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

cq5dam.web.1280.1280Vollmann

photos: PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/GETTYIMAGES

Unknown

Unknown-1
The Atlantic Magazine Interview

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

1.0k 225
JOE FASSLER JUL 16, 2014
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Doug McLean
William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Copyright © 2015 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved. CDN powered by Edgecast Networks. Insights powered by Parsely

'Last Stories And Other Stories' book promo image.
‘Last Stories And Other Stories’ book promo image.

Garry Wills – American Thinker & Iconoclast

cn_image.size.garry-wills-1001-01

Photograph by Gasper Tringale.

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

 

(photo – Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

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

The American Mind

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

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

204_feature_tanenhaus
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.”

Unknown Unknown-1

Marilynne Robinson – Community vs Tribalism

5400902995_f04e914e66_z MR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagination & Community

What Holds Us Together

Marilynne RobinsonFebruary 27, 2012 – 10:13am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Antigone Poems – Book Review

0980644704.01._SX140_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_

A book review of:

The Antigone Poems

by Marie Slaight

Drawings by Terrence Tasker

2013, Altaire Production and Publishing

Potts Point, Australia

 

December 4, 2013

 

Poets do not know this terrain. Yet they may meditate on its being, one that is multiplied by galaxies yet named. And here she claims a sun, it is hers. 
 
A sun giving strength and light and one to energize the daemon –  the lust in her, in him, in being used and using.
 
She and he had it in a way, they were gods of being with experiences that defined depth and height and horizons that cannot be other than what they are. 
 
And then we witness a woman encased in myth and having lived in the mythical reality of surrender and loss, trying to describe in words that which has always eluded language and will continue to do so. The death masks see what we do.
 
 This is the realm of, the caldron of being that takes all in its spheres – bodies, emotions, strengths, polarities, extreme pain and pleasure mixed and shows how they may be one at times and respective of duality at other times. 
 
Loss and aloneness, seeking, mourning the being that is transcendent – mocking everyday life in its wake – torrential as a fierce hurricane with no direction – chaos unleashed in full view – and what do humans do with this? 
 
Witness.
 
There is nothing to learn, to teach. It is and it allows what it does. Here, this being is seen and experienced in total freedom, not under the rule of a king, nor a prince nor a law in a province. There is no country, nor city, nor landscape. 
 
All the physicalness – wind, air, water, fire, cold, heat –  is used just now, just a felt world that existed and left a world with chasms of space in its wake and the wake leaves little to deal with – nothing to look at or sense.
 
Screams, blood, silence, ultimately loss of the greatness of being. Left a few words, she lives on such and such street, have some children. What.

 

r.l. wallace

greenbank, wa, usa

 

http://www.theantigonepoems.com

Grammars of Creation – George Steiner

“Beyond good and evil, beyond reason and social-ethical accountability, rages the drive to create, to engender form.”
Grammars of Creations
George Steiner

 

b2f1238daa0835628a76e24630816240

Jackson Pollock – Untitled (Figure Composition), 1938-41. Colored pencils and graphite on paper

 

The Underside of Silicon Valley – Rebecca Solnit

Solnit is a San Francisco native and has written about the town from many perspectives including art, photography and geography. This article appears in “Tom Dispatch” and is part of a dark take on the current explosion of revelations on government spying and recently the FBI’s admission that it is using drones domestically. From both a literary and journalistic standpoint, exaggeration to make a point seems to be warranted. – rlw
 
