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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Bill de Blasio’s Persuasive Case for Universal Pre-K

de Blasio

(AP Photo/New York Daily News, Enid Alvarez/Pool)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Last week, as New York found itself in the icy grip of the polar vortex, another deep freeze seemed to be settling over the Empire State—this time between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio—and crystallizing two competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party.

First came dueling news conferences last Monday. Cuomo stood before the Albany press corps, announcing his plan to cut taxes by $2 billion, while de Blasio was in a Harlem classroom, joined by a bevy of labor leaders who pledged their support for his signature policy initiative: funding universal pre-K for 4-year-olds (and after-school programs for all middle schoolers) by increasing the income taxes of New Yorkers making over $500,000 a year by about a half-percentage point.

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This plan, central to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, reflects growing evidence, as I’ve written previously, that high-quality, universal access to pre-K can make a significant difference in the lives of children, especially those from low-income families.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Passion of Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka 1972

Amiri Baraka speaks during the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana on March 12, 1972. (AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson)

The brilliant and controversial poet, playright and activist Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, died on Thursday at age 79. In works like the poetry collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), the social history Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1964), Jones celebrated the cultural achievements and the dignity of African-Americans while unblinkingly exposing the grave injustice of this country’s condescending attitude towards and often-brutal treatment of his people. A complicated figure, Baraka has also been criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia in his works. As the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and a friend of The Nation, wrote in e-mail message:

“One cannot talk about black literature, black politics, black music, black theater or even blackness without mentioning the name Amiri Baraka…. He was controversial at times because he was passionate and the times and our social condition demanded nothing less. Baraka taught us how to examine our beauty as well as our ugliness.

The Nation was one of the first major publications to publish Baraka’s work, beginning with poems like “The Invention of Comics” in 1962, “After the Ball” and “Tight Rope” in 1963, and “Morning Purpose” in 1964, and our critics kept a close watch on his work. In a review of Dutchman in April 1964, longtime Nation drama critic Harold Clurman called Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, “an outstanding dramatist” and “a turbulent talent,” noting, but not regretting, the troubling excesses which would later make his work so controversial. “While turbulence is not always a sign of power or of valuable meaning,” Clurman wrote, “I have a hunch that LeRoi Jones’s fire will burn ever higher and clearer if our theatre can furnish an adequate vessel to harbor his flame. We need it.”

Baraka’s most memorable contribution to The Nation was the essay “In the Ring” (June 29, 1964), about the fight between Cassius Clay and defending world champion Sonny Liston at Miami Beach that February. Later included in the collection Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, edited by Paula Giddings, the piece represents the best of Baraka’s writing.

The mock contest [in 1962 and 1963] between Liston and Patterson was a ‘brushfire’ limited war, Neo-Colonial policy to confuse the issue. Patterson was to represent the fruit of the missionary ethic; he had found God, reversed his underprivileged (uncontrolled) violence, and turned it to work for the democratic liberal imperialist state. The hardy black Horatio Alger offering the glad hand of integration to welcome 20 million into the lunatic asylum of white America.

In this context, Liston the unreformed, Liston the vulgar, Liston the violent, comes on as the straightup Heavy (who still had to make some gesture at the Christian ethic, like the quick trip to the Denver priest before the match, to see if somehow the chief whitie could turn him into a regular fella). “They” painted Liston Black. They painted Patterson White. And that was the simple conflict. Which way would the black man go? This question traveled on all levels through the society, if anyone remembers. Pollsters wanted the colored man in the street’s opinion. “Sir, who do you hope comes out on top in this fight?” A lot of Negroes said Patterson. That old hope come back on you, that somehow this is my country, and ought’n I be allowed to live in it, I mean, to make it. From the bottom to the top? Only the poorest black men have never fallen at least temporarily for the success story. And the poor whites still fall hard.…

The match meant most to the Liberal Missionaries. It was a chance to test their handiwork against this frightening brute. So a thin-willed lower-middle-class American was led to beatings just short of actual slaughter. Twice. And each time Patterson fell, a vision came to me of the whole colonial West crumbling in some sinister silence, like the across-the-tracks House of Usher…

But Liston, Jones wrote, “is the big strong likable immigrant who has always done America’s chores. He’s glad to oblige.”

That leaves us with Cassius X. Back in the days when he was still Clay it was easy to see him as a boy manufactured by the Special Products Division of Madison Avenue. Now I think of him as merely a terribly stretched out young man with problems one hoped would have waited at least for him to reach full manhood. Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene. And in this last sense Clay is definitely my man. However, his choice of Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm X (if indeed such is the case) means that he is still a ‘homeboy,’ embracing the folksy vector straight out of the hard spiritualism of poor Negro aspiration. Cassius is right now just angry rather than intellectually (socio-politically) motivated.…

So what kind of men are these who practice such deception on themselves? Oh, they are simply Americans, and some years from now, perhaps there will be this short addition: “you remember them, don’t you?”

