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The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood's tenth novel, has just won Britain's prestigious Booker prize, leading one to wonder whether the Canadian author with the impressive oeuvre (fifteen works of fiction, including three novels already shortlisted for the Booker, five collections of nonfiction, thirteen editions of poetry and four children's books) has departed in some measurable way from her signature style or whether she has perfected it. Neither, quite. Satiric and brooding, The Blind Assassin presents a typical Atwood predicament: Women taught self-effacement, obedience, modesty and quiescence resolve to tell their stories, trusting that someone, somewhere will listen. "Because I am telling you this story I will your existence," says the narrator of the futuristic parable, The Handmaid's Tale (1985). "I tell, therefore you are."
The storyteller of Blind Assassin is an 82-year-old woman, Iris Chase, with an ailing heart who lives alone in Port Ticonderoga, Canada, where she and her younger sister Laura grew up, the well-starched granddaughters of a wealthy button manufacturer. But the era of cozy Victorian gazebos and twelve-course dinners has long since passed. Their mother died in 1925 after a bloody miscarriage, and their father, a shell-shocked World War I veteran, alternately distracts himself with alcohol or soirees with radically chic artists come to eat his food and criticize his politics. When noblesse oblige gives way to layoffs, shutdowns and outside agitators, to save his business Iris's father arranges her marriage to Richard Griffen, a ruthless industrialist from Toronto, but Griffen swindles Mr. Chase, brutalizes Iris and locks up her sister in a loony bin. Laura escapes, disappears and then, just after the end of World War II, drives her car off a bridge.
Now it's 1998. Iris prowls her own small house at night, finger in the peanut-butter jar, taking inventory of her life's rubble--saucerless cups and monogrammed spoons and the tortoise-shell comb with missing teeth. By day, she writes about that life with a new black plastic pen, hands shaking as she tries to get the story straight and figure out, at the same time, why she's writing it at all. No longer consecrated to the ladylike regimen of silence and complicity, she determines to speak the truth. "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read...," Iris declares and pauses. "Impossible, of course."
Iris's saga is the linchpin of Atwood's Dos Passos-like mélange of newspaper clippings, interior monologues and social history, all interspersed with yet another tale, a sci-fi cult classic called "The Blind Assassin" and said to have been written by Laura. Published posthumously, "The Blind Assassin" is the story of Sakiel-Norn, a city on the planet Zycron, where enslaved children weave carpets until, blinded by their work, they graduate as hired killers. Meantime, the Sakiel-Norn business is itself a product of a romance into which it's folded: A nameless couple cooks up the fable during secret trysts that take place in two-bit hotels and fetid rooms borrowed for the occasion.
Sound complicated? Not really. Best-known of Canada's living novelists, Atwood writes with the precision of crack short-story writers Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and the wit of the late, prolific Robertson Davies; but most often one hears an echo of Margaret Laurence's cranky women in Atwood's narrators. With a cool confidence all her own, Atwood expertly shuffles among her various plots, historical periods, locales and characters. There's no mistaking Port Ticonderoga for Sakiel-Norn, and anyway the features of the anonymous lovers turn recognizable pretty quickly. During the Depression, when Iris was 18 and Laura 14, the Chase girls attended the annual button-factory company picnic and met the former divinity student and career proletarian who, it happens, supports himself by writing pulp fiction. For most of the novel, however, Alex Thomas is on the lam, having become chief suspect in the factory fire that lays waste the dwindling Chase fortune.
Both Laura and Iris find the hard-boiled Thomas appealing, if for different reasons. Laura, an idealist with "the infuriating iron-clad confidence of the true believer," hides Thomas in the mansion's cellar. (There's a radical in the woodpile of every family estate, it seems.) Not to be outdone, Iris joins the Thomas relief effort, as much to rob her quixotic sister of her moral and emotional superiority as to protect Thomas. "Laura touches people," Iris says, toting up their differences. "I do not."
Competition supplies the necessary psychological heft to the novel's otherwise spurious mysteries. (Who really wrote "The Blind Assassin"? Who are its unnamed lovers?) After their mother's death, a 9-year-old Iris resentfully takes charge of Laura, and when Laura one day plummets into the Louveteau River (obvious harbinger of her later death), Iris hauls her out. "I couldn't get out of my mind the images of Laura, in the icy black water of the Louveteau--how her hair had spread out like smoke in a swirling wind, how her wet face had gleamed silvery, how she had glared at me when I'd grabbed her by the coat. How hard it had been to hold on to her. How close I had come to letting go."
In fact, just three pages into the novel, a newspaper headline announces that the precipitate death of Laura Chase, 25, sister of Mrs. Richard Griffen, has been ruled an accident. But dutiful Atwood readers understand that there are no accidents in her novels, and so ironic auguries topple over one another with a kind of slick inevitability. We read a 1937 society page in Mayfair magazine that some of Toronto's elite will travel to France and Italy this season, "Mussolini permitting." We learn from another headline that Iris's oily husband, Richard, praises the Munich accord. We discover that Iris and Laura's grandmother was one of those wistful women who "went in for Culture," believing it made you a better person. "They hadn't yet seen Hitler at the opera house," Iris tartly observes. This same grandmother christened the Gothic-turreted family mansion Avilion, after Tennyson's utopian "island-valley" in Idylls of the King--but Avilion, as we might have guessed, suffers the slings and arrows of change and neglect, its splendor turned food for silverfish. After it's sold, it's renamed Valhalla and run as an old-age home. O tempora! O mores!
All this historical canniness begins to sound a bit smug. Partly, of course, the problem lies with Iris, who recollects trauma from the relative tranquillity of hindsight. She's also a woman without affect who nightly accedes to her husband's savagery, insulates herself from her sister's suffering and refuses to see the incest and adultery and suicide committed before her eyes. Yes, yes, she is a kind of blind assassin, cutthroat and complex, herself a wounded child impassively doing what she has to do.
But we learn little about Laura Chase, whom we desperately need to know. "It was ill will, the ill will of the universe, that distressed her," Iris glibly portrays her. "Laura believed words meant what they said, but she carried it to extremes," Iris says in another of Atwood's foreshadowings. "You couldn't say Get lost or Go jump in the lake and expect no consequences." Similarly, Iris's buccaneering husband is a villain without a cause, committing all the usual atrocities: fraud, physical abuse, child molestation. His sister, a camp version of the social arriviste, brandishes a mean Waldorf salad, organizes theme-obsessed charity balls (Xanadu is the pick for 1936) and wears alligator pumps the color of chlorophyll chewing gum: amusing but arch.
Actually, all these characters succumb to Atwood's deadpan style, her penchant for static tableaux, her anxiety-ridden refusal to feel. "I can see people moving like bright animated dolls, their mouths opening and closing but no real words coming out," comments the narrator of Cat's Eye. "I can look at their shapes and sizes, their colors, without feeling anything else about them." There's much good prose here and much wit, but one wants more than that. Winking at the reader familiar with Coleridge and Dickinson and T.S. Eliot and Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin, Atwood structures her novel with the cerebral precision of a gymnast performing flips for the cognoscenti. Even the novel's organizing images--fire and water and gardens made of rock--occur in diagrammatic, self-satisfied fashion.
