For however strong you may be in respect of your army, it is essential that in entering a new Province you should have the good will of its inhabitants.
The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli, 1532
Photograph by Gasper Tringale.
(photo – Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)Mr. Wills is the foremost literary journalist and thinker of our time. This article is a tribute to this iconoclast, one who has followed his own path to understanding America with intelligence, tenacity and grace.
by Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013
Published in March 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.
In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.
On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).
The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a PhD in classics from Yale. His Latin is still good, and he reads French and Italian. But he puts all this to heretical purposes. He is America’s best living explainer, exposing the nation’s most cherished myths, which he approaches in the manner of a holy blasphemer. He has become an invaluable guide to the modern United States, connecting the present, in all its strangeness, to the nation’s imprisoning history, the patterns of behaviour unchanged since the earliest days of the republic: the convergence of individualistic licence and submission to authority, of “free-market” avarice cloaked in the language of spiritual quest. More incisively than any other thinker he bracingly answers the questions that most puzzle outsiders: why is religion such an enduring force in American politics? Why is there such popular mistrust of government? Why can’t Americans give up their love affair with guns? And he has done all this as an outsider himself—a practising Catholic, a proud Midwesterner who avoids the literary scene, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends, and presidents, on both the right and left.
It was Wills who saw, long before it became accepted dogma, that Richard Nixon, the bête noire of American liberals, was himself the “last liberal,” ferociously clinging to the national myth of “the self-made man.” It was Wills who cleared away the nostalgic mist surrounding John F Kennedy and exposed him as the originator of the modern “insurgency presidency,” addicted to reckless “covert actions” that paralleled his illicit bedroom adventures. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Wills hates Kennedy,” a political scientist and adviser to Kennedy once told me. “Then I got it. Wills is the good Catholic, and Kennedy was the bad Catholic.”
A good Catholic who nonetheless has declared war not only on church elders but on the Vatican itself. When the sex abuse scandals erupted a decade ago, and others writhed in torments of apology or denial, Wills coolly explained that what seemed like desecrations of the faith were in reality outgrowths of its most hallowed rituals. “The very places where the molestation occurs are redolent of religion—the sacristy, the confessional, the rectory… The victim is disarmed by sophistication and the predator has a special arsenal of stun devices. He uses religion to sanction what he is up to, even calling sex part of his priestly ministry.”
To a non-Catholic like me, Wills was performing a heroic civic deed, prizing open the dank closet of alien experience. He had come not to condemn but to explain. But many believers were outraged, not least because Wills is “perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years,” as the National Catholic Reporter has put it. In his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Wills is at it again, cataloguing church hypocrisies, false teachings, the litany of bloody crimes. “The great scandal of Christians is the way they have persecuted fellow Christians,” he writes, “driving out heretics, shunning them, burning their books, burning them.”
Wills himself came very close to entering the priesthood—indeed, he had to be released by Rome from his vows when he decided to be a writer instead. He attends Mass on Sunday and still says the rosary every day. These early and continued devotions, more than anything else, set him apart from almost every other major American intellectual—“somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there,” as he has written. For Wills, to think hard is a vocational exercise, and it has given him the confidence to ignore the provincial Manhattan “scene,” with its publishing events and circuit of media parties that reinforce a brutal pecking-order.
It has also given him something even more valuable: rare access to everyday experience, real and felt, in what remains the most religiously devout of all the advanced western democracies. Unlike other presidential historians, Wills immerses himself in the interior religious worlds of his subjects—the sacred texts, the Sunday-school dogma. He knows how close all this lies to the pulsing life of the nation. He knows too that the farm and the village square, nostalgically mourned today—vanishing features of our giant landscape—incubated American democracy, with its evangelised politics, its tightly sealed repressions and sudden violent outbursts, its nightstand with a handgun tucked in a drawer alongside the family Bible. Not all great American writers have understood this. Henry James didn’t. Neither did Edith Wharton. But the outsider “primitive” Walt Whitman did. So did Mark Twain, reared on the banks of the Mississippi. And HL Mencken, the sage of Baltimore who seldom left that sleepy overgrown town. And of course the college dropout William Faulkner, with his arsonist Snopeses and swampland aristocrats.
