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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written Liao Yiwu was compelled to flee China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.

interview and photos by Brian Awehali,
(translation by David Cowhig)

“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies,  “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”

There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.

Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.

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» MADNESS & MASS SOCIETY: Pharmaceuticals, Psychiatry & the Rebellion of True Community

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" detail, raven vs. mob

Brian Awehali interviews Dr. Bruce Levine

Author and clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wants to tell you that many forms of depression, discontent, and a whole raft of diagnosed mental illness are nothing more than natural responses to the oppression of institutional society. In his book, Commonsense Rebellion, Levine contends that the vast majority of mental disorders are, to put it simply, profit-driven fabrications with no established biochemical or genetic causes. This interview with Dr. Levine was conducted several years ago for publication in LiP: Informed Revolt, but the growth of corporate pharmaceutical “solutions” to deviant behaviors has only grown since then. Dr. Levine’s newest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, (Chelsea Green, 2011) is an exploration of the political psychology of demoralization and the strategies and tactics used by oppressed peoples to gain power in the United States.

Awehali: Bruce, you’re a critic of both psychiatry—the medical science of identifying and treating mental illness with drugs—and psychology—the study of human behavior, thought, and development. Are there substantial differences between the two?

Bruce Levine: When I first started out as a psychologist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was fairly commonplace to dissent from psychiatry—that’s why people became psychologists. They saw the pseudo-science of not only the treatments but of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) itself. Unfortunately, over the years, psychology itself has slowly aped psychiatry, and there isn’t that sharp a distinction between the two anymore. The American Psychological Association (APA)—the professional group for psychologists—now fights for prescription rights for psychologists. So I guess any psychologist who maintains a position that depression isn’t primarily an innate biochemical disease, and that the DSM is a nonscientific instrument of diagnosis, is a dissident!

I should say that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before psychiatrists had the backing of the drug companies, they had very little power. In fact, they were falling apart, as evidenced by so many movies that were making fun of them, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—which could never come out today. But back in those days, when [psychiatrists] weren’t in bed with the drug companies and didn’t have much political power, you saw movies like that come out. Now, psychiatrists have the media power; they’re able to describe the playing field of the controversy.

Let me ask you a blunt question, first: Do you think there’s ever any basis for diagnosing someone as mentally ill?

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