(With apologies to Stephen Foster)
The Enron hearings stretch ahead,
Until the final soundbite's said.
Oh, doo-dah day.
Pols will posture night,
Pols will posture day.
They'll show the voters just how tough they are,
Browbeating some CPA.
They'll talk of all the laws they'll make,
And meanwhile they're still on the take.
Oh, doo-dah day.
Pols will posture day,
Pols will posture night.
The guy who's shmeered them for a dozen years
Now is the guy they'd indict.
ABOUT THAT AD...
In light of Norman Finkelstein's effort to peddle his vituperative book by taking out advertisements in The Nation [see page 17] calling me a liar, I have asked The Nation to print the letter I sent to Finkelstein prior to the publication of his attack on me, pointing out the numerous errors in his work. I'll let fair-minded readers decide which of us is the liar. Shame on Verso for descending to such a level of venomous and blatantly false sensationalism just to make a buck. I only hope The Nation is charging premium rates for the ads. Finally, to be called a liar by Norman Finkelstein is like being called a traitor by Osama bin Laden. It means you must be doing something right.
New York City
Since you were courteous enough to provide me with a prepublication copy of your proposed text labeling me, among other things, a hypocrite, a coward, a falsifier of documents and a shakedown artist and calling for my disbarment, I will provide you the reciprocal courtesy of a serious response, without the venom. Before dealing specifically with your material, though, I want to correct an apparent misapprehension about my relationship with what you call "the Holocaust industry." I have never met Edgar Bronfman or any member of his staff. I did not attend the dinner that opens your chapter. I have never represented the Claims Conference. Indeed, before this litigation, I had never even heard of it. For most of my career, I have been at odds with many Jewish organizations because, as an ACLU lawyer, I represented Nazis--and everyone else--in free speech cases.
In fact I was drawn into the Swiss banks case by a specific request from Chief Judge Korman, who, because of my academic reputation and my earlier work in his court challenging unconstitutional restrictions on access to the ballot, asked me to organize the plaintiffs' Executive Committee and to serve as co-counsel for all plaintiffs. My career has been as a civil rights/civil liberties lawyer and an academic. I spent eleven years on the full-time legal staff of the ACLU, eventually serving as ACLU National Legal Director during the Reagan years. Thus, while I have no quarrel with your right to criticize my work and my judgment, I do object to your inaccurate effort to cast me as a participant in some larger conspiracy. I am simply an experienced constitutional lawyer who was asked by a respected federal judge to take on a difficult case. Once I accepted Judge Korman's invitation to work on the Swiss bank litigation for deeply personal reasons, I fulfilled my duties as a lawyer to the best of my ability.
Your claim that I played a major role in developing the legal theories underlying the Swiss bank cases is true. My June 16, 1997, memorandum of law, together with the four amended complaints I filed on July 30, 1997, set out the legal arguments against Swiss banks. Your characterization of the legal theories as a "shakedown" is, however, completely false. The contract, bailment and constructive trust legal theories underlying the demand for the return of Holocaust-era bank accounts are conventional and universally acknowledged. The international law theories underlying the demand for the disgorgement of unjust enrichment obtained by Swiss banks through knowingly dealing in Nazi plunder and knowingly financing slave labor camps, while more controversial, fall comfortably within precedents in this circuit upholding international law claims against foreign defendants. If you took the time to read my June, 16, 1997, memorandum of law, you would see that the legal theories are very carefully developed. The best test of the validity of my theories is that the banks elected to pay $1.25 billion rather than face them in court.
Your accusation that "hypocrisy and cowardice" explain my failure to have sued the United States for its appalling immigration policy during World War II is ridiculous. If you had done a minimum of research, you would know that I have repeatedly sued the United States in far more challenging circumstances. I was the lawyer who sued the United States several times between 1968 and 1973, arguing that the Vietnam War was illegal. I was the lawyer who sued the United States on behalf of Morton Sobell when the parole board attempted to muzzle him after his release from federal prison. I was one of Daniel Ellsberg's lawyers arguing that the United States lacked power to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers. I represented The Progressive magazine when the United States sought to block publication of H-bomb designs. I was counsel in the first wave of flag desecration cases, arguing that the First Amendment protects symbolic use of the flag. I represented homeless plaintiffs in the Supreme Court when they sought to erect a tent city in Lafayette Park across from the White House. I represented the Socialist Labor Party when the authorities blocked its presidential candidate from the ballot. I challenged the effort to prevent Americans from traveling to Cuba. As National Legal Director of the ACLU during the Reagan years, I repeatedly challenged efforts by the United States to cut back on constitutional rights, including efforts to muzzle Palestinian speakers, and efforts to foreclose on family farmers. This year, in Velazquez, I successfully represented federally funded lawyers for the poor in the Supreme Court against the United States when Congress attempted to limit their ability to argue effectively in welfare cases.
The real reason that no suit was brought against the United States challenging its appalling World War II immigration record was not my "hypocrisy and cowardice" but the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Under well-settled law, you simply cannot sue the United States for damages arising out of an immigration decision, even an appalling one. For your information, we never sued Switzerland for its refugee policy because sovereign immunity would have blocked the action. The Swiss asked that refugees be allowed to participate in the settlement, and we agreed.
You seem to imply that it was dishonest of me to have criticized the Volcker audit in my June 16, 1997, memorandum of law while later praising the results of the audit in my subsequent submissions to the Court defending the Swiss bank settlement. But your incomplete description of my June 16, 1997, memorandum badly distorts my position.
The criticism of the Volcker committee audit contained in my June 16, 1997, memorandum was in response to a formal motion by counsel for the Swiss bank defendants seeking to dismiss the Swiss bank litigation as unnecessary because the Volcker audit could be trusted to deal with the problem of Holocaust-era bank deposits without the need for judicial involvement. I argued then--and would repeat the argument now--that a private, nonjudicial audit financed by a defendant can never be a complete substitute for judicial involvement in a difficult case. I noted in the portion of the memorandum you choose to ignore that the lawsuit and the audit should complement each other, and that by working together the two efforts could ultimately achieve a measure of justice for Holocaust victims. I was right. The Volcker audit was enormously valuable in providing the information needed to administer a credible claims program designed to return as many accounts as possible to their true owners. The lawsuit was crucial in pressing the banks to cooperate with the auditors, to provide necessary information to claimants, such as the publication of information concerning 21,000 accounts identified by the Volcker report as "probably" belonging to Holocaust victims, and to establish a credible claims process designed to return accounts to their true owners.
As you know, Chief Judge Korman noted that the Volcker audit validated the core allegations underlying the Swiss bank litigation. You conveniently omit the fact that once the banks' effort to use the audit as an excuse for dismissing the lawsuit failed, extremely close cooperation between the Volcker audit and the lawsuit was achieved. Indeed, Paul Volcker was ultimately appointed by Chief Judge Korman as an officer of the court to supervise the CRT claims process in Zurich designed to return as many Swiss bank accounts as possible to their true owners.
Finally, I note that you have correctly abandoned your untenable claim that Swiss banks did not engage in massive destruction of Holocaust-era bank records.
Your charge that I "flagrantly falsify key documents in published correspondence" is a lie--and you know it. Our exchange of letters in The Nation [Dec. 18 and 25, 2000] makes it clear that I was referring to the figures used by the German foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" in estimating Holocaust survivors. I was responding to your claim that I had overstated the number of surviving Holocaust victims. You challenged my assertion that more than 1 million Holocaust survivors would be benefited by a combination of the Swiss and German funds. I responded by stating that you must be using figures for Jewish survivors but overlooking the large number of non-Jews who suffered in the Holocaust. In making that statement, I was relying on the findings of the German foundation that more than 1 million surviving Nazi slave and forced laborers exist, about three-quarters of whom are non-Jewish. You conveniently ignore the German foundation in your chapter, perhaps because it doesn't support your obsession.
I will leave to Judah Gribetz the pleasure of demolishing your effort to mischaracterize his remarkable work as a "shakedown" of Holocaust victims. You misstate virtually everything about the allocation plan. In fact, the allocation plan is rigorously designed to distribute Swiss bank settlement funds to individual Holocaust victims, not organizations. In fact, all appeals affecting the ability to distribute are now over, and distribution is about to begin. In fact, the Second Circuit explicitly upheld the limitation of the Swiss settlement fund to targets of the Nuremberg race laws but not to persons who were persecuted on political or national origin grounds because the settlement fund is far too small to cover everyone in Europe. And that's just a few of your mistakes.
I have no illusions that you will alter your chapter to bring it closer to the truth. You appear to be so obsessed with waging your private political war against militant Zionism and the Jewish establishment that you simply cannot see anything except corruption and bad faith. No person or institution is free from actions that would justify criticism. But your stridency and rage prevents your work from playing any constructive role. Rather, you just become fodder for someone else's political obsessions.
In a few weeks, East Timor will be able to celebrate both its independence as a country and its status as a democracy. Elections will have produced a government able to seek and receive international recognition. An undetermined number of Timorese, herded by the Indonesian Army into the western part of the island during the last spasms of cruelty before Jakarta formally abandoned its claim to the territory, will not be able to celebrate. And the entire process is gruesomely overshadowed by the murder of at least a quarter of a million Timorese during the illegal Indonesian occupation.
George W. Bush could not bring himself to mention the name "Enron" inhis State of the Union address. But no one doubted that, when thepresident spoke of the need for greater corporate accountability Tuesdaynight, he was refering to the economic and political scandals that havearisen in the aftermath of the collapse of Houston-based Enron Corp.
Credit Bush with a few calming lines in response to mounting concernsregarding the behavior not just of Enron executives but of members ofhis own administration with close ties to the bankrupt energyconglomerate. It was good to hear the most corporate president inAmerican history tell Congress that, "Through stricter accountingstandards and tougher disclosure requirements, corporate America must bemade more accountable to employees and shareholders and held to thehighest standards of conduct."
But, as Bill Clinton illustrated year after year, State of the Uniontalk comes cheap.
The New York Times's Martin Arnold calls the success of Bernard Goldberg's Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News "perhaps the most astonishing publishing event in the last 12 months." I concur. A number-one best-seller is indeed an impressive accomplishment for a clumsily written screed whose author never even bothers to prove his thesis, much less attempts to convince anyone who does not already know the conservative secret handshake.
Never mind that in their more genuine moments, conservatives from William Kristol to Pat Buchanan admit that the claim of liberal media bias is bogus, cooked up for political advantage. Conservative book buyers, fortunately for Goldberg, are rather late in getting the news. "Just turn on your TV set and it's there," the author, a twenty-eight-year veteran at CBS News, declares. In doing so, he echoes the line of many a know-nothing conservative before him. "There are certain facts of life so long obvious they would seem beyond dispute. One of these--that there is a liberal tilt in the media...," sayeth the editors of the Wall Street Journal. "The fact is everybody knows that Dan Rather is an egomaniacal liberal. Everybody knows that the major news networks lean to the left," chimes in Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online. Never mind, dear reader, that young Jonah was recently signed up by CNN, where he joins liberal Robert Novak and liberal Tucker Carlson as a regular commentator on what Tom DeLay calls the "Communist News Network." He can expect to compete with liberal lunatic Alan Keyes on MSNBC, who replaces liberal criminal Oliver North and liberal miniskirt model Laura Ingraham, and joins liberal carnival barker Chris Matthews, in being given his own show on that liberal network. Thank goodness for the fairandbalanced folks at Fox.
Taking time out from the 200-300 talk-radio programs that regularly feature authors of the conservative publishing house Regnery, which published his book, Goldberg appeared on Jeff Greenfield's Communist CNN program, where he told his host, "I could give you right now, Jeff, about 100 examples of liberal bias in the media that are current." Yet over the course of 230 pages, he manages to string together little more than one idiotic accusation after another. Goldberg reports, "Everyone to the right of Lenin is a 'right-winger' as far as media elites are concerned." He explains that the news bias comes from the same "dark region that produces envy and the unquenchable liberal need to wage class warfare." He insists, "If CBS News were a prison instead of a journalistic enterprise, three-quarters of the producers and 100 per cent of the vice-presidents would be Dan's bitches." Just about the only piece of actual news Goldberg produces is unproven and, I'm guessing, imaginary. According to the author, CBS News president Andrew Heyward once told him: "Look, Bernie, of course there's a liberal bias in the news. All the networks tilt left.... If you repeat any of this, I'll deny it."
Taking the conservative ideology of wealthy white male victimization to new heights, Goldberg pretends he has broken his pledge of omertà and suffered the horrifying consequences. He wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal attacking his colleagues. "So what happened?" he writes. "Well, as Tony Soprano might put it to his old pal Big Pussy Bompensiero in the Bada Bing! Lounge: Bernie G. opened his mouth to the wrong people--and he got whacked."
It's heartbreaking until you discover that while Goldberg admits that Heyward had every right to fire him for violating the terms of his contract, instead the boss whom "Bernie G." is either betraying or libeling in these pages found him a nice cushy job at 60 Minutes II and allowed him to serve out his time to qualify for a higher pension. Call me a liberal, but I believe the term "whack" carries a slightly different connotation among Mafia dons.
As for Dan's "bitches," this is likely a fantasy as well. The anchorman, according to Goldberg, "practically kissed Fidel Castro in front of the whole evening news staff when the dictator showed up at CBS News studios." Did I mention that Goldberg (though he'll probably deny it) "practically" beat my dog, raped my cat and exposed himself to a potted plant in front of the entire Nation staff? He "practically" did all this, by the way, before "practically" admitting that his book was cooked up in a few spare minutes to milk money from ignorant people willing to pay to see their prejudices confirmed. Go ahead, Bernie, "whack" me; baby needs a new pair of shoes.
* * *
Speaking of liberals, George Will offered up yet another example recently of why the word "journalist" is considered so vicious an epithet among social scientists. Will has long been obsessed with education spending, which he finds wasteful and counterproductive. This leads him to twist arguments and statistics so shamelessly that one of his columns actually served as the subject of an article in the Journal of Statistics Education demonstrating how not to analyze SAT data.
Will's most recent foray into the topic is an almost perfect rewrite of a column he wrote a year ago. Writing on the Bear Left website (www.bear-left.com), Tim Francis-Wright notes that the College Board website contains at least three pages of warnings to journalists seeking to use state-level data, which Will ignores. He not only abuses the figures to denigrate the effects of investing in education, he constructs his entire argument on precisely two data points: test scores as reported by North Dakota and the District of Columbia. The divorced pundit distorts the implications of this tiny, intellectually immaterial comparison to support his own biased belief in strong nuclear families as the key determinant of educational success. Surprise, surprise.
* * *
And speaking of the liberals at Enron, I could not follow this story were it not for the energetic reporting of the folks at Media Whores Online (www.mediawhoresonline.com) and the thoughtful analysis at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo website (www.j-marshall.com/talk). Check 'em out.
Throwing the book at people is nothing new, but in our post-9/11 world the screws are tightening. Take San Francisco, whose District Attorney is Terence "Kayo" Hallinan, a progressive fellow. Indeed, in his 2000 re-election bid Hallinan survived years of abuse in the San Francisco Chronicle for supposedly being altogether too slack a prosecutor, with poor conviction rates and kindred offenses betokening softness on crime.
Yet this is the same Hallinan who's hit two gay AIDS activists with an escalating barrage of charges, currently amounting to forty-one alleged felonies and misdemeanors, all adding up to what he has stigmatized in the local press as "terrorism." That's a trigger word these days, as Sarah Jane Olson, a k a Kathleen Soliah, recently discovered when a judge put her away for twenty years to life for actions back in the 1970s.
Held in San Francisco County Jail since last November 28 are Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli. Neither man has been able to make bail, which Hallinan successfully requested to be set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli.
Why this astonishing bail? What it boils down to is that the two accused are dissidents notorious for raising all kinds of inconvenient, sometimes obscene hell about AIDS issues. They've long been detested by San Francisco's AIDS establishment, which Petrelis in particular has savaged as being disfigured by overpaid executives, ineffective HIV-prevention campaigns and all-round complacency and sloth.
They've taken kooky positions. Pasquarelli, for example, believes that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. Petrelis hasn't scrupled to form alliances with right-wingers in Congress when it suits his tactical book. Being attacked by them can be an unpleasant experience. Who wants to get phoned in the middle of the night and be asked whether your wife has got your syphilitic dick in her mouth?
The two were thrown in jail because of an escalating campaign they launched late last year amid calls for an expansion of quarantining laws across the country, prompted by fears of bioterrorism. Petrelis and Pasquarelli took after an SF public health official, Jeffrey Klausner, for seeming to endorse quarantining of people with AIDS. They also assailed the media, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, for relaying what the two claimed were inflated statistics about increases in the rates of syphilis and HIV in San Francisco. The higher the stats, the more dollars flow to various AIDS bureaucracies. The Chronicle claimed tremulously that not only had its reporters been showered with filthy nocturnal calls to their homes but that there had been a bomb threat against the paper.
On the basis of what has surfaced so far, the charges and bail are way out of kilter with the facts of the case. Their severity defies logical explanation, unless we acknowledge the loathing Petrelis and Pasquarelli inspire in San Francisco's respectable element and among some well-known organizers.
Take Kate Sorensen, an AIDS activist who herself was held on $1 million bail for leading demonstrations outside the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. The DA there took her to trial on three felonies, though she was only convicted of a misdemeanor. Such experiences have not evoked any solidarity with the San Francisco pair. Wrote Sorensen recently, "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you."
This self-righteous stance was elicited by an open letter of concern addressing the prosecution of Petrelis and Pasquarelli. Organized by the radical gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, the open letter (go to www.openletteronline.com and look under "Politics & Activism," then "Petrelis-Pasquarelli") has been signed by hundreds, including many well-known gay figures like Harvey Fierstein, Scott Tucker, Barbara Smith and Judy Greenspan. The letter questions the motivation for the charges and makes the scarcely extremist demand that the two get fair legal treatment and reasonable bail.
Moderate though the terms of the letter are, it has aroused much fury from the San Francisco gay establishment, whose animus against Petrelis and Pasquarelli was what apparently prompted Hallinan to have the pair charged and arrested in the first place. On November 15 Martin Delaney of Project Inform, Mike Shriver of the mayor's office and fifteen others published a letter in the Bay Area Reporter urging people to pressure Hallinan, demanding "full prosecution of Pasquarelli, Petrelis and their collaborators."
Petrelis and Pasquarelli have a potent posse howling for their heads. "They fucked with the wrong people," said a health official quoted in the San Francisco Examiner on January 23. The "wrong people" include a broad swath of liberals and leftists in and out of government, the AIDS establishment and media figures.
Time was when a decent death threat used to be a badge of honor in the Fourth Estate. Jimmy Breslin recently recalled to Dobbs his glorious "Son of Sam" days, when violent threats were so routine at the New York Daily News that the paper's switchboard operator was wont to ask callers whether they were registering "general death threats" or "specific death threats for Mr. Breslin."
Granted, Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein is a terror survivor of "Attack by Lizard in the LA Zoo," and his wife, Sharon Stone, is the marquee celebrity for one of Petrelis's targets, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, but Bronstein should remember that Daily News phone operator and get off his high horse.
Hallinan's got a radical past and even radical pretensions. He knows as well as anyone that conspiracy charges have long been used to smash protest. And he knows as well as anyone that militant protest is at the cutting edge of social conscience. It's easy to grandstand about the foul tactics, the obscenities, the all-round vulgarity of Pasquarelli and Petrelis, but should this add up to a demand that they be thrown into prison for years? Of course it shouldn't. Judge Parker Meeks Jr. should resist the entreaties of the posse and cut the preposterous bail drastically or release them on their own recognizance. Hallinan should get his sense of perspective back, and drop the drastic charges.
The subtitle sounds bad, but keep in mind that Thorstein Veblen considered subtitling his book on academics "A Study in Total Depravity." The really bad news concerns the title: The term "public intellectual" is practically obsolete.
It's dying young. Although the subject of much hoo-ha lately, it has not been current for very long. Russell Jacoby popularized it in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Jacoby did not coin the term--he quoted C. Wright Mills using it in 1958--but he found a congenial semantic niche for it: to distinguish unaffiliated from college-based thinkers. In the old days, there wasn't any need to make the distinction, because the generation born in and around 1900 doubted that intellectual life could take place in academia. "To be an intellectual did not entail college teaching," Jacoby wrote of the era that formed Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson; "it was not a real possibility." By the time of Jacoby's book, however, contemplative lives were being led on campuses, or so it was claimed, and since the campuses had the dollars to back the claim, the old-fashioned independent intellectuals were marked with the delimiting adjective "public."
Now the adjective is about to disappear, because the independents are on the verge of losing even their right to the noun. In his new book, Richard Posner hints that there is today "a certain redundancy in the term 'public intellectual.'" One would expect Posner to be highly sensitive to the use of the term, because he lives the role it describes. Profiled in Lingua Franca and more recently in The New Yorker, and invited to post his diary on Slate, Posner is a judge on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, a founder of the field of law and economics, and the author of books on everything from the rational-choice theory of sex to the 2000 presidential election.