628x471

Welcome to the (Don’t Be) Evil Empire 
Google Eats the World 
By Rebecca Solnit

Finally, journalists have started criticizing in earnest the leviathans of Silicon Valley, notably Google, now the world’s third-largest company in market value. The new round of discussion began even before the revelations that the tech giants were routinely sharing our data with the National Security Agency, or maybe merging with it. Simultaneously another set of journalists, apparently unaware that the weather has changed, is still sneering at San Francisco, my hometown, for not lying down and loving Silicon Valley’s looming presence.
The criticism of Silicon Valley is long overdue and some of the critiques are both thoughtful and scathing. The New Yorker, for example, has explored howstart-ups are undermining the purpose of education at Stanford University,addressed the Valley’s messianic delusions and political meddling, andconsidered Apple’s massive tax avoidance.
The New York Times recently published an opinion piece that startled me, especially when I checked the byline. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the fugitive in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, focused on The New Digital Age, a book by top Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen that to him exemplifies the melding of the technology corporation and the state.  It is, he claimed, a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of our leading “witch doctors who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the twenty-first century.”  He added, “This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley.”
What do the U.S. government and Silicon Valley already have in common? Above all, they want to remain opaque while making the rest of us entirely transparent through the capture of our data. What is arising is simply a new form of government, involving vast entities with the reach and power of government and little accountability to anyone.
Google, the company with the motto “Don’t be evil,” is rapidly becoming an empire. Not an empire of territory, as was Rome or the Soviet Union, but an empire controlling our access to data and our data itself. Antitrust lawsuits proliferating around the company demonstrate its quest for monopoly control over information in the information age. Its search engine has become indispensable for most of us, and as Google critic and media professor Siva Vaidhyanathan puts it in his 2012 book The Googlization of Everything, “[W]e now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.” And that’s just the search engine.
About three-quarters of a billion people use Gmail, which conveniently gives Google access to the content of their communications (scanned in such a way that they can target ads at you). Google tried and failed to claim proprietary control of digital versions of every book ever published; librarians and publishers fought back on that one. As the New York Times reportedlast fall, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, summed the situation up this way: “Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors’ rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues.”
The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog wrote to the attorney general on June 12th urging him “to block Google’s just announced $1 billion acquisition of Waze, developers of a mobile mapping application, on antitrust grounds… Google already dominates the online mapping business with Google Maps. The Internet giant was able to muscle its way to dominance by unfairly favoring its own service ahead of such competitors as Mapquest in its online search results. Now with the proposed Waze acquisition, the Internet giant would remove the most viable competitor to Google Maps in the mobile space. Moreover it will allow Google access to even more data about online activity in a way that will increase its dominant position on the Internet.”
The company seems to be cornering the online mapping business, seems in fact to be cornering so many things that eventually they may have us cornered.
In Europe, there’s an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s Android phone apps.  In many ways, you can map Google’s rise by the litter of antitrust lawsuits it crushed en route. By the way, Google bought Motorola. You know it owns YouTube, right? That makes Google possessor of the second and third most visited Websites on earth. (Facebook is first, and two more of the top six are also in Silicon Valley.)
Imagine that it’s 1913 and the post office, the phone company, the public library, printing houses, the U.S. Geological Survey mapping operations, movie houses, and all atlases are largely controlled by a secretive corporation unaccountable to the public. Jump a century and see that in the online world that’s more or less where we are. A New York venture capitalist wrote that Google is trying to take over “the entire fucking Internet” and asked the question of the day: “Who will stop Google?”
The Tipping Point
We ask that question all the time in San Francisco, because here Google isn’t just on our computers, it’s on our streets. I wrote earlier this year about “the Google bus — the armadas of private Wi-Fi-equipped luxury buses that run through our streets and use our public bus stops, often blocking city buses and public transit passengers while they load or unload the employees taking the long ride down the peninsula to their corporation of choice. Google, Apple, Facebook, and Genentech run some of the bigger fleets, and those mostly unmarked white buses have become a symbol of the transformation of the city.
