Everyone could use a refresher course in American history. And we're not just talking about Dana Perino, the White House press secretary who didn't know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was—and then admitted it publicly.
1. Noah, what's your favorite entry?
My favorite is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to ever run for president. She was a colorful character. She was an advocate of free love. It's one of those awesome little barroom trivia topics that form the rich tapestry of American history.
Gao had uncovered a scam irrigation project in his home province—a striking example of local authorities' self-aggrandizement and corruption. For writing that story, Gao spent eight years in prison; he was released last December. When CPJ asked us if we wanted to talk with him (through a translator), we of course leaped at the chance.
1. Mr. Gao, thanks so much for speaking with us, and let's start, more or less, at the beginning. Tell us about the story you wrote that ultimately put you in prison.
It was about a fake irrigation project in Yuncheng, a city in Shanxi Province, which is southwest of Beijing. This project was costing the government about $38 million, and it was a scam.
It's a region that doesn't get much rain, so people are very dependent on the weather. In 1995, local leaders learned about a foreign irrigation technology that they thought might solve the region's problems. It involved
building these large pools with pipes in the bottom to collect water. But the soil wasn't the right quality. It was sandy and sticky, not suitable for this type of irrigation. Agriculture experts agreed from the start that it wouldn't work, but the leader of the district, Huang Youquan, wanted personal glory, he wanted to enrich himself and enhance his reputation, so they began this huge building project.
2. Who were you working for at the time? Was this a story that your editors assigned?
I was working for the Xinhua News Agency, the state news agency. I found the story myself. One day I was traveling to Yuncheng from my home in Taiyuan, which is the provincial capital, and I overheard people on the train making jokes, in the form of a rhyme, or a proverb, about how whenever you walked down a road, there were these empty pools being built.
Of course I was very interested when I heard them talking, and I worked on the story for about a month.
I sent it off to a few publications, including the People's Daily. It was published in the version that circulates to top Party officials. The South China Morning Post heard about it, and I went with them to see the irrigation project. Then many TV stations came too. All this was based on the reporting I had done.
3. The authorities weren't pleased...
On April 5, 1998, the investigators showed up to see me, and I was quite glad. I thought they wanted to hear more about the scam. But they didn't ask me anything about the project, they asked about me and any problems I had had. "You're supposed to be investigating the fake engineering problem," I told them, "but instead you're investigating me." I was very angry.
I had to cooperate, they had been sent by orders from above. They asked me, "Where did your cell phone come from? Where did your beeper come from?" They checked out my receipts, and the facts checked out with what I had told them.
4. But it didn't stop there...
In July they came back and started asking me, "Why did you write that story? What was your motivation? And who gave you the information?" I answered that I wanted to fight corruption, and I said I couldn't tell them who my sources
were. But they were very persistent. They kept emphasizing that they were representatives of the Central Communist Party and that as a party member, I should believe the party above all else. They promised they would not retaliate.
But my source, a local figure in the administration, was arrested.
5. What happened next?
I went to Beijing to lodge a complaint because I'd received threatening phone calls. I also received a phone call from a friend who said he'd be in Beijing, and when I went to meet him, it turned out it was the police. They kidnapped me and took me back to Shanxi, and I had no chance to communicate with my family.
The trial was on April 28, 1999, and the whole thing lasted one day. It was conducted in secrecy. My lawyers pled not guilty on my behalf, but the authorities didn't listen.
I was charged with fraud, bribes, even pimping. I hadn't heard any of the crimes before. I was sentenced to 13 years.
While I was in prison, my wife, who is an accountant, was working extremely hard running around on my behalf. She was constantly traveling to Beijing; sometimes after work she'd take the overnight bus. My daughter, whose name is Gao Ya, wasn't told her father was in prison, she was told I was overseas.
6. Your sentence was 13 years, but you got out early. How did that happen?
Because I studied while I was in prison and took part in labor activities--I worked on the prison newspaper--and put on a good face, they lightened my sentence.
One day, out of the blue, they said I could go.
7. With the Olympics coming up, the eyes of the world are poised to be on Beijing, even though many journalists are still in jail. Do you think that might have had anything to do with your being released?
Not particularly. But I do think that because everyone's busy dealing with the Olympics, the authorities might have been preoccupied. I had been petitioning for release the whole time, so one time they didn't take the time to review my case, and they just let me go.
8. You were released in December of last year. What have you been doing?
At the moment I'm unemployed. I came out of prison and tried to find another job as a journalist, but no one dared employ me. I've been thinking about two things: writing about my experiences, and figuring out ways to help people when they get into difficult situations such as mine.
And...she introduced us to Julia Child. When "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" wasn't enough for Jones, she turned to finding talented cooks who could bring into our kitchens the secrets of Italian cooking (Marcella Hazan), Chinese cooking (Irene Kuo and Nina Simonds), Indian cooking (Madhur Jaffrey), good American cooking (James Beard and Edna Lewis), and more.
(By the way, the tenth muse is Gasterea, so summoned by Brillat-Savarin, a French politician and lawyer who lived during the French Revolution and loved food: "Tell me what you eat," he wrote, "and I will tell you what you are.")
And we just celebrated Veterans Day. We thought it might be time to reach back into history for some perspective on today's events, so we posed our 10 Questions to David Andelman, who's written a book called "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." It's set in Paris just after World War I (how ironic that it was once called "the war to end all wars"). Its major characters are the peacemakers who were present for the conference that would culminate in the Treaty of Versailles. But rather than building a lasting peace, Versailles helped set the stage for later conflicts and wars—World War II, Vietnam, Kosovo, the Middle East, Iraq.