The term is redundant, Posner suggests, because an intellectual is by definition someone who addresses the public. Writing for fellow experts may take just as much brainpower but is merely academic. For practical reasons Posner is not concerned, as Jacoby was, with the brave last stand of independent thinkers. "There was a time when an intellectual could do as well (or rather no worse) for himself financially by writing books and articles as by being a professor," Posner writes. "That time is largely past. The opportunity cost of being an independent public intellectual has skyrocketed because of the greatly increased economic opportunities in the academic market." Nowadays the term "public intellectual" merely refers to an academic in his capacity as a moonlighter. The qualifier "public" is expendable once all intellectuals have day jobs.
In other words, the short lifespan of the term corresponds to the interval between the decline of "Intellectuals cannot be professors" and the rise of "All intellectuals are professors." About this transition Jacoby was wistful and, in a desperate, Gertrude-Stein-beckoning-the-Lost-Generation way, optimistic. "A specter haunts American universities or, at least, its faculties: boredom," Jacoby wrote, and he quoted a report that found "almost 40 percent [of professors] ready and willing to leave the academy." Posner, in contrast, is resigned and matter-of-fact. He knows the laws of economics. The marketplace of ideas, like other markets, results from the preferences and resources of those who participate in it. If 40 percent of professors say they want to leave the academy, they must have excellent reasons for staying. After all, if nothing were holding them back, their dissatisfaction would not show up in surveys of professors; they would not be professors.
The market has reasons that reason knows not of, and Posner is willing to respect them. "In the main we shall have to live with this slightly disreputable market," he writes. "But what else is new? We Feinschmeckers have to live with vulgarity in popular culture, the sight of overweight middle-aged men wearing shorts and baseball caps, weak coffee and the blare of the television set in every airport waiting lounge. It is doubtful that the public-intellectual market is a more debilitating or less intractable feature of contemporary American culture than these other affronts to the fastidious."
But although a monopoly by academics may be inevitable, Posner apprehends the mediocrity of it, acutely. "The disappointment lingers," he admits. In fact he was motivated to write this book by dismay at what his tenured peers had written and said about the impeachment of Clinton, the Microsoft antitrust case and the supposed moral decline of America. Their commentary seemed so shoddy and silly as to require an economic explanation.
How do you analyze the economics of something so airy? In fact, once Posner sets in, it turns out to be less airy than bloody. Much of the fun in reading Public Intellectuals consists of watching Posner triage the meats for his sausage.
You won't be put through his grinder just because you're smart and pop up in Nexis. Of Nation writers, Alexander Cockburn and Patricia Williams make his list, as do Victor Navasky and Katrina vanden Heuvel, but Christopher Hitchens inexplicably does not, even though Posner has a footnote to him. John Rawls is out--too, too academic.
Harvard's new president, Lawrence Summers, qualifies, just barely. Theodore Roosevelt, Newt Gingrich, Winston Churchill, Leonard Bernstein and William Sloane Coffin are excluded because they are better known for nonintellectual achievements. This caution is justified because intellectual celebrity is so easily dwarfed by other kinds. The intellectual most often mentioned in the media between 1995 and 2000 was Henry Kissinger, and yet the 12,570 allusions to him are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as the small dust on the balance beside Michael Jordan's 108,000.
Whether devised by art, science or expedience, the tallies and rankings are where most readers will start, and Posner has strategically placed them in the precise middle of his book, as far from either end as possible, for the same reason grocers put milk at the back of the store. "Consumer Reports does not evaluate public intellectuals," Posner observes, and people like to know the score. It is disconcerting to see Camille Paglia and Oliver Wendell Holmes nearly tied in a ranking by media mentions. It is suggestive that the intellectual most often cited in scholarly writing between 1995 and 2000 was Michel Foucault, and even more suggestive that Foucault's score is nearly twice that of the second-most-cited intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu. (Posner himself comes in tenth.)
Once the air of the horsetrack has dissipated, the reader turns to Posner's analysis. Here is the news, in summary:
If you are a public intellectual, your odds of being mentioned in the media improve if you are not an academic, are not dead, have served in government and are either a journalist or a writer.
At first glance this might look like good news. But the higher profile of nonacademics does not mean that the unaffiliated intellectual is alive and well. It means, rather, that those who have managed to become public intellectuals despite a lack of academic credentials tend to be mentioned more frequently than their academic peers. As time goes by, there are fewer such people. Of the 546 intellectuals in Posner's sample, 56 percent of the dead ones are academics, and 70 percent of the living ones. And as Posner deadpans, "Notice the high average age even of the living public intellectuals"--64 years old. Among actual young people, the rate of intellectual institutionalization is probably even higher.
"Media mentions come at the expense of scholarly citations (and vice versa)," Posner observes. "An academic who wants to succeed as a public intellectual might be well advised to substitute government service for additional scholarly publications!" But if it is posterity you hunger for, think carefully. In Posner's sample, being dead correlates well with scholarly citations, which suggests that "public-intellectual work is more ephemeral than scholarship." The correlation may, of course, suggest other inferences to less sanguine minds. So much for the facts. Although Posner is known as a pragmatist, the most provocative analysis in Public Intellectuals is actually of his own hunches and grudges, and of the social maps drawn by observers like Jacoby and Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks.
Posner thinks that public-intellectual work offers the consumer three goods: entertainment, solidarity and information. The consumer (and the magazine editor or television producer who procures on the consumer's behalf) can usually tell by inspection whether a commentary is entertaining and whether it reassures people that they are on the right team, be it of abortion-haters or deconstruction-defenders. In an age of specialized knowledge, however, only another expert can judge whether the information in a piece of commentary is worthwhile. Its value is what an economist would call a "credence good"; consumers have to take it on faith. By the time you figure out that there must have been a flaw somewhere in that September 1999 Atlantic Monthly article titled "Dow 36,000," it is too late to get your money back.
By now even the writers have been paid.
Most markets in credence goods correct for this uncertainty, in order to keep frustrated consumers from fleeing. Sellers may offer money-back guarantees, advertise heavily to signal long-term commitment to a product, cooperate with a third-party rating system, choose retailers who are reputed to be judicious gatekeepers or consent to government regulation. Even in the absence of any correctives, however, sellers usually refrain from offering egregiously low-quality products, because they want customers to buy from them again in the future. They are deterred by "the cost...of exit from the market."
The public-intellectual market deals in credence goods, but Posner fears that it may be suffering from market failure. Consumers trust periodicals and talk shows to act as filters, but they seem to be filtering for entertainment and solidarity rather than for information. More damaging, the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market is very low. No academic loses his job because he has made a fool of himself on the Op-Ed page. It has therefore become unwise for the consumer to believe public intellectuals. Posner likens them to palm readers: They claim to know the answers to vital questions, but the cost of figuring out whether they really do is prohibitive. The rational consumer responds by discounting the value of the information and consulting them merely for entertainment.
Why is the cost of exit from the public-intellectual market so low? For the simple reason that there is not much reward for entering it in the first place. Here economic analysis converges with traditional lament. The professors have ruined everything. They are obscurantist, pedantic, naïve, exaggerative of the reach of their expertise, theory-mad, timid toward anyone who might put a letter in their tenure file and intemperate toward everyone else, but the real problem is their free time. They have a lot of it, and they are willing to sacrifice almost any quantity to see their names in print. They are, in other words, cheap. They drag the supply curve downward on the dollar axis. The price of public-intellectual work drops, and more of it is produced.
With prices so low, unaffiliated intellectuals can no longer make a living. (At many periodicals, the payment for editorials and book reviews is lower than for other kinds of writing. This is not because they require less effort; it is because an academic can always be found to write them.) Absent a class of people whose livelihood depends on the market, an ethos of quality gives way to an ethos of tourism. "He is on holiday from the academic grind and all too often displays the irresponsibility of the holiday goer," Posner writes of the moonlighting professor. "Insulated from the retribution of disappointed consumers by virtue of being part-timers," academic intellectuals behave like movie-star politicians.
You're so vain, you probably think this book is about you, don't you? Public Intellectuals is a portmanteau book. The first part consists of the analysis of the public-intellectual market described above, but in the second, the reader is dropped into conversations whose beginnings he has not witnessed. Martha Nussbaum is wrong to think that the moral of The Golden Bowl is resignation to your husband's adultery. (Martha Nussbaum is here? In the room with us?) Wayne Booth's attempt to reconcile the aesthetic to the ethical is doomed. Aldous Huxley predicted the future better than George Orwell, but Orwell wrote a better novel. Robert Bork is disingenuous about so-called partial birth abortions. Gertrude Himmelfarb is unconvincing about the cultural metastasis of the naughty. Richard Rorty may be the heir to Socrates, Dewey and J.S. Mill, but he deploys a rhetoric that passed its freshness date sometime in the 1930s, and as for Martha Nussbaum--did I mention her already? The chapters are informative and at times highly entertaining ("The 'Ode on Melancholy' is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick," writes Posner, in a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered), but they are miscellaneous, and the reader senses that because of a wish to revisit old grudges--or recycle old articles--the tail is wagging the pig. In his conclusion, Posner returns to topic. Academia has diminished intellectual life, but rebellion is futile, because academia is what Tocqueville would call a soft tyranny. Like the Hand of God as described to me in Sunday school, it destroys not by striking the wicked but by releasing them into the danger they prefer, where they must write for in-flight magazines in order to pay their rent.
Accordingly, Posner offers extremely modest proposals for reform: He would like to encourage academics to post their public-intellectual work on websites, deposit printouts in libraries and disclose relevant earnings. He doesn't think the reforms will be adopted, because "the irresponsibility of public-intellectual work is one of the rewards of being a public intellectual." But even if Posner's suggestions were adopted, they would change nothing. The money involved is usually trivial, as he himself admits, and he has overestimated how hard it is to trace what an academic has said in public.
As near as I can tell, only one of Posner's suggestions has even the faintest chance of success: "One might hope that as a matter of self-respect the university community could be persuaded to create and support a journal that would monitor the public-intellectual activities of academics and be widely distributed both within and outside the community." Thus would specialized academics be matched by specialized journalists, and the failure of one market remedied by the development of another. Alas, Lingua Franca suspended publication in November.