Each of these native geniuses was essentially self-taught but was also steeped in regional lore, custom, and habit. Each knew the American dream has been handed down in its original pastoral rhythms. Wills is the great living heir of this America of the mind, a man of the middle west—born in Atlanta, raised in Michigan and Wisconsin on either side of Lake Michigan, the fresh-water immensity, shaped like a giant finger, that starts just south of Chicago and extends all the way up, almost 500km, to Canada, its shoreline touching four Midwestern states.
It is this background, as much as his mastery of religious history, that enabled Wills to see in his book Under God—published in 1990, 10 years before the advent of George W Bush’s “faith-based” politics and the mad “Bible Belt” campaigns to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools—that every American generation struggles anew to absorb the facts of secular reason and to swallow the bitter truth that all nations, even republics founded (or, as Wills puts it, “invented”) on abstract principles, come with expiration dates and no claim of “American exceptionalism” can hold the dogs at bay.
Wills—with his boxy spectacles, his Midwestern locutions (“not a one”)—declines to be the great man of letters in the kingly manner of, say, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren or even the Harvard-tooled heart-lander John Updike. It’s not a question of modesty. Wills is supremely self-assured. He has written two memoirs, the second of them a catalogue of his encounters with presidents, activists, mentors, professional American football players, the opera singer Beverly Sills, each evoked with uninflected precision. In conversation too Wills inclines toward the taxonomic, for instance when he recalls the “Integralist Catholic Church-State Caesaro-Papists” who formed a small renegade faction at National Review, the conservative journal-cum-hothouse where he got his start as a 23-year-old prodigy in the 1950s.
All these years later, Wills’s indifference to his cultural standing seems the hard-headed calculation of a combatant wary of the perils of growing soft. Argument is his nutriment and has been since his teens, when he was an accomplished schoolboy debater at the Jesuit high school he attended in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. For Wills to argue is not to quarrel, accuse, or even opine. It is to state a hypothesis and then work through it with Euclidian rigour and arcane examples. “People tell me I should read Hilary Mantel’s novels,” he says, “but I’m not interested in the writer’s imagination of history. I want to see the evidence!”
He himself drains vats of it. “I require many hours for reading,” he says, and when he can’t grab a book—in the car, for instance—he listens to the audiotapes he keeps in ready supply. It all goes into closely reasoned assertions, one after another, marching across the page in the stern ranks of Jesuitical logic.
Wills has lately been blogging for the New York Review—sending forth not “posts” but miniature essays, tiny epics on the American mind (“The south,” he wrote in January, “escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking.”) His gleeful post-election swatting of Mitt Romney (“Things he was once proud of—healthcare guarantees, opposition to noxious emissions, support of gay rights and women’s rights, he had the shamelessness to treat as matters of shame all through his years-long crawl to the Republican nomination”) brought a rush of web traffic, yet another brave new world for a scholar-journalist-provocateur who until recently drafted his manuscripts in longhand and declined to purchase a computer until his students forced him to. “They were angry that they couldn’t email me,” he says.
It’s no longer a problem. Fed up with academic politics—squabbling over hires, trudging through unpublished dissertations—Wills voluntarily gave up tenure, although he still teaches, and supports himself by combining books with related lectureships. He lives in a large yellow house, near the Great Lake, with his wife, Natalie, whom he met in 1957, when she was a flight attendant, and then married in 1959. “[She is] the only person with whom I have ever had sex,” he has written, one of the more curious boasts in recent literary annals.
* * *
When I visited Wills, it was a relief to see how robust he still looks, despite a health scare last summer, so serious that obituarists at the New York Times, where I work, were poised to “update”—they had to mention all those new books!—while bulletins came in from Wills’s daughter Lydia, a literary agent in Manhattan, and Robert Silvers, the editor of the New York Review. When Wills recovered, I sent him a note. He ignored it, characteristically, and now brushes the episode aside. “I had a gall bladder operation and got an infection in the hospital, so I spent about three weeks in the hospital.” He is now fully recovered, though he has other ailments. “I’ve got a bad back. I’ve got a little gout—everything you’ve got when you’re old. But I’m mobile and I work all day, one way or another.”
