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Like it or not, America has been able to achieve and maintain its supremacy as a global power because of its capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world. This dependency on foreign imports is especially clear in the realm of science and technology. Roughly one-third of US Nobel laureates were born outside the United States and became naturalized citizens. The father of the American nuclear program was a foreigner. But most foreign-born scientists toil away unrecognized in our nation's research labs, universities and private firms, forming the backbone of American high technology. In computer software development, now widely considered the most important area of American advantage, foreign nationals are commonly recognized as being among the best programmers. Almost a third of all scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are of Chinese or Indian decent.
America cannot afford to lose the loyalty of these high-tech coolies it has come to depend on, yet that's exactly where it seems to be heading with recent cases of immigrant-bashing and racial and ethnic profiling by opportunistic politicians seeking short-term political gains. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the animosity aimed at the enemies of the United States has also been extended to immigrants and American citizens who originally came from the same part of the world. Hundreds of Arab-Americans and Asians from the Indian subcontinent have been detained as suspects, without charges filed against them, under "special administrative measures" in the name of national security. The majority of Americans, the interpreters of polls tell us, approve. It was in the name of the same national security that a Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused some three years earlier of stealing the "crown jewels" of the US nuclear program and giving them to mainland China; similarly enacted special measures threw him in chains and into solitary confinement, although the government had no evidence against him. His public lynching, which was caused by and fed into America's national angst concerning enemy number one of that time--China--is the subject of the two books under review. As a perfect example of a national security investigation botched by racial and ethnic profiling, which led to a shameful failure of all the institutions involved, it could not have been exposed at a better time.
China emerged as America's prime antagonist after the end of the cold war. During the cold war, it was always easy to tell who was America's enemy and who was a friend. Then, with the normalization of Chinese-US diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, those lines began to blur. For a time at least, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was no longer a foe. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life were happily embracing the idea of scientific and cultural exchange, and even nuclear scientists went back and forth. It was understood that the common enemy was the USSR. This cozy relationship ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when US policy-makers, without clearly defined targets, began to show signs of what Henry Kissinger calls "nostalgia for confrontation" and cast about for a manichean opponent. With its rapidly expanding economy in the 1990s, which brought it into some conflict with American interests in Asia, China became the most logical choice.
The targeting of Chinese-Americans and the questioning of their loyalties did not begin in earnest until after the 1996 general election, when Republicans accused members of the Chinese-American community of passing campaign donations from government officials of the PRC to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. It was said to be a clandestine plan by China to influence US policy; the charge was not substantiated, but Asian-American contributors to the Democratic Party were investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in traitorous activities, and suspicions of disloyalty among Chinese-Americans lingered.
The investigation of Wen Ho Lee, who was then a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, started soon after the campaign scandal. It was initiated by an intelligence report that in 1992 China had tested a bomb very much like the Los Alamos-designed W-88, considered one of the smallest and most highly optimized nuclear weapons in the world. Carried on Trident II submarine-launched missiles, the W-88 can hit multiple targets with great accuracy. When a Chinese defector to Taiwan brought documents with diagrams and text descriptions of a long list of US strategic weapons, including the W-88, US counterintelligence circles cried espionage and began an investigation.
Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman, who covered the story for the San Jose Mercury-News and the Albuquerque Journal, teamed up to write A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage, in which they reveal the scandalous details of the misguided search for the Chinese-American spy. Written like a crime novel, their book is at its best as an exposé of the behind-the-scenes workings of Washington politics, in which the truth is all too easily sacrificed for political expediency. The authors blame everyone involved, from the incompetent employees of the FBI and the ambitious bureaucrats of the Department of Energy (DOE) to the zealous anti-China hawks in Congress and a colluding press corps all too willing to swallow government-distributed information without corroboration.
The government spent four years and millions of dollars to pin Wen Ho Lee, ultimately only to find him innocent of spying. Many American weapons designers who were familiar with the Chinese nuclear program saw no reason that Chinese scientists could not invent in the 1990s the miniaturized warheads US scientists had developed in the 1950s. Others pointed out that most of the details on US missiles were available on a website maintained by the Federation of American Scientists. China could have easily made its own bombs by processing the mounds of information gathered from newspapers, magazines and scientific literature that Chinese students and scientists, over more than a decade of scholarly and business exchanges, had obtained legally--a method US counterintelligence circles refer to as gathering grains of sand. Yet the director of counterintelligence at the DOE, Notra Trulock, refused to believe that the Chinese were capable of developing the most modern weapon in the US arsenal on their own. "There's one spy out there and we're going to find him," he reportedly told an assistant.
The spy, if there was one, could have been any of the scientists from a half-dozen national nuclear-weapons-design labs, or an employee of one of the many plants that manufacture the parts, as they all had blueprints. Yet Trulock's order for an administrative inquiry stipulated that the initial consideration would be to identify those US citizens of Chinese heritage who worked directly or peripherally with the design development. This was a logical starting point, the attached memo went on to explain, based upon the intelligence community's evaluation that the PRC targets and utilizes ethnic Chinese for espionage rather than persons of non-Chinese origin. Following this perilous logic, the investigation took on the shape of a funnel: The list of suspects swiftly shrank from the employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore research labs who had traveled to China to the scientists of Chinese heritage who had worked directly or peripherally on the W-88 design development and had had contacts with Chinese scientists. From there, it was a quick jump to Wen Ho Lee as the only person who had the opportunity, motivation and legitimate access to the specific nuclear weapons information believed to have been leaked to the Chinese.
The choice of Wen Ho Lee as the spy was far from logical. He was a native of Taiwan and had openly expressed his sympathy for Taiwanese independence, and has in fact admitted to providing unclassified scientific documents to the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology--Taiwan's military research center involved in developing nuclear weapons. Also, he had been trapped into cooperating with the FBI many years earlier in an investigation of another Chinese-American scientist, while his wife was recruited to act as an unpaid informant on the activities of visiting Chinese scientists.
This may explain why no one at the FBI or any other government agency initially believed Trulock's accusations against Lee. Trulock's first request for a wiretapping order from the Justice Department was turned down. But he doggedly took his spy story to the CIA, the White House and the Defense Department until he finally found a sympathetic ear among Republicans in Congress. Representative Christopher Cox of California was heading the House Select Committee on US National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns, which was investigating the Clinton Administration for jeopardizing national security by being soft on China in exchange for campaign contributions. Cox immediately saw the potential of using an indictment against Wen Ho Lee to help the charges against Clinton stick. Trulock's unverified assertions became bombshells in Cox's committee report. On one occasion a zealous committee member even confused the scientist Wen Ho Lee with Bill Lann Lee, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
But the real damage was done when someone leaked the spy story to the ever-hungry-for-a-Clinton-scandal press. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times passed the information along without corroboration, and soon Congress and the media were "locked in a game of one-upmanship," describing Lee's crime in ever more superlative-laden rhetoric, according to Stober and Hoffman. In no time, expressions of fear and hatred of the Chinese inundated the Internet, TV and radio talk shows. As the storm gathered, Clinton's appointees, instead of standing up against wrongful accusations, buckled. The new Energy Secretary, Bill Richardson, weighing the risk of losing his nomination as the running mate to presidential candidate Al Gore, ordered that Wen Ho Lee be summarily dealt with.
The FBI at first tried to scare Wen Ho Lee into confessing that he had passed nuclear secrets to China. The Rosenbergs professed their innocence, he was told, and the Rosenbergs are dead. When that did not work, he was put in jail, although the government still had no evidence to convict him as a spy. Five years of relentless hounding by its agents--at times more than 100 FBI personnel were working on his case--had produced nothing. The only wrongdoing he could be charged with, discovered by accident during a search of his office, was his downloading of several weapons codes from the lab's secure computer system onto the unsecured one. Similar security infractions were often ignored at the lab, rarely resulting in disciplinary measures. (In an error of potentially much graver consequences for national security, former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch had downloaded top-secret files onto his unsecured home computer, which a family member had been using to surf pornography websites. Deutch was disciplined but he did not lose his job, much less end up incarcerated.)
