Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Interview - Sidney Rittenberg 

Sidney Rittenberg as a young man in the Army. Click photo for bio.

Very informative two-part interview of Sidney Rittenberg on the Sinica Podcast. This interview is from 2017, but still very current and relevant, because it is a retelling of history. Sometimes, a personal account like this can actually be more useful when it is played back after there is more historical context available.

I first encountered Sidney Rittenberg when I was a truck driver. I used to get books on tape and the truck stops. You could check out an audio book for a small fee at a truck stop, and the would give you a little brochure with a list of all the truck stops in America where that audio book could be returned. One of the many, many books I “read” this way was The Man Who Stayed Behind, which was Rittenberg’s own story.

I only met Rittenberg personally on one occasion. That was when he gave a lecture at the Beijing Bookworm back in 2006. I went up after the lecture and asked him if he thought Mao had a lust for power. He said that he thought Mao was just trying to work his program. I should have pressed him on that, but I was so dumbfounded by his answer I didn’t know how to proceed. My wonderment at his response was not just because he did not take the familiar American approach and dismiss Mao as a cruel evil monster who “murdered millions of his own people.” It was because he himself had acknowledged that Mao had done wrong, and especially that Mao seemed to have changed since the Yan’an days. That power had corrupted him.

So the reason I was nonplussed was not because Rittenberg’s characterization disagreed with the common stereotype. It was because his denial of Mao’s lust for power seemed to contradict what he himself had said about Mao. Again, I should have pressed him. A good journalist would have done that. But I am not a journalist. I’m just a classroom teacher. Teachers like simple, straightforward answers that are easy to explain. But sometimes life doesn’t comply. So was Rittenberg’s answer to me self-contradictory? I’m not sure. That’s one possibility. But it could be that he just didn’t want me to get by with an oversimplified picture of a man who was more nuanced than simple-minded school teachers like myself want to believe.

As I was walking away from the meeting, I thought maybe our western view of Mao has been too monochromatic. There are two kinds of people in the world—simple people and complicated people. The best example of complicated in China is Mao. The best example of simple is Deng Xiaoping.


Part One
This is the first part of the interview. In this segment, Rittenberg discusses the corruption he saw in China that influenced him to stay behind and become part of the communist movement. One thing that is sometimes missed is that Rittenberg was a member of the American Communist Party before he even joined the army, so his decision to join the Communists in China could not have been just because of a reaction to the corruption he saw in the KMT. Nevertheless the KMT was certainly corrupt.

Rittenberg also talks about the chauvanism of the Russians. Maybe not corruption in the same way, but at least a superior attitude that did not endear them to the Americans.


Part Two

In the second segment, Rittenberg discusses his ten-year confinement. It is interesting that he barely mentions his first imprisonment of six years. He goes into that more in the book.

He says something interesting in this segment regarding the relationship between Chinese and Americans: “Russians and Chinese don’t love each other. Americans and Chinese do." That statement confirms one thing you will oberve if you read the history, which is that China and America are natural allies not natural enemies. Chen Han-seng, writing in 1919, said "We suspect the Japanese, respect the British, and love the Americans." So the posturing of the United States and China as enemies was really a function of the wariness between the Americans and the Soviet Union.

Sidney Rittenberg did not know Xi Jinping, but he knew Xi Jinping's father quite well, and had a high regard for him. For that reason, I think, he was hesitant to make any criticism of the current regime.

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Clearly Rittenberg was a man of contradictions. He was a member of the American Communist Party before he ever went to China. He is on record as being the first American American citizen to join the CCP. Yet, after he was released from prison the second time, he returned to the United States, set up a consulting business, and became quite the capitalist. As I mentioned earlier, he freely acknowledged Mao’s faults, but when pinned down about them, he became quite defensive. My puzzlement about this is partly my fault, because, as I said, I should have pursued the issue a little further when I was talking with him. This two-part interview was very informative, and I recommend it, but you need to be aware that these are two left-wing Americans questioning a socialist, so, you know, you’re probably not going to see the kinds of questions I should have asked him, although I must say, to their credit, that they did bring up his participation in the Anti-Rightest campaign.