More successful is Atwood when she plies her own stock in trade, those prodigal similes ("over the trenches God had burst like a balloon"), merciless descriptions ("I look sick, my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water") and recurrent props, like the graffiti in bathrooms or photographs that commemorate our lives in their weird and flattened way. Laura steals the picture of herself, Iris and Alex Thomas taken at the factory picnic. She makes two prints, one for Iris and one for herself, and in each, cuts one of the sisters out, leaving only a hand. It's the novel's talisman.
Distance is Atwood's forte and her nemesis. Though her trademark understatement often contributes to the sharp humor of her work, at times it seems crudely facile. "The war takes place in black and white," Iris informs us in one particularly grating paragraph. "For those on the sidelines that is. For those who are actually in it there are many colours, excessive colours, too bright, too red and orange, too liquid and incandescent, but for the others the war is like a newsreel--grainy, smeared, with bursts of staccato noise and large numbers of grey-skinned people rushing or plodding or falling down, everything elsewhere." During the Great War, Iris's father writes chillingly from France, "I cannot describe what is happening here, and so I will not attempt it." One suspects that for Atwood, scenes of emotional carnage take place at a remove, as in newsreels, and therefore remain indescribably unreal--not exactly a virtue in a novel with history its tacit subject.
At her best, though, Atwood's suppressed women of precocious sensibility tell their stories with prickly precision, sparing neither themselves nor anyone else. They hold on; they let go. Such is the Scylla and Charybdis of Iris's life, not just in relation to her sister but to the past and to herself. "But what is a memorial, when you come right down to it," Iris speculates, "but a commemoration of wounds endured? Endured, and resented."
For Atwood, however, one also memorializes oneself to stave off atrophy and despair. "The temptation is to stay inside," Iris acknowledges, "to subside into the kind of recluse whom neighbourhood children regard with derision and a little awe; to let the hedges and weeds grow up, to allow the doors to rust shut, to lie on my bed in some gown-shaped garment and allow my hair to lengthen and spread out over the pillow and my fingernails to sprout into claws, while candle wax drips onto the carpet. But long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism."
So too Atwood. She chooses not to plunge inside, preferring instead the cool, hard, protective edge of classicism to the deeper, often sloppier emotions. Nonetheless, she confers a certain dignity on her female outcasts and artists and the solitary, aging everywoman who smells of kitty litter. "I'll tell you this story," Iris offers. "What is that I'll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn't yours to bestow. Only a listener." It's not a bad trade. Atwood writes an entertaining and bracing tale, fun to read, forgettable when finished.
To buy or not to buy turns out to have been the question of the century in America--Just Do It or Just Say No. And in the past fifteen years, consumer society has moved to the center of historical inquiry as well. It began with the social history of commercial culture and the advertising industry, in books such as Kathy Peiss's Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985). Drawing inspiration from the pioneering anthropological explorations of Dick Hebdidge (Subculture, The Meaning of Style, 1979), Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things, 1988) and, especially, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (The World of Goods, 1979), investigators then turned to the cultural history of how ordinary people use and assign meanings to commodities. A good example of this genre is Alison Clarke's Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In recent works--such as Robert Collins's More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000) and Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)--they have studied the political history of how nation-states promote and foster particular regimes of consumption. Where once consumption was deemed relevant only to the history of popular culture, in other words, it is now seen as intertwined with the central themes of American history, touching as it does on economics, politics, race relations, gender, the environment and other important topics.
Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a pioneering and prolific historian of Europe and America, has explored the social, cultural and political dimensions of consumption before. In the past decade, he has published a half-dozen books on topics ranging from the history of leisure and working-class commercial amusements to the material culture of children's toys. Cross may study leisure, but his scholarship suggests that he doesn't take a whole lot of time to participate in consumer society. Fortunately, his work ethic has enabled the rest of us to understand our consumer ethic with clarity and historical perspective. Indeed, An All-Consuming Century displaces Daniel Horowitz's still-impressive but less wide-ranging The Morality of Spending (1985) as the best survey yet written of the history of modern American consumer society. Much more than a summary of recent scholarship (although it performs this task admirably), it is an informed, balanced, thoughtful and surprisingly passionate meditation on the making and meaning of our society. Avoiding the extremes of celebration and condemnation that too often pass for analysis, Cross's searching book is imbued with a generous concern for the revival of an active, democratic and participatory public sphere.
According to Cross, a paradox lies at the heart of American consumer society: It has been both an ideological triumph and a triumph over politics. Although it may be "difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology," this is, Cross argues, precisely how it functions. It is, in his words, the "ism that won," the quiet but decisive victor in a century of ideological warfare. Over the course of the twentieth century it became naturalized to such an extent that few citizens "consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it."
In describing this ideological victory, Cross eschews conspiratorial interpretations of advertising and business collusion and gives consumer society its due for concretely expressing "the cardinal political ideals of the century--liberty and democracy--and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation." It won, Cross believes, because in large measure it met people's basic needs, helped them to fit into a diverse society even as it enabled them to forge new understandings of personal freedom, and served to fulfill, rather than mock, people's desire for the pleasures of the material world.
In spite of its popularity and successes, Cross believes that the ascension of consumer society has come at great cost: the abrogation of public life in favor of private thrills. By valorizing the private over the public and the present over the past and future, consumer society has "allowed little space for social conscience" and truly democratic politics. Rather than shoring up civil society, consumerism has pretty much replaced it: "The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded" as individual acquisition and use of goods has become the predominant way that Americans--and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world--make meaning of their lives. The suggestion that there should be limits to commercialism--that there are sacred places where the market does not belong--is, according to Cross, no longer taken seriously in a society that equates commercialism with freedom. Moreover, by the end of the century, "there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption." The politics of consumption, in Cross's view, makes alternative conceptions of the good life virtually unimaginable in large part because it encourages people to think about themselves in isolation from the rest of society and from their history. (Reading Cross's book, I was reminded of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, in which a customer at an urban diner sits alone, utterly disconnected from the humanity that surrounds him.) If Cross ultimately loses sight of the paradoxical nature of American consumerism and concludes on this dark note, An All-Consuming Century nonetheless provides important resources for others to explore the democratic potential of consumer society.
The narrative unfolds both chronologically and analytically. Cross divides the development of modern consumer society into four periods: 1900-1930, 1930-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980 to the end of the century. In this breakdown, the first three decades of the century were a takeoff period, during which a number of crucial elements converged to make America a consumer society. Cross consistently overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century America was a "traditional" society, untainted by commercialism; many elements of consumer society were born in the market revolution of the early 1800s and the corporate revolution of the later nineteenth century. But he is right to single out important developments that transformed the country from what we might call a nineteenth-century society with consumerist features to a full-blown consumer society in the twentieth century. The keys were increases in leisure time and personal income on the demand side, along with new products and innovations in selling on the supply side.
New, nationally advertised, branded products became widely available and affordable after the turn of the century. These products alleviated material needs, but more than that, Cross astutely notes, they became markers of new feelings of "comfort and ease" and "new sensations of power and speed." Modern products like cigarettes, candy and soft drinks made the sensational available on a daily, indeed almost hourly, basis. Amusement parks like Coney Island and other "cheap amusements" also made the regular purchase of spectacular thrills affordable for working people. In the consumer society, the utilitarian was always mixed with the sensual. The embodiment of this mixture was, of course, the great symbol of early-twentieth-century consumer society, the automobile. Already characterized by an increasing number of what Cross calls "private pleasures," in this period, as he shows, mass culture contributed to political and social changes as well: It blurred ethnic and class divisions and encouraged the children of immigrants to redefine themselves as members of a blended, multiethnic, if still racially segregated, youth culture.
