The three bodily rights

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A massage shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand


1. The right to health

It may seem a truism to regard health as a right, but for people the world over health has been anything but the norm. For millennia past until modern times, starvation or malnutrition was the rule for the vast majority, as it still is today in many locales, which includes pockets of the US, where poverty confines people to a harmful carbohydrate-based junk food diet. More momentously, the manmade famines in the Soviet Union and China in the mid-20th century alone, totaling some 60-75 million deaths, belie the notion that civilization has advanced much at all. If it has, it could easily slip back into barbarism. Predictions of manmade ecological catastrophe in the foreseeable future may return us to something even worse: the global collapse of agriculture.

The 1.3 billion-strong temper tantrum: Review of Arthur Meursault’s Party Members

You’re nine years old and showing off your new iPad on the school playground, and the class bully snatches it out of your hands. Now, there are two things you can do. 1) Deal with it. Snatch it back. This is what normal kids do. 2) Scream and cry. This is what the 1.3 billion-strong country of China does everytime it’s poked in the eye, like the recent Hague Tribunal ruling against its claims in the South China Sea. Snatched it right out of its hands and we hear the whole nation stamping its feet and squealing: “Waaaahh! Go away, Opium War bullies! Waaaahh!” Hurting China’s feelings has become established as a pastime, a sport. When China lost its bid to host the 2000 Olympics to Sydney it went, “Waaaahh!” The Olympic torch is snatched out of the hands of disabled bearer Jin Jing in the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympics. “Waaaahh!” The swimmer Sun Yang is poked fun at in the Rio 2016 Olympics for his doping history, and the whole country goes “Waaaahh!” The Rio organizers get the stars misaligned on the Chinese flag. “Waaaahh!”

Now the sport has taken the form of a novel. Lots of people aren’t going to like Arthur Meursault’s Party Members: Chinese customs officials who find reasons on every page to blacklist the book; patriots who don’t tolerate anything that puts their country in a bad light; cynics who freely disparage their own country but can’t stomach a single criticism by a foreigner; the humorless; sinophiles grateful for the privilege of being allowed into China; the Pollyannas who run the expat magazines assuming the burden of preventing China at all costs from losing face.

Living the Taiping: Interview with James Lande

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Last century China experienced one of its periodic mid-century blowouts, where everything that can go wrong does go wrong and tens of millions die in senseless slaughter. The Chinese Civil War of 1927-50: 2-8 million dead. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45: up to 26 million dead. The manmade Great Chinese Famine of 1958-62: 15-45 million dead. The Cultural Revolution of 1966-76: 1.5 million dead by the time the worst was over in 1969. The total from the conflicts over these 40 years ranges from a conservative 35 million to an upper estimate of 80 million. The true figures will never be known.

The mid-century blowout of the century before that, otherwise known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), was not quite as bad or was even worse, depending on which sources you consult. The estimates range from 20 million to up to 100 million dead. If the latter figure is valid, it means one quarter of China’s population (at the time) was killed in the conflict. Once you realize the casualties took place over a narrower time frame, the destruction clearly looks proportionately more catastrophic than China’s 20th century (the only previous mid-century blowout of comparable scale was during the Qing conquest of the Ming 200 years earlier, with 25 million dead). Not to mention that it would count as the most destructive manmade event in recorded history; and it happened a mere century and a half ago.

The Taiping holocaust is so astounding in its magnitude that the psyche can’t deal with it. Its sheer incomprehensibility puts it beyond the pale of discourse, to be ignored or trivialized. Mainland Chinese high-school history textbooks devote no more than a page to it, much less than to the loose bookends to that event, the First and Second Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), which the Communists found the perfect surrogate for shouldering the national burden of shame, China’s so-called “century of humiliation.” With casualty figures amounting to around 50,000, however, the violence at the hands of the Western powers does not even begin to merit the term negligible — in comparison to the nuclear war in slow-motion going on in the Chinese interior.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 6: Gwongzau

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Sender, message, signal, receiver: the standard model of communication. Or simply: sender, signal, receiver. There is usually a message, but it’s often hard to distinguish from the signal. Some messages are obvious — the time of day, the price of something. Or the words “I like you”: the message, fondness for someone, seems to be contained in the signal, the words. Or consider the glance of a person who likes you. The message is contained in the signal: the gaze, the eyes. The signal is so instantaneous it’s practically invisible, and what remains is the message. The message is the only thing we notice. Since the signal is so insignificant, we might be tempted to revise the model to: sender, message, receiver.

