One artist reflects on another: Klayman and Ai Weiwei

Sometimes, the world seems astonishingly smaller and filled with more wonder than one can imagine. Take the case of filmmaker Alison Klayman, whose documentary about a famous dissident Chinese artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” debuts July 27 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C

Alison’s film has garnered a ton of praise. It won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, was an official selection of the Berlin International Film Festival and was an opening night film at the Hotdocs Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “The Chinese art-star emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism – and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter,” the Village Voice said. “Ai Weiwei is captivating on camera, and the film makes the case that there is really no separation between the artist and his work,” crowed Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Chinese activist Ai Weiwei combines the chutzpah of Michael Moore, the antic iconoclasm of Duchamp, and the humility of Gandhi,” observed the Boston Phoenix. “Let’s hope Klayman gets to make a sequel,” added The Guardian of London, giving Alison’s work four stars.

There are many more paeans to her work. Details and a trailer are available here. There’s also a Facebook page for the film here.

Much to the consternation of Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei continues to generate attention. The Wall Street Journal just this morning ran a piece about his battle with authorities over a $2.4 million tax bill. Once celebrated for his work on the Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Ai has riled Chinese officials with persistent criticisms. He was detained without charges for nearly three months in 2011, and state media reported he confessed to tax-evasion, though he has challenged the tax case at every turn. He set up a website, fakecase.com, to chronicle his battle.

So what does Ai Weiwei have to do with the world getting smaller and more wonderful? Well, this is personal. Last fall, a short time after I arrived in Beijing to teach journalism for the semester, I chanced upon a group that held weekly services, Kehillat Beijing (cleverly named website: sinogogue.org). On my second Friday night service, who should walk in but Alison Klayman, who I hadn’t seen for an absurdly long time. Alison, dear reader, has been a good friend of my eldest daughter, Becky, for about 16 years, since both girls were 12 years old and we lived in the Philly area.

In a coincidence no fiction editor would let an author get away with, Alison had rushed to services from the airport, bags in tow. She had long before become a fan of the delightful Jewish group — a havurah for expats and visitors — while living and working in Beijing. She happened to be back in the city for some final work on the Ai Weiwei movie. Needless to say, we had a fine time catching up over a rather nice, western-style dinner that followed services.

So, count me among those eager to see the film. I can’t make the NYC premiere, but will catch it here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it will be shown at the Ross from Sept. 7-13. It will be a highlight of the fall.

Ying Chan discusses budding Chinese journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review online ran a Q&A I did with Yuen Ying Chan, one of the foremost journalism educators in China. By turns steely and gentle, smart and tough, she was a delight to talk with. It was a privilege meeting her.

After 23 years working in New York City journalism, including a seven-year stint at the New York Daily News that netted her a Polk Award, Yuen Ying Chan returned to her native Hong Kong. There, in 1999, she founded the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and as its director began turning undergrads and grad students into working journalists through Asia. Soon after that, she turned to mainland China, where she set up the Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University, which now serves some 640 undergrads. Chan spoke about journalism and journalism education in Hong Kong and China with Joseph Weber, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who recently taught in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University, under the auspices of the International Center for Journalists.

One impression I have about China is that students don’t ask, ‘Why?’

It’s rote learning. It’s endemic. They don’t challenge authority. They are taught to listen, to follow. So that’s part of the culture, the system. It’s the worst of Confucianism, plus Communism—the authoritarian respect for authority and not challenging authority. Students in mainland China schools cram in too many courses. They have had top-down teaching—the antithesis of critical thinking—for 12 to 14 years before we get them.

Are schools of journalism on the mainland changing that, by inculcating critical thinking?

In Shantou we do. Students are very outspoken. We were able to host a lesbian activist, Helen Zia, for a week. She’s a civil-rights activist and a former executive editor of Ms. Magazine. We had an open debate on lesbianism, where Zia showed a film about relationships and talked about her own marriage. The room was packed. Shantou is different. We try to teach journalism the way it should be taught.

Which is how?

Which is critical thinking, seeking truth from facts, challenging authority, discipline, good reporting and writing. We do it. It’s not easy.

Do you get official pressure?

It’s not so much official pressure, but more the Chinese bureaucracy. In Shantou we can get away with more. It’s a public university but it’s funded two-thirds by Li Ka-shing [a wealthy Hong Kong businessman]. It’s almost like a privately funded public university.

What about the rest of journalism education on the mainland, in terms of promoting critical inquiry?

It’s very uneven. At Shantou, we have students doing investigative reporting.

What are the limits in investigative reporting?