Lee was prosecuted under the cold-war-era Atomic Energy Act, which allowed for the harshest treatment: He was put in manacles and shackles that were chained to his waist, and was locked up in solitary confinement. When members of his immediate family were permitted to visit him for one hour each month, they were not allowed to speak in Chinese--the language they spoke at home. Lights in his cell were on twenty-four hours a day, with a guard on constant watch. Such conditions are rarely experienced by even the most vicious convicted criminals.
Much to Wen Ho Lee's credit, he did not crack. The US district court judge in New Mexico who was put in charge of the prosecution was so incensed by the government's handling of the case that he said to Lee: "I believe you were terribly wronged.... [Government officials] have embarrassed our entire nation.... I sincerely apologize to you."
This unusual gesture, with which Wen Ho Lee opens his account of the ordeal in My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy, is by the book's end almost certain to draw applause from the readers, as an enlightened conclusion to a grave miscarriage of justice by the government; but the negative consequences of the incident have yet to be fully tallied.
More than 150,000 Chinese-American engineers and scientists work in US industry, government and academia today; roughly 15,000 are employed by the defense sector alone. Because of the way in which the government handled Wen Ho Lee's case, many found that their loyalty was being severely questioned by their bosses and colleagues. They were frequently subject to innuendo and distressing jokes. There were numerous reports of security clearances withdrawn and promotions denied, of people forced into early retirement. A survey conducted by the Committee of 100 and the Anti-Defamation League soon after Wen Ho Lee's release from prison found that 68 percent of Americans feel negative toward Chinese-Americans; 32 percent believe that Chinese-Americans are more loyal to China than to the United States; and 46 percent believe that Chinese-Americans passing secrets to China is a problem.
Even Stober and Hoffman, who make every effort to show the lack of credible evidence proving that Lee was a spy, maintain that his own unexplained actions fed into the political furor that made him all too convenient a target. For instance, Lee lied to the FBI, to his family and to his lawyers about why he had copied voluminous amounts of non-work-related computer codes used to design nuclear weapons and put them on portable tapes that have never been completely recovered.
In his own book, Lee explains the copying as a precautionary measure against losing his files--as had happened to him when the lab switched from one computer system to another. He defends the volume of downloads as necessary to test his portion of the codes "against the snapshot of the whole code at a certain time," because as the weapons designers change their calculations, his codes are affected as well. To Lee's scientific mind, the measure was prudent and logical. John Richter, a Los Alamos physicist known as "the guru of gurus" on the subject of plutonium explosives, testified in court in Lee's defense. He described Lee's actions with an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
Whatever the case, Lee comes across as impossibly naïve as he recounts the events of late 1998, considering that he was in the very eye of the storm raised by the Cox investigation. He continued to cooperate with investigators by submitting to polygraph tests and repeated FBI questioning, without the presence of a lawyer. When his daughter told him that a New York Times article headlined "China Stole Nuclear Secrets from Los Alamos, U.S. Officials Say," published March 6, 1999, was about him, he didn't believe it. He didn't read newspapers, didn't vote and professed not to care about politics. Yet his book is politically sophisticated. It shows the unmistakable imprint of his co-author, Helen Zia, an experienced freelance journalist and a seasoned and respected Asian-American activist, who understood the significance of Wen Ho Lee's case in the context of American ethnic and civil rights politics.
In contrast to the position taken by Stober and Hoffman, who credit Lee's lawyers as being the only morally noncorrupt heroes of this story, Zia recognized that the legal case gained moral weight and credibility through the support of brave people who were willing to risk their careers to speak out in Lee's favor. The American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued statements condemning the government's harsh treatment of Lee. A number of eminent scientists, among them several of Lee's colleagues, individually took the stand. Richter, the guru, provided crucial testimony debunking the government's nonsense that Lee had stolen the nation's "crown jewels," thus altering the balance of power in the world.
The Chinese-American community, still licking the wounds inflicted by Clinton's campaign fundraising scandal, was initially cautious in dealing with the sensitive issue surrounding nuclear secrets. But it picked up Lee's cause as soon as the government went public with its outrageous actions. Foreign-born Chinese-American scientists and engineers, who for years had sweated away quietly in research labs and universities, unrecognized, unappreciated and underpaid, but who were suddenly all suspect, turned their anger into building the Wen Ho Lee Defense Fund, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for his legal bills. Supporters established websites and organized rallies and teach-ins around the country, demanding that members of Congress stop the persecution of Lee. When Professor Ling-chi Wang, director of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, called for a collective boycott of DOE-overseen national labs by all Asian-American scientists and engineers, the labs took notice. (An agreement with the labs on new procedures appeared imminent at press time.)
Job applications by foreign graduate students, from among whom most research labs and engineering firms recruit their future staff, are down. The National Science Board estimates that 30-50 percent of those who hold science or engineering doctorates in the United States are foreign-born (the number is the highest in math: 57 percent). About 7 percent of all physicists and 15 percent of all engineers in the United States are Asian-American. If Asian-American and other foreign-born scientists are discouraged from entering the US work force, notes Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board, the country could have a hard time filling the gap.
Yet, spurred by the September 11 attacks, Senator Dianne Feinstein has called for a moratorium on admissions of foreign students to US educational institutions. American national interests can ill afford this type of mindless antiforeign hysteria. American high school students rank near the bottom in math and science, according to studies on schooling worldwide. The country's best and brightest students often opt for careers as lawyers, doctors and financial professionals, where they can command much higher salaries than in the pure science fields. Wen Ho Lee, for instance, despite holding a PhD from an American university and with twenty years of experience at the Los Alamos labs, made only $80,000 a year--an absurdly meager remuneration for a man accused of changing the balance of power in the world.
If there is a lesson in all this, it is that the pre-eminent position of the United States in the world--"our scientific capabilities and national security," in the words of the president of the American Physical Society, James Langer--was in fact compromised by the government's action in the case of Wen Ho Lee and the resulting alienation of the most qualified foreign-born scientists necessary to maintain that pre-eminence. Unfortunately, the lesson is also, as Wen Ho Lee found out, that an immigrant dream--coming to America, working hard, getting an education, taking care of one's family and minding one's own business--can easily be shattered by politics. Only by becoming politically engaged and organized can immigrants gain the respect of the rest of the American people and stop being singled out as easy victims.
If I die one day from the bullet of a young killer--
a Palestinian who crosses the northern border--
or from the blast of a hand grenade he throws,
or in a bomb explosion while I'm checking the price
of cucumbers in the market, don't dare say
that my blood permits you to justify your wrongs--
that my torn eyes support your blindness--
that my spilled guts prove it's impossible
to talk about an arrangement with them
to talk about an arrangement----that it's only possible
to talk with guns, interrogation cells, curfew, prison,
expulsion, confiscation of land, wisecracks, iron fists, a steel heart
that thinks it's driving out the Amorites and destroying the Amalekites.
Let the blood seep into the dust: blood is blood, not words.
Terrible--the illusion of the Kingdom in obtuse hearts.
Translated from the Hebrew by Shirley Kaufman
By identifying ethics with civic virtue, we create an ethics of the left.
A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
My sister-in-law, a historian and researcher in alternative medicine, once told me of a doctoral dissertation she'd happened across in which the writer interviewed a number of committed liberals and conservatives for the purpose of drawing conclusions about their governing emotional equipment. Liberals, the student found, feel most at home with guilt. Conservatives, as you might expect, don't have much truck with that; instead, they do anger.
