Category History

Conform or Die: The Maoist Travail of Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”

There was a saying that made the rounds back in the day (and daze) of the late ’70s, courtesy of the Grateful Dead’s second album, “What a Long Strange Trip It Has Been.” Having now read Anchee Min’s harrowing, urgent memoir of her experience in China during Chairman Mao’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” of roughly the same era, I am here to say: The Grateful Dead don’t know squat about “long strange trips.”

Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1993 and the U.S. a year later, “Red Azalea” is the kind of coming-of-age story that is initially much less about triumph than it is about mere survival.

By the end of her tale, that survival nevertheless qualifies as triumph aplenty, given the travails she contends with and eventually escapes from in the merciless, rigidly proscribed world engineered by the personality cult that was Mao Zedong. Mao founded the modern “People’s Republic of China” in...

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Photojournalist James Nachtwey: Pictures Worth All the Views a Heart Can Bear

So much suffering. Catastrophe upon catastrophe, really, the long chronicle of humanity’s vast inhumanity and indifference to our fellow humans a kind of psychosis draped in the flags of country, religion, revolution, and perhaps the most fundamental, reptilian attachment of all: greed.

We want to look away, of course, the poet having long ago told us we “cannot bear very much reality.”

In truth, it is natural, and human, and necessary, to carry on so the world’s accumulated misery does not plunder our own capacity for the joy and love and yes, frivolity and ease that should also be everyone’s birthright, at least in some blessed moments out from under suffering’s dark, stifling cloak.

Yet how are we to know what befalls those in distant, denuded and warring lands absent those who consent to bearing witness, to staring the fullness of reality in its face and conveying what they have seen?

Few have stared a...

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To Imagine One World: Netflix’s “The Greatest Night in Pop”

A sense of poignancy runs all through the recent Netflix documentary, “The Greatest Night in Pop,” and its branches spread out in multiple directions.

One branch brings the simple passage of time into sharp relief. As we gaze upon a gallery of superstar musicians in their creative prime who assembled on one fabled night in Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago to sing one song—“We Are the World”— on behalf of African famine relief, we know that a good number of them are no longer bound to earth. (Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Al Jarreau, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, two of the Pointer Sisters).

Another branch shows those still living who consented to interviews these years later. We see at least some of them as barely recognizable ghost images of their physical selves in 1985. (As are we, if we were around then.) (As I was…)

Not that they aren’t still vibrant, engaging and fu...

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A Meditation on “Oppenheimer”


First: the primeval fear and wonder, the fact of existence itself, the gaping at the savannas, the odd and menacing creatures abounding, the vast sprawl of the stars. Noting the deep growl of hunger, the insistent urge to sample tubers, mushrooms, fruit from the trees, the slow and hapless life forms crawling beneath our gaze.

The terror of being prey for stronger and faster life forms, with their shrieks and snarls and rumbles through the night.

Hearing the helpless wails of our mates being devoured.

The seeking for shelter and haven.

The cowering.

The thinking.

The gathering of stones.

The noting of friction.

The sharpening.

The fine point, primed to stab and gouge, to ward off predators and subdue prey.

The sight of sparks.

The collecting of leaves and twigs.


All of it the rudiments of inquiry and physics itself.

The staggering growth of reason, tools, language, culture.

The imagi...

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To Be Gay, Black, Brilliant (and Largely Unknown) in America: The Bayard Rustin Story

“The Great Man Theory of History” holds that nothing much advances in human life absent the seismic shifts created by uniquely talented, intelligent, and charismatic leaders who attract enough followers to help them enact their vision for a great cause or achievement.

Whether in politics, science, business or the arts, great (wo)men serve as heroic inspirations or “Living light-fountains,” in the words of 19th century Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who first propagated the “Great Man Theory” in his 1840 work, “Heroes,  Hero-Worship & the Heroic in History.” 

Subsequent philosophers and historians have debated the merits and applications of Carlyle’s theory ever since, but almost no one doubts the influence of individual leaders who meet the challenges of their moment in history and shape it in lasting ways.

His was a Quaker- and Gandhi-inspired humanist vision of non-violent revolutio...

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