The house, purchased after the Wills’s three children were grown, is arranged for maximum comfort. The living room, which looks toward the lake, is gracious and spare, with a grand piano Wills tinkers at. These comforts provide cover for trouble-making: “Be regular and orderly in your life,” Flaubert counselled long ago, “that you may be violent and original in your work.” For Wills ordinariness comes easily. He confesses to being “a conventional person,” “square,” “middle class,” “so unnoticeable that I have trouble getting waited on in stores.” Raised by not especially educated people—his father was an appliance salesman and college boxing coach—Wills belongs, for all his bold intellectual exploits, to the obedient, respectful “silent generation” that came of age after the second world war. His boyhood was spent in classrooms and churches—and sneaking in reading on the bleachers at American football and basketball games. He himself resembles a youth sports coach, burly and bland-featured, and he dresses like one too: pullover, plaid shirt, soft-soled shoes. He speaks in the ageless tones and, much of the time, the diction of a regular Midwestern guy.
All this too is camouflage. Wills came into his selfhood by tangling with tough-minded elders—his father, who forced him to watch boxing matches (Wills has called for the sport to be banned), the “fathers” who drilled him in the church teachings he now demolishes, the department chairman at Johns Hopkins who long ago warned Wills he would not get tenure, ostensibly because he was doing too much outside writing, but actually, Wills believes, because of his association in those days with National Review, the conservative journal, and his friendship with its editor William F Buckley.
That was in the early 1960s, before Wills was radicalised—jailed for protesting the Vietnam war (he was an ally of the Berrigan brothers, radical priests hunted by the FBI after they napalmed draft files) and keeping company with civil rights activists. In thrall to Martin Luther King, Jr, Wills flew to Memphis the morning after King’s assassination in 1968 and was one of the very few whites, all journalists, present at the funeral. The mourners were black. “All were, absolutely all,” he says, still shocked. One wall of his study has a framed photo of King in his coffin signed by the Life magazine photographer Art Shay.
The other adornment—also honouring a national martyr—is an “absolute facsimile” of the Gettysburg Address, a gift from the Library of Congress in recognition of Wills’s book Lincoln at Gettysburg, about the 272 words that “remade America,” summoning it forward out of slavery toward “a new birth of freedom.” One of Wills’s signature achievements, it combines literary and historical detective work, and moves from a learned discussion of classical rhetoric to a brooding meditation on Lincoln’s mind and character, his profound yearnings and hard calculations, his romantic-melancholia, his obsession with death. “Slavery is not mentioned, any more than Gettysburg is,” Wills writes of the great speech. “The discussion is driven back and back, beyond the historical particulars, to great ideals that are made to grapple naked in an airy battle of the mind. Lincoln derives a new, a transcendental, significance from this bloody episode.” And yet, “by turning all the blood and waste into a hygienic testing of an abstract proposition [ie, all men are created equal] he may have ennobled war, the last thing he wanted to do in other contexts.”
Wills is a pacifist and this formed the basis of his tense exchange with President Barack Obama that led to much gossip afterward. This was in June 2009. Obama, newly in office and acutely aware of his place in history, wanted to hear what experts had to say. Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals Obama drew on when he assembled his cabinet (the book also inspired Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln) arranged for eight historians to join Obama and a few staffers for dinner in the White House. The guest list included, among others, Robert Caro (the legendary biographer of President Lyndon Johnson), Robert Dallek (biographies of Kennedy and Johnson), and inevitably, Garry Wills. “It’s a strange thing,” one of the group told me afterwards. “You imagine you have a lot to tell the president. But as soon as you’re with him, all you can think to do is tell him how great he is.”
* * *
Not Wills. When Obama professed surprise at all the hostility he was getting from supporters on the left, Wills recalled, “I said you’re going to get more if you keep doing signing statements”—that is, issuing policy orders directly from the White House circumventing Congress or adding his own interpretation to approved legislation. Wills, an authority on the constitution, is one of many who think these orders violate it. Obama once did too, in his Senate days when George W Bush used the statements to slip items past Congress, just as Obama has been doing. Now Obama finds himself falling into the trap of the imperial “insurgent” presidency—and not simply on matters of domestic policy. Three months before the dinner Obama had announced he would send 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and there were strong hints of further escalation to come. At dinner’s end, Wills recalls that Obama “went around [the room] and said, ‘Before you leave if you have one more thing you’d like to tell me…’ That’s when I said if you get back into Afghanistan you’ll never get out. You can’t put that country together.”