The period 1930-1960 was one of consolidation in time of crisis. The constraints of the Great Depression and World War II led to a "frustrated consumerism more than a rejection of the capitalist system." Rather than blame the new consumerism, most policy-makers and indeed many ordinary Americans came to see "underconsumption" as the root cause of the slump. After the war, government policy encouraged the development of mass purchasing power rather than efforts to equalize the distribution of wealth. During the cold war, consumer society became "a positive answer to communism." In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon drove this point home by contrasting modern American appliances with outdated Soviet culinary technology. Despite the linkage in these years between consumption and freedom, Cross notes that the consumerism of the postwar years was not hedonistic but "domesticated," focused on the suburban home and the nuclear family. Signature developments of these years were Levittown, McDonald's and Holiday Inn, sites of responsible, respectable, family-oriented consumption.
From 1960 to 1980 consumer society faced a very different set of challenges but emerged stronger than ever. First, the counterculture challenged the very premises of consumerism, and in the 1970s, the specter of scarcity called into question the permanence of the cornucopia upon which consumer society depended. In spite of these challenges, "consumption became even more ubiquitous." Indeed, Cross suggests, the roots of the even more individualistic and socially fragmenting consumerism of the late twentieth century lay in part in the 1960s critique of consumerism: While countercultural figures critiqued conformity and idealized the "authentic self," many Americans sought to achieve this authenticity through consumption. Businesses began to modify the Fordist practice of mass production in favor of flexible production and segmented, demographically distinct markets. Drawing on the work of cultural critic Thomas Frank (rendered throughout the book as "Frank Thomas"), Cross writes that consumerism became "adaptable to the green and the hip." Similarly, during the energy crisis of the 1970s those politicians who took the shortage to be the result of overproductionwere rebuked as naysayers. With great political success, Ronald Reagan attacked President Jimmy Carter for a speech in which Carter had the temerity to suggest that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." Reagan called that 1979 "malaise" address un-American in its pessimism and its call for restraint.
The trend toward fragmented, individualistic consumption accelerated during the last two decades of the century, an era that Cross labels "markets triumphant." Radical faith in the virtues of the market led politicians like Reagan to put a moral gloss on the "unfettered growth of market culture in the 1980s." Government constraints of an earlier era, in the form of environmental and advertising regulation, weakened, and commerce entered unfettered into areas where it had previously been kept at arm's length: children's homes and classrooms. By century's end the "Victorian notion that some time and place should be free from commerce" seemed as quaint as a Currier and Ives lithograph. Cross, who has a knack for unearthing telling statistics, notes that "supermarkets carried about 30,000 different products in 1996, up from 17,500 in 1986 and about 9,000 in the mid-1970s." Even the all-time-high consumer debt--$1.25 trillion by 1997--did nothing to stop the belief that the future of American prosperity and freedom depended upon the continuing expansion of the realm of consumption. Indeed, shopping had become the nation's primary form of entertainment, and monuments to consumption like the gargantuan 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America became a haven for tourists from around the world.
In Cross's telling, the attractions and problems of consumer society are in effect one and the same: the cult of the new, immediate gratification and the valorization of "private pleasures." Consumerism is the "ism that won," owing to its ability not only to withstand challenges but, through a magical jujitsu, to co-opt them. Although initially formulated in terms neither celebratory nor condemnatory, Cross's story is ultimately one of declension. While he avoids the nostalgia of many commentators, there is little doubt that Cross finds contemporary consumer society to be a negative force: asocial, apolitical, amoral and environmentally dangerous. Whereas consumerism once helped integrate the diverse inhabitants of an immigrant nation in a youthful mass culture, by century's close, cynical marketers were happy to divide an equally multicultural nation into segmented demographic units based on "multiple and changing lifestyles." Thus the shift from an integrative, public-spirited popular culture in the early twentieth century to an increasingly privatized, solipsistic commercial culture of the late twentieth century. What was seductive in 1900--cornucopia and pleasure for the masses--became obscene by 2000, as a cultural stimulant turned into a dangerous narcotic.
An All-Consuming Century is one of the few indispensable works in the ever-expanding library of books on American consumer society. But in an otherwise rich overview the author has surprisingly little to say about the role of women, African-Americans and ethnic minorities (and nothing about regional variations) in the construction of consumer society. These are serious omissions. As admen and women's organizations recognized early on, women have performed the vast majority of the unpaid labor of consumer society: the shopping, budgeting and refashioning of older items. Cross notes that African-Americans were excluded from many of the benefits of the emerging mass culture, but he does not address the ways popular culture served to reinforce both the whiteness of the "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe--a skin privilege that was not yet fully acknowledged by the majority culture--and the otherness of Asian and Latino immigrants.
Nor does Cross discuss the attractions of nationwide retailers and national brands for African-Americans, who often took advantage of what the historian Edward Ayers has called the "anonymity and autonomy" made possible by the advent of the Sears catalogue (and chain stores in the nonsegregated North), whose mass customer base and "one price" system reduced the possibilities for racial discrimination that frequently accompanied visits to the corner store. For this group, the private pleasures occasionally afforded by the advent of national markets offered advantages over the public humiliations that so often accompanied local commerce.
Cross's relative neglect of women and minorities leads him to underestimate the importance of grassroots consumer activism as well, which has often been led by members of these groups. Meat boycotts, cost-of-living protests, "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns and sit-ins were integral to the development of American consumer society because they represented demands to expand the benefits of consumerism beyond a middle-class elite. One of the most important women's political organizations of the first half of the century, the National Consumers League, which pioneered the crusade for "ethical consumption" and labor rights, goes unmentioned. Cross stresses the ways marketers attempted to co-opt the civil rights movement, but he does not address the degree to which the demand for full participation in consumer society was a key ingredient in that crusade for social justice. By virtually ignoring these movements, Cross leaves out an important part of the story of consumer society--efforts to unite citizenship with consumption.
The critics of consumer society whom Cross discusses most often are proponents of what he calls the "jeremiad," the high-culture dismissal of mass culture as vulgar. He condemns the elitism and arrogance of such thinkers and is surely correct to note that their criticism had little impact on ordinary shoppers. Cross is less critical of the "simple living" tradition and calls the self-provisioning movement of the 1960s "the most positive aspect" of the counterculture. He argues that "the idea of the 'simple life,' perhaps never more than a daydream, had almost ceased being even a prick to the conscience," but he only briefly mentions the growing popularity of the "voluntary simplicity" movement, a topic addressed in more detail in Juliet Schor's The Overspent American (1998).
Cross also develops a persuasive critique of the consumer rights movement. While the Depression era saw the rise of groups like Consumers Union, which sought to make consumers a greater force against the power of business and advertisers, he notes that by focusing primarily on product quality and prices, many consumer rights groups have served only to reinforce "the individualism and the materialism of American consumption." This tradition of angry but apolitical individualism can still be found at innumerable websites, like starbucked.com, that highlight at great length the indignation of formerly loyal customers: "The sales clerk who sold me the machine was rude, then decidedly refused to hand over the free half pound of coffee given with every purchase of a Starbucks espresso machine...." The democratizing power of consumer demands for corporate responsibility is too often dissipated by such narrowly cast diatribes.