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In 1999, The Nation reprinted a speech Baraka had given at NYU the previous year at a memorial service for the poet Margaret Walker Alexander, who, Baraka said,

remains part of our deepest and most glorious voice, dimensioned by history and musicked by vision. What she tells us in her books, with that voice of sun and sky, moon and stars, of lightning and thunder, is in that oldest voice of that first ancestor, who always be with us. That is what we people have, inside, to reach where Orpheus goes each night-end to raise the day again. That voice to keep us live and sane and strong and ready to fight and even ready to love.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

2014 Promises Plenty of Positive Change

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Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Will 2014 feature more of the same Washington gridlock, austerity, partisan posturing and just plain stupidity that made 2013 so miserable? The dysfunction got so bad that the media celebrated Congress merely for agreeing on a budget , one that will damage the economy but not as much as last year. That Congress could pass something, anything, made it seem like carping to note that legislators cruelly cut off emergency jobless benefits for workers unable to find work and stupidly killed the wind energy production tax credit, essential to that vital industry.

But the widespread predictions that 2014 will witness only more of the same ignore the growing reality that, outside the Beltway, people are beginning to stir and change is in the air.

One celebrated indicator was the stunning election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City. Voters overwhelmingly endorsed the sole candidate with the guts to challenge the city’s Gilded Age inequality and to call for taxing the wealthy to pay for preschool for all children. De Blasio’s victory was special, but it wasn’t unique. Voters in Los AngelesBostonSeattle and Minneapolis also elected progressives promising change.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: How We Helped Start the ‘Melville Revival’ of the 1920s

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“Nature did not make him a poet,” an anonymous reviewer wrote of Herman Melville in the September 6, 1866, issue of The Nation. While praising his “literary reputation” and “experience and cultivation”—somewhat challenging today’s cliché that Melville’s talents went completely unrecognized until after his 1891 death—the writer nonetheless argued that Melville was only one among “the herd of recent versifiers.”

His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry. Here and there gleams of imaginative power shine out like the grains of gold in a mass of quartz.

Though works like Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno”—the subject of an essay by Nation editorial board member Greg Grandin in next week’s issue—had been in circulation for over a decade by 1866, nothing of Melville’s contributions to American prose is mentioned in the review. It was not until the centenary of Melville’s birth, in August 1919, that a treatment of those works and Melville’s legacy as one of the finest writers this country ever produced appeared in our pages.

It was by a young Columbia lecturer named Raymond Weaver, the so-called “father of Melville criticism,” whose 1921 biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, and sixteen-volume edition of Melville’s works published in 1924 would largely spark the “Melville revival” of the 1920s, which rescued the long-deceased scribe from historical obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.

Commissioned by his English Department colleague and The Nation’s literary editor Carl Van Doren (who according to one scholar of Melville criticism had been recommending as early as 1915 that his students read an old and obscure genre-bending novel about whaling), it was the first piece Weaver wrote about Melville, and it was only after its publication that he decided to commit himself to a full-length biography, according to Clare Spark’s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare & the Melville Revival. The canonization of Melville began with Weaver, and Weaver began with The Nation.

Moby-Dick was “an amazing masterpiece,” Weaver wrote. It “reads like a great opium dream” and “contains some of the most finished comedy in the language.” While seconding the anonymous 1866 reviewer by acknowledging that “as a poet Melville is not distinguished”—a view which has been considerably revised by more recent scholars—Weaver made the case for recognition of Melville as one of the most exemplary American writers yet, while acknowledging that the more disturbing aspects of his vision could render widespread acknowledgment of that claim unattainable, whatever the author’s merits:

It was Melville’s abiding craving to achieve some total and undivined possession of the very heart of reality; his was the quest for the lost Atlantis, the ancient eternal desire of man for the unknown. In the promiscuous exuberance of youth Melville venturesomely sought his El Dorado on the world’s rim….

Essentially, he was a mystic, a treasure-seeker, a mystery-monger, a delver after hidden things spiritual and material. The world to him was a darkly figured hieroglyph; and if he ever deciphered the cabalistic sign, the meaning he found was too terrible, or else too wonderful, to tell….

The versatility and power of his genius was extraordinary. If he does not eventually rank as a writer of overshadowing accomplishment, it will be owing not to any lack of genius, but to the perversity of his rare and lofty gifts.