You can’t talk about Tibet; there’s no exposing the Politburo or their sons’ and daughters’ business interests; no discussion of June 4 [1989, the Tiananmen Square massacre]; no Taiwan; no Xinjiang protests [a 2009 uprising in a region in western China]—those are drop deads. And then you have room to navigate. The space is opened and closed. There are no set rules, but there is a system of censorship in place, and also self-censorship. For instance, the rebellion in the village of Wukan [an anti-corruption protest that began last year] is all over the news in Hong Kong. It’s censored on the mainland but Wukan was all over the weibo, China’s miniblogs. That was despite government efforts to censor. Reporting the Bo scandal has been banned in Chinese papers. But students can climb the so called Great China Firewall to access international websites. I can read students cynical comments in their own weibo. This is a generation of digital natives who are savvy with using information to get the information they want.

I’ve been surprised at how much the China Daily discusses pollution, which is a great embarrassment.

They have to compete for the market. There’s a tension between the market forces and the forces of authoritarianism. But it’s not just China Daily. Environmental stories, such as pollution, are on the official agenda.

What are the differences in your approach in Shantou in mainland China and here in Hong Kong on the issue of censorship?

Most of the students [in Shantou] will work in the [mainland China media] system. If they work in the system, they will have to know the rules and the boundaries. We teach them that they need to equip themselves as much as possible to push the limits. You need to be good. The better you are, the better you can deal with the limits. We try to let them know where there are limits. It’s very challenging. China is in transition. It’s full of good stories and for them to report and write about that, that’s their job. The challenge is to deal with reality, not to succumb to it, and the keep the North Star, the values of journalism. We try to do that.

There seems to be more life left in print here than in the US.

We are facing the same digital transformation. Students have to understand digital. But in a country of 1.3 billion with a long newspaper-reading tradition, even a tiny percentage of newspaper readers can sustain print longer than it can in smaller countries.

What are the prospects for your students?

It’s an exciting time to be in journalism in Asia now. Our students go into internships all over the world. They go into international and local media, Chinese- and English-language. They also get internships in media companies across Asia and around the world. Many internships grow into jobs.

What kind of work do your students do?

They do grassroots reporting on community issues. You know the scandal about overcrowded school buses? They went to do a story on school buses in Shantou. They found a 19-seat bus that was packed with 46 students. It’s on the website. Isn’t that a good story? They did another story on a flood in the city. It speaks a lot about municipal management. They do profiles. They do multimedia. That’s why they are getting jobs.

As for investigative work, when I taught a course on “enterprise reporting” at Shantou, students investigated the e-waste dump nearby that was killing the river in the area. Students worked in teams and do a lot of shoe-leather reporting up and down the polluted water. Their article was published in a leading daily in Beijing. This year, students reported on stories such as the plight of the children of migrant farmers or overloaded schools buses in the area.

Chinese students go into journalism with a lot of idealism ad a strong sense of mission. They want to speak up for people and to fix the problems in society.

Foul mouths and young minds

How offensive is too offensive?

Today, while giving presentations about authors, a student screened a trailer for “The Wire” for all the Reporting I class to see. And hear. And hear, they did. The F word, the N word, even the C word.

The student blanched, as did I. I did my best to tell these 19- and 20-year-olds beforehand, as the video started, that this was likely to be strong, and I remarked afterwards that it certainly was. But, frankly, I was stunned at how vile it was. I hadn’t seen the trailer, though I had seen – and loved – the series on HBO.

Fortunately, the visuals were tame, unlike those in the show. But the effect of the words, repeated frequently, was nearly as potent. Ugly racist terms, ugly sexual terms, ugly sentiments in general. I faced a group of bug-eyed students who didn’t know quite how to react.

David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun journalist who created the show, was trying to reflect real life on the rough streets. How else do cops, drug dealers, politicians and union bosses talk, after all? The language shouldn’t be cleaned up if it’s to be authentic – or at least seem authentic. Can’t fault him for that. And in watching the show, all five seasons, I constantly was struck by how true-to-life he made all those flawed people seem.

But, while I give Simon kudos for “The Wire” and my student praised his real-life book about murder in the city, “Homicide,” that doesn’t mean the language needs to be showcased in a sophomore-level journalism class in Nebraska. There are ways to talk about the talk without listening to the talk.

Am I a prude? Am I naïve about what my young charges hear on a daily basis? Am I too PC?

Coincidentally, in the same class we talked about Bernie Goldberg’s book about political bias in network TV. In one section, Goldberg dismissed a colleague’s preference of the term “Indian” over “Native American” while faulting another for labeling the flat tax idea “wacky” – both items evidence, in Goldberg’s mind at least, of bias and excess political correctness in mainstream media. That led to a good debate in class about whether journalists worry too much about PC language and whether we need to bother with it.

Well, yes, we do need to bother with it, I argued. If African-Americans prefer to be called such, the media need to do so. If Native Americans don’t like a term that Columbus or someone else erroneously bestowed on them, we have to respect that. And there really is no place in a classroom for the N word or really any of the other offensive terms that Simon’s show shouted.

