Other People’s Thoughts is a section in the Journal of the China Heritage site. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations put together by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors, during his reading life.
Pierre remarked that the resulting modest volume of quotations was ‘idiosyncratically compiled for the amusement of idle readers’ (see Simon Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, 2007). Our aim is similar: to amuse our readers (idle or otherwise); as is our modus operandi: to build up an idiosyncratic compilation that reflects our interests and disposition.
In collecting this material, and by adding to it over time, we accord also with a Chinese literary practice in which quotations — sometimes called yǔlù 語錄, literally ‘recorded sayings’ — have a particular history, and a powerful resonance.
The most famous collection of recorded sayings is The Analects 論語, compiled by disciples of Confucius. Then there is the timeless 5000-words of Laozi’s The Tao and the Power 道德經, as well as the Chan/Zen 禪宗 tradition of what in English are known by the Japanese term kōan 公案, dating from the Tang dynasty. Modern imitations range from the political bon mots of Mao Zedong to excerpts from the prolix prose of Xi Jinping’s tireless speech writers, and published snippets from arm-chair philosophers and motivational speakers.
Other People’s Thoughts also finds inspiration in the ‘poetry talks’ 詩話, ‘casual jottings’ 筆記 and ‘marginalia’ 眉批 of China’s literary tradition.
May Fourth in China Heritage:
- ‘May Fourth at Ninety-nine’, 4 May 2018
- ‘Anniversaries New & Old in 2019 — Remembering 5.4, Accounting for 4.28’, 4 May 2019
- ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Beijing’, China Heritage, 8 May 2020
- ‘Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington’, China Heritage, 14 May 2020
More Other People’s Thoughts:
- Other People’s Thoughts, China Heritage
Other People’s Thoughts XXII
‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.’
— Dorothy Parker
‘I like a moral problem so much better than a real problem.’
— Elaine May
‘A man always has two reasons for doing anything. A good reason and a real reason.’
— J.P. Morgan
For the novelist, as for the counter-intelligence officer, motive concerns the possibilities of character. As big words frequently disguise an absence of conviction, so drastic action can derive from motives which, taken singly, are trivial. I once interrogated a man who had made an heroic escape from East Germany. It turned out that, rather than take his wife with him on his journey, he had shot her dead at point-blank range with a Luger pistol that had belonged to his Nazi father. He was not political; he had no grand notion of escaping to freedom, merely to another life. He had always got on well with his wife. He loved her still. The only explanation he could offer was that his local canoe club had expelled him for antisocial behaviour. In tears, in despair, his life in ruins, a self-confessed murderer, he could find no better excuse.
‘No serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist … Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not true.’
— Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Nations and Nationalism since 1780’ (1990)
“I know that the left and all the gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters, from the third world. But, they become hysterical because that’s what’s happening, actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”
Carlson continued, “Every time they import a new voter, I become disenfranchised as a current voter.”
— quoted by Charles M. Blow, 11 April 2021
In a Word
In a lecture entitled “The Great Infidels”, he attacked the doctrine of Hell: “All the meanness, all the revenge, all the selfishness, all the cruelty, all the hatred, all the infamy of which the heart of man is capable, grew blossomed, and bore fruit in this one word – Hell.”
— Robert Ingersoll
Gore Vidal on America
‘We certainly made a mess of the Mandate of Heaven.’
— Gore Vidal, 2008
‘History would be an excellent thing if only it were true.’
— Leo Tolstoy
A Land Full of Fairness and Justice
… anyone who opens their mind or heart to cats can experience something that can’t be found in human society. They teach you that you can have a happy life without knowing anything at all. They take care of themselves, and they make their own fun. To be an individual, to be self-content — those are nice qualities for a life.
— Ai Weiwei, 12 April 2021
The Ends of Government
I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.
— Benjamin Franklin
Izzy Stone on Government
‘All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.’
— I.F. Stone, In a Time of Torment: 1961–1967
The Western canon is an extended dialogue among the crème de la crème of our civilization about the most fundamental questions. It is about asking “What kind of creatures are we?” no matter what context we find ourselves in. It is about living more intensely, more critically, more compassionately. It is about learning to attend to the things that matter and turning our attention away from what is superficial.
— Cornel West and Jeremy Tate, 20 April 2021
The Price of Freedom
To preserve the freedom of the human mind… and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.
— Thomas Jefferson to William Green Munford, 1799
The Eternal Frontier
Space has become the ultimate imperial ambition, symbolizing an escape from the limits of Earth, bodies, and regulation. It is perhaps no surprise that many of the Silicon Valley tech elite are invested in the vision of abandoning the planet. Space colonization fits well alongside the other fantasies of life-extension dieting, blood transfusions from teenagers, brain-uploading to the cloud, and vitamins for immortality. Blue Origin’s high-gloss advertising is part of this dark utopianism. It is a whispered summons to become the Übermensch, to exceed all boundaries: biological, social, ethical, and ecological. But underneath, these visions of brave new worlds seem driven most of all by fear: fear of death—individually and collectively—and fear that time is truly running out.
