Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass | The Nation


Lessons of Darkness: On Peter Maass

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Maass readily admits the challenge of "profiling" a subject as elusive as oil. "How do you coax secrets from a liquid?" he asks in the introduction. "To know a person, you talk to him. To know a country, you visit it. To know a religion, you study sacred texts. Oil defies these norms of interrogation.... It is invisible most of the time, but, like gravity, it influences everything we do." His struggle to give form to this inquiry may explain the book's misleading structural conceit. The chapter titles anatomize the industry by isolating its salient features, suggesting a dossier of vices. But with few exceptions, each chapter is set in a different country, suggesting, more accurately, a tour d'horizon. At times the pairings of regions with the traits they are meant to exemplify, and the order in which the chapters appear, seem interchangeable. Thankfully, Maass does not adhere too strictly to his schema, allowing it to organize but not constrain his analysis. And though Crude World presents a string of episodes rather than a cumulative argument, each installment is riveting and illuminating in its own right. Crude World is not the last stop for all things oil. But for nonexperts embarking on their own investigations into energy policy and the devastation wreaked by fossil fuels, it offers many worthy ports of call.

About the Author

Mark Sorkin
Mark Sorkin is a writer living in Chicago.

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Since the mid-1980s Maass has been filing dispatches from what his colleague Tina Rosenberg has called "the chasm between truth and official truth." His clips offer a trove of object lessons on equipoise, but they also give the lie to the notion that a reporter's role is simply to mediate. Maass is by no means an ideologue or activist, nor does he pretend to hover above the fray. His politics are unobtrusive but never hidden; his moral compass is consistently his most reliable guide. This approach, coupled with an intrepid pursuit of the story and masterful control of its presentation, has served him well.

In July 1989, while based in South Korea as a correspondent for the Washington Post, he was among a small cadre of American journalists invited to Pyongyang for a rare glimpse of the northern half of the peninsula. "Real reporting was not encouraged," he wrote in a short news item. A government official warned him, "If you try to distort the information of my country, it will be the last visit for you and your newspaper." But even though Maass's minders never let him out of their sight, he managed to peek behind the curtain. A tour intended to display only lavish tributes to the Great Leader became, in Maass's telling, an obsessive ritual of control. At the Kochang cooperative farm, an illustration of "cradle-to-grave indoctrination," Maass watched grade-school students answer questions about the president like little automatons, while university students denied any sexual desire before marriage. Working on the regime's strict terms--and within the formal boundaries of beat reporting--Maass portrayed a totalitarian government exerting rigorous control over its people yet anxious over possible ripple effects from the recent uprising in Tiananmen Square, and struggling to ensure a smooth succession of power from President Kim Il Sung to his ill-prepared son, Kim Jong Il. Exposing such cracks in North Korea's "monolithic political facade" while staving off expulsion required a high degree of tact and skill.

Or consider, in Crude World, the chapter called "Contamination," in which he travels to the Ecuadorean Amazon. There he meets indigenous activists and Steve Donziger, the American lawyer at the helm of a landmark, multibillion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron, the corporate parent of Texaco, which looted and poisoned the Oriente region for two decades. Chevron does not deny the devastation but claims that Petroecuador, the state-owned company that assumed control of Texaco's facilities in 1992, is at fault. Chevron's lawyers have tried every trick in the book (dirty and clean) to get the case dismissed; in August 2009 they produced secretly recorded conversations that appeared to implicate public officials, including the presiding judge, in a bribery scheme. (The judge denied the charge but recused himself, further postponing the monumental trial.) With stakes this high, it's no surprise to see the case take on the dimensions of a le Carré novel. But for all the intrigue and marathon depositions, Maass writes,

The case would seem easy to prove, with the billions of gallons of waste akin to blood on the still-slippery floor of a vast crime scene. To find proof, all you needed to do was stick a shovel in the earth, taste the tainted water that came out of the ground or inhale a lungful of the polluted air, as I did. You could visit the towns and see babies with deformities and people dying of cancer. It is because of the oil, you would hear. How could Chevron defend itself against a nation of evidence?

Freed of the strictures of newspaper reporting, Maass inserts himself into the story, teases out its human drama and does not shy from issuing a personal verdict. This can be tricky territory; not every first-person journalist emerges with his credibility intact. But Maass, whose judgments are always informed by the historical record, extensive interviews and time on the ground, pulls it off.