"I stand before you today as a citizen of a country that has had nothing but disaster, war, brutality and deprivation against its people for many years," Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government in Afghanistan, told the conference of international donors in Tokyo. The representatives responded with pledges totaling more than $4.7 billion, over time spans ranging from a year to the next three to five years. That's a start, but much more will be needed--the United Nations estimates $15 billion over the next ten years--and we can only wait and see whether these promissory notes to a battered but resilient people will be redeemed in full.
The war, now winding down, that resulted in the ouster of the Taliban regime and the smashing of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan can be called a success in terms of the US-led coalition's initial goals, although Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar have eluded capture. But the war's effects on the Afghan people have not begun to be dealt with, and US strategies and objectives in the fight against terrorism it claims to lead remain ambiguous.
The US bombing campaign was ferociously effective against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the field, but was the civilian toll excessive? Official information is scanty, and independent investigations by human rights groups have not yet been made, but the question has to be asked: Was the utmost effort made to avoid civilian suffering, and was the cost in lives excessive in proportion to the goals of the war (see Howard Zinn on page 16)?
The tempest of high-tech ordnance loosed on the land drove thousands of Afghans from their homes, and many of them languish in refugee camps on the brink of starvation. The bombs halted humanitarian food deliveries, and only now are stockpiles being restored to normal levels. In the countryside and in cities like Kandahar and Jalalabad, deliveries of food, shelter and medicine are being stolen by resurgent warlords or armed gangs.
And then there is the deadly legacy of mines and unexploded bombs from years of warfare. According to a UN report, "Afghanistan is the most mine- and unexploded ordnance (UXO) affected country in the world." A massive cleanup effort is under way, but it will be months or years before roads and fields will be cleared for normal agriculture and commerce.
Much of Afghanistan's plight is the culmination of twenty years of war, three years of drought and the destructive policies of the Taliban's repressive theocracy. The cold statistics give a bare sketch of a nation in ruins: Life expectancy, forty-four years; one in four children dies before age 5; one in twelve women dies in childbirth; only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are in school; scarcely a quarter of the population has access to potable water and one in eight to sanitation; electricity consumption is about the lowest in the world; there are two telephones per 1,000 people (compared with twenty-four per 1,000 in Pakistan and sixty-eight per 1,000 in Uzbekistan).
The interim government desperately needs immediate infusions of cash to pay civil servants, who have gone unpaid for months, and to recruit more teachers and police. Kabul has only 100 trained policemen, and the rate of murder and theft is on the rise. Daily life in the capital has returned to a semblance of normality, but armed Northern Alliance fighters commit theft and extortion, while other cities and large stretches of the countryside are ruled by bandits and warlords. Some 700,000 fighters are at large.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has reiterated the US commitment to remain engaged with Afghanistan, but as UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's spokesman said in response to Powell's speech in Kabul, "Reassurance is good. Cash is better." Aid funds pledged must be delivered quickly; beyond that, a rich country like America should be providing leadership in the financial arena. A dependable flow of money and technical assistance must last for the next decade.
The mission of the US military in Afghanistan should expand to include shoring up the frail Karzai government, helping it to restore security, to provide for the welfare of the people and to enlist the support of the fractious ethnic groups for the Loya Jirga to convene in June to set up a provisional government. Largely at US behest, the role of the international security force has been confined to Kabul. But if the interim government and its successor are to extend their writ over the entire country, they'll need a strong army and a police force. In this effort the international security force will be an essential player, and the United States should give it robust support.
The work in Afghanistan won't be finished until the international community is fully engaged in helping Afghanistan build a government that can provide the security the people crave. Immediate steps that need to be taken include integrating idle armed fighters into a national army and disarming and providing work for the rest of the 700,000 armed men who have no jobs and who are rapidly becoming part of the security problem. (And jobs must be created for millions of newly liberated women.) The country is awash in guns, and the UN Development Program has launched a campaign to reduce their number. The United States could help by supplying money to buy these weapons and even to bribe warlords and would-be drug lords into supporting the government.
Of course, the flow of aid money must be monitored to avoid corrupt diversions. And as Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation has recently pointed out, competition among international donor groups should be curbed; money should be channeled through representatives of the Afghan people so that it does not become, as Rubin writes, "simply a new political currency to be fought over by warlords, who will play one aid agency against another and all of them against the central government."
Achieving stability--preventing Afghanistan from reverting to anarchy, violence, terrorism and drug running--must be the top priority of the US government. The war in Afghanistan should not be adopted as a template for future military actions elsewhere, as the right-wing warriors in Rumsfeld's Defense Department contemplate. The conditions that brought military success in Afghanistan cannot be replicated in countries like Iraq, Somalia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Nor should they be. And rather than base-building in neighboring countries--where US support for dictators could breed even more anti-American resentment--Washington should focus on nation-building in Afghanistan.
For the terrorist threat must not be considered solely a military problem. The "enemy" is too scattered, too amorphous. The struggle against terrorism must become a cooperative global intelligence and law-enforcement campaign, with a strong UN presence. Rather than being a pretext for an expensive military buildup that wastes funds better spent on social welfare, this campaign should incorporate international economic development efforts aimed at killing the roots of terrorism--poverty and alienation. It must also include diplomatic outreach that rises above realpolitik and economic interest to oppose obsolete oligarchies and support democratic movements worldwide. And Washington must work through international bodies so that legitimate self-defense is not seen as a US war on the Arab world.
The Bush Administration's policies have been less than heartening thus far. Despite a few humanitarian commitments of hard cash, this Administration is congenitally skewed toward nationalism and unilateralism. Its inclination is to withdraw into fortress America, the latest example being the cruel treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners now caged at Guantánamo naval base, which has set off a furor abroad and further alienates the Arab world. The Pentagon categorizes them as "unlawful combatants" so they can be sequestered, interrogated and possibly tried before military tribunals. According to the Third Geneva Convention, if there is a dispute about soldiers' prisoner-of-war status, a "competent tribunal" should determine it.
America's most effective weapon in the fight against terrorism is our democratic and juridical ideals. Our foreign policy should, above all, be grounded in those ideals and be a bedrock for human rights.
To the economy, September 11 now appears to have been a transient shock. Sales, confidence and the stock market plunged, but then returned. As the dead cat bounced, optimists declared recovery to be near. The so-called stimulus package died. And so we now face a classic test of the predominant economics: Either recovery will happen, or it won't.
I'm betting against it. For the aftermath of September 11 also boosted the economy in several equally transient ways. Lower interest rates spurred mortgage refinancing. The tax rebates added to personal income and savings. Oil prices fell sharply. Good weather extended the building season. And the automakers took heroic losses to clear their inventories, as did retailers at Christmas. All of this, so to say, fanned the embers. None of it provided new fuel.
Meanwhile, larger depressive forces remain in place. Investment continues to fall; unused capacity continues to rise. The automakers are shutting down and laying off. Consumer spending has slowed. Exports slump as recession deepens around the world. Enormous deficits are opening in state and local budgets, with spending cuts or tax increases already estimated at nearly $100 billion for next year. About 8 million Americans are jobless now, 2.5 million more than a year ago.
Last year's tax cut was supposed to keep America growing. It failed. The Republican goal remains, naturally, to get another tax cut. This is not really economic policy, merely another tactical variation on a permanent agenda. Call it ripoff as a philosophy. Enron writ large.
Democratic strategy has been to help the wounded and hope for the best. Extended unemployment insurance and healthcare would be useful. But they're not enough. Democrats are having trouble leaving their illusions--budget surpluses, debt reduction, "fiscal responsibility." In truth, budget deficits are normal. Right now large budget deficits are necessary. The job is to end the recession, to restore full employment, to recreate conditions for growth. If small steps won't achieve this, large ones are demanded.
Alan Greenspan, meanwhile, has lost relevance. He may cut interest rates some more. It won't hurt, but it won't give us recovery. "Pushing on a string," they used to call it. Business investment won't return until profits do, and that won't happen until consumers have paid down some of their debt. That will take time--maybe a lot of time.
What, then, are the choices? Just two. Temporary, progressive tax cuts may still be considered. One might extend the earned-income tax credit or roll back payroll taxes for three years--meanwhile freezing the 2001 tax cut at present levels in order to reimburse the Social Security trust fund. That would be useful, but the effect would be limited by the need of households to raise their savings and reduce their debts. Half of last year's rebates were saved, not spent. Even good tax cuts would now face the same problem. The egregious 2001 tax cut, meanwhile, should be frozen at current levels, partly to reimburse the Social Security trust fund.
The other choice is: Increase public spending. All now agree that spending, in general, is needed. It follows that if households won't, government must. We need spending not just to provide a temporary boost but to sustain activity until the private sector is ready to spend again. This is the time for schools, transportation systems, housing, the environment, a real energy policy based on conservation and mass transit to cut our dependence on oil, and prescription drug benefits. Why not a new home-health-aide program for seniors? There's work to do. There are people to work. Bring them together!
The most immediate crisis, deserving attention before any other, is in the states and cities. State and local budgets should not be cut. But how to prevent this? By recreating a revenue sharing program for the states, with a pass-through to cities, on a scale sufficient to plug the budget gaps. How much? Let's say $100 billion in the first year. Pass it with very few strings, as a block grant, and get past the Washington gridlock. Revenue sharing has Republican lineage; it ought to be a bipartisan cause today. The federal government should also make it easier for states to borrow in support of their capital programs.
This slump may well get much worse before it gets any better. Accordingly, we must save ourselves. There is no danger in doing too much. This is not a moment for caution. It is not a moment for faith. It is a moment, surely, for action.
The first time that Agha Shahid Ali, the great Kashmiri poet, spoke to me about his approaching death was in April of last year. The conversation began routinely. I had telephoned to remind him that we had been invited to a friend's house for lunch and that I was going to come by his apartment to pick him up. Although he had been under treatment for brain cancer for some fourteen months, Shahid was still on his feet and perfectly lucid, except for occasional lapses of memory. I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: "Oh dear. I can't see a thing." There was a brief pause and then he added: "I hope this doesn't mean that I'm dying..."
Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the past many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. His voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: "No, Shahid--of course not. You'll be fine." He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: "When it happens I hope you'll write something about me."
I was shocked into silence, and a long moment passed before I could bring myself to say the things that people say on such occasions: "Shahid, you'll be fine; you have to be strong..." From the window of my study I could see a corner of the building in which he lived, some eight blocks away, where he'd moved to be near his sister, Sameetah, after learning of his tumor. Shahid ignored my reassurances. He began to laugh, and it was then that I realized that he was dead serious.
"You must write about me," he said.