But there was something about Sidney Rittenberg that really drew me. He had a warm, engaging personality and a firm handshake. For all the years he spent in China, when you meet him he is really quite American. So his idea of starting a consulting business was pure genius. Or maybe just the inevitable result of having nothing to do but think for ten years. He was planning how he was going to do this before he was released. He doesn't say much about it in this two part interview, but if I remember correctly, it was in his 2006 lecture that he talked about hearing Jiang Qing being brought into the prison. She was yelling and carrying on, you know, and Rittenberg thought, “If she is coming in, I am coming out.” He was right. Shortly after that, he was released.

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The Man Who Stayed BehindSidney Rittenberg's personal narrative, written with Amanda Bennet. This is the book I listened to on tape when I was a truck driver.
After The Bitter Comes The SweetThis is a review of his wife's book. She deserves attention in her own right, because it was her personal bravery and unwavering loyalty that was really Rittenberg's hope during the events surrounding his second imprisonment, and, of course, after his release.


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Monday, March 21, 2022

Science Night Questions 

Science is about questions. All science starts with a question. It is their ability to ask questions that sets human beings apart from other creatures. It is not that animals cannot be curious. They certainly can be. But it is the things they are curious about that sets humans apart. Dogs never wonder where they came from. Dogs never ponder the origins of the universe.

It is the propensity to ask questions that indicates a healthy, active intellect. And it is the role of science to facilitate the search for the answers to those questions. Does this mean that all questions are scientific questions? Not necessarily. But the process of answering those questions will depend on science at some point.


Lesson One Questions
  1. What is a mutation?
  2. Why are mutations important in the study of evolution?
  3. David Gelernter said, "Stephen Meyer's thoughtful and meticulous book Darwin's Doubt convinced me that Darwin has failed." How did he think that Darwin had failed?
  4. What was the Cambrian Explosion? The three scientists discussed this at some length. In what way does the Cambrian explosion provde a challenge to Darwin's theory?
  5. How did Darwin's view of what a cell was influence his theory?
  6. Gelernter: "I can't accept intelligent design as Meyer presents it. If there was an intelligent designer, what was his strategy? How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms? What was his purpose, and why did he do such a slipshod job? Why are we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on?" How would you counter Gelernter's argument?
  7. Stephen Meyer: "The case for intelligent design isn't an interpretation or deduction from the Scriptural text, it's an inference from biological evidence." What is the significance of this point for science?
  8. Gelernter: "Darwinism is no longer just a scientific theory but the basis of a worldview, and an emergency religion for the many troubled souls who need one." Is Darwinism indeed a religion?
  9. C.S. Lewis: "If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of wind in the trees." Does the significance of thought necessarily depend on the significant of mind? What are your ideas about this.
  10. Does the demise of Darwinism necessarily mean that Intelligent Design is the only alternative? Gelarnter and Berlinski seem not to think so, while Stephen Meyer appears to feel that the death of Darwinism implies that Intelligent Design must be true. What do you think?       RETURN