It may be hard to call these findings shocking ones, and I do not know whether the candidate's advisers concluded that he or she had sufficiently advanced the literature so as to earn a doctorate. But I can say from personal experience that the liberalism-guilt correlation rings true, and, after reading David Brock's Blinded by the Right, I can certify on the strength of Brock's eyewitness--and often eye-popping--account that conservatives really do anger. Anger as trope; anger as strategy; anger as immutable biological condition; and anger just because it's fun. Yes, we knew this. But we didn't know it the way Brock knows it. Let me put it this way. Throughout the Clinton era, I read every major newspaper and all the magazines and a lot of the websites and most of the pertinent books; I didn't think there was much more for me to learn. But once Blinded by the Right kicks into gear, there is a fact, anecdote or reminiscence about the right's feral hatred of the Clintons every ten pages or so that is absolutely mind-boggling. And, as often as not, these stories are also about the rancid hypocrisy (usually sexual) that underlay, or probably even helped cause, the hatred. In sum: You cannot fully understand this fevered era without reading this book.
The question you may fairly ask is the one some people are already asking: Given the source--Brock was the capital's most famous conservative journalistic hit man before quite famously commencing a mea culpa routine in 1997--can we believe it? The short answer is yes, mostly. The long answer requires that we start, as Oscar Hammerstein III put it, at the very beginning.
The book dances back and forth between exposé and memoir. David Brock was raised in New Jersey, the adopted son of a mother who paid too much mind to what the neighbors thought and a father so rigidly conservative that he did something, as Brock notes, that even Pat Buchanan never felt moved to do: He left the Catholic Church to protest the liberal reforms of Vatican II and worshiped in a sect overseen by the profoundly right-wing French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. It was partly for the sake of agitating his taciturn father that Brock's first political stirrings were liberal (Bobby Kennedy) to moderate (Jimmy Carter, for whom he secretly persuaded his mother to vote). The family moved to Dallas, an inhospitable milieu in general for a Kennedy acolyte, not least one who was coming to terms with the fact that the sight of his fellow boys disrobing after gym class did more to quicken his pulse than, say, a stolen glance in the direction of the décolletage of the Cowboys cheerleaders. Hating Dallas and still seeking to traduce the old man, for college he chose, of all lamentable destinations, Berkeley.
There, Brock expected to drop anchor in a tranquil moorage of like-minded, tolerant, liberal bien pensants. Instead, he ran head-on into the multicultural, academic left, a bird of altogether different plumage. When Jeane Kirkpatrick came to campus to speak, and protesters would not let her utter a sentence as one of them unloaded a bucket of simulated blood on the podium, that was enough for Brock. Soon he was writing columns in the Daily Californian applauding the "liberation" of Grenada and submitting an essay to the Policy Review, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, on campus Marxism. The Wall Street Journal adapted that piece as an Op-Ed, which caught the eye of John Podhoretz, son of Norman, and Midge Decter, and then an editor at Insight, a magazine put out by the Washington Times. Podhoretz offered him a job, and Brock was off to Washington.
The story of Brock's ideological conversion is important, because it reflects a pattern with regard to several of his comrades we meet later in that it was at once both shockingly superficial and utterly fervent. Forget Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek or even Russell Kirk; Brock admits he hadn't read a single thing beyond some issues of Commentary he tracked down in the library. "I knew nothing of the movement's history," he writes. Joe McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon--all were mysteries to him, for the most part. His politics were nothing more than a reaction to his personal experience. While the same cannot fairly be said of the movement's intellectuals, from Brock's telling it was indeed true of many of the activists, operatives and media babblers. Their conservatism was purely an emotional or psychological response to their immediate environment. In the most extreme case, Brock writes that his former close friend Laura Ingraham, one of the bombastic blondes of cable television, didn't "own a book or regularly read a newspaper." But as we have seen, in our age, ignorance is no barrier to expertise, particularly on cable television.
Shallow though it may have been, Brock's conversion was virtually consummate. I say virtually because there were some matters on which he claims he never drank the Kool-Aid. He had little taste, he says, for the racist shock antics of
the Dartmouth Review crowd; he quietly backed abortion rights; and, of course, on the gay question, he marched to a very different drummer than that of the movement to which he belonged. Of parties at the home of archconservative fomenter Grover Norquist, who hung a portrait of Lenin on his living room wall and often quoted Vladimir Ilyich's dictum to "probe with bayonets, looking for weakness," Brock writes that he was "ill at ease" at these gatherings; "unsure of how to handle the issue of my sexuality, I drifted in late and out early, usually accompanied by a woman colleague," traversing the room "like a zombie." Nevertheless, he wanted nothing more than their approval, and he put his remaining misgivings, and the odd homophobic joke, to the side.
This brings us to the book's second vital point about the winger psyche. The need to belong--and, specifically, to belong to a self-styled minority that felt itself embattled, thumbing its nose at the larger, contaminated culture--is a constant motif of Blinded by the Right, and it becomes clear over the course of the book that it was this convulsed emotional state, even more than ideology, that was, and I suppose still is, the real binding glue among the right. For Brock, it began with his trying to shock his father with Jimmy Carter and Berkeley; it went on to Brock's seeking to vilify the campus lefties. It was present, too, among many of the movement types he befriended: "There was electricity on the right, the same sense of bravely flouting convention--of subverting the dominant culture--that I had first felt in Texas and then at Berkeley."
It was by the time of the 1992 election, when this mindset joined hands with a group of men--and their many millions of dollars--who couldn't accept that the GOP was losing the White House to such a man as Bill Clinton, that it went from being a kind of batty nuisance to a well-oiled agitprop apparatus to, ultimately, a threat to the Constitution. Brock was by then ensconced at The American Spectator, which became in time the most virulent right-wing magazine in America, willing to publish any thinly sourced rumor as long as it made a Clinton look bad, and the home of the Arkansas Project, the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded operation that sought to dig up any Clinton dirt it could find. Brock sharpened his knife first on Anita Hill. With Laurence and Ricky Silberman holding his hand--he was a circuit judge in Washington and a member of the hard-right Federalist Society; she had worked for Clarence Thomas with Hill--Brock could scarcely believe how quickly and easily previously unreleased affidavits and so on fell into his hands from GOP Congressional staffers.
Brock knew intuitively what he was supposed to do with this material, and it wasn't journalism. It was character assassination, and not only of Hill. Of one Democratic Senate staffer, he wrote that the man was "known for cutting ethical corners...to achieve desired results." Brock admits he knew nothing about the man. He made no effort to contact sources who might have had different interpretations (and obviously not Hill herself); he double-checked nothing; he twisted the hearing record to make Hill look like a vengeful harridan who was, in his infamous phrase, "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty." But it was good enough for the Spectator, which billed it, natch, as investigative journalism. Rush Limbaugh began reading sections of the piece on the air. Brock was put on to Glen Hartley and Lynn Chu, the literary agents of choice for the hard right. He signed a book contract with the Free Press, then run by archconservative Erwin Glikes and Adam Bellow, son of Saul. The Real Anita Hill hit the bestseller lists. The right-wing newspeak machine, now such a fact of political life, was born.
Next up, the famous "Troopergate" story (again in the Spectator), about Arkansas state policemen supposedly setting up sexual liaisons for Governor Clinton. Brock followed the old MO--no independent sourcing, printing rumors, etc.--to the same triumphant effect. And this time he found to his surprise a willing abettor. Though a few mainstream news organizations did shoot down some specific charges that didn't check out, the chief response of a largely panting Washington press corps ("I was astonished to see how easy it was to suck in CNN") was for more, more, more. Brock became a bigger star still.
Hillary Clinton was the next quarry, and Adam Bellow had obligingly put a $1 million price on her head in the form of Brock's advance. But Hillary proved to be Brock's Waterloo--as she has been, incidentally, for several other men who were supposed to steamroller her (Starr, Whitewater committee chair D'Amato, candidate Giuliani, candidate Lazio...). By then, Brock was starting to develop a conscience. In 1994, Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer's book on the Thomas-Hill matter, Strange Justice, had hit the stands. It proved to everyone in the world but hard-shell rightists that Thomas was indeed a ravenous porn enthusiast and that Hill, in all likelihood, was the truthful one. When even Ricky Silberman, who had been Brock's source and cheerleader while Brock was writing the Anita Hill book, seemed to acknowledge privately that Thomas had lied, Brock was shaken.
