Other People’s Thoughts, XXI

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.

The character ‘record’ 記 in the hand of Mi Fei 米芾, or ‘Madman Mi’ 米癲 of the Song. Source: 好事家貼.

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.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
10 April 2021


More Other People’s Thoughts:

Other People’s Thoughts XXI


We live in a world where everyone is unappeasable.

Maureen Dowd 


Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.

— James Baldwin, 1972, ‘Malcolm and Martin’

Fascism in the USA

‘When fascism comes to America, it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts. Germany lost the Second World War. Fascism won it. Believe me, my friend.’

George Carlin

Caliban to Prospero 

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

— The Tempest

The Military-State

Just over 50 years ago, Dwight Eisenhower gave his famous farewell address warning of the power of the “military-industrial complex.” The former war commander bemoaned the creation of a “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” and said the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

Eisenhower’s warning is celebrated by the left as a caution against the overweening political power of warmakers, but as we’re now seeing, it was predictive also as a fiscal conservative’s nightmare vision of the future. The military has become an unstoppable mechanism for hoovering up taxpayer dollars and deploying them in the most inefficient manner possible. Schools crumble, hospitals and obstetric centers close all over the country, but the armed services are filling warehouses for some programs with “1,000 years’ worth of inventory,” as one Navy logistics officer recently put it.

It’s the ultimate example of the immutability of the American political system. Even when there’s broad bipartisan consensus, and laws passed, and both money allocated for changes and agencies created to enact them — if the problem is big enough, time bends toward corruption, and chaos always outlasts reform. Eisenhower couldn’t have predicted how right he was.

— Matt Taibbi, ‘The Pentagon’s Bottomless Money Pit’, Rolling Stone, 17 March 2019

The Great British Con

The U.K. is unique among modern states in that we not only buy our own hype, we also sell it overseas at a markup.

…The stories we export lay bare the failing heart of Britain’s sense of itself in the world — the assumption that all we have to do, individually or collectively, is show up with a charming accent and say something quaint and doors will open for us, as will wallets, legs, and negotiations for favorable trade deals.

This is a scam that works really well right up until it doesn’t.

— Laurie Penny, ‘Tea, Biscuits, and Empire:
The Long Con of Britishness’
Long Reads, June 2020

The Method of Their Madness

‘Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.’

Margaret Thatcher, 1981

US-China, Then & Now

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

— Richard Hofstadter, ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’Harper’s, November 1964

Ça suffit

‘We’ve had a gutful of you foreigners.’

Yang Jiechi 楊潔篪, Anchorage, Alaska, 18 March 2020

The Evil Within Us

The ideology of the Christian right, like all totalitarian creeds, is, at its core, an ideology of hatred. It rejects what Augustine calls the grace of love, or volo ut sis (I want you to be). It replaces it with an ideology that condemns all those outside the magic circle. There is, in relationships based on love, an affirmation of the mystery of the other, an affirmation of unexplained and unfathomable differences. These relationships not only recognize that others have a right to be, as Augustine wrote, but the sacredness of difference. This sacredness of difference is an anathema to Christian fundamentalists, as it is to imperialists, to all racists. It is dangerous to the hegemony of the triumphalist ideology. It calls into question the infallibility of the doctrine, the essential appeal of all ideologies. It suggests that there are alternative ways to live and believe. The moment there is a hint of uncertainty the ideological edifice crumbles. The truth is irrelevant as long as the ideology is consistent, doubt is heretical and the vision of the world, however absurd, absolute and unassailable. These ideologies are not meant to be rational. They are meant to fill emotional voids.

— Chris Hedges, ‘The Evil Within Us’, Scheerpost, 22 March 2021

A Letter to My Younger Self

‘I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.’

Lil Nas X, ‘Montero’, 26 March 2021

Twerking on a CGI Satan

‘I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because I was gay. So I hope u are mad, stay mad [and] feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.’

‘There is a mass shooting every week that our government does nothing to stop. Me sliding down a CGI pole isn’t what’s destroying society.’

Lil Nas X Twitter, 26 March 2021

It Does Not Compute

Zuckerberg in particular has minimal capacity to communicate the way human beings naturally do. The Facebook CEO was obviously instructed by a team of public speaking consultants that it is customary to address members of the Committee as “Congressman” or “Congresswoman.” He thus began literally every answer he gave — even in rapid back and forth questions — with that word. He just refused to move his mouth without doing that — for five hours (though, in fairness, the questioning of Zuckerberg was often absurd and unreasonable). His brain permits no discretion to deviate from his script no matter how appropriate. For every question directed to him, he paused for several seconds, had his internal algorithms search for the relevant place in the metaphorical cassette inserted in a hidden box in his back, uttered the word “Congressman” or “Congresswoman,” stopped for several more seconds to search for the next applicable spot in the spine-cassette, and then proceeded unblinkingly to recite the words slowly transmitted into his neurons. One could practically see the gears in his head painfully churning as the cassette rewound or fast-forwarded. This tortuous ritual likely consumed roughly thirty percent of the hearing time. I’ve never seen members of Congress from across the ideological spectrum so united as they were by visceral contempt for Zuckerberg’s non-human comportment

— Glen Greenwald, ‘Congress Demands Tech CEOs Censor the Internet
in Despotic Hearing’
, Scheerpost, 27 March 2021

1776 & 1619

Donald Trump’s ridiculous 1776 Commission, created to fight the narrative threat of the 1619 Project, tapped into the deep fear that reckoning with American history involves the recognition that American wealth and social structures are built on enslavement and the genocide of indigenous people.