Andelman is Executive Editor of Forbes.com, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and Paris correspondent for CBS News.
Born in London in 1933, Dr. Sacks is a neurologist who trained at Oxford University and has lived and worked in New York since 1965. He's taught at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and New York University. Just this past summer, he was appointed a professor of clinical neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University.
One of Dr. Sacks's early books was "Awakenings," based on his experiences with a group of patients in the Bronx who contracted sleeping sickness after World War I and were frozen in sleep for decades. He treated them with L-DOPA, then a new drug, which, remarkably, "awakened" them. (The book was turned into an acclaimed film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.)
For some perspective on the civil rights movement—its triumphs, its shortcomings, its current standing—we called Julian Bond. Now chairman of the NAACP and a professor of history at the University of Virginia, Bond has been on the forefront of civil rights all his life. As a college student in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early '60s, he founded an organization to integrate the city's theaters, lunch counters and parks. He went on to help found SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and later was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives—but it took Supreme Court intervention for him to be seated.
We posed our 10 Questions to him and found that he is still as provocative and challenging as he ever was.
1. You were a very active participant in the civil rights movement. Looking back, what do you think the movement's greatest triumph was? And its failures?
The greatest triumphs were the passage of the '64 Civil Rights Act and the '65 Voting Rights Act. These two laws codified important demands of the then civil rights movement - access to public facilities and access to the franchise.
The movement's greatest failure – and it is immense - is its failure to convince our fellow Americans that racial discrimination remains a severe problem today. A majority of white Americans today by every poll believe black and white Americans have achieved equal status in the country - in fact, many believe equality was achieved by the time Martin Luther King died. And that complaints about inequality are from those who are just ingrates or discontents, who wouldn't be satisfied with anything.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first man-made satellite. Five hundred miles above the Earth, it traveled at a speed of 18,000 miles an hour and circled the Earth every 96 minutes. Sent into space by the Russians, not the U.S., it rocked our assumptions about our place in the world and quickly became a pivotal moment in the history of U.S.-Soviet relations and the Cold War.
For some memories of Sputnik's launch—and the impact it still continues to have on our society—we called Paul Dickson, who wrote Sputnik: The Shock of the Century. Published in 2001, it's just been re-released; he's also the co-writer on a new documentary, Sputnik Mania.
1. Your book is subtitled The Shock of the Century. Why "shock"?
With so much controversy swirling about the visit to the United Nations this week of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and wild headlines galore -- we thought we needed some perspective.
1. Many other world leaders came to New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, but we barely heard a word about them. Why is all the attention on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president?
His comments on wiping Israel off the map, his comments denying the Holocaust . . . he?s a controversial fellow. He?s in the crosshairs of the United States because not only have the two countries not had relations for the past 27 years, but Iran?s profile has risen with its pursuit of nuclear technology. There?s also the Iraq war. And Iran?s been instrumental in supporting Hezbollah. They?re a big player in Palestinian politics and in southern Iraq. So in the past two or three years, the Bush administration has viewed Iran as an impediment to the peace process.
So you have a president who?s particularly bombastic, who presents the worst image of a country you?re already having problems with. For the American public, Ahmadinejad captures the Bush administration's demonization of Iran.
While Katie was in Damascus, interviewing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, we hit the phones again.
He's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, with expertise on Arab politics and U.S.-Middle East policy.
1. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Senator Joseph Lieberman
wrote that Syria has "an open door policy to terrorists" and that the regime is "playing travel agent for Al Qaeda in Iraq." Is this fair?
He's probably overstating the case when it comes to Al Qaeda. When he says Al Qaeda, it conjures up an image of Osama Bin Laden, of Ayman Zawahiri, of 9/11. After 9/11, based on everything I know, there was fairly good cooperation between the Bush administration and the administration of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. There is certainly reason for Syria to be concerned about Al Qaeda.
It is, however, well known that Syria hosts a variety of terrorist organizations. In the past Syria hosted the leadership of the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers? Party, which targets Turkey. A variety of Palestinian terror organization, most notably Hamas, maintain a presence in Damascus.
It?s also a transit point in the region and elsewhere for people who want to engage in jihad in Iraq.
Al Qaeda of Iraq, also known as Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, has links to, but they are not controlled by, the Al Qaeda whose leadership is suspected to be hiding out along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It remains unclear whether terrorists with direct links to bin Laden are transiting through Syria. The country has not been hospitable to them, so it seems less likely than Senator Lieberman suggests.
Nevertheless, he is correct in saying that Syria is a bad actor when it comes to terrorism.
2. Who is passing through Syria?
People from all over the Muslim have answered the call for jihad against the United States in Iraq. They see the U.S. as the aggressor and occupier.
There is evidence of Saudi, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, North Africans, Turks and others, and some of them are going through Damascus.
And we haven't gotten a lot of cooperation on border security from Syria.
3. Fill us in on Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad.
Bashar is an ophthalmologist who was training in London, when his older bother Basil was killed in a car crash in early 1994. Basil was being groomed to be Hafez al-Assad?s successor. With his brother's death, Bashar became the heir to the regime. People did have high hopes for him, believing that his time in the West and his reported fondness for surfing the internet would make him a reformer.
With Katie in Iraq and Syria this week, those of us holding down the fort back home have been eagerly anticipating her reports. Too restless to wait for the Evening News, we've been talking with analysts and experts for their take on the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Since Katie's away, we decided to roll up our sleeves and tackle the 10 Questions format on our own -- and toss the questions to Reza Aslan.
1.The origins of the schism between the Sunnis and the Shiites began with a disagreement over who the proper successor to Muhammad was. How relevant is that now?
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