of using aggressive driving to rough suspects up for decades in jurisdictions across the country. Though experts don't think it's a widespread practice, rough rides have injured many people, frayed relationships, and cost taxpayers, including Baltimore's, millions of dollars in damages.
On Monday afternoon the funeral for Freddie Gray took place in Baltimore, Maryland. Gray died last week from spinal injuries suffered while in Baltimore Police custody. After the funeral, against the wishes of the Gray family, some peaceful demonstrations took place, but other protests became violent, devolving into chaotic clashes.
Atheism is intellectually fashionable. In the past month, The New York Times has run severalstories about lack of faith in its series on religion. The New Yorker ran an article on the history of non-belief in reaction to twonew books on the subject that were released within a week of each other in February. The veteran writer, Adam Gopnik, concludes this:
What the noes, whatever their numbers, really have now … is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: The advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident.
This is a perfect summary of the intellectual claim of those who set out to prove that God is dead and religion is false: Atheists have legitimate knowledge, and those who believe do not. This is the epistemological assumption looming in the so-called “culture war” between the caricatures of godless liberals and Bible-thumping conservatives in America: One group wields rational argumentation and intellectual history as an indictment of God, while the other looks to tradition and text as defenses against modernity’s encroachment on religious life.