By the time he got around to Hillary, Brock was determined to write an actual book. ("I began to relish the complexity of my subject. I realized I had never known what journalism was.") I cannot here convey the full flavor of the contempt his old comrades regarded him with as a result: the sideways glances, the calls not returned, the party invites not received--and, now that he wasn't "on the team," in the argot, the jokes about and denunciations of his sexuality, suddenly delivered within earshot. He was not supposed to commit journalism or write what he thought. He was supposed to kill Clintons. Period. Once he stopped that, his life on the right was finished.
David Brock gave up anger and turned to guilt. In the process, he flings open a most illuminating window on this hideous circus. Here is Newt Gingrich, vowing "to say the word 'Monica' in every speech" even while "conducting his own illicit affair." We see Georgia Congressman Bob Barr plotting to bring the troopers to testify on Capitol Hill to expose Clinton's adultery--the same Barr who, interestingly enough, married his third wife within one month of divorcing his second. We hear Jack Romanos, the head of Simon & Schuster, telling Brock, as he signed the million-dollar Hillary book deal--without even writing a proposal!--that the only thing he wanted to know before OK'ing the money was whether Hillary was a lesbian. We eavesdrop on the publisher of the Spectator asking Brock, "Can't you find any more women to attack?" We read of George Conway, one of the lawyers who played a crucial role in pushing Paula Jones's story, admitting that privately he didn't believe Jones's allegation at all but that her case must be pressed nonetheless because the point was to force a situation in which Clinton would have to lie under oath about extramarital sex. We witness Ted Olson, a member of the bar and now this country's Solicitor General, telling Brock that while he believed Vince Foster had committed suicide, the Spectator should still run a trashy, unsourced piece about Foster's "murder" to keep the pressure on the Administration until the Spectator could shake loose another "scandal."
Anecdotes like these spill out of this book. And so we return to the question: Why believe this man? I was not persuaded by every assertion about his emotional state in 1992 or 1995; there could be some after-the-fact varnishing going on there. But as for what he saw, and whom he saw doing it, there are three very good reasons to believe every word. First is the simple standard of factual recall. Brock names names, places, dates, the food and wine consumed, the color of the draperies. Perry Mason would love to have called Brock as a witness and watched as poor Hamilton Burger buried his vanquished head in his hands.
Second, quite simply, the writing has about it the tenor of veracity and candor. Brock comes clean on things he has no contemporary motive to come clean on, like a lie he told back at Berkeley in an attempt to discredit a journalistic foe. That strikes me as an act of expiation, not public relations.
And third, most persuasive to me, is this: You would think the right's screamers would be engaging right now in flamboyant public harangues about Brock's duplicity and so forth. But to date, I've scarcely heard a peep. Admittedly, it's early yet, as the book is just out. If Blinded by the Right ascends the bestseller lists, I expect at that point that the screamers will decide they have to deal with it. Until then, my hunch is that they hope they can bury it with their silence. That tells me that David Brock, while no longer right, is, in fact, right as rain.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.
When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is. Everyone, because the attacks and their consequences had the rare character of a universal event. Few in the world have been left untouched by them, from New York City schoolchildren to Kabul shopkeepers. No one, because, as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda put it in their introduction to The Age of Terror, "this was something new under the sun."
Or was it? Did we lose our innocence on September 11? Were the attacks a turning point in human history, like the smashing of the atom or the fall of the Berlin wall? Will we never be the same again?
These are the kinds of large questions that have been kicking around since September 11, and it's easy to understand, given the suddenness of the attacks, the scale of the horror and the intensity of the response, why they have been posed. My own view, reinforced by a look at five collections of essays written after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is that it is too soon to tell. Some of the initial analysis is already looking dated or much too optimistic about the changed landscape. And in any event, it's important to be careful about the "we" packed into these questions, and alert to signs that September 11 is being used more often to reinforce entrenched views across the political spectrum than to challenge settled assumptions.
In time, books about what happened on September 11 and its aftermath will no doubt constitute a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. For now, though, the first out of the box are compilations of essays and articles. It must be said at the outset that any book conceived and written in the span of a few months is at best an album of snapshots of a moment, and that while each of the books reflects a particular political orientation and sensibility, none of them constitute a sustained argument or a monolithic point of view.
Two of the books emerge from institutions of the establishment center: How Did This Happen?, edited by James F. Hoge and Gideon Rose, the editor and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations; and The Age of Terror, edited by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, soon-to-be president of the Brookings Institution) and Chanda, the center's publications director.
Despite the fact that no military or national security authority anticipated the stunningly simple way unspeakable damage was wrought on September 11, these two books want to reassure us with "experts." How Did This Happen? promises readers it will answer that question "in all its critical aspects" by bringing together "experts whose insights make the events of that terrible day more understandable, even as we steel ourselves for the conflicts ahead." The Age of Terror promises that an "agenda-setting team of experts" will begin to tell us "what happened here and why," and "examine the considerations and objectives of policy decisions in post-September 11 America."
In other words, Sisters Mary Yale and Harvard Explain It All to You. Except that most of these experts turn out to be men: Only three women are among the twenty-six writers in the Hoge/Rose book, a group that includes a former national security adviser, NATO commander and Secretary of Defense; and only one is among the eight academics in The Age of Terror. (The paucity of female "experts" in these pages, while appalling, is hardly limited to the books in question; a recent report by the White House Project kept track of appearances on the leading Sunday television news and public affairs interview programs and determined that after September 11 the percentage of female guests--only 11 percent to begin with--dropped by 39 percent. That's almost as much of a gender shutout as in prewar Afghanistan under the Taliban.)
The first few essays in the Hoge/Rose book try to explain Islam, marshaling scholars and writers like Fouad Ajami and Karen Armstrong. Walter Laqueur provides a look at "The Changing Face of Terror," and then there are a few pieces each on the impact on US intelligence, security, and diplomatic, military and economic policy. The Talbott/
Chanda book follows a similar template, touching fewer bases.
The three other early collections to emerge since September 11 bear a surface similarity to the Hoge/Rose and Talbott/
Chanda books. They, too, have portentous subtitles ("Conversations in a Time of Terror," "Beyond the Curtain of Smoke," "Solutions for a Saner World"). All the books bear a cover photograph of the crumbling World Trade Center towers (except Another World Is Possible, which has a silhouette of the pre-September 11 lower Manhattan skyline; The Age of Terror also features a Coca-Cola truck amid the Ground Zero debris, perhaps befitting the work of a center on globalization). And they all attempt to survey various aspects of the post-
September 11 world. But there the resemblance ends.
If the editors and authors of The Age of Terror and How Did This Happen? seek to explain September 11, in effect, to themselves--to those who take as a given a world led by a benign United States, in other words--those who compiled and contributed to the other three books are accustomed to their marginalization as critics of the prevailing world order. They might well be living in a parallel universe.
In ascending order of marginalization, After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World emerges from the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute. Among its contributors are many who have written for this magazine, including its editor, and such stars of the progressive punditocracy as Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower and Arianna Huffington. It's in many ways the most comfortable to me of these books, more critical of the existing world order than the "expert" editions but more engaged with it than the other two volumes. But it left less of an impression on me, as well. While there is some overlap between it and September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke (for example, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy and Michael Klare appear in both), the latter volume, published by City Lights Books and Freedom Voices, delivers us an angrier, more sectarian left--the kind of book that contains an oil pipeline map and ends with a poem telling us that the planes that crashed on September 11 were made by "the same billionaire wing-makers whose jets burned the sky over Baghdad, Panama City, Grenada, the Mekong." September 11 and the U.S. War, like After 9/11, consists almost entirely of brief, Op-Ed-length articles that have appeared elsewhere. Unlike After 9/11 (which is dedicated to "the everyday heroes who rose to the challenge of 9/11"), there is barely room in this volume for a nod to the human toll--in the United States, anyway--of the violence inflicted on that day. The editors and authors get straight to business in stating their "dissent from the bellicose actions" taken by the United States, exposing, as they talk about Eduardo Galeano, author of the lead essay, the "fundamental falsehoods of US militarism and its mirrored evils abroad."