Carl Nolte, the old native son who writes a column for the (dying) San Francisco Chroniclesaid this month of the future inhabitants of 22,000 high-priced apartments under construction, “These new apartment dwellers will all be new San Franciscans, with different values. In a couple of years we’ll think of the progressive politicians, circa 2012, as quaint antiques, like the old waterfront Commies your grandfather used to worry about. This is already a high-tech city, an expensive city, a city where middle-class families can’t afford to live. It is a city where the African American population has dropped precipitously, where the Latino Mission District is gentrifying more every day. You think it’s expensive here now? Just you wait. These are the good old days, but it won’t last. We are at a tipping point.”
Mr. Nolte, you can tell, doesn’t particularly like this. A guy named Ilan Greenberg at the New Republic popped up to tell us that we must like it — or face his ridicule. He writes, “Ironically, the anti-gentrifiers themselves undermine San Francisco’s liberal ethos. Opposed to newcomers? Wary of people whose values you don’t understand? Critical of young people for not living up to an older generation’s ideals? It all sounds very reactionary and close-minded.” The problem is that we understand Silicon Valley’s values all too well, and a lot of us don’t like them.
Adding newcomers might not be so bad if it didn’t mean subtracting a lot of those of us who are already here. By us I mean everyone who doesn’t work for a gigantic technology corporation or one of the smaller companies hoping to become a global monolith. Greenberg (who is, incidentally, writing for a publication quietly bought up by a Facebook billionaire) sneers at us for defending middle-class people, but “middle class” is just a word for those of us who get paid decently for our work. People at various income levels in a diversity of fields here in San Francisco are being replaced by those who work in one field and get paid extremely well.  Small, alternative, and nonprofit institutions are also struggling and going down. It’s like watching a meadow being plowed under for, say, Monsanto genetically modified soybeans.
Speaking of meadows, one of Silicon Valley’s billionaires, Napster founder and Spotify billionaire Sean Parker, just threw himself a $10 million wedding on environmentally sensitive land in Big Sur. In the course of building a massive fantasy set for the event, “including grading, change in use from campground to private event, construction of multiple structures including a gateway and arch, an artificial pond, a stone bridge, multiple event platforms with elevated floors, rock walls, artificially created ruins of cottages and castle walls,” he reportedly did significant environmental damage and violated regulations.
Apparently paying $2.5 million in fines after the fact didn’t bother him. Napster and Spotify are, incidentally, online technologies that have reduced musicians’ profits from their recordings to almost nothing. There are tremendously wealthy musicians, of course, but a lot of them are at best, yes, middle class. Thanks to Parker, maybe a little less so.
Teachers, civil servants, bus drivers, librarians, firefighters — consider them representatives of the middle class under siege, as well as the people who keep a city viable and diverse. Friends of mine — a painter, a poet, a filmmaker, a photographer, all of whom have contributed to San Francisco’s culture — have been evicted so that more affluent people may replace them. There’s a widespread tendency to think that defending culture means defending privileged white people, but that assumes that people of color and poor people aren’t artists. Here, they are.
Everyone here understands that if a musician — hip-hop or symphony — can’t afford a home, neither can a janitor and her family. And competition for those apartments is fierce, so fierce that these days no one I know can find a rental on the open market. I couldn’t when I moved in 2011; neither could a physician friend earlier this year. The tech kids come in and offer a year in cash up front or raise the asking price or both, and the housing supply continues to wither, while rents skyrocket. So while Greenberg might like you to think that we’re selfishly not offering a seat at the table, it’s more like old people and working families and people whose careers were shaped by idealism are objecting to being thrown under the, well, bus.
Like Gandhi, Only With Guns
Enough minions of Silicon Valley’s mighty corporations could arrive to create a monoculture.  In some parts of town, it already is the dominant culture. A guy who made a fortune in the dot-com boom and moved to the Mission District (the partly Latino, formerly blue-collar eye of the housing hurricane) got locals’ attention recently with a blog post titled “Douchebags Like You are Ruining San Francisco.” In it, he described the churlish and sometimes predatory behavior of the very young and very wealthy toward the elderly, the poor, and the nonwhite.
He wrote, “You’re on MUNI [the city bus system] and watch a 20-something guy reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman and then say loudly to his friends, ‘I don’t know why old people ride MUNI. If I were old I’d just take Uber.’” Yeah, I had to look it up, too: Uber.com, a limousine taxi service you access via a smartphone app. A friend of mine overheard a young techie in line to buy coffee say to someone on his phone that he was working on an app that would be “like Food Not Bombs, to distribute food, only for profit.” Saying you’re going to be like a group dedicated to free food, only for profit, is about as deranged as saying you’re going to be like Gandhi, only with guns.
