“Save The Whales, Screw The Shrimp” – Joy Williams

This is a riveting essay about the wild land, wild animals and wild sky. Ms William’s point is that the wild does not belong in our world anymore, cause, well, we just don’t want it too -it doesn’t fit into our consumer-led way of seeing the world. Wonderfully inventive perspectives draw down our mighty problem and show it to us up close.

This essay was was published in Esquire magazine in 1989 and was chosen for inclusion to the 1990 Best American Essays. The essay is included in her book “Ill Nature” published in 2001.

https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6303/joy-williams-the-art-of-fiction-no-223-joy-williams

http://lhsela.weebly.com/uploads/7/9/0/8/7908073/_williams_save_the_whales.pdf 

Biography from Key West Literary Seminar:

11 FEB 1944

Joy Williams is an American author. She has produced numerous short stories and essays, and four novels. Her debut novel, State of Grace (1973), was nominated for a National Book Award for Fiction. The Quick and the Dead (2000) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her other two novels include The Changeling (1978) and Breaking and Entering (1988). Her essay collection, Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Williams has also won the Rea Award for Short Story, the Harold and Mildred Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and other prizes.

Born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, Williams is the daughter of a minister who preached at a Congregational church in Portland. She received a BA from Marietta College and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Williams has taught creative writing at the University of Houston, the University of Florida, the University of Iowa, and the University of Arizona. She was also the writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming in 2008-2009.

Williams met her first husband, Fred McCormack, when she was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They had one daughter, Caitlin. They divorced, and she married Rust Hills, fiction editor at Esquire. He adopted Caitlin and they remained married until his death in 2008. Williams has homes in Tucson and Florida, but divides her time among these homes and her daughter’s homes, and traveling on the road.

 

02-joy-williams-new-book.jpgScreen Shot 2018-03-29 at 3.10.28 PM.png

 

David Foster Wallace – Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie
David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

Unknown-2

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

8

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.

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.
RLW

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

By RACHEL DONADIO, MARCH 20, 2015

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.

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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

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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

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 TomDispatch.com

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 350.org, 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

 

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rebecca-solnit/the-climate-for-2015_b_6372150.html

Michael Kinsley Weighs in on “The New Republic” Controversy

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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.

The New York Times  – JONATHAN MAHLER and RAVI SOMAIYA: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/business/media/revolt-at-the-new-new-republic-.html

More articles about the controversy:

Real Clear Politics – Joe Nocera: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/2014/12/09/the_new_republic039s_rebellion_347288.html

The New Yorker – George Packer : http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/real-crisis-journalism-new-republic

The Washington Post – Dana Milbank: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/dana-milbank-the-new-republic-is-dead-thanks-to-its-owner/2014/12/08/ae80da42-7ee0-11e4-81fd-8c4814dfa9d7_story.html

RAVI SOMAIYA – The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/27/business/media/the-new-republic-is-sold.html?_r=0

Going Right When We Meant To Go Left

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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:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/shields-brooks-immigration-confrontation/

Garry Wills – American Thinker & Iconoclast

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Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

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(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

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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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