Interestingly, Weaver’s groundbreaking biography of Melville was greeted with a mixed appraisal in The Nation just three years later. After commenting that Weaver’s work could have benefited from “more time spent in assimilation, a little more ripeness and finish,” as well as less stridency and a greater fidelity to facts—thus anticipating the later consensus about Weaver’s impassioned but unpolished work—the scholar Hoyt Hudson wrote:

In the revival of his fame there are undoubted dangers. One is that he may be overrated; but that, at worst, will be temporary. Another danger is, or was, that he might become the esoteric possession of a few, a group of self-styled “Melvilleans,” who would exchange cryptic passwords from their first editions and resent intrusion of the vulgar. Worst of all, Melville might become just another American author, another photogravure to put up beside [William Cullen] Bryant and Longfellow, every hair of his beard numbered, every fault forgotten, every platitude quoted. Mr. Weaver’s book insures a different future for Herman Melville. Given this biography and Melville’s works, we have the man, vigorous, observant, eloquent, but torn by unending speculations, baffled by sad defeats. To him all those will turn who love the tingle and tang of life yet who do not fear to think. What a storm-beaten tract, yet how fertile and tropical, has been added to the continent of American literature!

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In a 1928 review of the Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, published with an introduction by his friend Raymond Weaver, Carl Van Doren wrote that “Benito Cereno,” the subject of Grandin’s essay as well as his new book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, “equals the best of Conrad in the weight of its drama and the skill of its unfolding.” Despite being neglected for over half-a-century, including by the most devoted early-revival Melvilleans like Weaver and himself, Melville’s short novels, Van Doren wrote, “belong, whatever may formerly have been said about them, with the most original and distinguished fiction yet produced on this continent.” The resurrection of Melville was complete.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Rebecca Solnit on the arch of justice and the long run.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Fifty Years Later, the War on Poverty Must Be Renewed

A destitute man sleeps on the sidewalk under a holiday window at Blanc de Chine, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in New York. (AP Images)

On January 8, 1964, nearly fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared in his first State of the Union address that his new administration “today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” The Nation was immediately enthusiastic and supportive, writing in its lead editorial, “The Rediscovery of Poverty,” just after the speech:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the State of the Union address was that Mr. Johnson not only spoke about poverty, but spoke at length, emphatically, and with the apparent intention of actually meaning to alleviate it. The second most important aspect, gearing into the first, was the suggestion that the money was there for such a program, that it could be hacked out of the military program, and that Mr. Johnson proposed to swing the pickax. All this was said with a Rooseveltian resolution, sincerity and directness that exhilarated some listeners as much as it frightened others—those others who feel that poverty should be neither seen nor heard…

What is amazing is that it took fifteen years to get out from under the incubus of the cold war and to show a decent concern for the victims of industrialism. Now—it is as true as it is hackneyed—words must be followed by deeds. That is not up to the President alone, but he has supplied the words, and they are good.

The rhetorical declaration of war was punctuated by the passage in the summer of 1964 of the Economic Opportunity Act, which contained several work and welfare programs explicitly framed, as Johnson put it, as “a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.” Those programs—combined with the vital additions of Medicare, Medicaid, and other Great Society-era initiatives targeted for severe cuts or even elimination in recent years by Republicans—have made the experience of poverty in America less dire than before 1964.

But there is a still a long way to go before achieving President Johnson’s stated objective: “total victory.” The tragic misadventure in Vietnam distracted the administration and the country from the one war President Johnson actually did declare, and more recent decades have seen the war on poverty co-opted by the proponents of austerity and turned into an unrelenting war on the poor.

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There could be no more honorable or productive way for President Obama and his congressional Democratic allies to mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration than to rededicate themselves to passing legislation—a minimum wage increase, universal pre-school access, reversal of recent cuts in food stamps (and expansions beyond the previous levels), job training assistance, and extensions of unemployment insurance, to name a few—which would at least signal a renewal of what President Johnson acknowledged fifty years ago would “not be a short or easy struggle…but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

The Nation, which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war on poverty with a special issue next month, is one of the only American media outlets which maintains a regular poverty beat (with writers like Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty, and Greg Kaufmann), and we are committed to covering this issue and give voice to those most affected until this, the richest nation on Earth, eradicates what President Johnson called “the most ancient of mankind’s enemies” from our midst.

Read Next: Greg Kaufmann's final "This Week in Poverty" entry.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: What de Blasio Can Learn From His Model, La Guardia

“Not a conventional person” was how Nation publisher and editor-turned-columnist Oswald Garrison Villard bluntly described the man who had just been named Republican and Fusion candidate for mayor of New York City in the summer of 1933. Villard noted La Guardia’s lack of polished sophistication, his flamboyance and tendency “to go off half-cocked” at times. “But Fiorello La Guardia will never for one moment be out of touch with or fail to understand the humble people of New York City and their needs,” Villard concluded, lamenting the absence of socialist Norman Thomas from the race while enthusiastically endorsing the Little Flower.

Asked in a September interview which predecessor he would draw inspiration from if elected, Bill de Blasio responded: “Unquestionably, I would model myself after La Guardia.”

As a tour through The Nation’s coverage of La Guardia’s career confirms, there is much New York’s new progressive mayor can learn from the man who showed that municipal government can be clean, competent and committed to improving the lives of the city’s most disadvantaged residents. Before his mayoralty and after, The Nation repeatedly held La Guardia up as the model of how powerful and progressive a mayor can actually be.