— Kate Crawford, Atlas of AI, p.234
Afghanistan before Afghanistan
‘So look what sort of a jam the Americans have got themselves into. They can’t withdraw from Vietnam even if they want to, because in order to withdraw they’d have to leave a stable political situation behind them. That is, a bunch of lackeys to take their place. But lackeys that are solid and strong. And the puppet government in Saigon isn’t strong and it isn’t solid. It’s not even a good lackey. It can’t be kept going even with tanks to hold it up. So how can the Americans withdraw? And yet they have to get out. They can’t keep 600,000 men in Vietnam for another 10 or 15 years. That’s their political defeat: They can’t win politically in spite of all their military apparatus.’
— General Giap, interviewed by Oriana Fallaci, 1969
Artificial intelligence is not an objective, universal, or neutral computational technique that makes determinations without human direction. Its systems are embedded in social, political, cultural, and economic worlds, shaped by humans, institutions, and imperatives that determine what they do and how they do it. They are designed to discriminate, to amplify hierarchies, and to encode narrow classifications. When applied in social contexts such as policing, the court system, health care, and education, they can reproduce, optimize, and amplify existing structural inequalities. This is no accident: AI systems are built to see and intervene in the world in ways that primarily benefit the states, institutions, and corporations that they serve. In this sense, AI systems are expressions of power that emerge from wider economic and political forces, created to increase profits and centralize control for those who wield them. But this is not how the story of artificial intelligence is typically told.
— Kate Lawson, AI Atlas, p.211
To the Young Academic Politician
My heart is full of pity for you, 0 young academic politician. If you will be a politician you have a painful path to follow, even though it be a short one, before you nestle down into a modest incompetence. While you are young you will be oppressed, and angry, and increasingly disagreeable. When you reach middle age, at five-and-thirty, you will become complacent and, in your turn, an oppressor; those whom you oppress will find you still disagreeable; and so will all the people whose toes you trod upon in youth. It will seem to you then that you grow wiser every day, as you learn more and more of the reasons why things should not be done, and under- stand more fully the peculiarities of powerful persons, which make it quixotic even to attempt them without first going through an amount of squaring and lobbying sufficient to sicken any but the most hardened soul. If you persist to the threshold of old age — your fiftieth year, let us say — you will be a powerful person yourself, with an accretion of peculiarities which other people will have to study in order to square you. The toes you will have trodden on by this time will be as the sands on the sea-shore; and from far below you will mount the roar of a ruthless multitude of young men in a hurry. You may perhaps grow to be aware what they are in a hurry to do. They are in a hurry to get you out of the way.
O young academic politician, my heart is full of pity for you now; but when you are old, if you will stand in the way, there will be no more pity for you than you deserve; and that will be none at all. …
There is another world within this microcosm — a silent, reasonable world, which you are now bent on leaving. Some day you may go back to it; and you will enjoy its calm the more for your excursion in the world of unreason.
— F.M Cornford, Microcosmographia Academica, 1908
Philip Roth’s Stain
“We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint,” as Roth himself wrote in the 2000 Pen/Faulkner Award-winning novel, “The Human Stain.” “Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen — there’s no other way to be here. We leave a stain.”
— Monica Hess, 24 April 2021
As the East Rises
A fan of musical theater, Mr. Jacobs teamed with Mr. Drucker to turn “West Side Story” into “East Side Story,” a musical battle at the United Nations between gangs led by the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet premier (and gang leader) Nikita Khrushchev sang:
When you’re a Red
You’re a Red all the way
From your first Party purge
To your last power play!
When you’re a Red,
You’ve got agents galore;
You give prizes for peace
While they stir up a war.
— Obituary for Frank Jacobs, of Mad Magazine, 14 April 2021
One Hundred Years of Dirt
Tragedy is a snake upon the continent, undulating through the thousands of years. The dispossession of Aboriginal people came first, blunt and traumatic, followed by the self-inflicted wounds of families like my own in places already well-versed in suffering. They were a grain of sand pushed aside by the belly of the serpent; a speck among countless others that gave the earth its raw, red hue. …
This book emerged in part because of a silly fight over the meaning of the word ‘elite’, which has become one of those catch-all terms used by reactionaries as a means of cajoling the lower classes into a culture war. This strategy works because there is resentment out there—I’ve felt it most of my life—but not for the reasons those who wield it would have us believe.
There is a palpable sensation that the elites, conservative commentators included, are sniggering at us behind our backs while we suffer degradations of health, education and economic policy. I say we, but by any standard I am now a middle-class man in the body of a poor boy, with a mind in both homes. The mendacity of the reactionaries is in the simple truth that this is all a performance, for them.