In spite of the failure of the jeremiad, the seeming irrelevance of simplicity and the individualization of the concept of consumer rights, Cross is too definitive about the nature of the "victory" of consumer society. Many Americans still recognize that however much advertisers and marketers attempt to cover it up, consumption is fundamentally a social and political act. So although it is true that "late twentieth century consumerism turned social problems into individual purchasing decisions," it is also the case that individual shopping decisions have frequently been viewed in the context of social problems. As consumer activists from the League of Women Shoppers in the 1930s through environmentalists today have pointed out, the goods that we buy leave ecological, labor and government "footprints." In spite of corporate attempts to fetishize goods, diligent activists like John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Northwest Environment Watch have described--and tried to estimate--the hidden social costs incurred by the purchase of quotidian products, including coffee and newspapers. The actions of students in the antisweatshop campaigns of recent years indicate that a growing number of consumers are looking behind the logo to determine the conditions under which the clothing they buy is made. As Naomi Klein has recently argued in No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, the ubiquity and importance of brands provides an opening for protesters who can threaten, through consumer boycotts and other actions, to sully corporate America's most valuable asset, the brand name. One teen in Klein's book puts it this way: "Nike, we made you. We can break you." Cross may decry the "inwardness of the personal computer," but the protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization and Washington International Monetary Fund meetings reveal that the Web creates alliances and expands social bonds. The history of consumer activism--and its recent incarnations--shows that consumerism does not necessarily lead to an antipolitics of radical individualism.
Cross does put forth important arguments about the "excesses of consumer culture": the environmental degradation, the waste, the lack of free time and the sheer mind-numbing meaninglessness that accompany modern consumerism. But these must be balanced with the recognition that most Americans, especially those in the working class, have viewed the enjoyment of the fruits of consumer society as an entitlement, not a defeat. This should not be dismissed as false consciousness or "embourgeoisement." Far from allowing consumerist demands to erode political impulses, working people--through living-wage, union-label and shorter-hour campaigns--have consistently politicized consumption. Rather than pitting the culture of consumption against democracy, it will be important to continue this tradition of democratizing, rather than demonizing, the culture of consumption. In his assessment of the twentieth century's most influential "ism," Cross provides important warnings about the difficulties of such an effort. But in its stress on the paradoxes of consumer society--an emphasis that then too rapidly gives way to condemnation--An All-Consuming Century also provides lessons from history about the necessity of the undertaking.
The quiet grace of Ring Lardner Jr., who died the other week at 85, seemed at odds with these noisy, thumping times. I cannot imagine Ring playing Oprah or composing one of those terribly earnest essays, "writers on writing," that keep bubbling to the surface of the New York Times. He was rightly celebrated
for personal and political courage but underestimated, it seems to me, as a protean writer who was incapable of composing an awkward sentence. It ran against Ring's nature to raise his voice. Lesser writers, who shouted, drew more acclaim, or anyway more attention.
The obituaries celebrated his two Academy Awards but made less of other achievements. Ring's novel,The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, begun in 1950 while he was serving his now-famous prison sentence for contempt of Congress, drew a transatlantic fan letter from Sean O'Casey. Ring felt sufficiently pleased to have the longhand note framed under glass, which he then slipped into a shirt drawer. He was not about advertisements for himself. In 1976 he published The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Garson Kanin commented, "In the American aristocracy of achievement, the Lardners are among the bluest of blue bloods. In Ring Lardner, Jr. they have found a chronicler worthy of his subject. The Lardners is a moving, comical, patriotic book."
The progenitor was, of course, Ring Lardner Sr., the great short-story writer, who sired four sons, each of whom wrote exceedingly well. James Lardner was killed during the Spanish Civil War; David died covering the siege of Aachen during World War II; a heart attack killed John in 1960, when he was 47. Add Ring's prison term to the necrology and you would not have what immediately looks to be the makings of a "moving, comical" book. But The Lardners was that and more because of Ring Jr.'s touch and slant and his overview of what E.E. Cummings called "this busy monster, manunkind."
From time to time, Ring published splendid essays. The one form he avoided was the short story. He wrote, "I did not want to undertake any enterprise that bore the risk of inviting comparison with my father or the appearance of trading on his reputation."
We became close in the days following the death of John Lardner, who was, quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read. I set about preparing a collection, The World of John Lardner, and Ring, my volunteer collaborator, found an unfinished serio-humorous "History of Drinking in America." He organized random pages with great skill. Reading them I learned that the favorite drink of the Continentals, shivering at Valley Forge, was a Pennsylvania rye called Old Monongahela. George Washington called it "stinking stuff." At headquarters the general sipped Madeira wine.
A year or so later, with the blacklist still raging, I picked up Ring for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, an unusual apartment hotel on Sunset Boulevard near Hollywood. Outside the building, a fifty-foot statue of a cowgirl, clad in boots and a bikini, rotated on the ball of one foot, advertising a Las Vegas hotel. I asked the room clerk for Mr. Robert Leonard. Ring was writing some forgotten movie, but could not then work under his own name. "Robert Leonard" matched the initials on his briefcase.
This was a pleasant November day, but the blinds above Ring's portable typewriter were drawn. When I asked why, he opened them. His desk sat facing the bikinied cowgirl, bust-high. Every eighteen seconds those giant breasts came spinning round. "Makes it hard to work," Ring said and closed the blinds.
The Saturday Evening Post was reinventing itself during the 1960s, on the way to dying quite a glorious death, and with my weighty title there, editor at large, I urged Clay Blair, who ran things, to solicit a piece from Ring about the blacklist. Ring responded with a touching, sometimes very funny story that he called "The Great American Brain Robbery." He explained, "With all these pseudonyms, I work as much as ever. But the producers now pay me about a tenth of what they did when I was allowed to write under my own name."
Clay Blair lived far right of center, but Ring's story conquered him, and he said, "Marvelous. Just one thing. He doesn't say whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Ask him to put that in the story."
"I won't do that, Clay."
"He chose jail, rather than answer that question."
"Then, if he still won't, will he tell us why he won't?"
Ring composed a powerful passage.
The impulse to resist assaults on freedom of thought has motivated witnesses who could have answered no to the Communist question as well as many, like myself, whose factual response would have been yes. I was at that time a member of the Communist party, in whose ranks I found some of the most thoughtful, witty and generally stimulating men and women in Hollywood, I also encountered a number of bores and unstable characters.... My political activity had already begun to dwindle at the time [Congressman J. Parnell] Thomas popped the question, and his only effect on my affiliation was to prolong it until the case was finally lost. At that point I could and did terminate my membership without confusing the act, in my own or anyone else's head, with the quite distinct struggle for the right to embrace any belief or set of beliefs to which my mind and conscience directed me.
These words drove a silver stake into the black heart of the blacklist.
Ring won his first Oscar for Woman of the Year in 1942, and when he won his second, for M*A*S*H in 1970, numbers of his friends responded with cheering and tears of joy. The ceremony took place early in 1971, and Ring accepted the statuette with a brief speech. "At long last a pattern has been established in my life. At the end of every twenty-eight years I get one of these. So I will see you all again in 1999."