The lessons of Vietnam could not be avoided. That war had destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, whose vision of a “Great Society” Obama hoped to build on. Wills was not alone in making this point. But he was the most emphatic, though it was to no avail. At the end of the year Obama announced another 30,000 troops would be sent in—a “surge” like the one George Bush had ordered in Iraq. In the spring of 2010 the total number of “boots on the ground” reached 100,000. “Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early,” Wills blogged in July 2010, almost exactly a year after the White House dinner. “It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one.”
“Everyone else at that dinner was invited back,” Wills told me. “I was not. Most of [the others], by the way, were very sycophantic.” He says this evenly, though with a touch of wounded pride. But in the end, Wills was vindicated. Obama has been quietly whittling down the US “presence” in Afghanistan and early this year announced 34,000 troops will come home by January 2014.
In any case, snubbing Wills was a mistake. When Obama summoned the historians a year later, worried now about the Tea Party, Wills could have told him more than all the others combined. His book A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, published during the Clinton years, is even more timely today, as the Republican party lapses into retrograde obstruction. The bigger irony is that Wills has written admiringly on Obama and has compared him more than once to Lincoln. But Wills is no longer infatuated. Asked recently what book Obama should read, he replied, “Garry Trudeau’s Signature Wound, to see what damage Obama has done to thousands of our young people with his stupid wars.” Wills might have chosen Thucydides or Machiavelli or Tolstoy. Instead he chose a collection by the left-wing Doonesbury cartoonist who remains a hero of American youth culture.
That same culture informs Wills’s greatest work, Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable primer on modern American politics après le déluge of the clamorous 1960s, part Mencken, part Aristotle, part Moby Dick. It is an eyewitness account of the 1968 presidential election, the most tumultuous in modern times—two assassinations (Martin Luther King, Jr, Robert F Kennedy); riots in the cities (Chicago and Miami) where the parties held their nominating conventions.
Others wrote about it, but it was Wills alone who foretold that the next phase of American politics would be shaped not by campus protest and black revolt, but by the threatened and angry middle class—Republican delegates, the Sun Belt physicians and small-town bank presidents, “gladsacks, as it were,” who crowd Miami Beach’s resort hotels, their main topic of conversation the exorbitant prices, even as they are unsubtly bullied by the hotel management. “No one is presumed to know the rules of tipping: a note in each room gives the ‘suggested gratuity’ for maid service.” Later, Wills finds a taxi and crosses the bridge in Miami proper, where a riot has broken out between blacks and the police, with looters running wild. “There were no signs of fires, no report of guns, so the driver dipped down onto city streets, and we followed the path of wreckage in toward the centre of things—a weight machine thrown through a store window, the cash register wrestled to the floor, the window of a wig shop broken and stripped, ladies’ heads bowled here and there in bald disgrace.”
Published in 1970, when he was 36, Nixon Agonistes is above all the record of Wills’s transit from right to left; from bright young conservative to man of the left. (It also earned him a place on one of Nixon’s “enemies lists,” because, among other offences, of its unflatteringly detailed portraiture.) A few years later, when Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency, Wills’s book was read as a kind of prophetic decryption. It remains the most encompassing of all electoral campaign writing, a journey into the tangle of American excess and equally into the deep tangle of modern liberalism. Wills’s prose seethes with taxonomical fervour as he pins each specimen to the wall: “Henry Kissinger, who looks like a serious Harpo Marx, haunted the outskirts of power in Kennedy’s day, but was too dour and Germanic for Camelot. In Nixon’s sombre capital he has the reputation of a wit—elfin, sly, a bit of a ‘swinger.’” There is also the raunchy Alabama populist George Wallace: “He has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.”
Amid the character sketches are summary cadences that might have come from writing on the Peloponnesian war. Thus Wills on the anxieties of the early cold war: “The bomb and its control, peace terms and new alliances, divided-occupation duties, the UN, ominous little bristlings against Russia at the Paris peace talks… Truman had seized the railroads and threatened to draft the workers… The war had ended without ending—and who was to blame? No one, of course. History. The gods.”
This wasn’t political journalism. It was tragic drama. We’re still living with the consequences. Obama is too. Yet Wills seems curiously free of the history he has told better than anyone else.
