Friday, December 23, 2011

I Have No Enemies

A recent e-mail from The Human Rights Foundation tells the story of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese academic who received the Nobel Peace Prize just over a year ago. Two years ago he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing and promoting Charter 08, a manifesto that appeals for freedom of expression, democratic elections, and human rights in China.Not surprisingly the Chinese government refused to let him collect his prize, and even imprisoned his wife to keep her from going to Oslo to accept in her husband's stead.

Two years ago he gave a profound and moving statement in court, "the finest articulation of the struggle for freedom in modern China..." I'm posting this here because at this time of year a message like this is an important reminder of how blessed we are in this country (for all its problems) and because, as the HRF says, Liu's message is "a profoundly moving declaration of the power of love against all odds." 

I've edited the message for space reasons, but I think you will still find it remarkable, and I hope you'll take a few minutes to read it.  

Happy Holidays!

I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement*
Liu Xiaobo
December 23, 2009

     In the course of my life, for more than half a century, June 1989 was the major turning point. Up to that point, I was a member of the first class to enter university when college entrance examinations were reinstated following the Cultural Revolution (Class of '77). From BA to MA and on to PhD, my academic career was all smooth sailing. Upon receiving my degrees, I stayed on to teach at Beijing Normal University. As a teacher, I was well received by the students. At the same time, I was a public intellectual, writing articles and books that created quite a stir during the 1980s, frequently receiving invitations to give talks around the country, and going abroad as a visiting scholar upon invitation from Europe and America. What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity. After that, because I had returned from the U.S. to take part in the 1989 Movement, I was thrown into prison for "the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement." I also lost my beloved lectern and could no longer publish essays or give talks in China. Merely for publishing different political views and taking part in a peaceful democracy movement, a teacher lost his lectern, a writer lost his right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the opportunity to give talks publicly. This is a tragedy, both for me personally and for a China that has already seen thirty years of Reform and Opening Up.
     When I think about it, my most dramatic experiences after June Fourth have been, surprisingly, associated with courts: My two opportunities to address the public have both been provided by trial sessions at the Beijing Municipal Intermediate People's Court, once in January 1991, and again today. Although the crimes I have been charged with on the two occasions are different in name, their real substance is basically the same--both are speech crimes...But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed in my "June Second Hunger Strike Declaration" twenty years ago--I have no enemies and no hatred...
     Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love...
     If I may be permitted to say so, the most fortunate experience of these past twenty years has been the selfless love I have received from my wife, Liu Xia. She could not be present as an observer in court today, but I still want to say to you, my dear, that I firmly believe your love for me will remain the same as it has always been. Throughout all these years that I have lived without freedom, our love was full of bitterness imposed by outside circumstances, but as I savor its aftertaste, it remains boundless. I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart. Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.
     My dear, with your love I can calmly face my impending trial, having no regrets about the choices I've made and optimistically awaiting tomorrow. I look forward to [the day] when my country is a land with freedom of expression, where the speech of every citizen will be treated equally well; where different values, ideas, beliefs, and political views . . . can both compete with each other and peacefully coexist... I hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech...
     There is nothing criminal in anything I have done. [But] if charges are brought against me because of this, I have no complaints.
     Thank you, everyone.

*This English translation by Human Rights in China was originally published in issue no. 1, 2010, of its quarterly journal China Rights Forum, entitled "Freedom of Expression on Trial in China," available at, and is reprinted here with permission.
Translator's Notes
(1) Lin Zhao (林昭, 1932-1968) was a writer who, in 1962, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after criticizing the government during the Hundred Flowers Campaign. In prison, Lin famously continued to write critical commentary in her own blood after her writing instruments were confiscated. She was executed in 1968.
(2) Zhang Zhixin (张志新, 1930-1975) was a dissident member of the Communist Party of China who criticized Mao Zedong and the ultra-left during the Cultural Revolution. She was imprisoned in 1969, and was tortured and gang-raped. Prison guards slit her throat prior to her execution to prevent her from denouncing the government before her death.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas in Hollywood

It's 1992 or '93. Christmas Eve, around 10:30 p.m. I'm standing on the tennis court of movie legend Robert Stack, looking up at the stars in the mild Southern California night, thinking what a kick my mother will get out of this story...

For several years - from 1988 to early 1995 - I lived in Los Angeles, where I had moved in hopes of becoming the next great screenwriter. But shortly after I arrived and settled in I decided that what I really wanted to do was act.

So I quit my job at the little graphics studio in Burbank and began to pursue my passion, taking acting lessons, having my headshot taken, doing extra work and attending any number of casting agent "workshops" (code for paying someone to be seen).

And to pay the rent -- until my inevitable discovery and explosion onto the silver screen --  I wound up as a cater waiter, working primarily for a friend who had a staffing service which provided servers for functions in private homes, large and small. I worked a lot at the Beverly Hills home of the gazillionaire former owner of Universal Studios and his wife, who had armed security on their property and their own gas station outside the six-car garage. You know, just folks.

Being 3,000 miles from home I rarely came back to the East Coast for the holidays, and one year I was asked if I'd be willing to work on Christmas Eve at a private party, for which I'd be paid extra, naturally -- always a good thing.

The party was being given by Robert Stack and his wife, Rosemarie at the home in Bel Air where they had lived since 1958. There were only about six of us working this particular gig, setting up and serving the meal being prepared by the Stacks' French chef.  We got to the house -- a great, low-slung mid-century modern place set back off the road -- where Mrs. Stack greeted us, a charming, attractive woman with a no-nonsense approach, and gave us our instructions.

Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack in "Written on the Wind"
So there we are, arranging tables and chairs on the enclosed patio, when out strolls Robert Stack, looking pretty much exactly as he appeared in "Airplane!" Gracious and down-to-earth in casual slacks and a sweater, he approached us and said, "Hi, I'm Bob Stack. Anything I can get you?" Or words to that effect. He even hung out with us a bit, pointing out the sliding glass door that Desi Arnaz, in his cups, had walked into decades before.

The dinner went fairly well, although I committed a faux-pas of some kind involving a bottle of wine I shouldn't have opened and a salt shaker that shouldn't have appeared. The guests that night weren't numerous, but very Old Hollywood, among them Caesar Romero and columnist Army Archerd and another film legend, Cyd Charisse -- older of course, but still beautiful and still in possession of the gorgeous legs that had once propelled her through lavish dance numbers in MGM classics like "Singin' in the Rain" with Gene Kelly.

After dinner, as we cleared and cleaned up, a distinguished-looking gentleman sat down at the piano, and the guests gathered around to sing Christmas tunes, including the standard "Silver Bells". I learned later that the distinguished-looking gentleman at the piano was one of the duo who had written "Silver Bells". Then we had a few minutes during which we were on our own, waiting for the guests to leave so we could finish cleaning up, which was when I stepped outside and wandered onto the tennis court.

When everyone had gone all of us staffers gathered in the foyer to collect our pay from Mrs. Stack and say goodnight. I happened to mention that years before I had been at the Sherman Oaks home of a high school friend who had gone on to become an actual Hollywood producer, the man behind "Airplane", "Robocop" and "Starship Troopers" among others, and he had a print of the 1956 Douglas Sirk classic "Written on the Wind" starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. I told her how much I had enjoyed it -- overblown and histrionic as it was -- and Mrs Stack told me to tell that to her husband, as that was one of his favorite pictures. He later told us that he had been cheated out of an Academy Award nomination for it. (If you haven't seen it you must! If only for the performance of Dorothy Malone as the boozy nympho heiress of a Texas oil fortune who, when not out seducing gas station attendants, spends most of her time alone in her room, drinking and dancing to wild Latin music in capri pants and filmy negligees.)

Looking back, it was one of the few moments I recall feeling at peace that year. My partner Robert's health had been in steady decline, I was always scrambling to pay the bills, auditioning and being disappointed. I was often plagued with what I later learned was clinical depression, so I suppose it was the sense of reflected glory that lifted me up -- the notion that some of the glamor and acclaim shining off the guests inside somehow lent me more...importance.  In any event it was quiet out there on Robert Stack's tennis court, the night was mild, the moon was shining.

Funny where you find those peaceful moments -- unless you're a Zen master and peace and calm are the norm. It's almost a physical sensation, that washing-over you feeling that leaves you a bit limp, but also content and hopeful in the face of ... whatever might be looming ahead. I thought maybe my mother would be suitably impressed by my Christmas eve with Robert Stack story, overshadowing the fact that I hadn't exactly become the success everyone hoped I would be. I don't recall if I ever told her about that evening, but if I did my guess is that her first question was not about what Cyd Charisse was wearing but rather "Did they pay you extra?"

Monday, December 12, 2011

"O, ****baum!" or Here We Go Again!

Black Friday this year had no sooner come and gone -- along with Cyber Monday -- than the news stories began, as regular as clockwork: some state or city government somewhere has banned the term "Christmas tree" and instead recommends use of the meaningless "Holiday Tree". Because the very word "Christmas", as we all know, is offensive. To someone. Somewhere. I can barely bring myself to write the word, much less say it out loud. Hold on a moment...

...I was right. I just tried to say the word out loud and I choked on it.

This won't be the last such story. Soon there will be examples from all over the country of towns where nativity scenes will be banned from the lawn outside the city hall, and festive municipal celebrations that will include the lighting of the traditional "Holiday Tree". ACLU types will defend these decisions, while people with more common sense will argue against such ordinances; some places will remain unfazed and uphold the ban on the word "Christmas", while other places will give in to the public outcry and risk the end of the civilized world by referring to the big, brightly-lit fir tree in the town square as a Christmas tree. The next thing you know it's January and the focus is on some hapless Republican presidential candidate, what kind of Christmas the nation's retailers had and Lindsay Lohan going back to jail for five or ten minutes. The controversy dies away. Until next year.

The offended parties vary from year to year and locality to locality: the ACLU can always be counted on to pop up here and there in their Grinch gear, and the atheists -- that is, the capital A-Atheists -- are routinely offended by any number of references to God or Jesus. And not just at Christmas, but year-round.

My question is: if you don't believe in anything, how can you be offended by people who do? It's one thing to be ticked off when someone makes a bad joke about your religion, but if you have no religion, where's the offense? I mean, a crèche in front of city hall is hardly the same as a billboard off the Interstate that says "Atheists Are Doody-Heads!"

I think that people are less offended than insulted. While Christians (of all stripes, Protestants and Catholics, etc. and so on) are still in the majority in this country there are, of course, people of many other faiths, some of whom may feel that this whole part of the year has been highjacked by said Christians and they're tired of it and it's not fair. (Giant menorahs have been popping up in malls and on  the lawns in front of municipal buildings for some years now.) But as has often been pointed out, no one has the right not to be offended. What about the tens of millions of Christians who see their religion bashed every year about this time? (For that matter, all year long. Christians, like white males, are one of the few groups it's okay for people to make fun of who claim to prize diversity and understanding above all else.

Besides, the roots of the Christmas celebration as we know it are pagan. It was the celebration of the gods Saturn and Mithras and involved feasting and drinking and giving gifts and decorating the house with greens. In the 1600's it was outlawed in England and the Colonies altogether because of its pagan beginnings.

So there, atheists: Christmas originally was about false idols and getting drunk. Very much as it is today.

Get over it.

(Coming up: Christmas with Robert Stack)