Don –

Thanks for your letter to Dispatches and for your attention to the ongoing conversation about the attitude of artists and writers here toward authoritarian states known to actively repress their own writers and artists. It is obviously a topic of some current interest, given the passions it has aroused.

We share your suspicious attitude toward “human rights” as an unexamined category of Enlightenment propaganda thoroughly implicated with worn-out humanism. The words invoke an abstraction linked to moralist absolutism. Our concern has less to do with abstractions than with the question of the real choices moral beings face in the world. The conversation started with questions about a specific organization – the Confucius Institute – its relation to the repressive, dictatorial Chinese state, and what, if any, obligations North American writers funded by that specific organization have as moral beings in the world toward Chinese writers who are imprisoned for doing exactly what the North American writers do – speaking their mind. 

It is a complicated set of relations that have nothing to do with abstractions like “human rights.” Should you, as a writer, accept money from an organization funded by a state that locks up people like you back on the ranch. And if you do, reasonably, think it is OK to take that funding because it will help to build ties between the nations that may eventually lead to mutual understanding and the lessening of repression, do you have a moral obligation, confronting a specific situation that is reprehensible, to speak out about it even if it may cost you your funding.

These are not abstract questions about rights or postures, Don. They are about people – I was going to write “individuals” but hate the implications of that – in a world of actual relations figuring out what it means to be a moral being in a world of turbulent value. With the end of moralism and moral codes, all we have to keep us honest is some active sense of the integrity of our relations. Without that, you are just another Donald Trump.

Part of what rankles Dispatches is seeing poets who have made careers for themselves as leftist, avant-garde, progressives, cuddle up to Chinese state organizations, gobble up their funding, chow down on their banquet food, smack their lips as they read their avant-garde poems to an approved audience, and never say a word about their Chinese dopplegangers – literal ghostly doubles – who are at that very moment locked up for having simply said what was on their minds. Then with a full belly, they come back Stateside to their avant-garde careers. 

Is that sanctimonious? Perhaps. But frankly, it makes us a little sick to our stomachs to witness such egregious hypocrisy and career building that, if you really look at it, is taking place on the bodies of those Chinese writers. As moral beings in the world we find that unacceptable. You seem satisfied to locate yourself as “powerless.”  We aren’t. We feel empowered and obligated to use that power to raise questions about the situation because we think that poetry is important, that it matters, that it is powerful, and that we have obligations to it. It demands things from us, among them honesty, integrity, and fearlessness, because poets without those qualities will produce poetry that is dishonest, immoral, and corrupt. 

By the way, I love the photograph but I don’t get your point.