At the end of my visit—after the crabcakes Wills had promised, and the delicious soup, and the wine I spilled in a torrent on the dining room table—Wills offered to take me to a hotel in Evanston where I might get a taxi to O’Hare Airport. On the short drive I told him I am one of the many who discovered politics in the pages of Nixon Agonistes. I recited the terse sequence quoted just above, about blame, history, and gods. Did he remember writing that? He shook his head. “No. But I remember the Thomas Nast cartoon.” Every schoolchild is taught (or used to be) about Nast, whose muckraking caricatures of Gilded Age satraps helped expose the corruption of urban “machine“ politicians. Did Wills mean to say Nixon’s villainy is comic? Grinning, Wills, without quite taking his hands off the wheel, crossed his arms over his stomach and pointed a finger in either direction.
Back in New York I looked up the cartoon, a classic from 1871, “Who Stole the People’s Money?” (above). Unsavoury waist-coated thugs, pockets bulging, form a great circle. Each points to the man beside him. The caption reads “’Twas Him.”
photo – towards point omega – rlw
This book is a meditation held together by the flow of time; time says that one thing must come after another, we do not will this, it is. We can will to erect things, language, to look as though we have arrested the flow but it is a writers’ or readers’ willing suspension of disbelief that allows it to be.
DeLillo has arranged a Haiku-like narrative on America’s preoccupation with 9/11 and has set this constellation of thoughts next to, and intermixed with, the process of making art today; the act of erotic attraction; and what it looks and feels like to loose the one relationship in life that gives one reason for participating, being, in this flow of time.
This is how he makes art:“I had him babbling in unsequential edits, one year shading into another, or Jerry soundless, clowning, he is knocked-kneed and bucktoothed, bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion, the old flawed footage, the disturbed signals, random noise on the soundtrack, streaky patterns on the screen. He inserts drumsticks in his nostrils, he sticks the hand mike in his mouth. I added intervals of modern music to the track, rows of tones, the sound of certain re-echoing drone. There was an element of austere drama in the music, it placed Jerry outside the moment, in some larger surround, ahistorical, a man on a mission from God. I tormented myself over the running time, settling finally on a freakish forty-seven-minute movie that was screened at a couple of documentary festivals. It could have been four hours, six hours. It wore me down, I became Jerry’s frenzied double, eyeballs popping out of my head.”
We learn one character, the artist, Jim Finley, telling the story, an artist in America putting his entire being into developing art projects of unusual makeup and uncertain destiny. We experience through him, the film maker, the owner of Deadbeat Films. This is his design for his next project:“No plush armchair with warm lighting and books on a shelf in the background. Just a man and a wall. The man stands there and relates the complete experience, everything that comes to mind, personalities, theories, details, feelings. You’re the man. There’s no offscreen voice asking questions. There’s no interspersed combat footage or comments from others, on camera or off …. Who you are, what you believe. Other thinkers, writers, artists, nobody’s done a film like this, nothing planned, nothing rehearsed, no elaborate setup, no conclusions in advance, this is completely sort of barefaced, uncut.”
The main object of this project is the fleshing out of the character who was hired by the Pentagon to give the Iraq war, at the time it was being waged, “ words and meanings. Words they hadn’t used, new ways of thinking and seeing.” One imagines this man, Richard Elster, this intellectual, in the midst of the Pentagon strategists obsessed with “priorities, statistics, evaluations and rationalities“, to be in an ecclesiastical position. We do not know his effect on the analytical warriors, only that he performed his services for two years, which, just based on duration, leads me to think that he made some contribution to the equation. Elster wanted a Haiku war, “a war in three lines. This was not a matter of force levels or logistics. What I wanted was a set of ideas linked to transient things.” Thus he attempts to change their perceptions to cut through the abstractions and see “nothing beyond what it is”. Elster wanted a war because: “A great power has to act. We were struck hard. We need to retake the future. The force of the will, the sheer visceral need. We can’t let others shape our world, our minds. All they have are old dead despotic traditions. We have a living history…”
In the midst of making his next art film project, basically an interview, to capture, Elster the intellectual lobbyist, in the aftermath of his war conjugations, Elster’s daughter, who has come to visit her father at the remote house in the California desert disappears after having lived with the two for a short period of time. She vanishes one afternoon and leaves Elster in a world absent of relationships and meaning. His daughter is his only close human attachment and her disappearance is a symbol of his ultimate detachment from all things human. He is left “alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware…”
In some respects it is the same consequence for the artist, he had developed an erotic attachment to the daughter based on imaginations he had for her for the short time she was with them – she did not reciprocate interest, she simply allowed him to use her as an object. Finely takes to her given that she spent thirty minutes ( an adequate amount of time to register validation of interest per Finely) viewing his Psycho film. Urges lead him on to eventual voyeurism, standing in the hall looking at her in bed, wondering if he should approach her. She sees him standing there and turns in bed away from his gaze.