The third of the books by the marginalized, Another World Is Possible, was produced by six activists in their 20s affiliated with the Active Element Foundation. If After 9/11 is Tracy Chapman, and September 11 and the U.S. War is Pete Seeger, Another World Is Possible is Rage Against the Machine. The contributors are trying, in the words of Kofi Taha's brief foreword, to "find a language that evokes love, compassion and critical thought in the face of tragedy," and to recognize "this pivotal moment in human history that will either positively propel us forward or plunge us in ever-deepening despair."
One of the positive things about Another World Is Possible is the way the editors disagree with one another--two of them even question whether its subtitle, "Conversations in a Time of Terror," is too "American-centric." Walidah Imarisha, an artist, poet and "rabble-rouser," doesn't like it because "it's been a time of terror for folks of color, in and out of this country, for centuries." Shaffy Moeel, a former reporter for youth radio, thinks Americans should understand that terror is what is faced by 25 million Africans with HIV who can't afford treatment drugs and by Iraqi children deprived of food and medicine. And the authors here don't always take themselves as seriously as some others on the left: It's refreshing to read that Beka Economopoulos, another of the editors and a trainer for the Ruckus Society, avoided the "sectarian and process-heavy" meetings called by the left in the days after September 11.
Another thing that makes this book more compelling than its counterparts is the contribution of Jeremy Glick, a graduate student at Rutgers and one of the editors. On the one hand, much of his writing seems as "sectarian and process-heavy" as any in the collection's pages (and there is plenty of that). On the other, Glick's father was killed in Tower One on September 11, and he writes movingly of what happened to him in the weeks afterward when he experienced a "complete collapse of the public/private."
Another World Is Possible is also more original and graphically lively than any of the other books, containing interviews, photographs and even a running e-mail exchange among the editors, begun on September 11 when several of them weren't sure whether the Jeremy Glick among the casualties was their friend and contemporary or his father.
One way to measure the appeal of these books--or any, really--is whether they manage to surprise us, or tell us something we didn't know. In After 9/11, I was surprised to find peace activist Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies, telling interviewer Helen Knode that she supports a "military response against terrorist bases in nations that fund and support terrorism," because "if you've got a psychopath lunging at you with a knife, that's not the time to talk about peace and love." I was informed, if somewhat amused, by Dr. Michael Bader's examination of the post-September 11 "terror sex" phenomenon--that "some of us get turned on by disasters...because disasters make us unconsciously feel safe to be sexual." (That made me wish they were still making new Seinfelds--oh, the possibilities!)
In Another World Is Possible, I was taken with the editors' ability to unearth quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that have been largely forgotten in the process of his near-canonization, like these lines from his 1967 Riverside Church sermon: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
In How Did This Happen?, I learned from Greg Easterbrook's piece on airline security that it would be sensible to equip planes with transponders that can't be turned on and off by pilots in a hijacking, except automatically upon takeoff and landing. From Stephen Flynn's sobering article, "The Unguarded Homeland," I got a sense of the vulnerability of the harbors of Long Beach, California, and Port Everglades, Florida, and of what a huge disruption it would be to the residents of those states if the oil tankers docked there were attacked in the manner employed against the USS Cole in Yemen. From Walter Laqueur I learned that suicide bombing is not the exclusive province of Islamic terrorists--Sri Lankan Tamils have a higher per capita rate of them, but they are neither Muslim nor religiously motivated. And William Wechsler, a former adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury, writing about efforts to cut off Al Qaeda's financial support, sheds fascinating light on Osama bin Laden's rise. He didn't attain prestige by "leading an army into battle" or "valor in combat"--the source of his power is his fundraising prowess. So for terrorists, it seems, as for politicians, success increasingly comes through the ability to raise large amounts of money.
In The Age of Terror, I appreciated the fresh and provocative perspective of Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution, writing on the "challenge to science" posed by September 11: that "millions of people in poor nations [who] watch their children die of diseases we have not seen in generations" may not see "the introduction of dangerous biological and chemical agents into our relatively clean environments" as so horrible. Perhaps, Singer writes, "the willingness of terrorists to die for a cause we find unfathomable may be influenced by the fact that life spans in their societies are in any case short."
Nothing in September 11 and the U.S. War surprised me.
A number of the essays in these books, particularly in the two "expert" volumes, seem much too optimistic or have already been superseded by events. In How Did This Happen?, economist Martin Baily calmly assesses the economic impact of the World Trade Center attacks, including the effect on the recession, unemployment and the globalization debate, concluding blandly that "economic fears will be overcome." A few pages later, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, writes that it will be difficult for Democrats to shift to the left or Republicans to the right, and that "screaming talk show hosts" who blame "their favorite targets" for the World Trade Center attacks will find no one listening. Has he watched The O'Reilly Factor lately? Wolfe observes with approval that "Bush's support has broadened as his proposals have become more inclusive." I would have liked a dose here of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's relentless, dead-on exposure of the way the Bush Administration has used the cloak of war to disguise an ideological agenda of tax cuts for the rich and privatized Social Security.
In The Age of Terror, Yale history professor Abbas Amanat writes of hopeful signs in the calls for "open society, coexistence and rule of law" in Iran. These are hopeful, indeed, and call for a sensitive and nuanced response by the United States. But it is harder to keep such hopes alive when the burgeoning forces of democratization in Iran are greeted with a US policy--set forth by President Bush in the State of the Union address after Amanat's essay went to press--pronouncing that nation one of three countries in an "axis of evil" that the United States must vanquish now that it is finishing up in Afghanistan.
Paul Kennedy, another Yale history professor and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, applauds the post-September 11 disappearance of US unilateralism. It was certainly possible to think, in the days and weeks following the attacks, as Washington set about lining up the support of other nations for its campaign against terrorism, that we had come to the end of a dismal period in which, only a week before, the United States had walked out of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, having already thumbed its nose at treaties on global warming and the International Criminal Court. But that optimism doesn't seem warranted now, in the mood of US triumphalism surrounding the perceived success of the go-it-alone approach.
Finally, a few of the contributions are, simply put, a bit bizarre. In The Age of Terror, Charles Hill, a former aide to Secretaries of State Kissinger, Haig and Shultz, writes, as if to shake his head at misguided priorities, "In the aftermath of the September 11 mass murders, many Americans admirably rushed to recommit themselves to civil liberties and respect for the rights of individuals who share the appearance, ethnicity or faith of the terrorist enemies of the U.S." On this planet? In the country I'm living in, the Attorney General rushed to apprehend thousands of immigrants without charges or access to public counsel, sent FBI agents to question 5,000 more and impugned the patriotism of those who dared to challenge his policies. The President rushed to set up military tribunals, akin to those we have condemned when used by Peru or Turkey, to try suspected terrorists. Hill goes on: "Over the past few decades, Americans have begun to fall prey to an inverse version of the conspiracy-theory mentality: that virtually every problem in the world can be attributed to some fault of ours." Not that I've noticed. Maybe he's been spending too much time reading September 11 and the U.S. War.
Harold Hongju Koh, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is virtually alone in both of the mainstream volumes in raising the alarm about the serious challenges to civil liberties and human rights brought on by the US response to September 11. Aside from Michael Mandelbaum's essay in How Did This Happen?, only Koh seems concerned about the US tendency to overlook the human rights abuses of "friendly" states, from our allies in the cold war to those in the campaign against terrorism. And only he condemns the rapid resort to "crisis restrictions" on civil liberties and the "oppressive orthodoxy" of "patriotic correctness"--a nice turn of phrase that I hope catches on--that swept the country in the weeks and months following the attacks.
