On October 26 I was presented with a very handsome paperweight as the 2011 New Jersey Council for the Humanities Book Award at the rather fine museum in Montclair, NJ. (They have a fascinating collection of American Indian art.) I gave a short lecture on “The Life of Honor.” The other finalists were these very fine books:
Thomas Belton, Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State (Rutgers University Press)
Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (University of Chicago Press)
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Michael Perino, The Hellhound of Wall Street: How Ferdinand Pecora’s Investigation of the Great Crash Forever Changed American Finance (Penguin Press).
Here is a link to buy the Korean edition of Experiments in Ethics. Thanks so much to the translators!
There’s a website for the series now. Click here to go there: Amnesty International Global Ethics Series. Elaine Scarry‘s remarkable Thinking in an Emergency is already out. She shows how much less free we are than we are accustomed to believe, because of the ways in which the idea of an emergency–a potential nuclear or terrorist attack–has been used to authorize the avoidance of democratic oversight.
Next to come, from Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work?, which explores the massive, military-driven efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans, the expansion of the EU, and the bloodless “color” revolutions in the former Soviet states. Rory Stewart–who is now a British Member of Parliament–will be in the United States this month to talk about the book, including a session at Barnes and Noble in New York. Stewart has persuaded me that it’s time for the US and NATO to leave Afghanistan.
I applied for a passport in early April of this year, because I was planning the trip to Hong Kong I described earlier, and wanted to take a tourist side-trip to China in June 2011, while I was there. I knew that they required a passport valid for at least six months from the date of entry. My old passport was set to expire in September 2011. I gave myself this extra time because I had two other trips abroad planned in between and wanted time to get the visa before those trips, since I wasn’t sure how long it would take, and I had rather small amounts of time between those trips and my departure for Hong Kong.
After receiving this passport, in early May, my partner and I applied for visas through It’s Easy, describing exactly the same plans on each application and showing, of course, the same home address. When I looked at the It’s Easy website on Monday May 9, his visa was listed as having been granted. Mine was not. So I called It’s Easy and, eventually, after several calls, I was told on Tuesday afternoon that the Chinese embassy had said that it had mislaid my passport. I was told that they had also said they would return it if and when they found it. I was due to go to the Istanbul Seminar the next Monday, so, with It’s Easy’s assistance, I immediately applied for an expedited new passport, which was returned to It’s Easy that Saturday, May 14th. I was able to collect my new passport on the Monday morning and flew with it to Istanbul until the next Sunday.
On Monday May 23, a day later, my partner took a new application with the new passport to It’s Easy and I reapplied. (I was off early that morning to give a lecture and some seminars in Seattle.) When I looked on the website on the Wednesday—by which time, they had assured me, the visa would be back—I discovered that it was not. After calling and talking to them and visiting their office, they told me that the visa had now been officially declined. And they returned to me my current passport and the application form I had issued on Thursday May 26. They did not then say anything about my old passport.
As I examined the returned visa application on the train back to Princeton that afternoon, I noticed that it had been altered after I had given it to them. The form now applied for multiple entries—which had not been my intention—and also, under the part of the form that requires you to list relatives living with you, someone had added in clumsy block capitals the word “John Appiah, Brother, Student.” Now I don’t have a brother. In fact, though I have lived in Ghana, where the name Appiah and the given name John are both quite common, I have never met a John Appiah. And, in any case, the only person living with me is my partner. So I called It’s Easy to ask about this and they said they could only respond if I came in again.
I went in again, therefore, on the afternoon of Friday May 27, on my way to the airport to give a lecture in Canada. They said they had changed the application to one for multiple entries because I might not have been aware that each trip from China to the mainland required a new visa. I regret that they did this, since, as you’ll see, I had some reason to avoid drawing attention to my application, and my only aim was to make one visit. But the owner of It’s Easy said the other change—the addition of John Appiah—was not in a hand of anyone working for them … and, indeed, it did look like the handwriting of someone whose first script was not English, and so might well have been done in the consulate. And they also told me that the Chinese consulate had now returned my original passport, which they gave to me.