Finally, this book, this meditation is about human beings, their nature, their essence, what makes them complex, having a range of refractions, with no clear idea of which surfaces are real and which are abstractions, calls into question the nature of abstractions. Are they, the abstractions, not as real as the sense data we get from he real world? Blood, rain, wolves, arms, twelve, pi squared, maps, words, metaphors, myths. “Human perception is a saga of created realities”. And DeLillo goes beyond understanding being, he posits that humans ultimately want to go back to being inanimate, to undo the millions of years of evolution: “Paroxysm. Either a sublime transformation of mind and soul or some worldly convulsion. We want it to happen … Think of it. We pass completely out of being. Stones. Unless stones have beings. Unless there’s some profoundly mystical shift that places being in a stone.”
What a rush.
DeLillo inserts, one at the beginning and one at the end, two curious pieces in the book, both of which are called Anonymity. He uses these narratives to introduce the film Psycho and to explore some of its images and psychology that he thinks important and further that he uses in his film projects. We feel that his use of juxtaposition allows a seamless exploration of the dark and a maniacal edge to the American psyche and how this cultural development is exported to the world through film. It further illustrates the absence of anything close to a meaningful relationship. We see the influence of technology, introversion, divorce, science and egotism that literally shatters the human bond that naturally exists between animals developed on the earth.
We see an America displaying its cold analytical nature, especially through film exported around the globe, that the rest of the world reacts to with anger, opposition and passion. We are successful in blowing up other cultures civility and protocols with the ease and precision of our self-appointed role. DeLillo’s use of juxtaposition forms a new category in literary sub-structure.
rlw – June 2014
By Michael Kinsley
BY CARL MYDANS/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES.THE WAY IT WAS Multiple editions, breaking news on the afternoon commute, November 22, 1963.
My friend Nicholas Lemann, who recently stepped down as dean of the Columbia Journalism School, has done his time and then some at symposia and similar gatherings to discuss the Future of Newspapers in the Age of the Internet. Nick says he has one firm rule about such discussions: “You’re not allowed to say, ‘It will all work out somehow.’ ” If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to say how. Unfortunately, having thought about it for a bit, I’ve more or less concluded that the ongoing crisis of newspapers—going bankrupt, being sold for peanuts, firing staff, cutting foreign bureaus, and so on—will all work out, somehow. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you why.
It’s partly Stein’s Law, named after the late Herbert Stein, an economist who served as chairman of Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers. Stein’s Law is more or less the opposite of Lemann’s Dictum. It holds that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This is a conservative notion, a clarion call to inaction on almost any subject: problems tend to resolve themselves.
And then there’s that old Chinese curse: May your dreams come true. If you could go back to, say, 1994, two decades ago, and if you could have told newspaper publishers that soon they’d be able to produce and distribute a daily newspaper at no cost for newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink), that they could shut down those huge presses and dispense with troublesome unions once and for all, and that they wouldn’t even need paperboys (or girls) anymore to throw the paper into the neighbor’s bushes—if you could have told them that all these costs were about to plummet to near zero—the publishers would have thought, Now, that sounds like a pretty great deal. I’ll take it. So how has this unexpected gift from God turned into such a disaster for them? There must be large amounts of either incompetence or bad luck involved. Anyone, like me, whose solution is a vague “Things will work out somehow” lacks standing to blame the problem on other people’s incompetence. So we will call it bad luck.
It’s not true that the publishers have just stood by while the Internet has stolen their business. Way back in 1981, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, under its leader that year—Katharine Graham, the C.E.O. of the Washington Post Co.—made a big lobbying push for a law forbidding AT&T, then a government-sanctioned telephone monopoly, to sell classified ads electronically. The publishers argued that the telephone company’s monopoly guaranteed the company profits that it could then use to subsidize the development of an electronic Yellow Pages, which would threaten one of their most profitable products, classified ads.