Yet even Koh, in his eagerness to demonstrate that it's possible to combat terrorism and protect civil liberties, overstates the experience of "our fellow democracies like Britain and Israel...in balancing a crisis atmosphere, a forceful response, and strenuous efforts to increase homeland security, with a sustained commitment to domestic civil liberties." For a different view, the latest issue of Index on Censorship, the London-based human rights magazine, reports the testimony of the British rights organization Liberty before Parliament's Home Affairs Committee that twenty-five years of antiterrorism laws in Britain have led to "appalling human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice, and the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent, mostly Irish, people."
Civil liberties are under greater strain in the United States than at any time in recent memory; the Taliban are nearly routed in Afghanistan. That much is clear at this writing. Beyond that, it's almost impossible to predict the longer-term impact of the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, what's remarkable to me about some cataclysmic political events of the past few years, which totally absorbed public and media attention for months on end and which were widely assumed to have altered the political equation in fundamental ways, even calling into question the legitimacy of all three branches of government (I'm thinking here about the impeachment and trial of President Clinton and the crisis over the 2000 presidential election, finally resolved by a highly suspect ruling of the Supreme Court) is not how much they changed American life and politics but how quickly they faded from consciousness, and how little enduring impact they seem to have had. September 11, we are endlessly told, transformed George W. Bush into a leader and erased any lingering doubts about his legitimacy. But in fact, for most Americans, whatever they thought of his competence or policies, doubts about his right to be there had virtually evaporated by the time of the inauguration, and only weeks into Bush's presidency it was quite easy to forget the extraordinary means by which he had reached it.
President Clinton was supposed to be fatally wounded, first by Kenneth Starr's disclosure of what he did with Monica Lewinsky--few public figures aside from Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee have had to endure such a detailed public account of their sexual activities--and then by having to stand in the dock for it. There is no doubt that Clinton's energies and attention were diverted by the trials visited upon him by the independent prosecutor and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But life went on, and it's hard to see any enduring damage to the political system. Monica Lewinsky is a minor celebrity, popping up on HBO and Larry King Live, and Hillary Clinton chums it up in the Senate with dozens of colleagues who voted to oust her husband from office.
A historian might say it is too soon to assess the impact of either the impeachment or the election, and some may think it trivializes the crimes of September 11 to discuss them in the same breath with the perfidies of Kenneth Starr and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Perhaps it does, and I recognize that the events of September 11 sent waves far beyond the shores of US politics and culture. But it is possible to think that the political and diplomatic consequences of September 11--not the personal trauma of thousands of lives forever disrupted by murder, or the psychic scars borne by millions from the violence witnessed and spawned that day--may be far less significant than the conventional wisdom now allows, or at least that it is too soon to tell.
I must also confess skepticism, after reading so many thousands of words written about September 11, from across the political spectrum, that anyone's view of the world has been very much changed. What strikes me most forcefully is how virtually everyone with an opinion or an orientation has cut 9/11 to fit his or her preconceived agenda. The crude and outrageous assertion by Jerry Falwell that gays and abortion-rights activists are to blame for the attacks on the World Trade Center was roundly denounced from all quarters, but there are plenty of other people using the events of September 11 to ride their favorite hobbyhorse.
In The Age of Terror, for instance, Niall Ferguson, an Oxford professor of political and financial history, starts out usefully enough, challenging the military historian John Keegan's assertion that he could not find parallels for September 11. (Ferguson cites the Japanese kamikaze pilots, German use of anthrax in the First World War and the rash of 1970s hijackings.) But by the end of his essay he is urging a "proper role for imperial America" in "imposing democracy on all the world's 'rogue states.'" At the other end of the spectrum, Wendell Berry, writing in September 11 and the U.S. War, hopes that the attacks ended "technological and economic euphoria."
But since, as I suggested at the outset, everyone is entitled to be an expert on this subject, I would like to ride two of my own hobbyhorses for a moment.
The first is about the "we" that the editors and most of the contributors to the two mainstream volumes claim to speak for and to. The brief introductory essay by Hoge and Rose in How Did This Happen?, for example, laments the loss of the "open, secure life Americans took for granted"--a frequently voiced sentiment in recent months that seems unobjectionable at first. But did all Americans take such a life for granted before September 11? Did young African-American men feel secure on the streets of New York City after Amadou Diallo? Or single mothers in East New York who put their children to bed in the bathtub to keep them safe from drive-by shootings at the peak of the crack epidemic?
That's not terrorism, one might respond. Fair enough. Did doctors and nurses working in abortion clinics feel the benefits of an open and secure life after Dr. Barnett Slepian was gunned down? Did such shootings, and a wave of arson and bombing and anthrax threats, have the desired effect of suppressing a woman's right to choose in many parts of the United States? You bet they did. Some communities have always lived with the threat of terror. One thing September 11 did was democratize the fear.
The second hobbyhorse is closely connected, and it has to do with the media's--well, ultimately, the democracy's--failure to do its job in equipping citizens to exercise any meaningful stewardship over the country's role around the world. The disconnection of US foreign policy from democratic discourse is profound. On this point, After 9/11 is strongest, providing a forum for Danny Schechter's argument that "the structure and orientation of our media system and its abandonment of international news...has fueled two cultures, virtually segregated from one another. A small elite operates globally with a 'need to know,' and most people are in effect told they do not."
Is there any chance this picture will change? That Americans will insist on being better informed about the world and the US role in it, and on a foreign policy that respects international law and institutions and the need to act in concert with other democratic nations? That the spirit of community and "everyday heroism" that moved New York and the nation in the weeks after September 11 has sparked a deeper and more enduring sense of civic responsibility and a more inclusive sense of community? That politics-as-usual will be set aside in order to address enduring inequities, here and around the world?
Too soon to tell.
Kanan Makiya, the Arab world's most ardent and vocal supporter of America's projected intervention in Iraq, the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, the arch anti-Orientalist, has just published a new book. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem is a beautifully crafted fictionalized account of
the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, related by Ishaq, the architect of the Dome under which the Rock of Foundation now lies. To call it a novel, however, is misleading. It's more a performance, and a highly political one too. The Rock is a chapter in Makiya's complex political program.
Kanan Makiya is America's favorite dissident. For a start, he's the Iraqi intellectual whose descriptions of life under Saddam Hussein provided the first Bush Administration with peripheral justification for the first war in the Persian Gulf. But he's gone further and taken up America's battered cause against the legions of fashionable intellectuals--Arab and other--who blame the United States for the ills of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and the general misfortunes of the Third World.
Makiya's Republic of Fear, first published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil in 1989, described a dystopia the likes of which were hardly imagined by such fearmongers as Huxley and Orwell. The hells of Brave New World and 1984 were founded on the wholesale indoctrination of a people, and the insidious bureaucratized destruction of individuality. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as described by Makiya, made claims to no such subtlety or totalitarian sophistication. There, the system's survival rested quite simply on its subjects' physical pain, and fear of it. Violence, first used as a carefully prescribed political medicine, became the instrument of state control.
Iraq in the 1960s and '70s saw the frenetic invention of domestic pariahs--Kurds and Shiite radicals, but also those political undesirables who threatened to undermine the all-conquering Baathist revolution. (The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s in Damascus along populist, socialist and nationalist principles, based in large part on the belief that Arabs had a special mission to end Western colonization. It swept to power in Iraq in 1968.) Their violent destruction legitimized a movement that, much like Slobodan Milosevic's ultranationalism, could only unify negatively--against an other. The society Baathist politics created, founded on violence, bred a populace "to whom strength of character is invariably associated with the ability to both sustain and inflict pain," wrote Makiya. Violence directed outward quickly proved itself to be the most effective sedative for a restless population. It took little time to turn it inward to the same effect: It bred fear and made power. In Makiya's descriptions of the punishments of first-time thieves (brandings on the forehead, amputation of limbs), the horrific tortures and endless disappearances of suspected dissenters, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, even the executions of military deserters, lies an anatomy of political evil.