The right-leaning big-talkers are as well read and fed and housed as the most liberal academics in the universities. Largely, their concerns about the working class and, when it suits, the poor are proportionate to the leverage they can pry from these people in a theatre of debate that will never include its subjects. The hard left does it too, and my friends from either side of the political spectrum are frequently guilty of seeing those beneath them as scarcely human but useful rhetorical devices. They are the great uncounted who can be marshalled by any speaker clever enough to suddenly, and en masse, provide ballast for an idea.
— Rick Morton, One Hundred Years of Dirt
‘I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.’
— Eugène Ionesco
Singapore is what your city could become if everyone obeyed the rules, did their jobs diligently, and just shut up. When your city gets to be this paragon of efficiency and discipline, would you still want to live there? Singapore is a model city, which is terrific if you happen to be a model human.
— Jessica Zafra, Twisted Travels
Bill Clinton’s Memoir
Mr. Clinton’s book is a double flop: Either stake your claim to join the guys on Mount Rushmore or embrace your destiny as a guy who rushes to mount more.
— Mark Steyn reviewing Clinton’s 2004 memoir
‘The party of Lincoln and Liberty has been transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk.’
— Garrison Keillor, 2004
Anxiety is a feeling in search of corroborating evidence. A sense in search of senselessness. And it finds what it wants, what it needs, every time. …
I have danced along a line, never entirely clear, between keeping my turmoil private and spilling it to people who have only ever been shackled to their own definitions of it. That is, I suppose, the fate of all human beings. We live alone and die alone. The interior remains a mystery, compounded under the creaking stress of insanity. I am unknowable to both myself and to you. I am unknowable to medical science. I have been, at my worst, unknowable to my own dog. And dogs know everything.
— Rick Morton, One Hundred Years of Dirt
The First 100 Days
As one voter told NBC News:
“The best thing about Joe Biden is I don’t have to think about Joe Biden.”
— Max Boot, 28 April 2021
The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh
He rose and said, “I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote, ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’” Then McVeigh was sentenced to death by the government.
— Gore Vidal, Vanity Fair, September 2001
The Indian Catastrophe
Fredrick Douglass said it right: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” How we in India pride ourselves on our capacity to endure. How beautifully we have trained ourselves to meditate, to turn inward, to exorcise our fury as well as justify our inability to be egalitarian. How meekly we embrace our humiliation.
— Arundhati Roy, 28 April 2021
The National Cycle
So arrière-garde that it is often avant-garde, t.w.m.i.p. [‘The World’s Most Important Paper’, i.e., The Wall Street Journal] is actually on to something. Although I shouldn’t think anyone on its premises has heard of the eighteenth-century Neapolitan scholar Vico, our readers will recall that Vico, working from Plato, established various organic phases in human society. First, Chaos. Then Theocracy. Then Aristocracy. Then Democracy—but as republics tend to become imperial and tyrannous, they collapse and we’re back to Chaos and to its child Theocracy, and a new cycle.
Currently, the United States is a mildly chaotic imperial republic headed for the exit, no bad thing unless there is a serious outbreak of Chaos, in which case a new age of religion will be upon us. Anyone who ever cared for our old Republic, no matter how flawed it always was with religious exuberance, cannot not prefer Chaos to the harsh rule of Theocrats. Today, one sees them at their savage worst in Israel and in certain Islamic countries, like Afghanistan, etc. Fortunately, thus far their social regimentation is still no match for the universal lust for consumer goods, that brave new world at the edge of democracy. As for Americans, we can still hold the fort…
— Gore Vidal, 21 July 1997
Frontier Nation, 2001
The United States at once upholds and undermines the established rules of international statecraft in pursuit of its imperial interests. Indeed, the United States is an empire, not a superpower, exceeding the Roman empire in its hegemonic reach and mastery. America may not be, as its catechism proclaims, the most beautiful, the most democratic and the freest country in the world. But it is, without a doubt, the mightiest empire in recorded history, as measured by its military and economic power as well as its ideological and cultural influence. This globalizing imperial ascendancy is all the more impressive and unique for being exercised indirectly and informally, except for the extraterritorial military, naval and airbases which girdle the globe. Not surprisingly this unprecedented and unrivaled omnipotence sustains an uncommon arrogance of power. America’s reaction, both foreign and domestic, to the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 is potentially so very violent and so disproportionate precisely because they are experienced as a blow to this overbearing pride.
— Gore Vidal, The Last Empire
Q: ‘What do you think your legacy will be?’
Gore Vidal: ‘I couldn’t care less.’
— from the documentary ‘The United States of Amnesia’
Alpha to Omega
‘What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.’