"I followed American troops into Iraq to learn what I could from actions rather than speeches," he writes in Crude World. He adhered to a strikingly similar position in his previous book, Love Thy Neighbor (1996), a haunting reflection on the Bosnian war distilled from his daily coverage for the Washington Post. "If you want to find the truth in Bosnia," he wrote, "you must ignore words and examine actions, and even then, you must be careful of the conclusions you draw." Love Thy Neighbor is a tour de force of witness and rage, a clear-eyed indictment of Serbian aggression and the Western accomplices that enabled it. The book foregrounds the sort of idiosyncratic anecdotes and personal reflections that typically occur off the clock, revealing a subtler and more psychologically complex portrait of Bosnian life under siege than one could find in daily dispatches. Maass's style calls to mind the Polish journalist and long-form pioneer Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose work he cites in Crude World. Kapuscinski is said to have kept two notebooks in the field: one for reporting facts and one for capturing impressions. With Love Thy Neighbor Maass folded the two into one.

Although Love Thy Neighbor is chronological, it is not straightforward reportage. Part journal, part confession, the book traces Maass's journey across the landscape of the war while charting his slow surrender to moral exhaustion. In the early days, he recalls, he remained curious and vigilant, even in the face of atrocity. Days after photos of skeletal Bosnian prisoners began circling the globe, he requested and was granted permission to visit the camps. At Omarska, an abandoned mining compound that had been converted for the day into a showpiece POW facility, he declined to interview any of the prisoners for fear of somehow hastening their execution. ("Please, don't ask me questions," one of them pleaded.) Later, in an interview he described as "hallucinogenic," he boldly confronted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic with what he had seen. "We opened our entire prisons to the media, and the media focused on one very thin boy," Karadzic insisted. One way to understand the war, Maass suggests, is to grapple with the persistent triumph of such "official truths" over blaring evidence to the contrary. But he also offers another, quasi-Hobbesian explanation: within human nature, he suggests, lies a "wild beast" that's always "waiting in the long grass of history for the right moment to pounce." After monitoring the beast's every move for more than a year, and watching Western nations feed it with arms embargoes and diplomatic sleights of hand, Maass, his spirit drained, pulled out.

Despite some similarities in approach, Love Thy Neighbor and Crude World are vastly different projects. Love Thy Neighbor is the product of significant immersion; it must have taken months in such a dark horror chamber before Maass's eyes began to adjust. Crude World is an international hopscotch; its insights are therefore more provisional, less textured. "The world of oil is an intellectual as much as a physical space," he writes. Indeed it is, and its radius is continually expanding as demand seeps into the developing world and new fields are opened to prospecting. Maass's impulse to move around is understandable. But one wonders what the world of oil would have looked like had he regarded it from a single vantage point. In an abstract sense, of course, he did. No matter where he is situated, he fixes his eye on the power dynamics that make the "machine of destiny" hum and allow it to roll over so many people. But since each outpost reveals the global supply chain, perhaps it would have been more fruitful for him to dig in.

Crude World is mercifully light on policy recommendations, but they are not absent. In a brief conclusion, Maass proposes a few ways to put the brakes on the oil industry. Some are familiar: stronger regulation, investment in renewable energy, dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, conservation, wind farms, light rail. Others have not yet made their way into mainstream discussion but should. Compulsory disclosure of all oil contracts would help bring much-needed accountability to the signatories. The Justice Department can apply the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to prosecute US conglomerates that broker illegal deals with governments overseas. Development aid, properly administered, can foster the use of greener fuels and technologies and decrease the value of oil, while limiting the potential for developed nations to exploit a new market. The United States, the world's largest consumer of oil by a wide margin, should set the example on all these fronts.

Maass, who has made a career of spotting gaps between rhetoric and action, does not seem sanguine about the prospects of a green revolution. Nor is this book intended as a catalyst. Crude World may wind up shelved in the growing library of books that chart paths toward a sustainable future, but it belongs in a different class. The book is not about oil policy or the energy crisis, at least not primarily; it is a moral reckoning with basic instincts. Fear, greed, desire, exploitation: as we draw oil from the ground, oil draws out these unflattering qualities in us. Crude world, indeed. When Maass peers down the well, he sees another beast writhing.

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