* * *

In a March 1928 installment of the magazine’s recurring series of profiles called “Americans We Like,” the journalist Duff Gilfond wrote of then-Congressman La Guardia:

In spite of his earnestness and the disappointments which such a liberal program necessarily brings, the merry little Major (his title in Washington since the war) has preserved his sense of humor. He persists in introducing bills that cannot pass—for ten years. “They serve for educational purposes,” he says, puffing at his two-and-a-half-cent Manila cigar. “The function of a progressive is to keep on protesting until things get so bad that a reactionary demands reform.”

Gilfond continued:

He attends all his committee meetings, dictates all his letters, and never gives his colleagues a chance to slip a bill through by absenting himself from the floor. If he is not making a speech or an objection his dark little rotund figure is at least conspicuous in the House. He is a great trial to some of his colleagues—especially the rabidly dry and Nordic—but just as great a comfort. One of the very few men who study every bill on the consent calendar, he can invariably answer the questions of his less prepared cohorts. He is the hated and beloved boy who does the homework. La Guardia has affected more bills in the House than any other member. There is not a branch of the Government, from the Shipping Board to the Department of State, that he has not attempted to reform…

He never attends a caucus; he gives White House invitations to the children; taunted with radicalism on the floor, he aptly retorts: “As long as a person talks about great American standards he is applauded; when he asks to put them into practice he is a radical.”

Just a few weeks later, La Guardia himself published the first of three articles he would write for The Nation. In “The Government Must Act!” La Guardia reported on his recent visit to striking miners of Pennsylvania and insisted it was the role of the federal government to establish better working conditions for the miners and better living conditions for their families, as “it is a matter of national concern that men be enabled to live decently and enjoy the freedom which the Constitution of this country guarantees to them.” He concluded:

The very persons all through the country who are now being exploited by coal barons, monopolistic oil companies, and the power trusts would be the first to succumb to propaganda that the “Government should be kept out of business,” that such a solution is “socialistic,” and that it would be contrary to the Constitution. But these monopolies are becoming more powerful, more brazen, more greedy, and more defiant of constitutional law when it stands in their way. It will not be long before the American people will realize that something is fundamentally wrong and they will then be less impressed by oil favoritism, coal “economics,” and power-trust “constitutionality.”

La Guardia’s next article for The Nation, in the May 23, 1928, issue, argued that a lobbying law then before Congress (blocked in the House, but finally passed as the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946) would do very little to actually combat the sources of corruption in American representative government. “The honest legislator who votes according to his best judgment and conscience will never fear or be tempted by the most skillful lobbyist that ever infested Washington; the other kind of legislator will not be improved by the passage of the law.”

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La Guardia’s candidacy for the mayoralty in 1933 was enthusiastically supported in The Nation’s pages by the prominent civil liberties lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays even before the Republican nomination was secured. In July of that year, Hays wrote of La Guardia:

His lack of swank is one of his identifying characteristics. The Mayor of New York must avoid the rigidity, the self-righteousness, and the bungling ineptness of the merely good-government reformer. He must have in mind a “Who’s Who” of the grafters, chair-warmers, favorite contractors, and the vast and varied medley that prey on the city treasury. La Guardia has held office for twenty years. He knows New York City politics and its politicians.…

La Guardia as mayor can end the banker domination of City Hall; he can begin with federal funds to raze the dingy rookeries of the poor and erect in their place garden apartments; he can drive out the political parasites that drain the city’s blood; he can make transit unification a fact and not a shibboleth…. La Guardia has the personality, the integrity, the record, the program, and the philosophy. In addition he is more likely to be elected than anyone else in sight.

One month later, in the column cited above, Oswald Garrison Villard wrote:

What happens in the metropolis in the next two years will be enormously important and may even influence deeply the conduct of other municipalities. The city’s financial situation is critical. If times do not improve, the keeping alive of foodless and workless citizens will become a problem transcending every other. Never did New York more greatly need a statesman and a man with tolerance, broad vision, and a kindly heart in the mayor’s chair.…

I am heartily for the Major’s election because I believe that he will bring to the mayoralty what it most needs—a warm heart inspired by the opportunity to serve the common people. I hope he realizes that the city of New York is not going to be redeemed by merely giving it another good reform administration; there must be radical changes.

Just before the election, in the issue dated October 25, 1933, Paul Blanshard—muckraking journalist, former Nation associate editor and co-author, with Norman Thomas, of the 1933 book What’s the Matter with New York, discussed in an upcoming Nation essay by London bureau chief D.D. Guttenplan—commented:

From the long-range point of view the coming election in New York is important not only because the election of LaGuardia might bring new faith in the capacity of a city to use democracy intelligently, but because LaGuardia, with his social progressivism, could make out of New York a gigantic laboratory for civic reconstruction. Certainly his record indicates that his elevation to New York’s City Hall might mean a genuine new deal for a long-suffering metropolis.