It was a bold argument. The newspaper industry had a higher rate of return on its investment than the phone company did. Nevertheless, the publishers were correct in seeing classified ads as the first thing they would lose as their business went online, though they missed the fact that the telephone company itself was about to be split into little bits and that it was some guy named Craig who would take this particular profit center from them.
Although it is hard to believe now, when The Washington Post can be bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos for pocket change of $250 million, but just 15 or 20 years ago, before the commercial arrival of the Internet, there was no sweeter sinecure in American capitalism than owning the one newspaper in a one-newspaper town. And cities as large as Los Angeles and Washington had effectively become one-newspaper towns. It was heaven: you could earn huge monopoly profits from advertisers like the big department stores, which had nowhere else to go. You were automatically a civic leader. And if you got bored, or your family needed cash, you could sell out to Gannett, which always stood ready to gobble up monopoly newspapers and lower the tone. At symposia and seminars on the Future of Newspapers, professional worriers used to worry that these monopoly or near-monopoly newspapers were too powerful for society’s good.
It couldn’t go on, and therefore it didn’t.
Donald Graham, publisher of The Washington Post during the crucial years, understood what a sweet deal his paper had. To the frustration of many Post reporters, Graham resisted all temptations to spend millions trying to compete with The New York Times as a national newspaper. Except for two or three bedraggled copies, often yesterday’s edition, you rarely ran into the Post outside the Beltway (or maybe in central Manhattan). Today the Post is, through no fault of Don Graham’s, an international newspaper, easily available anywhere in the world. But financially it’s a basket case, as are most other newspapers. In 2000, the Tribune Company paid $8.3 billion for the Los Angeles Times and several smaller papers. Today the Tribune Company wants to sell all its newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune itself, and can’t seem to find a buyer at any price. The New York Times Company bought The Boston Globe in 1993 for $1.1 billion and sold it for $70 million in 2013.
But why did this happen? What happened to all that money newspapers were supposed to save? Well, you save the money only if people are actually willing to give up the paper paper in favor of a computer screen. And at first people wouldn’t do it, unless the content was actually about computers, or pornography. “I don’t like reading on a computer screen” was the most familiar comment I heard when I started Slate, an online magazine, in 1996. Around that time, at a public panel discussion about (what else?) newspapers and the Internet (future of), a professor cut off a member of the audience who was making this point. “Your problem,” he intoned, “will be solved actuarially.” And he was right. Older people have died off and younger ones have been reading on a computer screen all their lives.
The change was not merely demographic, however. Fashion has changed, incredibly quickly. Really, in just the past three or four years. On an airplane, it has become strange to see anyone lugging an old-fashioned book. Any sense that e-books are déclassé or unsuitable for serious reading has simply evaporated. One man is responsible: Jeff Bezos, with the Kindle. His legitimation of electronic reading will be seen as a far more important contribution to saving newspapers than his purchase of the Post. (Note: my wife is a director at Amazon.)
Bezos deserves less credit (but maybe not a lot less) for another key development: the willingness of people to pay for online content. It’s been a two-step process, and it’s not over yet: first, getting people to pay online for hard goods, like a book, and then getting people to pay online for online goods, like a newspaper.
A second reason the predictable bonanza for newspapers didn’t materialize immediately was that they lost their comfortable monopoly. Now, instead of being the only newspaper in town, every English-language newspaper in the world is competing with every other one. They are also competing with new ways to compile and deliver news, made possible by this new technology. Some of these new ways amount to theft of traditional papers’ content—though it goes by the fancy name of “aggregation,” or the even fancier name of “curation.”
A successful aggregation Web site can be far cheaper to run than a traditional news organization, some of which still hire grown-ups and send them to expensive places where news is actually happening. One of the major aggregators, who has taken an old property and made it profitable for the first time in a century, took me on a tour of his new aggregation facility, somewhere deep in the Maryland suburbs, where rent is cheap. It was a pathetic sight. Dozens of recent college graduates—paid 75 cents an hour—sat chained to their computers grinding out blog items, while editors stood above them with whips, shouting, “Blog, you worthless scum. Blog more. A dozen new items by lunchtime or there’ll be no day-old pizza for anyone. Blog, I tell you,” and so forth. (Or maybe, come to think of it, I imagined that scene. Just as I did the quote that follows.)