Naturally, the Chinese consulate has given no reason for the denial of a visa. My main theory about this is that, as the President of the PEN-American Center, as one of the nominators of Liu Xiaobo for the Peace Prize, who published his letter of nomination and a defense of it in Foreign Policy magazine, and as someone who has appeared on CNN Asia criticizing the policies of the Chinese government in relation to free expression, I was denied a visa as part of the ongoing closing down of debate in China. (All these facts about me are available, of course, at the click of a Google search button.) This theory appeals to my ego; though it makes the Chinese government look paranoid, since I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur about my ability to challenge the Communist Party regime. But, bureaucratic incompetence is no doubt also a possibility: it is conceivable that a John Appiah caused some problem for them at some point and that they decided, in their ignorance that Appiah, like John, is a common enough name, that he must be connected with me.
In any case, while Henry was able to visit Beijing and Shanghai, I had the pleasure of an extended stay in Hong Kong, including a very interesting lunchtime discussion with the excellent U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong, and of a visit to Macau. I have no plan to apply for a Chinese visa any time soon again.
Early June 2011
Henry and I had a wonderful time in Hong Kong. We went there for his nephew, Aaron’s, bar mitzvah. We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel … a terrific place, which I commend to all who can afford it! Hong Kong itself is amazing. In the area where the hotel is, one’s surrounded by a great variety of high-end European and American shops, all accessible without leaving the building through a network or pedestrian and tunnels bridges: Armani, Dior, Chanel, Prada, Paul Smith … they’re all there. A shopper’s paradise. Not being shoppers, we mostly just gawped … but popped into Marks and Spencer to pick up summer jackets that were on sale. I spent some time over in Kowloon visiting a (live) bird market, a (live) fish market and a (live) flower market. All wonderful—though the first had a strong odor reminiscent of our barn when we’re raising our ducklings in New Jersey!
We were in Hong Kong on the night of June 4th, the anniversary of Tiananmen Square massacre when tens of thousands of people held memorial candles in Victoria Park. Ai Weiwei was on the newsstands—on the cover of Time Out Hong Kong—when we arrived. So one did have a sense that Deng’s “one country two systems” idea is real, even if Hong Kong’s system is far from democratic. That it isn’t democratic is one of the reasons that development has proceeded so fast, with an amazing density of modern skyscrapers. That there are some brakes on development, from environmental activists, for example, reflects the fact that it’s more democratic than, say, Shanghai, where the amazing developments of the past few years have not had to face such constraints.
I had fascinating conversations over the course of the week with scholars, diplomats, and business people. I came away feeling much more worried about the direction that China is headed. For one thing, I hadn’t been aware of the extent to which one can’t rely on business data, even when it’s vouched for by major accounting firms. So that there are real risks of implosion not only in the property market—which everyone, including the government, agrees is worryingly overheated—but also in other sectors in which outsiders have invested.
I visited Macau for a day-trip, where the casinos have names that connect them with Las Vegas: the Venetian has a Venetian canal on which you can take a gondolier ride … on the second floor! Like all such places, Macau is apparently home to a vast money-laundering system, one of whose functions is to allow Chinese businesses—legitimate and not—to get money out of China. But it’s also home to some of the more unsavory sides of other people’s corruption. For example:Angola has a surprisingly significant representation in Macau for a poor country. And the fact that Portuguese is spoken in both Angola and Macau—both were Portuguese colonies once—isn’t the only reason. A huge amount of money swishes around the Angolan government and its oil income … some of it gets laundered a pleasant boat ride away from downtown Hong Kong.
May 27 2011
This is the story of how I nearly didn’t get to Fredericton, New Brunswick on Air Canada for my plenary address in the “Big Thinking” series at the annual meeting of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. It was all my fault.
I began with the big mistake of checking in at home and arriving early at La Guardia. I got to the airport so early, in fact on May 27, that there were two Air Canada flights due to leave for Toronto before mine. I asked if I could go on an earlier flight and the Air Canada agent said sure if I paid $75.00. That didn’t seem worth it. So I went away. But then I remembered I didn’t have a frequent flyer number in the reservation. So I went back and talked to a different agent who volunteered, after entering my Continental frequent flyer number, to put me on an earlier flight … no fee mentioned. (Even on Air Canada, Continental has miraculous powers!) This time, it seemed sensible to say yes. As I was leaving she mentioned something about a link nor working, but, hey, she would work it out and I could go ahead. Not being a trusting person I checked on the issue again at the gate counter, where they also said something mysterious about a missing link—I know I was thinking Australopithecus, too. In any case, they wrote down my name on a piece of paper and reassured me that all was well. Second big mistake: believing them.