Blanshard, it turned out, was appointed by La Guardia to become Commissioner of Investigations and Accounts, quickly achieving national prominence as “a critical outsider who has become a political insider,” in The New York Times’s description, and aggressively pursuing corrupt politicians and government officials leftover from the years of Tammany Hall.

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When La Guardia died in 1947, less than two years after stepping down from office after declining to run for a fourth term, The Nation devoted its lead editorial note to his memory:

The genuine sorrow at LaGuardia’s death reflected more than an appreciation of his color and his achievement, though they were great. The tireless, paternal, irascible, cocky, and often vituperative little man who raced to fires, delighted in surprise visits to city institutions, personally investigated the humblest citizen’s complaint, read the “funnies” over the air during a newspaper strike, and, back in 1937, suggested making Hitler a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors was without doubt, as one reporter describes him, “New York’s most colorful mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.” And his long record of accomplishments includes the breaking of Tammany power, the introduction of scrupulously honest municipal government, the unification of a fantastically scrambled transit system, and the building of enough parks, playgrounds, highways, housing projects, markets, and bridges to alter, to its vast improvement, the face of the world’s largest city. But beyond all this was a warmth, a homey informality, and an identification with the people who had elected him that gave LaGuardia the status of a public protector. His utter scorn for party loyalty and “clubhouse loafers,” on the one hand, and for the cold theorizing of traditional reformers, on the other, established a rapport with the voters that became the envy and awe of the professionals. LaGuardia’s mayoralty proved brilliantly that political machines are no more inevitably a part of the modern city than typhoid epidemics.”

Nor, for that matter is rampant economic inequality, as Mayor de Blasio, with La Guardia as his role model, now has the opportunity to show.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Just Because Congress Cut a Budget Deal Doesn’t Mean It’s a Good One

Paul Ryan and Patty Murray

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge “aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire.” Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered “the least” budget the House has ever passed.

Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which—at least temporarily—halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal’s shortcomings, said that its mere existence was “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.” The Economist put it more plainly: “What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one.”

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Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking—any deal at all—obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: How Janet Yellen Can Turn the Fed to the Left

President Barack Obama's nominee for Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen stands in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo)

Next week’s all-but-certain confirmation of Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chair presents a crucial opportunity to implement bold, progressive ideas in an institution that has for too long done too little to combat the vast economic inequalities in American society. As The Nation’s longtime national affairs correspondent William Greider wrote in our October 7, 2013 issue, Yellen “well understands that much deeper change must be considered to get the economy back in balance.”

Should the new chair need additional ideas as to what exactly should be changed at the Fed, Greider’s articles in The Nation over the past decade would be a helpful place to start.

In “The One-Eyed Chairman: How Greenspan Has Pushed the Right’s Agenda” (September 19, 2005), Greider lambasted the outgoing chairman’s partisanship, irresponsibility and betrayal of ordinary Americans. It is amazing to read Greider’s warnings, years before the 2008 crash, about the inevitable failure of Greenspan’s policies and the implications that would have for the broader deregulatory ideology of which he was for several decades perhaps the most prominent champion. (Greenspan would concede as much with his famous admission in October 2008 that there was “a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.”)

Beware of economic policy-makers who go to extremes in defense of ideological convictions. Essentially, that is the nature of Greenspan’s grave failure. The real world did not cooperate with his right-wing beliefs, but he persisted anyway. In the hydraulics of monetary policy, his posture set in motion deep waves of economic extremes: fabulous personal wealth alongside a deeply indebted populace; extraordinary corporate profits alongside stagnant wages and surplus labor; too much capital and not enough consumer demand. These exaggerated waves, and some others, are still sloshing back and forth in the US economy. They will for years ahead, with more crises to come. Greenspan collected much praise for his swift and daring rescue missions—the nimble fireman rushing from blaze to blaze, putting out fires before they destroyed the economy. What many people did not understand is that it was Greenspan who lit the match.

In 2009, as the Obama administration was reeling from aftereffects of the crash, Greider wrote “Dismantling the Temple: How to Fix the Federal Reserve” (August 3/10, 2009), which outlined a plan for a more democratic, more transparent, and more effective Federal Reserve.

"A reconstituted central bank might keep the famous name and presidentially appointed governors, confirmed by Congress, but it would forfeit the mystique and submit to the usual standards of transparency and public scrutiny. The institution would be directed to concentrate on the Fed’s one great purpose—making monetary policy and controlling credit expansion to produce balanced economic growth and stable money. Most regulatory functions would be located elsewhere, in a new enforcement agency that would oversee regulated commercial banks as well as the “shadow banking” of hedge funds, private equity firms and others.

