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."
The Party of Lincoln's nominee returned to the site of his greatest speech, to attack the faith in democratic government that Lincoln so carefully fostered.
The world still judges Lincoln by his Gettysburg Address. Now, it may judge Donald Trump the same way—but with strikingly different results.
On Saturday, Trump spoke to supporters in the small Pennsylvania town where, a century and a half before, Americans met in battle. It was a speech that, as much as any in this campaign, offered the very best of Trump, underscoring why so many Americans are drawn to his candidacy. It also offered the very worst.
He began by invoking Lincoln’s fight against division, and framed his run as dedication to something larger than himself. “When I saw the trouble that our country was in, I knew I could not stand by and watch any longer. Our country has been so good to me, I love our country, and I felt I had to act.”
What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?
As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.
The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.
Late to this for family reasons, but catching up on an actually astonishing development:
Through the campaign, Donald Trump at times seemed more interested in promoting his business interests than in advancing a political campaign. He took time off this summer to fly to Scotland and tout the opening of a new Trump golf resort. He turned what was billed as a major campaign announcement into a promo for his new DC hotel. A surprisingly large share of the money he’s raised for his campaign’s expenditures has gone to his own businesses (notably Mar-a-Lago).
That is why today’s story, in Travel and Leisure, is so piquant and O. Henry-like. What Trump might have imagined would further burnish his personal brand may in fact be poisoning it. T&L reports that Trump’s new hotels will no longer carry his name!!! Instead they’ll be called “Scion.” Groan, given the actual scions, but fascinating in its own way. From T&L:
These are some reading recommendations that will hopefully provide a deeper look at some of these issues. Books may seem like small comfort. But in a time like this, when it’s hard to understand how American culture became so hate-filled, reading is probably the best possible option—to get off the internet, pick up a book, and think about how the country has gotten here.
Tristan Harris believes Silicon Valley is addicting us to our phones. He’s determined to make it stop.
On a recent evening in San Francisco, Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google, took a name tag from a man in pajamas called “Honey Bear” and wrote down his pseudonym for the night: “Presence.”
Harris had just arrived at Unplug SF, a “digital detox experiment” held in honor of the National Day of Unplugging, and the organizers had banned real names. Also outlawed: clocks, “w-talk” (work talk), and “WMDs” (the planners’ loaded shorthand for wireless mobile devices). Harris, a slight 32-year-old with copper hair and a tidy beard, surrendered his iPhone, a device he considers so addictive that he’s called it “a slot machine in my pocket.” He keeps the background set to an image of Scrabble tiles spelling out the words face down, a reminder of the device’s optimal position.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.
Choosing a president isn’t easy in this election, but here are three ways a principled conservative might vote.
The day of decision is nearing. All the talk fades, and one mark must be made beside one box on the ballot. Many Republicans are agonizing. They reject Donald Trump; they cannot accept Hillary Clinton. What to do?
I won’t conceal, I’m struggling with this question myself. I’ve listened to those Republicans, many my friends, who feel it their duty to stifle their anger and disappointment, and vote for Trump; to cast a protest vote for the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the independent Evan McMullin; or to cross the aisle and vote for Hillary Clinton as the lesser evil. On the way to my own personal answer, I found it helpful to summarize the best case for each of these options.
Emphasize the word “best.” If your case for Trump rests on the assumption that America is hurtling toward national doom, if your case for McMullin rests on the hope of tossing the election into the House of Representatives, if your case for Hillary argues that she is a large soul eager to work cooperatively with those who think differently from her. I’d say you are not thinking very clearly. Despair and fantasy are misleading counselors.
Can satellite images of our planet's varied terrain make humanity's impact apparent?
Only a handful of people have traveled into space to admire the blue marble we call home. Astronauts who have had this privilege describe the feeling of seeing the Earth from above as humbling; only from afar can one understand just how vast and interconnected everything truly is. And while most of humanity will never make it past the ozone, Benjamin Grant's Instagram project, Daily Overview, has been sharing high definition satellite photographs to give everyone access to this unique perspective. Come October 25, Grant will be publishing “Overview,” a new book that includes more than 200 original images of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature that highlight graphically stunning patterns across the Earth’s surface. “From a distant vantage point, one has the chance to appreciate our home as a whole, to reflect on its beauty and its fragility all at once,” Grant said. He has shared a selection of those images, some of them previously unpublished, with The Atlantic.
A neuropsychological approach to happiness, by meeting core needs (safety, satisfaction, and connection) and training neurons to overcome a negativity bias
There is a motif, in fiction and in life, of people having wonderful things happen to them, but still ending up unhappy. We can adapt to anything, it seems—you can get your dream job, marry a wonderful human, finally get 1 million dollars or Twitter followers—eventually we acclimate and find new things to complain about.
If you want to look at it on a micro level, take an average day. You go to work; make some money; eat some food; interact with friends, family or co-workers; go home; and watch some TV. Nothing particularly bad happens, but you still can’t shake a feeling of stress, or worry, or inadequacy, or loneliness.
According to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center's advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, our brains are naturally wired to focus on the negative, which can make us feel stressed and unhappy even though there are a lot of positive things in our lives. True, life can be hard, and legitimately terrible sometimes. Hanson’s book (a sort of self-help manual grounded in research on learning and brain structure) doesn’t suggest that we avoid dwelling on negative experiences altogether—that would be impossible. Instead, he advocates training our brains to appreciate positive experiences when we do have them, by taking the time to focus on them and install them in the brain.
The third episode of the new season is one of the most disturbing of the series.
Sophie Gilbert and David Sims will be discussing the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror, considering alternate episodes. The reviews contain spoilers; don’t read further than you’ve watched. See all of their coverage here.
David, I agree with you that the ending of “Playtest” fell flat. After so many twists (bullies! spiders! spider bullies! Terminator hookups!), the end didn’t evoke pathos so much as a sense of absurdity. In terms of focusing on the evils of technology, though, it seems to me that Black Mirror has always seen technology as something with the potential to enable and encourage human evil, rather than something that’s inherently evil by itself. It takes our worst instincts as people, as societies, and magnifies them.