Edward Said and other luminaries of the exiled Arab intellectual community virtually accused Makiya of being an American agent, of showing hatred toward his fellow Iraqis and of providing ammunition for Islamiphobes and Arab-haters across the West. The faintest justification for such a condemnation does exist. In Republic of Fear, Makiya avoids detailing all the reasons for the Iraqi hatred and massacre of the Assyrians in the 1930s, explaining it away as a political machination intended to unify a divided people by inventing a common enemy. He fails to mention that the Assyrians had played an important role in the British persecution of this divided Iraqi people in the previous decade, creating huge resentment at what was perceived as treachery. But his own betrayal of the Arab cause as represented by his critics goes only so far--omission in the footnotes.
Principally, Makiya causes concern to his fellow Arab exiles because he has turned their most powerful conceptual tool on its head, and against them. The notion that the West has unconsciously condescended to the Muslim world since first encountering it in the early modern period, and willfully exploited it ever since, has formed the basis of every indictment of US (and British) policy toward the Middle East: It is superior, self-interested imperialism. Ten days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Said wrote in the London Independent: "Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarisation [building up in the Gulf] with the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West?" Makiya's response to American intervention in the area was wholehearted support. He claimed that the Arab world was failing itself; he let himself imagine a scenario that turned Said into the condescending Orientalist: Makiya dared imagine that the Arabs themselves might have fought Iraq, in defense of Muslim values and an Arab people, in this case the Kuwaitis. Arab intellectuals, he claimed, were conniving in the cataclysm befalling the Arab world by blaming the West rather than attacking the virus within.
Of course, both Said and Makiya provide vital weapons against the troubles of the Middle East, and Said is just as Saddamophobic as Makiya. Said's tireless attacks on Western neo-imperialism in the region are hugely important correctives to what is undoubtedly a tendency in the powerful West, eager for low oil prices. And Makiya's emphasis on Arab responsibility represents perhaps the bravest and most immediate proposal for change in the Middle East. Said and Makiya may talk at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solutions they envisage to the problems of their areas of interest both focus on the crucial role of US involvement: Said argues that Palestinians have everything to gain from curtailed US intervention in support of Israel, while Makiya contends that Iraqis can only gain from full-fledged US involvement.
Although Makiya is best known for his politics, specifically vis-à-vis Iraq, in his political program there is another striking difference from most Arab intellectuals known in the West: his engagement with Islam. Islam is, of course, a core coefficient of the Arab worldview and subsequently of its politics. In what many perceive as the Arab world's struggle with and into modernity, it is also the hardest element to include, in large part because most Arab efforts to upgrade their political and societal structures have imitated a specifically Protestant West, where, in addition, church and state are divided. But very few secular Arab thinkers venture to write about Islam or consider it as a component of their political thinking. Doing so involves pitching headlong into the vipers' nest that is doctrinal competition in Islamic theology today--it is much easier to avoid it.
Makiya's first response to September 11 was to analyze the Islam that justified it. In his first major piece of journalism after the attacks, he wrote in the Observer of bin Laden's theology: "This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity." He picked up this theme again in a detailed piece for the New York Review of Books in January, where he provided an intricate exegesis of the form of Islam propounded by the terrorists, as laid out in a document found by the FBI after the event. His concluding paragraph for that piece read:
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers' document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent.... To contend with such an ideology [that of the hijackers] effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition.... Bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
The Rock was written before the horrors of September 11, but it must be read with all the above in mind. Makiya's first crusade was directed against the horrors of Baathism in Iraq--a secular, nationalist totalitarianism with universalist pan-Arab overtones. That crusade has now been extended to include what at first glance appears to be Baathism's nemesis but that lays an identical claim to absolute truth, justice and good: political Islamism.
In Republic of Fear, Makiya made the point that Baathism had failed to yoke the social to the political: It had failed to include the basic yearnings and ideals of its populace within its political program. Religion, such a vital component of Iraq's social fabric, had only been excluded. Khomeini's Iran, on the other hand, turned religion into politics at the immense cost of its political openness.
There is a middle ground. The Arab world has yet to produce a political system that is capable of incorporating its ethical and moral heritage (Islamic) within a social context that allows for freedom, individuality and those other values typical of "modern" (Western) society but so highly prized by a majority of the Arab world. To do so, the notions of both modernity and Islam must be addressed. Makiya looked at the practical politics of the Middle East and its foremost "modern" thinkers in Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. In The Rock, he tackles Islam.
This, Makiya's first novel, tells the story of Ka'b al-Ahbar, a Jewish Yemeni convert to Islam, who accompanies Umar ibn al-Khattab, second of the Rashidun (or Rightly Guided) Caliphs of Islam, in his conquest of Jerusalem. Tired of the desolation of life in Yemen, Ka'b sets off to make his fortune in the booming renaissance of northern Arabia, where a Prophet has blessed the people of Mecca and Medina. By his knowledge of the stories of Genesis and the cosmology of Abraham, he is quickly included into the elite Muslim fold, in which he converts, before setting off for the Holy City with the Arabian army. There, after battling with Sophronius the Christian Patriarch, he and Umar discover the Rock under a mountain of refuse on the Temple Mount. Here, on the site of Solomon's Temple, Ka'b finds home. If he kneels in the right place, he can pray facing both Mecca and the holy stone on which the father of mankind descended in his fall from Eden: the Precious Stone, the Rock of Atonement, the Rock of Sacrifice, the Rock of the Ages, the Rock of Judgment. He founds a family. His son recounts the story.
While it does spin a tale--and well--the novel is really a skeleton upon which to drape a patchwork cloak of stories. Ka'b hails from a family of rabbis, and his role in the book, just as it was in history (such a Ka'b appears periodically in the annals of early Islam), is as a sourcebook of traditions.
The first Muslims of Arabia, Caliph Umar included, for all their beautiful epic poetry, were not a cultured people. They inherited through the Koran an immense and complicated cosmology that, for all its strength and beauty, left much unexplained. As a Jewish convert to Islam who met the Prophet, deeply versed in the Abrahamic tradition that all monotheists share, Ka'b acted as the exegete of meaning for a people with profound conviction and colossal, newfound power but almost no epistemological context. In history, as in the novel, Ka'b was the one who could advise on the traditions; he was the jurist of myth.
The Rock is a historical novel with a difference. While it traces the lives and developments of people who did exist and events that did happen, its real sources and ultimate focus are the traditions of monotheism. These center on the rock that now sits under the Dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in divided Jerusalem. In chronological order, these traditions describe the rock as that upon which Adam landed when he was banished from Paradise, the rock upon which Abraham was called to sacrifice his firstborn, the site of Solomon's Temple, where Jesus preached and from which Mohammed ascended on his tour of the seven heavens. These and countless other stories--all sourced in one or the other of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts--are delicately brought to life by Ka'b to help the first Muslims make Jerusalem theirs, physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first effect of the novel, achieved by going so deep into the competing and complementary myths about the place, is to remind its reader of the great arbitrariness that designated this rock to be the focal point of worship for half the world. It is, after all, just a rock. That some have seen it as a kind of warp-zone to heaven, others as being suspended between the two worlds of God and Man, and yet more as the launch pad of History (and Apocalypse) is testament to man's unflinching search for meaning, of which Makiya seems proud.
The second act of Makiya's performance, achieved via the endless interplay of the stories related by Ka'b, suggests an interpretation of how meaning works. Just as some literary critics argue that books owe more to those that precede them than to the historical context in which they were written, so Makiya insinuates that religious truth is dependent on and develops out of the canon of truth that precedes it. In his long appendix on the sources he has used, Makiya writes: "It is not always easy for readers to discern from the narrative whether a given story, or a particular detail within a story, or even a passage of scripture is Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. This was the way things were in Ka'b's time and place, if not in ours."