“An influx of techies will mean more patrons for the arts,” trilled an article at the Silicon Valley news site Pando, but as of yet those notable patrons have not made an appearance. As a local alternative weekly reported, “The tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable: According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011’s 50 most generous U.S. donors worked in tech, despite the fact that 13 of Forbes 50 Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech.” Medici in their machinations, they are not Medici-style patrons. There is no noticeable trickle-down in the Bay Area, no significant benevolence toward the needy or good causes or culture from the new tech fortunes.
Instead, we get San Francisco newcomer, Facebook CEO, and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg pursuing his own interest with ruthless disregard for life on Earth. This year, Zuckerberg formed a politically active nonprofit, FWD.us, that sought to influence the immigration debate to make it easier for Silicon Valley corporations to import tech workers. There has been no ideology involved, only expediency, in how FWD.us pursued its ends. It decided to put its massive financial clout to work giving politicians whatever they wanted in hopes that this would lead to an advantageous quid pro quo arrangement. Toward that end, the group began running ads in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline (that will bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast) to support a Republican senator and other ads in favor of drilling in Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to support an Alaskan Democrat.
The takeaway message seemed to be that nothing is off limits in pursuing self-interest, and that the actual meaning and consequences of these climate-impacting projects was not of concern at least to that 29-year-old who’s also the 25th richest person in the United States. (To give credit where it’s due: Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, Paypal cofounder and electric car mogul, quitFWD.us.) Zuckerberg and his Valley associates were pushing things they didn’t care about and demonstrating that they didn’t care about much except what makes their corporations run and their profits rise. Here, where the Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and many are environmentally minded, this didn’t go over well. Protests ensued at Facebook headquarters and on Facebook itself.
Rising hostility to the tech surge in San Francisco is met with fury and bewilderment by many Silicon Valley employees. They tend to sound like Bush-era strategists dumbfounded that the Iraqis didn’t welcome their invasion with flowers.
Here’s something else you should know about Silicon Valley: according toMother Jones, 89% of the founding teams of these companies are all male; 82% are all white (the other 18% Asian/Pacific Islander); and women there make 49 cents to the male dollar. Silicon Valley female powerhouses like Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg get a lot of attention because they’re unusual, black swans in a lake full of white swans. As Catherine Bracy, on whose research Mother Jones based its charts, put it, “The current research I’ve seen shows that wealth creation from the tech industry is extremely unequally distributed, and current venture capital is going overwhelmingly to a small, homogeneous elite.” That’s what’s encroaching on San Francisco.
That Pando article chastises us this way: “San Francisco can become a world capital.  First it needs to get over itself.” But maybe we don’t want to be a world capital or more like New York and Tokyo. The logic of more-is-better seems unassailable to San Francisco’s detractors, but inside their more is a lot of less: less diversity, less affordability, less culture, less continuity, less community, less equitable distribution of wealth. What’s called wealth in these calculations is for the few; for the many, it’s impoverishment.
The Armada of the .0001% 
If Google represents the global menace of Silicon Valley, and Zuckerberg represents its amorality, then Oracle CEO Larry Ellison might best represent its crassness. The fifth richest man in the world, he spent hundreds of millions of dollars to win the America’s Cup yacht race a few years back. The winner gets to choose the next venue for the race and the type of boat to be used. So for this summer’s races, Ellison chose San Francisco Bay and a giant catamaran that appears to be exceptionally unstable. Last month, an Olympic-medal-winning sailor drowned when a boat he was training on capsized in San Francisco Bay, pinning him under its sail.
Part of Ellison’s strategy for winning again evidently involves making the boats so expensive that almost no one can compete. A race that once had seven to 15 competitors now has four, and one may drop out. Business Insider headlined a piece, “Larry Ellison Has Completely Screwed Up The America’s Cup.” It went on to say, “Each team, with the exception of New Zealand’s, is backed by an individual billionaire, and each has spent between $65 million and $100 million so far.” In typical Silicon Valley-fashion, Ellison also figured out how to stick San Francisco for a significant part of the tab and in the process even caused the eviction of a few dozen small businesses, though in the end the city did not give him a valuable stretch of waterfront he wanted.
Here’s what San Francisco is now: a front row seat on the most powerful corporations on Earth and the people who run them. So we know what you may not yet: they are not your friends and their vision is not your vision, but your data is their data, and your communications are in their hands, and they seem to be rising to become an arm of or a part-owner of the government or a law unto themselves, and no one has yet figured out what we can do about it.
Rebecca Solnit is just winding up several months as a research fellow at Stanford Libraries and Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. Her work there will lead to a book about California history, but her new book, out this month, is The Faraway Nearby.

Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit

http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175717/tomgram%3A_rebecca_solnit%2C_how_to_act_like_a_billionaire/#more

A Brit Blows America’s Horn – “America The Marvelous”

July 2013

America the Marvelous

At any liberal-establishment dinner table in London, say, or Paris, the U.S. will figure as a big, fat, dumb child. Enough, says the author, in an adaptation from his new book: America is Europe’s finest invention—and ultimate aspiration.

By A. A. GillIllustration by Barry Blitt
KING OF THE WORLD The author has had it with European antipathy toward America.

Adapted from To America with Love, by A. A. Gill, © 2011 by A. A. Gill. Originally published in Great Britain in 2012 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson; to be published in the U.S. next month by Simon & Schuster, Inc.

‘Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief—no, the knowledge—that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.

Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It’s about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized Continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren’t everything, and America’s aren’t all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)

And are Americans emotionally dim, naïve, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn’t understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It’s not irony that America lacks; it’s cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony. And what about vulgarity? Americans are innately, sniggeringly vulgar. What, vulgar like Henry James or Eleanor Roosevelt or Cole Porter, or the Mormons? Again, it’s a question of definitions. What Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They don’t go in for ambiguity or dissembling, the etiquette of hidden meaning, the skill of the socially polite lie. The French in particular confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture or intellectual elegance. It was Camus who sniffily said that only in America could you be a novelist without being an intellectual. There is a belief that America has no cultural depth or critical seriousness. Well, you only have to walk into an American bookshop to realize that is wildly wrong and willfully blind. What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?

What is so contrary about Europe’s liberal antipathy to America is that any visiting Venusian anthropologist would see with the merest cursory glance that America and Europe are far more similar than they are different. The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention. That’s not to exclude the contribution to America that has come from around the globe, but it is built out of Europe’s ideas, Europe’s understanding, aesthetic, morality, assumptions, and laws. From the way it sets a table to the chairs it sits on, to the rhythms of its poetry and the scales of its music, the meter of its aspirations and its laws, its markets, its prejudices and neuroses. The conventions and the breadth of America’s reason are European.

This isn’t a claim for ownership, or for credit. But America didn’t arrive by chance. It wasn’t a ship that lost its way. It wasn’t coincidence or happenstance. America grew tall out of the cramping ache of old Europe.

When I was a child, there was a lot of talk of a “brain drain”—commentators, professors, directors, politicians would worry at the seeping of gray matter across the Atlantic. Brains were being lured to California by mere money. Mere money and space, and sun, and steak, and Hollywood, and more money and opportunity and optimism and openness. People who took the dollar in exchange for their brains were unpatriotic in much the same way that tax exiles were. The unfair luring of indigenous British thought would, it was darkly said, lead to Britain falling behind, ceasing to be the pre-eminently brilliant and inventive nation that had produced the Morris Minor and the hovercraft. You may have little idea how lauded and revered Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the hovercraft, was, and you may well not be aware of what a noisy, unstable waste of effort the hovercraft turned out to be, but we were very proud of it for a moment.