So, I’m donning the hairshirt on this one. I popped an email of apology to my students, even though I had been almost as surprised by the video as they were. It may have been the student’s presentation, but it was my classroom, after all. I’m not going to fault the student, who was just trying to enliven her time in the front of the class. But I sure wouldn’t encourage that sort of video again.

Yes, they’ve all heard worse. Yes, as journalists they will have to develop thick skin on their ears as well as everywhere else. And, yes, I’m from New Jersey, where people can shame Marines even when talking about the weather. But my Nebraska kids don’t have to traffic in the classroom in what my elders used to call foul-mouth talk.

Once, when I was young, I had my mouth cleaned out with soap. At times I can almost still taste it. Now is one of those times.

Mud all around in DePauw journalism case

A friend, Mark Tatge, is in hot water because he showed students how to use the tools of investigative reporting on one of their own, a 19-year-old sophomore busted for drinking. The unsettling case raises questions about the duties journalists have to the truth, journalism teachers have to students and administrators have to teachers.

And like lots of unsettling cases, it’s messy.

Tatge, a former Midwest bureau chief for Forbes and textbook author with a distinguished record in the business, teaches investigative reporting as a visiting professor at DePauw University. To show students how to use public records, he handed out a public records packet about the arrest of a student athlete in January for public intoxication, resisting law enforcement, illegal consumption of alcohol and criminal mischief. According to journalism blogger Jim Romenesko, the 17-page packet included Facebook and Twitter profiles, along with court documents.

Devised as a classroom exercise, the case study has gone far beyond the blackboard. The DePauw student newspaper told the campus about it and blogger Romenesko delivered the news to his national journalism audience. The blog, Inside Higher Ed, has written about it. Needless to say, the student is embarrassed. And her mother lashed out at Tatge in a letter to The DePauw, accusing him of bullying, “wanting to create news,” and not caring whether a student or the school was damaged.

For his part, Tatge is troubled that the university has shown no support for him in this maelstrom. Academic freedom and the principles of journalism are at stake, he and his supporters have suggested.

Plenty of journalists and academics have offered backing in comments on Romenesko, though opinion is hardly unanimous. One critic said it was “totally inappropriate within the context of a student-faculty relationship. How about a little judgment?” A critic faulted Romenesko for printing the details, including running the student’s photo. Inside Higher Ed held off on identifying the student.

I’m reminded of what officials at Tsinghua University in Beijing warned me about the classroom last semester. The classroom, they say, is a public sphere in which anything you say can echo far beyond school, especially in the days of the Net. Therefore, be cautious of what you say there. Avoid sensitive topics, they counseled.

Tatge, I imagine, had no notion that this investigative exercise would have gone any further than the door of his classroom. For his students, it would be a powerful example of using public records in a way that hit close to home, as The DePauw suggested in its coverage. It would have more impact than doing, say, a patent search, he suggested.

Indeed, Tatge may have figured there would be no embarrassment to the young woman, who turned 20 a month after her arrest. She would not have even known about it if some friends in the class hadn’t told her of the discussion. Certainly, Tatge, would not have deliberately sought to put her in the stocks nationwide, to expose her shame far and wide. He just wanted to make a lesson in public documents real and meaningful for the students in his class.

But the questions this case raises are troubling. Should teachers worry, in the age of the Net, that everything we do in a classroom can be showcased to the world? Does that lead to self-censorship, a la China’s? Do we really want to stifle ourselves in the way teachers – and journalists — there must to save their jobs? At home, will administrators back up such faculty when the heat rises? Or will they cave under pressure?

On the other hand, shouldn’t faculty members feel obliged to shield 19-year-olds who do stupid things? Isn’t it the nature of kids to make dumb mistakes that in an earlier, less public, time would have been punished quietly? No teacher would deliberately hold a student up to nationwide scorn. All of us – Tatge included, I’m sure – feel our first duty is to educate students, not humiliate them.

It’s less a legal matter than a moral one. Legally, the student lost her right to anonymity when she was arrested. But does that mean she’s fair game in any classroom on campus? Does a teacher have a moral duty to protect students, even if the law permits exposure? Do teachers need to act more discreetly about their young charges?

At the end of the day, we can only hope everyone involved remembers a few key things. First, the student has to live with the consequences of her alleged mistake. It was she, not Tatge, who brought this grief down on herself. She, her mother and the school administration should keep that in mind. In an earlier generation, mom might have taken the daughter to the woodshed, not turned her wrath on a teacher and the campus newspaper. Indeed, it’s surprising that lawyers haven’t shown up yet.

Second, it was the police, not Tatge, who made the charges public in the first place. Once such charges are lodged, they are out there for all to see. They eventually will be adjudicated, raising still more opportunity for exposure.

Punishing the messenger here will not make the student’s problems any easier. Administrators need to back up teachers when the fault lay elsewhere to begin with.

Still, faculty members are not just journalists, not just messengers. The muddy part here is that teachers have other responsibilities to students – both those in their classrooms and others on campus. That’s a tough line to walk at times. Sadly for all involved, there’s mud all around on this one.

Is the Internet making college kids dumber?

Kids say the darndest things, don’t they? Certainly, college kids do on weekly current events and readings quizzes.

You may think, for instance, that the CPI is the Consumer Price Index. And you would be sure of that if you just read it in a text assigned for the day’s class.

But to one of my 28 students in Reporting I, it is the Corporal Payment Index. To another, it’s the Compared Probability Index. To a third, it’s the Current Percentage Index.

One of my favorites, though, is the College Placement Index. Problem is, I’m not sure where the author of that one would place. Still, we must give her and the others points for inventiveness, no?

Indeed, it may be that these kids, mostly freshmen and sophomores, have been getting points for inventiveness for years. They had to make decent grades to get through high school and into a Big Ten university after all. It just appears that their high school teachers didn’t make them work too hard for those grades. Certainly, the kids didn’t learn how to give the text, say, a quick scan before a quiz.

Do I sound exasperated? Well, these kids plan to go into journalism and you wouldn’t know that from the acquaintance some have with current affairs. It’s not just that one of the most common measures of the economy eludes them. It’s that they don’t appear to read the news much, even when they know they will be asked about it each week.

It wasn’t Egypt that defied the U.S., for instance, by saying it would put 19 Americans on trial in an investigation on nonprofits. No. According to one of my students, it was Canada. Canada! For another, it was – stunningly – “Newt.” To a third it was “Obama.” Did they even read the question?

Who is the Palestinian president? Okay, so maybe an answer like “Muhamed” or “Hussein” is conceivable. But “Gadafi?” “Addis Abba?” “Aasad?” “Hafnet?” And, my favorite, “Netanyahu” (courtesy of two students).

Yes, kids in or barely out of their teens may be forgiven for not knowing the names of leaders of places they have no connection to. But not when those names are on the front page of the New York Times a day or two before a quiz drawn from that page. The paper is free on campus, including just two floors down in the J School, not to mention available online. They know where the answers are before walking in every week. They don’t have to look much beyond the headlines.

I should be able to shrug this all off. Chalk it up to high school teachers who themselves may not even read newspapers anymore – it’s a generational thing, isn’t it? These kids have Facebook, YouTube, ESPN and Entertainment Tonight instead of newspapers. And nitty-gritty stuff like the names of national leaders just washes over them.

But because they do have such a wealth of information, they should be the most well-informed generation ever. They have a zillion free news sources on their computers. They have Jon Stewart. They have TV and radio everywhere, including on their computers.

And yet some say Israel blamed “Palestine” or Iraq or Syria (two students) for bombing Israeli personnel in the capitals of India and Georgia. We may be at war with Iran before the year ends and these kids won’t have clue about what led up to it.

It’s as if the information glut has made them dumber. All those warring countries just blend together in some kind of mashup. The kids don’t need to separate it out or know anything because they can Google it. Their heads can remain blissfully empty, undisturbed by the information overload.

Chinese vice president Xi Jinping in Iowa
But what about common sense? Is it sensible to say the vice president and likely future leader of “The Senate” arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday, Feb. 14? How about “Congress?” Or, “Syria?” And could Johnson and Johnson be selling “shoe” implants abroad even after the FDA rejected sales in the U.S.?

With answers like that, can they wind up among the leaders of journalism tomorrow? Sadly, unemployment may be their more likely fate. But they won’t be counted among the ranks of “discouraged” workers. At least four say it is “lazy” workers the government doesn’t count as jobless because they’ve stopped searching.

Yes, I try to put myself back into the head of a 19- or 20-year-old as I work with these kids. All these annoying little things on quizzes, I know, may take a backseat to getting through Spanish or getting into the right sorority or, as is true for many kids, working too many hours a week to study. Maybe fights with girlfriends or boyfriends keep them from focusing on school. Or maybe there are real problems at home that plague them.

But, really now, can the CPI be the Calculated Projected Index, the Central Population Index or the Chief Production Index? No points for inventiveness, I’m sorry to say. Instead, they need to read the papers and crack those books to get through my class. They have their work cut out for them, and so do I.

Smart or sophomoric? BW’s ‘edgy’ cover pushes the envelope

What words come to mind when you look at the image from the latest cover of Bloomberg Businessweek?

For my Reporting 1 students at the University of Nebraska, the words include “amusing,” “comical,” “creative,” “clever,” and “intriguing.” Most of the 30 students in the two sections of the course liked the image and thought it just fine for the book. They would agree with the folks at The Atlantic who suggested it was “edgy.”

The enthusiasts offered other terms, too. “Fun,” “simple,” “funny,” “different,” “unique,” “surprising” and “attention-getting” were among them. Some said it would encourage them to buy the magazine if they saw it on the newsstand – which, of course, is what a cover should do.