By the end of the conversation I knew exactly what I had to do. I picked up my pen, noted the date and wrote down everything I remembered of that conversation. This I continued to do for the next few months: It is the record that has made it possible for me to fulfill the pledge I made that day.
I knew Shahid's work long before I met him. His 1997 collection, The Country Without a Post Office, made a powerful impression on me. His voice was like none I had heard before, at once lyrical and fiercely disciplined, engaged and yet deeply inward. Not for him the mock-casual almost-prose of so much contemporary poetry: His was a voice that was not ashamed to speak in a bardic register. I could think of no one else who would even conceive of publishing a line like: "Mad heart, be brave."
In 1998 I quoted a line from The Country Without a Post Office in an article that touched briefly on Kashmir. At the time all I knew about Shahid was that he was from Srinagar and had studied in Delhi. We had friends in common, however, and one of them put me in touch with Shahid. But we were little more than acquaintances when he moved to Brooklyn. Once we were in the same neighborhood, we began to meet for occasional meals and quickly discovered that we had a great deal in common. By this time, of course, Shahid's condition was already serious, yet his illness did not impede the progress of our friendship. And because of Shahid's condition even the most trivial exchanges had a special charge and urgency: The inescapable poignance of talking about food and half-forgotten figures from the past with a man who knew himself to be dying was multiplied in this instance by the knowledge that this man was also a poet who had achieved greatness--perhaps the only such that I shall ever know as a friend. He had a sorcerer's ability to transmute the mundane into the magical.
Shahid was legendary for his gregariousness and his prowess in the kitchen, frequently spending days over the planning and preparation of a dinner party. It was through one such party, given while he was in Arizona, that he met James Merrill, the poet who was to radically alter the direction of his poetry: It was after this encounter that he began to experiment with strict metrical patterns and verse forms such as the canzone and the sestina. No one had a greater influence on Shahid's poetry than James Merrill: Indeed, in the poem in which he most explicitly prefigured his own death, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," he awarded the envoy to Merrill: "SHAHID, HUSH. THIS IS ME, JAMES. THE LOVED ONE ALWAYS LEAVES." Merrill loved Shahid's cooking, and on learning that Shahid was moving to upstate New York, he gave him his telephone number and asked Shahid to call. On the occasion of Shahid's first reading at the Academy of American Poets, Merrill was present: a signal honor considering that he is one of America's best-known poets. "Afterwards," Shahid liked to recall, "everybody rushed up and said, 'Did you know that Jim Merrill was here?' My stock in New York went up a thousandfold that evening."
Shahid placed great store on authenticity and exactitude in cooking and would tolerate no deviation from traditional methods and recipes. He had a special passion for "Kashmiri food in the Pandit style." I asked him once why this was so important to him and he explained that it was because of a recurrent dream, in which all the Hindus had vanished from the valley of Kashmir and their food had become extinct. This was a nightmare that haunted him, and he returned to it again and again, in his conversation and his poetry.
At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me:
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory...
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to
There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
This was at a time when his illness had forced him into spending long periods in bed. He was on his back, shielding his eyes with his fingers. Suddenly he sat up. "I wish all this had not happened," he said. "This dividing of the country, the divisions between people--Hindu, Muslim, Muslim, Hindu--you can't imagine how much I hate it. It makes me sick. What I say is: Why can't you be happy with the cuisines and the clothes and the music and all these wonderful things?" He paused and added softly, "At least here we have been able to make a space where we can all come together because of the good things."
Of the many "good things" in which he took pleasure, none was more dear to him than the music of Begum Akhtar. He met the great ghazal singer when he was in his teens, through a friend, and she became an abiding presence and influence in his life. In his apartment there were several shrinelike niches that were filled with pictures of the people he worshiped: Begum Akhtar was one of these, along with his father, his mother and James Merrill. "I loved Begum Akhtar," he told me once. "In other circumstances you could have said that it was a sexual kind of love--but I don't know what it was. I loved to listen to her, I loved to be with her, I couldn't bear to be away from her. You can imagine what it was like. Here I was in my mid-teens--just 16--and I couldn't bear to be away from her." It was probably this relationship with Begum Akhtar that engendered his passion for the ghazal as a verse form. Always the disciplinarian in such matters, he believed that the ghazal would never flourish if its structure were not given due respect: "Some rules of the ghazal are clear and classically stringent. The opening couplet (called matla) sets up a scheme (of rhyme--called qafia; and refrain--called radif) by having it occur in both lines--the rhyme immediately preceding the refrain--and then this scheme occurs only in the second line of each succeeding couplet. That is, once a poet establishes the scheme--with total freedom, I might add--she or he becomes its slave. What results in the rest of the poem is the alluring tension of a slave trying to master the master." Over a period of several years he took it upon himself to solicit ghazals from poets writing in English. The resulting collection, Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, was published in 2000. In establishing a benchmark for the form it has already begun to exert a powerful influence: The formalization of the ghazal may well prove to be Shahid's most important scholarly contribution to the canon of English poetry. His own summation of the project was this: "If one writes in free verse--and one should--to subvert Western civilization, surely one should write in forms to save oneself from Western civilization?"
For Shahid, Begum Akhtar was the embodiment of one such form, not just in her music but in many other aspects of her being. An aspect of the ghazal that he greatly prized was the latitude it provided for wordplay, wit and nakhra (affectation). Begum Akhtar was a consummate master of all these, and Shahid had a fund of stories about her sharpness in repartee. He was himself no mean practitioner of that art. On one occasion, at the Barcelona airport, he was stopped by a security guard just as he was about to board a plane. The guard, a woman, asked: "What do you do?"
"I'm a poet," Shahid answered.
"What were you doing in Spain?"
No matter the question, Shahid worked poetry into his answer. Finally, the exasperated woman asked: "Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous to the other passengers?" At this Shahid clapped a hand to his chest and cried: "Only my heart."
This was one of his great Wildean moments, and it was to occasion the poem "Barcelona Airport." He treasured these moments, and last May I had the good fortune to be with him when one such opportunity presented itself. Shahid was teaching what turned out to be the last class he ever would. I had heard a great deal about the brilliance of his teaching, and it was evident from the moment we walked in that the students adored him: They had printed a magazine and dedicated the issue to him. Shahid, for his part, was not in the least subdued by the sadness of the occasion. From beginning to end, he was a sparkling diva, Akhtar incarnate, brimming with laughter and nakhra.
Toward the end of the class, a student asked a complicated question about the difference between plausibility and inevitability in a poem. Shahid's eyebrows arched higher and higher as he listened. At last, unable to contain himself, he broke in. "Oh you're such a naughty boy," he cried, tapping the table with his fingertips. "You always turn everything into an abstraction."
But Begum Akhtar was not all wit and nakhra: Indeed, the strongest bond between Shahid and her was, I suspect, the idea that sorrow has no finer mask than a studied lightness of manner. Shahid often told a story about Begum Akhtar's marriage: Although her family's origins were dubious, her fame as a beauty was such that she received a proposal from the scion of a prominent Muslim family of Lucknow. The proposal came with the condition that the talented young singer would give up singing: The man's family was deeply conservative and could not conceive of one of its members performing onstage. Begum Akhtar--or Akhtaribai Faizabadi, as she was then--accepted, but soon afterward her mother died. Heartbroken, Akhtaribai spent her days weeping on her grave. Her condition became such that a doctor had to be brought in to examine her. He said that if she were not allowed to sing she would lose her mind: It was only then that her husband's family relented and allowed her to sing again.
Shahid was haunted by this image of Begum Akhtar as a bereaved and inconsolable daughter, weeping on her mother's grave; it is in this grief-stricken aspect that she is evoked again and again in his poems. The poem that was his farewell to the world, "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World," opens with an evocation of Begum Akhtar:
A night of ghazals comes to an end. The singer
departs through her chosen mirror, her one diamond
cut on her countless necks. I, as ever, linger
Shahid's father's family was from Srinagar and they were Shia, a minority among the Muslims of Kashmir. When Shahid was 12, the family moved to Indiana (his father was getting a PhD), and for three years he attended school in Muncie. After that they moved back to Srinagar, which is where Shahid completed his schooling; it was that early experience, I suspect, that allowed Shahid to take America so completely in his stride when he arrived as a graduate student years later. The idea of a cultural divide or conflict had no purchase in his mind: America and India were the two poles of his life, and he was at home in both in a way that was utterly easeful and unproblematic.
After 1975, when he moved to Pennsylvania, Shahid lived mainly in America. His brother was already here, and they were later joined by their two sisters. But Shahid's parents continued to live in Srinagar, and it was his custom to spend the summer months with them: "I always move in my heart between sad countries." Traveling between the United States and India he was thus an intermittent but firsthand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onward:
It was '89, the stones were not far, signs of change
everywhere (Kashmir would soon be in literal
The steady deterioration of the political situation in Kashmir--the violence and counterviolence--had a powerful effect on him. In time it became one of the central subjects of his work: Indeed, it could be said that it was in writing of Kashmir that he created his finest work. The irony of this is that Shahid was not by inclination a political poet. I heard him say once: "If you are from a difficult place and that's all you have to write about then you should stop writing. You have to respect your art, your form--that is just as important as what you write about." Another time, I was present at Shahid's apartment when his longtime friend Patricia O'Neill showed him a couple of sonnets written by a Victorian poet. The poems were political, trenchant in their criticism of Britain for its failure to prevent the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey. Shahid glanced at them and tossed them offhandedly aside: "These are terrible poems." Patricia asked why, and he said: "Look, I already know where I stand on the massacre of the Armenians. Of course I am against it. But this poem tells me nothing of the massacre; it makes nothing of it formally. I might as well just read a news report."
Anguished as he was about Kashmir's destiny, Shahid resolutely refused to embrace the role of victim that could so easily have been his. Had he done so, he could no doubt have easily become a fixture on talk shows, news programs and Op-Ed pages. But Shahid never had any doubt about his calling: He was a poet, schooled in the fierce and unforgiving arts of language. He had no taste for political punditry.
Such as they were, Shahid's political views were inherited largely from his father, whose beliefs were akin to those of most secular, left-leaning Muslim intellectuals of the Nehruvian era. Although respectful of religion, he remained a firm believer in the separation of politics and religious practice.
Once, when Shahid was at dinner with my family, I asked him bluntly: "What do you think is the solution for Kashmir?" His answer was: "I think ideally the best solution would be absolute autonomy within the Indian Union in the broadest sense." But this led almost immediately to the enumeration of a long list of caveats and reservations: Quite possibly, he said, such a solution was no longer possible, given the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir; the extremist groups would never accept the autonomy solution in any case, and so many other complications had entered the situation that it was almost impossible to think of a solution.