The underlying motif of the brain drain was that for real cleverness you needed years of careful breeding. Cold bedrooms, tinned tomatoes on toast, a temperament and a heritage that led to invention and discovery. And that was really available only in Europe and, to the greatest extent, in Britain. The brain drain was symbolic of a postwar self-pity. The handing back of Empire, the slow, Kiplingesque watch as the things you gave your life to are broken, and you have to stoop to build them up with worn-out tools. There was resentment and envy—whereas in the first half of the 20th century Britain had spent the last of Grandfather’s inherited capital, leaving it exhausted and depressed, for America the war had been the engine that geared up industry and pulled it out of the Depression, capitalizing it for a half-century of plenty. It seemed so unfair.

The real brain drain was already 300 years old. The idea of America attracted the brightest and most idealistic, and the best from all over Europe. European civilization had reached a stasis. By its own accounting, it had grown from classical Greece to become an identifiable, homogeneous place, thanks to the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity. Following the Dark Ages, there was the Renaissance and the Reformation, and then the Age of Reason, from which grew a series of ideas and discoveries, philosophies and visions, that became pre-eminent. But at the moment of their creation here comes the United States—just as Europe was reaching a point where the ideas that moved it were outgrowing the conventions and the hierarchies that governed it. Democracy, free economy, free trade, free speech, and social mobility were stifled by the vested interests and competing stresses of a crowded and class-bound continent. Migration to America may have been primarily economic, but it also created the space where the ideas that in Europe had grown too root-bound to flourish might be transplanted. Over 200 years the flame that had been lit in Athens and fanned in Rome, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Berlin, Stockholm, Prague, and Vienna was passed, a spark at a time, to the New World.

In 1776 the white and indentured population of America was 2.5 million. A hundred years later it was nearly 50 million. In 1890, America overtook Britain in manufacturing output to become the biggest industrial economy in the world. No economy in the history of commerce has grown that precipitously, and this was 25 years after the most murderous, expensive, and desperate civil war. Indeed, America may have reached parity with Britain as early as 1830. Right from its inception it had faster growth than old Europe. It now accounts for a quarter of the world’s economy. It wasn’t individual brains that made this happen. It wasn’t a man with a better mousetrap. It was a million families who wanted a better mousetrap and were willing to work making mousetraps. It was banks that would finance the manufacture of better mousetraps, and it was a big nation with lots of mice.

One of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever done in public was to appear—against all judgment—in a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in the mid-90s, speaking in defense of the motion that American culture should be resisted. Along with me on this cretin’s errand was the historian Norman Stone. I can’t remember what I said—I’ve erased it. It had no weight or consequence. On the other side, the right side, were Adam Gopnik, from The New Yorker, and Salman Rushdie. After we’d proposed the damn motion, Rushdie leaned in to the microphone, paused for a moment, regarding the packed theater from those half-closed eyes, and said, soft and clear, “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby, / Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe. / Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love.”

It was the triumph of the sublime. The bookish audience burst into applause and cheered. It was all over, bar some dry coughing. America didn’t bypass or escape civilization. It did something far more profound, far cleverer: it simply changed what civilization could be. It set aside the canon of rote, the long chain letter of drawing-room, bon-mot received aesthetics. It was offered a new, neoclassical, reconditioned, reupholstered start, a second verse to an old song, and it just took a look at the view and felt the beat of this vast nation and went for the sublime.

There is in Europe another popular snobbery, about the parochialism of America, the unsophistication of its taste, the limit of its inquiry. This, we’re told, is proved by “how few Americans travel abroad.” Apparently, so we’re told, only 35 percent of Americans have passports. Whenever I hear this, I always think, My good golly gosh, really? That many? Why would you go anywhere else? There is so much of America to wonder at. So much that is the miracle of a newly minted civilization. And anyway, European kids only get passports because they all want to go to New York.