— Masha Gessen, ‘The Historians Under Attack for Exploring Poland’s
Role in the Holocaust’
The New Yorker, 26 March 2021

Black Hole

Imagine: an alien civilization comes across the corpse of a twenty-first century woman who’s had saline breasts implanted and a vaginal rejuvenation (!) surgery. The aliens dissect her. Are the salt sacks in her chest an evolutionary feature, they wonder. Is her thin-lipped vagina, striated with scars, adaptive?

— Namwali Serpell, ‘Black Hole’The New York Review of Books, 26 March 2021

Gallows Humour

Navalny has also written about the many violations for which he has been cited since the start of his incarceration. He said that the colony’s seven-person disciplinary committee is currently reviewing some twenty reports of his alleged violations, including “getting up from bed ten minutes before the order to get up” and refusing “to go outside for morning exercises, saying to prison officer, ‘Let’s go grab a cup of coffee instead.’ ” He said he also reportedly “refused to watch a video lecture and called it idiotic” and “wore a T-shirt to a meeting with his lawyer.” He added, “I’m anticipating a citation that says, ‘was smiling broadly when the schedule prescribed suffering.’ ”

— Masha Gessen, ‘What Alexey Navalny is Experiencing in Prison’
The New Yorker, 1 April 2021

I.F. Stone

‘Lifelong dissent has more than acclimated me cheerfully to defeat. It has made me suspicious of victory. I feel uneasy at the very idea of a Movement. I see every insight degenerating into dogma, and fresh thoughts freezing into lifeless party lines. Those who set out nobly to be their brother’s keeper sometimes end up by becoming his jailer. Every emancipation has in it the seeds of a new slavery, and every truth easily becomes a lie.’

— quoted in D.D. Guttenplan, American Radical:
The Life and Times of I. F. Stone
New York, 2009, p. 431

Mirror, Mirror…

American society, although it continues to use traditional and sentimental iconography and language to describe itself, has in fact been so radically transformed by liberal gullibility and unchecked corporatism that it bears no resemblance to its self-image. 

— from Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class


There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.

— Walter Lippmann, Liberty and the News
New York, 1920, p.64

The Scholar 儒行



The scholar is not cast down, or cut from his root, by poverty and mean condition; he is not elated or exhausted by riches and noble condition; he feels no disgrace that rulers and kings (may try to inflict); he is above the bonds that elders and superiors (may try to impose); and superior officers cannot distress him. Hence he is styled a scholar. Those to whom the multitude now-a-days give that name have no title to it, and they constantly employ it to one another as a term of reproach.

When Confucius came (from his wanderings to Lû) to his own house, duke Âi gave him a (public) lodging. When the duke heard these words, he became more sincere in his speech, and more righteous in his conduct. He said, ‘To the end of my days I will not presume to make a jest of the name of scholar.’

禮記, trans. James Legge

Xi Jinping Thought


— Cultural Revolution-era maxim on Mao Thought

American Pastoral

‘Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.’

— Philip Roth

Online Culture

Funding a civilization through advertising is like trying to get nutrition by connecting a tube from one’s anus to one’s mouth. The body starts consuming itself. That is what we are doing online. As more and more human activity is aggregated, people huddle around the last remaining oases of revenue.

Jaron Lanier

Behind the Curtain

‘For the truth is that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. The individual suspects as much but is terrified to encounter this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear.’

— José Ortega y Gasset

The Image

Images are means. If a corporation’s image of itself or a man’s image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal.

— Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, New York, 1961, p.198

Huxley vs. Orwell

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

New York, 1985, p.80

Equality vs. Superiority

To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them.

— Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol.I

‘Recommendations to the Congress to
Curb Monopolies and the Concentration of Economic Power’

‘…the first truth is that the liberty of democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is Fascism—ownership of Government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. The second truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if its business system does not provide employment and produce and distribute goods in such a way to sustain an acceptable standard of living.’

— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 29 April 1938

Why I Am a Socialist

Private capital tends to become concentrated in [a] few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of the smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

— Albert Einstein, ‘Why Socialism?’, Monthly Review, May 1949

Hans Küng

In an interview with The New York Times in 1968, he said he saw an equivalence in the Communist and Roman Catholic systems.

“Are not both absolutist, centralist, totalitarian — in short, enemies of freedom?” he asked.

Hans Küng obituary, The New York Times, 6 April 2021

Evil vs. Good

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

— Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, New York, 1985, p.410

Individual & National Self-interest

The premise of American overseas aggression, according to Donald Rumsfeld and others, is something like the line in the movie Full Metal Jacket: “inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.” All we have to do to liberate this innately freedom-loving, self-interested, democracy-needing, capitalist-in-waiting is to rid him of the oppressive, evil-minded regime holding him down—by force if necessary. That is, Chagnon’s view of self-aggrandizing human nature is the sociobiological equivalent of the neocon premise of the virtues of American imperialism: making the world safe for self-interest. It is the same native Western ideology of the innate character of mankind. A huge ethnocentric and egocentric philosophy of human nature underlies the double imperialism of our sociobiological science and our global militarism.

Marshall Sahlins

Father Knows Best

‘If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.’

— Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on Princess Anne

Wernher von Braun

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical
Say rather that he’s apolitical
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department” say Wernher von Braun
Some have harsh words for this man of renown
But some think our attitude
Should be one of gratitude
Like the widows and cripples in old London town
Who owe their large pension to Wernher von Braun
You too may be a big hero
Once you’ve learned to count backwards to zero
“In German, oder Englisch, I know how to count down
Und I’m learning Chinese!” says Wernher von Braun

Tom Lehrer, ‘Wernher von Braun’