The Fed would thus be relieved of its conflicted objectives. Bank examiners would be free of the insiders pressures that inevitably emanate from the Fed’s cozy relations with major banks. All of the private-public ambiguities concocted in 1913 would be swept away, including bank ownership of the twelve Federal Reserve banks, which could be reorganized as branch offices with a focus on regional economies.

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Altering the central bank would also give Congress an opening to reclaim its primacy in this most important matters. That sounds farfetched to modern sensibilities, and traditionalists will scream that it is a recipe for inflationary disaster. But this is what the Constitution prescribes: “The Congress shall have the power to coin money [and] regulate the value thereof.” It does not grant the president or the treasury secretary this power. Nor does it envision a secretive central bank that interacts murkily with the executive branch."

Finally, in a superb November 2012 essay, “The Fed and the Silence of the Left,” Greider encouraged progressives to be more vocal in their support for the Federal Reserve’s efforts to stimulate the economy, especially at a time when conservative voices were trying to convince chairman Ben Bernanke to cut back. Greider approved of Bernanke’s attempts to stimulate lending and spending, but asked “what else can the Fed chair do?” His answer offers many ideas Yellen could consider as a way to take the Fed in a more progressive, democratic direction. “Instead of pumping more money into the banking system,” Greider wrote, “the chairman should figure out how to get it to the sectors of commerce or industry that really need it.” The Fed, he continued,

"...could use its regulatory muscle to unfreeze the risk-averse bankers who are still unwilling to lend—the same bankers whose reckless risk-taking nearly brought down the entire system four years ago. The Fed could create special facilities for directed lending (just as it did for the imperiled banking system) that gets the banks to relax lending terms for credit-starved sectors like small business. If bankers refuse to play, it could offer the same deal to financial institutions that are not banks.

The Fed could help restart the enfeebled housing sector by collaborating on debt reduction for the millions of underwater home mortgages. It could help organize and finance major infrastructure projects, like modernizing the national electrical grid, building high-speed rail systems and cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy—public works that create jobs the old-fashioned way. The Fed could influence the investment decisions of private capital by backstopping public-private bonds needed to finance the long-neglected overhaul of the nation’s common assets."

With Yellen’s installation as the first-ever chairwoman of the Federal Reserve expected in January, one thing is certain: should she fail to steer the bank in a more progressive direction, it won’t be for a lack of actionable ideas.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.    

Read next: John Nichols on the popular rebellion that tripped up Larry Summers.

Nelson Mandela and His Cause Weren’t Always Revered in the US

Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela wasn't always so universally loved. (Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Leaders from across the world will gather in South Africa this week to pay tribute to the most extraordinary leader of our lifetime, Nelson Mandela. The chorus of tributes, from across the globe and across the political spectrum, cannot hope to do justice to this remarkable man, who emerged from twenty-seven years in prison with a grace, dignity and will sufficient to transform the brutal apartheid system peacefully and spread hope across the world.

But Mandela was not always universally praised. In fact, US administrations of both parties were far from ardent opponents of South Africa’s apartheid regime or supporters of Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress (ANC). Conservatives in particular long saw the apartheid regime as an anti-communist bulwark in the Cold War. After Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, the conservative National Review magazine defended South African courts for sending up “a batch of admitted terrorists to life in the penitentiary.” Conservative Russell Kirk opined that democratic rule in South Africa would bring “the collapse of civilization,” and the resulting government would be “domination by witch doctors…and reckless demagogues.”

President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, believed the apartheid regime was an essential ally that was here to stay, arguing in a secret National Security Council policy study—dubbed the “Tar Baby” report—that the United States shouldn’t risk getting stuck in support of the oppressed majority.

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Ronald Reagan branded the ANC a terrorist organization while dismissing apartheid as more of a “tribal policy than a racial policy.” He advocated “constructive engagement” with the regime, calling for closer trade relations while opposing economic sanctions. The emerging new right gleefully joined in labeling the ANC and other African liberation movements communist, while promoting their own “freedom movements,” largely tribal and racialist alternatives. Jack Abramoff, later infamously indicted for illegal lobbying and financial frauds, became president of the International Freedom Foundation, later exposed as a front group for the South African Army, established to discredit the ANC as communists and terrorists. Grover Norquist and others mobilized to counter the divestment movement. (Norquist sported a bumper sticker saying “I’d rather be killing commies.”) In 1990, when Mandela was released from prison and traveled to the United States, the Heritage Foundation called him a terrorist.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: 100 Years of Writing About Marcel Proust’s ‘Almost Wizard Power’

A portrait of Marcel Proust.

The Nation has always been enthusiastic about Marcel Proust's work. (Licensed through Creative Commons (Flickr user : LWY)

“The mere dimensions” of À la recherche du temps perdu, the critic Ernest Boyd wrote in The Nation in 1924, “are sufficient to inspire respect, and to arouse curiosity in that section of the public which likes to talk about books rather than read them…. The result is that there has been much more enthusiasm displayed over Marcel Proust than knowledge of his work.”

