Nelson Mandela – happy centenary, Madiba!

Happy birthday, Madiba. He would have been 100 on July 18th, 2018. Mandela was the greatest man of our time. Courageous, unrelenting, humble, forgiving. I cannot state how much his example has meant to me and countless others. His story is well-known: his fight for racial justice, the Rivonia trial, his lost years (27 of…

“Human Flow”: a film by Ai Weiwei

For a film with ‘flow’ in its title, the only surprise in this superlative documentary is that the most powerful images are those of stillness. An old refugee woman sits incongruously on a bench in the middle of nowhere. A young man stares out at us, daring us to enter his life. The implacable sea,…

PEN America announces Writing for Justice Fellowship

  PEN America has run a prison writing program for over forty years. The program provides mentors, free resources and an audience for the incarcerated. This program benefits the prisoners, who get a chance to reflect on their lives through the written word and to express themselves in new ways. But the program also benefits…

10 Martin Luther King Quotes for MLK Day

From the tradition that led to Barack Obama, Martin Luther King was among the most lyrical of leaders. He combined the tones of a preacher in the black southern tradition with the rhythms of a poet. Especially for MLK Day, here are some of his words.   1. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is,…

“Feeling the Unthinkable: Essays on Social Justice” by Donald Gutierrez

If Donald Gutierrez were alive today, what would he think of the USA now? He’d be horrified. And disgusted. Gutierrez, who died in 2013, shortly after this collection was published, was a social conscience. He passionately confronted inequity and government abuses, particularly that of his own country, the United States of America. Here, 48 of…

RIP Irina Ratushinskaya 1954-2017

Irina Ratushinskaya, the Soviet dissident poet and novelist, was a legendarily defiant figure. Sentenced in 1983, on her 29th birthday, to seven years in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda,” she not only survived, but wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt ends of matchsticks. She memorized and erased them before…

RIP Liu Xiaobo, 1955-2017

Chinese poet, essayist and activist Liu Xiaobo has died while in custody. Xiaobo was President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and in this role he supported writers all over the world in their struggles against tyranny. His death from cancer, which he contracted while in prison, is a terrible indictment of China’s human rights…

The U.S. and Original Sin

What was the original sin of the United States? It was what the European settlers did to the Native American populations. They massacred them; enslaved them; removed them from ancestral lands either by force, coercion, or guile; gave them smallpox-infested blankets; and enclosed them in ‘reservations.’ “Ah, but …,” say the pedants, “that was before it…

“Here there is no why”: on re-reading Primo Levi

Desperate times call for great books. Primo Levi, a Jewish prisoner arriving at Auschwitz, is thirsty. He reaches to break off an icicle with which to sate his thirst and a guard snatches it away. Levi asks, “Warum?” (Why?) The guard replies, “Hier ist kein warum.” (Here there is no why.) If This Be A…

Twelve New Books with Social Justice Themes

1. Decolonization: A Short History by Jan C. Jansen and Jürgen Osterhammel (Princeton University Press) Decolonization examines the consequences of European, Japanese and American decolonization from World War I to the 1990s. It details the dramatic collapses of long-established imperial regimes, some in peace, others in a torrent of blood, and describes the long shadow cast…