By the time we were actually boarded and ready to go, we were due to land pretty close to when I was originally scheduled to arrive on the later flight. Scheduled departure times from La Guardia on Air Canada turn out to be like a politician’s promises: rarely kept, and then only by accident. But I got on this late early flight without difficulty, and got through passport and customs and security in twenty minutes or so on arrival in Toronto. It’s a great airport. Well, not so great perhaps, when it comes to nourishment. I had some revolting chicken strips and a bourbon on the rocks (also revolting … but it lifted my mood) before spending a couple of hours at the right gate in Toronto.
Then I got up to board Air Canada 8960 when my row was called. Another big mistake. The gate agent told me that I wasn’t on the flight and handed me over to her superior. I was not pleased and I said so and she told me that I would just have to wait until they had boarded the flight. No explanation. No apology. And a remark to the effect that the flight was fully booked. I pointed out that they had boarded people—one of who had approached me as I sat at the gate—who were on the plane expecting to hear me speak to them at a conference the next morning. (One young woman kindly mentioned to the agent as she boarded that she thought it was important to get me on.)
So now they board everybody, including another woman who arrived after me and appeared to be in even worse shape so far as the computer was concerned. (And, by the way, the explanation that she gets essentially treats her as if it’s her fault, too.) Naturally I wonder if this is my reward for complaining.
Throughout all this they refuse several times to put me in touch with a supervisor, saying they are too busy boarding. But finally there is only me … only now they are too busy trying to find the passengers for whom they have delayed the flight. Here in front of them is a passenger who paid full fare weeks ago, checked in yesterday, flew in early today and waited patiently believing that a boarding pass (one that had been looked at by a gate agent at La Guardia) was a sort of promise, and somehow actually putting him on the plane is less urgent than scanning for the other people who are delaying the flight.
I ask at this point when the next flight is and am told that it is tomorrow morning and fully booked. (Note to the Canadian Federation: Fredericton is a terrible place for a national conference. There are too few flights in and out and all of them are on Air Canada). So, since the time for my lecture is going to be past by the time I get there, I am reconciled to sleeping in the airport—but looking forward to wasting time fighting for Air Canada to pay for my hotel … I know, fat chance … and going back home in the morning.
And then, somehow—no explanation, no apology—I am given a boarding pass. I say thank you. And the agent tells me she knows what happened, it happens all the time, but I need to get on the plane so she doesn’t have time to explain it to me. Actually, I can figure out the options myself. Sloppy software design or sloppy gate agents at La Guardia. And she’s right. It doesn’t matter to me which. I realize that as I sat there at the gate, doing what they ask you to do, they were busy filling up the airplane with stragglers including the one to whom they gave my seat. I find I don’t feel too guilty about the straggler who will arrive to find the plane full and gone because I have the seat they had been planning to give her. She, on the other hand, will be added to the list of people unhappy with the airline … right after me.
On the way back, I upgraded myself to business class, in the hope of increasing my chances. When I got to Toronto, I didn’t wait patiently at the gate, I went up to the gate agent and asked if she could confirm that my onward reservation was okay … and was treated with supreme condescension by the lady who explained to me that I was just fine if I had a boarding pass! Not worth explaining to her why that’s a hoot. Both flights left late, of course.
Unfortunately, I had to fly on Air Canada once more. I had bought a pretty economical business class seat for a flight to Hong Kong with my partner the next week. I was once pleased with myself for having discovered an airline with relatively inexpensive business class seats to Asia (we took them to Tokyo last year). For the record, this trip went well … except for the connection in Toronto on the way back. This was a Continental flight. Our connecting flight was delayed. Continental took the trouble to move us to an earlier flight—I didn’t ask, they just volunteered. (Once more being a Continental Frequent Flyer was what did it … not, it turned out, having a business class seat on the Air Canada flight incoming.)
I hope that was my last flight on Air Canada. Airlines shouldn’t threaten to dump you in an airport that you thought was just a place of transit because they screwed up. If they do, they should apologize. I’ve flown well over a million miles and made hundreds of connections and no other airline ever canceled my onward boarding pass. So, if anyone asks me, I’d advise against Air Canada and tell them that if they are ever making an Air Canada connection they should check in again at the connecting airport as soon as they get there. I would have had to do this if I had had any checked luggage on my way to Fredericton. But that was my last mistake. I was only carrying one small New Yorker bag that fits easily under the seat in front of me. My bad. On the way back from Hong Kong, we checked our tiny bags. Slowed us down, of course. But our boarding passes worked.
Visiting Istanbul for the first time for the Istanbul Seminar. It is, as everyone says, an astonishing city.