Almost ninety years on, that has never been truer than it is now, as some of the writing occasioned by last month’s centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume in Proust’s magnum opus, showed. It is nearly impossible to find an article on the anniversary not containing the word “madeleine.”

From our first notice of Proust to our most recent—the first-ever publication in English, in 1971, of excerpts from Proust’s prefaces to the writings of art critic John Ruskin—The Nation has always displayed both enthusiasm for his work and knowledge of it, consistently marveling over “Proust’s conviction that we recapture the past, with its emotions, not by any effort of the intelligence but through the accidental stimulus of an odor, a musical phrase, an involuntary movement, a flavor upon the tongue” (Dorothy Brewster in 1926), or “his power to communicate an egotistical absorption in the poignancy of a cherished pain” (Joseph Wood Krutch in 1930).

Even our first review of his work, in the December 7, 1921, issue, recognized the permanent impact the Recherche would have upon world literature.

“Of all that has been written of Marcel Proust,” Ellen FitzGerald wrote, “little has been said of what he is contributing to the novel in this growing landmark.”

Some critics dismiss it as a novel of manners; others appreciate it as a product of style. No one has pointed out that this “Recherche du temps perdu” is a reviving and even recreating of old matter and old method into new effects, is what every novel should be—a discovery of something new both in life and art.

This novel has no hero, no dominant character whose destiny is the reader’s concern. Yet unless the reader of these volumes sees that the anonymous, negative, impersonal character of the child, boy, and youth who successively has the place of hero is a triumph of creative skill, all the more powerful because his unobtrusiveness is the very vantage point from which he observes, analyses, projects, paints whole groups, he misses the first marvel of M. Proust’s skill…The prologue, an exquisite bit of reverie, establishes the poetical mood of the hero, how he is to see his world. Memory has perhaps never been so demonstrated to be what Plato called it—the mother of the Muses. The pain, the sensitiveness, the inexplicable suffering of a child have never been distilled into more wistful poetry. Child psychology has something precious in these pages, just as it has in James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist.” M. Proust’s method is of the two the more rational…  

Poetry deepens as memory penetrates unafraid into the sanctuary of emotion, passion, beauty of every kind. A temperamental, intellectual youth and his world live for us again, a world where the pale cast of thought admits little gaiety but touches instead to new issues a whole epoch where mood gives perspective to all the scenes. How everything expands and deepens because the mental reliving quickens consciousness to an almost wizard power!

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Timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Swann’s Way last month, Yale University Press published Proust biographer William Carter’s “new, more accurate, and illuminating” revision of the first volume of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation, itself published from 1922 (the year of Proust’s death) through 1930 (the year of Moncrieff’s death), which “corrects previous translating missteps to bring readers closer to Proust’s intentions.”

As early as 1924, The Nation’s Ernest Boyd—a signer of the famous Greenwich Village Bookshop Door—recognized the need for such a revision, arguing in his review of the second Moncrieff volume that he didn’t see it as “anything more than an ordinarily competent piece of translation…an exercise in the manner of Henry James.” Moreover, Boyd wrote, “Mr. Scott Moncrieff is guilty of actual blunders, which are rather elementary in many cases, and indicate, at best, an unfamiliarity with the fine shades of French, which is a serious defect in the translator of a work which rests upon a perfect feeling for the nuances of French speech and manners.” He then went on to skewer a few glaring mistakes—“Mr. Scott Moncrieff’s misfortunes with ‘barbante,’ ‘barbifant,’ and ‘raseurs’ are worthy of a place in a collection of schoolboys’ ‘howlers’ ”—and to declare his work “not the greatest translation,” but adding, “nor is Proust himself, for that matter, the greatest French prose writer of the age.”

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Beginning with The Cities of the Plain, or in the more recent style, Sodom and Gomorrah, in 1928, The Nation’s longtime drama critic (and resident Proustian) Joseph Wood Krutch reviewed each new Moncrieff translation as it was published. (The last, Time Regained, was completed by Frederick A. Blossom after Moncrieff’s 1930 death.) Perhaps the most telling feature of the series of reviews, excerpted below, is that almost every single one calls each successive book under review at least as good, if not better, than its predecessors. One “yields to none of the previous volumes in interest or beauty”; another “is at least an example as striking as any other of the nature of that sensibility peculiar to him”; and another, the last, is “more essential than any of the other single volumes to an understanding of Proust.” Reading Krutch’s (uncollected) reviews of Proust now, one is reawakened not only to the power of Proust’s writing and of the best writing on Proust, but also to the thrill it must have been to read his work, as Krutch wrote, “as they have appeared one by one” rather than “at a single gulp.” Perhaps the closest contemporary readers will get to retrieving that irretrievable experience is in the publication of William Carter’s revised Moncrieff translations, scheduled to be released annually for the next several years. Krutch’s commentaries from the pages of The Nation will be an invaluable aid for newcomers and veteran Proustians alike.