Probably the most successful of the aggregators is Arianna Huffington, whose Huffington Post—named as a gentle poke in the eye to The Washington Post—was sold to AOL for more than The Washington Post went for. Arianna said, “Darling, what is all this fuss? I ask you: how is what we do any different from what is on the op-ed page every day of the week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday . . . What comes after Wednesday, darling? Where is my assistant? Anyway, we read the newspaper and comment on it. They read the newspaper and comment on it. Has Nicholas Kristof ever been sold into slavery? Has Tom Friedman been to Ukraine? Well, perhaps he has, but you see my point, darling. Everybody aggregates. Let him who is without sin . . . who said that, by the way? I believe the Huffington Post will say it very soon. Perhaps tomorrow. May I borrow your cell phone?”
In a couple of recent speeches, the C.E.O. of the New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, has suggested that the high quality of the Times’s content—the very quality that alarmists claim is becoming unaffordable as a result of bloggers and other cheap competition—will be the paper’s salvation, because people will pay real money for it. (He cautions that the Times is sui generis and that this high-quality strategy won’t work for ordinary, run-of-the-mill papers such as . . . any paper other than the Times.) With admirable, or possibly insane, frankness, he says the Times’s intention is to reduce reliance on advertising and to squeeze its most loyal readers as much as possible to pay for the content they consume.
“The first plank of our new strategy,” Thompson said, “is to develop additional pay offerings aimed at those who tell us they would certainly pay us something for Times journalism but less than the $200 or so which is our current lowest digital subscription—though we also intend to create enhanced offerings for those who tell us they would pay us even more.” He promised “fresh expressions of our journalism . . . with their own integrity and appeal.” And: “Despite any false rumors you may have heard to the contrary, all editorial leadership rests—as it always should and will”—with the editorial side. That is, news will not be influenced by advertisers. (“Native advertising” is the delightful but bewildering euphemism for advertising that looks like editorial content. Its main effect is to make editorial content look like advertising.)
There will always be a demand for high-quality news—enough demand to support two or three national newspapers, on papyrus scrolls if necessary. And the truth is that if only two or three newspapers survive, in national or global competition, that will still be more competition than we have now, with our collection of one-paper-town monopolies. A second truth is that most newspapers aren’t very good and wouldn’t be missed by anybody who could get The New York Times or USA Today and some bloggy source of local news. A third truth is that former roadblocks—people’s refusal to get their content online or to pay for it—are melting away like the snow. A fourth truth is that rich foundations and individuals appear downright eager to jump in and supply foreign or other prestige news if newspapers won’t. Former Times executive editor Bill Keller just quit the paper to help start a nonprofit to cover justice issues. Paul Steiger, formerly managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, founded ProPublica—a nonprofit that produces top-quality investigative journalism.
Somewhere in that agglomeration of developments, newspapers will survive in some form or other at least equal to any available today. It will all work out somehow.
In one of those wonderful old theater stories Laurence Olivier is said to have asked another Hoffman, Dustin, as the younger man voluntarily underwent physical abuse in order to convincingly play a tortured prisoner, “my dear boy, why not try acting?” It was a telling remark. Olivier was the kind of actor who could do just that, just act. But it was obvious from the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a better actor than Olivier in every way, that he was a different breed of artist, one who braved his own depths for each performance, pulling up the anxiety, the megalomania, the manic energy, the deviousness, the sweetness, the ache, and the nervous feeling of being at sea in the world that obviously haunted him in life. We responded to his performances with great love because we’re haunted by the same sensations in ourselves.
He played writers especially well, perhaps because writers also wrestle with those same emotions every day. He was brilliant and relatable and funny in the underrated State and Main, and he was the only actor whose nervous relatability could have sustained our interest in the baggy monster that wasSynecdoche, New York. He was a miracle in The Master and he was a miracle in Capote and he was a miracle in Magnolia, not because he seemed to have conjured his characters from thin air, but because he seemed to have assembled them from within himself. He was them and they were him. And we encountered those performances with a shock of recognition.
As we learn this afternoon that Hoffman died at age 46, we find ourselves amazed that he was so young. He’s given us a lifetime’s worth of work—so many fine performances that there’s an excellent chance his best work has yet to be fully discovered or properly understood. That’s up to us now. Few actors, let alone one so tortured in life, leave themselves such a monument. But we’re all tortured too, and his work is a monument to all of us as well, in all our nervous, nasty, wounded, complex glory.