Indeed. Early in the 1990s I lobbied a producer who had bought film rights to my book The Boys of Summer, to engage Ring for the screenplay. Ring, close to 80, worked tirelessly. A screenplay is a fictive work, and Ring moved a few days and episodes about for dramatic purposes. His scenario ended with the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series from the Yankees and my account of that ballgame landing my byline on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. The sports editor is congratulating me on a coherent piece when the telephone rings: My father has fallen dead on a street in Brooklyn; I am to proceed to Kings County Hospital and identify his body.
As I, or the character bearing my name, move toward the morgue, I bump into two beer-drunk Dodgers fans. One says, "What's the matter with him?" The other says, "He's sober. That's the matter with him." The body is there. It is my father's body. Beer drunks behind us, my mother and I embrace. Fin.
I can only begin to suggest all that Ring's scene implies. I would start with the point that winning the World Series is not the most important thing on earth, or even in Brooklyn. I was always careful not to embarrass Ring with praise, but here I blurted out, "This is the best bleeping screenplay I've ever read, Ringgold. Oscar III may come true in '99."
"Curious," Ring said. "I seem to have had the same thought myself."
The blacklisting bounders were now dead, but a new generation of Hollywood hounds refused to shoot Ring Lardner's scenario. The grounds: "a father-son angle" was not commercial. "It worked in Hamlet," Ring said, but to unhearing ears. And then we were talking about Ring writing a screenplay for a book I published in 1999 about Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. "Have to cut it back a bit," Ring said. "Following your text would give us the first billion-dollar picture."
Years ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman wrote that Ring Lardner Sr. was an unconscious artist and that his power proceeded from his hatred of the characters he created. Ring told me: "If my father hated anyone or anything, it was a critic like Fadiman. Unconscious artist? My father knew perfectly well how good he was and--better than anyone else--how hard it was to be that good."
Ring Jr. knew the very same thing about himself. Or so I believe. Yeats writes, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work." As well as anyone in our time, my suddenly late friend Ring Lardner came pretty damn close to achieving perfection in both.
The last chapter in Ring Lardner Jr.'s new memoir, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (Nation Books), is called "Sole Survivor." When Lardner, who died October 31, wrote it he was indeed (a) the last of a family of four boys with a famous father, the humorist and sportswriter Ring Lardner; and (b) the last surviving member of the Hollywood Ten, who gained renown in 1947 when they refused to answer the House Committee on Un-American Activities' question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" They were indicted, prosecuted and convicted of contempt of Congress and sent to prison-- in Ring's case for a year.
Among the first victims of the great Red purge to come, The Ten, also known as the Unfriendly Ten, are historically important because they were willing to risk prison to help prevent it, putting First Amendment principle ahead of personal convenience.
At the time, Billy Wilder, the witty director, cruelly and unjustly said, "Of the Unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly." Ring, who had already won his first academy award for Woman of the Year, starring Katharine Hepburn, was one of the two. The other was his buddy Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, who went on to win an Oscar for The Brave One, a movie he wrote under the pseudonym Robert Rich.
At the time, the tabloid press and newsreels did their best to portray the Ten as obstreperous, dogmatic followers of the party line. Each of the Ten was, in fact, following his conscience, albeit they arrived at their decision on how to confront HUAC after collective deliberation with counsel, some of whom were party lawyers, others not.
Lardner's famously elegant response to the committee was a clue to how wrong that image was. "I could answer your question," he said, but "I would hate myself in the morning"--hence his memoir's title.
Even during the blacklist years, when he made his primary living writing under various pseudonyms, he never gave up on his social commitment. Thus in 1955, when Hannah Weinstein set up a production company in London and chose for its maiden effort in the new medium of television The Adventures of Robin Hood, Lardner, along with fellow blacklistees like Abe Polonsky and Walter Bernstein, leapt at the opportunity for, as he put it, commentary-by-metaphor "on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America."
After he was finally graduated from the blacklist--it took twelve years--and able to write under his own name, he gave us M*A*S*H, the black comedy that was, on the surface, about life in a medical unit during the Korean war; but beneath the surface, like Joe Heller's Catch-22, it was about the absurdities and contradictions of war itself.
Although his public positions were militant, privately he was a gentle soul. His main target was often himself. He would delight in telling how he recommended to David O. Selznick that he not acquire Gone With the Wind, the highest-grossing picture of its time, "because I objected on political grounds to the glorification of slave owners and the Ku Klux Klan." When progressives praised him for his principled stand against HUAC he would observe that the Ten did the only thing they could do under the circumstances "short of behaving like complete shits."
The loss of Lardner is a loss for both The Nation and the nation. One part Marxist democrat and two parts humanist-rationalist, he stayed true to his vision to the end. A few years ago he listed in The Nation "some of the strange things Americans believe 200 years after Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason." (Typical entries: "Eating fish is good for the brain"; "There never was a Holocaust.") He felt no comment was called for. But when a reader wrote to complain that "Reason is a wonderful tool, but it is a tiny flashlight shining here and there..." Lardner responded, "What he sees as a tiny flashlight, I call, in the words of Cicero, 'the light and lamp of life.'"
In an introduction to his memoir, I call Lardner "recrimination-challenged." In fact he seemed incapable of bitterness. Although he did once say of Martin Berkeley, a screenwriter who named a record 161 names before HUAC and specialized in writing animal pictures, "I always maintained that was because he couldn't write human dialogue."
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.
Why must the noble rose
bristle before it blooms, and why
must the frost declare
allegiance to the dew?
Don't tell me the robin's
could not be denied.
I've heard the magpie's lies.
Outside my window,
consort in a cedar tree,
fat and happy to be free
of all desire--ah, but
that's not true! See
how they dance and turn
when I throw out the seed.
On a bitingly cold October night two years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a biker came upon a young man, unconscious, his sweet face ruined by a rain of blows, bound to a fence with ferocious tightness. Rushed to a hospital, he lingered for five days in the twilight world between life and death, never regaining consciousness.
Even before his death, this young man, Matthew Shepard, had been molded into an icon whose name and image were known to the world. Overnight, he became the centerpiece of a Princess Diana-like cascade of candlelight vigils, more astonishing because of their spontaneity, the inspiration as well for prayer meetings and angry protests. Meanwhile, Laramie was also being remade, tagged by the media as a town without pity.
In the months that followed, the Matthew Shepard story was ceaselessly retold and re-spun. There were stories dissecting the murder and re-creating the events leading up to it. There were biographical sketches of the victim--everyone's brother, everyone's son or secret lover; accounts that constructed, and afterward tried to tear down, the myth of innocence despoiled. There were renderings of the killers, hapless and shiftless characters, caught by the police even as Matt lay dying, young men whose biographies could have been lifted straight from Boys Don't Cry. And there were stories about the place itself, variously portrayed as Our Town and living hell, where these events occurred [see Donna Minkowitz, "Love and Hate in Laramie," July 12, 1999].
The print reporters and TV crews came and went, migrating with the seasons like whales--on the scene in the aftermath of the killing; back again for the killers' days in court. In their wake came those who saw in the tragedy the stuff of film or theater, as well as celebrities like Elton John and Peter, Paul and Mary, resuscitated for the occasion, who charged $42,500 for a benefit concert that wound up losing money.
Beth Loffreda arrived in Laramie a few months before the murder to take up a teaching job at the university, and she's still there. Losing Matt Shepard benefits greatly from the long-view perspective, as well as from Loffreda's personal struggle to come to terms with her adopted hometown.
In the tradition of Melissa Fay Green's Praying for Sheetrock, another beautifully told tale of love and violence in small-town America, Beth Loffreda has crafted a richly layered narrative that encompasses both the deed and the community where it occurred. Laramie is as liberal as things get in the pridefully insular world of Wyoming, a state with fewer than half a million souls, little known to the rest of the nation. The state university is there, its faculty listing slightly to the left, and there are trace elements of "Bo-Bo" life, decent cappuccinos and stylish pottery on offer. But Laramie can't be confused with Austin or Madison--its values are far less worldly, its tacit code of conduct narrower and more rigid. To those who belong, Laramie embodies the best of the American past: unforced hospitality, concern for one's neighbors. Yet many people who live there are treated as if they don't belong. Latinos and Native Americans talk about themselves as outside the pale--exotics if not threats, the subject of unapologetic stares and sometimes worse. Though Wyoming calls itself the "Equality State," the people who live on the wrong side of the tracks in Laramie, their trailers fronting unpaved streets--among them, the men who killed Matt Shepard--are similarly excluded.
Longtime Laramie residents recite that their town "is a 'live and let live' kind of place--we don't get into other people's business," yet there isn't much breathing room for difference. For those who don't fit into the corseted little universe, the pathway to survival entails leading a "don't ask, don't tell" life. When Matt Shepard walked into the Fireside Bar dressed to the nines, his patent-leather shoes gleaming in the light, he was violating the code, to shudderingly terrible consequence. In this sense, the killing was as predictable and overdetermined as the one in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Determinism misses the mark, though, for the linkages between place and event are tricky to fashion. Matt Shepard cannot, of course, explain himself. His killers and their girlfriend-accomplices have gone mute, after bouts of braggadocio that obliterated their credibility. This vacuum has been filled with myriad, and sometimes ghoulish, speculations: The killing was a simple robbery or a hate crime; an act tacitly condoned by the prevailing mores; the result of the killers' loveless childhoods; the impulse of someone on a meth high; a way for the murderers to obliterate the dark shadow of the "wuss within." While there is some truth to be extracted from many of these explanations, the mix is unknowable; the reason Matt Shepard was so brutally put to death most likely remains obscure even to the killers themselves.
Losing Matt Shepard is a powerful meditation on the distortions inherent in the ways we comprehend the world. Comprehending the minute particulars is critical to understanding, and reductionism is always perilous; but there's no avoiding the need to simplify reality in order to make meaning. "We make that move too easily--that move from the narrow strip of fence where Matt died to the big cultural and political weather fronts grinding along overhead," Loffreda writes. "That move is necessary, I think, if we want to change that weather, but the trip should be hard, something we can't map out easily in advance."
This tension, between the larger world and the world in a grain of sand, plays itself out in Laramie, which in the wake of the murder becomes a green room--a place of double consciousness where one's values and actions are constantly under scrutiny, an intrusive probing that leads residents to reframe their own stories, to spin their lives to the media and ultimately to themselves.
In recent years scores of gay men have been even more brutally murdered than Matt Shepard, to no public notice. In the early 1990s, Steve Heyman, a University of Wyoming professor who advised the campus's gay group, was found dead, apparently tossed from a moving car; no one outside Laramie paid any attention. But Shepard's story, replete with its widely circulated, indelible and misleading symbols--the crucifixion that really was a more prosaic hogtying; the setting, in a place far less remote than the camera angles depicted--came to represent all the other incidents of gay violence. It served as a Rorschach blot, a way to filter America's uneasiness about homosexuality, to comprehend our love-hate relationship with community.
Organizations at both ends of the ideological spectrum turned the murder to their apparent advantage. The appearances of a defrocked minister and his tiny flock, and Matthew Shepard: Burn in Hell banners (more wittily, a sign reading Save the Gerbils), were offset by the theatrics of a handful of students whose outsized angels' wings kept the preacher's signs out of camera range. National gay groups made Shepard the centerpiece of their fundraising campaigns, though Loffreda points out that they gave nothing back to the gay people of Laramie itself. SOFAITH (Society of Families Anchored in Truth and Honor) seized the moment to assail gay "behaviors" and policies supportive of gays. A Denver-based theater troupe descended on the town, interviewing hundreds of residents. Out of those interviews came The Laramie Project, first staged in Denver and then on Broadway [see Elizabeth Pochoda, "The Talk in Laramie," June 19]. As theater, it's as flat and featureless as the prairie, stultifyingly innocuous, entirely unrevealing of character or motivation, without insight. The play's weaknesses have less to do with the talent of the playwright than with the raw material. Laramie's residents were suffering interpretation fatigue by the time the tape recorders were turned on. They had polished speeches for the tape recorders but little of consequence to say.
Losing Matt Shepard ends with the political push, ultimately successful, to pass a bias-crimes ordinance in Laramie. At the time of the murder, a hate-crimes bill was stalled in the state legislature, for all the familiar reasons, and the killing swayed few if any lawmakers' votes. Soon after the murder, the Laramie City Council issued a proclamation expressing its sympathy to Matthew Shepard's parents and urging that "the healing process" begin--pop psychology become politics--but a handful of citizens, straight and gay, wanted a more concrete response. Eventually the council passed a measure calling for police training and better record-keeping. The detective who developed the case against the killers, himself a model of compassion and forensic intelligence, dismissively characterized it a "feel-good" gesture. Yet in Laramie--a town so conservative that a gay assistant professor feared acknowledging her sexuality for fear of jeopardizing her chance for tenure; a place so fearful of gay-bashing that the phone number for the AIDS hotline is unlisted, to discourage threatening calls--this tiny political step makes a difference. It puts Laramie on record as committed to protecting the most basic liberties of gay men and lesbians. In these times, and in this place, that's cause for cheer.
In their 1996 book The Next War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweitzer concoct some troubling scenarios they imagine could confront the United States. One is with Mexico: It's 1999, and a radical nationalist comes to power with the assistance of drug traffickers, resulting in a flood of migrants and drugs across the US boundary. In response, the Pentagon sends 60,000 troops to the border region. Tensions between the two countries mount over the next few years, leading to a full-scale US invasion of Mexico that restores law and order within six months. In constructing this nightmare scenario, the authors draw on a long history of depicting undesired immigrants as invading hordes and the international boundary as a line of defense. Peter Andreas recounts this hawkish vision in his provocative and highly persuasive Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. He argues that predictions of an inevitable march toward greater levels of militarization in the region--of which the Weinberger/Schweitzer vision is the most extreme--ignore the necessity of maintaining a porous boundary because of the significant and intensifying levels of economic integration between the United States and Mexico.
