Svetlana Alexievich & The Soviet Union

I have provided three pieces on Svetlana Alexievich’s recent Nobel Prize in Literature award:

1) from The New Yorker

2) from The New York Review of Books

3) from the Nobel Organization

Readers will note Ms Alexievich’s simalarity to Alexandar Solzinitzen in chronicling their respective times.


OCTOBER 8, 2015
Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel Win


Alexievich has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten: the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Chernobyl, the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY ISOLDE OHLBAUM/LAIF/REDUX
Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” begins with a woman’s account of watching her husband, a firefighter, physically disintegrating in a hospital bed in the days following the April, 1986, nuclear-plant explosion. “It’s as good as Shakespeare,” she said of the quality of the woman’s words when I asked her about that part of the book, years ago. “But do you know how long it took to get her to produce those two pages of text?” The first hours—and subsequent hours and hours—of an interview, Alexievich explained, are always taken up by the rehearsing of received memories: newspaper accounts, other people’s stories, and whatever else corresponds to a public narrative that has inevitably already taken hold. Only beneath all those layers is personal memory found.

The Swedish Academy, which announced today that Alexievich will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, cited the writer for inventing “a new kind of literary genre.” The permanent secretary of the Academy, Sara Danius, described Alexievich’s work as “a history of emotions—a history of the soul, if you wish.” Her work might also be described as oral history by excavation. The Academy mentioned two Russian-language writers who have most influenced Alexievich: Sofia Fedorchenko, a nurse who left an account of the experiences of soldiers during the First World War, and Ales Adamovich, who co-authored an oral history of the Siege of Leningrad. Adamovich and his co-author, Daniil Granin, once described a similar process to that of Alexievich. They sifted through layer upon layer of words, which could have come from newspaper clippings or patriotic songs, to unearth personal recollections of the Siege.
Alexievich’s job has perhaps been even more difficult than that of those older writers: she has consistently chronicled that which has been intentionally forgotten, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to Chernobyl and the post-Soviet nineteen-nineties (the subject of her most recent book). Her first book, “War’s Unwomanly Face,” documented the experiences of Soviet women during the Second World War, but in all of her subsequent books she has written about events that had just occurred when she began investigating, when the work of un-remembering is arguably most active.

I first met Alexievich about twenty years ago. I called her after reading an excerpt from the just written “Voices from Chernobyl” which had appeared in Izvestia, the highest-circulation Russian daily at the time. Alexievich explained to me that she had been going to the “exclusion zone” and the “estrangement zone”—the contaminated lands around the nuclear reactor—for a decade. This means that she started visiting the “zones” almost immediately after the explosion. She confessed that the process of researching the book had made her physically ill.

Only in the nineties would an excerpt from Alexievich’s new book have appeared in Russia’s largest newspaper. In the decades since, her name has become almost obscure in the country of the language in which she writes. As a magazine editor in Moscow, I often introduced younger colleagues who had never heard of Alexievich to her books. On the eve of the Nobel announcement, Russia’s leading highbrow culture publication,, published a piece titled “Why You Should Know Who Svetlana Alexievich Is.”

Alexievich, whose native language is Russian and who has never written in another language, was born sixty-seven years ago in Soviet Ukraine and grew up in Soviet Belarus. For most of her adult life, she has lived in a nine-story concrete apartment bloc in central Minsk. Its standard-size kitchen—which is to say, quite small—is outfitted with a couch, because it’s the room where, in keeping with the Soviet intelligentsia tradition, all the important conversations happen. When Alexievich is there, her kitchen is indeed the site of many important conversations.

In the early aughts, Alexievich left Minsk and spent about a dozen years in Europe, living by turns in different countries where she could find writing fellowships: in Italy, Germany, France, and Sweden. She finally returned to Minsk a couple of years ago, admitting that her plan to wait out the reign of the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, had failed. This project proved too long, even for her.

At around the time of her return, Alexievich published “Second-Hand Time,” her longest and most ambitious project to date: an effort to use an oral history of the nineties to understand Soviet and post-Soviet identity. In the meantime, she has seen her own identity change profoundly. She is a Russian-language writer who has never lived in Russia, but only now, nearly a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has this separation between Russia and its neighbors become clear. A Belarusian-language literature has been developing, and Alexievich has expressed regret that she cannot write in the language of her country. At the same time, she has spoken about feeling increasingly alienated from what used to be her intellectual community inside Russia, which has now, she says, thrown itself into that country’s new imperial project. Through her books and her life itself, Alexievich has gained probably the world’s deepest, most eloquent understanding of the post-Soviet condition—and the Swedish Academy has just amplified the voice of that experience immeasurably.


Svetlana Alexievich: The Truth in Many Voices

Timothy Snyder


It is right, but also not quite right, to celebrate the journalist and contemporary historian, Svetlana Alexievich, this year’s laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as a Belarusian writer. The force of her work, the source of its power and plausibility, is the choice of a generation (her own) as a major subject and the close attention to its major inflection point, which was the end of the Soviet Union. She is connected to Russia and Ukraine as well as Belarus and is a writer of all three nations; the passage from Soviet state to national state was experienced by them all, and her life has been divided among them. Her method is the close interrogation of the past through the collection of individual voices; patient in overcoming cliché, attentive to the unexpected, and restrained in the exposition, her writing reaches those far beyond her own experiences and preoccupations, far beyond her generation, and far beyond the lands of the former Soviet Union. Polish has a nice term for this approach, literatura faktu, “the literature of fact.” Her central attainment, the recovery of experience from myth, has made her an acute critic of the nostalgic dictatorships in Belarus and Russia.

To say that Alexievich was born in Soviet Ukraine in 1948 is already to indulge in the kind of simplification she has sought to expose from the beginning. Her home city, Stanislaviv, was in a region known as Galicia, which had been part of Poland from the fourteenth century, part of the Habsburg monarchy in the nineteenth, and part of the Second Polish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. It fell under Soviet rule in 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded Poland following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and then under German power in 1941 when Hitler betrayed Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Jews were the largest population in Stanislaviv before the war; almost every single one was murdered in the Holocaust. Many of the city’s Poles and Ukrainians were killed or deported by either the Germans or the Soviets during the war, and others were drafted into service in the Red Army and died in combat. The Stanislaviv where Alexievich spent the first few years of her life was thus a new Soviet city, both in its administration and its population.

Perhaps it mattered that essentially everything about the city of her birth was a suppression but also an invocation of an unremembered past, and that her family was involved on both sides in disputes that could never be fully articulated. Her Belarusian father had fought against Ukrainian nationalists who were trying to win Galicia for an independent Ukraine. Her Ukrainian maternal grandmother told her about what Ukrainians call the “Holodomor,” Stalin’s political famine, which had killed more than three million people in Soviet Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. That was crucial knowledge, because the collectivization of agriculture, whose purported success was a central myth of Soviet history, was one of the causes of the famine. Ukrainians were blamed for the misery and subjected to harsh requisitions and reprisals that channeled starvation on to their territory, whereas Soviet citizens as a whole were told that collectivization was a grand success hindered only by nationalists and saboteurs.
It was collectivization, along with World War II (known as the “Great Fatherland War”), that created the Soviet Union that people of Alexievich’s generation experienced. Both were calamities that were covered in beautiful myths, myths that worked in part because people wanted individual suffering and death to have meaning. Collectivization was said, in retrospect, to have been necessary for victory in war, and victory in war was taken to demonstrate the legitimacy of the system as such. Collectivization was the founding stone of a new kind of society, which after the war could be brought to new places such as Stanislaviv. Alexievich’s family moved from Stanislaviv in Soviet Ukraine to the Polesian region of southern Belarus in the 1950s, a land known for the ambiguous national identity of its inhabitants. As a very young woman Alexievich taught school and worked at a local newspaper in these provinces; in the late 1960s, she went to Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, to study journalism, but returned again to the provinces when she finished, working in Biaroza in the southwest, in another town that had been in Poland before the war. In the meantime, the name of her hometown, Stanislaviv, was changed to the one it still bears now, in independent Ukraine: Ivano-Frankivsk.

Svetlana Alexievich in Minsk, Belarus, 2014
Three constitutive elements of the Soviet identity of Alexievich’s generation were movement from one part of the USSR to another, the Russian language that made such movement possible, and the official Soviet nostalgia that slowly replaced Marxist ideology in the 1970s. Leaving Soviet Ukraine for Soviet Belarus, as her family did, would have made an overall Soviet loyalty more plausible than any local one; although neither of her parents was Russian by origin, Russian was the language of the family, and the only language in which Alexievich has published. People of her generation, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin (born in 1952) and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko (born in 1954), did not take part in the great transformations and cataclysms of the 1930s and 1940s, but were nourished on the quasi-Marxist idea that all the suffering had a purpose, and the neo-provincial idea that this purpose was the continuation of the exemplary Soviet state in which they happened to have been born. When Leonid Brezhnev proclaimed that the Soviet Union exemplified “really existing socialism,” he deprived the future of its utopia, insisted on the adequacy of the present, and thereby located the legitimacy of the system in its past. When we confront, today, the myth of the Great Fatherland War and of Stalin as a good manager, we are hearing not the echoes of the events themselves, but of the memory campaign of the 1970s. The generation that grew up in this era is today in power in Russia and in Belarus—although no longer in Ukraine.

What was unusual about Alexievich as a Soviet journalist in the 1970s and early 1980s, in Biaroza and then in Minsk, is that she sought to halt the Soviet time machine as it switched gears from forward to reverse. What was almost unique was that she found a way to do so: an investigative journalism that began from the assumption that truth was accessible but that its excavation was a matter of hard individual work with an interlocutor who was probably already yielding the past of his or her own life to the collective Soviet story. Her first manuscript, which could not be published, was about the archetypical Soviet experience of leaving the village for the city, the basic form of social advance which also meant, in the Soviet Union as of course everywhere, the exchange of local memories for the rougher tropes of urban life.
In the towns of the western Soviet Union that Alexievich knew best, urban life was not simply a novelty for some, but a novelty for almost everyone, since prewar urban classes had been destroyed by war, Holocaust, and deportation. Empty cities were settled by new people, not only from the local countryside, but from throughout the USSR. Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus, was perhaps the extreme of a postwar city of the Soviet Union, having lost under German occupation, not only its large Jewish population, but a significant fraction of the Belarusian-speaking hinterland. Alexievich herself, working in Minsk for a Belarusian cultural journal that was published in the Russian language, was taking part in the linguistic russification of the region that was enabled by the war. Minsk was (and remains) a capital of Soviet nostalgia, where the straw of wartime suffering is spun into the gold of political meaning. No Soviet republic suffered more from the war than Belarus, and its partisans and its “hero cities” became the loci of the cult of remembrance.
This process was early on challenged by the outstanding Belarusian writer Ales Adamovich, whose novel Khatyn (1971) began with an acceptable subject—the village of Khatyn, which had been selected for official commemoration of the Soviet partisan war against the German occupation of Belarus. But it immediately turned into a quite challenging retelling of the very events that were being monumentalized. The story begins with the narrator on a bus ride to Khatyn; blinded during combat, he can now only hear the voices of his former comrades, which call forth memories of war as it was. Although Khatyn was a work of fiction and Alexievich was a journalist, the method of closing one’s eyes to monument and listening to voices until the ruins underneath begin to move was the one that she made her own. Adamovich, whose novel is now available in an excellent English translation, was a major literary and intellectual influence upon Alexievich.

Alexievich’s second book, completed in 1983, was about the experiences of Soviet women soldiers in World War II, whom she traveled the Soviet Union to meet, without support from her employers at the cultural journal in Minsk, on her own time and at her own expense. This book too could not be published. But in 1985 came perestroika, the reform program of Mikhail Gorbachev, and with it the ability to publish about the past. Her book was published under the title War’s Unwomanly Face, and sold extremely well in the last years of the USSR. Even after thirty years of gender studies in Europe and the United States it remains a landmark in the study of female soldiers.

The end of the Soviet Union did not much change Alexievich’s subjects, nor indeed her political position. It is not quite right to speak of her as a dissident or an oppositionist, since she was not really politically active, either in the late Soviet Union or in the independent Belarus that succeeded it in 1991. Instead she began to write about the experiences of the 1970s and 1980s, those of her own generation, resisting both the official interpretations (and silences) of the time as well as the attempts of nationalists (whether Belarusian, Russian, or any other) to use the Soviet past as the raw material for another story about a bright future.
Alexievich’s fourth book, published in 1989, was about the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), the disaster that perhaps more than anything brought down the Soviet Union. At first the Soviet press was silent about the presence of the Red Army in Afghanistan, then portraying the mission as one of keeping peace rather than supporting a particular (and doomed) regime. In an age of television, the typical Soviet press image was of a soldier planting a tree. Alexievich once again sought out veterans and the women, the young soldiers and their mothers. The result was a masterpiece of reportage, probably her best book, in which the problems (what we might now call post-traumatic stress) of the young men emerge through the words of their mothers as well as their own, and then the typical experiences slowly emerge through the individual memories. The book was published in English as Zinky Boys, which is awkward; the “zinc” is a reference to the coffins of soldiers.

Unkel/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Minsk, Belarus, 1995
For Alexievich, the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 was not a radical new beginning, since, she seemed to be saying, the present cannot move into the past when the normal process of considering the past has been disrupted. When official nostalgia has filled the space needed for individual reconsideration, change can be literally fatal. Alexievich’s next book was about people of her parents’ generation, often heroes of the Second World War II, who committed suicide in the 1990s.

In the following book, about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, she brought together her technique of registering voices with a more explicit allegory about the meaning of the Soviet past. On the one hand, she more than anyone else made the victims into distinct individuals surrounded by a particular Soviet context, making sense of what happened in haste the best they could with the references they had:

They told us a bunch of nonsense. You’ll die. You need to leave. Evacuate. People got scared. They got filled up with fear. At night people started packing up their things. I also got my clothes, folded them up. My red badges for my honest labor, and my lucky kopeika that I had. Such sadness! It filled my heart. Let me be struck down right here if I’m lying. And then I hear about how the soldiers were evacuating one village, and this old man and woman stayed. Until then, when people were roused up and put on buses, they’d take their cow and go into the forest. They’d wait there. Like during the war, when they were burning down the villages. Why would our soldiers chase us?
At the same time, the subject of radiation poisoning made Alexievich’s specific approach to past, present, and future painfully explicit. When the reactor at Chernobyl exploded in April 1986, Soviet authorities were very slow to inform the local populations and were never clear about the scale of the disaster. Inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine were affected first, but the entirety of Soviet Belarus soon fell under the cloud of radiation. That Soviet authorities chose silence meant that the harm was all the more durable. Once exposed to radiation, there was little that people could do. The combination of disaster and mendacity was illness and death.
One way to consider Alexievich’s successive investigations of durable catastrophes is to contrast them with some of the shortcuts of a popular and kindred genre, the post-catastrophist fiction of the former Soviet space and around the world. In the United States the literary type is familiar from such works as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), in which North America has been transformed by an insanely ambitious attempt to reverse pollution; and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (2011), in which the backdrop is the collapse of the United States under Chinese debt. Haruki Murakami, whose name often arises in conversations about the Nobel Prize, frequently asks the reader to assemble clues about the true nature of a future calamity. A striking Russian variant is Mikhail Yuriev’s The Third Empire: The Russia that Ought to Be (2006), in which a global war brings Russian power to the shores of the Atlantic. What is common to the American and Russian examples of the genre is that they offer a form of consolation: either the gentle one of comedy, or the fiercer one of power. People find solace in the drugs and love in Wallace and Shteyngart and Murakami, and exult in power reading Yuriev.

In Belarus, the gifted Victor Martinovich offers catastrophe without either of these consolations: in Mova 墨瓦 (2014), he imagines a future Belarus that is part of Russia which is itself enclosed by a Chinese empire. In this realm the legitimate form of public activity is shopping and the permitted local language is Russian. There is no comic relief, indeed not much relief at all. Power brings no redemption to the provinces. The object of addiction are scraps of paper with words in Belarusian—mova is the Belarusian word for “language.” If we get as far as this fictional Belarusian perspective on post-catastrophe, we approach Alexievich from another side. In her work there is no redemption from catastrophe because it is behind us and within us. The search for bits of the authentic past is individual and dangerous and disruptive, but there is nothing else to be done. Some of Alexieivich’s critics in Belarus today wish she would use the Belarusian language, seeing in the national culture a crucial missing element of authenticity, or an opportunity to create something fresh. It is interesting, for example, that Martinovich wrote his first novel in Russian but his second in Belarusian.

Alexievich in Kabul, Afghanistan, 1988
Alexievich’s sad chronicles—about women soldiers in World War II, veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, victims of the Chernobyl disaster, among other subjects—are thus the opposite of escapism. She does not allow herself to jump ahead with the toolkit of fiction and then look back for meaning, redemption, or distraction. She instead rescues the recent past from the patterns of collective forgetting by the hard work of speaking to thousands of people, and then arranging their voices in a way that rescues experience without imposing narrative. Alexievich is sometimes compared to Ryszard Kapuściński, the great Polish international journalist. But unlike him she resists the charms of constructing appealing characters from composites. She has no characters; only voices.
Alexievich is one of very few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature associated primarily with non-fiction, a tiny group that includes Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Winston Churchill, and the German historian Theodor Mommsen. That juxtaposition reveals a crucial difference: whether writing of the Roman Empire (Mommsen), World War II (Churchill), or the Gulag (Solzhenitsyn), the three men in question were striving for coherent master interpretations of major historical events. By contrast Alexievich might seem less ambitious, in that she seeks not to give shape to any one event. But what she has done, and here of the three she is closest to the younger Solzhenitsyn, is to work indirectly against an overweening master narrative that already exists. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, however, who sought to recapitulate all of Soviet history in later life, Alexievich has remained close to the experiences and memories of her own generation, which by their nature are constantly changing.

In her most recent work Alexievich identifies explicitly (“we”) with her own generation, simultaneously Soviet and post-Soviet. In Second-Hand Time, composed during a decade in political exile and published shortly after her return to Belarus in 2013, she treats the Soviet personality as a subject in and of itself, open to interpretation and reinterpretation, to be sure, but not admitting of any new beginning. This work is perhaps more open to criticism than previous books, since Alexievich’s method depends upon direct contact with her sources, and in emigration she might not have been able to see the variety of ways Belarusians and others confronted the past in the 2000s, when she was abroad. That said, it is precisely Alexievich’s relentlessly consistent interrogation of the formative experiences of the 1970s and 1980s that made hers such a precise critique of the abuse of memory in contemporary Belarus and especially contemporary Russia. Her non-fiction works as a kind of anti-fiction, and alternative to the alternative realities which, in both Russia and Belarus, arise behind the blindfold of a double nostalgia: of today’s ruling elite for the 1970s and 1980s, which were themselves a time of manufactured nostalgia for the Soviet 1930s and 1940s.
It is in this light that Alexievich’s criticism of the current Russian war in Ukraine should be understood. It would be easy enough to place her in the tradition of courageous Russian investigative reporters, many of them female, some of these assassinated, who resisted the narrative of Russia’s wars under Putin by writing what they saw. One of the most impressive of these, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered on October 7, 2006; the ninth anniversary of her death was the day before Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize. But since Alexievich made it her life’s work to replace the mythmaking of the 1970s and 1980s with a kind of investigative contemporary history, she also brings to bear a more fundamental critique of wars that are grounded in invented historical tropes. What we experience in the west as Russian propaganda is in part an earnest claim that past war ennobles current war and justifies future war. When the Great Patriotic War is seen as a faultlessly virtuous victory rather than the bloodiest struggle in human history, war can seem more inviting and virtuous; when the dreadful and lost war in Afghanistan is blurred into a narrative of unmanly Soviet weakness, the real suffering of veterans seems irrelevant; when Chernobyl is repressed in official memory it becomes possible to speak on Russian television about turning countries to radioactive ash. Alexievich reacted quickly, instinctively, to all of this; and paid a price.

Alexievich has been unremembered in the country, Russia, where her work has perhaps the most contemporary relevance. She writes only in Russian and her themes are those with which Russians, at least of her generation, could in principle identify. Her book on women in war sold two million copies in the Soviet Union, which suggests that it should now rest on a million or so bookshelves in Russia. This summer she was subjected to a press campaign in Russian media in which she was branded as “anti-Russian.” The reason given for this claim was her criticism of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Here Alexievich’s response was revealing. Standing on the Maidan, she said, she looked at the photographs of the men who were killed by snipers during the Ukrainian revolution. This, the site of the Ukrainian revolution of 2013-2014, brought tears to her eyes. Weeping at the fate of others, she said, “is not hatred.” And then: “It is hard to be an honest person in our times.”
But for Alexievich, after her return to Minsk two years ago, it has certainly been easier than for others. She had no trouble explaining to westerners, far more quickly than they themselves could usually grasp, that Russia had in fact invaded Ukraine. She also very quickly explained that the fault lay not with one man but with the experiences of Soviet generations, now reworked for new wars. When she listed the fake descriptions of events in Ukraine in the Russian media, she spoke of Russian society as a “collective Putin.” As she put it, “Putin placed his bet on the basest instincts and won. Even if he disappeared tomorrow, we would remain as we are.”

“We” is the telling word, since Alexievich, when speaking of Russians, might just as easily say “they.” But she does not. She clearly identifies with Russians as well as with Belarusians and Ukrainians, as the three new nations move through the uncharted difficulties of sovereignty. The fact that today not only Ukrainians but also Belarusians belong to an unmistakably different political society than Russians does not mean that they have been separated from Soviet history, since, suggests Alexievich, no such separation is actually possible. Sometimes she sounds optimistic and sometimes less so. She makes clear that generational turnover does not automatically bring change; speaking of travels through contemporary Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, she finds “rather servile” young people. But she also seems to regard the Ukrainian revolution as a rupture, and imagines for Belarus the possibility of becoming a “normal European country.” Russia, she says, has a problem with “nationalism”; perhaps that, too, can be overcome. One must again remember that all of these writings, and all of these statements, are in the Russian language.

What would a Russian world be like without nationalism? One of the Kremlin’s justifications of the present war in Ukraine was the idea of defending a “Russian world.” In the understanding of this phrase promoted by Putin and the Russian leadership, the “Russian world” is a specific place where people speak Russian, and therefore deserve protection by the Russian army. This version of a “Russian world” is inherently totalitarian, since it confuses individual linguistic practices with causes de guerre and allows leaders thousands of miles away to decide who requires their protection.
Yet the idea of a “Russian world,” of an international exchange of ideas in the Russian language, does of course make another kind of sense, just as an “English world” or a “Spanish world” or a “Chinese world” might. The “Russian world” can also be, as Alexievich has said, universal and “humanistic.” In this sense she is certainly a Russian writer, as well as a Belarusian writer, and a writer of Ukrainian origin. If the Russian language is not simply a source of ethnic provincialism but a means of universalism, her “we” (spoken in Russian) is a larger one than those who remember the Soviet Union and speak the Russian language.
Indeed, her Nobel Prize will expand the Russian world of letters, since her prose is accessible not only to those who share her background and concerns but to younger people who can learn from her what the Soviet Union was and what its legacy means. As a Ukrainian university instructor in Texas put it, reacting to the news about the Nobel: “my students do not weep when they read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, but when they read Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl—then they do.”

October 12, 2015, 5:18 p.m.


The Nobel Prize in Literature 2015
Svetlana Alexievich

Biobibliographical Notes
Svetlana Alexievich was born 31 May 1948 in the Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, as the daughter of a Belarusian father and a Ukrainian mother. When the father had completed his military service, the family moved to Belarus, where both parents worked as teachers. After finishing school, Alexievich worked as a teacher and as a journalist, and she studied journalism at the University of Minsk between 1967 and 1972.

After her graduation she was referred to a local newspaper in Brest near the Polish border, because of her oppositional views. She later returned to Minsk and began an employment at the newspaper Sel’skaja Gazeta. For many years, she collected materials for her first book U vojny ne ženskoe lico (1985; War’s Unwomanly Face, 1988), which is based on interviews with hundreds of women who participated in the Second World War. This work is the first in Alexievich’s grand cycle of books, “Voices of Utopia”, where life in the Soviet Union is depicted from the perspective of the individual.

By means of her extraordinary method – a carefully composed collage of human voices – Alexievich deepens our comprehension of an entire era. The consequences of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl 1986 is the topic of Černobyl’skaja molitva (1997; Voices from Chernobyl – Chronicle of the Future, 1999). Cinkovye mal’čiki(1990; Zinky Boys – Soviet voices from a forgotten war, 1992) is a portrayal of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan 1979–89, and her work Vremja second chènd (2013; “Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man”) is the latest in “Voices of Utopia”. Another early book that also belongs in this lifelong project is Poslednie svideteli (1985; “Last witnesses”).

Important influences on Alexievich’s work are the notes by the nurse and author Sofia Fedorchenko (1888–1959) of soldiers’ experiences in the First World War, and the documentary reports by the Belarusian author Ales Adamovich (1927–1994) from the Second World War. Because of her criticism of the regime, Alexievich has periodically lived abroad, in Italy, France, Germany, and Sweden, among other places.

Bibliography – a selection

Works in Russian

У войны не женское лицо. Минск: Мастацкая литература 1985
2-е изд.: Москва: Время 2015
U vojny ne ženskoe lico. – Minsk : Mastackaja litaratura, 1985.
Rev. ed.: – Moskva : Vremja, 2015

Последние свидетели: книга недетских рассказов. Москва: Молодая гвардия 1985.
2-е изд.: Последние свидетели: соло для детского голоса. Москва: Время 2013
Poslednie svideteli: kniga nedetskich rasskazov. – Moskva : Molodaja gvardija, 1985
Rev. ed.: Poslednie svideteli : solo dlja detskogo golosa. – Moskva : Vremja, 2013

Цинковые мальчики. Москва: Молодая гврадия 1990
2-е изд. Москва: Время 2013
Cinkovye mal’čiki. – Moskva : Molodaja gvardija, 1990
Rev. ed.: – Moskva : Vremja, 2013

Зачарованные смертью. Москва: Слово 1994
Белорусское изд. Минск [б. м.] 1993
Začarovannye smert’ju. – Moskva : Slovo, 1994
Belarusian ed.: – Minsk : [s.l.], 1993

Чернобыльская молитва: Хроника будущего. Москва: Остожье 1997; Москва: Время 2013
Černobyl’skaja molitva: Chronika buduščego. – Moskva : Ostož’e, 1997 ; Moskva: Vremja, 2013

У войны не женское лицо, Последние свидетели, Цинковые мальчики, Зачарованные смертью, Чернобыльская молитва: Хроника будущего (2 тома). Москва: Остожье 1998
U vojny ne ženskoe lico, Poslednie svideteli, Cinkovye mal’čiki, Začarovannye smert’ju, Černobyl’skaja molitva: Chronika buduščego. (Volume 1-2). – Moskva : Ostož’e, 1998

Время секонд хэнд. Москва: Время 2013
Vremja second chènd. – Moskva : Vremja, 2013

Works in English

War’s Unwomanly Face / translated by Keith Hammond and Lyudmila Lezhneva. – Moscow : Progress Publishers, 1988. – Translation of U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Zinky Boys : Soviet Voices from a Forgotten War / translated by Julia and Robin Whitby. – London : Chatto & Windus, 1992. – Translation of Cinkovye mal’čiki

Zinky Boys : Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War / translated by Julia and Robin Whitby ; introduction by Larry Heinemann. – New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.– Translation of Cinkovye mal’čiki

Voices from Chernobyl : Chronicle of the Future / translated by Antonina W. Bouis. – London : Aurum Press, 1999. – Translation of Černobyl’skaja molitva

Voices from Chernobyl : the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster / translation and preface by Keith Gessen. – Normal : Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. – Translation of Černobyl’skaja molitva

Works in French

Les cercueils de zinc / traduit du russe par Wladimir Berelowitch avec la collaboration d’Elisabeth Mouravieff. – Paris : C. Bourgois, 1990. – Traduction de: Cinkovye mal’čiki

Ensorcelés par la mort : récits / traduit du russe par Sophie Benech. – Paris : Plon, 1995. – Traduction de: Začarovannye smert’ju

La Supplication : Tchernobyl, chroniques du monde après l’apocalypse / traduit du russe par Galia Ackerman et Pierre Lorrain. – Paris : France loisirs, 1998. – Traduction de: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Les cercueils de zinc / témoignages réunis et présentés par Svetlana Alexievitch ; traduit du russe par Wladimir Berelowitch et Bernadette du Crest ; avec la collaboration d’Elisabeth Mouravieff ; preface de Dimitri Savitski. – Paris : C. Bourgois, 2002. – Traduction de: Cinkovye mal’čiki

La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme / traduit du russe par Galia Ackerman et Paul Lequesne. – Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2004. – Traduction de: U vojny ne ženskoelico

Derniers témoins / traduit du russe par Anne Coldefy-Faucard. – Paris : Presses de la Renaissance, 2005. – Traduction de: Poslednie svideteli

La Fin de l’homme rouge : ou Le temps du désenchantement / traduit du russe par Sophie Benech et Michèle Kahn. – Paris : Actes Sud ; Paris : le Grand livre du mois, 2013. – Traduction de: Vremja second chènd

Works in Spanish

La plegaria de Chernóbyl : crónica del futuro / traducción de Ricardo San Vicente. – Barcelona : Casiopea, 2002. – Título original: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Voces de Chernóbil : crónica del futuro / traducción de Ricardo San Vicente. – Madrid : Siglo XXI, 2006. – Título original: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Works in Swedish

Bön för Tjernobyl : en framtidskrönika / översättning av Hans Björkegren ; förord av Stig Hansén & Clas Thor. – Stockholm : Ordfront, 1997. – Originalets titel: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Förförda av döden : ryska reportage / urval och intervju av Stig Hansén & Clas Thor ; översättning av Stefan Lindgren. – Stockholm : Ordfront, 1998.

Kriget har inget kvinnligt ansikte : en utopis röster / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2012. – Originalets titel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Tiden second hand : slutet för den röda människan / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2013. – Originalets titel: Vremja second chènd

Bön för Tjernobyl : krönika över framtiden / översättning av Hans Björkegren. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2013. – Originalets titel: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Zinkpojkar : Utopins röster / översättning av Hans Björkegren. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2014. – Originalets titel: Cinkovye mal’čiki

De sista vittnena : solo för barnröst / översättning av Kajsa Öberg Lindsten. – Stockholm : Ersatz, 2015. – Originalets titel: Poslednie svideteli

Works in German

Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Johann Warkentin. – Berlin : Henschel, 1987. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Gisela Frankenberg. – Berlin : Neues Leben, 1989. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli

Zinkjungen : Afghanistan und die Folgen / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Frankfurt am Main : S. Fischer, 1992. – Originaltitel: Cinkovye mal’čiki

Im Banne des Todes : Geschichten russischer Selbstmörder / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Frankfurt am Main : S. Fischer, 1994. – Originaltitel: Začarovannye smert’ju

Tschernobyl : Eine Chronik der Zukunft / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – Berlin : Berlin-Verl., 1997. – Originaltitel: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Seht mal, wie ihr lebt : Russische Schicksale nach dem Umbruch. / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko – Berlin : Aufbau, 1999. – Originaltitel: Začarovannye smert’ju

Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Berliner Taschenbuch-Verlag, 2004. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Aufbau, 2005. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli

Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Erw., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2013. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Secondhand-Zeit : Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2013. – Originaltitel: Vremja second chènd

Die letzten Zeugen : Kinder im Zweiten Weltkrieg / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Überarb., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin 2014. – Originaltitel: Poslednie svideteli

Zinkjungen : Afghanistan und die Folgen / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko und Ganna-Maria Braungardt. Erw., aktualisierte Neuausg. – München : Hanser Berlin, 2014. – Originaltitel: Cinkovye mal’čiki
Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Suhrkamp, 2015. – Originaltitel: U vojny ne ženskoe lico

Secondhand-Zeit : Leben auf den Trümmern des Sozialismus / übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt. – Berlin : Suhrkamp, 2015. – Originaltitel: Vremja second chènd

Tschernobyl : Eine Chronik der Zukunft / übersetzt von Ingeborg Kolinko. – München : Piper, 2015. – Originaltitel: Černobyl’skaja molitva

Selected Criticism

Aleksijevitj, Svetlana, “När katterna slutade äta döda möss : Svetlana Aleksijevitj om Tjernobyl, katastrofen som förändrade allt” / översättning av Hans Björkegren. Aftonbladet, 2006.04.23.

Alexijewitsch, Swetlana, Ansprachen aus Anlass der Verleihung des Friedenspreises des deutschen Buchhandels 2013 / red. Martin Schult ; übersetzt von Ganna-Maria Braungardt und The Hagedorn Group.. – Frankfurt/M. : Mvb (Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels), 2013

Beier, Elena, “Zeugen des Krieges”. Deutsche Welle, 2005.03.21.

Brunswic, Anne, “Ecrire la petite histoire d’une grande utopie” / illustré par Richard Yeend. Propos, Janvier/ Février/ Mars, 2010: 21

Fremde Heimat : Texte aus dem Exil / im Auftr. des PEN-Zentrums Deutschland ; hrsg. von Christa Schuenke und Brigitte Struzyk. – Berlin : Matthes & Seitz, 2013

Fria ord på flykt / red. Per Bergström och Oskar Ekström ; Svetlana Aleksijevitj… – Malmö : Rámus, 2012

Fröberg Idling, Peter, “Svetlana Aleksijevitj : ‘Jag står i opposition till mitt eget folk'”. Vi läser, 2015:1

Gloger, Katja, “Wir haben rote Seelen”. Interview. Stern, 2014.02.13

Hielscher, Karla: “Vom Opfermythos zum Ich-Gewinn : Die dokumentarische Prosa der Swetlana Alexijewitsch”. Die Neue Gesellschaft, Frankfurter Hefte 1997:10

Hielscher, Karla, “Svetlana Aleksievič”. Kritisches Lexikon zur fremdsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur – KLfG – 10/14.
Ingvarsson, Stefan, “Tron på utopin ledde kvinnor i krig”. Sydsvenskan, 2012.11.18

Lehmann, Barbara, “Durch die dunklen Stollen der Erinnerung. Ein Porträt der Minsker Autorin Swetlana Alexijewitsch”. Frankfurter Rundschau, 1998.05.19

Mühling, Jens, “Wir brauchen eine Perestroika”. Der Tagesspiegel, 2011.04.17

Nine of Russia’s foremost women writers / Svetlana Alexiyevich et al. – Moscow : Glas publishers ; Chicago IL : Northwestern University Press, 2003

Schröder, Elke, “Apokalypse : Teil heutiger Kultur”. Interview. Kunst & Kultur, 2001:6

Schueler, Kaj, “Det litterära reportaget gör historien samtida”. Svenska Dagbladet, 2011.04.23

Swedenmark, John, “I lära hos Aleksijevitj”. Arbetet, 2013.11.10

Swetlana Alexijewitsch : Ansprachen aus Anlass der Verleihung des Friedenspreises des deutschen Buchhandels 2013 / texte, red. Martin Schult ; übers. Ganna-Maria Braungardt und The Hagedorn Group. Börsenverein des deutschen Buchhandels. – Frankfurt/M. : Verl. Mvb, 2013

Thadden, Elisabeth von, “Planet Tschernobyl : Die Schriftstellerin Swetlana Alexijewitsch wird geehrt”. Die Zeit, 2001.06.21

Trepper, Hartmute, “Die Kunst erfordert, daß du bis zum Äußersten gehst”. Interview. Neue Rundschau, 1991:2

Walz, Annette, “Penible Chronistin menschlichen Leids : Swetlana Alexijewitsch – ihre Recherchen werden zu bedrückender und beeindruckender Literatur”. Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1997.03.03

The Swedish Academy

Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

22151002_28767 Edward-Abbey-TerraSight_A152

David Foster Wallace – Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie


This piece was written by Wallace for the 2007 issue of “The Best American Essays” by Houghton Mifflin publishers. For anyone who reads that publication and or is interested in essays this piece reads as fresh today as it did then.

 I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction. Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. Which means that the reader has more freedom of choice, which of course is part of what this country’s all about. If you’re like most of us, you’ll first check the table of contents for names of writers you like, and their pieces are what you’ll read first. Then you’ll go by title, or apparent subject, or sometimes even first line. There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.

I feel free to state an emergent truth that I maybe wouldn’t if I thought that the book’s sales could really be hurt or its essays’ audience scared away. This truth is that just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of—and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.

… Whereupon, after that graceless burst of bad news, I’m betting that most of whichever readers thought that maybe this year they’d try starting out linearly with the editor’s intro have now decided to stop or just flip ahead to Jo Ann Beard’s ‘Werner,’ the collection’s first essay. This is actually fine for them to do, because Beard’s is an unambiguously great piece—exquisitely written and suffused with a sort of merciless compassion. It’s a narrative

essay, I think the subgenre’s called, although the truth is that I don’t believe I would have loved the piece any less or differently if it had been classed as a short story, which is to say not an essay at all but fiction.

Thus one constituent of the truth about the front cover is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is. Not that this is unusual. Most literary readers take a position on the meaning of ‘essay’ rather like the famous one that U.S.S.C. Justice Potter Stewart took on ‘obscene’: we feel that we pretty much know an essay when we see one, and that that’s enough, regardless of all the noodling and complication involved in actually trying to define the term ‘essay.’ I don’t know whether gut certainty is really enough here or not, though. I think I personally prefer the term ‘literary nonfiction.’ Pieces like ‘Werner ’ and Daniel Orozco’s ‘Shakers’ seem so remote from the sort of thing that Montaigne and Chesterton were doing when the essay was being codified that to call these pieces essays seems to make the term too broad to really signify. And yet Beard’s and Orozco’s pieces are so arresting and alive and good that they end up being salient even if one is working as a guest essay editor and sitting there reading a dozen Xeroxed pieces in a row before them and then another dozen in a row after them—essays on everything from memory and surfing and Esperanto to childhood and mortality and Wikipedia, on depression and translation and emptiness and James Brown, Mozart, prison, poker, trees, anorgasmia, color, homelessness, stalking, fellatio, ferns, fathers, grandmothers, falconry, grief, film comedy—a rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that be- comes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info


and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even ab- sorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization, and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen—at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.

A corollary to the above bad news is that I’m not really even all that confident or concerned about the differences between nonfiction and fiction, with ‘differences’ here meaning formal or definitive, and ‘I’ referring to me as a reader.1 There are, as it happens, intergenre differences that I know and care about as a writer, though these differences are hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand. I’m worried that they’ll sound cheesy and melodramatic. Although maybe they won’t. Maybe, given the ambient volume of your own life’s noise, the main difference will make sense to you. Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re

1A subcorollary here is that it’s a bit odd that Houghton Mifflin and the Best American series tend to pick professional writers to be their guest editors. There are, after all, highly expert professional readers among the industry’s editors, critics, scholars, etc., and the guest editor’s job here is really 95 percent readerly. Underlying the series’ preference for writers appears to be one or both of the following: (a) the belief that some- one’s being a good writer makes her eo ipso a good reader—which is the same reasoning that undergirds most blurbs and MFA programs, and is both logically invalid and empirically false (trust me); or (b) the fact that the writers the series pick tend to have comparatively high name recognition, which the publisher figures will translate into wider attention and better sales. Premise (b) involves marketing and revenue and is thus probably backed up by hard data and thought in a way that (a) is not.

executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

There’s a rather more concrete problem with the cover’s word ‘editor,’ and it may be the real reason why these editorial introductions are the least appealing candy in the box. The Best American Essays 2007’s pieces are arranged alphabetically, by author, and they’re essentially reprints from magazines and journals; whatever (light) copyediting they receive is done in-house by Houghton Mifflin. So what the cover calls your editor isn’t really doing any editing. My real function is best described by an epithet that may, in future years, sum up 2006 with the same grim efficiency that terms like ‘Peace with Honor,’ ‘Iran-Contra,’ ‘Florida Recount,’ and ‘Shock and Awe’ now comprise and evoke other years. What your editor really is here is: the Decider.

Being the Decider for a Best American anthology is part honor and part service, with ‘service’ here not as in ‘public service’ but rather as in ‘service industry.’ That is, in return for some pay and intangible assets, I am acting as an evaluative filter, winnowing a very large field of possibilities down to a manageable, absorbable Best for your delectation. Thinking about this kind of Decidering2 is interesting in all kinds of different ways;3 but the general point is that professional filtering/winnowing

2(usage sic, in honor of the term’s source)

3For example, from the perspective of Information Theory, the bulk of the Decider’s labor actually consists of excluding nominees from the final prize collection, which puts the Decider in exactly the position of Maxwell’s Demon or any other kind of entropy- reducing info processor, since the really expensive, energy-intensive part of such processing is always deleting/discarding/resetting.


is a type of service that we citizens and consumers now depend on more and more, and in ever-increasing ways, as the quantity of available information and products and art and opinions and choices and all the compli- cations and ramifications thereof expands at roughly the rate of Moore’s Law.

The immediate point, on the other hand, is obvious. Unless you are both a shut-in and independently wealthy, there is no way you can sit there and read all the contents of all the 2006 issues of all the hundreds of U.S. periodicals that publish literary nonfiction. So you subcontract this job—not to me directly, but to a publishing company whom you trust (for whatever reasons) to then subsubcontract the job to someone whom they trust (or more like believe you’ll trust [for whatever reasons]) not to be insane or capricious or overtly ‘biased’ in his Decidering.

‘Biased’ is, of course, the really front-loaded term here, the one that I expect Houghton Mifflin winces at and would prefer not to see uttered in the editor’s intro even in the most reassuring context, since the rhetoric of such reassurances can be self-nullifying (as in, say, running a classified ad for oneself as a babysitter and putting ‘don’t worry—not a pedophile!’ at the bottom of the ad). I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now—and why it’s so much- invoked and potent in cultural disputes—is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. Since I was raised with more traditional, Enlightenment-era criteria, this possibility strikes me as consumerist and scary . . . to which the counterargument would be, again, that the alternatives are literally abysmal.

Speaking of submission, there was a bad bit of oversimplification two paragraphs above, since your guest editor is not really even the main sub-subcontractor on this job. The real Decider, in terms of processing info and reducing entropy, is Mr. Robert Atwan, the BAE series editor. Think of it this way. My job is to choose the twenty-odd so-called Best from roughly 100 finalists the series editor sends me. 4 Mr ̇ Atwan, though, has distilled these finalists from a vast pool of ’06 nonfiction— every issue of hundreds of periodicals, plus submissions from his network of contacts all over the U.S.—meaning that he’s really the one doing the full-time reading and culling that you and I can’t do; and he’s been doing it since 1985. I have never met Mr. Atwan, but I—probably like most fans of BAE—envision him as by now scarcely more than a vestigial support system for an eye-brain assembly, maybe like 5’8” and 590 lbs., living full-time in

4It’s true that I got to lobby for essays that weren’t in his 100, but there ended up being only one such outside piece in the final collection. A couple of others that I’d suggested were nixed by Mr. Atwan—well, not nixed so much as counseled against, for what emerged as good reasons. In general, though, you can see who had the real power. However much I strutted around in my aviator suit and codpiece calling myself the Decider for BAE ’07, I knew that it was Mr. Atwan who delimited the field of possibilities from which I was choosing . . . in rather the same way that many Americans are worried that what appears to be the reality we’re experiencing and making choices about is maybe actually just a small, skewed section of reality that’s been pre-chosen for us by shadowy entities and forces, whether these be left-leaning media, corporate cabals, government disinformers, our own unconscious prejudices, etc. At least Mr. Atwan was explicit about the whole pre-selection thing, though, and appeared to be fair and balanced, and of course he’d had years of hard experience on the front lines of Decidering; and in general I found my- self trusting him and his judgments more and more throughout the whole long process, and there were finally only maybe about 10 percent of his forwarded choices where I just had no idea what he might have been thinking when he picked them.


some kind of high-tech medical chair that automatically gimbals around at various angles to help prevent skin ulcers, nourishment and wastes ferried by tubes, surrounded by full- spectrum lamps and stacks of magazines and journals, a special emergency beeper Velcroed to his arm in case he falls out of the chair, etc.

Given the amount of quiet, behind-the-scenes power he wields over these prize collections, you’re entitled to ask about Mr. Atwan’s standards for inclusion and forwarding;5 but he’s far too experienced and cagey to encourage these sorts of questions. If his foreword to this edition is like those of recent years, he’ll describe what he’s looking for so generally—‘essays of literary achievement that show an awareness of craft and forceful- ness of thought’—that his criteria look reasonable while at the same time being vague and bland enough that we aren’t induced to stop and think about what they might actually mean, or to ask just what principles Mr. Atwan uses to determine ‘achievement’ and ‘awareness’ and ‘forcefulness’ (not to mention ‘literary’). He is wise to avoid this, since such specific questions would entail specific answers that then would raise more questions, and so on; and if this process is allowed to go on long enough, a point will be reached at which any Decider is going to look either (a) arrogant and arbitrary (‘It’s literary because I say so’) or else (b) weak and incoherent (as he thrashes around in endless little definitions and exceptions and qualifications and apparent flip-flops). It’s true. Press R. Atwan or D. Wallace hard enough on any of our criteria or reasons—what they mean or where they come from—and you’ll eventually get either paralyzed silence or the abysmal, Legionish babble of every last perceived fact and value. And Mr. Atwan cannot afford this; he’s permanent BAE staff.

5I believe this is what is known in the nonfiction industry as a transition. We are now starting to poke tentatively at ‘Best,’ which is the most obviously fraught and bias-prone word on the cover.

I, on the other hand, have a strict term limit. After this, I go forever back to being an ordinary civilian and BAE reader (except for the introductions). I therefore feel free here to try for at least partial transparency about my Decidering criteria, some of which are obviously—let’s be grownups and just admit it—subjective, and therefore in some ways biased.6 Plus I have no real problem, emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possibly including divine will— who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.

Because of the fact that my Decidering function is antientropic and therefore mostly exclusionary, I first owe some account of why certain types of essays were maybe easier for me to exclude than others. I’ll try to combine candor with maximum tact. Memoirs, for example. With a few big exceptions, I don’t much care for abreactive or confessional memoirs. I’m not sure how to explain this. There is probably a sound, serious argument to be made about the popularity of confessional memoirs as a symptom of something especially sick and narcissistic/voyeuristic about U.S. culture right now. About certain deep connections between narcissism and voyeurism in the mediated psyche. But this isn’t it. I think the real reason is that I just don’t trust them. Memoirs/confessions, I mean. Not so much their

6May I assume that some readers are as tired as I am of this word as a kneejerk derogative? Or, rather, tired of the legerdemain of collapsing the word’s neutral meaning—‘preference, inclination’—into the pejorative one of ‘unfairness stemming from prejudice’? It’s the same thing that’s happened with ‘discrimination,’ which started as a good and valuable word, but now no one can even hear it without seeming to lose their mind.


factual truth as their agenda. The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to them- selves. I find most of them sad in a way that I don’t think their authors intend. There are, to be sure, some memoirish-type pieces in this year’s BAE—although these tend either to be about hair-raisingly unusual circumstances or else to use the confessional stuff as part of a larger and (to me) much richer scheme or story.

Another acknowledged prejudice: no celebrity profiles. Some sort of personal quota was exceeded at around age thirty-five. I now actually want to know less than I know about most celebrities.

The only other intrinsic bias I’m aware of is one that a clinician would probably find easy to diagnose in terms of projection or displacement. As someone who has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent, I tend to be allergic to academic writing, most of which seems to me willfully opaque and pretentious. There are, again, some notable exceptions, and by ‘academic writing’ I mean a particular cloistered dialect and mode; I do not just mean any piece written by somebody who teaches college.7

7Example: Roger Scruton is an academic, and his ‘A Carnivore’s Credo’ is a model of limpid and all- business compression, which is actually one reason why his argument is so valuable and prizeworthy, even though parts of that argument strike me as either odd
or just plain wrong (e.g., just how much humane and bucolic ‘traditional livestock farming’ does Scruton be- lieve still goes on in this country?). Out on the other end
of the ethicopolitical spectrum, there’s a weirdly simi- larexampleinProf P ̇eterSinger’s ‘WhatShouldaBillionaire Give?,’ which is not exactly belletristic but certainly isn’t written in aureate academese, and is salient and unforgettable and unexcludable not despite but in some ways because of the questions and criticisms it invites. May I assume that you’ve already read it? If not, please return to the main text. If you have, though, do

The other side to this bias is that I tend, as a reader, to prize and admire clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity, and the sort of mag- ical compression that enriches instead of vitiates. Someone’s ability to write this way, especially in nonfiction, fills me with envy and awe. That might help explain why a fair number of BAE ’07’s pieces tend to be short, terse, and informal in usage/syntax. Readers who enjoy noodling about genre might welcome the news that several of this year’s Best Es- says are arguably more like causeries or pro- pos than like essays per se, although one could counter argue that these pieces tend, in their essential pithiness, to be closer to what’s historically been meant by ‘essay.’ Personally, I find taxonomic arguments like this dull and some of Singer’s summaries and obligation-formulas seem unrealistically simple? What if a person in the top 10 percent of U.S. earners already gives 10 percent of his income to different, non-UN-type charities—does this reduce his moral obligation, for Singer? Should it? Exactly which charities and forms of giving have the most efficacy and/or moral value—and how does one find out which these are? Should a family of nine making $132,000 a year really have the same 10 percent moral obligation as the childless bachelor making 132K a year? What about a 132K family where one family member has cancer and their health insurance has a 20 percent deductible—is this family’s failure to cough up 10 percent after spending $40,000 on medical bills really still the moral equivalent of valuing one’s new shoes over the life of a drowning child? Is Singer’s whole analogy of the drowning kid(s) too simple, or at least too simple in some cases? Umm, might my own case be one of the ones where the analogy and giving-formula are too simple or inflexible? Is it OK that I think it might be, or am I just trying to rationalize my way out of dis- comfort and obligation as so many of us (according to Singer) are wont to do? And so on … but of course you’ll notice meanwhile how hard the reader’s induced to think about all these questions. Can you see why a Decider might regard Singer’s essay as brilliant and valuable precisely because its prose is so mainstream and its formulas so (arguably) crude or harsh? Or is this kind of ‘value’ as stupid, PC-ish criterion to use in Decidering about essays’ literary worth? What exactly are the connections between literary aesthetics and moral value supposed to be? Whose moral values ought to get used in determining what those connections should be? Does anyone even read Tolstoy’s What Is Art any more?


irrelevant. What does seem relevant is to as- sure you that none of the shorter essays in the collection were included merely because they were short. Limpidity, compactness, and an absence of verbal methane were simply part of what made these pieces valuable; and I think I tried, as the Decider, to use overall value as the prime triage- and filtering mechanism in selecting this year’s top essays.

… Which, yes, all right, entitles you to ask what ‘value’ means here and whether it’s any kind of improvement, in specificity and traction, over the cover’s ‘Best.’ I’m not sure that it’s finally better or less slippery than ‘Best,’ but I do know it’s different. ‘Value’ sidesteps some of the metaphysics that makes pure aesthetics such a headache, for one thing. It’s also more openly, candidly subjective: since things have value only to people, the idea of some limited, subjective human doing the valuing is sort of built right into the term. That all seems tidy and uncontroversial so far— although there’s still the question of just what this limited human actually means by ‘value’ as a criterion.

One thing I’m sure it means is that this year’s BAE does not necessarily comprise the twenty-two very best-written or most beautiful essays published in 2006. Some of the book’s essays are quite beautiful indeed, and most are extremely well written and/or show a masterly awareness of craft (what- ever exactly that is). But others aren’t, don’t, especially—but they have other virtues that make them valuable. And I know that many of these virtues have to do with the ways in which the pieces handle and respond to the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective that constitutes Total Noise. This claim might itself look slippery, because of course any published essay is a burst of information and context that is by definition part of 2007’s overall roar of info and context. But it is possible for something to be both a quantum of information and a vector of meaning.

Think, for instance, of the two distinct but related senses of ‘informative.’ Several of this year ’s most valuable essays are informative in both senses; they are at once informational and instructive. That is, they serve as mod- els and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways—ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.

That all may sound too abstract. Let’s do a concrete example, which happens also to involve the term ‘American’ on the front cover. In your 2007 guest editor’s opinion, we are in a state of three-alarm emergency—‘we’ basically meaning America as a polity and culture. Only part of this emergency has to do with what is currently called partisan politics, but it’s a significant part. Don’t worry that I’m preparing to make any kind of specific argument about the Bush administration or the disastrous harm I believe it’s done in almost every area of federal law, policy, and governance. Such an argument would be just noise here—redundant for those readers who feel and believe as I do, biased crap for those who believe differently. Who’s right is not the point. The point is to try to explain part of what I mean by ‘valuable.’ It is totally possible that, prior to 2004—when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct—this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say, Mark Danner’s ‘Iraq: The War of the Imagination’ or Elaine Scarry’s ‘Rules of Engagement.’

Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the


passage of the Military Commissions Act— if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. ‘We’ meaning as a polity and culture. The premise does not entail specific blame— or rather the problems here are too entangled and systemic for good old-fashioned finger- pointing. It is, for one example, simplistic and wrong to blame the for-profit media for somehow failing to make clear to us the moral and practical hazards of trashing the Geneva Conventions. The for-profit media is highly at- tuned to what we want and the amount of detail we’ll sit still for. And a ninety-second news piece on the question of whether and how the Geneva Conventions ought to apply in an era of asymmetrical warfare is not going to explain anything; the relevant questions are too numerous and complicated, too fraught with contexts in everything from civil law and military history to ethics and game theory. One could spend a hard month just learning the history of the Conventions’ translation into actual codes of conduct for the U.S. military … and that’s not counting the dramatic changes in those codes since 2002, or the question of just what new practices violate (or don’t) just which Geneva provisions, and ac- cording to whom. Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background, cross- checking, corroboration, and rhetorical pars- ing required to understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional oversight, the ideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire . . . There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’8

In the context of our Total Noise, a piece like Mark Danner ’s ‘Iraq: . . . Imagination’ exemplifies a special subgenre I’ve come to think of as the service essay, with ‘service’ here referring to both professionalism and virtue. In what is loosely framed as a group book review, Danner has processed and arranged an immense quantity of fact, opinion, confirmation, testimony, and on-site experience in order to offer an explanation of the Iraq debacle that is clear without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelming, and critical without being shrill. It is a brilliant, disciplined, pricelessly informative piece.

There are several other such service essays among this year’s proffered Best. Some, like Danner’s, are literary journalism; others are more classically argumentative, or editorial, or personal. Some are quite short. All are smart and well written, but what renders them most valuable to me is a special kind of integrity in their handling of fact. An absence of dogmatic cant. Not that service essayists don’t have opinions or make arguments. But you never sense, from this year’s Best, that facts are being specially cherry-picked or ar- ranged in order to advance a pre-set agenda. They are utterly different from the party-line pundits and propagandists who now are in such vogue, for whom writing is not think- ing or service but more like the silky courtier’s manipulation of an enfeebled king.

. . . In which scenario we, like diminished kings or rigidly insecure presidents, are reduced to being overwhelmed by info and

dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too— radio, Internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print— but this kind of drowning is more like sweet release. Whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduction and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think, for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dogmatic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependence I’m talking about—or rather it’s only the most extreme

8Hence, by the way, the seduction of partisan dogma. You can drown in dogmatism now, too – radio internet, cable, commercial and scholarly print – but his kind of drowning is more like sweet release. whether hard right or new left or whatever, the seduction and mentality are the same. You don’t have to feel confused or inundated or ignorant. You don’t even have to think,for you already Know, and whatever you choose to learn confirms what you Know. This dogmatic lockstep is not the kind of inevitable dependance I’m talking about – or rather its only the most extreme and frightened form of that dependence.


interpretation, or else paralyzed by cynicism and anomie, or else—worst—seduced by some particular set of dogmatic talking- points, whether these be PC or NRA, rationalist or evangelical, ‘Cut and Run’ or ‘No Blood for Oil.’ The whole thing is (once again) way too complicated to do justice to in a guest intro, but one last, unabashed bias/preference in BAE ’07 is for pieces that undercut reflexive dogma, that essay to do their own Decidering in good faith and full measure, that eschew the deletion of all parts of reality that do not fit the narrow aperture of, say for instance, those cretinous fundamentalists who insist that creationism should be taught alongside science in public schools, or those sneering materialists who insist that all serious Christians are as cretinous as the fundamentalists.

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high- entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and liter- ate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help. That’s about as clearly as I can put it. I’m aware that some of the collection’s writers could spell all this out better and in much less space. At any rate, the service part of what I mean by ‘value’ refers to all this stuff, and extends as well to essays that have nothing to do with politics or wedge issues. Many are valuable simply as exhibits of what a first-rate artistic mind can make of particular fact sets—whether these involve the 17-kHz ring tones of some kids’ cell phones, the language of movement as parsed by dogs, the near-infinity of ways to experience and describe an earthquake, the existential synecdoche of stage-fright, or the revelation that most of what you’ve believed and revered turns out to be self-indulgent crap.

That last one’s9 of especial value, I think. As exquisite verbal art, yes, but also as a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, ab- sorb it, and move on and out there from, bravely, toward the next revealed error. This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of ‘Best’ your Decider can give: these pieces are models—not templates, but models—of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world.

David Foster Wallace

Copyright c 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright c 2007 by David Foster Wallace.


9You probably know which essay I’m referring to, assuming you’re reading this guest intro last as is SOP. If you’re not, and so don’t, then you have a brutal little treat in store.

William T. Vollmann – “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”




The Atlantic Magazine Interview

Writers Can Do Anything
William T. Vollmann, author of Last Stories and Other Stories, explains why he works by an assassin’s credo: “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”

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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Doug McLean
William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.

Vollmann, in other words, always writes the book he wants to write.


In our interview for this series, Vollmann discussed a short, paradoxical aphorism from the 11th-century cult figure, Hassan-i Shabbah, a mystic and religious leader who retained power using a stable of trained killers. In his unpacking of the maxim’s many paradoxical layers, Vollmann explored how freedom—in art, governance, and life—must be protected, and yet must have its limits.

Last Stories and Other Stories is a sprawling, enchanting casket of curiosities. Over 600 pages long, and copiously epigraphed, these stories range from novella-length to just a single paragraph. In their elegant, elegiac meditations on death and the afterlife, we cross broad terrain, including geishas in ancient Japan, vampires in preindustrial Bohemia, and bombings in modern-day Sarajevo.

Vollmann’s previous book of fiction, Europe Central (2005), won the National Book Award for Fiction. He spoke to me from his writer’s studio in Sacramento, where he lives.

William T. Vollmann: Hassan the Assassin, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was a legendary figure from 11th and 12th century Persia. He lived in a mountain fortress with a gang of young men he’d hired to be assassins, guys who were prepared to kill and die for him. He’d reward them for their work by drugging them with hashish—the words assassin and hashish actually have the same Arabic root—and they’d wake up in a cave filled with wine and beautiful women. He had brought them to paradise, he’d tell them. If they did his bidding, they would end up there forever.

Hassan the Assassin lived by a proverb that’s long been an object of contemplation for me:

Nothing is true; all is permissible.
I haven’t followed this line as any kind of guiding principle. These aren’t necessarily words to live by. But it’s a deeply resonant maxim, one that contains within it many layers of meaning, and there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at its two parts and turning them around. As a credo, it can be inspirational—or alarming—on many different levels.

If we apply “nothing is true; all is permissible” in its most immediate, literal meaning, it appears to be a horrible, dangerous idea—though perhaps perfect for an assassin. Saying “Nothing is true” is the same as saying “Everything is true,” as far as I’m concerned. Because if nothing is true, don’t all claims to truth have equal weight? If all is true, any form of human behavior becomes valid. Who can say it’s wrong to kill another person for money—or merely for hashish? All is permissible. You might read these lines as an insistence on the relativity of ethics, and they could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism.

At the same time, I see a kind of freedom in these words. In my book The Rainbow Stories, I spent time writing about communities in San Francisco where there’s a lot of BDSM stuff. The people in that world love to pretend all kinds of fantastic or preposterous or sometimes very frightening-sounding things—but none of it’s true, and so all of it’s permissible. Viewed one way, the Assassin’s maxim could be used to excuse terrible, harmful behavior—but it also could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms. It’s a reminder that the fictional aspect of the fantasy makes it permissible.
In fact, when we’re working in solely in the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb becomes a very uplifting idea. For me, as an artist, it’s been a great help. While I’m working on a book, it’s a reminder that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.

Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing. Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.

I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

When we’re working in solely the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb is a very uplifting idea.
Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots. The last couple books I’ve written have had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. This had never happened before, but I couldn’t get them stricken from the contracts. So did the only thing I could: I just ignored them. This could mean that my book will be rejected, and I’ll have to pay my advance back, and a very unfortunate situation might develop. But I can’t let that outcome dictate what I want to do.

At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.
This Assassin’s maxim was especially useful to me as I wrote the latest of my Seven Dreams series, called The Dying Grass, about the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was a very challenging project because I decided to invent what’s essentially a new form. You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop. And so, there might be conversations on the left hand on the page—and what people are actually thinking might occur in the center, and perhaps landscape descriptions appear in the back, or occasionally when they really strike somebody, they appear in the front. This approach gives the page a kind of dimensionality, multiple layers of foreground and background.

An example: In one scene, my protagonist, General Howard, and his aide-de-camp walk through a battlefield—and there are all kinds of wounded, lying there, calling for help. There’s a cacophony of voices, spread across the page. One wounded confederate solider in particular is crying for help, way on the right hand side of the page, lost among all these other voices. But gradually, this voice moves farther and father to the left—and suddenly, it’s in the same column as the main characters’ dialogue. So the reader can see right away they’re engaging with this guy.

It took years to figure this out and make it work. It’s just a very weird-looking thing. But it turns out to be very easy to read. There’s so much white space, that it’s almost like reading a play or a movie script or something like that. Much less dense than my books usually are. But I had to overcome my own resistance and fear when I started it. I thought it would be too difficult. I worried I’d put a couple of hundred pages into it, and no one would be able to make sense of it. Then I’ll have lost years, I told myself. But I ended up being proud of it, and very fulfilled by the experience. It was a wonderful experiment. And it helped me to remind myself that nothing is true, that reading in strict left-to-right rows of text is not necessarily the only true way, and all is permissible in art.
Of course, the same freedoms extend to science. It’s in part because nothing is true scientifically: No scientific observation can be proven true forever and ever, and great, widely accepted theories fall and will continue to. It’s crucial for the health of science that any thought experiment is permissible, that we’re always allowed to question even the most entrenched ideas. To the extent that science is like art, you want it to be a free space. No scientist should be told what to think, or what not to think. We’re all hoping that as a result of this freedom, scientists will get closer and closer to amazing new discoveries about the nature of reality.

But the difference is that art is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend “all is permissible” into the real world, it can become dangerous. It can encourage a certain lack of conscience—the unnerving side of the scientific method, which underlies so much of our culture today. Science doesn’t ask what is right—it just asks what is true. And a wonderful discovery that a scientist makes could lead to something that destroys life on earth.

Does evil exist in an artistic context? In other words, should some things not be permissible in art? I would say no. There have been people who think that it does. Plato thought certain kinds of music should be banned from the Republic because they were too effeminate, or voluptuous, or whatever, and would weaken the body politic. I prefer to think that all should be allowed in art. And that, in a way, comes down to my political belief about the right of the self. The First Amendment: What a great idea! Why not universalize that, and say we all have the right to express ourselves. Even if we hate what other people are saying—all the more reason to cherish the freedom that we are giving ourselves by giving those other people the right to make bad art, or to be Nazis marching down the streets of Skokie—whatever it is.

When looked at this way, “nothing is true” is a great, democratizing idea: If there is no objective truth, no person or entity should have the right to impose ideas on anyone else. In this sense, “nothing is true” leads naturally to the conclusion that “all is permissible”—if all ideas have an equal right to exist, people should not be given more or less freedom on the basis of their ideas.
But once we leave the world of art and ideas, and start talking about actions and behavior, it seems important to say that only some things are true. Extended to the realm of politics, the Assassin’s proverb quickly takes on troubling significance. I think of George W. Bush with the Iraq War: no weapons of mass destruction, no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, nation building was another fraud, none of the proposed justifications were true. It was all bullshit. And how many thousands have we killed? So, we can say, he acted as if nothing was true, but all was permissible—including torture. That’s the definition of an unjust war. If political leaders are applying “Nothing is true; all is permissible,” we can be sure they’re going to be doing evil things. It’s the same thing as saying the ends justify the means.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered insist only some things are true, but feel all things are permissible.
You see this with environmental issues as well. About a year ago I started working on a nonfiction book about coal versus nuclear power. Not so much about which is better or worse—they’re probably both awful—but what ordinary people think about them. I’ve found that so many Americans, especially in the coal counties of West Virginia, really don’t believe in global warming. But I suspect that a lot of the political leaders who say that they don’t believe in it, actually might think that it’s possible. They’re acting like nothing is true, and all is permissible. To take this stance, and behave as though all forms of rhetoric are justified in the pursuit of power, is harmful and irresponsible.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered are the ones who insist only some things are true, but also feel that all things are permissible. I remember one time I was interviewing a Russian special forces guy in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. He really liked to kill people. He wanted me to join him. He told me that if I would just give him my passport right then, he would burn it, and then I would be completely dependent on him. He’d make me into a new man. He’d give me food and cigarettes. I wouldn’t get much sleep. He’s teach me how to jump out of airplanes, and rape muslim women and slit people’s throats, and I would become a real man like him. At some point, when he was making this very enticing offer, he took a bayonet and put it to my throat, pressing it almost hard enough to cut into my skin. My interpreter was quite afraid that the guy was going to cut my throat. And I was afraid, too. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it either, except try to be calm and accepting of whatever was going to happen. Every war journalist, I suppose, has moments like that. But that was definitely a moment that it seemed that he felt nothing I believed was true, and he felt that all was permissible, including killing me. He felt his point of view was truer than mine, and he had the latitude to do whatever he wanted about it.
He was creating, in his mind, this new order. He’d been with the Russian special forces in Afghanistan, and he conceded that they shouldn’t have been there. That was their place, and the Russians should have stayed out. And now the Muslims needed to be quiet, as he put in, in Serbia and in Bosnia because that wasn’t their place. He was a big believer in ethnic cleansing. I believe anyone has the right to any opinion, no matter how deranged. The problem is, it went beyond that. This stuff, which was just a sick fantasy, was something that he and a lot of other violent people were busy making into something true. Every day, they were going out there and removing the Muslims, so that it would not be a Muslim place anymore.

If only some things are true—then it holds that only some things are permissible, because there can be right and wrong. Once you’re willing to say that only some things are true, but all is permissible in the attainment of that truth, you are on very dangerous ground.

When I worked out my moral calculus in Rising Up and Rising Down, I began with the assumption that maybe is not too controversial: The self has certain rights. The self has the right to defend itself—violently, if need be, or not. And it has the right to defend others, or not; violently, or not. To the extent that we infringe on those rights, unless there are other compelling considerations, considerations of proportionality or discrimination, I would say we are committing evil.

So it seems to me the only just political credo would be: “Some things are true, and some things are permissible.” Anyone who says anything different, and has political power or a gun, needs to be watched carefully.

But if a writer says that only some things are true—saying only these aesthetic rules are true, and these things are never permissible, for all time—then I’m inclined to say, screw you.

I think that for an artist, certainly, it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get struck in any one truth. Every idea, every identity is doomed to die, just as we are. I think that’s one reason I try so many different approaches in my books—I don’t want to limit myself to one approach, one artistic self.

The last couple books I’ve written had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. I did the only thing I could: ignore them.
And why shouldn’t ideas continually change, when there’s so much we can never know—will never know? Death, for instance, will always escape us. I just finished writing a book of ghost stories, though I don’t really believe in ghosts. I can’t say there’s not an afterlife—nothing is true, after all, and there might be—and though I’m not holding my breath, I have to admit we can’t really know what death is! That’s why we’re always engaging with it, trying to understand death by animating and personifing it, by giving it some sort of life and face. And death, of course, is nothingness—so we’re always doomed to fail. And yet, it’s this effort itself that forms our only possible relationship to death. I like to think that creating these quite absurd characters—ghouls and ghosts, dead people, scenarios in the grave—was actually my way of trying to imagine something that helps me prepare myself for death. And maybe readers will feel something of the same.

With death, we know for sure that nothing we imagine is true—and so it might be that nothing is permissible, nothing will be permissible after we die, very likely. In the meantime, all is permissible in trying to understand death, because whatever we understand won’t be true anyway—so it doesn’t matter. We can only project ourselves onto it.
So this saying of Hassan the Assassin’s holds many things at once: it is nihilistic, it is democratic, it is brutal, it is fair. For me, in the end, it’s a reminder of the shifting terrain of self-knowledge—how nothing is true for long in our hearts, how anything can change in us, and how often one transforms in one’s attempts to know oneself. I am continually surprised in my autobiographical writing at how much my understanding of myself has changed. I recently put out a book of transgender self-portraits, and when I put on a wig and photographed myself, or drew watercolor pictures of myself as a woman, I thought: Who is this person? It’s not really me—this person, this woman, doesn’t exist. In another hour I’m going to take off the wig and the breast forms and wash off the lipstick. Yet I’m staring at this person in the mirror who is alive and looking back at me, and I don’t know this person at all. It’s very eerie. I couldn’t really have believed the strangeness of it if I hadn’t done it. Who was that person, looking back? It’s a reminder that everything we think about ourselves can change, our very notions of ourselves can change, and even the notions we’re surest of still change and die, they always will, like us.


JOE FASSLER is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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'Last Stories And Other Stories' book promo image.

‘Last Stories And Other Stories’ book promo image.

Susan Sontag – A biography – Review



Susan Sontag – A Biography
Daniel Schreiber
Translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Daniel Schreiber has created a wonderfully written, well organized short biography on Susan Sontag. The book is fluid in pace and provides an ample well of historical context to enable the reader to see the many connections and subtleties of Sontag’s life and thought. The book is very unacademic as was Ms Sontag.

Mr Schreiber is a German journalist based in Berlin and is a writer for various European periodicals.

Daniel’s German nationality helps to crystalize and give perspective to Sontag’s Americanness. This is no easy feat given Sontag’s closely developed alliance with Europe both in thinking and in culture as she spent a great deal of her adult life working on literary pieces in Germany, France, England and Spain. Mr Schreiber’s execution of this careful articulation with simple yet elegant prose is a very rare accomplishment especially given the complex task.

Ms Sontag’s journey in developing herself as a public intellectual begins as a young girl in New York and later in Arizona and Los Angeles before she moves to Chicago and then New York as an adult to fulfill her education and to develop the network of supporters who are so important to her success. Her contacts from the University of Chicago, including Kenneth Burke; and from Harvard, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Tillich and Michael Taubes were important throughout her professional life. Mr. Schreiber shows clearly that her key supporters are in the publishing sphere: Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus, Giroux and the literary agent Andrew Wylie spent considerable time and resources to aid in positioning Sontag.

While Ms. Sontag wrote both fiction and essays, it is clear that she will be remembered for her critical thinking abilities targeting literature, film, theater, art and political behaviour.

America lost an important voice of clarity and intellectual passion with her passing in 2004. Her radical predilection allowed her to unfold many ways of perceiving that were uncomfortable if not unconscious in the American public and their political representatives.

She demonstrated the importance of literature in life, the paths of nations and the fact that literature is a source of prophecy in the world – a singular contribution to the way of the world.

Mr. Schreiber was able to take advantage of the wealth of public interviews, in addition to traditional biographical sources, that documented her thinking and positions throughout Ms Sontag’s life.

Close relationships with both sexes, Philip Rieff, Maria Fornes, Nicole Stephane, and Anne Leibovitz were strong forces in her life and she used them to enrich her intellectual and cultural perspectives. Her son, David Rieff has also been a key advocate for Ms. Sontag’s books and articles.

In Putin’s Nationalist Russia, a Tolstoy as Cultural Diplomat

It is not a surprise that literature aids all countries in showing a human face in the midst of 
hard-edge politics and ideology.This piece is from The New York Times. Follwing the NYT piece is aninterview with Putin and Tolstoy concerning the culture policy document.

20150321TOLSTOY-slide-19NS-jumboCreditJames Hill for The New York Times


YASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a sunny winter afternoon here, Vladimir Tolstoy, a great-great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and an adviser on cultural affairs to President Vladimir V. Putin, strode up the birch-lined path that leads to the bucolic family compound where his forebear wrote “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina.” It is now a state museum. At each step, he was greeted by staff members heading home for the day.

“Good evening,” Mr. Tolstoy said with a warm smile. “Good evening,” the museum employees, mostly women, responded. “Please send our best regards to our czar and tell him we respect him very much,” one woman told Mr. Tolstoy, who nodded cheerfully.

At once friendly and feudal, the scene at this estate some 125 miles south of Moscow captured something of the mood in Russia today, where Mr. Putin is regarded as a czar, especially outside the big cities, even as the liberal intelligentsia reviles him and laments his popularity. It also reflects the benefits for Mr. Putin of enlisting the support of a member of an illustrious family as he continues to strike notes of national pride.

Since being tapped by Mr. Putin in 2012, Mr. Tolstoy, 52, has emerged as the more conciliatory, highbrow and Western-friendly face of Kremlin cultural policy. He works with, but is temperamentally different from, Russia’s more combative culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, who is known for aggressive assertions of Russian superiority and conservative values.

Mr. Tolstoy said he had worked to remove language from a ministry policy draft that was leaked last year stating that “Russia is not Europe.” But, like most Russians, Mr. Tolstoy is full-throated in his support of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, a territory that many Russians believe should not have been ceded to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954.

“Leo Tolstoy was a Russian officer who defended Russia in the Fourth Bastion in Sevastopol,” he said, speaking through a translator over tea in a cafe near the museum. “For us, in our mind, this has always been Russia.”

He was referring to the siege of Sevastopol in 1854-55 in the Crimean War, in which Russia fought the allied forces of France, Britain, Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire and ultimately lost control of the city. “Of course, as a descendant of the Russian officer Leo Tolstoy, I cannot have any other attitude toward that,” he added.

Mr. Tolstoy was raised in a middle-class family in the Moscow region and trained as a journalist. In 1994, he was named director of Yasnaya Polyana, which is centered on the house where the novelist wrote and has been preserved as it was at the time of his death, in 1910. There are also a working farm and orchards, and Tolstoy’s grave is in a wooded glen that the writer associated with his beloved older brother, who died young.

Mr. Tolstoy improved the quality and range of activities at the museum, adding lectures, a literary prize and Russian-language classes. His wife, Ekaterina Tolstaya, took over as director after he became an adviser to Mr. Putin.

Continue reading the main story
Mr. Tolstoy said that Mr. Putin had offered him the post after a meeting of museum directors in April 2012 at which Mr. Tolstoy criticized the government’s cultural strategy and the president’s advisory council for culture as ineffective. “When the meeting was over, the president asked me to stay for a bit and asked if I was so critical, could I do this job better?” Mr. Tolstoy said. Now, he briefs Mr. Putin on cultural issues and acts a bridge between Russia’s cultural world and the Kremlin.

On a recent afternoon, he was fielding calls from Irkutsk, Siberia, for help with funeral arrangements for the writer Valentin Rasputin, who died last week at 77 and had expressed a preference to be buried in Irkutsk, his birthplace. Mr. Tolstoy said he regarded Mr. Rasputin as the best writer of the past half-century. He was known for his vivid portrayals of the environmental devastation caused by industrialization in rural Russia and also for his conservatism: He called for prosecuting the punk activist group Pussy Riot after its provocative performance in a Moscow church and inveighed against perestroika, the liberalization initiated under Mikhail S. Gorbachev before the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Not long ago, the sense that Russia had somehow lost its way after the fall of the Soviet Union was pervasive here, but Mr. Tolstoy and other Putin loyalists have succeeded in reviving a sense of national pride expressly through cultural policy.

Guided by Mr. Tolstoy, a committee of leading cultural figures and state officials ultimately produced an 18-page policy document that defines culture broadly, saying it is as valuable to Russia as its natural resources. It also touches on moral precepts, the importance of religion in shaping values and the place of the Russian language in uniting a country of more than 140 million people and diverse ethnicities. The document also highlights Russia’s distinctiveness “as a country which unites two worlds, East and West.”

Some cultural figures have criticized the document for not addressing the pervasive influence of Russian state television, which operates as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Many didn’t pay it much attention. “It’s abstract, like a biblical text,” said Kirill Razlogov, a prominent film historian.

Far more concrete is the impact of laws that ban obscene words in the theater, films and public performances and that criminalize giving offense to religious believers, both of which were passed after Pussy Riot’s members were jailed in 2012.

While Mr. Tolstoy may agree with the general direction, his approach is more tolerant. “I believe everything has a right to exist unless it’s a provocation,” he said. “I think art shouldn’t be offensive.” As for Pussy Riot, he said: “I don’t support them, but on the other hand I also believe the reaction was inappropriate. An artist shouldn’t be punished in court.”

He described himself as a moderate who could “find balance” between traditionalists and liberals looking Westward. “On the one hand, Russia is open for cooperation,” he said. “And on the other hand, we have our own perspective on good and evil.”

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Mr. Tolstoy seems to be generally respected by the intelligentsia. Victor Erofeyev, a writer who has been critical of Mr. Putin, said he thought Mr. Tolstoy was “a smart guy” who also reflects a growing tendency since Mr. Putin’s re-election in 2012 to see Russia as somehow purer than the West.

“They really believe in it,” Mr. Erofeyev said. “It’s not like during Communist times under Brezhnev” when “people say, ‘I love Communism,’ but we never believe in it. Here they play with a notion of Russia in a more delicate way. They say, ‘You know, Russia is still is a country of big culture, it’s a country of big human relationships, friendship, love affairs and so on, and that’s why we are more interesting than the West.’ ”

Back at the cafe, Mr. Tolstoy grew animated in talking about Russian pride. “Today’s Russia cannot be forced to do what it doesn’t want to,” he said. “It’s impossible to achieve either by sanctions, or even by an overt attack. Russia respects itself, and it wants only justice, nothing else.”

On that wintry afternoon, dozens of visitors flocked to Yasnaya Polyana. There was snow on the ground and gray ice on the pond, and the birch trees caught the afternoon light. The spirit of the novelist’s former home “is love,” Mr. Tolstoy reflected.

In Tolstoy’s novels, “there are no characters who are complete villains,” his great-great-grandson said. “All of his characters are real people.”

Correction: March 21, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the given name of a Russian writer who died last week. He is Valentin Rasputin, not Vladimir.


Working meeting with Presidential Adviser Vladimir Tolstoy

April 23, 2014, 15:45 The Kremlin, Moscow


photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office.


Mr Tolstoy presented to Vladimir Putin the draft Basic Principles of State Culture Policy.

PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA VLADIMIR PUTIN: Mr Tolstoy, is the concept document for developing the culture sector ready now?

PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes. Above all, thank you for entrusting us with its drafting. The result is an unprecedented and very interesting piece of work.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: As far as I know, it has aroused a lot of debate.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, it is the subject of active public debate right now, though what is being discussed is not the document itself, but the preliminary materials that made their way via various sources to the press and have indeed sparked a huge public discussion. This shows that the time is indeed ripe to address the various issues in the culture sector, and that the public wants a serious debate at the national level on this matter.

A working group headed by [Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office] Sergei Ivanov was established. We held two meetings, which produced the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy. The draft document, if approved, will then be presented for broad public discussion at various forums such as the Public Council, the State Duma, the Federation Council and youth forums, and the results of these discussions will then be taken into account in drawing up the final text. We will be ready to ask you to approve the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy in autumn, perhaps with its presentation for joint discussion by the Presidential Council for Culture and the State Council, as it is also extremely important to take regional aspects into account too, since the next stage of the work will involve these finer points. This is a national-level document and naturally it outlines the general framework.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: What are the main points, as you see them?

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: I think the most important point is that we need to see culture in much broader terms than just the sector covered by the Culture Ministry: theatres, archives and libraries. Culture is a basic concept, a fundamental part of a person’s identity and the foundation of the national character and even of the state. It includes moral values, broader public education, youth policy issues, and the kinds of cities and villages we live in. We have tried to take an all-encompassing approach to culture. We realise at the same time that managing this process requires a special approach, and this will all be the subject of further discussion.

Culture has a particularly important historical role to play at this moment in our country’s life when we face a complicated foreign policy situation and special circumstances at home. Culture should play a consolidating and unifying role in this situation. Appeals – what I would call inflammatory appeals – that would lead to isolation are very dangerous in this context. We cannot allow internal divisions to emerge. We have a common cultural space, and we have talented people, who perhaps do not all share the same points of view, but it is important that the Basic Principles of State Culture Policy should unify the nation. This is what the document aims to do.

As far as foreign policy goes, you have probably heard from Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Spivakov and many of our other cultural figures about how many provocations take place before their concerts in the West, but how when the concerts are over, audiences of thousands of people give them standing ovations. This is exactly the kind of soft power that should be one of the state’s biggest priorities today, and this is the role that our national culture can play. This will send an important signal to our country and the world that Russia is a nation famed for its great culture and will continue to look for and encourage new talent, especially creative talent.

It is very important for us to keep producing talented composers, writers and directors. This requires a state support system. Talented people develop in their own right of course, but if we do not notice them in time and give them the support they need, we could be losing a national genius who would bring the country fame.

It is very important to educate viewers and readers. People are reading less these days, but Russian literature is a foundation for our moral qualities. We need not just talented performers but also talented listeners and viewers, who know and love music, theatre and film. Perhaps only one in 10,000 people accepted to arts schools will go on to become a real creator, but the other 9,999 people will be talented viewers and will fill up our concert halls.

We have just shown the whole world that we know how to build magnificent, outstanding sports facilities. We have shown that we know how to nurture and develop exceptional athletes who become Olympic champions. I think it is important that the world also see our ability to build equally magnificent theatres. This is already happening. We have the Mariinsky Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre, theatres in Astrakhan and other cities. It is important that other regions should also become home to strong cultural venues of this kind. We can show the whole world that the flow of creative talent in Russia will never dry up and will always delight the world with new works.

I think the document reflects all of this. At least, it contains the premises that could help our country’s culture to flourish.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: I agree with you that culture is our main, unifying national substance. What is important is not people’s official ethnic identities, but how they perceive themselves, who they consider themselves to be, which basic cultural principles were instilled in them from childhood, what kind of environment they were raised in, and what moral and ethical references they follow.

In this sense it is very important to create a common cultural space. I expect that this is the document’s basic aim, but we also need to put in place good conditions for developing cultural institutions and ensuring timely financing for priority areas. This is very important for developing culture as a sector. I hope the document will cover these matters too.

VLADIMIR TOLSTOY: Yes, of course. The document is also concerned with the importance of the information space and the content of television programmes and the Internet. Young people spend more and more time on the Internet today, and what they find there is very important. This is also the concern of culture policy.

We hope very much that these principles will be supported. This is a long-term programme, of course. You are right to note that it addresses primarily children and young people. We can expect to see some substantial results. Some say it will take a generation – 20-25 years – to really get results, but I am not convinced. I think that we could start seeing the first tangible results within 5-6 years or 10-12 years.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: Let’s take a more detailed look. As I said, this is the main component and main substance for our self-perception and sense of identity as a nation. This is why it is so important that the document be balanced, and I hope it will be. Let’s take a closer look at it now.


April 23, 2014, 15:45The Kremlin, Moscow

The War In Ukraine – A Frenchman’s Eyewitness Report – Bernard-Henri Levy

Bernard-Henri Levy: Poroshenko’s visit with death in Kramatorsk before fateful meeting with Putin

Feb. 15, 2015, 12:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Bernard-Henri Lévy – from Kyiv Post – Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper.



A handout picture taken and released by the Ukrainian presidential press service shows Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (2nd R), standing next to French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy (R), looking late on Feb. 10 at an unexploded rocket in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk Oblast. Fighting in Ukraine has killed at least 45 people in the last 24 hours, Kiev officials and rebel authorities said, ahead of a four-way summit in Minsk to thrash out a peace deal.


map from Google

The meeting was scheduled for that very evening—the evening before the Minsk summit this week—in Petro Poroshenko’s office at the presidential palace in Kyiv.

But the moment my colleague Gilles Hertzog and I arrive at the Kyiv airport and step on the tarmac, my phone rings.

It is Valeriy Chaly, the Ukrainian president’s deputy chief of staff, who is already in Belarus for the summit.

“Stay where you are. Whatever you do, don’t go into town. I can’t tell you anything on the phone. Protocol is coming to pick you up.”

We sit in a deserted waiting room where a converted duty free is selling bad coffee and bars of the Roshen chocolate, ubiquitous in Ukraine, on which Petro Poroshenko made his fortune.

After two hours, the security ballet begins—men in black, headsets in the ear, long, ultra-slim briefcase in hand, a routine that several decades in the planet’s hot spots have taught me signifies the imminent arrival of the Boss.

From there, everything moves quickly. The men in black assume battle stations as we charge back onto the tarmac, where a jet sits with its twin engines running. We scramble up the ramp at the rear. A security man leads us to the forward cabin, where Poroshenko is waiting. The Ukrainian president is barely recognizable in his khaki T-shirt, camouflage pants and military boots—but mostly because of an almost worrisome pallor, something that I have not seen on him before.

“Sorry about all the mystery, but except for him,” Poroshenko gestures to Gen. Viktor Muzhenko, the Ukrainian army’s commander in chief, who is also in uniform—“nobody knows where we’re going. Security reasons. But you’ll see. It’s awful. And I want you as witnesses.”

The flight, headed southeast, lasts an hour.

We are headed to Donetsk Oblast, where, the president tells me, vicious shelling of a civilian area has just claimed several dozen victims.

The conversation turns to the summit in Minsk, Belarus, where the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine will meet.

“Tomorrow at this time you’ll be face to face with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. What are you going to say to him?”

“That I will yield on nothing,” Poroshenko replies. “That neither Ukraine’s territorial integrity nor its right to Europe are negotiable.”

“And if he persists? If he won’t abandon his idea of federalizing the areas now in the hands of the separatists?”

“Then I’ll walk out and submit the question to public opinion and to the United Nations. We are not Ethiopia in 1935 or Czechoslovakia in 1938 or one of the little nations sacrificed by the great powers at Yalta. We’re not even your friend [Alija] Izetbegovic, who accepted the partition of Bosnia in Dayton.”

I tell him that the difference this time is that France, under François Hollande, is with him. He says he knows that.

I remind him that Germany contracted an ineradicable debt with respect to Ukraine (seven million dead in World War II alone) and that Chancellor (Angela) Merkel cannot fail to honor it. He nods as if to say that he knows that, too, but is a little less sure of it.

In any event, he feels strongly that his country has paid too dearly for its freedom and independence to accept any form of diktat. “I am hoping with all my heart for a peace agreement, but we are not afraid of war. Didn’t your General (Charles) de Gaulle say that great people, in dark times, have no better friends than themselves?”

We spend the rest of the flight discussing the formal statement that he will make at the opening of the summit, where the fate of his country will be hanging in the balance. It is a little after 10 p.m. when we land in Kharkov.

About 30 armored vehicles are waiting for us near the plane.

And off we go in convoy across the deserted plains of the Dnieper to Kramatorsk. After three hours of fairly easy going, the last 30 miles are a frozen track rutted by military convoys.

No lights to be seen.

Not a soul stirring.

The chilling atmosphere of a dead city.

And then, suddenly, a clutch of poor people warming themselves around a fire.

Here, the middle of the city had been the target of a Smerch rocket fired from a distance of more than 30 miles in the early afternoon.

Here, and within a radius of about 900 yards, the giant antipersonnel weapon released its rain of minirockets, killing 16 people and wounding 65.

And here I discover another Poroshenko: no longer the military leader from the plane; still less the billionaire president that I accompanied to the Élysée Palace a year ago; but a ravaged man, livid in the floodlights illuminating the scene. He listens as survivors recount the hellish whistle of the rocket, the women returning from the market who were mowed down by the deluge of pellets, the panic in the streets as people rushed for shelter, tripping over bodies, the brave mother who covered her child with her body and was killed, the arrival of rescuers, the anguish that another rocket could follow.

“What a disaster,” he groans.

He repeats it several times: “What a disaster . . . We are kilometers from the front. There’s no one here but civilians. This isn’t war—it’s slaughter. This isn’t a war crime; it’s a crime against humanity.”

And then, standing at the edge of the crater formed by a rocket that had failed to explode, Poroshenko—suddenly immense and strangely colossal because of the bulletproof vest that his aides had him don under his jacket—points at the engine of death as if it were his personal enemy and adds: “A monster of that size, outlawed by the Geneva Convention, the separatists don’t have those. That could only be the Russians.”

He repeats, a grim smile freezing his features. “The Russians. When I think that the Russians will be there in Minsk tomorrow and will have the audacity to talk about peace . . .”

A doctor, his arms bare even though the temperature is well below zero, approaches to escort us to the nearby hospital emergency room.

The president lingers at the bed of each of the injured, sometimes asking questions, sometimes offering sympathy, sometimes, with the hardiest, trying to joke. I think I even see him give a quiet blessing to an old woman as she hands him the fragments that had been removed from her legs, saying, “Here, Petro, you give these to Putin. Tell him they’re from Zoya in Kramatorsk.”

We make a last stop, far from the city, at the military headquarters of the general staff of the Donetsk region. In a vast building entirely covered with camouflage net are dozens of officers, helmeted Herculeses, their faces furrowed and exhausted, some asleep on their feet with their backs to the wall, still clutching their weapons. And there Poroshenko resumes the role of war leader. He disappears into the map room with his top officers, where he gives orders for the counteroffensive that will have to be launched if the Minsk summit fails.

It is 3 a.m.

Military intelligence fears the launch of another rocket attack. In any event it is time to go. We take the same route back, though it seems even more desolate.

Once we return to the plane, I tell Poroshenko that I had dinner the night before in Paris with a former ambassador to Ukraine who is advocating deliveries of weapons—and who believes that the Ukrainian armed forces are in a tough spot, especially in the Debaltsevo pocket, where thousands of troops are menaced on three sides.

“He’s not wrong there,” Poroshenko responds with a smile, digging into the cold cuts that the flight attendant has just brought to him. “But make no mistake: The time is long past when the navy at Sebastopol and the barracks at Belbek and Novofedorivka gave up without firing a shot. That’s the only advantage of war: You learn how to wage it.”

I also tell him that many in the U.S. and Europe doubt the capacity of his soldiers to make good use of the sophisticated weapons that eventually may be delivered to them. At this, he guffaws and, after exchanging a few words in Ukrainian with his chief of staff, says:

“Well, tell them, please, that they’ve got it wrong. We would need a week, no more, to take full possession of the equipment. Know that, because we had no choice, our army is about to become the best, the bravest, and the most hardened force in the region.”

From that point on, he darkens again only when I mention the uphill battle that his American friends will have to fight before any equipment can be delivered: Congress will have to reapprove the Ukrainian Freedom Support Act that it first passed on Dec. 11. It is an appropriation bill to release the $350 million in military aid that was approved. Final approval will be needed from President Obama, whose tendency to procrastinate in such matters is well known. And a decision will need to be made about whether the equipment can be taken from existing stocks or will have to be manufactured, which would take even more time.

“I know all that,” Mr. Poroshenko mutters, closing his eyes. “I know. But maybe we’ll get a miracle. Yes, a miracle.”

That reminds me that Poroshenko is a practicing Christian, a deacon in civilian life. On the presidential campaign trail last year, in Dnepropetrovsk and elsewhere, before every meeting, I watched him find the nearest church and take a moment to kneel and pray.


The idea also crosses my mind that the skilled strategist that he has become—the civilized man whom circumstances have obliged to join the admirable club of reluctant heroes who make war without wanting to—is possibly thinking that what he most needs now is to gain time. Perhaps gaining a few weeks would be the chief advantage of the accords that, without for an instant trusting Vladimir Putin’s word, he is going to sign.

Minsk. Is it a fool’s bargain?

Will the agreement he signs be a false one that, like last September’s, stops the war for just a month or two?

Of course. Deep down, he knows it. His statement after the signing of the accord was simple: “The main thing which has been achieved is that from Saturday into Sunday there should be declared without any conditions at all a general cease-fire.”

For the time being, the nightmare will recede a bit.

It is nearly dawn when we finally land in Kyiv. And Poroshenko has only a few hours to make it to that summit where, one way or another, he has a rendezvous with history.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie (Grasset/Fondation Maeght), explored the historical interplay of philosophy and art. A play, Hotel Europe, performed in Sarajevo, Venice, Odessa, and Paris in the latter half of 2014, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it. This article was translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.


The Race Against CO2



Apple’s $850M solar plant rockets it to first place among U.S. corporations

Computerworld | Feb 12, 2015 4:06 AM PT

Apple over the next year or so is expected to surpass Walmart as the largest corporate user of solar power.

The company this week announced it will invest $850 million to build a solar power plant through a partnership with First Solar, one of the nation’s largest photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers and provider of utility-scale PV plants. Through a 25-year purchasing agreement, Apple will get 130MW (megawatts, or million watts) from the new plant.

“This deal is like an insurance policy for Apple; the sun will still be shining 25 years from now, so Apple can be sure they will be getting emissions-free power at the same reasonable cost — even in 2040,” said Amit Ronen, director of George Washington University’s Solar Institute.

The new solar project is notable for a number of reasons.

“First, from what we can tell, this is the largest commercial solar deal ever in the U.S.,” Ronen said. “And it’s a pioneering example of how a major retail electricity customer can go to the market to obtain the kind of power they want to receive at a competitive price.”

The Apple/Solar City project ranks in the top 10 of U.S. PV installations. (In addition to Apple, PG&E will get 150MW from the plant.)
Currently, the largest solar power plant operating in the world is the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Riverside County, Calif., and the Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif. Both offer 550MW of capacity, according to Ronen.

At the end of 2015, the 579MW Solar Star Project in Rosamund, Calif. will be the largest.

An even larger 750MW solar facility has been approved and will be built by McCoy Solar Energy, “and even larger solar power plants have been proposed in India,” Ronen said.

Walmart has led corporate America in deploying PV panels. Almost all have been rooftop installations at store and corporate office locations. It has held the top spot for solar power capacity use for at least the past three years, according to Ken Johnson, vice president of communications with the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).

Apple is now on the cusp of taking that spot, Johnson said, leaping from fourth place behind Walmart, Kohl’s and Costco. (IKEA is fifth.)

Apple already has several large solar power installations around the U.S. Its largest, the 100-acre solar field in Maiden, N.C., boasts 14MW of capacity for its nearby data center. In 2013, Apple announced plans to build an 18MW solar plant to power a new data center in Reno.

The California project, however, dwarfs all previous ones.

“It’s a huge project. This is a really significant investment by a single company in solar power. Apple is really taking it to the next level with its commitment to renewable energy,” Johnson said.

According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, the new project will cover 1,300 acres in an area about an hour south of Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. That area is the equivalent of about 1,000 football fields.

Cook said the plant will generate enough energy to power Apple’s entire operation in California.

California, by far, leads the nation in deployment of solar power. Of 20GW (billion watts) of solar capacity currently deployed in the U.S., California installations represent 8.54GW. Arizona, with 1.9GW of solar capacity, and New Jersey with 1.3GW, are a distant second and third, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).

Solar installations are growing at a staggering rate. Last year, solar capacity in the U.S. grew 40%, or by 7.2GW.

“More and more companies nationwide are beginning to invest it solar energy for both economic and environmental reasons,” Johnson said.


Turning a Writer’s Focus to Power and the Planet

solnit_encyclopedia 26-05-13-Rebecca-Solnit-web-02 rebecasolnit
Posted: 12/23/2014 9:34 am EST Updated: 12/24/2014 10:59 am EST – The Huffington Post.

Cross-posted with

It was the most thrilling bureaucratic document I’ve ever seen for just one reason: it was dated the 21st day of the month of Thermidor in the Year Six. Written in sepia ink on heavy paper, it recorded an ordinary land auction in France in what we would call the late summer of 1798. But the extraordinary date signaled that it was created when the French Revolution was still the overarching reality of everyday life and such fundamentals as the distribution of power and the nature of government had been reborn in astonishing ways. The new calendar that renamed 1792 as Year One had, after all, been created to start society all over again.

In that little junk shop on a quiet street in San Francisco, I held a relic from one of the great upheavals of the last millennium. It made me think of a remarkable statement the great feminist fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin had made only a few weeks earlier. In the course of a speech she gave while accepting a book award she noted, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

That document I held was written only a few years after the French had gotten over the idea that the divine right of kings was an inescapable reality. The revolutionaries had executed their king for his crimes and were then trying out other forms of government. It’s popular to say that the experiment failed, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. France never again regressed to an absolutist monarchy and its experiments inspired other liberatory movements around the world (while terrifying monarchs and aristocrats everywhere).

Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).

How to Topple a Giant

To use Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose. Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable. For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, California, as its own private fiefdom. You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.

In recent years, a group of progressives won election to the city council and the mayor’s seat, despite huge expenditures by Chevron, the corporation that also brought you gigantic oil spills onshore in Ecuador and offshore in Brazil, massive contamination from half a century of oil extraction in Nigeria, and Canadian tar-sands bitumen sent by rail to the Richmond refinery. Mayor Gayle McLaughin and her cohorts organized a little revolution in a town that had mostly been famous for its crime rate and for Chevron’s toxic refinery emissions, which periodically create emergencies, sometimes requiring everyone to take shelter (and pretend that they are not being poisoned indoors), sometimes said — by Chevron — to be harmless, as with last Thursday’s flames that lit up the sky, visible as far away as Oakland.

As McLaughin put it of her era as mayor:

“We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate. Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita. We’re a sanctuary city. And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions. And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.”

For this November’s election, the second-largest oil company on Earth officially spent $3.1 million to defeat McLaughin and other progressive candidates and install a mayor and council more to its liking. That sum worked out to about $180 per Richmond voter, but my brother David, who’s long been connected to Richmond politics, points out that, if you look at all the other ways the company spends to influence local politics, it might be roughly ten times that.

Nonetheless, Chevron lost. None of its candidates were elected and all the grassroots progressives it fought with billboards, mailers, television ads, websites, and everything else a lavishly funded smear campaign can come up with, won.

If a small coalition like that can win locally against a corporation that had revenues of $228.9 billion in 2013, imagine what a large global coalition could do against the fossil-fuel giants. It wasn’t easy in Richmond and it won’t be easy on the largest scale either, but it’s not impossible. The Richmond progressives won by imagining that the status quo was not inevitable, no less an eternal way of life. They showed up to do the work to dent that inevitability. The billionaires and fossil fuel corporations are intensely engaged in politics all the time, everywhere, and they count on us to stay on the sidelines. If you look at their response to various movements, you can see that they fear the moment we wake up, show up, and exercise our power to counter theirs.

That power operated on a larger scale last week, when local activists and public health professionals applied sufficient pressure to get New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign legislation banning fracking statewide. Until the news broke on December 17th, the outcome had seemed uncertain. It’s a landmark, a watershed decision: a state has decided that its considerable reserves of fossil fuel will not be extracted for the foreseeable future, that other things — the health of its people, the purity of its water — matter more. And once again, the power of citizens turned out to be greater than that of industry.

Just a few days before the huge victory in New York, the nations of the world ended their most recent talks in Lima, Peru, about a global climate treaty — and they actually reached a tentative deal, one that for the first time asks all nations, not just the developed ones, to reduce emissions. The agreement has to get better — to do more, demand more of every nation — by the global climate summit in Paris in December of 2015.

It’s hard to see how we’ll get there from here, but easy to see that activists and citizens will have to push their nations hard. We need to end the age of fossil fuels the way the French ended the age of absolute monarchy. As New York State and the town of Richmond just demonstrated, what is possible has been changing rapidly.

Three Kinds of Hero

If you look at innovations in renewable energy technologies — and this may be an era in which engineers are our unsung heroes — the future seems tremendously exciting. Not long ago, the climate movement was only hoping against hope that technology could help save us from the depredations of climate change. Now, as one of the six great banners carried in the 400,000-strong September 21st climate march in New York City proclaimed, “We have the solutions.” Wind, solar, and other technologies are spreading rapidly with better designs, lower costs, and many extraordinary improvements that are undoubtedly but a taste of what’s still to come.

In parts of the United States and the world, clean energy is actually becoming cheaper than fossil fuels. The price of oil has suddenly plunged, scrambling the situation for a while, but with one positive side benefit: it’s pushed some of the filthier carbon-intensive, cutting-edge energy extraction schemes below the cost-effective point for now.

The costs of clean energy technology have themselves been dropping significantly enough that sober financial advisers like the head of the Bank of England are beginning to suggest that fossil fuels and centralized conventional power plants may prove to be bad investments. They are also talking about “the carbon bubble” (a sign that the divestment movement has worked in calling attention to the practical as well as the moral problems of the industry). So the technology front is encouraging.

That’s the carrot for action; there’s also a stick.

If you look at the climate reports by the scientists — and scientists are another set of heroes for our time — the news only keeps getting scarier. You probably already know the highlights: chaotic weather, regular records set for warmth on land and at sea (and 2014 heading for an all-time heat high), 355 months in a row of above-average temperatures, more ice melting faster, more ocean acidification, the “sixth extinction,” the spread of tropical diseases, drops in food productivity with consequent famines.

So many people don’t understand what we’re up against, because they don’t think about the Earth and its systems much or they don’t grasp the delicate, intricate reciprocities and counterbalances that keep it all running as well as it has since the last ice age ended and an abundant, calm planet emerged. For most of us, none of that is real or vivid or visceral or even visible.

For a great many scientists whose fields have something to do with climate, it is. In many cases they’re scared, as well as sad and unnerved, and they’re clear about the urgency of taking action to limit how disastrously climate change impacts our species and the systems we depend upon.

Some non-scientists already assume that it’s too late to do anything, which — as premature despair always does — excuses us for doing nothing. Insiders, however, are generally convinced that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best- and worst-case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written.

After that huge climate march, I asked Jamie Henn, a cofounder of and communications director for, how he viewed this moment and he replied, “Everything’s coming together while everything’s falling apart,” a perfect summary of the way heartening news about alternative energy and the growth of climate activism exists in the shadow of those terrible scientific reports. This brings us to our third group of heroes, who fall into the one climate category that doesn’t require special qualifications: activists.

New technologies are only solutions if they’re implemented and the old carbon-emitting ones are phased out or shut down. It’s clear enough that the great majority of fossil fuel reserves must be kept just where they are — in the ground — as we move away from the Age of Petroleum. That became all too obvious thanks to a relatively recent calculation made by scientists and publicized and pushed by activists (and maybe made conceivable by engineers designing replacement systems). The goal of all this: to keep the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit), a target established years ago that alarmed scientists are now questioning, given the harm that nearly 1 degree Celsius of warming is already doing.

Dismantling the fossil-fuel economy would undoubtedly have the side effect of breaking some of the warping power that oil has had in global and national politics. Of course, those wielding that power will not yield it without a ferocious battle — the very battle the climate movement is already engaged in on many fronts, from the divestment movement to the fight against fracking to the endeavor to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and others like it from delivering the products of the Alberta tar sands to the successful movement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and prevent others from being built.

Climate Activism: Global and Local Movements

If everyone who’s passionate about climate change, who gets that we’re living in a moment in which the fate of the Earth and of humanity is actually being decided, found their place in the movement, amazing things could happen. What’s happening now is already remarkable enough, just not yet adequate to the crisis.

The divestment movement that arose a couple of years ago to get institutions to unload their stocks in fossil fuel corporations started modestly. It is now active on hundreds of college campuses and at other institutions around the world. While the intransigence or love of inertia of bureaucracies is a remarkable force, there have been notable victories. In late September, for instance, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund — made fat upon the wealth of John D. Rockefeller’s founding role in the rise of the petroleum industry — pledged to divest its $860 million in assets from fossil fuels. It is just one of more than 800 institutions, including church denominations, universities, cities, pension funds, and foundations from Scotland to New Zealand to Seattle, that have already committed to doing so.

The Keystone pipeline could have been up and running years ago, delivering the dirtiest energy from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast with little fanfare, had activists not taken it on. It has become a profoundly public, hotly debated issue, the subject of demonstrations at dozens of presidential appearances in recent years — and in the course of this ruckus, a great many people (including me) were clued in to the existence of the giant suppurating sore of sludge, bitumen, and poison lakes that is the Alberta tar sands.

Canadian activists have done a similarly effective job of blocking other pipelines to keep this landlocked stuff from reaching any coast for export. One upshot of this: quite a lot of the stuff is now being put on trains (with disastrous results when they crash and, in the longer term, no less disastrous outcomes when they don’t). This exceptionally dirty crude oil leaves behind extremely high levels of toxins in the mining as well as the refining process.

As the Wall Street Journal recently reported:

“The Keystone XL pipeline was touted as a model for energy independence and a source of jobs when TransCanada Corp. announced plans to build the 1,700-mile pipeline six years ago. But the crude-oil pipeline’s political and regulatory snarls since then have emboldened resistance to at least 10 other pipeline projects across North America. As a result, six oil and natural-gas pipeline projects in North America costing a proposed $15 billion or more and stretching more than 3,400 miles have been delayed, a tally by the Wall Street Journal shows. At least four other projects with a total investment of $25 billion and more than 5,100 miles in length are facing opposition but haven’t been delayed yet.”

The climate movement has proved to be bigger and more effective than it looks, because most people don’t see a single movement. If they look hard, what they usually see is a wildly diverse mix of groups facing global issues on the one hand and a host of local ones on the other. Domestically, that can mean Denton, Texas, banning fracking in the November election or the shutting down of coal-powered plants across the country, or the movement gearing up in California for an immense anti-fracking demonstration on February 7, 2015.

It can mean people working on college divestment campaigns or rewriting state laws to address climate change by implementing efficiency and clean energy. It can mean the British Columbian activists who, for now, have prevented a tunnel from being drilled for a tar-sands pipeline to the Pacific Coast thanks to a months-long encampment, civil disobedience, and many arrests at Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. One of the arrested wrote in the Vancouver Observer:

“[S]itting in that jail cell, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. One that I was only partially aware that I have been carrying for years now. I am ashamed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty and our increasingly contemptible position on climate change. If these are the values of our society then I want to be an outlaw in that society.”

Making the Future

Just before that September climate march in New York, I began to contemplate how human beings a century from now will view those of us who lived in the era when climate change was recognized, and yet there was so much more that we could have done. They may feel utter contempt for us. They may regard us as the crew who squandered their inheritance, like drunkards gambling away a family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything. I’m talking, of course, about the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will see us as people who fiddled while everything burned.

They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies. They will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying “Here are some stories about other things, BUT CLIMATE IS STILL THE BIGGEST STORY OF ALL.”

They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in front of the engines of destruction everywhere, raised our voices to the heavens, halted everything until the devastation stopped. They will bless and praise the few and curse the many.

There have been heroic climate activists in nearly every country on the planet, and some remarkable things have already been achieved. The movement has grown in size, power, and sophistication, but it’s still nowhere near commensurate with what needs to be done. In the lead-up to the U.N.-sponsored conference to create a global climate treaty in Paris next December, this coming year will likely be decisive.

So this is the time to find your place in a growing movement, if you haven’t yet — as it is for climate organizers to do better at reaching out and offering everyone a part in the transformation, whether it’s the housebound person who writes letters or the 20-year-old who’s ready for direct action in remote places. This is the biggest of pictures, so there’s a role for everyone, and it should be everyone’s most important work right now, even though so many other important matters press on all of us. (As the Philippines’s charismatic former climate negotiator Yeb Sano notes, “Climate change impinges on almost all human rights. Human rights are at the core of this issue.”)

Many people believe that personal acts in private life are what matters in this crisis. They are good things, but not the key thing. It’s great to bicycle rather than drive, eat plants instead of animals, and put solar panels on your roof, but such gestures can also offer a false sense that you’re not part of the problem.

You are not just a consumer. You are a citizen of this Earth and your responsibility is not private but public, not individual but social. If you are a resident of a country that is a major carbon emitter, as is nearly everyone in the English-speaking world, you are part of the system, and nothing less than systemic change will save us.

The race is on. From an ecological standpoint, the scientists advise us that we still have a little bit of time in which it might be possible, by a swift, decisive move away from fossil fuels, to limit the damage we’re setting up for those who live in the future. From a political standpoint, we have a year until the Paris climate summit, at which, after endless foot-shuffling and evading and blocking and stalling and sighing, we could finally, decades in, get a meaningful climate deal between the world’s nations.

We actually have a chance, a friend who was at the Lima preliminary round earlier this month told me, if we all continue to push our governments ferociously. The real pressure for change globally comes more from within nations than from nations pressuring one another. Here in the United States, long the world’s biggest carbon-emitter (until China outstripped us, partly by becoming the manufacturer of a significant percentage of our products), we have a particular responsibility to push hard. Pressure works. The president is clearly feeling it, and it’s reflected in the recent U.S.-China agreement on curtailing emissions — far from perfect or adequate, but a huge step forward.

How will we get to where we need to be? No one knows, but we do know that we must keep moving in the direction of reduced carbon emissions, a transformed energy economy, an escape from the tyranny of fossil fuel, and a vision of a world in which everything is connected. The story of this coming year is ours to write and it could be a story of Year One in the climate revolution, of the watershed when popular resistance changed the fundamentals as much as the people of France changed their world (and ours) more than 200 ago.

Two hundred years hence, may someone somewhere hold in their hands a document from 2021, in wonder, because it was written during Year Six of the climate revolution, when all the old inevitabilities were finally being swept aside, when we seized hold of possibility and made it ours. “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings,” says Ursula K. Le Guin. And she’s right, even if it’s the hardest work we could ever do. Now, everything depends on it.


Rebecca Solnit, who has ended TomDispatch’s year for years now, grew up reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s books. Her own most recent book is The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (Trinity University Press), and her 2014 indie bestseller, Men Explain Things to Me (Dispatch Books), released in May, is ending up on best of the year lists everywhere.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit

Base diplomacy on: The right thing to do

This is uncommonly good advice for Americans to heed.


Wrecking Russia’s economy could be a disaster for the west
Angus Roxburgh

It’s sheer folly to hope that the country is destabilised and Vladimir Putin overthrown. We’ve no idea what the outcome would be.

George W Bush looks into Putin's eyes
Photograph: Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images

‘Bush understood nothing about Russia – from the moment he looked into Putin’s eyes and told us he got a sense of his soul.’

Tuesday 16 December 2014 14.35 EST

Like a rudderless ship running out of fuel and buffeted in an icy storm, the Russian economy looks as if it is heading for a crash. All the graphs – the rouble-dollar rate, the slump in GDP, bank interest rates, oil prices – look like menacing icebergs. The only question seems to be how long the ship can stay afloat.

There are two immediate causes of the crisis: the price of oil, and western sanctions. Oil is trading at below $60 a barrel while Russia, still overwhelmingly dependent on exports of its most precious resource, needs a price of $105 to balance its books. That’s the consequence of having failed to reform and diversify the economy over the past 20 years.

As for the west’s sanctions, they were introduced with one explicit aim – to force Putin to change tack in Ukraine. At least, that was the stated aim. But since the measures show no sign of having any effect on his thinking, and yet the west is considering even more sanctions, there is obviously another goal – to punish Putin for his actions, regardless of whether he changes his mind. Sadly, it is not Putin who feels this punishment. It is the Russian people.

The west needs to accept a simple fact: that Putin’s response to sanctions is always bizarre. He tends to favour reactions that hit his own people rather than the west. America passed the Magnitsky Act to “punish” those alleged to be responsible for the killing of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, and Putin responded by banning adoptions of Russian orphans by Americans. There is no sign that the killers of Magnitsky suffered in any way; indeed the only official being investigated for the crime was released. The west imposed sanctions on Putin’s “cronies” and Russian banks because of the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea; and Putin responded by banning the import of western foodstuffs.

To keep repeating the same mistake again and again and expecting different results is, as they say, a sign of madness. And if by doing so you punish only ordinary Russian people, then it is also cruel – and counterproductive. Twenty years ago the dream was to rescue the former communist world and bring prosperity and democracy to its people. What we are doing now is impoverishing and alienating the Russians.

We can, of course, stick to our guns and insist that “sanctions are having an effect”. But what will we gain if the only effect is to destroy the Russian economy? Perhaps the hope is to destabilise the country so much that Putin is overthrown. (I detect much schadenfreude among observers, who desperately hope a collapse of the Russian economy will bring about Putin’s fall.) If so, it is a highly dangerous game of chance. Pouring fuel on Kremlin clan wars that we barely understand would be the height of folly. We have no idea what the outcome might be – and it could be much worse than what we have at present.

Or perhaps the hope is that the Russian people, ground down into poverty and despair, will rise up against the Kremlin and install a government of the west’s choosing. Dream on!

It has long been my contention that we should deal with the causes of Putin’s aggressive behaviour, not the symptoms. There is a way to bring him back into the fold (always assuming that anyone actually wishes to do so any more), but it will require fresh ideas that are utterly unappealing to most of the west’s leaders. It will take bold and imaginative thinking, not kneejerk reactions and the false logic of piling on ever tougher sanctions.

Perhaps it is time to recognise that George W Bush’s disastrous foreign policy legacy encompasses far more than just Iraq, torture and the fanning of terrorism. Bush also understood nothing about Russia – right from the moment that he looked into Putin’s eyes and told us how he “got a sense of his soul” – and now we are living with the consequences.

It was the Bush administration that created the sense of insecurity that has caused Russia to react, and overreact, to every perceived threat – including, most recently, the perception that Ukraine was being forcibly dragged out of Russia’s orbit and into the west’s. Bush unilaterally abandoned the anti-ballistic missile treaty, seen by Russia as the cornerstone of strategic balance; he began building a missile shield on Russia’s doorstep; he expanded Nato to Russia’s frontiers, blithely granting the east Europeans “security” while causing Russia to feel threatened.

The solution is clear. Abandon the missile shield. End the expansion of Nato. And think boldly about a new security arrangement for the whole of Europe – one that will bring Russia in rather than leaving it outside feeling vulnerable. If this were done, everything I know about Putin and Russia tells me the crisis over Ukraine would be solved – and the Russian economy would not end up being needlessly destroyed, causing woe and bitterness among its people. If it is not done, we will have to deal with a resentful Russia for decades – for Putin’s successors will also demand security.

Let us return to the ideals of 1989, when Mikhail Gorbachev envisaged a new “common European home”. That is what every Russian leader since him has wanted – while the west, it seems, never did.

• Angus Roxburgh served as an adviser to the Russian government from 2006 to 2009

Michael Kinsley Weighs in on “The New Republic” Controversy


photo – getty images

             The New Republic Magazine, a 100-year-old liberal publication was purchased recently (two years ago) by the young co-founder of Facebook ( worth $700 Million) who now wants to turn the company into a digital media company after initially announcing that he wanted to maintain the magazine’s legacy as a provider of in-depth journalism. Michael Kinsley, who was the managing editor of the New Republic for nearly twenty years had this to say about the development as he was interviewed by The Times:

“Michael Kinsley, who did two stints as editor of The New Republic and then rejoined the magazine in 2013 before leaving in January for Vanity Fair, cautioned against rushing to judgment about the new regime. “We don’t know, or at least I don’t know, what their plans are,” he said. “Have they said anything about what they’re going to do except in these vague and cliché-ridden terms?”

Mr. Kinsley is no longer on the magazine’s masthead. But if he were, he said, he wouldn’t join the protest. “We live in a capitalistic society, and that’s something that The New Republic has historically stood for,” he went on. “It’s his magazine, and if he wants to wreck it, he can.” From the New York Times article below.


More articles about the controversy:

Real Clear Politics – Joe Nocera:

The New Yorker – George Packer :

The Washington Post – Dana Milbank:

Accept Disgrace Willingly – Lao Tsu

“One lesson we may have learned in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks is that no terrorist group can damage or destroy the United States and its Constitution. Only we can do that to ourselves.”

Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former national-security correspondent for The New York Times and author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, which won the 2007 National Book Award.

See the full article in Politico Magazine:


Going Right When We Meant To Go Left


As David Brooks points out, this should be a defining time for the left, if not an era for the left. Yet what we get is a staggering win for the right. This whirlwind of motion and change is left in a dark caldron to be sealed for as long as people let others run this nation. Money is not the cause of this lack of focus and will – it is the people, their collective disinterest. It is the lack of citizenry and so the old saw that the people get what they deserve is played out yet again in real time. This country has never had a more educated populace and look around you, look at what happens. Is there a person who can digest this and lead this nation to marry purpose to will? Somehow we humans were given the stewardship of this planet. We are tasked at balancing the earth’s ecology and the well being of its creatures, with the ability to feed ourselves and make a living. Not a big deal if we are clear about it. No set of solutions are going to be perfect but the path of the right basically says that this is not our job – this balancing – its someone else’s job.

Shields and Brooks on Republican Victory, Immigration Confrontation:

Garry Wills – American Thinker & Iconoclast


Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

CT  CT CT prj-garry-wills-002.JPG


(photo – Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Mr. Wills is the foremost literary journalist and thinker of our time. This article is a tribute to this iconoclast, one who has followed his own path to understanding America with intelligence, tenacity and grace.

The American Mind

The historian Garry Wills has written better than anybody else about modern America

by Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013 
Published in March 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine

Wills is an outsider: a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and right © Gasper Tringale

Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.

In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.

On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).

The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.

It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bête noire of American liberals, was himself the “last liberal,” ferociously clinging to the national myth of “the self-made man.” It was Wills who cleared away the nostalgic mist surrounding John F Kennedy and exposed him as the originator of the modern “insurgency presidency,” addicted to reckless “covert actions” that paralleled his illicit bedroom adventures. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Wills hates Kennedy,” a political scientist and adviser to Kennedy once told me. “Then I got it. Wills is the good Catholic, and Kennedy was the bad Catholic.”

A good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself. When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”

To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”

Wills himself came very close to entering the priesthood—indeed, he had to be released by Rome from his vows when he decided to be a writer instead. He attends Mass on Sunday and still says the rosary every day. These early and continued devotions, more than anything else, set him apart from almost every other major American intellectual—“somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there,” as he has written. For Wills, to think hard is a vocational exercise, and it has given him the confidence to ignore the provincial Manhattan “scene,” with its publishing events and circuit of media parties that reinforce a brutal pecking-order.

It has also given him something even more valuable: rare access to everyday experience, real and felt, in what remains the most religiously devout of all the advanced western democracies. Unlike other presidential historians, Wills immerses himself in the interior religious worlds of his subjects—the sacred texts, the Sunday-school dogma. He knows how close all this lies to the pulsing life of the nation. He knows too that the farm and the village square, nostalgically mourned today—vanishing features of our giant landscape—incubated American democracy, with its evangelised politics, its tightly sealed repressions and sudden violent outbursts, its nightstand with a handgun tucked in a drawer alongside the family Bible. Not all great American writers have understood this. Henry James didn’t. Neither did Edith Wharton. But the outsider “primitive” Walt Whitman did. So did Mark Twain, reared on the banks of the Mississippi. And HL Mencken, the sage of Baltimore who seldom left that sleepy overgrown town. And of course the college dropout William Faulkner, with his arsonist Snopeses and swampland aristocrats.

Each of these native geniuses was essentially self-taught but was also steeped in regional lore, custom, and habit. Each knew the American dream has been handed down in its original pastoral rhythms. Wills is the great living heir of this America of the mind, a man of the middle west—born in Atlanta, raised in Michigan and Wisconsin on either side of Lake Michigan, the fresh-water immensity, shaped like a giant finger, that starts just south of Chicago and extends all the way up, almost 500km, to Canada, its shoreline touching four Midwestern states.

It is this background, as much as his mastery of religious history, that enabled Wills to see in his book Under God—published in 1990, 10 years before the advent of George W Bush’s “faith-based” politics and the mad “Bible Belt” campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools—that every American generation struggles anew to absorb the facts of secular reason and to swallow the bitter truth that all nations, even republics founded (or, as Wills puts it, “invented”) on abstract principles, come with expiration dates and no claim of “American exceptionalism” can hold the dogs at bay.

Wills—with his boxy spectacles, his Midwestern locutions (“not a one”)—declines to be the great man of letters in the kingly manner of, say, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren or even the Harvard-tooled heart-lander John Updike. It’s not a question of modesty. Wills is supremely self-assured. He has written two memoirs, the second of them a catalogue of his encounters with presidents, activists, mentors, professional American football players, the opera singer Beverly Sills, each evoked with uninflected precision. In conversation too Wills inclines toward the taxonomic, for instance when he recalls the “Integralist Catholic Church-State Caesaro-Papists” who formed a small renegade faction at National Review, the conservative journal-cum-hothouse where he got his start as a 23-year-old prodigy in the 1950s.

All these years later, Wills’s indifference to his cultural standing seems the hard-headed calculation of a combatant wary of the perils of growing soft. Argument is his nutriment and has been since his teens, when he was an accomplished schoolboy debater at the Jesuit high school he attended in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidian rigour and arcane examples. “People tell me I should read Hilary Mantel’s novels,” he says, “but I’m not interested in the writer’s imagination of history. I want to see the evidence!”

He himself drains vats of it. “I require many hours for reading,” he says, and when he can’t grab a book—in the car, for instance—he listens to the audiotapes he keeps in ready supply. It all goes into closely reasoned assertions, one after another, marching across the page in the stern ranks of Jesuitical logic.

Wills has lately been blogging for the New York Review—sending forth not “posts” but miniature essays, tiny epics on the American mind (“The south,” he wrote in January, “escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking.”) His gleeful post-election swatting of Mitt Romney (“Things he was once proud of—healthcare guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination”) brought a rush of web traffic, yet another brave new world for a scholar-journalist-provocateur who until recently drafted his manuscripts in longhand and declined to purchase a computer until his students forced him to. “They were angry that they couldn’t email me,” he says.

It’s no longer a problem. Fed up with academic politics—squabbling over hires, trudging through unpublished dissertations—Wills voluntarily gave up tenure, although he still teaches, and supports himself by combining books with related lectureships. He lives in a large yellow house, near the Great Lake, with his wife, Natalie, whom he met in 1957, when she was a flight attendant, and then married in 1959. “[She is] the only person with whom I have ever had sex,” he has written, one of the more curious boasts in recent literary annals.

* * *

When I visited Wills, it was a relief to see how robust he still looks, despite a health scare last summer, so serious that obituarists at the New York Times, where I work, were poised to “update”—they had to mention all those new books!—while bulletins came in from Wills’s daughter Lydia, a literary agent in Manhattan, and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. When Wills recovered, I sent him a note. He ignored it, characteristically, and now brushes the episode aside. “I had a gall bladder operation and got an infection in the hospital, so I spent about three weeks in the hospital.” He is now fully recovered, though he has other ailments. “I’ve got a bad back. I’ve got a little gout—everything you’ve got when you’re old. But I’m mobile and I work all day, one way or another.”

The house, purchased after the Wills’s three children were grown, is arranged for maximum comfort. The living room, which looks toward the lake, is gracious and spare, with a grand piano Wills tinkers at. These comforts provide cover for trouble-making: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counselled long ago, “that you may be violent and original in your work.” For Wills ordinariness comes easily. He confesses to being “a conventional person,” “square,” “middle class,” “so unnoticeable that I have trouble getting waited on in stores.” Raised by not especially educated people—his father was an appliance salesman and college boxing coach—Wills belongs, for all his bold intellectual exploits, to the obedient, respectful “silent generation” that came of age after the second world war. His boyhood was spent in classrooms and churches—and sneaking in reading on the bleachers at American football and basketball games. He himself resembles a youth sports coach, burly and bland-featured, and he dresses like one too: pullover, plaid shirt, soft-soled shoes. He speaks in the ageless tones and, much of the time, the diction of a regular Midwestern guy.

All this too is camouflage. Wills came into his selfhood by tangling with tough-minded elders—his father, who forced him to watch boxing matches (Wills has called for the sport to be banned), the “fathers” who drilled him in the church teachings he now demolishes, the department chairman at Johns Hopkins who long ago warned Wills he would not get tenure, ostensibly because he was doing too much outside writing, but actually, Wills believes, because of his association in those days with National Review, the conservative journal, and his friendship with its editor William F Buckley.

That was in the early 1960s, before Wills was radicalised—jailed for protesting the Vietnam war (he was an ally of the Berrigan brothers, radical priests hunted by the FBI after they napalmed draft files) and keeping company with civil rights activists. In thrall to Martin Luther King, Jr, Wills flew to Memphis the morning after King’s assassination in 1968 and was one of the very few whites, all journalists, present at the funeral. The mourners were black. “All were, absolutely all,” he says, still shocked. One wall of his study has a framed photo of King in his coffin signed by the Life magazine photographer Art Shay.

The other adornment—also honouring a national martyr—is an “absolute facsimile” of the Gettysburg Address, a gift from the Library of Congress in recognition of Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, about the 272 words that “remade America,” summoning it forward out of slavery toward “a new birth of freedom.” One of Wills’s signature achievements, it combines literary and historical detective work, and moves from a learned discussion of classical rhetoric to a brooding meditation on Lincoln’s mind and character, his profound yearnings and hard calculations, his romantic-melancholia, his obsession with death. “Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is,” Wills writes of the great speech. “The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.” And yet, “by turning all the blood and waste into a hygienic testing of an abstract proposition [ie, all men are created equal] he may have ennobled war, the last thing he wanted to do in other contexts.”

Wills is a pacifist and this formed the basis of his tense exchange with President Barack Obama that led to much gossip afterward. This was in June 2009. Obama, newly in office and acutely aware of his place in history, wanted to hear what experts had to say. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals Obama drew on when he assembled his cabinet (the book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) arranged for eight historians to join Obama and a few staffers for dinner in the White House. The guest list included, among others, Robert Caro (the legendary biographer of President Lyndon Johnson), Robert Dallek (biographies of Kennedy and Johnson), and inevitably, Garry Wills. “It’s a strange thing,” one of the group told me afterwards. “You imagine you have a lot to tell the president. But as soon as you’re with him, all you can think to do is tell him how great he is.”

* * *

Not Wills. When Obama professed surprise at all the hostility he was getting from supporters on the left, Wills recalled, “I said you’re going to get more if you keep doing signing statements”—that is, issuing policy orders directly from the White House circumventing Congress or adding his own interpretation to approved legislation. Wills, an authority on the constitution, is one of many who think these orders violate it. Obama once did too, in his Senate days when George W Bush used the statements to slip items past Congress, just as Obama has been doing. Now Obama finds himself falling into the trap of the imperial “insurgent” presidency—and not simply on matters of domestic policy. Three months before the dinner Obama had announced he would send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and there were strong hints of further escalation to come. At dinner’s end, Wills recalls that Obama “went around [the room] and said, ‘Before you leave if you have one more thing you’d like to tell me…’ That’s when I said if you get back into Afghanistan you’ll never get out. You can’t put that country together.”

The lessons of Vietnam could not be avoided. That war had destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, whose vision of a “Great Society” Obama hoped to build on. Wills was not alone in making this point. But he was the most emphatic, though it was to no avail. At the end of the year Obama announced another 30,000 troops would be sent in—a “surge” like the one George Bush had ordered in Iraq. In the spring of 2010 the total number of “boots on the ground” reached 100,000. “Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early,” Wills blogged in July 2010, almost exactly a year after the White House dinner. “It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.”

“Everyone else at that dinner was invited back,” Wills told me. “I was not. Most of [the others], by the way, were very sycophantic.” He says this evenly, though with a touch of wounded pride. But in the end, Wills was vindicated. Obama has been quietly whittling down the US “presence” in Afghanistan and early this year announced 34,000 troops will come home by January 2014.

In any case, snubbing Wills was a mistake. When Obama summoned the historians a year later, worried now about the Tea Party, Wills could have told him more than all the others combined. His book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, published during the Clinton years, is even more timely today, as the Republican party lapses into retrograde obstruction. The bigger irony is that Wills has written admiringly on Obama and has compared him more than once to Lincoln. But Wills is no longer infatuated. Asked recently what book Obama should read, he replied, “Garry Trudeau’s Signature Wound, to see what damage Obama has done to thousands of our young people with his stupid wars.” Wills might have chosen Thucydides or Machiavelli or Tolstoy. Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture.

That same culture informs Wills’s greatest work, Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable primer on modern American politics après le déluge of the clamorous 1960s, part Mencken, part Aristotle, part Moby Dick. It is an eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential election, the most tumultuous in modern times—two assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert F Kennedy); riots in the cities (Chicago and Miami) where the parties held their nominating conventions.

Others wrote about it, but it was Wills alone who foretold that the next phase of American politics would be shaped not by campus protest and black revolt, but by the threatened and angry middle class—Republican delegates, the Sun Belt physicians and small-town bank presidents, “gladsacks, as it were,” who crowd Miami Beach’s resort hotels, their main topic of conversation the exorbitant prices, even as they are unsubtly bullied by the hotel management. “No one is presumed to know the rules of tipping: a note in each room gives the ‘suggested gratuity’ for maid service.” Later, Wills finds a taxi and crosses the bridge in Miami proper, where a riot has broken out between blacks and the police, with looters running wild. “There were no signs of fires, no report of guns, so the driver dipped down onto city streets, and we followed the path of wreckage in toward the centre of things—a weight machine thrown through a store window, the cash register wrestled to the floor, the window of a wig shop broken and stripped, ladies’ heads bowled here and there in bald disgrace.”

Published in 1970, when he was 36, Nixon Agonistes is above all the record of Wills’s transit from right to left; from bright young conservative to man of the left. (It also earned him a place on one of Nixon’s “enemies lists,” because, among other offences, of its unflatteringly detailed portraiture.) A few years later, when Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Wills’s book was read as a kind of prophetic decryption. It remains the most encompassing of all electoral campaign writing, a journey into the tangle of American excess and equally into the deep tangle of modern liberalism. Wills’s prose seethes with taxonomical fervour as he pins each specimen to the wall: “Henry Kissinger, who looks like a serious Harpo Marx, haunted the outskirts of power in Kennedy’s day, but was too dour and Germanic for Camelot. In Nixon’s sombre capital he has the reputation of a wit—elfin, sly, a bit of a ‘swinger.’” There is also the raunchy Alabama populist George Wallace: “He has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.”

Amid the character sketches are summary cadences that might have come from writing on the Peloponnesian war. Thus Wills on the anxieties of the early cold war: “The bomb and its control, peace terms and new alliances, divided-occupation duties, the UN, ominous little bristlings against Russia at the Paris peace talks… Truman had seized the railroads and threatened to draft the workers… The war had ended without ending—and who was to blame? No one, of course. History. The gods.”

This wasn’t political journalism. It was tragic drama. We’re still living with the consequences. Obama is too. Yet Wills seems curiously free of the history he has told better than anyone else.

At the end of my visit—after the crabcakes Wills had promised, and the delicious soup, and the wine I spilled in a torrent on the dining room table—Wills offered to take me to a hotel in Evanston where I might get a taxi to O’Hare Airport. On the short drive I told him I am one of the many who discovered politics in the pages of Nixon Agonistes. I recited the terse sequence quoted just above, about blame, history, and gods. Did he remember writing that? He shook his head. “No. But I remember the Thomas Nast cartoon.” Every schoolchild is taught (or used to be) about Nast, whose muckraking caricatures of Gilded Age satraps helped expose the corruption of urban “machine“ politicians. Did Wills mean to say Nixon’s villainy is comic? Grinning, Wills, without quite taking his hands off the wheel, crossed his arms over his stomach and pointed a finger in either direction.

Back in New York I looked up the cartoon, a classic from 1871, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” (above). Unsavoury waist-coated thugs, pockets bulging, form a great circle. Each points to the man beside him. The caption reads “’Twas Him.”

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Creating a Level Playing Field for Arab Spring Economic Success

This is a well argued approach to building informatiopn based economic structure in countries lacking a means of showing ownership of assets and rights. This was fundamental to Peru’s advancement. Its an unlikely conclusion to draw without the dramatic example of Peru. It makes sense and if it works, its the right thing to do as opposed to bombing ones way to create openings and change. This guy, Mr De Soto, should be meeting with Obama and Kerry.


The Capitalist Cure for Terrorism
Military might alone won’t defeat Islamic State and its ilk. The U.S. needs to promote economic empowerment

Oct. 10, 2014 4:43 p.m. ET


As anyone who’s walked the streets of Lima, Tunis and Cairo knows, capital isn’t the problem—it is the solution. Edel Rodriguez
As the U.S. moves into a new theater of the war on terror, it will miss its best chance to beat back Islamic State and other radical groups in the Middle East if it doesn’t deploy a crucial but little-used weapon: an aggressive agenda for economic empowerment. Right now, all we hear about are airstrikes and military maneuvers—which is to be expected when facing down thugs bent on mayhem and destruction.

But if the goal is not only to degrade what President Barack Obama rightly calls Islamic State’s “network of death” but to make it impossible for radical leaders to recruit terrorists in the first place, the West must learn a simple lesson: Economic hope is the only way to win the battle for the constituencies on which terrorist groups feed.

Economic empowerment is a proven tool in defeating terrorism, according to leading economist Hernando de Soto. He joins the News Hub with Sara Murray.
I know something about this. A generation ago, much of Latin America was in turmoil. By 1990, a Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization called Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, had seized control of most of my home country, Peru, where I served as the president’s principal adviser. Fashionable opinion held that the people rebelling were the impoverished or underemployed wage slaves of Latin America, that capitalism couldn’t work outside the West and that Latin cultures didn’t really understand market economics.

The conventional wisdom proved to be wrong, however. Reforms in Peru gave indigenous entrepreneurs and farmers control over their assets and a new, more accessible legal framework in which to run businesses, make contracts and borrow—spurring an unprecedented rise in living standards.




In Tunisia, members of the main labor union body staged a protest calling for the government led by the Islamist Ennahda party to step down in Tunis, Dec. 4, 2013. Reuters
Between 1980 and 1993, Peru won the only victory against a terrorist movement since the fall of communism without the intervention of foreign troops or significant outside financial support for its military. Over the next two decades, Peru’s gross national product per capita grew twice as fast as the average in the rest of Latin America, with its middle class growing four times faster.

Today we hear the same economic and cultural pessimism about the Arab world that we did about Peru in the 1980s. But we know better. Just as Shining Path was beaten in Peru, so can terrorists be defeated by reforms that create an unstoppable constituency for rising living standards in the Middle East and North Africa.

To make this agenda a reality, the only requirements are a little imagination, a hefty dose of capital (injected from the bottom up) and government leadership to build, streamline and fortify the laws and structures that let capitalism flourish. As anyone who’s walked the streets of Lima, Tunis and Cairo knows, capital isn’t the problem—it is the solution.

Here’s the Peru story in brief: Shining Path, led by a former professor named Abimael Guzmán, attempted to overthrow the Peruvian government in the 1980s. The group initially appealed to some desperately poor farmers in the countryside, who shared their profound distrust of Peru’s elites. Mr. Guzmán cast himself as the savior of proletarians who had languished for too long under Peru’s abusive capitalists.

What changed the debate, and ultimately the government’s response, was proof that the poor in Peru weren’t unemployed or underemployed laborers or farmers, as the conventional wisdom held at the time. Instead, most of them were small entrepreneurs, operating off the books in Peru’s “informal” economy. They accounted for 62% of Peru’s population and generated 34% of its gross domestic product—and they had accumulated some $70 billion worth of real-estate assets.

This new way of seeing economic reality led to major constitutional and legal reforms. Peru reduced by 75% the red tape blocking access to economic activity, provided ombudsmen and mechanisms for filing complaints against government agencies and recognized the property rights of the majority. One legislative package alone gave official recognition to 380,000 informal businesses, thus bringing above board, from 1990 to 1994, some 500,000 jobs and $8 billion in tax revenue.

These steps left Peru’s terrorists without a solid constituency in the cities. In the countryside, however, they were relentless: By 1990, they had killed 30,000 farmers who had resisted being herded into mass communes. According to a Rand Corp. report, Shining Path controlled 60% of Peru and was poised to take over the country within two years.

Peru’s army knew that the farmers could help them to identify and defeat the enemy. But the government resisted making an alliance with the informal defense organizations that the farmers set up to fight back. We got a lucky break in 1991 when then-U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, who had been following our efforts, arranged a meeting with President George H.W. Bush at the White House. “What you’re telling me,” the president said, “is that these little guys are really on our side.” He got it.

A dye stall in the Sunday market in the village of Pisac, Peru, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Reforms in Peru gave entrepreneurs and farmers control over their assets and a new, more accessible legal framework in which to run businesses, spurring a rise in living standards. Dieter Telemans/PANOS
This led to a treaty with the U.S. that encouraged Peru to mount a popular armed defense against Shining Path while also committing the U.S. to support economic reform as an alternative to the terrorist group’s agenda. Peru rapidly fielded a much larger, mixed-class volunteer army—four times the army’s previous size—and won the war in short order. As Mr. Guzmán wrote at the time in a document published by Peru’s Communist Party, “We have been displaced by a plan designed and implemented by de Soto and Yankee imperialism.”

Looking back, what was crucial to this effort was our success in persuading U.S. leaders and policy makers, as well as key figures at the United Nations, to see Peru’s countryside differently: as a breeding ground not for Marxist revolution but for a new, modern capitalist economy. These new habits of mind helped us to beat back terror in Peru and can do the same, I believe, in the Middle East and North Africa. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Arab world’s informal economy includes vast numbers of potential Islamic State recruits—and where they go, so goes the region.

It is widely known that the Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation in 2011 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street merchant. But few have asked why Bouazizi felt driven to kill himself—or why, within 60 days, at least 63 more men and women in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also set themselves on fire, sending millions into the streets, toppling four regimes and leading us to today’s turmoil in the Arab world.

To understand why, my institute joined with Utica, Tunisia’s largest business organization, to put together a research team of some 30 Arabs and Peruvians, who fanned out across the region. Over the course of two years, we interviewed the victims’ families and associates, as well as a dozen other self-immolators who had survived their burns.

These suicides, we found, weren’t pleas for political or religious rights or for higher wage subsidies, as some have argued. Bouazizi and the others who burned themselves were extralegal entrepreneurs: builders, contractors, caterers, small vendors and the like. In their dying statements, none referred to religion or politics. Most of those who survived their burns and agreed to be interviewed spoke to us of “economic exclusion.” Their great objective was “ras el mel” (Arabic for “capital”), and their despair and indignation sprang from the arbitrary expropriation of what little capital they had.

Bouazizi’s plight as a small entrepreneur could stand in for the frustrations that millions of Arabs still face. The Tunisian wasn’t a simple laborer. He was a trader from age 12. By the time he was 19, he was keeping the books at the local market. At 26, he was selling fruits and vegetables from different carts and sites.

His mother told us that he was on his way to forming a company of his own and dreamed of buying a pickup truck to take produce to other retail outlets to expand his business. But to get a loan to buy the truck, he needed collateral—and since the assets he held weren’t legally recorded or had murky titles, he didn’t qualify.

Meanwhile, government inspectors made Bouazizi’s life miserable, shaking him down for bribes when he couldn’t produce licenses that were (by design) virtually unobtainable. He tired of the abuse. The day he killed himself, inspectors had come to seize his merchandise and his electronic scale for weighing goods. A tussle began. One municipal inspector, a woman, slapped Bouazizi across the face. That humiliation, along with the confiscation of just $225 worth of his wares, is said to have led the young man to take his own life.

Tunisia’s system of cronyism, which demanded payoffs for official protection at every turn, had withdrawn its support from Bouazizi and ruined him. He could no longer generate profits or repay the loans he had taken to buy the confiscated merchandise. He was bankrupt, and the truck that he dreamed of purchasing was now also out of reach. He couldn’t sell and relocate because he had no legal title to his business to pass on. So he died in flames—wearing Western-style sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered jacket, demanding the right to work in a legal market economy.

I asked Bouazizi’s brother Salem if he thought that his late sibling had left a legacy. “Of course,” he said. “He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.” As Mehdi Belli, a university information-technology graduate working as a merchant at a market in Tunis, told us, “We are all Mohamed Bouazizi.”

The people of the “Arab street” want to find a place in the modern capitalist economy. But hundreds of millions of them have been unable to do so because of legal constraints to which both local leaders and Western elites are often blind. They have ended up as economic refugees in their own countries.

To survive, they have cobbled together hundreds of discrete, anarchic arrangements, often called the “informal economy.” Unfortunately, that sector is viewed with contempt by many Arabs and by Western development experts, who prefer well-intended charity projects like providing mosquito nets and nutritional supplements.

But policy makers are missing the real stakes: If ordinary people in the Middle East and North Africa cannot play the game legally—despite their heroic sacrifices—they will be far less able to resist a terrorist offensive, and the most desperate among them may even be recruited to the jihadist cause.

Western experts may fail to see these economic realities, but they are increasingly understood in the Arab world itself, as I’ve learned from spending time there. At conferences throughout the region over the past year, I have presented our findings to business leaders, public officials and the press, showing how the millions of small, extralegal entrepreneurs like Bouazizi can change national economies.

For example, when the new president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, asked us to update our numbers for his country, we discovered that the poor in Egypt get as much income from returns on capital as they do from salaries. In 2013, Egypt had about 24 million salaried citizens categorized as “workers.” They earned a total of some $21 billion a year but also owned about $360 billion of “dead” capital—that is, capital that couldn’t be used effectively because it exists in the shadows, beyond legal recognition.

For perspective: That amounts to roughly a hundred times more than what the West is going to give to Egypt this year in financial, military and development assistance—and eight times more than the value of all foreign direct investment in Egypt since Napoleon invaded more than 200 years ago.

Of course, Arab states even now have laws allowing assets to be leveraged or converted into capital that can be invested and saved. But the procedures for doing so are impenetrably cumbersome, especially for those who lack education and connections. For the poor in many Arab states, it can take years to do something as simple as validating a title to real estate.

At a recent conference in Tunisia, I told leaders, “You don’t have the legal infrastructure for poor people to come into the system.”

“You don’t need to tell us this,” said one businessman. “We’ve always been for entrepreneurs. Your prophet chased the merchants from the temple. Our prophet was a merchant!”

Many Arab business groups are keen for a new era of legal reform. In his much-discussed 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama spoke of the deep American commitment to “the rule of law and the equal administration of justice.” But the U.S. has yet to get behind the agenda of legal and constitutional reform in the Arab world, and if the U.S. hesitates, lesser powers will too.
In Peru, residents and members of Huanta’s self-defense force gathered on April 27, 1992, to celebrate the creation of the forces by President Alberto Fujimori’s government to combat Shining Path insurgents. Over the next two decades, Peru’s gross national product per capita grew twice as fast as the average in the rest of Latin America. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Washington should support Arab leaders who not only resist the extremism of the jihadists but also heed the call of Bouazizi and all the others who gave their lives to protest the theft of their capital. Bouazizi and those like him aren’t marginal people in the region’s drama. They are the central actors.

All too often, the way that Westerners think about the world’s poor closes their eyes to reality on the ground. In the Middle East and North Africa, it turns out, legions of aspiring entrepreneurs are doing everything they can, against long odds, to claw their way into the middle class. And that is true across all of the world’s regions, peoples and faiths. Economic aspirations trump the overhyped “cultural gaps” so often invoked to rationalize inaction.

As countries from China to Peru to Botswana have proved in recent years, poor people can adapt quickly when given a framework of modern rules for property and capital. The trick is to start. We must remember that, throughout history, capitalism has been created by those who were once poor.

I can tell you firsthand that terrorist leaders are very different from their recruits. The radical leaders whom I encountered in Peru were generally murderous, coldblooded, tactical planners with unwavering ambitions to seize control of the government. Most of their sympathizers and would-be recruits, by contrast, would rather have been legal economic agents, creating better lives for themselves and their families.

The best way to end terrorist violence is to make sure that the twisted calls of terrorist leaders fall on deaf ears.

Mr. de Soto is the founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, the author of “The Mystery of Capital” and the host of the documentary “Unlikely Heroes of the Arab Spring.”

Sam Hamill – Port Townsend Sage


I attended Sam Hamill’s reading last night at Elliot Bay Books on Capitol Hill in Seattle.


Mr Hamill considers himself a zen Buddhist poet.

The room was packed and Sam read from his new book of collected poems: Habitation: Collected Poems.


His poems ranged from youth to present. His presentation was crisp, human and forceful. His mind is tight and one sees the joy of discovery and explication in his speech. He touched on many significant people and events in his life, one being the influence that Camus had on his stance towards war.

I am including below an interview from The Progressive magazine that is as fresh today as when it was conducted in 2003. Below this piece is the last section of Camus’ “NEITHER VICTIMS NOR EXECUTIONERS“.

Mr Hamill continues to reside in Port Townsend, WA.


The book A Poet’s Work is the poet as scholar at work. It is a towering work. I can think of no other work by a poet nor any other writer that delivers the work of poetry in the last century.





Sam Hamill Interview 

— by Anne-Marie Cusac with the Progressive Magazine

March 31, 2003

This is where I come to hide,” says Sam Hamill as he pulls the car into the grove of fir and cedar surrounding the house and studio he built himself. But he is not hiding. He has scheduled his Progressive interview hard upon his return from New York City, where, during a blizzard, he and poets Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, Martín Espada, and others read to a large and enthusiastic audience at Lincoln Center.

It is a late February day near Port Townsend, Washington, and Hamill has had little chance to retreat from public attention since mid-January, when he received a note from Laura Bush requesting his presence at a White House symposium on Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman.

Hamill responded with an e-mail to friends. It read, in part: “When I picked up my mail and saw the letter marked ‘The White House,’ I felt no joy. Rather, I was overcome by a kind of nausea. . . . Only the day before I had read a lengthy report on the President’s proposed ‘Shock and Awe’ attack on Iraq, calling for saturation bombing that would be like the firebombing of Dresden or Tokyo, killing countless innocent civilians. The only legitimate response to such a morally bankrupt and unconscionable idea is to reconstitute a Poets Against the War movement like the one organized to speak out against the war in Vietnam.” Hamill called upon all poets “to speak up for the conscience of our country” by submitting poems for “an anthology of protest.

“Within thirty-six hours, the submissions of poems to Hamill’s project had overwhelmed his e-mail account. The First Lady heard of the poets’ plans and canceled the symposium.

On February 12, the day the White House symposium was supposed to happen, poets participated in more than 135 readings and events around the country denouncing Bush’s war moves against Iraq. By that date, Hamill’s new web site ( had published more than 6,000 poems.

At first glance, Hamill might seem a surprising person to cause an uproar. The esteemed editor, translator, essayist, and poet is, by his own admission, reclusive. But his life of contemplation and dedication to poetry prepared him more than adequately for his confrontation with the U.S. government.

Among many other things, he is the translator of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a book that stresses the importance of calling things by their right name, a Confucian idea that applies as much to political rulers as it does to emotional states or descriptions of the natural world.

Hamill is a founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, which is known for its independence, as well as for its accurate and graceful translations. The Copper Canyon list includes such poets as Olga Broumas, Hayden Carruth, Cyrus Cassells, Odysseas Elytis, Carolyn Kizer, Thomas McGrath, Cesare Pavese, Kenneth Rexroth, and Eleanor Wilner.

An avowed pacifist, Hamill opens his book A Poet’s Work with a quote from the Albert Camus essay “Neither Victims nor Executioners,” which he says changed his life. “All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect on murder and to make a choice,” Camus writes. “After that, we can distinguish those who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their force and being.”

Question: Why did your call for a new Poets Against the War movement elicit such support?

Sam Hamill: It was almost as if they were waiting breathlessly for someone to step forward and say, “Enough is enough.” We became a chorus. Last week, the poems were coming in at one per minute. We have twenty-five editors downloading and formatting poems. We’re well over 11,000 poems already, and we’ll publish an anthology of probably about 225 pages of theoretically the best.

Q: Who inspired you to do this?

Hamill: The spirit of Denise Levertov, and listening to Galway Kinnell and Philip Levine and Etheridge Knight and June Jordan during the 1960s. That made me decide when I received the invitation to the White House that I simply couldn’t just say no thank you and pretend that it was OK.

Poets should speak out against what we see as the assault against our Constitution and the warmongering that’s going on. I’m perfectly willing to lay down my life for my Constitution, but I am not willing to take a life for it or any other reason because I think killing people is counterproductive.

I’m basically a poetry scholar, and I’m happier here in my studio with my row of Chinese dictionaries than I am, frankly, at Lincoln Center, although it was one of those lifetime moments, as they say.

Q: Can you describe what the Poets Against the War movement was like during Vietnam?

Hamill: Well, I can remember, I think it was 1967, sitting in the First Unitarian Church in Isla Vista, Santa Barbara, and seeing Phil Levine come out on the little stage. He sat on the edge and said, “You know, sometimes it’s hard not to hate my country for the way I feel, at times, but I won’t let that happen.” And then he read, “They Feed They Lion,” this incredibly powerful, incantatory poem that was inspired in part by the burning of Detroit in 1967 and the riots that followed. And then Galway Kinnell came out with that wonderful big, breathy, hollow voice of his and read, for the first time in public, “The Bear.” That poem impressed me so much that I memorized it. I used it for years when I taught in prisons. It’s a powerful extended metaphor for what the writing life is really all about. It’s a uniquely powerful poem about self-transformation, and that’s what we’re asking, really, beyond even our objection to the war. We’re asking people to look at themselves and think about what might be possible with a little self-transformation.

Each of us as poets, as decent suffering human beings, has to find a way to run our lives that is compassionate toward one another and toward our environment. Because if we don’t, we are going to be committing suicide at a very large level. We’re certainly not perfect, and we’re not probably even better than anybody else, except that perhaps we are given to certain kinds of contemplation that provide a valuable balance to the knee-jerk reactionary behavior of most of our newspapers and political leaders. Poets are great doubters.

What poetry does above all else is develop sensibility. And that’s what makes poetry so dangerous. That’s why poetry is so good at undermining governments and so bad at building them. There’s nothing harder to organize than a group of poets.

The only thing we all agree on, virtually every poet in this country, is that this Administration is really frightening, and we want something done about it.

Bush is using language that’s a mirror image of the language of Osama bin Laden when he says, “We have God on our side. This is the struggle of good against evil.” Isn’t that exactly what bin Laden said? Bush the born-again Christian, bin Laden the born-again Muslim, and they’re both convinced that they have God on their side, and they’re both willing to kill countless numbers of innocent people to assert their rightness. Very dangerous, very dangerous.

Q: You’ve described yourself as anti-religious.

Hamill: Yes, yes. I am anti-religious.

Q: And why is that?

Hamill: Most of the ugly wars in history have been wars of religion. And there’s nothing more dangerous than someone with religious certitude who creates consequences in the world that to me are simply inexcusable.

Q: You seem to be contrasting religious certitude with what you said about poets as doubters. Is that right?

Hamill: Yes. Well, we poets don’t tend to be certain a lot. Much of our art is made out of our own uncertainty. And there is a not-knowingness, I think, that leads us back to suffering humanity with a more compassionate vision than most of our politicians have.

Q: In your essays, you write that poetry saved your life. I was wondering if you could explain what you mean.

Hamill: I was a violent, self-destructive teenager, who was adopted right at the end of World War II. I was lied to and abused by my parents. I hated life in Utah. I resented the Mormon Church, its sense of superiority and its certitude. I escaped through the Beat writers and discovered poetry and have devoted my entire life to the practice of poetry in varying ways. Poetry gave me a reason for being. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that. My ethics, my sense of morality, my work ethic, my sense of compassion for suffering humanity, all of that comes directly out of the practice of poetry, as does my Buddhist practice. Poetry is a very important element in the history of Buddhism in general and in Zen in particular. It was really Zen that motivated me to change the way I perceive the world.

It’s not, I’m a poet who practices Zen. And it’s not, I’m somebody who practices Zen who writes poetry. There’s no separation for me. Sometimes people come up and they get infatuated with some little brief imagistic poem or something, and they say, “Oh, I really like your Zen poems.” And I say, “Which ones are not Zen poems?”

Poetry teaches us things that cannot be learned in prose, such as certain kinds of irony or the importance of the unsaid. The most important element of any poem is the part that is left unsaid. So the poetry frames the experience that lies beyond naming.

Q: Did you have a political awakening, or have you always felt the way you do?

Hamill: I would say that my great political awakening was really born on Okinawa, reading Albert Camus: the “Neither Victims nor Executioners” essay and The Rebel. I was an eighteen-year-old kid. I hated myself. I hated my life. I thought nobody wanted me. All I’d ever heard my entire life in my family was, “Nobody wanted you, and we took you in.” When you get that into your head at a tender age, you really feel like you are an unlovable human being, and then you behave like one. That’s exactly what I had done. It took me many years to deal with my own violence and find my own niche.

Kenneth Rexroth took me under his wing for a brief period. I was fifteen years old, and I was smoking a lot of heroin and trying to be cool, man, and I really loved poetry. And Kenneth convinced me that destroying myself was not really the best possible solution, and that I needed to look at the world’s literature, and not just my own life, in order to be hip, if you will. So he had a huge influence on what became of me thereafter.

I got interested in Zen when I was a teenage beatnik on the streets of San Francisco. And it was my interest in Zen, in part, that got me into the Marine Corps, because that was a ticket to Asia. So I spent a couple of years on Okinawa and began reading and thinking about how I wanted to go about conducting my life.

Q: I looked back at your translation of Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing. You make the observation that he lived in some ways a dangerous life by writing and naming things. What is the position of today’s American poets in relation to that life?

Hamill: Well, I think a lot of American poets are swimming-pool Soviets. A lot of them have taken the comfortable, self-protective route too often. I know that I certainly have. That’s easy to do. It’s difficult to put your own bare ass out on the limb every time you sit down to write a poem. But that’s really sort of the ideal. Because if we don’t discover something about ourselves and our world in the making of a poem, chances are it’s not going to be a very good poem. So what I’m saying is that a lot of our best poets could be better poets if they wrote less and risked more in what they do.

That said, I’ll say that this is probably the best time for poetry since the T’ang dynasty. All the rest of the world is going to school on American poetry in the twentieth century, from Ezra Pound to W. S. Merwin, and for very good reason. We have soaked up influence in the last century like a sponge. It’s cross-pollination, first law of biology, that the more variety you have the more health you have.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about translation as a discipline?

Hamill: One of the things I love about translation is it obliterates the self. When I’m trying to figure out what Tu Fu has to say, I have to kind of impersonate Tu Fu. I have to take on, if you will, his voice and his skin in English, and I have to try to get as deeply into the poem as possible. I’m not trying to make an equivalent poem in English, which can’t be done because our language can’t accommodate the kind of metaphors within metaphors the Chinese written language can, and often does, contain. For instance, on the mat outside my door, you can read that as two characters: a roof and a woman under it. If you combine those two characters, that’s the character for harmony or for peace. If you put that same roof out there, and put two women under it, you get the character for disharmony. That’s a visual linguistic pun. Well, it’s hard for us to do anything equivalent like that in our language, so what I have to do is find other ways of putting the turn on this line or the edge on that image. You can’t just do a word-for-word because they don’t exist. We don’t have a word for two women under one roof. So you have to find other ways of making it literary and of being true to the sensibility, if you will, of the original, as much as possible.

The oldest cliché in the world is about “what’s lost in translation,” but you don’t very often read much intelligent about what’s gained by translation, and the answer is everything. Our language is a compendium of translation.

Q: What is the proper role of poetry in our society?

Hamill: That’s one of those questions that would just love to have a pat answer. You know, poetry’s job is to make us feel good. Poetry exists to allow us to express our innermost feelings. There isn’t one role for poetry in society. There are many roles for poetry. I wrote a poem to seduce my wife. I wrote a poem when I asked her to marry me. Poetry got me laid. Poetry got me married. I wrote a number of poems about Kah Tai lagoon, when Safeway was building that huge, ugly store down there where I used to love to watch the birds nest. That political poem, or environmental poem, was unsuccessful because Safeway built there anyway. And yet the poem has something to say today, as it did then. And I speak here only of my own poems. The agenda for every poet has to be different because most of us write from direct human experience in the world.

It would be nice if all the Republicans could put poetry in a little box and put the box under the bed and sit on it, but they can’t. And neither can the left insist that poetry must do this or must do that. I’ve heard a lot of people quoting Auden famously that “poetry makes nothing happen,” but none of the people who were quoting it seemed to have understood the irony of what he was saying. If you think for one second that Auden believed that poetry makes nothing happen in a real, literal way, then you’re a damn fool.

Q: What do you say to members of the rightwing media who are saying that the poets organizing against the war are behaving badly or that they’re looking foolish?

Hamill: I haven’t seen any poet in this country behave nearly as rudely as Newt Gingrich or Bill O’Reilly. I’m not asking these people to approve of everyone’s manners. I don’t feel obliged to defend the manners of every poet who submits a poem to my web site. That’s not my job. My job is to provide them with an opportunity to speak from the heart. If there’s not much in the heart and if the mouth is running wild, that’s not my problem. Of course, there are some people who behave rudely. Allen Ginsberg used to like to get up in public and take his clothes off. I don’t do that, but I liked Allen Ginsberg. He was a nice guy [laughter].

When these idiot rightwingers start complaining about poetry being political, I’m fond of reciting Sappho to them, who excluded men from her world. Why does she exclude them? Mostly because of their warmongering.

Q: Is there a particular bit of Sappho you quote?

Hamill: There’s a fragment that goes, “Some say the most beautiful thing in the world is a great cavalry riding down over the hill. / Others say it’s a vast infantry on the march. / But I say the most beautiful thing is the beloved.” How political can you get?

– See more at:




by Albert Camus

Yes, we must raise our voices. Up to this point, I have refrained from
appealing to emotion. We are being torn apart by a logic of history which
we have elaborated in every detail–a net which threatens to strangle us.
It is not emotion which can cut through the web of a logic which has
gone to irrational lengths, but only reason which can meet logic on its
own ground. But I should not want to leave the impression… that any
program for the future can get along without our powers of love and
indignation. I am well aware that it takes a powerful prime mover to get
men into motion and that it is hard to throw one’s self into a struggle
whose objectives are so modest and where hope has only a rational basis–
and hardly even that. But the problem is not how to carry men away; it is
essential, on the contrary, that they not be carried away but rather that
they be made to understand clearly what they are doing.

To save what can be saved so as to open up some kind of future–that is
the prime mover, the passion and the sacrifice that is required. It
demands only that we reflect and then decide, clearly, whether humanity’s
lot must be made still more miserable in order to achieve far-off and
shadowy ends, whether we should accept a world bristling with arms where
brother kills brother; or whether, on the contrary, we should avoid
bloodshed and misery as much as possible so that we give a chance for
survival to later generations better equipped than we are.

For my part, I am fairly sure that I have made the choice. And, having
chosen, I think that I must speak out, that I must state that I will
never again be one of those, whoever they be, who compromise with murder,
and that I must take the consequences of such a decision. The thing is
done, and that is as far as I can go at present…. However, I want to
make clear the spirit in which this article is written.

We are asked to love or to hate such and such a country and such and
such a people. But some of us feel too strongly our common humanity to
make such a choice. Those who really love the Russian people, in
gratitude for what they have never ceased to be–that world leaven which
Tolstoy and Gorky speak of–do not wish for them success in power politics,
but rather want to spare them, after the ordeals of the past, a new and
even more terrible bloodletting. So, too, with the American people, and
with the peoples of unhappy Europe. This is the kind of elementary truth
we are likely to forget amidst the furious passions of our time.

Yes, it is fear and silence and the spiritual isolation they cause that
must be fought today. And it is sociability and the universal inter-
communication of men that must be defended. Slavery, injustice, and lies
destroy this intercourse and forbid this sociability; and so we must
reject them. But these evils are today the very stuff of history, so
that many consider them necessary evils. It is true that we cannot
“escape history,” since we are in it up to our necks. But one may propose
to fight within history to preserve from history that part of man which
is not its proper province. That is all I have to say here. The “point”
of this article may be summed up as follows:

Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power
and domination. I will not say that these forces should be furthered
or that they should be obstructed. They hardly need our help and, for
the moment, they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will, then,
continue. But I will ask only this simple question: What if these
forces wind up in a dead end, what if that logic of history on which
so many now rely turns out to be a will o’ the wisp? What if, despite
two or three world wars, despite the sacrifice of several generations
and a whole system of values, our grandchildren–supposing they survive–
find themselves no closer to a world society? It may well be that the
survivors of such an experience will be too weak to understand their
own sufferings. Since these forces are working themselves out and since
it is inevitable that they continue to do so,there is no reason why
some of us should not take on the job of keeping alive, through the
apocalyptic historical vista that stretches before us, a modest
thoughtfulness which, without pretending to solve everything, will
constantly be prepared to give some human meaning to everyday life.
The essential thing is that people should carefully weight the price
they must pay….

All I ask is that, in the midst of a murderous world, we agree to reflect
on murder and to make a choice. After that, we can distinguish those
who accept the consequences of being murderers themselves or the
accomplices of murderers, and those who refuse to do so with all their
force and being. Since this terrible dividing line does actually exist,
it will be a gain if it be clearly marked. Over the expanse of five
continents throughout the coming years an endless struggle is going to
be pursued between violence and friendly persuasion, a struggle in
which, granted, the former has a thousand times the chances of success
than that of the latter. But I have always held that, if he who bases his
hopes on human nature is a fool, he who gives up in the face of circumstances is a coward. And henceforth, the only honorable course will be
to stake everything on a formidable gamble: that words are more powerful
than munitions.


Neither Victims Nor Executioners (French: Ni Victimes, ni bourreaux) was a series of essays by Albert Camus that were serialized in Combat, [1] the daily newspaper of the French Resistance, in November 1946. In the essays he discusses violence and murder and the impact these have on those who perpetrate, suffer, or observe. Neither Victims Nor Executioners is split into eight sections:
• The Century of Fear
• Saving Lives
• The Contradictions of Socialism
• The Betrayed Revolution
• International Democracy and Dictatorship
• The World is Changing Fast
• A New Social Contract
• Toward Dialogue [1]
The essays were translated into English by Dwight Macdonald and published in the July–August 1947 issue of Politics. This version is available via England’s pacifist [1] Peace Pledge Union. It appeared in separate book form in 1960 with an introduction by Waldo Frank.[2] The essay was also reprinted in the book Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper “Combat”. [3]


The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors (Dwight Macdonald)

Originally posted on Biblioklept:

The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors. We continue to live off its capital but the community has broken up and the standards are no longer respected. The crisis in America is especially severe. Our creators are too isolated or too integrated. Most of them merge gracefully into Midcult, feeling they must be part of “the life of our time,” whatever that means (I should think it would be ambitious enough to try to be part of one’s own life), and fearful of being accused of snobbishness, cliqueism, negativism, or worst of all, practicing “art for art’s sake” (though for what better sake?) Some revolt, but their work tends toward eccentricity since it lacks contact with the past and doesn’t get support from a broad enough intelligentsia in the present. The two currently most prominent groups, the “action painters” and the beatnik academy of letters, differ from the…

View original 99 more words

This is an interview with Gary Synder while he was back east for a joint presentation with Wendell Berry.

The Gary Snyder Interview: Buddhism, Beat Poetry and Environmentalism


Gary Snyder and WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian
Born in 1930, Gary Snyder is one of the last surviving writers of the Beat Generation — a generation that included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Snyder is a naturalist, an essayist and devout Buddhist. At the age of 26, he said goodbye to the Beats in San Francisco, and lived for seven years in Japan, studying at a Zen monastery. He won the Pulitzer prize in poetry in 1974.

His most recent book is a collaborative effort featuring Kentucky’s Wendell Berry. The book is called, “Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.” Snyder and Berry met in the 1970s, and since then, have been corresponding regularly over myriad issues, while always circling back to nature and agriculture. They will be in conversation Wednesday at the Festival of Faiths, at 7 p.m., at Actors Theatre.

Gary Snyder joined me for a conversation at our WFPL studios. We discussed his early years in Washington state, where he developed a deep connection to the land. I also asked him about his love for Buddhism, his memories meeting Jack Kerouac, and much more.

Gary Snyder Interview – 5-14-2014

Point Omega – DeLillo’s Literary Masterpiece

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photo – towards point omega –  rlw

06/00/1991. American Author Don Delillo DonDeLillo_154310390

This book is a meditation held together by the flow of time; time says that one thing must come after another, we do not will this, it is. We can will to erect things, language, to look as though we have arrested the flow but it is a writers’ or readers’ willing suspension of disbelief that allows it to be.

DeLillo has arranged a Haiku-like narrative on America’s preoccupation with 9/11 and has set this constellation of thoughts next to, and intermixed with, the process of making art today; the act of erotic attraction; and what it looks and feels like to loose the one relationship in life that gives one reason for participating, being, in this flow of time.

This is how he makes art:

“I had him babbling in unsequential edits, one year shading into another, or Jerry soundless, clowning, he is knocked-kneed and bucktoothed, bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion, the old flawed footage, the disturbed signals, random noise on the soundtrack, streaky patterns on the screen. He inserts drumsticks in his nostrils, he sticks the hand mike in his mouth. I added intervals of modern music to the track, rows of tones, the sound of certain re-echoing drone. There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God. I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish forty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been four hours, six hours. It wore me down, I became Jerry’s frenzied double, eyeballs popping out of my head.”


We learn one character, the artist, Jim Finley, telling the story, an artist in America putting his entire being into developing art projects of unusual makeup and uncertain destiny. We experience through him, the film maker, the owner of Deadbeat Films. This is his design for his next project:

“No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall. The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You’re the man. There’s no offscreen voice asking questions. There’s no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, on camera or off …. Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody’s done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut.”

The main object of this project is the fleshing out of the character who was hired by the Pentagon to give the Iraq war, at the time it was being waged, “ words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” One imagines this man, Richard Elster, this intellectual, in the midst of the Pentagon strategists obsessed with “priorities, statistics, evaluations and rationalities“, to be in an ecclesiastical position. We do not know his effect on the analytical warriors, only that he performed his services for two years, which, just based on duration, leads me to think that he made some contribution to the equation. Elster wanted a Haiku war, “a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.” Thus he attempts to change their perceptions to cut through the abstractions and see “nothing beyond what it is”. Elster wanted a war because: “A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of the will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history…”

In the midst of making his next art film project, basically an interview, to capture, Elster the intellectual lobbyist, in the aftermath of his war conjugations, Elster’s daughter, who has come to visit her father at the remote house in the California desert disappears after having lived with the two for a short period of time. She vanishes one afternoon and leaves Elster in a world absent of relationships and meaning. His daughter is his only close human attachment and her disappearance is a symbol of his ultimate detachment from all things human. He is left “alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware…”

In some respects it is the same consequence for the artist, he had developed an erotic attachment to the daughter based on imaginations he had for her for the short time she was with them – she did not reciprocate interest, she simply allowed him to use her as an object. Finely takes to her given that she spent thirty minutes ( an adequate amount of time to register validation of interest per Finely) viewing his Psycho film. Urges lead him on to eventual voyeurism, standing in the hall looking at her in bed, wondering if he should approach her. She sees him standing there and turns in bed away from his gaze.

Finally, this book, this meditation is about human beings, their nature, their essence, what makes them complex, having a range of refractions, with no clear idea of which surfaces are real and which are abstractions, calls into question the nature of abstractions. Are they, the abstractions, not as real as the sense data we get from he real world? Blood, rain, wolves, arms, twelve, pi squared, maps, words, metaphors, myths. “Human perception is a saga of created realities”. And DeLillo goes beyond understanding being, he posits that humans ultimately want to go back to being inanimate, to undo the millions of years of evolution: “Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen … Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have beings. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”

What a rush.

DeLillo inserts, one at the beginning and one at the end, two curious pieces in the book, both of which are called Anonymity. He uses these narratives to introduce the film Psycho and to explore some of its images and psychology that he thinks important and further that he uses in his film projects. We feel that his use of juxtaposition allows a seamless exploration of the dark and a maniacal edge to the American psyche and how this cultural development is exported to the world through film. It further illustrates the absence of anything close to a meaningful relationship. We see the influence of technology, introversion, divorce, science and egotism that literally shatters the human bond that naturally exists between animals developed on the earth.

We see an America displaying its cold analytical nature, especially through film exported around the globe, that the rest of the world reacts to with anger, opposition and passion. We are successful in blowing up other cultures civility and protocols with the ease and precision of our self-appointed role. DeLillo’s use of juxtaposition forms a new category in literary sub-structure.


rlw – June 2014


Ukraine – Summing Up – And the Role of the American Press

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An excellent story from N + 1, showing some of the roots and political forces of the Ukraine conflict. Given the history of the Ukraine as it is told here, it is clear why simple violence can cut through the web of historical entanglement that refuses to get clear for a life in the present. The editors then give the US intelligentcia a tongue lashing for helping to bring back cold war practices part of which is accomplished by demonizing Putin, accompanied by reflecting negatively on each move the Russians make. The article ends by admitting that Putin is a scoundrel and that we should be kinder and gentler.

THE EDITORS – N + 1 Magazine

Ukraine, Putin, and the West

Putin walks into a bar . . .

Published in
Issue 19: Real Estate
Publication date
Spring 2014

IN NOVEMBER OF LAST YEAR, a spirited protest took place in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv after the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, declined at the last minute to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have been a very small first step toward a still hazy, far-off EU membership, but it had major cultural and symbolic significance, and its sudden rejection, under clear pressure from Russia, brought people to the streets.
The initial protest, on central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, has since been estimated at around a thousand people—hardly impressive, especially in a country where since independence the citizenry has been willing to take to the streets. The difference this time was the surprising ham-handedness of the authorities, who first ignored the protest, then tried violently to disperse it. This, to many people who’d been growing weary of a corrupt and incompetent regime that had imprisoned political opponents and enriched itself and its friends while the country’s economy stagnated, was too much, and they too came out into the streets.
The massive, sustained, courageous protests that followed were anomalous for the post-Soviet space in that they did not revolve around rigged elections, as did the successful 2003 and 2004 protests in Georgia and Ukraine (the Rose and Orange “Revolutions,” respectively), as well as the large, ultimately unsuccessful protests in Moldova in 2009 and Moscow in December 2011. They were also anomalous in that Yanukovych, bad as he was, was a typical post-Soviet leader: a man who’d used his ties to the old nomenklatura and the rising criminal-capitalist class to consolidate power, often through the use of violence. Yanukovych would have been very much at home as a regional governor in Russian Krasnoyarsk or Irkutsk. And yet here were people, formerly docile and frightened and cowed, out in the streets against him.
In the American press, the protests were initially greeted as “pro-Western”—as were the earlier Georgian and Ukrainian protests, and protests in Lebanon, Iran, and Egypt. The protesters, the story went, were people who wished to pull Ukraine into a 21st-century European future, rather than back toward a 20th-century Soviet past. We’re not saying we saw it personally, but if no one wrote an exuberant article about the use of social media on Maidan, we will eat our laptop.
Eventually the picture became more complicated: Svoboda, a small but rising nationalist political party (10 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections) and the Right Sector, a gang of right-wing street fighters, were taking the lead in some of the violent confrontations with police, and so it was reported that the protest did include some “extremist right-wing groups,” though just as often it was reported that there were “extremists from both the right and the left.” There were leftist activists on Maidan, but when, early on, they tried to set up an organized presence, they were attacked with knives by the right-wing groups. After that they kept their presence low-key.
As the protests stretched on, despite the freezing cold, some supporters began to worry that talk of right-wing groups was giving Maidan a bad name. A group of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars circulated a strange petition urging Western media outlets to stop talking about the right-wing groups. In the US, this campaign was taken up by the Yale historian Timothy Snyder. In a series of articles and posts in the New York Review of Books, Snyder insisted, misleadingly, that the right-wing groups had a marginal presence at the protests, and that to say otherwise was to toe the party line being issued from the Kremlin, which was, it’s true, filling the national airwaves with talk of Ukrainian fascists. Snyder was answered by Stephen Cohen of the Nation, who argued that the American media was simply taking its usual anti-Russia line, regardless of the content of the protests. As usual, Cohen went too far, suggesting that rather than criticize Vladimir Putin, the US should be grateful to him for all he’s done. Snyder answered that Cohen, a noted historian of the anti-Stalin opposition, was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And on it went.
THERE’S A REASON Ukraine is at the heart of the most significant geopolitical crisis yet to appear in the post-Soviet space. There is no post-Soviet state like it. Unlike the Baltic states, it does not have a recent (interwar) memory of statehood. Nor, unlike every other post-Soviet state aside from Belarus, does the majority population have a radically different language and culture from the Russians. In many cases, for these countries, the traditional language suggests a natural political ally—Finland for the Estonians, Turkey for the Azeris, Romania for the Moldovans. These linguistic and cultural affinities are not without their difficulties, but they do give a long-term geopolitical orientation to these countries.
Ukraine has this to some extent in its western part, formerly known as Galicia, which has cultural and linguistic affinities with Poland. But the country’s capital, Kyiv, has much stronger ties to Russia: Russians consider Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century (when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols), to be the first Russian civilization. Russian Orthodoxy was first proclaimed there. Most people in Kyiv speak Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and in any case the languages are quite close (about as close as Spanish and Portuguese). On television, it is typical for any live broadcast—whether it’s news, sports, or a reality-TV show—to go back and forth seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, with the understanding that most people know both. Russians all too often assume that these cultural affinities mean that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people. There is. But the closeness of the two peoples makes forging an independent path for Ukraine extraordinarily difficult.
Adding to this difficulty has been the Soviet legacy, which in Ukraine as everywhere else is always and everywhere visible. The Ukrainian historian Giorgy Kasianov has written that Ukrainians are forced to exist in several historical and semantic fields simultaneously: the roads they drive on, the factories they work at, the social relations they engage in—all are part of the Soviet heritage. As in the rest of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, this heritage is crumbling, but in Ukraine in particular it remains formidable.
As a result, Ukraine has essentially been frozen in time since independence. Nationalist and pro-Russian political parties (each bankrolled by a handful of oligarchs) have passed the presidency back and forth between them, neither getting much done while they ruled. The country’s two countervailing forces—Ukrainian-language nationalists in the west, and Russian-language nationalists in the east and Crimea—have ensured that neither maintains the upper hand. Because of this, Ukraine has consistently had a better, more lively public sphere than most of its neighbors—more freedom of speech, more freedom of assembly, more diverse political actors. Ukraine was also distinguished by the repeated, and usually peaceful, transfer of power from one party to another (something that post-Soviet Russia has still not achieved more than two decades in). And yet these positive democratic indicators did not, as contemporary dogma would predict, lead to positive economic results. Instead, Ukraine, a country that in 1991 had hope that, left to its own devices, it could flourish—with its highly educated workforce, proximity to Europe in the west and the Black Sea to the south, and many industrial enterprises inherited from the USSR—has instead lagged miserably behind its neighbors. Its per capita GDP is half of Russia’s, one fifth that of the US. Its economic performance is worse than that of its authoritarian neighbors Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is a country about as poor as El Salvador. And the poorest regions are in the west, which sends many undocumented migrant workers farther west, to Europe, and north to Russia. It is the disjuncture between Ukraine’s solid democratic performance and its miserable economic one that provided the protests with much of their pathos and durability.
The issue of Ukrainian nationalism must be treated separately. Two major 20th-century events play into contemporary Ukrainian nationalist conceptions. One is the Holodomor, or “hunger famine,” unleashed in the early 1930s by Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture. The other is the Second World War, during which a group of paramilitaries in western Ukraine, known as the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, collaborated with the Germans to clear the region of foreign (Polish, Russian, Jewish) influence.
That these events of the past are not dead and buried was revealed most vividly by the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, the man brought to power on the waves of popular protest known as the Orange Revolution. Yushchenko, whose wife is from the Ukrainian American diaspora that kept alive the flame of Holodomor consciousness, spent much of his political capital and time raising the issue of the Holodomor. The goal was nation-building on the example (diaspora theorists had made this clear) of the Holocaust, so that the death of millions of Ukrainians could do for Ukraine what the death of millions of Jews had done for Israel in solidifying national identity. The problem was twofold. First, a terrible famine is not the best basis on which to build a new, modern nation; second, Stalin’s “hunger famine,” while a massive crime, was directed not at Ukrainians as such but at the Soviet peasantry—much of which was in Ukraine, but large portions of which were also in southern Russia, where they died just as horribly as their Ukrainian counterparts. For Stalin, the destruction of Ukrainian culture and its attendant nationalism was a bonus in the war against the peasantry, nothing more. And so to shape this into a specifically national story Yushchenko and his historians had to twist the truth. They had to insist on the Russians’ genocidal intentions, and implicate by extension the people who were often charged, in the Soviet 1930s, with carrying out collectivization: Ukrainian Jews working for the NKVD.
The second aspect of Yushchenko’s concept for a Ukranian national narrative focused on rehabilitating the memory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Ukrayinska Povstanska Armiya, or UPA). The leaders of the UPA remained active after the end of the Second World War, and were hunted down and assassinated by Soviet agents. Soviet propagandists then worked assiduously to remind citizens that small-nation nationalism (as opposed to Great Russian nationalism) led to fascism, as demonstrated by the collaboration of the UPA with the Wehrmacht. Soviet propagandists loved this story. The Chechens, Ingush, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars had all been accused by Stalin of working with the Germans, but with the UPA it was actually true. The Soviets loved this story so much that they couldn’t leave it alone; where necessary, they forged documents to prove the UPA’s guilt. The result was a multilayered story that changed depending on who was telling it and how much they knew; it was like that episode of The Simpsons where the family gets kidnapped by aliens, who may or may not be planning to eat them, and Lisa and the aliens take turns blowing dust off an old cookbook, which seems to say, with each bit of dust removed, How to Cook Humans, then How to Cook for Humans, then How to Cook Forty Humans, then How to Cook for Forty Humans. When Yushchenko was told that the UPA had committed massacres in western Ukraine, he responded that this was KGB propaganda. And some of it was! But some of it, unfortunately, was not. This, too, set Yushchenko against and alienated him from his neighbors to the north. (Not coincidentally, this argument paralleled the later argument about the presence of the right wing on Maidan. The protests were massive and varied and full of ordinary people with either no political affiliations or a commitment to “democracy,” which, however vague, they were willing to defend with their lives; but there were also groups raising the red-and-black UPA flag and chanting the old UPA slogan, “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!” Nonetheless, ideological defenders of the Maidan protests repeatedly pointed to overheated Russian propaganda as proof that allegations of a right-wing presence must be false.)
As all this was being argued about in the West, not always in good faith, and as Russian and Ukrainian leftists engaged in much more honest self-criticism about the lack of a leftist presence in the protests, events in Kyiv continued to develop. In mid-January the Ukrainian parliament, controlled by the ruling party, passed a draconian law to punish the protesters, including sanctions against driving in a motorcade, wearing a helmet, setting up a tent, refusing to block access to internet services (for ISPs), “blocking access to personal property,” et cetera. In response, protesters overran administrative buildings throughout western Ukraine, where police refused to intervene. Yanukovych meanwhile managed to squander his significant advantages—the fact that he was a legitimately elected president, for one thing, and that he controlled the army, for another—through a mixture of indecision and stupidity. Sometimes it seemed he was brilliantly waiting out the protesters—and it was very cold out—until suddenly he would send the riot police to try to clear the square again. Activists began to be kidnapped and tortured and sometimes killed. The determination of the protesters hardened. What had once been a crowd with iPhones was transformed into men in battle fatigues, balaclavas, orange construction helmets, welder goggles, knee pads, shin pads, greaves, metal shields, and all sorts of improvised weaponry—two-by-fours, Molotov cocktails, flails, the occasional hunting rifle, sticks, and rocks. They looked like some army of the damned, out to fight zombies—but in fact they were facing down their own police.
FIGHTING DIED DOWN in early February, as the Rada worked toward an agreement to amnesty the protesters. As a gesture of goodwill, the protesters agreed to clear out some of the government buildings they occupied in Kyiv; when one group of right-wing protesters refused to leave the Ministry of Agriculture, another group of right-wing protesters forced them out anyway.
But the cessation in hostilities did not hold. On February 18, during a vital session of the Ukrainian Rada, a large column of protesters headed for the parliament to voice their support for the parliamentary opposition. The march led to fierce clashes with police, with the latter opening fire on the protesters. People fell, wounded, some of them dead. The crowd fired back. Some policemen were also killed; on Maidan, the occupation held.
The situation had reached unprecedented levels of violence, and the international community stepped up its pleas for a peaceful resolution. Yanukovych, too, seemed frightened by what had occurred (and possibly by his inability to clear the square) and agreed to talks. At the end of this process came an agreement between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, witnessed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Germany, as well as a Russian representative, to hold early presidential elections and guarantee amnesty to the protesters. It seemed like finally the standoff was over.
But things had gone too far by this point, and the agreement did not hold. Events began to develop very rapidly. It was reported that Yanukovych and his cronies were trying to flee the city, whether because (as Yanukovych later claimed) his car had been fired on, or because it was clear that their situation was hopeless. In response, thousands of people blocked the road to the airport. Yanukovych fled the city anyway; this became clear when his palace, just outside the city limits, was left unguarded. Curious, people started going in. Yanukovych had left in a hurry—papers clearly showing massive corruption were left in his office. The internet was soon flooded with photos of the luxurious estate; one showed the self-defense forces of Maidan—in their weird outfits, with helmets, unshowered—trying to play golf on the presidential course.
The parliament assumed power and quickly appointed a new government. Yanukovych was laughed out of Ukraine—unable to leave on a chartered plane because he lacked the proper documents, he was reduced to heading for Crimea, where he was able to board a Russian military vessel and be spirited to the friendly neighbor to the north.
Less than a week later, in gross violation of the conditions of their long-standing lease on Crimean territory, Russian troops left their bases in Crimea and began to take up positions around the peninsula, disarming Ukrainian troops where they could. More Russian troops arrived, and the Putin administration began to make noises that this was just the beginning; that Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine—ten million people, give or take—could also, perhaps, use Russian protection from Ukrainian nationalists.
How did it come to this? If there was one thing everyone agreed on just five years ago, it was that, say what you would about post-independence Ukraine, it was a country. “Ukraine exists,” was the understated but undeniable election slogan of the (failed) 2010 Yushchenko presidential campaign. Crimea, Ukraine’s most restive and most beautiful area, was finally settling in for the long haul—better to be a strange, anomalous, mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainian appendage than to be inside a paranoid, authoritarian Russia. That the revolution against Yanukovych, a triumph of human fortitude, should result in the loss of territorial integrity is sad but comprehensible. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and here is this one.
WHAT ROLE HAS the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any? Certainly we failed to prevent it. But there is more. For the past two years, since Putin reassigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed. It got to the point where Western journalists in Sochi for Putin’s overpriced Olympics were cheered like heroes for tweeting about how the curtains in their hotel rooms were falling down. It was funny, but it was also not funny. Should Putin, the president of a country with inadequate hospitals, schools, and housing for its 150 million people, have spent $50 billion to host the Olympics? Absolutely not—especially when a third of the money was apparently expropriated by various officials. But the gleeful complaints about Olympic conditions seemed mostly bent on humiliating Russia in toto.
It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who Is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.
Perhaps the way to put it is that an intellectual mistake was turned into a political mistake. The intellectual mistake was to fixate on Putin as the bad man who came along and suddenly undid the good work of Boris Yeltsin. (Bill Clinton’s Russia hand Strobe Talbott the other day tweeted an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of this position: “Putin has for years been systematically reversing reforms of Yeltsin, Gorbachev & Khrushchev, whose gift of Crimea to Ukraine he’s nullified.”) But as the Russian left has been telling us for years, Putin has not gone back on the Yeltsin-era reforms. In most spheres of Russian life, he has continued them—undoing the Soviet safety net and replacing it with nothing. That he has become an authoritarian ruler while doing so is a result of the fact that these reforms are cruel and unpopular.
An obsession with Putin—shared, by the way, by the Russian liberal opposition, which continues to pine for Yeltsin and refuses to admit the destruction he wrought on the country and its populace—was the intellectual mistake, and it created a political atmosphere. Why did Obama refuse to meet with Putin at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg last summer? Was it because the Russians had been intransigent and unhelpful on various foreign policy questions, or was it because Evil Putin had become such a media fixture in the US that meeting with him would have been politically poisonous, a “sign of weakness”? No doubt it was both.
And it was this atmosphere, too, of blind rage against one man, through which the events in Ukraine were filtered. Were there right-wing militants among the protesters? Not if the Kremlin says so! Should the Western ambassadors, formal and informal, so eager to give the Ukrainian opposition advice, counsel them to keep in mind the sensitive Russophone population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea? No—that would only give comfort to the Russian enemy. If the protests nonetheless remained pluralistic, committed to democracy, often in its most direct form, it was not because of any advice from the US, which tended, as usual, to be focused on zinging the Russians.
Putin has a habit of talking tough. In televised interviews, and in the strange staged televised cabinet meetings he likes to hold, he sometimes seems like he’s talking through clenched teeth. It’s irritating—to Russians more than anyone—but the American political establishment, and the American intellectual establishment right behind it, got dragged into it. If the US were truly strong—or rather, if the US understood that it is strong, much, much stronger than Russia in every conceivable way—would it not have found a way to placate this tough-­talking man and his proud but troubled country, and direct Russia’s energies somewhere useful? If a man who is weaker than you walks up to you aggressively in a bar, what do you do? Do you humiliate him? Do you write articles about how scary and mysterious he is? As is, Putin talked tough, and so the American media and then American politicians decided to talk tough, too. And now we find ourselves plunging, perhaps, into a protracted period of international standoff—a “new cold war”—with increased military budgets, decreased understanding and interaction, and once again the kinds of restrictions of movement that we thought we’d left behind. As for Russia’s fledgling opposition, both liberal and left, which could not help but be inspired by the courage and persistence of the Ukrainian opposition regardless of its political makeup—it will not be strengthened if Russia becomes, as it will inevitably, even more aggressive and paranoid during a period of intense reaction and retrenchment. The opposition may even be destroyed. The same goes for Ukraine, which, now partly occupied by a foreign power, is likely to shift politically toward its nationalist right.
None of this is to say that Putin doesn’t have a lot to answer for. Under his leadership Russia has failed to demonstrate, to its own citizenry and even more so to its neighbors the Ukrainians, anything positive, anything admirable, anything that they would want to gravitate toward except, occasionally, some cold hard cash. No, Putin, who lost whatever democratic legitimacy he may have enjoyed when he returned for a third term, is to blame. But did we on our side do everything we could to avoid this scenario? The answer, obviously, is no.

The Front Page 2.0 – By Michael Kinsley

Just when you thought it was over.



In most hand-wringing debates about the future of newspapers, high-quality journalism is seen as doomed by the Internet. The author—V.F.’s newest columnist—begs to disagree.

By Michael Kinsley


BY CARL MYDANS/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES.THE WAY IT WAS Multiple editions, breaking news on the afternoon commute, November 22, 1963.

My friend Nicholas Lemann, who recently stepped down as dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has done his time and then some at symposia and similar gatherings to discuss the Future of Newspapers in the Age of the Internet. Nick says he has one firm rule about such discussions: “You’re not allowed to say, ‘It will all work out somehow.’ ” If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to say how. Unfortunately, having thought about it for a bit, I’ve more or less concluded that the ongoing crisis of newspapers—going bankrupt, being sold for peanuts, firing staff, cutting foreign bureaus, and so on—will all work out, somehow. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you why.

It’s partly Stein’s Law, named after the late Herbert Stein, an economist who served as chairman of Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers. Stein’s Law is more or less the opposite of Lemann’s Dictum. It holds that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This is a conservative notion, a clarion call to inaction on almost any subject: problems tend to resolve themselves.
And then there’s that old Chinese curse: May your dreams come true. If you could go back to, say, 1994, two decades ago, and if you could have told newspaper publishers that soon they’d be able to produce and distribute a daily newspaper at no cost for newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink), that they could shut down those huge presses and dispense with troublesome unions once and for all, and that they wouldn’t even need paperboys (or girls) anymore to throw the paper into the neighbor’s bushes—if you could have told them that all these costs were about to plummet to near zero—the publishers would have thought, Now, that sounds like a pretty great deal. I’ll take it. So how has this unexpected gift from God turned into such a disaster for them? There must be large amounts of either incompetence or bad luck involved. Anyone, like me, whose solution is a vague “Things will work out somehow” lacks standing to blame the problem on other people’s incompetence. So we will call it bad luck.

It’s not true that the publishers have just stood by while the Internet has stolen their business. Way back in 1981, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, under its leader that year—Katharine Graham, the C.E.O. of the Washington Post Co.—made a big lobbying push for a law forbidding AT&T, then a government-sanctioned telephone monopoly, to sell classified ads electronically. The publishers argued that the telephone company’s monopoly guaranteed the company profits that it could then use to subsidize the development of an electronic Yellow Pages, which would threaten one of their most profitable products, classified ads.

It was a bold argument. The newspaper industry had a higher rate of return on its investment than the phone company did. Nevertheless, the publishers were correct in seeing classified ads as the first thing they would lose as their business went online, though they missed the fact that the telephone company itself was about to be split into little bits and that it was some guy named Craig who would take this particular profit center from them.

Although it is hard to believe now, when The Washington Post can be bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for pocket change of $250 million, but just 15 or 20 years ago, before the commercial arrival of the Internet, there was no sweeter sinecure in American capitalism than owning the one newspaper in a one-newspaper town. And cities as large as Los Angeles and Washington had effectively become one-newspaper towns. It was heaven: you could earn huge monopoly profits from advertisers like the big department stores, which had nowhere else to go. You were automatically a civic leader. And if you got bored, or your family needed cash, you could sell out to Gannett, which always stood ready to gobble up monopoly newspapers and lower the tone. At symposia and seminars on the Future of Newspapers, professional worriers used to worry that these monopoly or near-monopoly newspapers were too powerful for society’s good.

It couldn’t go on, and therefore it didn’t.

Donald Graham, publisher of The Washington Post during the crucial years, understood what a sweet deal his paper had. To the frustration of many Post reporters, Graham resisted all temptations to spend millions trying to compete with The New York Times as a national newspaper. Except for two or three bedraggled copies, often yesterday’s edition, you rarely ran into the Post outside the Beltway (or maybe in central Manhattan). Today the Post is, through no fault of Don Graham’s, an international newspaper, easily available anywhere in the world. But financially it’s a basket case, as are most other newspapers. In 2000, the Tribune Company paid $8.3 billion for the Los Angeles Times and several smaller papers. Today the Tribune Company wants to sell all its newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune itself, and can’t seem to find a buyer at any price. The New York Times Company bought The Boston Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion and sold it for $70 million in 2013.

But why did this happen? What happened to all that money newspapers were supposed to save? Well, you save the money only if people are actually willing to give up the paper paper in favor of a computer screen. And at first people wouldn’t do it, unless the content was actually about computers, or pornography. “I don’t like reading on a computer screen” was the most familiar comment I heard when I started Slate, an online magazine, in 1996. Around that time, at a public panel discussion about (what else?) newspapers and the Internet (future of), a professor cut off a member of the audience who was making this point. “Your problem,” he intoned, “will be solved actuarially.” And he was right. Older people have died off and younger ones have been reading on a computer screen all their lives.

The change was not merely demographic, however. Fashion has changed, incredibly quickly. Really, in just the past three or four years. On an airplane, it has become strange to see anyone lugging an old-fashioned book. Any sense that e-books are déclassé or unsuitable for serious reading has simply evaporated. One man is responsible: Jeff Bezos, with the Kindle. His legitimation of electronic reading will be seen as a far more important contribution to saving newspapers than his purchase of the Post. (Note: my wife is a director at Amazon.)

Bezos deserves less credit (but maybe not a lot less) for another key development: the willingness of people to pay for online content. It’s been a two-step process, and it’s not over yet: first, getting people to pay online for hard goods, like a book, and then getting people to pay online for online goods, like a newspaper.

A second reason the predictable bonanza for newspapers didn’t materialize immediately was that they lost their comfortable monopoly. Now, instead of being the only newspaper in town, every English-language newspaper in the world is competing with every other one. They are also competing with new ways to compile and deliver news, made possible by this new technology. Some of these new ways amount to theft of traditional papers’ content—though it goes by the fancy name of “aggregation,” or the even fancier name of “curation.”

A successful aggregation Web site can be far cheaper to run than a traditional news organization, some of which still hire grown-ups and send them to expensive places where news is actually happening. One of the major aggregators, who has taken an old property and made it profitable for the first time in a century, took me on a tour of his new aggregation facility, somewhere deep in the Maryland suburbs, where rent is cheap. It was a pathetic sight. Dozens of recent college graduates—paid 75 cents an hour—sat chained to their computers grinding out blog items, while editors stood above them with whips, shouting, “Blog, you worthless scum. Blog more. A dozen new items by lunchtime or there’ll be no day-old pizza for anyone. Blog, I tell you,” and so forth. (Or maybe, come to think of it, I imagined that scene. Just as I did the quote that follows.)

Probably the most successful of the aggregators is Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post—named as a gentle poke in the eye to The Washington Post—was sold to AOL for more than The Washington Post went for. Arianna said, “Darling, what is all this fuss? I ask you: how is what we do any different from what is on the op-ed page every day of the week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . What comes after Wednesday, darling? Where is my assistant? Anyway, we read the newspaper and comment on it. They read the newspaper and comment on it. Has Nicholas Kristof ever been sold into slavery? Has Tom Friedman been to Ukraine? Well, perhaps he has, but you see my point, darling. Everybody aggregates. Let him who is without sin . . . who said that, by the way? I believe the Huffington Post will say it very soon. Perhaps tomorrow. May I borrow your cell phone?”

In a couple of recent speeches, the C.E.O. of the New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, has suggested that the high quality of the Times’s content—the very quality that alarmists claim is becoming unaffordable as a result of bloggers and other cheap competition—will be the paper’s salvation, because people will pay real money for it. (He cautions that the Times is sui generis and that this high-quality strategy won’t work for ordinary, run-of-the-mill papers such as . . . any paper other than the Times.) With admirable, or possibly insane, frankness, he says the Times’s intention is to reduce reliance on advertising and to squeeze its most loyal readers as much as possible to pay for the content they consume.

“The first plank of our new strategy,” Thompson said, “is to develop additional pay offerings aimed at those who tell us they would certainly pay us something for Times journalism but less than the $200 or so which is our current lowest digital subscription—though we also intend to create enhanced offerings for those who tell us they would pay us even more.” He promised “fresh expressions of our journalism . . . with their own integrity and appeal.” And: “Despite any false rumors you may have heard to the contrary, all editorial leadership rests—as it always should and will”—with the editorial side. That is, news will not be influenced by advertisers. (“Native advertising” is the delightful but bewildering euphemism for advertising that looks like editorial content. Its main effect is to make editorial content look like advertising.)

There will always be a demand for high-quality news—enough demand to support two or three national newspapers, on papyrus scrolls if necessary. And the truth is that if only two or three newspapers survive, in national or global competition, that will still be more competition than we have now, with our collection of one-paper-town monopolies. A second truth is that most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news. A third truth is that former roadblocks—people’s refusal to get their content online or to pay for it—are melting away like the snow. A fourth truth is that rich foundations and individuals appear downright eager to jump in and supply foreign or other prestige news if newspapers won’t. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller just quit the paper to help start a nonprofit to cover justice issues. Paul Steiger, formerly managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, founded ProPublica—a nonprofit that produces top-quality investigative journalism.

Somewhere in that agglomeration of developments, newspapers will survive in some form or other at least equal to any available today. It will all work out somehow.


Ivan Illich & Jerry Brown – Natural Affinities?

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by Jerry Brown

When in 1976, I first met Ivan Illich at the Green Gulch Farm, he told me that his current focus was the study of economics. Then, I didn’t understand that by the word economics, Illich meant a way of life where things are experienced only under assumptions of scarcity. Illich saw this as profoundly wrong.

For him, creation was a gift, accessible to every man and women–without any expert ministrations or institutionalized services. His critique of schooling, the pursuit of health, high technology and sexual equality all challenged core beliefs in progress and the capacity of progress to reduce suffering and improve the human condition.

When I try to understand Ivan Illich, I am forced back upon my experience in the Jesuit Novitiate in the 1950’s. There, I was taught Ignatian indifference to secular values of long life, fame and riches. It is only through that mystical lens that I can grasp the powerful simplicity of the way Illich lived. He had no home of his own and relied on the hospitality of friends. He traveled from place to place with never more than two bags. He refused medical diagnosis, any form of insurance and gave away whatever savings remained at the end of each year.

On December 2, 2002, Ivan Illich died in Bremen, Germany at the home of his friend, Barbara Duden. Three months earlier, he and I and two friends shared the pleasure of walking together through the streets of Florence, Italy. We enjoyed a leisurely meal in a small, typically Tuscan restaurant. Laughter and Chianti flowed freely. As I got up to pay the bill, I noticed Ivan coming back from the cashier. He had already taken care of it.

Among the serious thinkers I have had the privilege to meet, Ivan Illich alone embodied in his personal life as well as in his work, a radical distancing from the imperatives of modern society. From Deschooling Society (1971) to In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), he bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”

Ivan Illich was the rarest of human beings: erudite, yet possessed of aliveness and sensitivity. He savored the ordinary pleasures of life even as he cheerfully embraced its inevitable suffering. Steeped in an authentic Catholic tradition, he observed with detachment and as a pilgrim the unforgiving allure of science and progress. With acute clarity and a sense of humor, he undermined, in all that he wrote, the uncontested certitudes of modern society.

In his last visit to Oakland, he invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution-as he saw it–of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst- Corruptio optimi quae est pessima. His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.

Two days after Illich died, the New York Timesprinted an obituary that was a polemic rather than a thoughtful remembrance. The writer described Illich as a preacher of “counterintuitive sociology” to “a disquieted baby-boom generation,” using “Jesuitic argumentation” and “watered-down Marxism.” He also quoted a deceased Timesliterary critic who said in 1989 that he would “especially” discard Illich’s books from his personal library. Given Illich’s frontal assault on the status quo, it is not surprising that the paper of record would so interpret his work.

In the Seventies, facing sharp criticism from the Vatican, Illich withdrew from the active priesthood and refrained from speaking ever again as a Catholic theologian. Instead, he focused on the nature of technology and modern institutions and their capacity for destroying common sense and the proper scale for human activity. Illich identified the “ethos of non-satiety” as “at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity.” Instead of welfare economics and environmental management, Illich emphasized friendship and self-limitation.

At first, Illich offered trenchant social criticism, particularly in Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Medical Nemesis (1976). In later years, he turned his attention inward and to what one of his friends called an ancient way of doing theology. In an essay entitled, The Cultivation of Conspiracy,Illich wrote: “Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.”

In the last twenty years of his life, Ivan Illich suffered increasingly from a persistent growth on the side of his face, which he never treated, nor had diagnosed. In explaining why he voluntarily suffered, he said simply: nudum Christum nudum sequere.I follow the naked Christ.

In what was his most provocative and perhaps final comment on the “pursuit of health,” Illich wrote:

“Yes, we suffer pain, we become ill, we die. But we also hope, laugh, celebrate; we know the joy of caring for one another; often we are healed and we recover by many means. We do not have to pursue the flattening-out of human experience. I invite all to shift their gaze, their thoughts, from worrying about health care to cultivating the art of living. And, today with equal importance, the art of suffering, the art of dying.”

Jerry Brown, governor of California from 1975 to 1983, is mayor of Oakland.


The New York Review of Books, Volume 13, Number 8 · November 6, 1969
Outwitting the “Developed” Countries

By Ivan Illich

It is now common to demand that the rich nations convert their war machine into a program for the development of the Third World. The poorer four fifths of humanity multiply unchecked while their per capita consumption actually declines. This population expansion and decrease of consumption threaten the industrialized nations, who may still, as a result, convert their defense budgets to the economic pacification of poor nations. And this in turn could produce irreversible despair, because the plows of the rich can do as much harm as their swords. US trucks can do more lasting damage than US tanks. It is easier to create mass demand for the former than for the latter. Only a minority needs heavy weapons, while a majority can become dependent on unrealistic levels of supply for such productive machines as modern trucks. Once the Third World has become a mass market for the goods, products, and processes which are designed by the rich for themselves, the discrepancy between demand for these Western artifacts and the supply will increase indefinitely. The family car cannot drive the poor into the jet age, nor can a school system provide the poor with education, nor can the family icebox insure healthy food for them.

It is evident that only one man in a thousand in Latin America can afford a Cadillac, a heart operation, or a Ph.D. This restriction on the goals of development does not make us despair of the fate of the Third World, and the reason is simple. We have not yet come to conceive of a Cadillac as necessary for good transportation, or of a heart operation as normal healthy care, or of a Ph.D. as the prerequisite of an acceptable education. In fact, we recognize at once that the importation of Cadillacs should be heavily taxed in Peru, that an organ transplant clinic is a scandalous plaything to justify the concentration of more doctors in Bogotá, and that a Betatron is beyond the teaching facilities of the University of Sao Paolo.

Unfortunately, it is not held to be universally evident that the majority of Latin Americans—not only of our generation, but also of the next and the next again—cannot afford any kind of automobile, or any kind of hospitalization, or for that matter an elementary school education. We suppress our consciousness of this obvious reality because we hate to recognize the corner into which our imagination has been pushed. So persuasive is the power of the institutions we have created that they shape not only our preferences, but actually our sense of possibilities. We have forgotten how to speak about modern transportation that does not rely on automobiles and airplanes. Our conceptions of modern health care emphasize our ability to prolong the lives of the desperately ill. We have become unable to think of better education except in terms of more complex schools and of teachers trained for ever longer periods. Huge institutions producing costly services dominate the horizons of our inventiveness.

We have embodied our world view into our institutions and are now their prisoners. Factories, news media, hospitals, governments, and schools produce goods and services packaged to contain our view of the world. We—the rich—conceive of progress as the expansion of these establishments. We conceive of heightened mobility as luxury and safety packaged by General Motors or Boeing. We conceive of improving the general well-being as increasing the supply of doctors and hospitals, which package health along with protracted suffering. We have come to identify our need for further learning with the demand for ever longer confinement to classrooms. In other words, we have packaged education with custodial care, certification for jobs, and the right to vote, and wrapped them all together with indoctrination in the Christian, liberal, or communist virtues.

In less than a hundred years industrial society has molded patent solutions to basic human needs and converted us to the belief that man’s needs were shaped by the Creator as demands for the products we have invented. This is as true for Russia and Japan as for the North Atlantic community. The consumer is trained for obsolescence, which means continuing loyalty toward the same producers who will give him the same basic packages in different quality or new wrappings.

Industrialized societies can provide such packages for personal consumption for most of their citizens, but this is no proof that these societies are sane, or economical, or that they promote life. The contrary is true. The more the citizen is trained in the consumption of packaged goods and services, the less effective he seems to become in shaping his environment. His energies and finances are consumed in procuring ever new models of his staples, and the environment becomes a by-product of his own consumption habits.

The design of the “package deals” of which I speak is the main cause of the high cost of satisfying basic needs. So long as every man “needs” his car, our cities must endure longer traffic jams and absurdly expensive remedies to relieve them. So long as health means maximum length of survival, our sick will get ever more extraordinary surgical interventions and the drugs required to deaden their consequent pain. So long as we want to use school to get children out of their parents’ hair or to keep them off the street and out of the labor force, our young will be retained in endless schooling and will need ever-increasing incentives to endure the ordeal.

Rich nations now benevolently impose a straightjacket of traffic jams, hospital confinements, and classrooms on the poor nations, and by international agreement call this “development.” The rich and schooled and old of the world try to share their dubious blessings by foisting their pre-packaged solutions on to the Third World. Traffic jams develop in São Paolo, while almost a million northeastern Brazilians flee the drought by walking 500 miles. Latin American doctors get training at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, which they apply to only a few, while amoebic dysentery remains endemic in slums where 90 percent of the population live. A tiny minority gets advanced education in basic science in North America—not infrequently paid for by their own governments. If they return at all to Bolivia, they become second-rate teachers of pretentious subjects at La Paz or Cochibamba. The rich export outdated versions of their standard models.

The Alliance for Progress is a good example of benevolent production for underdevelopment. Contrary to its slogans, it did succeed—as an alliance for the progress of the consuming classes, and for the domestication of the Latin American masses. The Alliance has been a major step in modernizing the consumption patterns of the middle classes in South America by integrating them with the dominant culture of the North American metropolis. At the same time, the Alliance has modernized the aspirations of the majority of citizens and fixed their demands on unavailable products.

Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation by bus. Each merchandised refrigerator reduces the chance of building a community freezer. Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred lives, to adopt a phrase of Jorge de Ahumada, the brilliant Chilean economist. Had each dollar been spent on providing safe drinking water, a hundred lives could have been saved. Each dollar spent on schooling means more privileges for the few at the cost of the many; at best it increases the number of those who, before dropping out, have been taught that those who stay longer have earned the right to more power, wealth, and prestige. What such schooling does is to teach the schooled the superiority of the better schooled.

All Latin American countries are frantically intent on expanding their school systems. No country now spends less than the equivalent of 18 percent of tax-derived public income on education—which means schooling—and many countries spend almost double that. But even with these huge investments, no country yet succeeds in giving five full years of education to more than one third of its population; supply and demand for schooling grow geometrically apart. And what is true about schooling is equally true about the products of most institutions in the process of modernization in the Third World.

Continued technological refinements of products which are already established on the market frequently benefit the producer far more than the consumer. The more complex production processes tend to enable only the largest producer to continually replace outmoded models, and to focus the demand of the consumer on the marginal improvement of what he buys, no matter what the concomitant side effects: higher prices, diminished life span, less general usefulness, higher cost of repairs. Think of the multiple uses for a simple can opener, whereas an electric one, if it works at all, opens only some kinds of cans, and costs one hundred times as much.

This is equally true for a piece of agricultural machinery and for an academic degree. The midwestern farmer can become convinced of his need for a four-axle vehicle which can go 70 m.p.h. on the highways, has an electric windshield wiper and upholstered seats, and can be turned in for a new one within a year or two. Most of the world’s farmers don’t need such speed, nor have they ever met with such comfort, nor are they interested in obsolescence. They need low-priced transport, in a world where time is not money, where manual wipers suffice, and where a piece of heavy equipment should outlast a generation. Such a mechanical donkey requires entirely different engineering and design than one produced for the US market. This vehicle is not in production.

Most of South America needs paramedical workers who can function for indefinite periods without the supervision of an MD. Instead of establishing a process to train midwives and visiting healers who know how to use a very limited arsenal of medicines while working independently, Latin American can universities establish every year a new school of specialized nursing or nursing administration to prepare professionals who can function only in a hospital, and pharmacists who know how to sell increasingly more dangerous drugs.

The world is reaching an impasse where two processes converge: ever more men have fewer basic choices. The increase in population is widely publicized and creates panic. The decrease in fundamental choice causes anguish and is consistently overlooked. The population explosion overwhelms the imagination, but the progressive atrophy of social imagination is rationalized as an increase of choice between brands. The two processes converge in a dead end: the population explosion provides more consumers for everything from food to contraceptives, while our shrinking imagination can conceive of no other ways of satisfying their demands except through the packages now on sale in the admired societies.

I will focus successively on these two factors, since, in my opinion, they form the two coordinates which together-permit us to define underdevelopment.

In most Third World countries, the population grows, and so does the middle class. Income, consumption, and the well-being of the middle class are all growing while the gap between this class and the mass of people widens. Even where per capita consumption is rising, the majority of men have less food now than in 1945, less actual care in sickness, less meaningful work, less protection. This is partly a consequence of polarized consumption and partly caused by the breakdown of traditional family and culture. More people suffer from hunger, pain, and exposure in 1969 than they did at the end of World War II, not only numerically, but also as a percentage of the world population.

These concrete consequences of underdevelopment are rampant; but underdevelopment is also a state of mind, and understanding it as a state of mind, or as a form of consciousness, is the critical problem. Underdevelopment as a state of mind occurs when mass needs are converted to the demand for new brands of packaged solutions which are forever beyond the reach of the majority. Underdevelopment in this sense is rising rapidly even in countries where the supply of classrooms, calories, cars, and clinics is also rising. The ruling groups in these countries build up services which have been designed for an affluent culture; once they have monopolized demand in this way, they can never satisfy majority needs.

Underdevelopment as a form of consciousness is an extreme result of what we can call in the language of both Marx and Freud “Verdinglichung” or reification. By reification I mean the hardening of the perception of real needs into the demand for mass manufactured products. I mean the translation of thirst into the need for a Coke. This kind of reification occurs in the manipulation of primary human needs by vast bureaucratic organizations which have succeeded in dominating the imagination of potential consumers.

Let me return to my example taken from the field of education. The intense promotion of schooling leads to so close an identification of school attendance and education that in everyday language the two terms are interchangeable. Once the imagination of an entire population has been “schooled,” or indoctrinated to believe that school has a monopoly on formal education, then the illiterate can be taxed to provide free high school and university education for the children of the rich.

Underdevelopment is the result of rising levels of aspiration achieved through the intensive marketing of “patent” products. In this sense, the dynamic underdevelopment that is now taking place is the exact opposite of what I believe education to be: namely, the awakening awareness of new levels of human potential and the use of one’s creative powers to foster human life. Underdevelopment, however, implies the surrender of social consciousness to pre-packaged solutions.

The process by which the marketing of “foreign” products increases under-development is frequently understood in the most superficial ways. The same man who feels indignation at the sight of a Coca-Cola plant in a Latin American slum often feels pride at the sight of a new normal school growing up alongside. He resents the evidence of a foreign “license” attached to a soft drink which he would like to see replaced by “Cola-Mex.” But the same man is willing to impose schooling—at all costs—on his fellow citizens, and is unaware of the invisible license by which this institution is deeply enmeshed in the world market.

Some years ago I watched workmen putting up a sixty-foot Coca-Cola sign on a desert plain in the Mexquital. A serious drought and famine had just swept over the Mexican highland. My host, a poor Indian in Ixmiquilpan, had just offered his visitors a tiny tequila glass of the costly black sugar-water. When I recall this scene I still feel anger; but I feel much more incensed when I remember UNESCO meetings at which well-meaning and well-paid bureaucrats seriously discussed Latin American school curricula, and when I think of the speeches of enthusiastic liberals advocating the need for more schools.

The fraud perpetrated by the salesmen of schools is less obvious but much more fundamental than the self-satisfied salesmanship of the Coca-Cola or Ford representative, because the schoolman hooks his people on a much more demanding drug. Elementary school attendance is not a harmless luxury, but more like the coca chewing of the Andean Indian, which harnesses the worker to the boss.

The higher the dose of schooling an individual has received, the more depressing his experience of withdrawal. The seventh-grade dropout feels his inferiority much more acutely than the dropout from the third grade. The schools of the Third World administer their opium with much more effect than the churches of other epochs. As the mind of a society is progressively schooled, step by step its individuals lose their sense that it might be possible to live without being inferior to others. As the majority shifts from the land into the city, the hereditary inferiority of the peon is replaced by the inferiority of the school dropout who is held personally responsible for his failure. Schools rationalize the divine origin of social stratification with much more rigor than churches have ever done.

Until this day no Latin American country has declared youthful under-consumers of Coca-Cola or cars as lawbreakers, while all Latin American countries have passed laws which define the early dropout as a citizen who has not fulfilled his legal obligations. The Brazilian government recently almost doubled the number of years during which schooling is legally compulsory and free. From now on any Brazilian dropout under the age of sixteen will be faced during his lifetime with the reproach that he did not take advantage of a legally obligatory privilege. This law was passed in a country where not even the most optimistic could foresee the day when such levels of schooling would be provided for only 25 percent of the young. The adoption of international standards of schooling forever condemns most Latin Americans to marginality or exclusion from social life—in a word, under-development.

The translation of social goals into levels of consumption is not limited to only a few countries. Across all frontiers of culture, ideology, and geography today, nations are moving toward the establishment of their own car factories, their own medical and normal schools—and most of these are, at best, poor imitations of foreign and largely North American models.

The Third World is in need of a profound revolution of its institutions. The revolutions of the last generation were overwhelmingly political. A new group of men with a new set of ideological justifications assumed power to administer fundamentally the same scholastic, medical, and market institutions in the interest of a new group of clients. Since the institutions have not radically changed, the new group of clients remains approximately the same size as that previously served. This appears clearly in the case of education. Per pupil costs of schooling are today comparable everywhere since the standards used to evaluate the quality of schooling tend to be internationally shared. Access to publicly financed education, considered as access to school, everywhere depends on per capita income. (Places like China and North Vietnam might be meaningful exceptions.)

Everywhere in the Third World modern institutions are grossly unproductive, with respect to the egalitarian purposes for which they are being reproduced. But so long as the social imagination of the majority has not been destroyed by its fixation on these institutions, there is more hope of planning an institutional revolution in the Third World than among the rich. Hence the urgency of the task of developing workable alternatives to “modern” solutions.

Underdevelopment is at the point of becoming chronic in many countries. The revolution of which I speak must begin to take place before this happens. Education again offers a good example: chronic educational underdevelopment occurs when the demand for schooling becomes so widespread that the total concentration of educational resources on the school system becomes a unanimous political demand. At this point the separation of education from schooling becomes impossible.

The only feasible answer to ever-increasing underdevelopment is a response to basic needs that is planned as a long-range goal for areas which will always have a different capital structure. It is easier to speak about alternatives to existing institutions, services, and products than to define them with precision. It is not my purpose either to paint a Utopia or to engage in scripting scenarios for an alternate future. We must be satisfied with examples indicating simple directions that research should take.

Some such examples have already been given. Buses are alternatives to a multitude of private cars. Vehicles designed for slow transportation on rough terrain are alternatives to standard trucks. Safe water is an alternative to high-priced surgery. Medical workers are an alternative to doctors and nurses. Community food storage is an alternative to expensive kitchen equipment. Other alternatives could be discussed by the dozen. Why not, for example, consider walking as a long-range alternative for locomotion by machine, and explore the demands which this would impose on the city planner? And why can’t the building of shelters be standardized, elements be pre-cast, and each citizen be obliged to learn in a year of public service how to construct his own sanitary housing?

It is harder to speak about alternatives in education, partly because schools have recently so completely pre-empted the available educational resources of good will, imagination, and money. But even here we can indicate the direction in which research must be conducted.

At present, schooling is conceived as graded, curricular, class attendance by children, for about 1000 hours yearly during an uninterrupted succession of years. On the average, Latin American countries can provide each citizen with between eight and thirty months of this service. Why not, instead, make one or two months a year obligatory for all citizens below the age of thirty?

Money is now spent largely on children, but an adult can be taught to read in one tenth the time and for one tenth the cost it takes to teach a child. In the case of the adult there is an immediate return on the investment, whether the main importance of his learning is seen in his new insight, political awareness, and willingness to assume responsibility for his family’s size and future, or whether the emphasis is placed on increased productivity. There is a double return in the case of the adult, because not only can he contribute to the education of his children, but to that of other adults as well. In spite of these advantages, basic literacy programs have little or no support in Latin America, where schools have a first call on all public resources. Worse, these programs are actually ruthlessly suppressed in Brazil and elsewhere, where military support of the feudal or industrial oligarchy has thrown off its former benevolent disguise.

Another possibility is harder to define, because there is as yet no example to point to. We must therefore imagine the use of public resources for education distributed in such a way as to give every citizen a minimum chance. Education will become a political concern of the majority of voters only when each individual has a precise sense of the educational resources that are owing to him—and some idea of how to sue for them. Something like a universal G.I. Bill of Rights could be imagined, dividing the public resources assigned to education by the number of children who are legally of school age, and making sure that a child who did not take advantage of his credit at the age of seven, eight, or nine would have the accumulated benefits at his disposal at age ten.

What could the pitiful education credit which a Latin American Republic could offer to its children provide? Almost all of the basic supply of books, pictures, blocks, games, and toys that are totally absent from he homes of the really poor, but enable a middle-class child to learn the alphabet, the colors, shapes, and other classes of objects and experiences which insure his educational progress. The choice between these things and schools is obvious. Unfortunately, the poor, for whom alone the choice is real, never get to exercise this choice.

Defining alternatives to the products and institutions which now pre-empt the field is difficult, not only, as I have been trying to show, because these products and institutions shape our conception of reality itself, but also because the construction of new possibilities requires a concentration of will and intelligence in a higher degree than ordinarily occurs by chance. This concentration of will and intelligence on the solution of particular problems regardless of their nature we have become accustomed over the last century to call research.

I must make clear, however, what kind of research I am talking about. I am not talking about basic research either in physics, engineering, genetics, medicine, or learning. The work of such men as Crick, Piaget, and Gell-Mann must continue to enlarge our horizons in other fields of science. The labs and libraries and specially trained collaborators these men need cause them to congregate in the few research capitals of the world. Their research can provide the basis for new work on practically any product.

I am not speaking here of the billions of dollars annually spent on applied research, for this money is largely spent by existing institutions on the perfection and marketing of their own products. Applied research is money spent on making planes faster and airports safer; on making medicines more specific and powerful and doctors capable of handling their deadly side-effects; on packaging more learning into classrooms; on methods to administer large bureaucracies. This is the kind of research for which some kind of counterfoil must somehow be developed if we are to have any chance to come up with basic alternatives to the automobile, the hospital, and the school, and any of the many other so-called “evidently necessary implements for modern life.”

I have in mind a different, and peculiarly difficult, kind of research, which has been largely neglected up to now, for obvious reasons. I am calling for research on alternatives to the products which now dominate the market; to hospitals and the profession dedicated to keeping the sick alive; to schools and the packaging process which refuses education to those who are not of the right age, who have not gone through the right curriculum, who have not sat in a classroom a sufficient number of successive hours, who will not pay for their learning with submission to custodial care, screening, and certification or with indoctrination in the values of the dominant elite.

This counter-research on fundamental alternatives to current pre-packaged solutions is the element most critically needed if the poor nations are to have a livable future. Such counter-research is distinct from most of the work done in the name of the “year 2000,” because most of that work seeks radical changes in social patterns through adjustments in the organization of an already advanced technology. The counter-research of which I speak must take as one of its assumptions the continued lack of capital in the Third World.

The difficulties of such research are obvious. The researcher must first of all doubt what is obvious to every eye. Second, he must persuade those who have the power of decision to act against their own short-run interests or bring pressure on them to do so. And, finally, he must survive as an individual in a world he is attempting to change fundamentally so that his fellows among the privileged minority see him as a destroyer of the very ground on which all of us stand. He knows that if he should succeed in the interest of the poor, technologically advanced societies still might envy the “poor” who adopt this vision.

There is a normal course for those who make development policies, whether they live in North or South America, in Russia or Israel. It is to define development and to set its goals in ways with which they are familiar, which they are accustomed to use in order to satisfy their own needs, and which permit them to work through the institutions over which they have power or control. This formula has failed, and must fail. There is not enough money in the world for development to succeed along these lines, not even in the combined arms and space budgets of the super-powers.

An analogous course is followed by those who are trying to make political revolutions, especially in the Third World. Usually they promise to make the familiar privileges of the present elites, such as schooling, hospital care, etc., accessible to all citizens; and they base this vain promise on the belief that a change in political regime will permit them to sufficiently enlarge the institutions which produce these privileges. The promise and appeal of the revolutionary are therefore just as threatened by the counter-research I propose as is the market of the now dominant producers.

In Vietnam a people on bicycles and armed with sharpened bamboo sticks have brought to a standstill the most advanced machinery for research and production ever devised. We must seek survival in a Third World in which human ingenuity can peacefully outwit machined might. The only way to reverse the disastrous trend to increasing underdevelopment, hard as it is, is to learn to laugh at accepted solutions in order to change the demands which make them necessary. Only free men can change their minds and be surprised; and while no men are completely free, some are freer than others.


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Short biography – Ivan Illich

Theologian, educator, and social critic Ivan Illich (born 1926) sought bridges between cultures and explored the bases of people’s views of history and reality.
Ivan Illich was born on September 4, 1926, to Ivan Peter and Ellen Illich in Vienna, Austria. His father came from an aristocratic and Christian family; his mother’s family was Jewish. His childhood was spent growing up in the homes of grandparents and wherever his parents might be at the time. His father’s career as a diplomat politically protected the Jewish members of his family during the 1930s; yet Ivan was classified as “half-Jew” in 1941 and his family secretly fled from a Hitler-controlled Austria to Italy. In Florence at the age of 15, his father and grandfather having died earlier from natural causes, Ivan began taking care of his mother and younger twin brothers.
He entered the University of Florence where he majored in chemistry. At the age of 24 he graduated from the University of Salzburg with a Ph.D. in history on the work of the popular historian Arnold Toynbee. He prepared for the priesthood at the Gregorian University in Rome and became ordained in 1951. It was here that he met Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, who was to become his mentor and lifelong friend. Through him, Illich discovered the ideas of Thomas Aquinas and built a Thomistic philosophical foundation for understanding the world.

Stretching the Limits of the Priesthood

In 1951 Illich came to America hoping to study at Princeton University, but his interest quickly changed. On his first day in New York he heard through casual conversations about large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating into other ethnic neighborhoods. After spending a couple days observing and visiting with them he asked to be assigned to a Puerto Rican parish. In his ministry he sought to make them feel at home in their new country by reinstituting their cultural and religious traditions. He sought to have Spanish materials made available to the children. His popularity among the Puerto Rican community grew and after just five years, in 1956, at age 30 he was made a monsignor and accepted the position of vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico.
During the decades of the 1950s and 1960s Illich continued his work within the church, yet his commitment often brought him into conflict with those in and outside the church who had different agendas. While in Puerto Rico, and later in Mexico, he threw himself into the study of education and was outspoken in his criticisms of formal schooling. He ridiculed the notion of development in U.S. programs such as the Peace Corps, believing that such volunteer programs damaged not only the people in Latin America but the volunteers themselves. He claimed that the Alliance for Progress was an alliance for the middle classes, and he questioned the motives of missionaries who came to him for further study. He refused to withdraw support from a politician who advocated birth control. He withdrew from his role at the Vatican Council in protest over its political timidity. In essence, he sought de-institutionalization of the church. In 1967 he was summoned to Rome before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He refused to answer their questions. Six months later Rome moved against him with documents he claimed were cribbed from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports leaked to the Holy See. At that point Illich voluntarily suspended himself from the priesthood, although he never resigned nor was he removed from the priesthood. He insisted that neither his faith, morals, nor theological views were at variance with the gospel and that they were orthodox, even conservative.

Awakening People to New Possibilities

Recognizing that Puerto Rico was perceived largely as a U.S. puppet, Illich moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961 and established there the Center for Intercultural Documentation. The focus of his work remained unchanged as he sought to establish a bridge linking the two Americas and to train individuals for religious work in Latin America. By the mid-1960s the institute through its research seminars was attracting worldwide individuals concerned with social and economic issues. Illich viewed the center as a place for free, committed, and disciplined intellectual inquiry, yet many participants viewed it as an unstructured forum for political expression. Although still attracting students and economically sound, the center was not accomplishing its original purpose. Therefore, in 1976 it was closed.
The next several years Illich traveled and studied oriental languages and culture with the dream of writing the history of Western ideas in an oriental language. Subsequently, believing the task to be too great, he returned to an old intellectual home, to the study of 12th-century philosophy. Here, while teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, he sought to find a fulcrum for lifting contemporary people out of their socially-constructed, conventional perspectives and out of a worsening world situation. He sought to enable them to understand how their commonly viewed reality (what is taken for granted or as certain) was historically constructed and can be changed. In the early 1990s Illich taught part of the year at Pennsylvania State University and continued to reside in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Illich became known as a brilliant satirist and critic of contemporary institutions. In the early 1970s he called for a reexamination of existing social institutions. For example, he argued that schools are a lottery in which everyone invests but few win. As a result of perceived failure, those students who don’t succeed in schools are stigmatized and suffer discrimination. In contrast, he proposed to correct this unjust situation by de-schooling society and thereby making it impossible to discriminate on that basis. Later, his thought penetrated to new depths when examining the professions, particularly the medical profession and how it leads individuals to become dependent and to assume less responsibility for their own lives.
In the 1980s Illich’s thought shifted and again reached new levels of analysis. He stated that changes in our current situation can be attained if individuals “awaken” to the fact that each person’s understanding or perspective of his or her world, a world that each of us takes for granted and as certain, is seen as being formulated and handed down over the centuries. Such conventional perspectives lock individuals into certain solutions and prevent recognition of new ways of living in the world. For example, in his work ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind he shows how our way of thinking has made three shifts throughout time. The first shift that changed our ways of seeing resulted from the introduction of the alphabet. A second shift in our thinking came in the 12th century with the development of the written page as we moved from an oral public and a spoken reality to a written reality and a literacy paradigm. And finally, the computer and word processing have created a new watershed of change in which our thoughts were increasingly arranged more by the logic and efficiency of a technical tool than by the natural meanings embodied in a live discourse and spoken tradition.

Further Reading

An extensive six hour interview titled Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich was broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989. Transcripts and this highly informative dialogue can be ordered from Ideas, P.O. Box 6440, Station “A”, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3L4.
A major political article by Francis Duplex is Gray, including biographical information, “Profiles,” appeared in the New Yorker (1969). A discussion of Illich’s writings was in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 10. Articles critical of his view included “The ‘Deschooling’ Controversy Revisited: A Defense of Illich’s ‘Participatory Socialism,” by Carl G. Hedman in Educational Theory (1979); “Towards a Political Economy of Education: A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society” by Herbert Gintis in Harvard Educational Review (1972); and “Illich, Kozol, and Rousseau on Public Education,” by Jonathan Kozol in Social Theory and Practice (1980). A selected list of major works by Illich which trace the development of his thought included: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, introduction by Erich Fromm (1970); De-Schooling Society (1971); Tools for Conviviality (1973); Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health (1975); and ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, with Barry Sanders (1988).

from: Gale Encyclopedia of Biographies

Robert Bringhurst – Language, Myth and Poetry

I find that Robert Bringhurst brings to the world a unique perspective of humans and their role in nature. He argues the idea that humans are merely part of nature and the idea that we are here to rule nature and to separate it from our lives will not only remove us from reality but also move us along the path of extinction.  His is a powerful treatment and integration of story, myth, poetry and language, related to biology and physics. A book of collected essays and talks is in his “The Tree Of Meaning”.

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From the Poetry Foundation:

Robert BringhurstJason Vanderhill

One of Canada’s most revered poets, Robert Bringhurst is also a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied comparative literature at Indiana University and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Bringhurst’s own poetry draws on his experiences with Native American myths and storytelling, as well as his training in philosophy, comparative literature, and linguistics. Bringhurst’s poetry is known for its wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and linguistic clarity. He is eclectic in his approach to literature, taking inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible, the ancient Greek poets, and the epics of the Haida, one of Canada’s native tribes. In the Observer, Kate Kellaway described Bringhurst’s poetry as “rare but never rarified.” She continued: “Bringhurst aims high: he attempts to grasp the essence of what it is to be alive… He also has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”

Bringhurst has published over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982), The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986),Conversations with a Toad (1987), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995), and Selected Poems (2009). In an interview with Intelligent Life, Bringhurst spoke about his poetry’s interest in philosophical questions rather than personal exploration: “I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered one of the most influential reference books on typography and book design. The work has been translated into ten languages, and is now in its third edition. Reviewing the book, the writer Roy Johnson noted that Bringhurst “can conjure poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made—from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.”

Bringhurst has also published many books of prose, including mediations on philosophy, language, music, art, and ecology. Recent titles include The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2009). A translator and cultural historian as well as a poet, essayist, and typography expert, Bringhurst’s  work with the Haida, a Canadian tribe, includes helping to translate their epics into English. His books on Haida mythology and story-telling include The Raven Steals the Light (1984), A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers (1999), and Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2000), which was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Bringhurst’s other awards include the Wytter Bynner Fellowship, awarded by US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Married to the poet Jan Zwicky, Bringhurst lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.


Worked as journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965-66, and in Boston, MA, 1970-71; dragoman in Israel and Palestine, 1967-68; law clerk in Panama Canal Zone, 1968-69; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting lecturer, 1975-77, lecturer in English department, 1979-80; School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta, poet-in-residence, 1983; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, adjunct lecturer, 1983-84; Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre Writers’ Workshops, Atikokan & Espanola, Ontario, poet-in-residence, 1985; University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, writer-in-residence, 1986; University of Edinburgh Scotland, Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow and writer-in-residence, 1989-90; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Ashley Fellow, 1994; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University, conjunct professor, 1998—. Military service: U.S. Army Intelligence, seconded to Israeli Defense Force, 1966-68; Judge Advocate General’s Corps., 1968-69.



  • The Shipwright’s Log, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.
  • Cadastre, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.
  • Deuteronomy, Sono Nis Press, 1974.
  • Eight Objects, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.
  • Bergschrund, Sono Nis Press, 1975.
  • Jacob Singing, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.
  • The Stonecutter’s Horses, Standard Editions, 1979.
  • Tzuhalem’s Mountain, Oolichan Books, 1982.
  • The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82, McClelland & Stewart, 1982, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.
  • Ocean/Paper/ Stone, William Hoffer, 1984.
  • Tending the Fire, Alcuin Society, 1985.
  • The Blue Roofs of Japan, Barbarian Press, 1986.
  • Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1986, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.
  • Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters, Alcuin Society, 1986.
  • Conversations with a Toad, Lucie Lambert, 1987.
  • The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto), 1995.
  • Elements, with drawings by Ulf Nilsen, Kuboaa Press (New York City), 1995.
  • Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia), 2009.


  • Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language, and Design, Edition Rhino (New York City), 1997.
  • A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
  • (With Warren Chappell) A Short History of the Printed Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999.
  • Thinking and Signing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Canada), 2002.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd edition, Hartley & Marks (Point Roberts, WA), 2004.
  • The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.
  • Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, Counterpoint Press, 2009.


  • (Editor with others) Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver), 1983.
  • (With Bill Reid) The Raven Steals the Light, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984.
  • The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (television documentary), CBC, 1992.
  • (Editor, and author of introduction and notes) Bill Reid, Solitary Raven: Selected Writings, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
  • (Translator and editor) Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.
  • (Editor and translator) Skaay Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, Canada), 2001.

Guest editor of Arabic literature and Greek issues of Contemporary Literature in Translation, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, beginning 1985. Author of Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, 2004; and The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning, 2004. Contributor to anthologies including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, The New Canadian Poets, Inside the Poem, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.



  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Inside the Poem, edited by W. H. New, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1992, pp. 93-100.
  • Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997.


  • Antognish Review, volume 85-86, 1991, Peter Sanger, “Poor Man’s Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst,” pp. 151-169.
  • Books in Canada, 1995, Scott Ellis, review of The Calling, pp. 30-31.
  • Canadian Dimension, July-August, 1996, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Black Canoe, p. 42.
  • Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 24, 1983; June 24, 1995, Chris Dafoe, “Robert Bringhurst: In Ink and Paper,” pp. C1-C2.
  • Journal of Canadian Poetry, volume 12, 1998, Iain Higgins, review of The Calling, pp. 27-46.
  • Library Journal, volume 101, 1976, Norman Stock, review of Bergschrund, p. 819.
  • Maclean’s, July 12, 1996, John Bemrose, “The Timely Wisdom of Traditional Tales,” p. 56; July, 1999, John Bemrose, review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, pp. 56-57.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, Jorie Graham, “Making Connections,” pp. 32-33; February 9, 1992, Karal Ann Marling, “A Noah’s Ark of the North,” p. 13.
  • Poetry, volume 144, 1984, Robin Skelton, “Recent Canadian Poetry,” pp. 297-307.
  • Quill & Quire, volume 61.5, 1995, Michael Redhill, review of The Calling, p. 36.
  • Star (Toronto), April, 1995, Philip Marchand, “Simplicity Motivates Poet’s Work of a Lifetime,” p. H6.
  • Whig-Standard Magazine (Kingston, Ontario), March 26, 1988, Larry Scanlan, “Notebook: Interview with Robert Bringhurst,” p. 25.


  • The Reader Winter 1995—Robert Bringhurst,, (March 6, 2000).
  • Review of The Elements of Typographic Style, (March 6, 2000).

Philip Seymour Hoffman

A very serious loss to our culture.

Two articles on Hoffman – Open Letters Monthly and The New Yorker.

Philip Seymour Hoffman



In one of those wonderful old theater stories Laurence Olivier is said to have asked another Hoffman, Dustin, as the younger man voluntarily underwent physical abuse in order to convincingly play a tortured prisoner, “my dear boy, why not try acting?” It was a telling remark. Olivier was the kind of actor who could do just that, just act. But it was obvious from the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a better actor than Olivier in every way, that he was a different breed of artist, one who braved his own depths for each performance, pulling up the anxiety, the megalomania, the manic energy, the deviousness, the sweetness, the ache, and the nervous feeling of being at sea in the world that obviously haunted him in life.  We responded to his performances with great love because we’re haunted by the same sensations in ourselves.

He played writers especially well, perhaps because writers also wrestle with those same emotions every day. He was brilliant and relatable and funny in the underrated State and Main, and he was the only actor whose nervous relatability could have sustained our interest in the baggy monster that wasSynecdoche, New York. He was a miracle in The Master and he was a miracle in Capote and he was a miracle in Magnolia, not because he seemed to have conjured his characters from thin air, but because he seemed to have assembled them from within himself. He was them and they were him. And we encountered those performances with a shock of recognition.

As we learn this afternoon that Hoffman died at age 46, we find ourselves amazed that he was so young. He’s given us a lifetime’s worth of work—so many fine performances that there’s an excellent chance his best work has yet to be fully discovered or properly understood. That’s up to us now. Few actors, let alone one so tortured in life, leave themselves such a monument. But we’re all tortured too, and his work is a monument to all of us as well, in all our nervous, nasty, wounded, complex glory.

Morris Graves (August 28, 1910 – May 5, 2001) is a rare Northwest native, who was, by and large, a self-taught artist. His early experience with Japan and zen buddhism contributed to the development of his mystic paintings, some of which are shown below. Much of his adult life was spent in and around Seattle and La Conner, WA. He connected with many artists here, three who makeup the Northwest School: Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey and Guy Anderson. Graves influence is broad, an example is Robert Davidson’s noted resurgence in Haida art. Graves choose animals and birds to represent symbols where the presence of spiritual essence may be witnessed.

Morris Graves – Northwest Art

The link below is an interview that the Huffington Post did with Morris about his film ” The Unknown Known”. Morris’s balance and insight are striking; one feels in the presence of an explorer of human nature itself.

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A Masterful Story Of American Power – Errol Morris


Please view the above link to the video. The interview was conducted by the Seattle Channel which is a service of the City of Seattle. McGinn accomplished much in his time in office. The city is better off because of him. He represents the best of progressive leadership in America. McGinn says this so wisely – “If it can’t be done in this liberal city to lead and follow the people – to really govern with the people – then where else will it be done in America?

See also this biography:

McGinn deserves the last word. Thank you.

McGinn’s Departure Is a Loss To the City of Seattle

Camille Paglia – Making A Case For Real Gender Differences

American culture and specifically Hollywood TV, is in the process of neutering the males of our society. Masculinity is boxed up and cauterised to fit into the restraints of a fantasy feminine world that is controlled through PC management. Camille Paglia is a woman who sees this clearly.

Camille Paglia: A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues

The cultural critic on why ignoring the biological differences between men and women risks undermining Western civilization.


The Wall Street Journal


Updated Dec. 28, 2013 10:46 p.m. ET
Philadelphia‘What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide,” says Camille Paglia. This self-described “notorious Amazon feminist” isn’t telling anyone to Lean In or asking Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. No, her indictment may be as surprising as it is wide-ranging: The military is out of fashion, Americans undervalue manual labor, schools neuter male students, opinion makers deny the biological differences between men and women, and sexiness is dead. And that’s just 20 minutes of our three-hour conversation.When Ms. Paglia, now 66, burst onto the national stage in 1990 with the publishing of “Sexual Personae,” she immediately established herself as a feminist who was the scourge of the movement’s establishment, a heretic to its orthodoxy. Pick up the 700-page tome, subtitled “Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” and it’s easy to see why. “If civilization had been left in female hands,” she wrote, “we would still be living in grass huts.”

The fact that the acclaimed book—the first of six; her latest, “Glittering Images,” is a survey of Western art—was rejected by seven publishers and five agents before being printed by Yale University Press only added to Ms. Paglia’s sense of herself as a provocateur in a class with Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. But unlike those radio jocks, Ms. Paglia has scholarly chops: Her dissertation adviser at Yale was Harold Bloom, and she is as likely to discuss Freud, Oscar Wilde or early Native American art as to talk about Miley Cyrus.

Ms. Paglia relishes her outsider persona, having previously described herself as an egomaniac and “abrasive, strident and obnoxious.” Talking to her is like a mental CrossFit workout. One moment she’s praising pop star Rihanna (“a true artist”), then blasting ObamaCare (“a monstrosity,” though she voted for the president), global warming (“a religious dogma”), and the idea that all gay people are born gay (“the biggest canard,” yet she herself is a lesbian).

Neil Davies

But no subject gets her going more than when I ask if she really sees a connection between society’s attempts to paper over the biological distinction between men and women and the collapse of Western civilization.

She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “These people don’t think in military ways, so there’s this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we’re just nice and benevolent to everyone they’ll be nice too. They literally don’t have any sense of evil or criminality.”

The results, she says, can be seen in everything from the dysfunction in Washington (where politicians “lack practical skills of analysis and construction”) to what women wear. “So many women don’t realize how vulnerable they are by what they’re doing on the street,” she says, referring to women who wear sexy clothes.

When she has made this point in the past, Ms. Paglia—who dresses in androgynous jackets and slacks—has been told that she believes “women are at fault for their own victimization.” Nonsense, she says. “I believe that every person, male and female, needs to be in a protective mode at all times of alertness to potential danger. The world is full of potential attacks, potential disasters.” She calls it “street-smart feminism.”

Ms. Paglia argues that the softening of modern American society begins as early as kindergarten. “Primary-school education is a crock, basically. It’s oppressive to anyone with physical energy, especially guys,” she says, pointing to the most obvious example: the way many schools have cut recess. “They’re making a toxic environment for boys. Primary education does everything in its power to turn boys into neuters.”

She is not the first to make this argument, as Ms. Paglia readily notes. Fellow feminist Christina Hoff Sommers has written about the “war against boys” for more than a decade. The notion was once met with derision, but now data back it up: Almost one in five high-school-age boys has been diagnosed with ADHD, boys get worse grades than girls and are less likely to go to college.

Ms. Paglia observes this phenomenon up close with her 11-year-old son, Lucien, whom she is raising with her ex-partner, Alison Maddex, an artist and public-school teacher who lives 2 miles away. She sees the tacit elevation of “female values”—such as sensitivity, socialization and cooperation—as the main aim of teachers, rather than fostering creative energy and teaching hard geographical and historical facts.

By her lights, things only get worse in higher education. “This PC gender politics thing—the way gender is being taught in the universities—in a very anti-male way, it’s all about neutralization of maleness.” The result: Upper-middle-class men who are “intimidated” and “can’t say anything. . . . They understand the agenda.” In other words: They avoid goring certain sacred cows by “never telling the truth to women” about sex, and by keeping “raunchy” thoughts and sexual fantasies to themselves and their laptops.

Politically correct, inadequate education, along with the decline of America’s brawny industrial base, leaves many men with “no models of manhood,” she says. “Masculinity is just becoming something that is imitated from the movies. There’s nothing left. There’s no room for anything manly right now.” The only place you can hear what men really feel these days, she claims, is on sports radio. No surprise, she is an avid listener. The energy and enthusiasm “inspires me as a writer,” she says, adding: “If we had to go to war,” the callers “are the men that would save the nation.”

And men aren’t the only ones suffering from the decline of men. Women, particularly elite upper-middle-class women, have become “clones” condemned to “Pilates for the next 30 years,” Ms. Paglia says. “Our culture doesn’t allow women to know how to be womanly,” adding that online pornography is increasingly the only place where men and women in our sexless culture tap into “primal energy” in a way they can’t in real life.

A key part of the remedy, she believes, is a “revalorization” of traditional male trades—the ones that allow women’s studies professors to drive to work (roads), take the elevator to their office (construction), read in the library (electricity), and go to gender-neutral restrooms (plumbing).

” Michelle Obama‘s going on: ‘Everybody must have college.’ Why? Why? What is the reason why everyone has to go to college? Especially when college is so utterly meaningless right now, it has no core curriculum” and “people end up saddled with huge debts,” says Ms. Paglia. What’s driving the push toward universal college is “social snobbery on the part of a lot of upper-middle-class families who want the sticker in the window.”

Ms. Paglia, who has been a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia since 1984, sees her own students as examples. “I have woodworking students who, even while they’re in class, are already earning money making furniture and so on,” she says. “My career has been in art schools cause I don’t get along with normal academics.”

To hear her tell it, getting along has never been Ms. Paglia’s strong suit. As a child, she felt stifled by the expectations of girlhood in the 1950s. She fantasized about being a knight, not a princess. Discovering pioneering female figures as a teenager, most notably Amelia Earhart, transformed Ms. Paglia’s understanding of what her future might hold.

These iconoclastic women of the 1930s, like Earhart and Katharine Hepburn, remain her ideal feminist role models: independent, brave, enterprising, capable of competing with men without bashing them. But since at least the late 1960s, she says, fellow feminists in the academy stopped sharing her vision of “equal-opportunity feminism” that demands a level playing field without demanding special quotas or protections for women.

She proudly recounts her battle, while a graduate student at Yale in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over the Rolling Stones: Ms. Paglia loved “Under My Thumb,” a song the others regarded as chauvinist. Then there was the time she “barely got through the dinner” with a group of women’s studies professors at Bennington College, where she had her first teaching job, who insisted that there is no hormonal difference between men and women. “I left before dessert.”

In her view, these ideological excesses bear much of the blame for the current cultural decline. She calls out activists like Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi for pushing a version of feminism that says gender is nothing more than a social construct, and groups like the National Organization for Women for making abortion the singular women’s issue.

By denying the role of nature in women’s lives, she argues, leading feminists created a “denatured, antiseptic” movement that “protected their bourgeois lifestyle” and falsely promised that women could “have it all.” And by impugning women who chose to forgo careers to stay at home with children, feminists turned off many who might have happily joined their ranks.

But Ms. Paglia’s criticism shouldn’t be mistaken for nostalgia for the socially prescribed roles for men and women before the 1960s. Quite the contrary. “I personally have disobeyed every single item of the gender code,” says Ms. Paglia. But men, and especially women, need to be honest about the role biology plays and clear-eyed about the choices they are making.

Sex education, she says, simply focuses on mechanics without conveying the real “facts of life,” especially for girls: “I want every 14-year-old girl . . . to be told: You better start thinking what do you want in life. If you just want a career and no children you don’t have much to worry about. If, however, you are thinking you’d like to have children some day you should start thinking about when do you want to have them. Early or late? To have them early means you are going to make a career sacrifice, but you’re going to have more energy and less risks. Both the pros and the cons should be presented.”

For all of Ms. Paglia’s barbs about the women’s movement, it seems clear that feminism—at least of the equal-opportunity variety—has triumphed in its basic goals. There is surely a lack of women in the C-Suite and Congress, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a man who would admit that he believes women are less capable. To save feminism as a political movement from irrelevance, Ms. Paglia says, the women’s movement should return to its roots. That means abandoning the “nanny state” mentality that led to politically correct speech codes and college disciplinary committees that have come to replace courts. The movement can win converts, she says, but it needs to become a big tent, one “open to stay-at-home moms” and “not just the career woman.”

More important, Ms. Paglia says, if the women’s movement wants to be taken seriously again, it should tackle serious matters, like rape in India and honor killings in the Muslim world, that are “more of an outrage than some woman going on a date on the Brown University campus.”

Ms. Weiss is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.

The Wall Street Journal

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“The Quiet American” – David Remnick


The Quiet American  – Gaby Wood – The Observer, Saturday 9 September 2006

It’s a magazine that runs 10,000-word articles on African states and the pension system, has almost no pictures and is published in black and white. So how does the New Yorker sell more than a million copies a week? Gaby Wood meets David Remnick, its big-brained editor, and talks speed writing, 30-hour days and meeting Little Ant and Little Dec

‘Everybody has a cartoon of themselves,’ suggests David Remnick, the editor of a magazine famous for them. ‘Mine is: I write very fast, and I’m ruthlessly efficient with my time.’As New Yorker cartoons go, the image wouldn’t appear to hold much promise of a punch line, but Remnick doesn’t mind it, and it contains, after all, a certain amount of truth. ‘I’m not the slowest writer that you know,’ he admits, adding with characteristic wryness: ‘For better or for worse, by the way. AJ Liebling, one of my heroes, used to say that he could write better than anyone who wrote faster, and faster than anyone who could write better. I’m one nine-hundredth as good as Liebling, but that principle may slightly apply.’Remnick, who was for many years the New Yorker’s star reporter, covering – in the tradition of AJ Liebling – an almost alarming range of subjects with grace and dexterity, has edited the magazine for the past eight years and quietly, seriously, changed its fortunes. He is the fifth editor in the New Yorker’s 81-year history and, by reputation – as his thumbnail self-portrait implies – its least eccentric.

So many memoirs have now been written about the distinguished publication that Harold Ross, its founder and first editor, has gone down in history as a maddening, well-connected workaholic who sacrificed three marriages to his literary invention. It is widely known that his successor, William Shawn, was neurotic, nuanced, almost pathologically shy, and that Robert Gottlieb, a gifted interloper, possessed a museum-worthy collection of plastic purses. In more recent memory, Tina Brown hired big-name writers at vast expense, threw celebrity-strewn bashes to promote the magazine (all of which resulted in a rumoured loss of up to $20m annually) and was supposed to have rejected any story that couldn’t hold her attention on the StairMaster.

It could be said that Brown’s methods were not eccentric but merely attuned to the demands of Eighties and Nineties culture. Equally, Remnick’s non-partying ethic and commitment to world affairs might be thought the only appropriate way forward for a post-9/11 magazine. Remnick, who was hired by Brown, has never been critical of her tenure, and is inviolably modest about his own contribution. ‘My background is as a reporter and foreign correspondent, but it’s hard to separate what one’s natural inclinations are from the times,’ he tells me. ‘My time as editor has been overlapped by a crisis – a prolonged, labyrinthine, tragic, seemingly non-ending crisis – that involves the prehistory of 9/11, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, fraught histories between the United States and almost everyone.’ Remnick’s colleague Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestselling books The Tipping Point and Blink, says, similarly, that ‘we live in a suddenly serious time, where people have an appetite for intelligent, thoughtful explanations of consequential topics’.

Yet how can Remnick’s editorial strategy be considered inevitable when no one else is doing what he does? However frequently Graydon Carter may address the bungles of the Bush administration in his letters from the editor in Vanity Fair, he feels compelled, more often than not, to feature a cover star in a bikini. Meanwhile, on another floor of the Conde Nast building, the New Yorker puts Seymour Hersh’s investigations of national security on the cover and has the highest subscription renewal rate of any magazine in the country. It has a circulation of over 1m, and although it is privately owned and such figures are not publicly available, it is thought to be turning a profit of around $10m.

Celebrity culture is far from over; if you wrote a plan for a magazine and said you thought you could make a profit by publishing 8,000-word pieces on the future of various African nations, hefty analyses of the pension system and a three-part series on global warming, hordes of people would laugh in your face. So how has Remnick done it? Before I met him, I asked this of an acclaimed New York journalist, who said: ‘If you can work that out, you will have the scoop of the century. No one knows.’

Remnick is well aware of the apparent mystery, which is why no focus group is ever involved in an editorial decision. As he puts it, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that one hundred per cent of his readers are not going to get home from work, put their keys down and say: You know, honey, what I need to do now is read 10,000 words on Congo. ‘So you throw it out there, and you hope that there are some things that people will immediately read – cartoons, shorter things, Anthony Lane, Talk of the Town. And then, eventually, the next morning on the train, somebody sees this piece, and despite its seeming formidableness, they read it.’

You might say that what looks at first like common sense is David Remnick’s most winning eccentricity.

We meet at the New Yorker offices in Times Square on an obscenely hot day in August. Remnick extends a courtly, ironic offer of rehydration: ‘Coffee? Water? Drip?’ His glass box of an office is decorated with original cover art and scattered photographs – a portrait of AJ Liebling sitting under an apple tree; Dean Rohrer’s wonderful image of Monica Lewinsky as the Mona Lisa. On his desk is a rare book about Jean-Luc Godard, in French.

He has just returned from Arkansas, where he met Bill Clinton for a long profile he is writing, and he spent the end of last week editing a cover story on Hizbollah by John Lee Anderson with an exceptionally fast turnaround. Another reporter calls from the Middle East as I arrive. Yet here is Remnick, blithe and witty as anything, behaving more or less as Fred Astaire would, if only a role had been scripted for him by Philip Roth.

Reporting, a new collection of Remnick’s writing from the New Yorker, has just been published. It reveals not only the scope of his interests – he is as lucid about the PLO as he is touching about Solzhenitsyn, as excruciatingly accurate about Tony Blair as he is compelling on the subject of Mike Tyson’s trainer – but also the deceptive straightforwardness of his style.

Remnick won a Pulitzer Prize for his first book, Lenin’s Tomb, in 1994, and the great pleasure of that book, which gives a kaleidoscopic account of the fall of the Soviet Union, was that you felt party to the open mind of a reporter (originally at the Washington Post) who followed his instincts at every turn. He didn’t mind telling you, for instance, that his wife’s family had been interned in camps in the country to which they were now returning; if he saw someone handing out flyers in the street, he would delve deeply into their purposes; he was not shy of doorstepping ancient members of the KGB. In that first book, as in his others – a follow-up about Russia called Resurrection; a collection of pieces entitled The Devil Problem; a story about Muhammad Ali called King of the World; and Reporting – simply turned sentences open up vistas of complication. Yet the quality that Remnick shows most in conversation is his capacity for self-deprecation. He opens a profile of Katharine Graham, the imperious proprietor of the Washington Post and his sometime boss, with a story about his own involvement in the Post’s historic interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1988:

‘As the junior man in the bureau, I was given the task of finding the hairdresser. I would not insist that Moscow was short on luxury in those days, except to note that I did not so much find a hairdresser as create one. At one of the embassies, I found a young woman who was said to own a blow-dryer and a brush. I rang her up and explained the situation. Gravely, as if we were negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, I gave her an annotated copy of Vogue, a mug shot of Mrs Graham, and a hundred dollars.

“You’re on,” she said.

‘Apparently, the interview went well. It was featured, with a photograph, in the next day’s edition of Pravda. Mrs Graham looked quite handsome, I thought. A nice full head of hair, and well combed. I felt close to history.’

In a piece about Tony Blair written just before the last election, Remnick witnesses, behind the scenes, the Prime Minister’s utter humiliation at the hands of Little Ant and Little Dec. In a profile of Al Gore he reveals that Gore employs a private chef who still addresses him, years after his presidential defeat, as ‘Mr Vice-President’. He gets to hang out with the famously publicity-shy Philip Roth in his most feverishly creative period; he visits Solzhenitsyn and his wife as they prepare to return to Russia. Yet in a preface to the book, Remnick alerts the reader to the fact that most of his subjects are public figures who do their best not to let their guard down. Why offer the warning? To suggest we’ll never find out about them?

‘No,’ he replies, ‘so that you’ll find out about them in a different way.’ With politicians, ‘you’ve got press secretaries, and you’ve got a very, very self-conscious actor, who’s performing in public and the course of whose career is dependent on how he’s going to appear to some degree. And he’s very experienced at it. And any question you ask him, he’s heard, and he has a little tape loop in his head. So when something like Ant and Dec comes along,’ – Remnick grins broadly and looks up to the skies in gratitude – ‘Happy birthday. The gods of non-fiction have provided an unscripted scripted moment!’

Remnick pauses for a moment to tell a story about the glorious predictability of journalism. ‘There was a wonderful thing Slate did years ago, when it was just getting started, called the Hackathlon. It was Michael Specter, Malcolm Gladwell and I forget who else.’ (Specter and Gladwell are both old friends of Remnick’s from the Washington Post, and both now colleagues at the New Yorker.) ‘Each day there would be an event. You had to write a 500-word lede [an American term for an article’s opening paragraph] in the Vanity Fair style to a Richard Gere profile: Ready, begin. Then you had to do an Economist situationer on Tanzania – first 400 words. Then maybe a Rolling Stone lede to a … you know: Mick Jagger is angry. Period. Paragraph. Very Angry. Period. The limo is late. You know, one of those. And then maybe a New Yorker thing on the history of sand. I don’t remember the specifics.’

Remnick leans in with a smile of utter glee, and goes on: ‘Specter beat Gladwell. He came from behind, but his lede on the Richard Gere, comparing the colour of his hair to his grey cashmere sweater, was just so brilliant that he overwhelmed him in the Hackathlon. I mean, he could do nothing else in his career and his New York Times obituary would read: “Michael Specter, winner of the 1997 Slate Hackathlon, died today of complications of a hernia operation. He was 98.”‘

David Remnick was born in 1958 and grew up in Hillsdale, New Jersey, where his father was a dentist and his mother an art teacher. The extent of his early gifts, to hear others tell it, borders on the embarrassing. Richard Brody, a close friend Remnick met at Princeton, remembers a story Remnick told him at the time about his activities in high school.

‘He was interested in journalism already, and in literature and poetry,’ Brody tells me. ‘So he interviewed poets, and put together a collection of those interviews for a small literary magazine, and I think some of them were collected in a book. So even in high school he had not only the idea, but let’s say the lack of false modesty to go ahead and do something which many people much older would not have dared to do. ‘

Brody and Remnick found that they shared a love of Bob Dylan, a Jewish upbringing in the suburbs, and ‘a literary school of sorts’. As Brody puts it: ‘There was a whole generation of Jewish American writers – when Saul Bellow won his Nobel Prize, I guess when we were all freshmen or about to enter school. There were people like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer and Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller. We sort of had a canon of fathers. I think we weren’t postmodernists, temperamentally. We had read our Thomas Pynchon and our John Barth, but that wasn’t what excited us. We were excited by the late flowering, among the children of Jewish immigrants, of the late 19th-century novel.’

(Remnick, still an enduring fan of Roth, tells me that he would have published Roth’s latest novel, Everyman, in its entirety in the magazine, but Roth’s agent wouldn’t allow it.)

When he left Princeton with a degree in Comparative Literature, Remnick got a job at the Washington Post, where his early days were occupied by covering the night-cop beat, or doing celebrity interviews for the Style section, or writing about sport. In 1987, the Post decided it needed a second person in Moscow, and, as Remnick now recalls, ‘Nobody else wanted to go. It’s cold, in those days if you wanted a box of coffee, you had to order it from Denmark. Nowadays there are rich people and stores and all kinds of stuff. (It’s still cold – pace global warming.) So I got to go – I was 28, 29 – and it was the best kind of foreign story: really exciting, constantly changing, intellectually fascinating, ethnically various. It was heaven for a reporter.’ Before he left he married Esther B Fein, a reporter for the New York Times, who also filed stories from Russia.

‘When we were at the Post he was a kind of legendary figure and I was a little underling,’ remembers Malcolm Gladwell. ‘People have forgotten that – and this is not by any means an exaggeration – David was the great newspaper reporter of his generation. And had he never been anything but a newspaper reporter he would be, right now, the best. At the Washington Post there was one day when he had three stories on the front page, which I don’t think has ever been repeated. He was in a league by himself. So the idea that he would have a second act where he would outperform his first act is kind of unbelievable.’

When Remnick was offered the editorship of the New Yorker, he had never edited anything before – with the exception, as he likes to remind people, of his school magazine. The decision to abandon writing – which, for the most part, he has (he now only writes two long pieces a year, plus commentary in the magazine) – was made on the basis of ‘a very simple calculation’: ‘I had about two days – a day – I had seconds to decide, actually. Where could I make the bigger contribution? The ability to affect this magazine and its place in the culture – now, I may cock it up as an editor, I don’t know, but the capacity for potential was greater doing this.’

Tina Brown left on a Wednesday in 1998. Remnick, who had written over 100 pieces for the magazine in the six years he’d been there, and who was, as Brown put it, ‘a key member of my dream team’, consulted on all kinds of editorial matters, was offered the job the following Monday, and took over straightaway, rallied by a five-minute ovation from his colleagues. ‘And then Tina was gone and the magazine had to come out the next week – and the week after that, and on and on,’ says Remnick now, looking amusingly baffled. ‘And I was an absolute novice. And the only saving grace is that there were these people around who were so good.’

It wasn’t easy. There have been times, even recently, when his instinct has failed him. He came out in favour of the war in Iraq, for instance, on the grounds of concern about weapons of mass destruction, and says now that ‘I was wrong about that, totally wrong, as events proved very quickly.’ The job, as Robert Gottlieb once memorably described it, is ‘like sticking your head into a pencil sharpener’. To make matters worse, in some quarters Schadenfreude kicked in early; a profile of Remnick in the New York Times took offence at his choice of interview venue – a formica-topped table in a coffee shop, which was seen to suggest that the ‘buzz’ of the Tina years had fizzled out on the spot.

Michael Specter, Remnick’s close friend of 20 years, tells me that a couple of months after Remnick took over, they went to Paris. ‘We took a walk and he said, “The worst thing is, everybody comes up to me and says: ‘Oh my God! You must be enjoying it so much!’ And I just want to say: ‘Yeah, it’s like enjoying cancer!'” Because it was really scary, and I think it was a lot to take on that job, never having been an editor, when the magazine was financially in trouble. ‘

In a profile he wrote many years ago of the legendary Post editor Ben Bradlee, Remnick remarked: ‘Generalship is not about fighting the battle; it’s about inspiring the enlisted.’ It’s a notion Remnick has clearly kept in mind in his own work as General. Asked to illustrate his editorial methods, Remnick reaches for a baseball analogy: Joe Torre, the manager of the Yankees, ‘gives players the confidence they need to play their best, then he gets the hell out’. He adds: ‘I don’t believe in swagger. I think it’s infantile.’

The magazine’s editorial director, Henry Finder, says drily that Remnick ‘has something very scarce in this city: an aura of sanity. He exudes a sort of calm that most New Yorkers get to experience only with prescription medication. As an editor, I think that aura of equipoise turns out to be very helpful, because you have so many people here who are professional neurotics, always acting out, drama queens, who have one form of craziness or another. And I think he sees it as his job to be… sane.

When I ask Malcolm Gladwell what he thinks the legend of Remnick’s tenure will be, he says: ‘How exactly things got so effortless.’

Specter says he’d like some sort of atomic clock so he could ‘divide 24 by Remnick time’ and work out how he fits everything in. (Remnick himself has minted the immortal dictum: ‘There are only 30 hours in the day – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to change time zones.’) It’s not just the work: he has a family too. Remnick and Esther Fein have two teenage sons and a seven-year-old daughter. He does his fair share of ferrying to music lessons and little league games. Asked to explain how he manages to balance these things, Remnick shrugs and says he doesn’t do anything other than spend time with his family and work. ‘It’s not like I build toy ships, or travel to Tahiti. I don’t go surfing. I don’t know: what do people do?’

He admits that certain pleasures have largely fallen by the wayside. ‘My son said to me – we were reading one night, he his book for school and I a stack of manuscripts – and he said: “You don’t read anything with covers any more.”‘ Remnick cringes. ‘Dombey and Son immediately came down from the shelf!’

Yet there are other things he seems to make time for, somehow. Specter says the only person he knows who watches more television than Remnick is his own ex-wife, Alessandra Stanley, the TV critic for the New York Times. He remembers calling Remnick when one of their old favourites, the BBC version of John le Carre’s Smiley’s People, came out on DVD. ‘I said, “Are you watching it?” He said, “Yes.” He was writing a piece. He said: “I’m giving myself three hours of writing, one hour of Smiley.” And I just thought, Jesus Christ. I watch three hours of Smiley, then I have lunch, then I write for a couple of minutes. ‘

I tell Specter how proudly Remnick told me of his triumph in the Hackathlon, and that I wondered afterwards what he meant by extolling such bare-faced bad writing. ‘If you do it to change the world, you can get really bummed out,’ replies Specter. ‘The Hackathlon was a celebration of the fact that it’s a day job.’ He thinks for a second and laughs. ‘I think he’s happy when we do well. But he was much more excited about the Hackathlon than he was about any science writing or global health award I’ve ever received.’

‘The things about him that I wish …’ Specter goes on, a little awkwardly. ‘He’s an incredibly good friend. I mean, he’s a better friend than he is an editor. And he’s very funny. My daughter thinks he’s hilarious. She said: “You know, David’s the coolest of your friends, Dad.” Then she said: “Actually, he’s not cool, but he’s the best of them.”‘

· Reporting by David Remnick is published by Macmillan at £18.99

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Marilynne Robinson – Community vs Tribalism

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I have reposted two items: 1) a fragment from an interview of Robinson where she describes the process of how American colleges evolved in the Midwest. 2) the complete essay Imagination & Community from her book of Essays When I Was a Child I Read Books.

The imaginative makeup of a writer is established by their willingness to consider broad ideas and ideas that are divergent from their own cherished ones. On both accounts I find Robinson leading the front on what James Hillman calls amplification, that is , the idea of expounding on a base idea to show its nature versus the traditional dissection or analysis of an idea to display its make-up. Hillman states that the end product of analysis is often the destruction of the entity in consideration, the parts on their own do not look like the whole nor feel like it.

Robinson explores the concepts of community and tribalism and shows the outcomes for following one path versus the other. She gives weight to the consequences that evolve when applying them to democracy in today’s American scene.

Tucked away in this essay is her creative insight into the writer and their imaginative world and how this creativity may unfold to the authors and the reader’s benefit: “So long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives.”

This essay was excerpted from When I Was a Child I Read Booksa collection of essays to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in March, copyright Marilynne Robinson.

In an excerpt from an interview published on April 4, 2006 in The Christian Century, Debra Bendis asked Robinson to explore the aspect of theology in her work:

“I’d like to see mainline churches, collectively and individually, remember and claim their profound histories and cultures. The mainline church, for example, founded a great many of the nonpublic universities in the country, and a lot of the public ones as well. This is an intellectual tradition. At least until the middle of the last century, most of the presidents of universities in this country were ordained clergy. This country has spent more time and resources on education than any other civilization in the history of the world. We are not phobic about intellectual institutions, but we act as if we were. We act as if we have to give people a placebo in place of learning and thought.

“I’m interested in the abolitionists partly because of the interesting effect their strategy had. Some speak of abolitionists as if they were all violent crazy people. But what they did was of great consequence: they came into the new territories and built colleges. Many of the colleges in the Midwest had such origins. The founders would buy land from the government and build a church and a college. People wanted to live near colleges and churches, and so the value of the land rose. When some of the land was sold, the money endowed the college or funded the development of another college. This was a well-designed system for creating value. These colleges educated women as well as men, and many were on the Underground Railroad. Oberlin is a classic example: an abolitionist foundation that admitted women and black people on equal terms with white men from the beginning. Important progressive movements germinated in these colleges and communities. They were organized on what was called the Manual Labor System. Everyone who went to a college did the work that was involved in the life of the college. Faculty and students alike hoed the rows and slopped the hogs. The point was, on one hand, to eliminate financial barriers to education and, on the other hand, to remove the stigma attached to physical labor.

“So long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives.” – Robinson

Imagination & Community

What Holds Us Together

Marilynne RobinsonFebruary 27, 2012 – 10:13am

Over the years I have collected so many books that, in aggregate, they can fairly be called a library. I don’t know what percentage of them I have read. Increasingly I wonder how many of them I ever will read. This has done nothing to dampen my pleasure in acquiring more books. But it has caused me to ponder the meaning they have for me, and the fact that to me they epitomize one great aspect of the goodness of life. Recently I bought a book titled On What Cannot Be Said: Apophatic Discourses in Philosophy, Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Volume One: Classic Formulations. The title itself is worth far more than the price of the book, and then there is the table of contents. So far I have read only the last and latest selection, from The Wandering Cherub by Silesius Angelus, who wrote in the seventeenth century.

In the stack of magazines, read and unread, that I can never bring myself to throw away, there are any number of articles suggesting that science, too, explores the apophatic—reality that eludes words—dark matter, dark energy, the unexpressed dimensions proposed by string theory, the imponderable strangeness described by quantum theory. These magazine essays might be titled “Learned Ignorance,” or “The Cloud of Unknowing,” or they might at least stand beside Plato’s and Plotinus’s demonstrations of the failures of language, which are, paradoxically, demonstrations of the extraordinary power of language to evoke a reality beyond its grasp, to evoke a sense of what cannot be said.

I love all this for a number of reasons, one of them being that, as a writer, I continually attempt to make inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said—or said by me, at least. I seem to know by intuition a great deal that I cannot find words for, and to enlarge the field of my intuition every time I fail again to find these words. That is to say, the unnamed is overwhelmingly present and real for me. And this is truer because the moment it stops being a standard for what I do say is the moment my language goes slack and my imagination disengages itself. I would almost say it is the moment in which my language becomes false. The frontiers of the unsayable, and the avenues of approach to those frontiers, have been opened for me by every book I have ever read that was in any degree ambitious, earnest, or imaginative; by every good teacher I have had; by music and painting; by conversation that was in any way interesting, even conversation overheard as it passed between strangers.

As a fiction writer I do have to deal with the nuts and bolts of temporal reality—from time to time a character has to walk through a door and close it behind him, the creatures of imagination have to eat and sleep, as all other creatures do. I would have been a poet if I could, to have avoided this obligation to simulate the hourliness and dailiness of human life. This is not to say that books could not be written about walking through a door—away from what? toward what? leaving what wake of consequence? creating what stir of displacement? To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus. His leave-taking was a profound event for which the supper itself was precursor. Presence is a great mystery, and presence in absence, which Jesus promised and has epitomized, is, at a human scale, a great reality for all of us in the course of ordinary life.

I am persuaded for the moment that this is in fact the basis of community. I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly. This thesis may be influenced by the fact that I have spent years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.

I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent. I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle. All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millennia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

We live on a little island of the articulable, which we tend to mistake for reality itself. We can and do make small and tedious lives as we sail through the cosmos on our uncannily lovely little planet, and this is surely remarkable. But we do so much else besides. For example, we make language. A language is a grand collaboration, a collective art form which we begin to master as babes and sucklings, and which we preserve, modify, cull, enlarge as we pass through our lives. Some students in France drew my attention to the enormous number of English words that describe the behavior of light. Glimmer, glitter, glister, glisten, gleam, glow, glare, shimmer, sparkle, shine, and so on. These old words are not utilitarian. They reflect an aesthetic attention to experience that has made, and allows us to make, pleasing distinctions among, say, a candle flame, the sun at its zenith, and the refraction of light by a drop of rain. How were these words coined and retained, and how have they been preserved through generations, so that English-speaking people use them with the precision necessary to preserving them? None of this can be ascribed to conscious choice on the part of anyone, but somehow the language created, so to speak, a prism through which light passes, by means of which its qualities are arrayed. One of the pleasures of writing is that so often I know that there is in fact a word that is perfect for the use I want to put it to, and when I summon it, it comes, though I might not have thought of it for years. And then I think, somewhere someone was the first person to use that word. Then how did it make its way into the language, and how did it retain the specificity that makes it perfect for this present use? Language is profoundly communal, and in the mere fact of speaking, then writing, a wealth of language grows and thrives among us that has enabled thought and knowledge in a degree we could never calculate. As individuals and as a species, we are unthinkable without our communities.

I remember once, as a child, walking into a library, looking around at the books, and thinking, I could do that. In fact I didn’t do it until I was well into my thirties, but the affinity I felt with books as such preserved in me the secret knowledge that I was a writer when any dispassionate appraisal of my life would have dismissed the notion entirely. So I belong to the community of the written word in several ways. First, books have taught me most of what I know, and they have trained my attention and my imagination. Second, they gave me a sense of the possible, which is the great service—and too often, when it is ungenerous, the great disservice—a community performs for its members. Third, they embodied richness and refinement of language, and the artful use of language in the service of the imagination. Fourth, they gave me and still give me courage. Sometimes, when I have spent days in my study dreaming a world while the world itself shines outside my windows, forgetting to call my mother because one of my nonbeings has come up with a thought that interests me, I think, this is a very odd way to spend a life. But I have my library all around me, my cloud of witnesses to the strangeness and brilliance of human experience, who have helped me to my deepest enjoyments of it. Every writer I know, when asked how to become a writer, responds with one word: Read. Excellent advice, for a great many reasons, a few of which I have suggested here.

And this brings us to the subject of education. In the United States, education, especially at the higher levels, is based around powerful models of community. We choose our colleges, if we have a choice, in order to be formed by them and supported by them in the identities we have or aspire to. If the graft takes, we consider ourselves ever after to be members of that community.

As one consequence, graduates tend to treat the students who come after them as kin and also as heirs. They take pride in the successes of people in classes forty years ahead of or behind their own. They have a familial desire to enhance the experience of generations of students who are, in fact, strangers to them, except in the degree that the ethos and curriculum of the place does indeed form its students over generations. These gifts are very often made, the donors say, out of gratitude and in celebration, and I have no reason to doubt it. I am even inclined to look charitably upon the fondness of donors for seeing their names on buildings and fountains, to consider it the expression of a desire to implant themselves immortally in the consciousness of a beloved community. In any case, many of our colleges and universities have been richly adorned over many years with assets and resources we are far too ready to take for granted. There are literally hundreds of places in this country where an open and committed student can enjoy an education that would be extraordinary by any except the very high standard so many of these institutions do sustain. This is not to devalue the achievements of any specific university, only to speak the pleasant truth about American higher education in general.

From time to time I, as a professor in a public university, receive a form from the legislature asking me to make an account of the hours I spend working. I think someone ought to send a form like that to the legislators. The comparison might be very interesting. The faculty in my acquaintance are quite literally devoted to their work, almost obsessive about it. They go on vacation to do research. Even when they retire they don’t retire. I have benefited enormously from the generosity of teachers from grade school through graduate school. They are an invaluable community who contribute as much as legislators do to sustaining civilization, and more than legislators do to equipping the people of this country with the capacity for learning and reflection, and the power that comes with that capacity. Lately we have been told and told again that our educators are not preparing American youth to be efficient workers. Workers. That language is so common among us now that an extraterrestrial might think we had actually lost the Cold War.

The intellectual model for most of the older schools in America—for all of them, given the prestige and influence of the older schools—was a religious tradition that loved the soul and the mind and was meant to encourage the exploration and refinement of both of them. Recent statistics indicate American workers are the most productive in the world by a significant margin, as they have been for as long as such statistics have been ventured. If we were to retain humane learning and lose a little edge in relative productivity, I would say we had chosen the better part. Since we need not choose between one and the other, I think we ought to reconsider the pressure, amounting sometimes to hostility, that has lately been brought to bear on our educational culture at every level, particularly in the humanities and the arts.

Here I have wandered into the terrain of societal tensions, by which the dear old United States is much afflicted at the moment. There is a notion with a brutal history that a homogeneous country is more peaceful and stable and, in a very deep sense, more satisfying than one with a complex and mingled population like ours. To an alarming extent, we have internalized this prejudice against ourselves. I have read that the word “heterogeneous,” which was originally a term of geology, was first applied to society by the French writer Chateaubriand to describe America. Ironically, he was in America to escape the French Revolution and its aftermath, as thorough a social dissolution as has occurred in modern history. But he wrote that America was too diverse to be stable. Heterogeneous stone is not as solid as homogeneous stone. Oh, the power of metaphor.

In fact, Europe has gone berserk from time to time over this anxiety about mixed populations, most recently in the former Yugoslavia a few years ago. There is talk now that Belgium will cease to exist, having fallen into ethnic and linguistic halves, and there is fear that this will trigger divisions in other parts of Europe. This same anxiety is tormenting contemporary Africa, and it is one source of the disasters that have befallen Iraq. The assumption behind it is that people who differ from oneself are therefore enemies who have either ruined everything or are about to. It is the old assumption of Chateaubriand that difference undermines stability and strength.

When this assumption takes hold, the definition of community hardens and contracts and becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.

They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but, as I have said, they are the destruction of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global.

In fact, we in America have done pretty well. By human standards, which admittedly are low. That we have done relatively well, I submit, is due to the fact that we have many overlapping communities and that most of us identify with a number of them. I identify with my congregation, with my denomination, with Christianity, with the customs and institutions that express the human capacity for reverence, allowing for turbulence within these groups and phenomena. Since we are human beings, turbulence is to be expected. If the effect of turbulence is to drive me or anyone back on some narrower definition of identity, then the moderating effects of broader identification are lost. And this destroys every community—not only through outright suppression or conflict. Those who seemingly win are damaged inwardly and insidiously because they have betrayed the better nature and the highest teaching of their community in descending to exclusion, suppression, or violence. Those of us who accept a historical tradition find ourselves feeling burdened by its errors and excesses, especially when we are pressed to make some account of them. I would suggest that those who reject the old traditions on these grounds are refusing to accept the fact that the tragic mystery of human nature has by no means played itself out, and that wisdom, which is almost always another name for humility, lies in accepting one’s own inevitable share in human fallibility.

I am a little sensitive on this point because another identification I hold passionately is with the academic community, which has its fair share of skeptics and agnostics, some of whom are well enough informed historically to mention Michael Servetus from time to time, to make an occasional offhand remark about the Thirty Years War. On all sorts of grounds I would go to the barricades to defend their right to make me uncomfortable, of course. They have caused me to ponder many things, to my great benefit. There are many examples now of friction between the extremes of these communities, and when it takes the form of radical opposition of either to the other the result is a decline from the humane standards that at best dignify them both.

There are excitements that come with abandoning the constraints of moderation and reasonableness. Those whose work it is to sustain the endless palaver of radio and television increasingly stimulate these excitements. No great wonder if they are bored, or if they suspect their audiences might be. But the effect of this marketing of rancor has unquestionably been to turn debate or controversy increasingly into a form of tribal warfare, harming the national community and risking always greater harm. I think it is reasonable to wonder whether democracy can survive in this atmosphere. Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement.

Democracy wrote itself some interesting history in the second half of the last century. When I was in high school, there were essentially three choices available to a bright girl like myself. I could be a teacher, I could be a nurse, or I could be a homemaker. My chemistry teacher was so sure I would finally be a nurse that he gave me much better grades than I had earned, so that this path would not be closed to me. And my unknown in the final exam was sodium chloride. But my biology teacher noticed that my drawing of the frog we were supposed to have dissected was entirely too imaginative to reflect any acquaintance at all with the actual innards of the thing, and he, wisely, advised me to pay no attention to the chemistry teacher.

It was my brother who told me I should be a poet. This was not a career, as he or I understood it, but a highly respectable use of solitude. I never had any real aspiration, only the knowledge that adulthood would come and I would want to while it away harmlessly enough to be considered a credit to my family. This may not reflect well on me, but it’s the truth, and I find it worth telling here because I was in fact pulled along into a broader and broader world by the generous interest of my brother, and of friends, a pastor, and various teachers. I believe I would have been happy with my unaspiring life—which always included a great deal of reading. But I am certain that I am happier with the very different, very interesting life that has befallen me.

When I was in college, at Pembroke, which has since disappeared into Brown, we women enjoyed exactly the same rigorous and ambitious education that the men did. Why? One dean explained to us that educated men preferred to have educated wives, and that corporations often interviewed the wife when they made decisions about whom to hire. Education made women socially presentable. This sounds appalling, but I don’t think it was ever a real consideration for anyone. The faculty loved to teach, and they taught well, and a certain percentage of those they taught were women.

Just at that time the great social transformation began, set in motion by Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, which called into doubt the whole system of discrimination that had governed most lives, not only in America but throughout the world. Almost suddenly an expanding field of possibility lay open to women, certainly to me. And almost as suddenly I had reasonable uses to make of my brains and my education. By chance I benefited profoundly from the self-transformation of communities and institutions that have been most central to my life. They changed my experience, and they also changed my mind. If I had lived a generation earlier, I might have thought about many of the things that interest me now, but not with the discipline that comes with writing about them or teaching, and not with the rigor that comes with being exposed to response and criticism. And, of course, I would have had no part in conversations that I consider important. So my mind has been formed by the uses I have been able to make of it. It is true for everyone that the experience that society gives to us, or denies us, is profoundly formative. Because I have lived at the cusp of great social change, I am perhaps especially aware of this fact. I am aware not only of the benefits I have enjoyed, sharing the life of this community, but also of the good service we can do one another by contributing as we can to the health, generosity, and courage of our community.

I have talked about community as being a work of the imagination, and I hope I have made clear my belief that the more generous the scale at which imagination is exerted, the healthier and more humane the community will be. There is a great deal of cynicism at present, among Americans, about the American population. Someone told me recently that a commentator of some sort had said, “The United States is in spiritual free-fall.” When people make such remarks, such appalling judgments, they never include themselves, their friends, those with whom they agree. They have drawn, as they say, a bright line between an “us” and a “them.” Those on the other side of the line are assumed to be unworthy of respect or hearing, and are in fact to be regarded as a huge problem to the “us” who presume to judge “them.”

This tedious pattern has repeated itself endlessly through human history and is, as I have said, the end of community and the beginning of tribalism.

At this point in my life I have probably had a broader experience of the American population than is usual. I have been to divinity schools, and I have been to prisons. In the First Epistle of Peter we are told to honor everyone, and I have never been in a situation where I felt this instruction was inappropriate. When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with this generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God—300 million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

To look only at certain effects of this cynicism that manifest themselves in my experience: It is my good fortune to work with many gifted young writers. They are estimable people. The Writers’ Workshop is as interesting and civilized a community as I have ever encountered, and it owes the successes of its long history to the fact that it works well as a community. A pretty large percentage of these fine young spirits come to me convinced that if their writing is not sensationalistic enough, it will never be published, or if it is published, it will never be read. They come to me persuaded that American readers will not tolerate ideas in their fiction. Since they feel that anything recognizable as an idea is off-limits to them, they sometimes try to signal intellectual seriousness by taking a jaundiced or splenetic view of the worlds they create and people. They are good, generous souls working within limits they feel are imposed on them by a public that could not possibly have an interest in writing that ignored these limits—a public they cannot respect.

Only consider how many things have gone wrong here, when a young writer is dissuaded by the pessimism that floats around the culture from letting her or his talent develop in the direction natural to it. If the writer is talented, the work might well be published, and the American reading public will look once more into the mirror of art and find sensationalism, violence, condescension, cynicism—another testament to collective mediocrity if not something worse. Maybe even spiritual free-fall. But the writer is better than this, and the reading public is better than this. And the publishing industry is better than this, too. The whole phenomenon is a mistake of the kind that is intractable because so much that passes for common wisdom supports it. A writer controlled by what “has to” figure in a book is actually accepting a perverse, unofficial censorship, and this tells against the writerly soul at least as surely as it would if the requirement being met were praise to some ideology or regime. And the irony of it all is that it is unnecessary and in many cases detrimental because it militates against originality. But the worst of it is that so long as a writer is working to satisfy imagined expectations that are extraneous to his art as he would otherwise explore and develop it, he is deprived of the greatest reward, which is the full discovery and engagement of his own mind, his own aesthetic powers and resources. So long as a writer is working below the level of her powers, she is depriving the community of readers of a truly good book. And over time a truly good book can enrich literally millions of lives. This is only one instance of the fact that when we condescend, when we act consistently with a sense of the character of people in general which demeans them, we impoverish them and ourselves, and preclude our having a part in the creation of the highest wealth, the testimony to the mysterious beauty of life we all value in psalms and tragedies and epics and meditations, in short stories and novels. In the same way we diminish the worth of the institutions of society—law, journalism, education, and religion as well—when we forget respect and love for the imagined other, the man or woman or child we will never know, who will take the good from these institutions that we invest in them, or who will be harmed or disheartened because our institutions are warped by meagerness and cynicism.

It is very much in the gift of the community to enrich individual lives, and it is in the gift of any individual to enlarge and enrich community.

The great truth that is too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.

A Seattle Times reporter teases the strength of Haida Davidson’s vision and experience out, to the benefit of universal art development and Northwest art heritage.


“U and Eye,” 2009, acrylic on canvas, private collection.


“Canoe Breaker” (Southeast Wind’s Brother), 2010, acrylic on canvas
BEST Robert Davidson
Photo Courtesy of Kenji Nagai

In making art, Haida culture is revived

For more than 40 years, Robert Davidson has worked to revive Haida design and totem-pole carving traditions, and a way of life, that had been virtually erased. From his secluded studio near the U.S.-Canada border, he is charting new territory in Northwest Coastal arts.

By Tyrone Beason

Seattle Times staff reporter

HOW TO make something from nothing.

The artist Robert Davidson has been grappling with this question ever since he was a young wood carver growing up in what used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands of northern British Columbia, an archipelago that has been home to his Haida people for centuries.

For him, the question is not just an artistic one — turning a blank canvas or piece of wood into a work that will hang in a home, gallery or museum, as do some of Davidson’s pieces now at the Seattle Art Museum and Pioneer Square’s Stonington Gallery.

It is an existential question, too.

For more than 40 years, Davidson has worked to revive Haida design and totem-pole carving traditions, and a way of life, that had been virtually erased.

From his secluded studio near the U.S.-Canada border outside White Rock, B.C., Davidson, 66, is also charting new territory in Northwest Coastal arts, turning out works that confront notions of what it means to be a First Nations artist, as indigenous peoples in Canada are known, and what it means to be Haida.

“There’s a continual denial that we even exist,” a soft-spoken but blunt Davidson says.

“At the same time, our art is used for tourism, so there’s a conflict happening there,” he says. “But the more our art is featured in major institutions, that will be a testament that we do exist.”

Davidson’s silk-screens, acrylics and wood carvings strike the viewer like something suddenly remembered. They are hauntingly familiar.

We have seen these concise yet wondrously suggestive motifs before: The large, oval-shaped eyes of eagles, or maybe octopi; the gritted teeth of humanoid sea creatures or perhaps monster birds; the flowing blocks of red, black, white, blue, green and yellow that shape-shift in the mind’s eye, beckoning you to see the image within the image within the image.

Davidson, with his head of white hair and mischievous smile, has distilled these techniques and pushed them to an altogether more esoteric place. He has imbued the traditional “formline” style with quirks that can come only from a mind operating on another wavelength.

His “Supernatural Fin” from 2009 is a visual haiku that forces the viewer to stand back and squint. A solitary red circle hovers like an eye above a diagonal gash of red through the middle of a canvas painted stark black. That’s it. What you see may be a fin or the side of a face — or both.

His equally abstract “There is Darkness in Light” from 2010 is a feisty tango between positive and negative spaces, with curving streams of angry red and bold yellow fighting for supremacy above a pool of calming blue, all set against ribbons of black.

Even though a certain level of abstraction has always defined Northwest Coastal art, there is nothing in its history that looks quite like this. Yet Davidson’s use of traditional forms to break up the space, such as the three-pronged “tri-neg” shape, harks back generations.

TO ANSWER that first question, we have to learn how to make nothing from something, how to disappear a culture that had developed over generations.

On the map, the 150 Haida Gwaii islands, as they are now called, come together like a saw tooth in the often-rough waters between Vancouver Island and the panhandle of Alaska; it’s the most remote archipelago in all of Canada.

If you’d come upon these islands as Spanish explorer Juan Perez did in 1774 or Christian missionaries did in the 1800s, you would have found fishing villages with dugout canoes tied up on pebbly beaches and red-cedar totem poles brooding over low-rise communal buildings.

The eagles, ravens and watchmen carved into the Haida’s totems served partly as lookouts for storms and tidal waves. But while they focused on natural disasters, they missed the man-made ones that would actually cripple these islands: A smallpox outbreak that decimated the population around the turn of the last century; churches set up to “civilize” the natives; missionaries who knocked down and burned totem poles; 19th-century Canadian laws that banned Northwest Coastal societies from practicing traditional song, dance, art and ceremonies, such as potlatches and totem-pole raisings.

By the time Davidson was coming of age in the 1950s, when the cultural prohibitions were finally lifted, there was little left of “Haida” culture.

Davidson and his contemporaries spoke English, not their ancient language. Many of his peers were sent off to church-run “residential schools” where they were banned from speaking to each other and told by instructors that their culture was primitive and unholy. No traditional music was performed in Massett, the town where he grew up, when Davidson was a kid — but there was a rock band.

When 16mm Westerns shipped in from the mainland were shown on projector screens at the community hall, Davidson and his friends cheered for the cowboys not the Indians.

One time, an uncle of Davidson’s lectured him about rooting for the cowboys.

“Don’t you realize you’re an Indian?” the uncle chided. Davidson broke into tears. He didn’t want to be associated with people who were always depicted as the bad guys.

The “elimination” of native Northwest Coastal culture, to paraphrase a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released earlier this year, was total. Well, almost.

BY THE MID-’60s, Davidson had moved to Vancouver, where for a time he worked in the studio of one of his role models and a master of Haida carving, Bill Reid, who coached him on how to work with wood. It was a crucial period for Northwest Coastal artists. Major institutions were finally staging major exhibitions featuring works produced by communities that were themselves exploring their cultural legacy. Davidson was floored by the quality of what he saw on display — and from his own people.

But whenever Davidson came home to visit Massett, he’d sit in living rooms filled with sadness and “an emptiness of culture,” listening to elders lament what had been destroyed (or carted off by anthropologists).

“Where once there stood totem poles, there now stood telephone poles,” Davidson recalls in a recent autobiographical essay.

History itself had become an abstraction, a memory shattered by circumstance.

On one of those trips home in 1969, he decided to do something. Still a novice at working with large pieces of wood, he promised that if someone found him a suitable log, he’d carve a totem pole as a gift to the elders, one tangible link to a stolen culture.

He had no idea of the awakening that would result from what he thought of at the time as a simple show of affection.

The 22-year-old Davidson knew little about the myth he would depict on the log, the story of a woman who’s kidnapped by a bear, then gives birth to two cubs who eventually turn into humans. And because there were no examples of monumental totems in town for him to model, he used old photos, museum exhibits and totems by masters of the art form as his guides.

For the next 3½ months, Davidson worked 10 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, with the help of his brother, Reg, among others.

Some people in Massett wondered what could be gained by erecting a piece of public art that reminded locals of how much of their culture had been destroyed.

But on the day of the pole-raising ceremony that August, something magical happened.

Davidson keeps an oversize, black-and-white photograph of the ceremony, the first in seven decades, in his studio.

His totem pole lies at the center of a large crowd, four long ropes extending from it. More than 30 men, boys and even frail-looking elders can be seen tugging the ropes, gently sliding and lifting the monument into place in a shallow, angled pit.

Davidson’s father, Claude, presided over the raising with guidance from Davidson’s 89-year-old tsinii, or grandfather, Robert Davidson Sr. Neither had ever witnessed one in person.

Tsinii told Davidson it was customary for the lead carver of a totem pole to tie his tools around his neck and circle the pole while chanting.

Somewhat reluctantly, he obliged.

“There were no words, just the sound, ‘hah, hah, hah, hah,’ like I was breathing life into the pole,” Davidson writes in the book. “It gave me an amazing feeling of elation. I don’t know how long I walked. It was timeless space, a moment that lasted forever. The pole was completed.”

When the pole was raised, the elders suddenly started singing and dancing in the traditional way, drawing on ceremonial protocols they’d kept alive through hand-me-down memories — and practiced in secret all along, it turns out. Haida culture had not died, after all.

That day in 1969 represented a rebirth, nonetheless.

Davidson’s grandfather lived just long enough to see his grandson’s project galvanize Massett; he died three weeks later.

“All I know is that collectively, people were ready for that to happen,” Davidson says. “Each one of us is connected to the ancient ways by a thin thread. And when we come together, we form a thick rope. Each person in that photograph, we were all connected by a thin thread, and that day, we formed a thick rope.”

Davidson has spent the past half century since that day not just creating art but investigating his own sense of being a Haida artist. He needn’t look far. His late great-grandfather was the 19th-century master Haida carver Charles Edenshaw, whose work is on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 2.

Davidson likes to tell another story that illustrates the importance of cultural hindsight. One day when he was a boy, his father took him and an uncle on a hike on an unmarked creek-bed trail outside Massett.

“On the way up the first 200 yards, he looked back and he said, ‘You have to look back to see where we came from, so you can find your way back home,’ ” Davidson recalls.

One of the interesting things about Davidson’s work is that while it obviously pays homage to the techniques, motifs and narratives that came before, it is distinctly of his own time.

“He’s at the foundation level of reconstructing culture through visual art,” says Barbara Brotherton, the Seattle Art Museum curator who organized the Davidson exhibit that runs until Feb. 16. “For a long time we’ve called it a ‘renaissance’ because it really was a reformulation and a rebirth of visual traditions that had been lost.”

Still, she says, “He’s making the art that he wants to make,” using his own “language of form.”

Brotherton acknowledges that certain factions within the Northwest Native and First Nations arts communities believe that straying too far from the way totems, paintings and other art forms have been done since ancient times does a disservice.

“That’s a big burden for a First Nations artist,” Brotherton says, a pressure that white modern artists don’t necessarily experience.

Guy Anderson and Mark Tobey, for example, freely experimented with the signature motifs and techniques of Native American design in their early paintings from the 1940s.

Some of Davidson’s First Nations contemporaries have succeeded by creating less experimental, more easily accessible works.

“Robert rebelled quite strongly against that,” says Gary Wyatt of Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, which represents the artist.

He uses a hockey reference, applied to the art world, to explain Davidson’s more experimental approach: “If you can’t go into the corners, you can’t win the game. Robert knows how to go into the corners . . . He has a way of moving your eye through space and playing with the idea of what design is.”

Davidson doesn’t seem worried about the possible clash between his efforts to resuscitate ancient art forms while simultaneously transforming them.

“I don’t say, ‘I can’t do that because . . .’ ” Davidson tells me at his studio, where his apprentice, Tyson Brown, grandson of Bill Reid, paints at an easel. “My thought is more to expand on my understanding of the art form — and also to challenge the viewer.”

Davidson’s bemusement ripples across the studio as he talks about his early career. While the Haida were officially banned from celebrating their own culture at home, they could quietly produce European-style jewelry and carvings for sale to visitors and in cities on the mainland. Davidson cut his teeth in the 1960s by producing $50 brooches and model totem poles that sold for $5 an inch. At the time, art experts considered these works little more than ethnic curios unworthy of a gallery.

“Those $15 and $25 totem poles are now three and four thousand dollars,” Davidson says with a grin.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after he’d studied the deeper meanings and age-old principles behind Haida art and design, that “abstract impulses” started flowing through his own paintings and carvings, Brotherton says.

“But it’s really taken him all of this time to bring those from the background forward,” she says.

“If you look at pre-contact art, you can see a definite progression in terms of refinement,” Davidson says. “Then there was an abyss. Suddenly there was no one like Edenshaw to carry this refinement forward.”

He picked up where his ancestors left off.

“What was lost was the meaning” in Haida art, he says. “It’s up to us to give it meaning.”

Davidson doesn’t make it easy, but the challenge is transporting.

He never cuts us — or himself — loose from the source material.

“In order for us to regain integrity we have to re-create the foundation,” Davidson says. “We have no more elders. I don’t think of myself as an elder, but I feel that I have enough information that I’m willing to start a dialogue. Collectively, we need to talk about how we’re going to redefine ourselves based on the ancient knowledge that has survived.”

“Now I’m in that place of being an uncle,” he says. “In order to give value to what was given to me, it’s up to me to pass it on.”

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine writer. Reach him at Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.


Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit, “Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse,” runs until Feb. 16. For more information, go

Stonington Gallery, 125 S. Jackson St. in Seattle, will have a selection of Davidson prints and aluminum sculptures on view throughout December. Visit

Robert Davidson – Haida Art – “To Regain Integrity We Have To Re-create The Foundation”

What Henry Wallace Saw Clearly in 1936

“Probably the most damaging indictment that can be made of the capitalistic system is the way in which its emphasis on unfettered individualism results in exploitation of natural resources in a manner to destroy the physical foundation of national longevity.”


Henry Wallace

FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture

HAW-garden GetImage.aspx

The Antigone Poems – Book Review


A book review of:

The Antigone Poems

by Marie Slaight

Drawings by Terrence Tasker

2013, Altaire Production and Publishing

Potts Point, Australia


December 4, 2013


Poets do not know this terrain. Yet they may meditate on its being, one that is multiplied by galaxies yet named. And here she claims a sun, it is hers. 
A sun giving strength and light and one to energize the daemon –  the lust in her, in him, in being used and using.
She and he had it in a way, they were gods of being with experiences that defined depth and height and horizons that cannot be other than what they are. 
And then we witness a woman encased in myth and having lived in the mythical reality of surrender and loss, trying to describe in words that which has always eluded language and will continue to do so. The death masks see what we do.
 This is the realm of, the caldron of being that takes all in its spheres – bodies, emotions, strengths, polarities, extreme pain and pleasure mixed and shows how they may be one at times and respective of duality at other times. 
Loss and aloneness, seeking, mourning the being that is transcendent – mocking everyday life in its wake – torrential as a fierce hurricane with no direction – chaos unleashed in full view – and what do humans do with this? 
There is nothing to learn, to teach. It is and it allows what it does. Here, this being is seen and experienced in total freedom, not under the rule of a king, nor a prince nor a law in a province. There is no country, nor city, nor landscape. 
All the physicalness – wind, air, water, fire, cold, heat –  is used just now, just a felt world that existed and left a world with chasms of space in its wake and the wake leaves little to deal with – nothing to look at or sense.
Screams, blood, silence, ultimately loss of the greatness of being. Left a few words, she lives on such and such street, have some children. What.


r.l. wallace

greenbank, wa, usa

Anthropocene – “this civilization is already dead”.


Photo Credit:Jeff DelViscio

A startling soldier’s story of war and our future. Compact in its unfolding, but strong in its philosophical architecture. Listen up.

Driving into Iraq just after the 2003 invasion felt like driving into the future. We convoyed all day, all night, past Army checkpoints and burned-out tanks, till in the blue dawn Baghdad rose from the desert like a vision of hell: Flames licked the bruised sky from the tops of refinery towers, cyclopean monuments bulged and leaned against the horizon, broken overpasses swooped and fell over ruined suburbs, bombed factories, and narrow ancient streets.

Civilizations have marched blindly toward disaster because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today. 

With “shock and awe,” our military had unleashed the end of the world on a city of six million — a city about the same size as Houston or Washington. The infrastructure was totaled: water, power, traffic, markets and security fell to anarchy and local rule. The city’s secular middle class was disappearing, squeezed out between gangsters, profiteers, fundamentalists and soldiers. The government was going down, walls were going up, tribal lines were being drawn, and brutal hierarchies savagely established.
I was a private in the United States Army. This strange, precarious world was my new home. If I survived.
Two and a half years later, safe and lazy back in Fort Still, Okla., I thought I had made it out. Then I watched on television as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This time it was the weather that brought shock and awe, but I saw the same chaos and urban collapse I’d seen in Baghdad, the same failure of planning and the same tide of anarchy. The 82nd Airborne hit the ground, took over strategic points and patrolled streets now under de facto martial law. My unit was put on alert to prepare for riot control operations. The grim future I’d seen in Baghdad was coming home: not terrorism, not even W.M.D.’s, but a civilization in collapse, with a crippled infrastructure, unable to recuperate from shocks to its system.
And today, with recovery still going on more than a year after Sandy and many critics arguing that the Eastern seaboard is no more prepared for a huge weather event than we were last November, it’s clear that future’s not going away.
This March, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, the commander of the United States Pacific Command, told security and foreign policy specialists in Cambridge, Mass., that global climate change was the greatest threat the United States faced — more dangerous than terrorism, Chinese hackers and North Korean nuclear missiles. Upheaval from increased temperatures, rising seas and radical destabilization “is probably the most likely thing that is going to happen…” he said, “that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.’’
Locklear’s not alone. Tom Donilon, the national security adviser,said much the same thing in April, speaking to an audience at Columbia’s new Center on Global Energy Policy. James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told the Senate in March that “Extreme weather events (floods, droughts, heat waves) will increasingly disrupt food and energy markets, exacerbating state weakness, forcing human migrations, and triggering riots, civil disobedience, and vandalism.”
On the civilian side, the World Bank’s recent report, “Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience,” offers a dire prognosis for the effects of global warming, which climatologists now predict will raise global temperatures by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit within a generation and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit within 90 years. Projections from researchers at the University of Hawaii find us dealing with “historically unprecedented” climates as soon as 2047. The climate scientist James Hansen, formerly with NASA, has argued that we face an “apocalyptic” future. This grim view is seconded by researchers worldwide, including Anders LevermannPaul and Anne Ehrlich,Lonnie Thompson and manymanymany others.
This chorus of Jeremiahs predicts a radically transformed global climate forcing widespread upheaval — not possibly, not potentially, but inevitably. We have passed the point of no return. From the point of view of policy experts, climate scientists and national security officials, the question is no longer whether global warming exists or how we might stop it, but how we are going to deal with it.
There’s a word for this new era we live in: the Anthropocene. This term, taken up by geologistspondered by intellectuals and discussed in the pages of publications such as The Economist and the The New York Times, represents the idea that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force. The Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term in 2002, and it has steadily gained acceptance as evidence has increasingly mounted that the changes wrought by global warming will affect not just the world’s climate and biological diversity, but its very geology — and not just for a few centuries, but for millenniums. The geophysicist David Archer’s 2009 book, “The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate,” lays out a clear and concise argument for how huge concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and melting ice will radically transform the planet, beyond freak storms and warmer summers, beyond any foreseeable future.
The Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London — the scientists responsible for pinning the “golden spikes” that demarcate geological epochs such as the Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene — have adopted the Anthropocene as a term deserving further consideration, “significant on the scale of Earth history.”Working groups are discussing what level of geological time-scale it might be (an “epoch” like the Holocene, or merely an “age” like the Calabrian), and at what date we might say it began. The beginning of the Great Acceleration, in the middle of the 20th century? The beginning of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800? The advent of agriculture?

Every day I went out on mission in Iraq, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole. 

The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human. Within 100 years — within three to five generations — we will face average temperatures 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, rising seas at least three to 10 feet higher, and worldwide shifts in crop belts, growing seasons and population centers. Within a thousand years, unless we stop emitting greenhouse gases wholesale right now, humans will be living in a climate the Earth hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, three million years ago, when oceans were 75 feet higher than they are today. We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited.
Jeff DelViscio
Geological time scales, civilizational collapse and species extinction give rise to profound problems that humanities scholars and academic philosophers, with their taste for fine-grained analysis, esoteric debates and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and contemporary metaphysicians going to keep Bangladesh from being inundated by rising oceans?
Of course not. But the biggest problems the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the root of humanistic and philosophical questioning: “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to live?” In the epoch of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality — “What does my life mean in the face of death?” — is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. What does human existence mean against 100,000 years of climate change? What does one life mean in the face of species death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful choices in the shadow of our inevitable end?
These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They are philosophical problems par excellence. Many thinkers, including Cicero, Montaigne, Karl Jaspers, and The Stone’s own Simon Critchley, have argued that studying philosophy is learning how to die. If that’s true, then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age — for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. The rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.
Learning how to die isn’t easy. In Iraq, at the beginning, I was terrified by the idea. Baghdad seemed incredibly dangerous, even though statistically I was pretty safe. We got shot at and mortared, and I.E.D.’s laced every highway, but I had good armor, we had a great medic, and we were part of the most powerful military the world had ever seen. The odds were good I would come home. Maybe wounded, but probably alive. Every day I went out on mission, though, I looked down the barrel of the future and saw a dark, empty hole.
“For the soldier death is the future, the future his profession assigns him,” wrote  Simone Weil in her remarkable meditation on war, “The Iliad or the Poem of Force.” “Yet the idea of man’s having death for a future is abhorrent to nature. Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment, our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” That was the face I saw in the mirror, and its gaze nearly paralyzed me.
I found my way forward through an 18th-century Samurai manual, Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s “Hagakure,” which commanded: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Instead of fearing my end, I owned it. Every morning, after doing maintenance on my Humvee, I’d imagine getting blown up by an I.E.D., shot by a sniper, burned to death, run over by a tank, torn apart by dogs, captured and beheaded, and succumbing to dysentery. Then, before we rolled out through the gate, I’d tell myself that I didn’t need to worry, because I was already dead. The only thing that mattered was that I did my best to make sure everyone else came back alive. “If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”
I got through my tour in Iraq one day at a time, meditating each morning on my inevitable end. When I left Iraq and came back stateside, I thought I’d left that future behind. Then I saw it come home in the chaos that was unleashed after Katrina hit New Orleans. And then I saw it again when Sandy battered New York and New Jersey: Government agencies failed to move quickly enough, andvolunteer groups like Team Rubicon had to step in to manage disaster relief.
Now, when I look into our future — into the Anthropocene — I see water rising up to wash out lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see 82nd Airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste, and plagues. I see Baghdad. I see the Rockaways. I see a strange, precarious world.
Our new home.
The human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end. Likewise, civilizations have throughout history marched blindly toward disaster, because humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent. Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium. Yet the reality of global climate change is going to keep intruding on our fantasies of perpetual growth, permanent innovation and endless energy, just as the reality of mortality shocks our casual faith in permanence.
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.
The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.
If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

Roy Scranton served in the United States Army from 2002 to 2006. He is a doctoral candidate in English at Princeton University, and co-editor of “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.” He has written for The New York Times, Boston Review, Theory & Event and recently completed a novel about the Iraq War. Twitter @RoyScranton.

TOKYO-GA Charity Photo Book



What is TOKYO-GA?

“東京画” means “Tokyo picture” and derives from Wim Wenders’ great movie. It is also the name of an international collective of photographers that shoot in Tokyo. We can be found at:


New Yorker Article – MARCEL REICH-RANICKI (1920-2013) – German Literary Critic – by Sally McGrane

Polish-born German literary critic Marce


On the cover of this weekend’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungs feuilleton, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s “Literary Pope,” gazes out from the center of the page. The table at which he sits, alone, is set for a formal dinner; his silk tie is rakishly askew. His expression is sovereign but kind, thoughtful, knowing. Below the photo—taken three years ago, when Reich-Ranicki was ninety—in nearly two-inch bold font, is the word “DANKE.” Thank you.

Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s most important contemporary literary critic, died on Wednesday. The next day, Germany’s two most important daily papers put his portrait on their front pages—tributes to a man who, having survived the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to have an unparalleled impact on postwar German writing. He was famous for his rapier wit, his telegenic charm, his passionate championing of the writers he loved, and his very public excoriation of new books—even from his favorite writers—when he felt they did not deliver. “No one,” in the words of the F.A.Z., “did as much to impart, to an entire society, the importance of literature.”

The man who, as one author put it, “ruled the literary world from a fifteen-square-metre office” led a life more full of pain, wonder, and irony than most literary heroes. Born in Poland in 1920, Reich-Ranicki was sent to Berlin to study as a boy. “With every year that he discovered more joy in, and love for, Thomas Mann and Brecht and Gründgens and Goethe, there also grew hate,” wrote Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of the influentialF.A.Z., where Reich-Ranicki headed the literature section in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. “The hate of an entire nation and all its bureaucracy for the young Jewish man who just wanted to go to the Deutsche Theatre.”

After being denied a university spot in Berlin, Reich-Ranicki was arrested and deported to Poland. (As he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “My Life,” “I had a ticket for [a] première that evening. I wouldn’t be needing it.”) He and his family were sent to the Warsaw ghetto, where, at nineteen, he became a translator for the Judenrat (the Jewish council, the ghetto’s administrative body) because his German was impeccable. There, he also met Teofilia, or Tosia, his future wife, when her father hanged himself. “My mother told me, ‘Look after the girl,’ ” said Reich-Ranicki, in an interview filmed shortly before Tosia’s death in 2011. “I’m doing that to this day.”

Reich-Ranicki’s acute sense of literary judgment was always active. Describing an incident in which he had to transcribe an order that all inhabitants of the ghetto were to be sent to the death camps, he said, “As I sat there … and the order was dictated, through the open window I heard a Viennese waltz. Down below, the soldiers must have been playing a gramophone. Even as I wrote, I had to think, What a literary situation! What a monstrous symbol! I knew I was writing something that meant death for my parents, for my girlfriend, whom I immediately married, even my own death. But I couldn’t stop thinking, This is actually theatre.”

Despite overwhelming odds, he and Tosia managed to escape. “Remember the Dostoyevsky anecdote,” says the Reich-Ranicki character in a 2009 film based on his autobiography. Tosia nods, and they run for it. In a later scene, the Reich-Ranicki character explains what he meant: “Just before the execution of Dostoyevsky, when his eyes were already blindfolded, came the sudden cry, ‘Stop!’ The Czar had ordered a more lenient sentence. I wanted to tell Tosia, ‘Don’t give up too soon.’ ”

In hiding, too, literature played an existential role. Every night, while Tosia and the poverty-stricken Polish tobacco sellers hiding them rolled cigarettes, Reich-Ranicki entertained them by recounting stories from classical literature. Like Scheherazade, he helped insure their safety with his tales of Hamlet and young Werther.

The couple survived the war, but were not out of danger. After joining the Polish diplomatic corps, where he worked for Polish intelligence, Reich-Ranicki and Tosia were sent to London. There, their son, Andrew, was born. On their return to Poland, Reich-Ranicki was arrested, as part of an internal purge. In his cell, he read Anna Seghers’s 1942 novel about a prison break, “The Seventh Cross.” It was a turning point: “I decided, if I’m going to get out of here, I will dedicate my life to literature. If possible, to German literature.”

Ejected from the Communist Party, Reich-Ranicki embarked on a career as a literary critic, writing in Polish. In 1958, he and his family fled to West Germany, bringing Chopin scores as gifts for their hosts. With the help of writers like Heinrich Böll and Erich Kästner, Reich-Ranicki soon found work as a literary critic at Die Zeit, where his colleagues included former S.S. men. He became a fixture at the literary meetings of the influential Gruppe 47—a group of postwar writers who had nearly all been in the Wehrmacht. They talked literature, not the past.

But the past was not always possible to avoid. Shortly before he started his job at theF.A.Z., Reich-Ranicki was invited to a party for a new book about Hitler. The host failed to mention that Albert Speer would be there (“It did not occur to him that I did not feel like sitting and talking to the murderer of my mother and my father,” recounted Reich-Ranicki). At the time, he said nothing. “A fight with [F.A.Z. publisher Joachim Fest] was inopportune,” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. Instead, “he found his salvation in literature. As always.” Later, in his autobiography, in interviews, and in speeches like the one he gave last year to the German Parliament, he did describe the crimes of the ghetto—a place where he and Tosia read poems, not novels, because they did not know how much time they had.

Over the next decades, his reviews would help make writers like Günter Grass and Martin Walser household names. But from the beginning, Reich-Ranicki’s critiques drew blood. Böll, for example, was not pleased when Reich-Ranicki, by then a personal friend, wrote a scathing review of his new book. When they met at a cocktail party, Böll approached and, while publically embracing him, whispered in his ear, “Asshole.”

“From Böll’s perspective, if he didn’t like it, couldn’t he have at least have remained silent?” wrote the literary critic Volker Weidermann. “After Böll had been so friendly to him? He couldn’t. He didn’t want to. Böll was too important to him, to say nothing. Literature was too important.”

While Reich-Ranicki’s falling-outs were legendary (Martin Walser created a scandal with his 2002 book, “Death of a Critic,” a thinly veiled revenge fantasy), he also encouraged his favorite writers, calling on the phone and even sending money if he felt it had been too long since the German reading public had had a chance to get their hands on a new work.

With the “Literary Quartet,” a television show launched in 1988, in which he and three other critics spiritedly defended or condemned new books, Reich-Ranicki set out to interest a larger public in reading. “It was for people who have nothing to do with literature,” said Reich-Ranicki, whose exuberant style, which involved much finger shaking and smacking of the arms of his chair, made for great TV.

“Marcel Reich-Ranicki achieved something astounding: turning critical literary cogitation into a popular pastime,” wrote Heinrich Detering, president of the German Academy for Language and Literature. The show, which ran until 2001, reached millions.

Reich-Ranicki continued to agitate for literature, with passion, humor, and arch, comprehensive erudition, to the last. A column where Reich-Ranicki answered readers’ letters ran in the F.A.Z. until this year. One asked why Philip Roth had been ignored for a Nobel Prize. “I would also like to know the answer to that,” responded Reich-Ranicki, who considered Roth a great novelist. “It was said of Graham Greene, that he never received a Nobel Prize because he had slept with the wife of Stockholm academician. With whom has Philip Roth slept? If you would like to know the answer, I suggest you address yourself directly to him, or to his agent.” To a reader who suggested changes to “Doctor Faustus,” he wrote, “Perhaps you have heard that [Thomas Mann] is taken to be the greatest stylist of the German language since Goethe’s death? I must say, you’re gutsy.” “Can a man like Gottfried Benn, who sympathized with Fascism, also be a good poet?” “Unfortunately, yes.”

In the remembrances broadcast and published in the past week, joy that this man existed runs through sorrow at his loss. “That a Polish Jew, who went through the hell of the Warsaw ghetto, would go on to become the most important literary critic in the German-language world, is in itself a Jewish fairy tale,” wrote the Austrian writer Robert Schindel, who, born in 1944 to Jewish Communists, narrowly escaped Auschwitz. “What a man, in his contradictions! Where he is now—will he be preaching Thomas Mann to the heavenly hosts? May he have a good journey!”

Sally McGrane is a journalist based in Berlin.

Photograph by Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images.

Howard Zinn – Be Hopeful


“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we dont have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, p. 270