Perry Link: In China in the 1980s, the word renquan (“human rights”) was extremely “sensitive.” Few dared even to utter it in public, let alone to champion the concept. Now, nearly three decades later, even people at the lowest levels of society demand their rights. No one brought about this dramatic change single-handedly, but arguably no one did more to get it started than Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist, activist, and dissident, who died a year ago. We were friends for many years; here are eight of my favorite memories of him.
Photo of Fang Lizhi by Forrest Anderson/Getty Images
DEAR PHILIP. “Thank God for boozy godfathers”
you wrote in our guest-book, which was flattering:
though I’ve reached the years when discretion
calls for a yearly medical check-up,
who am I to avouch for a Christian
baby, far less offer ghostly platitudes
to a young man? In yester times it
was different: the old could be helpful
when they could nicely envisage the future
as a nameable settled landscape their children
would make the same sense of as they did,
laughing and weeping at the same stories.
This poem from 1969 was dedicated to Philip Spender, nephew of the poet Stephen Spender, a close friend of Auden’s.
Read more from Auden as we celebrate National Poetry Month
For the first time, a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country. The trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from the time he seized power in a military coup in March 1982 until he was forced out in another military coup in August 1983, began on March 19 in Guatemala City. The prosecutor alleged that Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, his chief of intelligence, were responsible for the killing of 1,771 Ixils—one of Guatemala’s twenty-two distinct indigenous peoples—and the forced displacement of another 29,000, many them tortured or sexually abused by the army.
Reckoning with Genocide By Aryeh Neier
Photo: General Efraín Ríos Montt (center) announcing his military coup, Guatemala City, March 23, 1982 (Bettman/Corbis)
“At the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper.”
Emily Eakin reviews a new biography that traces Derrida’s lifelong sense of exclusion and his complicated relation to first French and then American academics.
Photo: Jacques Derrida at the Sorbonne, June, 1979 (Martine Franck/Magnum Photos)
Through glass window pane
Up a modern office block
I saw, two floors below, on wide-jutting
Concrete canopy a mango seedling newly sprouted
Purple, two-leafed, standing on its burst
Black yolk. It waved brightly to sun and wind
Between rains—daily regaling itself
On seed-yams, prodigally.
For how long?
How long the happy waving
From precipice of rainswept sarcophagus?
How long the feast on remnant flour
At pot bottom?
Perhaps like the widow
Of infinite faith it stood in wait
For the holy man of the forest, shaggy-haired
Powered for eternal replenishment.
Or else it hoped for Old Tortoise’s miraculous feast
On one ever recurring dot of cocoyam
Set in a large bowl of green vegetables—
These days beyond fable, beyond faith?
Then I saw it
Poised in courageous impartiality
Between the primordial quarrel of Earth
And Sky striving bravely to sink roots
Into objectivity, mid-air in stone.
From the May 22, 1969 issue of the Review
"The war in Iraq has had a profound and divisive effect on America’s national culture and yet remains, paradoxically, absent from our collective experience. For the nation that waged it, it was the invisible war, a conflict that came into focus only intermittently, and even then, without the immediacy with which previous generations lived through conflicts in Vietnam and Korea."
The War We Couldn’t See by Christian Caryl
Photo: US troops in Baghdad, Iraq, May 16, 2008 (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
Mistreatment by the government is nothing new in Ethiopia, an essentially one-party state of roughly 90 million people, in which virtually all human rights activity and independent media is banned. But what makes the latest case particularly outrageous is that the Ethiopian government may be using World Bank money—some of which comes from US taxpayers—to finance it.
Helen Epstein, Why Are We Funding Abuse in Ethiopia?
Photo: Workers at a Saudi-owned rice farm in Gambella, Ethiopia, March 22, 2012 (AFP/Getty Images)
Alma Guillermoprieto on the death of Hugo Chávez: “During his years in power one never had to worry about whether conversation at a Venezuelan dinner party or a neighborhood dance would take off: there was always Chávez, and indeed, only Chávez, to bewail, praise, mock, or pray to. He was the only problem and the solution to every problem. In his endless, ravening ambition—the ambition of the fat man who inhales expansively in order to take up more room in the elevator—he was All.”
Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in Montevideo, Uruguay, December, 2009 (Dante Fernandez/Getty Images)
Ethiopian protesters may be leading Africa’s most promising and important nonviolent human rights campaign since the anti-apartheid struggle. Yet the United States has stood by as women and men have been hideously beaten by police, hundreds have been arrested, eight people have been killed, mosques have been raided by security forces, and twenty-nine Muslim leaders, including lawyers, professors, and businessmen, remain in jail.
Obama: Failing the African Spring?
by Helen Epstein
Photo: Ethiopian Muslims protesting in Addis Ababa, October, 2012 (Awolia School Support Page)
“A hyperactive cutter and paster, Emily Dickinson repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work, shifting—like Whitman, or perhaps like ambitious Facebook compilers today—from consumer to producer. Late in life, she wrote dazzling fragments of verse and prose on discarded envelopes, chocolate wrappers, and stray bits clipped from magazines and newspapers. These scraps functioned as something more than convenient notepads, encouraging spur-of-the-moment poetic spontaneity and the creative challenge of fitting stray thoughts to odd shapes of paper.”
Christopher Benfey: Scrapbook Nation
Photo: Emily Dickinson Collection/Amherst College