Lesson Two Questions
  1. Galileo: "The book of nature is written in its own language; it's written in the language of mathematics, and only mathematicians can penetrate that language." Is this true? Only mathematicians can understand nature? What about the language of beauty? Is it possible that an artist could appreciate something about nature that a mathematician would miss? What do you think?
  2. Berlinski gives an analogy from the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel, when a solitary hand writes on the wall those strange words which are interpreted as "You have been weighed in the balances and found wanting." He says that over and over the proponants of an ateiestic view of life make dogmatic pronouncements about their belief that their is no God, and then walk back that dogmatic assertion. His examples are Dawkins and Hitchens. So when it comes to the doctrine of evolution, or the belief that God does not exist, who is really found wanting? Give evidence to support your answer.
  3. Berlinsky relates the cosmologist's simple minded question: "What compels the electron to stay in its orbit?" How does the asking of this question present a challenge to Darwin's theory of evolution?
  4. Regarding the 18th century French philosopher's example of a button which you could press and get anything you want, with the one impediment that ten thousand miles a way in China, a peasant will drop dead in his tracks, his question was, "Who amongst us would refrain from pressing the button, and who amongst us would be content to have that button in wide currency?" How does the answer to this question, or more precisely, how does the way you would answer this question relate to the survival of the fittest? How did your way of answering that question evolve?
  5. Stephen J. Gould: "The insistance on a difference in kind, and not simply in degree, between us and the great apes, is simply a mark of our cosmic arrogance, and inability to let go." What simple test does Berlinski propose to counter this proposition? What examples does Berlinski give of differences which are clearly differences in kind, not just in degree?
  6. Who was Alfred Russel Wallace? What was “Wallace’s Problem?” David Berlinski says that biologists are happy to call it “Wallace’s Problem,” because it sounds so much safer than saying human beings are created in the image of God. What does Berlinski mean by that?
  7. What is the “Red Shift?” Why was the Red Shift a problem for Einstein? What is the significance of the Red Shift for the understanding we have of how the universe came to be?
  8. If we say that life on earth actually came from space aliens, what problem does that present? Or perhaps we could say, what “Pandora’s Box” does that open up?
  9. Who is Richard Weikart? What are the implications for society of the belief that there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals?
  10. David Berlinski said, “The core of atheism is the declaration that God does not exist, period.” Agnostics like Berlinski tend to look with disdain on “new atheists” who are so cocksure that God does not exist. Yet they also are not believers. So is an agnostic who says he does not know whether or not God exists, really superior to an atheist who is sure that God does not exist?       RETURN


Lesson Three Questions

Nine questions are addressed in this video. For each of these questions, I have created a precision link to the exact location in the video where that question is addressed. The last question is a general questions about Dr. Tour's basic thesis.

  1. Are you an expert on origin of life?

  2. Can scientists build the most basic life forms?

  3. Do you think education on the origin of life is accurate?

  4. How widespread is the misunderstanding over the origin of life?

  5. With large amounts of time isn't just about anything possible, including the chance origin of the first life?

  6. What are the challenges with the chemical building blocks of life?

  7. Could laws not yet discovered have helped in the origin of life?

  8. How complex is a "simple" cell?

  9. What about the probability arguments for the origin of life?

  10. Considering Dr. Tour's arguments, what do you think is the future of Darwinian evolution as a respected scientific theory? Is there any way that the problems that Dr. Tour brings up can be surmounted? If so, how do you think this could happen? If not, what sort of explanation for the origin of life is most likely to emerge from the ashes of Darwinism?       RETURN


Lesson Seventeen Questions
  1. What is the biggest advantage of shortwave radio?
  2. Why is shortwave not as useful in the United States?
  3. Why do radio listeners further away from a shortwave radio tower sometimes hear that station better than people who are miles closer?
  4. If you were going to buy a radio station to broadcast your own stuff, which kind would you buy? Why?
  5. What did Rush Limbaugh have to do with AM stations going bankrupt? Can you explain that?
  6. When you’re listening to radio, the antenna is not that particular—sometimes just a piece of wire will do. But when you are transmitting, the radio tower needs to be accurately proportional to the wavelength of the signal. Most commercial AM radio towers are quarter-wave verticals. So which radio station would have the taller tower, KGO San Francisco, or WLS Chicago?
  7. What is the difference between frequency and wavelength?
  8. Many FM transmitting units are located 600 meters above the ground? Why do they need to be so high?
  9. When I was a child, there were many radio programs that broadcasted audio drama, complete with sound effects. Why do you think programs like this have largely disappeared?
  10. I live in China. I do not own a radio. I also do not own a television. Yet I listen to radio and television every day. How do I do this? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the way I do radio and television?       RETURN

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