The truth is that Shahid's gaze was not political in the sense of being framed in terms of policy and solutions. In the broadest sense, his vision tended always toward the inclusive and ecumenical, an outlook that he credited to his upbringing. He spoke often of a time in his childhood when he had been seized by the desire to create a small Hindu temple in his room in Srinagar. He was initially hesitant to tell his parents, but when he did they responded with an enthusiasm equal to his own. His mother bought him murtis and other accoutrements, and for a while he was assiduous in conducting pujas at this shrine. This was a favorite story. "Whenever people talk to me about Muslim fanaticism," he said to me once, "I tell them how my mother helped me make a temple in my room. What do you make of that? I ask them." There is a touching evocation of this in his poem, "Lenox Hill": "and I, one festival, crowned Krishna by you, Kashmir/listening to my flute."
I once remarked to Shahid that he was the closest that Kashmir had to a national poet. He shot back: "A national poet, maybe. But not a nationalist poet; please not that." If anything, Kashmir's current plight represented for him the failure of the emancipatory promise of nationhood. In the title poem of The Country Without a Post Office, a poet returns to Kashmir to find the keeper of a fallen minaret:
"Nothing will remain, everything's finished,"
I see his voice again: "This is a shrine
of words. You'll find your letters to me. And mine
to you. Come soon and tear open these vanished
This is an archive. I've found the remains
of his voice, that map of longings with no limit.
The pessimism engendered by the loss of these ideals--that map of longings with no limit--resulted in a vision in which, increasingly, Kashmir became a vortex of images circling around a single point of stillness: the idea of death. In this figuring of his homeland, he himself became one of the images that were spinning around the dark point of stillness--both Sháhid and Shahíd, witness and martyr--his destiny inextricably linked with Kashmir's, each prefigured by the other.
I will die, in autumn, in Kashmir,
and the shadowed routine of each vein
will almost be news, the blood censored,
for the Saffron Sun and the Times of Rain....
Among my notes is a record of a telephone conversation last May 5. He'd had a brain scan the day before that would determine the future course of treatment. When he answered, there were no preambles. He said: "Listen Amitav, the news is not good at all. Basically they are going to stop all my medicines now--the chemotherapy and so on. They give me a year or less."
Dazed, staring blankly at my desk, I said: "What will you do now, Shahid?"
"I would like to go back to Kashmir to die." His voice was quiet and untroubled. "It's still such a feudal system there, and there will be so much support--and my father is there, too. Anyway, I don't want my siblings to have to make the journey afterwards, like we had to with my mother."
Later, for logistical and other reasons, he changed his mind about returning to Kashmir: He was content to be laid to rest in Northampton, Massachusetts, in the vicinity of Amherst, a town sacred to the memory of his beloved Emily Dickinson. But I do not think it was an accident that his mind turned to Kashmir in speaking of death. Already, in his poetic imagery, death, Kashmir and Sháhid/Shahíd had become so closely overlaid as to be inseparable, like old photographs that have melted together in the rain.
Yes, I remember it,
the day I'll die, I broadcast the crimson,
so long ago of that sky, its spread air,
its rushing dyes, and a piece of earth
bleeding, apart from the shore, as we went
on the day I'll die, past the guards, and he,
keeper of the world's last saffron, rowed me
on an island the size of a grave. On
two yards he rowed me into the sunset,
past all pain. On everyone's lips was news
of my death but only that beloved couplet,
broken, on his:
"If there is a paradise on earth
It is this, it is this, it is this."
Shahid's mother, Sufia Nomani, was from Rudauli in Uttar Pradesh. She was descended from a family that was well-known for its Sufi heritage. Shahid believed that this connection influenced her life in many intangible ways. "She had the grandeur of a Sufi," he liked to say.
Although Shahid's parents lived in Srinagar, they usually spent the winter months in their flat in New Delhi. It was there that his mother had her first seizure--from what would prove to be a malignant brain tumor. The family brought her to New York, where an operation resulted in her partial paralysis. Shahid and his siblings moved her to Massachusetts, where they were living. When she died two years later, in keeping with her wishes, the family took her body back to Kashmir for burial. This long and traumatic journey forms the subject of a cycle of poems, "From Amherst to Kashmir," that was later included in Shahid's 2001 collection, Rooms Are Never Finished.
During the last phase of his mother's illness and for several months afterward, Shahid was unable to write. The dry spell was broken in 1998, with "Lenox Hill," possibly his greatest poem. The poem was a canzone, a form of unusual rigor and difficulty (the poet Anthony Hecht once remarked that Shahid deserved to be in Guinness Book of World Records for having written three canzones--more than any other poet). In "Lenox Hill," the architectonics of the form creates a soaring superstructure, an immense domed enclosure, like that of the great mosque of Isfahan or the mausoleum of Sayyida Zainab in Cairo: a space that seems all the more vast because of the austerity of its proportions. The rhymes and half-rhymes are the honeycombed arches that thrust the dome toward the heavens, and the meter is the mosaic that holds the whole in place. Within the immensity of this bounded space, every line throws open a window that beams a shaft of light across continents, from Amherst to Kashmir, from the hospital of Lenox Hill to the Pir Panjal Pass. Entombed at the center of this soaring edifice lies his mother:
they asked me, So how's the writing? I answered My mother
is my poem. What did they expect? For no verse
sufficed except the promise, fading, of Kashmir
and the cries that reached you from the cliffs of Kashmir
(across fifteen centuries) in the hospital. Kashmir,
she's dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst.
The poem is packed with the devices that he perfected over a lifetime: rhetorical questions, imperative commands, lines broken or punctuated to create resonant and unresolvable ambiguities. It ends, characteristically, with a turn that is at once disingenuous and wrenchingly direct.
For compared to my grief for you, what are those of Kashmir,
and what (I close the ledger) are the griefs of the universe
when I remember you--beyond all accounting--O my mother?
For Shahid, the passage of time produced no cushioning from the shock of the loss of his mother: He relived it over and over again until the end. The week before his death, on waking one morning, he asked his family where his mother was and whether it was true that she was dead. On being told that she was, he wept as though he were living afresh through the event.
In the penultimate stanza of "Lenox Hill," in a heart-stopping inversion, Shahid figures himself as his mother's mother:
"As you sit here by me, you're just like my mother,"
she tells me. I imagine her: a bride in Kashmir,
she's watching, at the Regal, her first film with Father.
If only I could gather you in my arms, Mother,
I'd save you--now my daughter--from God. The universe
opens its ledger. I write: How helpless was God's mother!
I remember clearly the evening when Shahid read this poem in the living room of my house. I remember it because I could not keep myself from wondering whether it was possible that Shahid's identification with his mother was so powerful as to spill beyond the spirit and into the body. Brain cancer is not, so far as I know, a hereditary disease, yet his body had, as it were, elected to reproduce the conditions of his mother's death. But how could this be possible? Even the thought appears preposterous in the bleak light of the Aristotelian distinction between mind and body, and the notions of cause and effect that flow from it. Yet there are traditions in which poetry is a world of causality entire unto itself, where metaphor extends beyond the mere linking of words, into the conjugation of a distinctive reality.
Shahid thought of his work as being placed squarely within a modern Western tradition. Yet the mechanics of his imagination--dreams, visions, an overpowering sense of identity with those he loved--as well as his life, and perhaps even his death, were fashioned by a will that owed more perhaps to the Sufis and the Bhakti poets than to the Modernists. In his determination to be not just a writer of poetry but an embodiment of his poetic vision, he was, I think, more the heir of Rumi and Kabir than Eliot and Merrill.
The last time I saw Shahid was at the end of October, at his brother's house in Amherst. He was intermittently able to converse, and there were moments when we talked just as we had in the past. He was aware, as he had long been, of his approaching end, and he had made his peace with it. I saw no trace of anguish or conflict: Surrounded by the love of his family and friends, he was calm, contented, at peace. He had said to me once, "I love to think that I'll meet my mother in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife." I had the sense that as the end neared, this was his supreme consolation. He died peacefully, in his sleep, at 2 AM on December 8.
Now, in his absence, I am amazed that so brief a friendship has resulted in so vast a void. Often, when I walk into my living room, I remember his presence there, particularly on the night when he read us his farewell to the world: "I Dream I Am at the Ghat of the Only World." I remember how he created a vision of an evening of ghazals, drawing to its end; of the be-diamonded singer vanishing through a mirror; I remember him evoking the voices he loved--of Begum Akhtar, Eqbal Ahmad and James Merrill--urging him on as he journeys toward his mother: "Love doesn't help anyone finally survive." Shahid knew exactly how it would end, and he was meticulous in saying his farewells, careful in crafting the envoy to the last verses of his own life.
Questions about Enron's links to the White House and Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force are reassuring. They mean that the nation, after the September 11 attacks, is now confident enough to focus on some of the more traditional threats to our democracy, like the corporate takeover of our political system.
Following the release of the White House energy plan last year, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) demanded the Energy Task Force's records, including any interactions with major Bush campaign donors like Enron's Ken Lay. The Vice President's office refused to release the documents, claiming that Congress was exceeding its oversight authority. One of the oil and gas men whose privacy the White House wants to protect is Cheney himself, who in 1999, as CEO of Halliburton, was a member of the Petroleum Council, an advisory group to the Energy Department. The council issued a report calling for the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and of roadless areas of the West to fossil fuel exploitation, proposals incorporated into the White House plan.
The GAO was preparing to sue for the first time in its eighty-year history when the terrorists struck. It then put its suit on hold so it could focus on "homeland security" and let the White House do the same. With the collapse of Enron and the beginning of Congressional hearings on the largest bankruptcy in US history, that holding pattern appears to be ending.
Still, even as environmental groups backed away from criticizing the President after September 11, the White House continued to push its "free market" environmental agenda. This past October, Interior Secretary Gale Norton had to explain why she'd altered scientific data, in a letter to the Senate, to make it appear that oil operations in the Arctic would not harm hundreds of thousands of migratory caribou, when in fact her own Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had provided her with data suggesting it would. "We did make a mistake. We will take steps to clarify and correct that," she told reporters in explaining one of the many discrepancies in her letter.
Norton has also concluded that drilling in the Arctic won't violate an international treaty that protects polar bears. The FWS, which has twice issued reports stating that drilling poses a threat to the bears, was directed to "correct these inconsistencies" with Norton's position. Polar bears can live with oil drilling, the FWS now tells us. They'll just look more like panda bears.