“I love this cover,” said one student, who at 23 is a couple years older than most of the others. “If I saw the magazine, I’d grab it. I love the tie-in. It’s definitely an attention-grabber.”

Another concurred, adding a thought about the cover language. “If the title was about a merger, there’s no way I would pick it up. This I would pick up,” she said.

Many found it funny. “It’s fun. I like the design. It’s a mature joke,” she said.

Of course, opinion wasn’t unanimous. A solid minority, including some who found the image entertaining, thought it “inappropriate” for a national business magazine. Some even worried about kids seeing it on the dining-room table or newsstand. Two found it “distasteful.” While saying she found it “slightly inappropriate,” one hurried to add that she was not offended.

And some were just perplexed. “It’s just a couple airplanes,” said one. “Airplanes can’t have sex.” Another said he couldn’t get the image at first, since it looked like a couple planes colliding or flying in tandem. And one, blushing, said the word that came to mind was “sexual,” and she added that the idea was “disconnected.” She asked, “why refer to two plane companies as sexual?”

Classy alternative?
While most students in this sophomore-level class thought the image was a winner, some faculty thought it, well, sophomoric. Echoing the blusher, one sixtysomething prof puzzled over the idea that everything nowadays seems to be cast in sexual terms, especially among folks south of 25 (or, I’d add, south of 40). A longtime newspaper photo editor-turned-teacher argued that manipulating photos just isn’t kosher even if it’s dubbed a photo-illustration (which this wasn’t) because the technology makes the images too believable.

Some, by contrast, thought the image just fine — so long as it suited the target audience. One, who led the art designers at New York Newsday and The New York Times before returning to Nebraska to teach, was reminded of provocative covers Newsday would run to pop off the stands next to the New York Post and the Daily News. And another, a veteran of the New York bureau of the Miami Herald, thought this would, indeed, help the magazine stand out, adding that images of humping animals are not uncommon, so why not?

Outside of school, a friend at National Journal volunteered this (sans capitals, in a Facebook exchange: “it’s funny, it’s original, it makes the point instantly, it’s not actually icky (planes don’t really have sex, people!), and it makes me much more inclined to pick up the magazine than photo of a white dude in a suit or a photo of an airport. sometimes the worthiest stories on the most important topics are really hard to coverize, and i’m sure the writer is glad they found a solution. i wish i had more ideas like this for national journal.”

When I argued that the image might fit The Onion but not BB (or BW, as we veterans prefer), he added that we might see such an image on New York, Slate or The Economist. He might be right about that, since The Economist proved even more edgy, with camels — back in 1994. Of course, that was before the British pub became the force to beat in business magazines and, maybe, had less to lose.

So, gentle reader, what say you? Does an image of jets in flagrante suggest witty, smart, authoritative and sophisticated? Or is it just a ripoff of The Colbert Report and The Daily Show that offers sass instead of style? Does it suggest hip or, rather, desperation to look hip? In the end, do boinging Boeings reflect well on a national business magazine?

Everybody’s got a hungry heart — some more than others

What is it that drives winners? For some, it is living up to expectations set by demanding teachers, coaches or parents. For others, it’s simple “self-fulfillment,” as the cliché-peddlers would have it. For still others – perhaps more of us than would care to admit it – outward success is an attempt to fill deep emotional holes left by childhood deprivations.

A few things came together in the past week to raise this question anew for me. Nationally, there was Newt Gingrich’s surprising success in South Carolina, a victory that came about just after a revealing 1995 profile in Vanity Fair gained renewed life on the Net. In the piece Gail Sheehy sought to fathom the hungers that drive Newt, someone abandoned by a father, tormented by an angry stepfather and smothered by a manic-depressive mother. How can such trauma not sear one for life? Today, we know that Gingrich’s canyon-deep needs have proved too great for three wives to fill. Nothing less than the presidency might come close to sating him (and one doubts that will be enough).

Then there was the cover story in the New York Times Magazine about Oscar Pistorius, the would-be Olympian. The “fastest man on no legs,” he runs with prostheses since both his legs were amputated below the knee as an 11-month-old because of a birth defect. That’s not all he’s had to deal with: the runner’s parents divorced when he was six and his mother died when he was 15. He is estranged from his father. “Everyone has setbacks,” Pistorius told author Michael Sokolove, shrugging off his challenges in jock-like manner. “I’m not different. I happen to have no legs.”

Closer to home for me, there were the autobiographies my Journalism 202 students wrote. As always, too many of their tales were troubling. Despite their fresh faces and youthful eagerness, some are hauling a lot of baggage for kids barely out of their teens (some perhaps still in them). Divorces, infidelity and alcoholism at home. Dread diseases in those close to them. One told of struggling as a single mother in high school in a religious rural community.

Will these kids overcome the bad hands life has dealt them? Will they, like Gingrich, Pistorius and plenty of others, figure out how to turn shortcomings into sources of strength? Can satisfying their cravings lead them to successes in journalism or whatever field opens for them?