Still, as part of the US government's war on drugs and "illegal" immigrants in the border region, the enforcement regime has grown dramatically over the past two decades, as chronicled by Andreas. The antidrug budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, rose 164 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1997, while the overall budget for the INS nearly tripled between FY 1993 and 1999, from $1.5 billion to $4.2 billion, with border enforcement the biggest growth area. At the same time, transboundary trade has reached unprecedented heights because of the 1994 implementation of NAFTA. This exacerbates the challenge of "enforcement." As a 1999 government report cautioned, "Rapidly growing commerce between the United States and Mexico will complicate our efforts to keep drugs out of cross-border traffic." With a daily average of 220,000 vehicles now crossing into the United States from Mexico--and only nine large tractor-trailers loaded with cocaine required to satisfy annual domestic demand in the United States--the task facing US authorities is daunting.
Given such practical contradictions, it's the creation of an image of boundary control that has been most significant. As Andreas explains--and this is his well-written book's central point--the escalation of border enforcement is less about deterring drugs and migrants than it is about symbolism. In other words, state elites are more concerned about giving a good performance for reasons of domestic political consumption than they are about realizing the stated goals of boundary enforcement. In fact, the political-economic costs of too much success serve to limit enforcement. As one high-level US Customs official cited in Border Games stated, "If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the Southwest border.... Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks--15.8 days.... That's 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end."
To the extent that there is an appearance of success, however (statistics showing more interdiction, for example), it helps to realize a variety of political agendas. As Andreas contends, "Regardless of its deterrent effect, the escalation of enforcement efforts has helped to fend off political attacks and kept the drug issue from derailing the broader process of economic integration."
Thus, in the case of NAFTA, the deceptive image (one carefully crafted with the Clinton White House) that Mexico under Carlos Salinas de Gortari was having significant success in the binational war on drugs facilitated a reluctant Congress's passage of NAFTA. Moreover, the Administration promised that NAFTA would bring even greater levels of transboundary cooperation in the drug war and lead to more resources for boundary enforcement.
NAFTA also intertwined with the Administration's offensive against unauthorized immigration (a matter Andreas does not discuss), which was, in part, the US answer to massive disruption in Mexico's rural and small-business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization. While Administration officials promoted NAFTA as a boundary-control tool (by creating better, high-paying jobs in Mexico, went the argument, NAFTA would lead to less immigration from Mexico to the United States), they also understood that NAFTA would intensify pressures to migrate among Mexicans displaced in the name of economic efficiency. As INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993, "Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."
For Andreas, specific developments are often the "unintended feedback effects of past policy choices" as much as the result of particular bureaucratic incentives and rewards. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for example, led to the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants as a way of ultimately reducing unsanctioned immigration. IRCA's main effect, however, was "to reinforce and expand already well-established cross-border migration networks" and to create a booming business in fraudulent documents.
These "perverse consequences" laid the foundation for the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the early 1990s--most vociferously in California, a state especially hard hit by the recession and feeling the effects of a rapidly changing population due to immigration. In advancing this argument, Andreas cautions that his goal is "not to provide a general explanation of the anti-illegal immigration backlash." Rather, he seeks to show how political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs partially whipped up public sentiment and channeled it "to focus on the border as both the source of the problem and the most appropriate site of the policy solution." While there is much merit in such an approach and the explanation that flows from it, it is insufficient.
First, as many have argued, the backlash of the 1990s was not simply against "illegal" immigrants but, to a large degree, against immigrants in general--especially the nonwhite, non-English speaking and the relatively poor. Moreover, as Andreas shows in a stimulating chapter that compares and contrasts similar developments along the Germany/Poland and Spain/Morocco boundaries, the seeming paradox of "a borderless economy and a barricaded border" is evidenced along boundaries that unite and divide rich and poor in other parts of the world. Given the locales of these developments and their uneven impacts on different social groups, there is need for another type of explanation.
How does one explain the differential treatment of the interests of the rich (enhanced trading opportunities) and those of the poor (those compelled by conditions to migrate and work without authorization)? It is in this area that Grace Chang is of great help. Disposable Domestics offers a refreshingly new perspective on immigration control. Chang's tone is overtly political and more polemical than that of Andreas, but her approach is equally rigorous. Her goal is to make poor immigrant women visible, to humanize them, to highlight their contributions and tribulations, and to show them as actively trying to contest their conditions of subjugation.
Chang argues persuasively that poor immigrant women--largely Third Worlders--have become a central focus of "public scrutiny and media distortion, and the main targets of immigration regulation and labor control" in the United States. To show the continuity between past and present, she provides an overview of the long history of imagery portraying immigrant women as undeserving users of welfare services and hyperfertile breeders of children. In doing so, she makes an invaluable contribution, showing how the regulation of immigration and labor is inextricably tied to matters of gender, as well as to those of class, race and nationality.
The author effectively challenges mainstream assumptions that surround the immigration debate. For example, she argues that studies attempting to measure the costs and benefits of immigration--regardless of their findings or the agendas behind them--ultimately reduce immigrants to commodities or investments. Chang sides with an emerging consensus among immigrant advocates that sees such studies as missing the point, and instead emphasizes the human and worker rights of all immigrants. In this regard, she criticizes immigrant advocates who have fallen into the trap of dividing immigrants between good ("legal") and bad ("illegal").
Chang highlights the folly of this approach in recounting the trials of Zoë Baird, Clinton's first nominee for Attorney General. When it came to light that she employed two undocumented immigrants as domestic servants--a common "crime" among two-career, professional couples--her nomination was sunk. What led to public outrage, according to Chang, was more the "resentment that this practice was so easily accessible to the more privileged classes while other working-class mothers struggled to find any child care," rather than the flouting of the law per se.
Throughout, Chang gives us moving accounts of gross exploitation of immigrant women working as domestics or caretakers, showing that relatively well-off households often look specifically for "illegals" to save money and to facilitate their privileged lives. Indeed, "the advances of many middle-class white women in the workforce have been largely predicated on the exploitation of poor, immigrant women." For Chang, this explains why "the major women's groups were conspicuously silent during Baird's confirmation hearings"--a manifestation of the racial and class privileges their members enjoy.
Recent antiwelfare efforts in the United States, which Chang explores in another provocative chapter, also rely on the exploitation and scapegoating of immigrant women. She compares representations of poor women--native and immigrant--used both in the promotion of welfare "reform" and in efforts to regulate undocumented working women. In both cases, poor women are portrayed as exploiters of the system (to facilitate their hyperfertility) and as criminals--either as welfare cheats or as "illegals." For welfare mothers, the resulting backlash is "workfare"--a program that forces them to work (outside their homes, under the assumption that raising children is neither work nor a benefit to society), but not for a wage. They work for their welfare benefits instead, a remuneration usually far below what they would earn as employees. Meanwhile, government officials, corporate spokespersons and household employers mask their exploitation of low-wage employees as beneficence, purportedly providing them with opportunities, training and preparation, and the ability to assimilate into respectable society.
The war on the poor (welfare reform) and that against unauthorized immigrants are also sometimes functionally tied. Virginia's state office of social services, for example, cooperated with the INS to open up jobs held by "illegals" for workfare participants. This, along with INS raids of workplaces in the midst of unionization drives, according to Chang, is a growing trend. It is far from clear, however--at least on the basis of the anecdotal evidence Chang presents--that such events indicate a long-term, upward trend. Indeed, while anti-union employers have long used the INS to undermine immigrant-worker organizing, with a number of especially outrageous incidents taking place in the late 1990s, those appear to have diminished over the last couple of years, apparently due to the outcry from union, immigration and human rights activists. In part, the discrepancy reflects the fact that Chang wrote the book--more a collection of essays stitched together--over several years, with some of the chapters having appeared in previous publications.