Ten years after President Bush Sr. pledged "no net loss of wetlands," George W. has signed off on an Army Corps of Engineers proposal that will make it easier for developers and mining companies to dredge and fill America's vital wetlands through a "general permitting" process that is rarely if ever challenged. Again, Norton failed to forward comments from her FWS to the corps, even though the FWS had written that the proposed policy change would result in "tremendous destruction of aquatic and terrestrial habitat."
Among the beneficiaries of the new engineer corps rules will be mining companies involved in "mountaintop removal" in Appalachia. J. Steven Griles, Norton's deputy, was a longtime mining lobbyist, and Norton herself lobbied for the lead industry.
Over at the EPA Christie Whitman won greenie points when she ordered GE to begin dredging PCBs out of the Hudson River. At the same time, the EPA has begun moving top career people (from the office of wetlands, enforcement, etc.) around the agency in a strange reorganization no one quite understands. "Are they purposely designing this to hamstring EPA for the next twenty years?" wonders a career employee who also complains that enforcement actions (as opposed to industry-friendly out-of-court settlements) are down significantly in the past year.
Under White House and lobbyist pressure, the EPA is also getting ready to relax clean air standards (that, as governor of New Jersey, Whitman supported) requiring old coal-fired power plants to shut down or significantly reduce gaseous emissions that contribute to acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Even Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham's recent Detroit auto show announcement that the government will work with the auto industry to develop pollution-free hydrogen-fuel-cell cars got mixed reactions. That's because he used the announcement to abandon a program aimed at improving existing auto fuel-efficiency standards. As usual, most of these environmental policy decisions are rife with corporate conflicts of interest, but conflicts that in recent months have gotten even less media attention than they normally would.
In her public appearances Whitman now emphasizes the need to protect America's water supply from terrorists (if not arsenic). Norton has been pushing the argument that drilling in ANWR can provide as much oil as we import from Iraq in eighty years (or the oily equivalent of sixteen years of Cheney's diet), and President Bush insists that Arctic drilling will make us "more secure at home." If nothing else, America's new "war on terrorism" is helping the Bush White House in its old war on the environment.
WHO'S A LIAR?
In a paid ad on page 12 Verso asks the question "Did the Holocaust industry's lead attorney, Burt Neuborne, lie in The Nation?" Our advertising policy carries a presumption in favor of publishing ads with which the editors disagree, but the magazine reserves the right to disagree with those ads. So the answer to Verso's question is a resounding No. Decide for yourself by reading the December 18 and 25, 2000, Nation Letters pages.
KEN LAY'S GOOD WORKS
Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron leader, hobnobbed with and contributed not only to politicians but to think tanks. He was a board member and funder of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (where Second Lady Lynne Cheney is a fellow). And he had the same relationship with Resources for the Future, a corporate-backed group researching environmental and natural resources issues. Last spring, after Lay agreed to finance a chair at RFF, its president, Paul Portney, gushed, "In his role as chairman of Enron Corp., Ken Lay has almost singlehandedly made the world rethink what it means to be a modern energy company." Lay's gift to RFF, according to the group's newsletter, was to underwrite research "to improve the way decisionmakers consider important issues on the top of the nation's policy agenda." Well, he has been an expert at winning the attention of government decision-makers--whether through doling out loads of money or getting caught overseeing a pyramid scheme that triggers a mega-bankruptcy.
THE PRETZEL AFFAIR
George Bush's alimentary struggle with a pretzel provoked heavy-duty punditry abroad, according to the Los Angeles Times. Here is a sampler of quotes from the foreign press: Daily Telegraph (UK): "Has the stress of fighting the war on terrorism while fending off inquiries about the collapse of his friend Ken Lay's Enron overwhelmed him?" Bild (Germany): "Has the president's alcohol problem been taken up again?" Arab News (Saudi Arabia): "If, however, Bush's unusual collapse is a symptom of more serious medical problems, we can be absolutely sure that, lacking any clear direction from a troubled White House, Washington's foreign policy will click back on its traditional Zionist track. Palestinians will continue to choke on Israeli aggression while the US president may again choke on a typical Yiddish pretzel." Le Progrès (France): "This shows that the most powerful man on Earth is, above all, a man. And as a man, he is in danger of digging his grave with his teeth.... Especially when he comes from a society that obviously has a complicated relationship with food."Gazeta (Russia): "Bush's organism, although weakened and unconscious... rejected the pretzel but later swallowed it and digested without mercy."
NAFTA AND DEMOCRACY
Bill Moyers Reports will examine how an obscure provision of NAFTA is allowing multinational corporations to sue governments over laws that threaten their profits in "Trading Democracy," set to air February 5 on PBS (10 pm Eastern Standard Time, check local listings). The program features an interview with Nation national affairs correspondent William Greider, whose investigation of the same topic appeared in these pages ("The Right and US Trade Law," October 15, 2001).
The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Center for National Security Studies and the ACLU against the Justice Department on behalf of a number of organizations, including The Nation, has already borne fruit. The suit calls on the department to release information on the thousand-plus foreign nationals who were detained by the government after the September 11 attack, including all their names. In the Justice Department's reply to the suit in early January, it disclosed that of some 725 people detained on immigration charges during the post-September 11 dragnet, many were held for a week or more without any charges being brought against them. But Justice's information release did not identify those detained, and the lawsuit continues.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Robert L. Bartley in the Wall Street Journal: "The real answer to Enron is likely to be found in, say, the little sermons on vice and virtue that make William J. Bennett so tiresome to our I'm OK, you're OK sophisticates." OK, Bob, if you say so.
IN COLD TYPE
This week's issue brings the debut of what will be a monthly report by contributing editor Amy Wilentz. "In Cold Type" (see page 37) will be an eclectic look at what's notable in the world of periodicals, whether in print or online.
You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.
Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.
Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.
"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.
But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.
West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.
Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.
Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.
Mahmoud Darwish burst on the Arab poetic scene in the mid-1960s with the publication in Beirut of poems written while he was living in Haifa, Israel, and working as a translator and editor for the Israeli Communist Party, Rakah. As Munir Akash points out in his introduction to this volume of selections from Darwish's recent work, with their fiery intensity and assuredness, the early poems touched a raw nerve in Arab readers. In a matter of a few years Darwish had become the most vocal and eloquent poetic spokesman of the Palestinians, and the foremost practitioner of what had come to be known as "the poetry of resistance."
Among poets writing in Arabic today, in fact, Darwish is the most widely translated. His work has made a home for itself in more than twenty-two languages, the bulk of it in some twenty books in French, which are bestsellers. By contrast, English has so far been less receptive to Darwish's poetry, except for a handful of volumes mostly out of print and a number of individual poems published in English-language literary magazines and anthologies. The Adam of Two Edens is only the second book-length volume of translations into English currently available to readers in the United States. Adam invites into our midst a deeply lyrical, sorrowful and unforgettable poetic voice.
The selections in The Adam of Two Edens are from Darwish's later works, mainly Ahad Ashar Kawkaban (Eleven Planets, 1992) and Limatha Tarakta al-Hissana Waheedan (Why Have You Left the Horse Alone?, 1995). Both collections were occasioned by a constellation of historic and personal events, at the center of which was the flawed Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993. That year Darwish resigned from the PLO Executive Committee in protest and returned to the Middle East after an eleven-year exile in Paris. He settled first in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and then in the Palestinian town of Ramallah, where he also edits the Modernist Arabic literary journal al-Karmel, which he founded in 1981 in Beirut and continued editing in France.
Akash notes that the differences between Darwish's early, more declarative "poems of resistance" and the later works are striking--in thematic complexity and expressive sophistication. The curve of Darwish's poetic progress is little short of staggering--not only in the volume of his writerly and editorial output but also in the ways in which his writing has enlarged itself, consciously and systematically. For more than a decade now, the poet has slowly steered toward more open spaces and brought into his poetic sphere voices from other literary traditions and grafted their symbols, concerns and directions onto the trunk of Arabic poetry. His aim has been to create a poetic community of cultures, especially those that have been obliterated or are threatened with erasure--from the Native American to the Andalusian to the Palestinian and beyond.
Paradoxically, the expansion has also made Darwish's poetry more interior and personal. In this newly crafted lyrical space, atop the Palestinian soil, the experience of migration and the longing for solidarity with those who have embarked on the same trail have found an enduring anchor:
In migration we remember shirt buttons we lost,
forget the glittering crowns of our days,
recall the scent of apricot sweat,
forget the dancing horses on our wedding nights.
("In the Great Migration, I Love You More")
But even in its most intimate moments, his lyrical voice is often tempered with irony and seasoned with the salt of many departures. The intensity is always held in check, somewhat distanced and detached. Like the birds that inhabit Darwish's Mediterranean sky, his poems often flutter between poetic assertion and its difficulty in the face of the Palestinian national narrative of the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948:
I illuminate tomorrow's present in the moment.
Time separates me from my place.
My place separates me from my time.
All the prophets are my kin.
But heaven is still far from its earth
and I am still far from my words.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
The distance and separation are geographical, historical and personal. The Edenic title of the collection reverberates from poem to poem, as Darwish weaves symbolic nets that connect the biblical expulsion with the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia in "Ruba'yat":
I've seen all I want to see of the sea:
gulls flying through sunset.
I close my eyes:
this loss leads to Andalusia--
this sail is doves' prayers
pouring down on me.
And centuries later, with the migration of the poet from his native village of Birweh in the Upper Galilee, which the Israelis set ablaze and razed in 1948:
Do you remember our migration route to Lebanon?
Where you forgot me in a sack of bread
(it was wheat bread).
I kept quiet so as not to wake the guards.
The scent of morning dew lifted me onto your shoulders.
The metaphor of migration wanders the entire universe of Darwish's poetry. It crosses cities, cultures, regions, landscapes and historic periods, reproducing itself in an abundance of doubles and ironic twists to finally return home to the most bitter and prophetic irony of all: Home is another form of occupation, which robs people of their ability to dream of paradise. In a poem in 1982, Darwish asked, "Where should we go after the last frontiers?" In the poems of this collection, he tries to describe that rudderless, shadowy territory where everything has been co-opted by the mirage and rhetoric of peace.
Still, in these later works Darwish knows that the best the poet can do is populate these shadowy territories with the products of the only tools he has at his disposal--imagination and language:
My mother illuminates Canaan's last stars
around my mirror
and throws her shawl across my last poem.
In a poem dedicated to an Iraqi poet, he writes:
I'll remove the fingers of my dead from your body,
the buttons of their shirts and their birth certificates.
You'll take the letters of your dead to Jerusalem.
