Impromptus

‘Death to America,’ &c.

by Jay Nordlinger

The headline read, “New ‘Death to America’ songs unveiled in Iran.” I have a feeling there is no exhausting that genre. The report began, “Hard-liners in Iran have unveiled two new ‘Death to America’ songs at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, hoping to keep anger high ahead of nuclear talks with Western powers.”

Well, those nuclear talks appear to have gone very, very well for the mullahs — and not very well for Israel or others interested in peace and freedom. But what I really want to focus on is this: “hoping to keep anger high . . .”

Isn’t this what much of political life is about? “Keeping anger high”? There are politicians, and other people in the public square, who seem to exist for no purpose but this. Experience tells me that this point is especially true for the Arab world, plus Iran, plus Turkey.

China is experiencing a rash of self-criticism, the old Maoist technique. Let me put that differently: The Communist dictatorship in Beijing is inflicting on Chinese people the ordeal of self-criticism. It is a component of the Communists’ persecution and system of control.

Let me give a recent example. In the city of Guangzhou, which we used to call Canton, there is a newspaper called New Express. This paper has been exceptionally bold. Indeed, there is more press boldness in this region of China — the south — than in other regions. Guangzhou is a stone’s throw from Hong Kong.

A New Express reporter, Chen Yongzhou, wrote a series of investigative articles on a manufacturer called Zoomlion. This company is partly owned by the state. The authorities, not appreciating the series, arrested Chen. And then New Express did something that knowledgeable people have called “unprecedented”: ran a front-page appeal, saying, “Please Let Him Go.”

“If Brother Policeman can find any evidence of shabby reporting on our part,” said the editors, “please make notice of it and we will gladly doff our hat.” They said, “We are a small newspaper, but we have some backbone in spite of being poor.” They said they were “ashamed” at not having spoken out sooner, about Chen: but they were worried that their doing so would worsen his treatment in detention. They further advised that armed police were looking for the paper’s economic-news director, who had gone into hiding.

Flash-forward a bit: Chen Yongzhou turned up on television, with his head shaven and wearing a prison uniform. He was wearing handcuffs, too. And police were surrounding him. He said — he was made to say — “I’m willing to admit my guilt and to show repentance.” He said he had written his articles “because I hankered after money and fame.” He said he had learned his “lesson.”

New Express did too. The editors abandoned their position of defiance and became suddenly contrite. You can’t blame them, or Chen, I say: Not many of us have the ability to endure torture, or the willingness to die from it.

China has made great progress in recent decades. It is a much, much better country than it was — less totalitarian, less cruel. But it is still a one-party dictatorship. It is still unfree. And it is still a place of gross official cruelty and brutality.

Every now and then — fairly often, actually — I get an e-mail that says “URGENT APPEAL.” These e-mails come from human-rights groups, and they usually say that someone is near death. Another such e-mail came in last week. This one was an “URGENT APPEAL TO ALL RAPPERS AS WELL AS TO THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY.”

A rapper named Ángel Yunier Remón Arzuaga is in prison, in Cuba. He is not only an entertainer but also a dissident — an objector to the Castro dictatorship. He is known as “El Crítico,” or “The Critic.” The dictatorship does not take kindly to critics. That’s why he’s in prison.

He has been on a hunger strike. This is a somewhat complicated issue, hunger-striking: I wrote a little essay about it three years ago, for National Review (“Death by Hunger Strike”). This was after a heroic man, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, starved himself to death. He, too, was a Cuban dissident.

Whatever we think of hunger-striking, Cuban political prisoners have long done it, and they do it because they are driven to extremes. They are desperate. They feel they have no recourse. One man, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, did something horrifying: He sewed his mouth shut.

As to appealing to the world’s rappers: Well, good luck, I say. The rapper Jay-Z vacationed in Cuba earlier this year, with his wife Beyoncé. They are unlikely to criticize the dictatorship. They are friends of the Obamas, and fundraisers for Obama. You know the scene.