Chang tends to see the factors that create and drive immigration and the mistreatment of low-wage immigrant workers as derivative of an overarching economic logic and a resulting set of intentional, goal-oriented practices. Thus, the workfare/INS-raid nexus illustrates the "true function" of the INS: "to regulate the movement, availability, and independence of migrant labor." More generally, immigration "is carefully orchestrated--that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed and periodically stopped--by the direct actions of US interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations." United States elites keep Mexico and other countries in "debt bondage" so that they "must surrender their citizens, especially women, as migrant laborers to First World nations." And the purpose of California's Proposition 187, which would have eliminated public health, education and social services for unauthorized immigrants, is "perhaps" to mold immigrant children into a "category entirely of super-exploitable workers--those with no access to language or other skills and, most of all, no access to a status even remotely resembling citizenship that might allow them the safety to organize."
Such contentions imply a level of unity within the state and coherency in thought among economic and political actors (who are seemingly one and the same) that simply do not exist. They also downplay the agency of immigrants--who appear to be mere pawns of larger forces--and factors internal to their countries of origin driving immigration. Finally, such economic reductionism is puzzling given Chang's emphasis on race, gender and nationality. It seems at times, however, that she thinks that these are mere tools for highly rational, all-knowing and all-powerful economic elites.
This is why we need to appreciate the autonomous roles of race-, class-, gender- and nation-based ideologies in informing much of the anti-immigrant sentiment--factors that do not always dovetail with the interests of capital. Indeed, those elements are frequently at cross purposes. More than anything, anti-immigrant initiatives over the past thirty years have been the work of opportunistic and/or entrepreneurial elected officials, state bureaucrats and the cultural right--often small grassroots organizations and right-wing think tanks--rather than the business sector. Historically, capital has been generally pro-immigration. As the New York Journal of Commerce gushed in 1892, "Men, like cows, are expensive to raise and a gift of either should be gladly received. And a man can be put to more valuable use than a cow." Today, the Wall Street Journal advocates the elimination of border controls for labor. While this probably does not represent the view of most capitalists, it is significant nonetheless. And in the case of Proposition 187--as Chang reports--California employers, while collectively failing to take a public stand on the measure, generally opposed it for fear that they had much to lose if it passed. That said, the author is undoubtedly right to castigate employers for doing little or nothing to stand up for the rights of immigrants from whose labor, and from whose politically induced marginalization, they profit.
Given the divergent emphases and approaches of Andreas and Chang, very different solutions emerge from their arguments. Andreas criticizes the overemphasis on the supply side of unauthorized immigration and drugs. In terms of immigrants, for example, he observes that among wealthy countries, the United States "imposes the toughest penalties on the smuggling of migrants and related activities yet is among the most lenient with those who employ them." Similarly, he criticizes the scant resources available for enforcing existing workplace rules, which would undermine the ability of employers to exploit unauthorized workers, and he chides Congress for failing to develop a forgery-proof identity card system. (His stand on continued drug policing in the border region is less clear, although he calls for framing the drug problem as one of public health rather than law enforcement.)
Andreas seems resigned to the continued emphasis on border controls, too, despite demonstrating their brilliant failure. As one INS official he quotes explained, "The border is easy money politically. But the interior is a political minefield." Ending the border buildup is also a political minefield--one Andreas seems unwilling to enter. He is decidedly critical of the border status quo and aware of the hardships it causes (a topic to which he gives insufficient attention), but he critiques it on its own terms. In this regard, he does not stray outside the mainstream confines of debate.
A law-enforcement approach to unauthorized immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly much of Latin America) are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and creative, and Americans are too resistant to the types of police-state measures that would prove necessary, to reduce unsanctioned immigration significantly. A far more effective and humane approach would be to work with progressive sectors of Third World societies to address the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and/or institutionalized injustice that often leads to immigration.
De-emphasizing boundary policing will likely reduce the deaths of unauthorized migrants (almost 600 in the California border region alone since 1994). But increased internal enforcement will create other difficulties, such as increased discrimination against those who do not look "American." It will also cause greater hardships in immigrant households, many of which contain people of different legal statuses. Should the US deport a principal breadwinner (an "illegal") from such a household, for example, leaving behind his or her US citizen children and "legal" spouse to fend for themselves?
Although Andreas argues that "the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings," he discusses this matter in narrow terms, focusing on how previous "solutions" to the putative problems had an exacerbating effect. Meanwhile, he neglects the role played by the government and US-based economic interests in creating the conditions that fuel immigration. Thus, no issues of moral or political responsibility enter the analysis.
Grace Chang, on the other hand, puts a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the United States in fueling outmigration; it benefits from immigrant women's labor and wreaks havoc in Third World countries through the likes of military interventions and the imposition of structural adjustment programs. For Chang, the question is not one of trying to devise the best policy to control the unauthorized but of bringing about the changes needed to realize the rights of immigrants as workers and as human beings. In making this case, Chang correctly calls upon those of us who benefit from an unjust world order to stand in solidarity with immigrants--especially low-wage, Third World women who enable our privileged lifestyles--in their struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
It was curled on the pavement, forehead to knees,
as if it had died while bowing. Its stripes
were citrine-yellow, and the black of a moonless
starless, clear night. It did not
belong on a street, to be stepped on, I picked it
up in a fold of glove, and in the taxi
canted it onto a floral hankie,
a small, thin, cotton death-glade--
and the bee moved, one foreleg,
like an arm, feebly, as if old. It seemed
not long for this world, and it seemed I could not
save it, and had been saved, by its gesture,
from smothering it all day in my bag. I would have
liked to set it in a real glade,
but I thought that it might still, right now,
be suffering, yet I could not kill it
directly--I shook it, from the hankie, out the window,
onto West End Avenue,
hoping that, before a tire
killed it, instantly, it would hear
and feel huge rushes of tread and wind,
like flight, like the bee-god's escape.
One of the most remarkable--but unremarked, other than superficially--aspects of globalism is its erosional effect on the role of the state as we've known it since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Indeed, as Nation editorial board member Richard Falk notes in opening Human Rights Horizons, "The sovereign state is changing course due primarily to the widespread adoption of neoliberal approaches to governmental function.... There exists a broad cumulative trend toward the social disempowerment of the state," and "market forces operate as an impersonal agency for the infliction of human wrongs." Advancing their cause despite the privatizing of government functions--the ultimate in deregulation--may be "the most pressing framing question for human rights activists," Falk asserts in this scholarly meditation.
Falk moves between the specific and the general, whether geographically (from Rwanda to Kosovo to the Gulf War) or institutionally (the UN, NATO, World Bank, IMF), to try to tease out the foundations and implications of a new world moral order. He eschews easy answers--"it remains premature at this point to set forth 'the lessons of Kosovo'"--and is skeptical, yet he presents signs of hope: Global media provide "vivid images...of popular activism and makes the struggles in one setting suggestive...in another," for instance, and in one of its dynamics, globalization "is creating a stronger sense of shared destiny among the diverse peoples of the world."