The problem is, without a signal, there is no communication; while on the other hand, a great deal of signaling — communicating — goes on without a message. The message is not necessarily crucial, or even important. Indeed, you can’t understand the nature of communication until you realize the message is not important. If the “message” could be defined as a specific packet of information, what we discover is that people withhold information more often than they give it. And they may wish to communicate this very fact. There may be signals to this effect: the empty message, the anti-message. There may be signals with no message. There may be contradictory messages. The message is redundant. It is just a distraction, an interpretation, something you think you understand. What stands in its place is more basic: mutual acknowledgment and reassurance.

The Kitchens of Canton, a novel. Ch. 5: Xinluoma

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“Tirare verso l’alto di più. Arricciare le dita. Più veloce. Non così in fretta. Più ritmicamente.”

“I’m trying.”

“Ritmicamente. Rapidamente.”

“My hand’s getting tired,” said Malmquist. “I can’t do this forever.”

“Buxing. Lidao yao junyun wenjian.”

Malmquist withdrew his hand and shook it. “Please, I have to stop for a minute. My hand is too tired. I’ve never done this before.”

“Nushi, ta buhui shuo hanyu,” the slave boy told the Chinese lady on the massage table.

“Ta butai wen. Ni gaosu ta yao wenxie.”

“Wo zhidao. Keshi ta ye buhui shuo yidaliyu.”

“Ni weishenme buhui shuo yidaliyu?” she yelled at Malmquist. “Ni bushi nuli ma?”

“I’m telling you I don’t understand.”

“Weishenme ta buhui shuo yidaliyu? Ta naozi shi bushi you wenti? Ta jingshen zhengchang ma?”

“Torna al lavoro!”

Malmquist beaked his hand and with a sigh reinserted four fingers into the woman’s vagina.

From Van Gogh to the Camino de Santiago: Symbolic travel and the modern pilgrim

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Pilgrims at Santiago de Compostela making crafts to sell.

Pour us your poison wine that makes us feel like gods!
Our brains are burning up! — there’s nothing left to do
But plunge into the void! — hell? heaven? — what’s the odds?
We’re bound for the Unknown, in search of something new!
— Baudelaire, “Travel,” Flowers of Evil

O errant traveler, by your spirit of adventure that has caused you from tenderest years to leave behind father and mother…by the dignity man gains through voyages over distant territories and uncharted seas…
— Lautréamont, Maldoror

In late 2015, I was one of 1,900,000 visitors to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, its busiest year yet (2016 will presumably pass the two million mark). I don’t know the attendance figures in the early years after it opened in 1973, but only a trickle of people were evident on my first visit to the museum in 1976. What a change. I recall being a bit embarrassed for the place at the time, such a sad and forlorn little museum, much like the painter himself, forever destined to be misunderstood and ignored. The 2015 museum had undergone extensive remodeling and expansion, and I didn’t recognize it. The first floor, previously displaying Van Gogh’s early “potato eaters” paintings and a series of biographical displays on his life, now served primarily to orient visitors to the two upper floors. I had no recollection of the upper floors on my previous visit. That was due to the many museums around the world I had seen over the decades since, not a few of them with Van Gogh’s paintings of their own (along with several traveling exhibitions of the painter). All his paintings had coalesced in my mind into a montage detached from time and place. I needed factual confirmation from the staff — on the first floor — that it was indeed the same building. Meanwhile, a huge new wing of temporary exhibits pairing Van Gogh and other artists (Edvard Munch on my visit) had risen behind the original building; an airy atrium and elegant cafeteria joined the two buildings.