MoDo, The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Bruni are all off today. Making eggnog, I suppose… The Pasty Little Putz has decided to tell us “How To Read in 2013.” Really. He gurgles that this is the moment to get out of your rut and visit the rest of the political spectrum. We do, Putzy, we do. We suffer through you and Bobo. Mr. Kristof is in Beijing. In “Hitting China With Humor” he says Ai Weiwei torments the Communist Party with his antics and sends a message to President Obama about the need to support democracy. Here’s The Putz:
Come what may in the next 12 months, 2013 has this much going for it: It’s a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race. This means that for a blessed 365 days you can be a well-informed and responsible American citizen without reading every single article on Politico, without hitting refresh every 30 seconds on your polling-average site of choice, without channel-hopping between Chris Matthews’s hyperventilating and Dick Morris’s promises of an inevitable Republican landslide.
So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.
Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share. I’m using the word “subscription” advisedly: it may sound fusty in the age of blogs and tweets and online hopscotching, but reading the entirety of a magazine, whether in print or on your tablet, is a better way to reckon with the ideas that its contributors espouse than just reading the most-read or most-e-mailed articles on its Web site, or the occasional inflammatory column that all your ideological compatriots happen to be attacking.
So if you love National Review’s political coverage, add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell. If you’re a policy obsessive who looks forward every quarter to the liberal-tilting journal Democracy, consider a subscription to the similarly excellent, right-of-center National Affairs. And whenever you’re tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that’s exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say.
Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire.
So the would-be cosmopolitan who currently gets a dose of British-accented sophistication from The Economist — a magazine whose editorial line varies only a little from the Manhattan-and-D.C. conventional wisdom — might do well to read the London Review of Books and The Spectator instead. (The multilingual, of course, can roam even more widely.) The conservative who turns to Manhattan-based publications for defenses of the “Real America” should cast a bigger net — embracing the Californian academics who preside over the Claremont Review of Books, the heartland sans-culottes at RedState, the far-flung traditionalists who write for Front Porch Republic. And the discerning reader should always have an eye out for talented writers — like the Montanan Walter Kirn, the deserving winner of one of my colleague David Brooks’s Sidney Awards — who cover American politics from outside D.C. and N.Y.C.
Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.
Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.
And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme. There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.
If these exercises work, they’ll make 2013 a year that unsettles your mind a little — subjecting the views you take for granted to real scrutiny, changing the filters through which you view the battles between Team R and Team D, reminding you that more things are possible in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by John Boehner and Harry Reid.
Then, and only then, will you be ready to start counting the days till the 2016 Iowa caucuses arrive.
Here’s a special, large plate of cayenne-coated weasel dicks just for you, Putz. Don’t choke… Now here’s Mr. Kristof:
China’s leaders have tried honoring Ai Weiwei and bribing him with the offer of high positions. They have tried jailing him, fining him and clubbing him so brutally that he needed emergency brain surgery. In desperation, they have even begged him to behave — and nothing works.
What is the Politburo to do with a superstar artist with a vast global audience like Ai (whose name is pronounced EYE Way-way), who makes a video of himself dancing “Gangnam style” with handcuffs — parodying the Chinese state — that quickly ends up with more than one million views on YouTube?
How should the Central Committee of the Communist Party react when Ai releases a nude self-portrait with a stuffed animal as a fig leaf? The caption was “grass-mud-horse in the center” — a homonym in Chinese for a vulgar curse against the Communist Party’s central leadership. Or, more precisely, against its mother.
One thing the party detests even more than being denounced is being mocked, and humor is the signature element of Ai’s assaults. Other dissidents, like the great writer Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner now in prison, write eloquently of democracy but gain little traction among ordinary Chinese: Ai’s artistic work also seems incomprehensible to many people, but obscene jokes about grass-mud-horses can get more traction — and be difficult to quash.
“I think they don’t know how to handle someone like me,” Ai said in an interview. “They kind of give up managing me.”
One challenge for the Communist Party is that Ai, 55, is one of the world’s great artists. He also comes from a family with close ties to the Communist revolution, and his mother and father were friendly with the parents of China’s new top leader, Xi Jinping.
Ai’s emergence as an icon of resistance represents progress in China, a reflection of an unofficial pluralism that is gaining ground. China increasingly reminds me of South Korea or Taiwan in the early 1980s, when an educated middle class was nibbling away at dictatorship.
There is real improvement in China, Ai acknowledges, and he says that he expects democracy to reach China by 2020 — but he laments that it is already overdue. “They have wasted a whole generation of young people,” he said.
Ai’s irreverence seems shaped by the dozen years he spent in New York City burnishing his artistic reputation. He returned to China in 1993, at the age of 36, and initially behaved himself politically and played a role in designing the magnificent Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
One factor that changed him was the terrible earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan Province in the southwest, when schools collapsed and the government clamped down on parents protesting shoddy construction. Ai backed the parents and began to demand more openness from the government.
Angered by his antagonism, the authorities had Ai beaten up and then destroyed his studio in Shanghai. Then last year the government detained him for nearly three months.
The authorities still block him from traveling abroad, so he is not able to attend a major exhibition of his work now under way at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
The pressure left Ai feeling more strongly than ever that one of China’s biggest problems is autocratic government. He became more outspoken, not less.
“At every step, they pushed me into it,” he said. “I told them, ‘You create people like me.’ ”
After briefly lying low after his imprisonment, Ai has resumed his political pranks. Mocking the authorities for installing 15 cameras to monitor his movements, he broadcast a public “weiweicam” on the Internet with a feed from his bedroom so the government could keep an even closer eye on him.
“They almost begged me to turn it off,” he said with a grin.
At the end of a long conversation, I asked Ai if he had anything else to say.
“China still needs help from the U.S.,” he said. “To insist on certain values, that is the role of the U.S. That is the most important product of American culture. When Hillary Clinton talks about Internet freedom, I think that’s really beautiful.”
There’s a message there for Americans. We have a powerful military, yes, but the “hard power” of missiles is often exceeded by our “soft power” of ideas. Speaking up for our values around the world invariably raises questions of hypocrisy and inconsistency, but it’s better to be an inconsistent advocate of democracy and human rights than to be a consistent advocate of nothing.
I hope the White House listens to how Ai responded when I asked if President Obama was doing enough to raise human rights concerns.
“I don’t know what they’re doing under the table,” Ai said. “But on the surface, they’re not doing enough.”