We'll wipe the blood from our glasses, my friend,
and reread our Kafka,
and open two windows onto a street of shadows.
("A Horse for the Stranger")
The image of two Arab poets rereading Kafka against the open window of uncertainty is a telling example of the kind of grafting that is common in Darwish's poetry: The poetic voice is also a communal voice--of García Lorca and Yeats, Homer and the bards of ancient cultures.
But these alliances, which Darwish weaves so masterfully, are also emblematic of the direction of his more recent poetry. Borrowing Adorno's term, Edward Said has noted that Darwish's "late style" opens onto a realm of irresolution and fracture, where poetry itself becomes the tenuous terrain of a lost homeland and an imagined community. Evoking the Arab expulsion from Granada in 1492, Darwish writes:
One day I'll pass by her moons and
scent my desires with lemon.
Embrace me, so I can be reborn
from aromas, from sunlight, from the river
thrown over your shoulders.
From two feet scratching the twilight
to make it weep milk tears
for a night of poetry!
("One Day I'll Sit on the Sidewalk")
In the end, what remains, what is permanent and real, is something as fleeting as a night of poetry whose fragile shoulders must carry not only the poet's longing for return but also the load of history, the long trail of expulsion and migration. In these dark, plaintive poems, though, poetry performs its essential task:
I'll shed my skin and from my language
words of love
will filter down through the poetry of García Lorca
who'll dwell in my bedroom
and see what I've seen of the bedouin moon.
("A sky Beyond sky for Me")
As an introduction to Darwish's later poetry, The Adam of Two Edens is an indispensable source. Akash's introduction --part memoir, part tribute, part analysis, part historical context--is both moving and effective in bringing Darwish and his poetry to life for American readers. Even those who have never read Darwish will know that they are in the company of a great poet whose imagined worlds are informed by great erudition, mythic sweep and meticulous lyricism.
Despite its noble aims, The Adam of Two Edens is limited in one key area. It lacks the translator's deliberate self-consciousness about the project at hand. We are told that several writers who are themselves versed in Arabic and English translated the individual poems, which were later "polished" by the American poet Daniel Moore to make them "harmonious in a single voice." But a translation's primary aim is to recast the music of the original in a wholly new expressive context, and to do so in bold ways. The collection would have benefited immensely from a discussion of the issues that the translators and Moore faced in this passage from Arabic to English, and how these issues were resolved, dodged or reframed.
Every translation renews the language of the original as well as the adopted language. So, too, with every poem. Darwish is well versed not only in Arabic and Hebrew poetry but also poetry written in English and French. The range of his poetic concerns is evident in a groundbreaking book of conversations with Arab and Israeli interviewers, La Palestine comme métaphore (Palestine as Metaphor, 1997; alas, not available in English). Part argument, part meditation, part analysis, it outlines not only Darwish's literary biography and the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli literatures have shaped his writing but also his efforts at forging an alliance between his native Arabic poetic tradition and the currents of Modernist poetry. But the introduction of The Adam of Two Edens merely notes that Darwish's "sense of cadence is symphonically structured," which, says Akash, has few equivalents in American poetry. That begs the question: What are the hurdles that a translator of Darwish's poetry faces in executing a translation into a poetic tradition and idiom that seems to lack what is so essential in the original?
Darwish's poetry, for example, sometimes displays instances where a line or a phrase or a word is repeated, and language seems to fold in on itself. This kind of creasing, which has its sources in the classical Arabic tradition of recitation, is a very effective device in giving the writing a pause, a suspended quality. A poetry reading by Darwish is always a huge cultural event in the Arab world, and this attribute places him in a line of poets who were also great reciters of their poetry--with Yeats, Ginsberg, Voznesensky, Dylan Thomas and others. But Darwish's Modernist impulses subvert the traditional comforts of this kind of creasing, turning this poetic device of classical Arabic into a source of both pleasure and anxiety. English, by contrast, does not tolerate repetition as well as Arabic does, and the translator has a huge problem in reinventing the original. It may be that with the best of intentions, the translators of the present volume have ended up being too loyal to the original, too willing to assume that there is a natural congruity between Arabic and English poetic cultures. The result is that sometimes the creases and folds seem clunky and pull the poem down.
The cadence of Darwish's Arabic sometimes has an eerie, miragelike feel to it, as if the lines were about to go into nothingness. Often the progress of the poetic line is musical; it seems to hover at the edge of something unknown, at the point where it can quickly become other than itself--a whisper, a silence, perhaps even a muffled sob. Darwish has argued at some length for the fraternity of music and poetry in the Arabic poetic tradition, even describing himself as something of a "reactionary," who, unlike some of his Arab contemporaries, has neither destroyed the poetic meter nor chosen prose over poetry. In the translations of The Adam of Two Edens we often do not have this sense of impending loss; the lines sometimes have a prosaic security that is at odds with the fragility of Darwish's poetry--reading it, writing it, listening to it.
In 1945 Czeslaw Milosz asked:
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
Against hope, Darwish's poetry still speaks of coexistence and a shared culture:
Stranger, hang your weapons in our palm tree
and let me plant my wheat in Canaan's sacred soil.
("On a Canaanite Stone at the Dead Sea")
His vision of peace is the poet's prerogative, of course, but it may, in the end, be the only one that stands a chance--if not of saving nations, then at least of perspective and moderation:
All I want of love is a beginning.
Doves flew above the roof of the last sky,
flew off and kept flying...
After we're gone there'll be plenty of wine in the jars.
A little land is land enough for us for a place to meet,
enough for peace to descend...
("All I Want of Love is a Beginning")
There is a value to the much-criticized crawl that zipped along at the bottom of CNN's window during the attack on Afghanistan, beneath clips of dirty traitors and soldier-heroes and starving refugees. As the world's other news ticked blithely by, trivialized by the pictures above it, the ephemeral, superficial crawl reminded us of the worth of words that do not move, and of stories told in columns of type, not in video clips or on film. I don't want to get too sentimental, but isn't the printed page reliable; isn't it familiar; isn't it decent? It feels immutable in a way that other things do not these days. As Walter Isaacson (who is now running CNN) said when he was still at Time: "If the world were based on computers and they told you about magazines, you'd think: 'Wow: what a great technology!'"
Magazines and newspapers (and online versions of these) still often manage to tackle complex stories and say things that have meaning, unlike so much of the media. And meaning, which is so unusual now that content is dead (a friend actually told me that several years ago), meaning generates a ripple of excitement. I found it fun, for example, when Lewis Lapham called the Attorney General "Mullah John Ashcroft" in print, in Harper's, of course. You won't find "Mullah" John Ashcroft doing the crawl on CNN beneath the story about President Bush and his FPS (Failed Pretzel Swallowing). Now that Talk, which had every kind of support behind it, has gone under (in the wake of other recent casualties like Brill's Content, Lingua Franca, Mademoiselle, ON magazine), we can be reasonably sure that the print media is in for further high-temperature shrinking as the economy tightens. This column will check in regularly on the health of content and highlight what's meaningful in print, in general interest and niche publications, and in the little, spirited, idiosyncratic guys one rarely gets to.
What 'The Arab' Thinks
Since the fall of the towers, I've listened to and read so much drivel about "Arab casbah culture" and the "Arabs' nomadic mentality" and about what Arabs think and what really drives "The Arab," that it was good to find Al Jadid, a quarterly published in Los Angeles devoted to Arab culture and arts. The way I found it was unfortunate, however--painful. Suffice it to say that my recent novel (which is about Jerusalem) received from Al Jadid its only English-language notice from an Arab point of view, and the review was not entirely kind. So I was led reluctantly to the magazine, but when I looked into its back issues, I discovered that it contains a wealth of opinion and information that no one else is publishing in English.
I knew Al Jadid was for me when one knowledgeable Arab of my acquaintance told me disdainfully that the magazine was "not influential." I love that; for me, "not influential" means you can read the thing without having to feel you must agree with it. Consider these noninfluential observations, by Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist, essayist and editor, on Saddam (yes, the Saddam) Hussein's first novel, Zubayba and the King (2000): For Arab military dictatorships, Khoury writes,
literature became somehow a field associated with the...dictatorship, perhaps because all writing in [such] regimes is like writing intelligence reports. We find a strange mixture between the writer and the intelligence analyst.... Creative writers first become intelligence report writers and then become authors!... The literary world suffered in a terrifying way thanks to this strange combination: Egyptian authors were imprisoned; Iraqi writers lived between exile, prison and assassination; literature in Syria knew a great decline; and in the Gulf regimes, monarchies, emirates and sheikhdoms, the censor is almost the sole author.
Magazines like Al Jadid, which are concerned with niche obsessions or particular groups, also often speak with unintentional authority to the universal, to the general human experience. One of my favorite examples of this--in the Al Jadid "Editor's Notebook" column by Elie Chalala, in the Winter 2001 issue--is called "Poet and Critic Nouri Jarah Laments Standards of Arab Literary Criticism, Rushing Poetry into Translation."
The first interesting thing you discover in this great piece is that "individuals seeking political asylum" are trying to pass themselves off as Great Poets from their home countries, in order to claim persecution. That's a good ruse. Unfortunately, this is the only eccentric thing you discover about the Arab publishing world. Otherwise, we might as well be in New York or London. Jarah states that "decisions of culture [in the Arab world] are based on exchanges of power and influence" rather than on sheer literary merit. He also points out that "the Arab critic-author relationship is one of enmity rather than amity."
Mmmmmm. Oh yes. Really.
Now I understand where my reviewer was coming from.
Woman on the Go
Working Woman was closed by new management (a bank) last September, on its twenty-fifth anniversary. The magazine went on "hiatus," as the holding company that still owns the name puts it. This leaves Woman's sororal twin, Working Mother, still out there in the market because, as one former employee says, "it's easier for advertisers to understand Working Mother's audience; the demographic is more tangible." Doctors' offices are among Working Mother's largest subscriber groups. (In case you are wondering, Ms. is still published but is not advertiser-supported.)
Working Woman was intended to target CEO-level women, who make about twice as much as, say, the readership of Good Housekeeping (which shows no signs of closing down). But the high-end women were more likely to subscribe to Business Week, Forbes or Fortune. Eventually the advertising community deserted the publication, because it could get at the actual Woman readers better elsewhere: at Family Circle, for example, or in the fashion and beauty and shopper magazines.
In an interesting note, Working Mother, which also changed hands and recruited a new staff in September, will now be put out by an editor in chief and a deputy editor neither of whom have ever had children. It's as if you had a white person editing Ebony.