There are heartening signs. Take the single mom, for instance. She was the “moral symbol” of her Christian school with a laundry list of accomplishments from church group leadership to sports and student-council activities. Then pregnancy got her kicked out. (So much for Christian charity.) Today, though, she calls her 2½-year-old son her “precious little gift from God.” She says he’s the source of her inspiration to pursue a broadcasting career.

There’s the young woman whose life has been scarred – three times – by divorce. Her mom divorced twice before she was six, a third time when she was in high school. Through it all, she threw herself into athletics, band and academics. Today, she’s making her mark in college sports. “My past has built me into a strong, tenacious woman,” she wrote. “I have only scratched the surface the surface of what is going to be an amazing life.”

Then there’s the young man who told, unblinkingly, of his mother’s failings. When he was 10, he wrote (in the third person), she “cheated on his father with her coworker.” She often came home late and drunk. She and the boy’s father split and eventually the father remarried, recreating a family. The student, who excelled in high school theater, choir and speech, told of how he’s following a passion for telling stories. “For now, I’m living my life the way I want to lead it,” he wrote.

I’m encouraged by the determination these kids feel. They seem to know that the same things that nearly hobbled them are the things that can put steel in their spines. There’s no self-pity in their tales, though there is, of course, hunger. There’s a need for recognition, a need for someone to listen.

Such needs are not bad things in a journalist. Richard Behar, an award-winning investigative journalist for Time, Forbes and other publications, came to UNL a while ago and told of his personal history. He grew up as a ward of the state of New York, knocking around its foster-care system. Clearly, in sharing that story, he was suggesting the challenges he dealt with were responsible, in part, for the successes he has had.

Journalists, after all, want to be heard. My longtime editor at BusinessWeek, Steve Shepard, added bylines to the magazine years ago, understanding that recognition drives writers to do their best work. For years, the philosophy had been that magazine writing was a group effort. That’s still true, but he felt – rightly – that pursuit of the limelight was too powerful to ignore. What journalist worth his or her salt doesn’t want a cover story or front-page piece bearing his or her name?

In politicians (and perhaps journalists), overwhelming hungers can be dangerous, of course. Insatiable needs nearly derailed the otherwise successful presidency of Bill Clinton. They crushed the presidency of the much-tortured Richard Nixon. Soon, voters may have to judge whether Gingrich’s psychological shortcomings will make him a good or impossible president. Oddly enough, they could face a choice between him and President Obama, a man shaped in large part by the lack of a father. Great needs may drive great winners, but an honest journalist will tell you they still they remain great needs.

Christmas in Beijing — Bah, Humbug!

Isn’t there an ancient myth about an oracle that reflects different images of the same event to different viewers? Celebrations of Christmas seem like that to me, especially after watching the buildup to the holiday in China.

China, of course, has little history to make Dec. 25 any more than just another day. For modern China, where atheism is a requirement for Communist Party membership, celebrating Christmas is odd, to say the least. Mao would spin wildly in his grave at the idea. And Buddhists, who practice the dominant religion in the country, would have little use for marking a foreign god’s birthday. And yet, the Chinese have rushed to embrace the day – though in their own peculiarly non-religious way. They see in it what they want to see, just as many Americans do.

Celebrations of the day abound in China, at least in the cities. It’s a big day for young people, especially, who wish one another Merry Christmas. Some, particularly lovers, give each other presents. One of my teacher’s aides at Tsinghua, a bright young man going through the grueling yearlong process of applying for membership in the Party, was fretting over what to get his girlfriend, for instance. (Let’s not tell his Party sponsor about that). And Wei Wei, a delightful grad student, just sent me an electronic Christmas card on the Tencent system, a Chinese email system.

It’s a bit of a mystery, this adoption of the holiday. Certainly, it’s understandable why the department stores in Beijing would deck themselves out for the day. Like American retailers, they’ve found that carols on the PA systems, twinkling lights and images of Santa, reindeer and decorated evergreens help drive people to buy. It’s a retail holiday in the States, too, of course. There’s a buck (or a yuan) to be made. Plus, in Beijing, there are Westerners to cater to.

But there’s more to it in China. The Chinese seem to see Christmas as part of what it means to be like the West. They have a manic drive under way to teach English to all school kids. They have taken to capitalism in ways that would stun Adam Smith and are worrying demagogic American politicians. Some 120,000 Chinese are studying at American universities, including my own school, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we are forging exchange alliances with Chinese schools.

China is going through a headlong love affair with all things foreign, a feeling of being smitten that is almost adolescent in its passion. A saying in the country holds that the moon shines brighter on foreign lands, and the American moon in particular has the Chinese in full swoon. Indeed, Beijing, Shanghai, and even inland cities such as Xi’an, along with British-dominated Hong Kong warm to anything American. Just look at the proliferation of outlets for Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, not to mention American-branded clothes and other products (even counterfeit ones). Steve Jobs was mourned in ways no Politburo member could expect to be (counterfeit copies of the new biography graced peddler’s carts seemingly in minutes after it was issued; I got one for the equivalent of $3).

