No Country for Old Men?

PARIS — My friend Sidney died in Arizona. I saw him there not long ago, and he exuded life. He pocketed his latest Apple iWhatever so we could pig out in peace on mammoth racks of fiery ribs. Then we drove off, laughing, in his new Tesla. When his time finally ran out late last month, he was two years short of 100.

Sidney Rittenberg’s trajectory from Mao Zedong sidekick to well-heeled adviser who helped presidents and industry moguls fathom the opaque Middle Kingdom tells us much about the complexities of human nature.

I think of him when a kid tries to find a nice way to say dotty old fart. “Old age” is relative. Nature might deal from the bottom to cause early dementia. Some people sink into sofas at 40, brains atrophying. Others blaze on until their lights flicker out.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, at 87, bounds out of hospitals to ensure America is not handed over to a kangaroo court. Jimmy Carter, almost 95, still shows why he was so vastly underrated as president. Donald Trump, 73, at times evokes a spoiled 3-year-old.

New generations have dissed old ones since forever, but it’s different now. Technology helps smart young people be smarter. But it also gives a false sense of omniscience that causes others to spurn elders as irrelevant wastes of space.

Sidney was born into a mainline South Carolina family but veered away from his parents’ garden-variety politics. With a philosophy degree, he joined the Communist Party for its ideas on free speech, racial equality and organized labor. When World War II began, he quit the party for the Army, which added Chinese to his French, German and Latin. In 1945, he was an interpreter in Kunming.

Discharged in 1946, Sidney worked with U.N. relief operations. Before long, he was playing gin and debating dogma with Mao in his mountain cave. After 1949, Josef Stalin told the victorious Chinese he was an American agent. With no trial, he spent six years in solitary confinement. Then, as such things happen, he was back in Mao’s orbit.   

He blasted America on Radio Peking. At the New China News Agency, he extolled the Great Leap Forward that killed many millions when forced-labor collective farms led to famine. Later, he was a Red Guard cadre in the Cultural Revolution.

Sidney fell afoul of Mao’s loony wife in 1968 and, again without a trial, spent 10 more years alone in a dank cell, seven paces long. His wife, Wang Yulin, went to a hard labor camp separated from their four kids, who lived with relatives.

For a decade, Yulin didn’t know where Sidney was, or even if he was alive. That was enough. He took her to America, and they shuttled to China for family visits. Cliché as it is, they were storybook lovebirds, with tender touches and affectionate banter for 56 years. She survives him in Scottsdale.

In 2013, Sidney told the Financial Times Mao was a great historic leader but also a great historic criminal. “I took part in victimizing innocent, good people,” he said. “It was institutionalized bullying and scapegoating, and I couldn’t see it because everything about the regime was good for me, and I felt I was part of a movement for human progress, freedom and happiness.”

Sidney’s long life shows how well-meaning ideologues can be blind to reality when despots ravage societies they claim to be making great. Whether or not that is excusable, it can be explained. For better or worse, all humans change over time.

 “I wasn’t feeling what happened to other people,” he told the FT reporter. “It’s a kind of corruption, exactly the kind of corruption that ruins the whole thing.”

Sidney, who understood the nature of corrupting power, believed American democracy and diplomacy underpin global stability. When zealots waved red baseball caps, like Mao’s little red book, he saw serious trouble ahead.

He knew the historic and sociological intricacies of why saving face is primordial in China. Trade talks need tact, with strong-arming only in private. Trump’s attempted public bullying of a society that marks time in millennia is the polar opposite.

And he saw early how Kim Jong-un would exploit Trump’s vanity for coveted status as a global player while developing nukes that threaten South Korea, Japan and American bases, along with an ominous long-range nuclear-armed submarine.

Age does not necessarily confer wisdom. People who don’t learn from mistakes stick to patterns that no longer work. Barry Goodfield, a psychotherapist friend, says it simply: practice makes permanent. Still, life teaches things only learned the hard way.

Sidney and Barry, constant pals, called each other at 3 a.m. with wise cracks and concocted elaborate practical jokes. They loved big-band jazz. And they analyzed effects of 16 years in solitary. “He walked through that darkness with philosophers,” Barry said.

When Sidney had a bout of depression, the first and last in his life, he overcame it with self-analysis, making a rational decision to clear his mind of irrational thoughts. He recalled a poem by Edwin Markham: “He drew a circle that shut me out -- Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”

 His captors were first puzzled by gentle forgiveness toward harsh treatment. Then they began bringing piles of books. Throughout his life, that was his hallmark – strong character softened with humility and humanity.  

In his last years, he kept touch with people at the inner workings of global affairs. Xi Jinping, for one. Sidney sent him a birthday gift each year throughout his childhood. He and Xi’s father were lifelong buddies.

Sidney’s wisdom feeds my own fear: Americans, especially, are fractured into opposing versions of reality. Technology is only a set of tools, a means, not a message. It is good that everyone now has a voice. But when there is far more talking than listening, we miss what matters.

Approaching its most crucial election ever, America risks shunting aside potentially good leaders. Citing isolated past instances without understanding context invariably misleads. And the web provides like-minded people to confirm anything.

We need fired-up young people to examine the present with fresh eyes on the future. Lots are out there among all those others who guess about places they can’t pronounce or find on a map. But they need old ones to sketch in essential backdrops.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won a Nobel Prize in 1970 for novels about his years in the Soviet gulag at the hands of despots who corrupted a promising ideal. “It seems,” he wrote, “that certain things in this world simply cannot be discovered without extensive experience, be it personal or collective.”

Human nature hasn’t changed since Aristotle defined it. The longer you observe, the more things make sense. You never know all the answers. But as Sidney Rittenberg showed over his exceptional life, you can learn the right questions.


This is Sidney Rittenberg: