Photograph by Gasper Tringale.
(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
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.”
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 SATURDAY ESSAY
The Capitalist Cure for Terrorism
Military might alone won’t defeat Islamic State and its ilk. The U.S. needs to promote economic empowerment
By HERNANDO DE SOTO
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.
photo:HERNANDO DE SOTO
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.”
This is a short interview of Christopher Hitchen’s wife, Carol Blue, shortly after he passed away in 2011. She is a very gracious and talented woman who shows what a muse she must have been.
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 (www.poetsagainstthewar.org) 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?
NEITHER VICTIMS NOR EXECUTIONERS
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
Neither Victims Nor Executioners (French: Ni Victimes, ni bourreaux) was a series of essays by Albert Camus that were serialized in Combat,  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 
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  Peace Pledge Union. It appeared in separate book form in 1960 with an introduction by Waldo Frank. The essay was also reprinted in the book Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper “Combat”.