The odd thing, of course, is that it’s Christmas without Christ. The imagery gracing the stores – which, you can be sure, is Party-approved or at least not opposed – is all about Santa Claus, trees and reindeer. One does not see crucifixes, crèches or pictures of Jesus (not that there are many of these in American malls either). A friend says her nine-year-old daughter has been practicing to sing in a school Christmas pageant, though there won’t be any religious elements in it (I’m not sure how many non-religious songs there are beyond Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman. But, even if Silent Night is on the list, the religious words would be sung without any divine intent).

Many of my non-religious friends in the U.S. take the same tack, of course. Even some Jews have Christmas trees (“Hanukkah Bushes”), arguing that such pagan-derived symbols are part of the non-religious character the holiday has taken on. It’s just a cultural thing, they say, and what’s wrong with giving presents and offering one another good wishes? Then, of course, there’s the idea that no occasion for a party ought to be passed up.

Still, there’s something shallow about the Chinese celebration of the holiday. It has a hollow ring. Along with stripping out the religious elements, the Chinese have no traditional basis for the day, nothing that links it to anything Chinese. Far more important, of course, are the Chinese New Year and other holidays where it seems the whole nation is on trains and planes to get home. Those days, far older than anything we have in the West, are all about the warmth of family.

For now, Christmas in China still is no home-and-hearth holiday. People work on the day. Schools remain in session, at least when the date falls on a weekday. And present-giving hasn’t become the potentially bankrupting affair that it is for so many American parents. Oddly, perhaps, that’s heartening. Sure, it’s funny to see pictures of smiling, white-bearded, red-nosed St. Nick (of course, one wonders if the Coca-Cola-fostered image has anything to do with the saint). But, Scrooge-like as it may sound, there’s something pathetic about it. China has plenty of traditions to mark, after all, and many have been around longer than the couple thousand thousand years Westerners have been marking the mid-winter holiday.

Idealism: a global phenomenon

Idealism knows few national boundaries.

Students at Tsinghua University and other schools in China would see eye-to-eye (better, heart-to-heart) with many in the U.S. on this. A 22-year-old grad student of mine in Beijing showed this in spades in a recent English-language speech competition. Her outrage at injustice, her sympathy for those in distress, and her hopes for change could make her a soulmate of my 23-year-old daughter back in Chicago. Continents, oceans or economic and political systems seem not to separate them intellectually.

My student – call her “Blossom” – took on Apple Computer, a company hugely popular in China. She faulted its reliance on Chinese suppliers whose working conditions have been linked to suicides, workplace fatalities and illness-inducing toxic chemicals. Her anger at conditions she branded “inhumane” was palpable and she was unsparing in her criticism, saying Apple had failed in its social responsibilities. She also took aim at fellow Chinese, bemoaning the idea that contestants at speaking competitions, blind to problems, have routinely extolled Steve Jobs for how he “thought differently and changed the world.”

“Blossom” went further. She faulted globalization, pointing her young finger at big companies and consumers alike. “Multinationals choose suppliers with the cheapest labor and the highest efficiency, regardless of their safety standard,” she argued. “Customers care about the ink of ‘designed in Cupertino’ or the Silicon Valley, instead of the words right below it, ‘Made in China.’ Globalization institutionalizes global ignorance.”

And she called for change. Supplier information – accidents, suicides, etc. – should be made public, she argued. Invoking Justice Brandeis’ contention that sunlight is the best disinfectant, she argued, “the multinationals would be embarrassed and therefore [would pressure] the supplier to change.” Policing by government and NGO advocacy groups should be encouraged. And, she added, “As consumers, every one of us can do our bit: keep watch for suspect brands and refuse to consume immoral products.” Indeed, “Blossom” argued that every iPhone should come with a photo of its assembler. “That could serve as a reminder that an actual, living, breathing person used their own hands to help make this product. Let’s give the cold technology a human face. We will all be better off for it.”

In fairness, I must note that Apple does seem troubled by its subcontractors. It applies a code of conduct to suppliers, audits their behavior and says worker protections and factory conditions have improved at many facilities throughout its supply base. Problems, however, persist, according to reports by the company itself, as relayed by the Telegraph. Underage workers, excessive hours and other problems evade even Apple’s efforts to drive change — something that may reflect different cultural attitudes among nations, as well varying levels of economic development. Remember that capitalism is still young in China, poverty is rampant, and it took the West decades to outlaw the practices that trouble Westerners and “Blossom” alike.

Nonetheless, I’m blown away by how like my youngest child this young Chinese woman is. Reared in a country whose values seem so foreign, “Blossom” brings a kind heart and a keen eye to the world she sees around her – just like my Abi. My daughter now works to help homeless people in Chicago get back into the social system. She supported Occupy Chicago. Her criticisms of global capitalism – which we often argue about — throb with an idealist’s heart just as big as “Blossom’s.”

As globalization grows and such young people take on bigger roles in the system in coming years, I expect they will bear the torch for change. I hope they do so, whether they work within or outside multinationals. While we graybeards may quibble with some of their arguments and solutions, their passions for justice and decency should inspire us all. Over time, life may cool the fires they now burn with — but I’m in no hurry to see that happen. And I hope the Ab and “Blossom” someday can meet to see how much more unites them than divides them.

Something to meditate about

Do you meditate?

People have for eons, of course. The practice seems to provide a way to quiet busy minds, shut out the frenzy around us and restore a sense of calm. It also seems more necessary than ever these days, given the blizzard of distractions – and electronic addictions – that confront us.

But the question arises: what exactly is meditation? Further, what practice is best? Further still, are there forms that can be harmful?

When I was younger and practiced karate, my absorption in the katas felt like a form of meditation. The dance-like movements required concentration and focus, but, with practice, grew to be effortless. There was something liberating mentally and physically about the routines – especially when done in groups. The forms seemed to pull together body and soul, perhaps in a way similar to what athletes feel at times.

I have seen the same sort of absorption on the faces of people here in China practicing tai chi. Even as they move in those ballet-like steps, with their eyes open and apparently taking in all that’s going on around them, they seem to be somewhere else mentally. They are engaged, body and mind. If I had more time here, I could easily take up the practice.

Similarly, at meditation sessions in my gym in Lincoln, Neb., last year, I found the sense of calm marvelously refreshing. That practice involved someone chanting hypnotically on tape. We also had the help of sounds teased out of a group of large and small crystal bowls. The pleasant background noise was transporting.

These days, as I head out in the mornings for solo runs, I sometimes go to a place like that. The “runner’s high” combines a sense of peace with exhilaration. It’s a wonder to be alive once those endorphins kick in, with all that oxygen whooshing into one’s lungs. The sky seems bluer, the sun brighter. The frustrations of the day melt away. Nagging thoughts vanish.

I wonder if people who pray regularly feel the same paradoxical mix of exhilaration and calm. People here in China bow and kneel in concentration before various Buddhas when they go to their temples. It’s impossible to know what is going on in their heads, of course, but there is a sense of calm and focus about such practices. These folks seem to be getting in touch with something outside – or deep inside – themselves. Call it plugging into a sense of sacredness, perhaps tapping into powerful sources.

People who practice Transcendental Meditation speak of the experience in much the same terms. Indeed, one fellow I know in Fairfield, Iowa, attends group meditation sessions regularly because, he says, it’s simply a pleasure for him. TM’ers are pressed to go to such sessions, on the claim that power radiates out from the group, the so-called “Maharishi Effect” that brings peace into the neighborhood. Who knows if such claims are true? But certainly it seems likely that few people would repeatedly go to the Golden Domes in Fairfield to engage in meditations if they weren’t pleasant.

But is TM superior to meditation in a gym or tai chi or karate katas? Does it take you to a deeper or more meaningful place than, say, the psychic spot where monks singing in monasteries go? Is it any different from what whirling dervishes feel or native Americans experience in sweat lodges or even in drug-assisted religious ceremonies? How does it compare with what Hasidim feel chanting the Amidah weekly? Indeed, are all such practices really no different from listening, enraptured, to a favorite symphony or even singing along with some toe-tapping rock and roll?

Moreover, there’s the issue of whether the benefit is a passing thing. Sure, meditation can be pleasant, but so is sex. Alas, the benefit is all too short-lived (though repetition surely helps!) Does meditation lead to an enduring sense of mental discipline, an internal relaxation? Or is it a fleeting thing, gone the moment one leaves the lotus position? Advocates argue it gives them a sense of focus that, among other things, helps them succeed on Wall Street, in Hollywood or in a variety of businesses that meditators have gone into. But would they be winners even without the practice?

Then there is the potential downside. Critics say repeated or prolonged meditation sessions – sometimes as long as six hours at a sitting in the TM Movement – spawn all sorts of problems. Some who have broken with the movement complain of feeling incoherent, of winding up unable to focus their thoughts, to stay attentive to tasks. Longtime meditators are easy to spot, they say, because of a faraway look in the eye that is anything but healthy. Is it possible that the practice rewires one’s brain in ways that could be dangerous? Or do such practices just attract people whose faulty wiring needs more than meditation to set it right?

I will deal with these issues in my forthcoming book on Fairfield, the U.S. home of the TM Movement. In the meantime, dear reader, please drop me a line to share your thoughts. I can be reached at jweber8@unl.edu.

My book on Fairfield will be published by the University of Iowa Press