Hi, Kent—


I don’t know where I “implied Liu Xiaobo’s fate may be in some way justified.” On the contrary, I said, “nothing I’ve written here should be understood as a defense of indefensible actions,” and “we oppose their imprisonment for crimes of conscience”—the “we” here being you and I and the rest of the Dispatches community. But so what? I agree that “the principles of artistic freedom apply to creative people regardless of whether or not they are ‘progressive’ in their aesthetics.” Does that get Liu Xiaobo out of prison or help people understand China?


Not that we’re really talking about China. Sure, I wrote to correct the sloppy misrepresentations and lazy smears you’ve published, but really we’re talking about the how of politics over the what of principles. When I was a union organizer, we said that the fundamental questions for getting people on board were, What’s at stake? What’s it going to take? and What are you going to do?  I get the impression that for you the stakes are only about your claim to moral superiority—probably because you’ve accepted that nothing you do will actually change the political situation in China for the better. But if the stakes are changing the political situation in China for the better, I may not know what it’s going to take, but I am sure it won’t involve much moral grandstanding. It will, however, take as deep an understanding of the political, economic, and cultural situation in China and its interactions with the rest of the world as we can muster. That means going to China, talking to people there, going to conferences, learning, teaching, translating… The point is to understand people with different opinions, not demonize them.


Is that principled? I think so, but then again I don’t care. Here’s something you wrote: “Poetry exists, is made, at least in its post-Romantic variety, from the very realization and often celebration that it is a fully material practice, and that its hoped-for reach will always, poignantly, exceed its grasp.” I completely agree—for poetry, and for politics. If you want to do something about the powerlessness of American poets and the oppression in China, go organize for it. Do a good enough job, and I might come on board. But I don’t see that happening when you justify containment with contradictory abstractions and try to motivate people through “a healthy dose of scorn.”