Volume 4: The Cities of the Plain (1928): “One of the earliest English commentators upon the work of Marcel Proust was disturbed by what he regarded as a moral obtuseness on the part of the author…. but he who cannot accept…our author’s willingness to sink the gentleman as well as the man when his curiosity is aroused had best make up his mind once and for all that Proust is not for him, because Proust would not be Proust had he not renounced all the obligations of life at the same time that he renounced life itself…

“When, burying himself in his chamber, [Proust] brought his life as a human being to an end the result was not at all to detach himself from it in the sense of freeing the logical faculties from the bondage of the senses, since his consciousness remained, what it had always been, primarily a realm of finely discriminated sensations, and since he turned not from perceptions to thoughts, but merely from perceptions to the memory of perceptions. But the fact that he was dead in the sense that he no longer planned to take any part in life, that he no longer felt any desires capable of eventuating in an act, not only made it possible for him to live passionately in memory and to approach more nearly than, perhaps, any other man ever did to that ‘total recall’ which is a psychological impossibility, but also made inevitable that disappearance of all ethical or conventional standards which distressed the English commentator.”

Volume 5: The Captive (1929): “Proust was doubtless led to his all but obsessive interest in the contrast between the absolute value of our desires while they last and the rapidity with which they can, nevertheless, utterly disappear, by his own experience with the complexities of the sexual passion. Though assigning a wholly romantic value to this last he nevertheless completely dissociated the idea of love from the idea of permanence, and his realization of the fact that a change in his dominant desire made, in effect, a new person of him led him to notice how many similar if less striking examples of the same phenomenon are to be observed when we consider the interests, opinions, and even manners of a man. And at last it came to seem to him that it was folly to speak of himself, of Albertine, or of Charlus as though any one of them were an entity maintaining its identity while time flowed past, and that a novel could be significant only if it were everywhere dominated by the sense that even the personalities for which the constantly recurring names stand are as fluid as the medium through which they float…. Others have struggled to rescue something from the flood; they have cherished at least the delusion that there are certain rocks around which the waves break. But his is a universe in which every molecule is fluid.”

Volume 6: The Sweet Cheat Gone (1932): “Disillusioned enough he was with many things, with morals for example, and he had neither any code nor any standards besides those which his tastes supplied. Yet there were capacities and faiths which he still retained. He still believed, for example, in the sufficiency of the senses and in the value of art. He never, like so many moderns, found himself in a world limited and debased by the impossibility of escape from psychology, anthropology, and Freudianism. The world was still absorbingly, still amazingly, interesting. Women, most women, were to him magical and mysterious. Conversations were witty, salons were thrilling, and artists—even contemporary artists—incalculably great. In a word, he respected his desires, his tastes, and his amusements, and hence, though experience might be predominantly painful, it was neither meaningless nor mean. And that perhaps is the secret of the individual charm of his world. It is one viewed with the critical freedom of modern thought and one in which skepticism rules. Yet it is somehow glamorous as well.”

Volume 7: The Past Recaptured (1932): “Once [the Recherche] has been read, it is literally unforgettable. The experiences which it affords become never-to-be-lost parts of one’s own experience. Half a dozen of the individual characters, as well as the conception as a whole, are solid, unescapable, and like some event of history they are always there whether one approves or disapproves, admires or despises. No student of literature, whatever his opinions or his tastes, can forget its existence, and it could no more be done away with in response to an aesthetic whim than a pyramid or a cathedral could be done away with by some advocate of an exclusively “modern” world. Of how many other books written during the last thirty years can that be said?

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Krutch’s status as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Proust in his time—and perhaps any time—was affirmed in 1934, when he provided the introduction to the four-volume Random House edition of Moncrieff’s translation—described by Random House publisher Bennett Cerf as “one of the typographical masterpieces of 1934” and “one of the most successful publishing projects in the history of Random House”—which was reviewed in The Nation by Krutch’s close friend (and former literary editor of the magazine) Mark Van Doren. Though he dutifully complimented a “compact and beautiful introduction,” Van Doren wrote that Proust’s work itself would probably not survive the advance of his novel’s great subject, Time. Van Doren’s self-described “minority report” argued that Proust—the hero of whose books “spends most of his time in bed with three women—his mother, his grandmother, and [his housekeeper] Francois—always there to caress him and indulge him, to kiss him goodnight, to draw his curtains in the morning, to roast him a delicious fowl when he is hungry, and to tiptoe out of hearing when he wants to think”—was “preposterously, insufferably, spoiled,” and therefore condemned to supply his readers with an incomplete world stocked with incomplete characters.” The Recherche, Van Doren concluded, would not be popular forever, and seemed upon reflection “both wonderful and trivial, both mammoth and minor.”

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

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