Generally speaking, the Left is not interested in human rights for Cubans, or in Cuban political prisoners. They are more interested in defending, excusing, or hailing the dictatorship. I wish this weren’t true, and I cringe to write it — but many years’ experience has made this plain.

Speaking of Cuban Communism: There have been “Che sightings” lately. That was the phrase of one of my e-mailers: “Che sighting.” There are always such sightings, I’m afraid: Ernesto “Che” Guevara, that old Communist killer, that old totalitarian butcher, is one of the most “sighted” people in the world — defacing a billion, two billion, three billion T-shirts.

Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, was dressed up like Guevara recently. (See this.) I think he was promoting cellphones or something. If Guevara were around, and Sir Richard were under his control? Guevara would crush him like a bug. He did not like entrepreneurs, or “Sirs.”

Then there is a report from Brazil. A soccer team put Guevara’s face on its jersey. The jersey is a huge hit with fans, who want one of their own. The factory is unable to keep up with demand. Isn’t that sweet?

If only Lavrenti Beria or Heinrich Himmler had taken a better picture. If only their cheekbones were so lovely.

Let’s break away with a little language: In recent days, I have had occasion to write about Fiorello La Guardia, one of New York’s legendary mayors. To my knowledge, he spelled his name like that: “La Guardia,” with a space. But the airport? “LaGuardia.”

I always have to pause, before writing the name of the mayor or the name of the airport that honors him.

Care for a name? (Another name, I should say.) I was reviewing a Tosca the other night — and in the cast was a baritone named Ryan Speedo Green.

Wonder if he swims.

On the subject of music: For my “New York Chronicle” in the current New Criterion, go here. For a review on TNC’s website, go here. That one is of a New York Philharmonic concert, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Among the composers on the program was Salonen himself.

This is kind of interesting: My friend and fellow critic Sedgwick Clark wrote about variability in conducting, and other music-making. Sometimes a guy’s up, sometimes he’s down; some nights he’s on, some nights he’s off. If a conductor gives four concerts of the same program, those four experiences may be very, very different.

I think Salonen gave five concerts of the aforementioned program. Sedge heard the last concert, and I and other critics heard earlier ones. He had a much different experience from the ones we had. I had no trouble believing it.

I quoted to him an old song that I often have cause to quote: “What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours . . .”

An old golf buddy used to sing that, when he was having a bad round — a bad round that followed a good one. “But I was hitting it so well yesterday!” he’d cry. “What the . . .?” Then he’d sing, wistfully, annoyedly, mystifiedly, “What a difference a day makes . . .”

Of course, the song works both ways: You can hit it well, after hitting it poorly — right?

One more item from The New Criterion’s website — a post I did on double standards in the media. Some themes are oldies but goodies. In any event, they’re old . . .

In an obit of Gérard de Villiers, the French spy novelist, I found something hilarious. The obituarist said that he had “struggles with fidelity.” I just love that. “Mr. Smith, a liar, had struggles with honesty.” “Mr. Jones, a burglar, had trouble staying out of other people’s houses and keeping his hands on his own property.”

A few years ago, it was announced that Tiger Woods was struggling with “sex addiction.” Some of us said, “Oh, you mean he’s a man?”

Let’s end with a letter from a reader — who writes,

Hi, Jay,

I’ve seen a couple of bumper stickers that say “Ready for Hillary.” I always think of such phrases as meaning that one is ready for a change. “Ready for spring” means that you’re tired of winter.

I know that these people don’t mean they’re tired of Obama, but it makes me chuckle nonetheless.

Hadn’t thought of that! That sticker probably means, in part, “Horrible, racist America has had a black president. Maybe horrible, sexist America can tolerate a female president.” Or it may mean, “I’ve waited for this glorious Progressive Woman to be president for so long! Don’t make me wait any longer, please!”

Anyway, we can worry about her later. See you!