In providing an anatomy of the context out of which Muslim truth was articulated, Makiya has provided the foundations for an inquiry into the nature of religious ideas, particularly as they relate to Muslim society. That inquiry will stand on two pillars. The first is the profound acceptance of the fact that truth is always relative, that it must be looked at contextually and that it perpetuates itself. For when these things are forgotten, the letter will always overcome the spirit of religion. And the second is a hyper-self-conscious sense of symbolism that takes itself for what it is: an expression of meaning, not a truth in itself.
The Rock is a compendium of the monotheistic myths, the ultimate guide to the city of Jerusalem and a narrative history of the Muslim conquest as factually correct (or ambiguous) as any we might expect. But it is also a profoundly sensitive proposal for the basis of a new Islamic theology.
For the past few decades a virulent debate has been raging across the Muslim world, pitching Islam against modernity. It has been brought to a head by the events of September 11. In that context, Kanan Makiya's novel is as important a piece of political writing as any of his work to date.
"There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves.'" These three lines are among the most stirring written by George Oppen, a poet whose modesty and honesty permitted him to look for meaning only in the knowable. He was preoccupied with the world outside his window, and writing about it in a clear language was always a struggle: "say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don't know how to say it."
For all his commitment to clarity, there is much about Oppen himself that remains unknown. He was a Modernist, but unlike his mentors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he was not prolific. When he published his Collected Poems in 1975, he had written exactly one book review and one essay. No manifestoes, no dissertation, no autobiography. When he died in 1984, he had given only a handful of interviews. A Selected Letters was published in 1990, but its paper trail begins in 1958, the year Oppen and his wife, Mary, returned to the United States from political exile in Mexico. The Oppens had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and they went into exile in 1950 to escape the dragnet of McCarthyism. Even George's FBI file, a crucial source of information about the Mexico years, is riddled with black-outs. To know Oppen one must live among his poems, a pleasure that has been greatly enhanced by the publication of George Oppen: New Collected Poems. Housing Oppen's seven full-length books, plus fifty-seven pages of previously uncollected poems, the volume is an astonishing record of the development of an indigenous American avant-garde style by a poet of great intelligence and humanity.
Discrete Series, Oppen's first book, was published in 1934. At first glance its thirty-one lyrics look like offshoots from Williams's Spring and All. Both Oppen and Williams favored spare, compressed lines divested of emotional subversions and devoted to sight and sound. But for all their quotidian scenes, Oppen's poems lack Williams's drama and localism. Instead, they are general, almost categorical, building a moment of perception from prepositions, generic nouns and pauses. "On the water, solid--/The singleness of a toy--//A tug with two barges.//O what O what will/Bring us back to/Shore,/the shore//Coiling a rope on the steel deck." What's equally notable about Discrete Series is that Oppen hewed to a Modernist style without endorsing Modernism's abiding themes; no blood-dimmed tides are loosed, no fragments shored against ruins. But Oppen didn't only defy Modernism. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, and instead of abiding by an orthodoxy that had corralled Pegasus and led it to the Socialist Realist glue factory, he stopped writing altogether. He was a left-wing thinker who did not believe that poetry had the same kind of efficacy as political action, a view that made him "A most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place," to borrow a few lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sailing After Lunch." Oppen did not write again until 1958.
What to make of Oppen's silence? Hugh Kenner called it a mere pause between poems; Charles Bernstein has wondered if it is the longest line break in Oppen's oeuvre. While it would be inaccurate to say that the hiatus did not cause Oppen any anxiety as a poet, it's certainly misleading to describe it as just another pregnant pause. Oppen did many things during those years; none were poetic, but all nourished his thinking as a poet. He and Mary organized a farmers' union milk strike in 1937; they became parents in 1939. George worked as a tool-and-die maker at Grumman Aircraft during the early years of World War II and then served as an infantryman in the US Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; later, near Alsace, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds from German shellfire. After the war he built houses near Los Angeles.
"And Bronk said/Perhaps the world/Is horror," Oppen writes in "A Narrative." The poem is from This in Which (1965), and Oppen is most likely referring to a few lines from William Bronk's "The Nature of the Universe": "we/are the inner mirror of those stars, who find/only an ecstasy to outfeel/horror." When Oppen was writing in the 1960s, he returned over and over to the political and philosophical dimensions of horror. He was terrified and disgusted by the proliferation of nuclear weapons ("My love, my love,/We are endangered/Totally at last") and the escalation of the Vietnam War ("Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious"). Elsewhere he takes a longer view, wondering about "a lone universe that suffers time/Like stones in sun. For we do not." Oppen's struggles with horror and suffering, however, did not turn him into either a nihilist who sneered at a meaningless universe or an aesthete who walled off that universe with intricate formal masonry. "Survival: Infantry," from The Materials (1962), is an important poem for understanding why. Oppen returns to his wartime experience in Alsace, with memories of an artillery barrage--"Where did all the rocks come from?/And the smell of explosives"--mixed with memories of recovery:
We were ashamed of our half life and our misery: we saw
that everything had died.
And the letters came. People who addressed us thru our
They left us gasping. And in tears
In the same mud in the terrible ground
The crucial word is "addressed." Oppen does not say that people "wrote" to him; they addressed him, spoke to him, through their words and hence through his life. Those words in turn create an experience of awe ("They left us gasping"), and while they fail to deliver Oppen from a devastated world (he remains stuck in the "same mud"), they alleviate his despair.
The letters, in other words, gave Oppen a language of survival, and of his many attempts to create this language himself the richest is the serial poem "Of Being Numerous," which appeared in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. "Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities--/The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted," Oppen writes, and he tries to understand and repair that failure through the very construction of "Of Being Numerous." Some of its poems begin with "Or," "So" or "Because" while others redact lines from Oppen's earlier poems, as if the poet was publishing excerpts from an endless conversation with himself. Yet "Of Being Numerous" is not Oppen's song of himself. Self-reflection is knitted into a larger conversation with friends, family members and other writers, whose words Oppen lifted from correspondence or essays and incorporated into his jagged little lyrics, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not. To write a language of survival is to be numerous, but to be numerous is not necessarily to contain multitudes. Rather, it is to startle the self into a meditative drama of reversal and qualification, interruption and invitation, of being pressed into dialogue with others.
Oppen's last book, Primitive, which appeared three years after the publication of his Collected Poems, is perhaps his most haunting vision of survival. Oppen wrote its thirteen poems under some duress; he was growing increasingly disoriented and forgetful, battling the Alzheimer's disease that went undiagnosed until 1982 and claimed his life two years later. Yet it is difficult to determine the impact of the disease on Oppen's poetry, since Primitive is the culmination of the vibrant, attenuated syntax that Oppen had introduced in Of Being Numerous and continued to hone in his next two books, Seascape: Needle's Eye and Myth of the Blaze. In poem nine of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen proposes an ideal: "To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes." Primitive is the dream of that beach, a linguistic "sea-surge," as Eliot Weinberger writes in his lucid preface to this volume, "of contradictory forces: assertions and their negations, declarations couched in double-negatives, questions without answers." The poems are the work of "a returned Crusoe," a poet entranced by mysterious images of war, water, light and rescue. From "The Poem":
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
in the appalling
lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands
The inclusion of Primitive is not the only reason Michael Davidson's edition of Oppen's Collected Poems is "new." The volume also contains the twenty-nine poems that were published in magazines or anthologies but not collected during Oppen's lifetime, and sixty poems that were not published at all. Among the uncollected poems are some gems, including Oppen's last published verse and an epitaph for his close friend and fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. The unpublished poems are fascinating as well and of more than a scholarly interest; one can better appreciate Oppen's technique by considering what he chose to leave in the drawer. Some of the unpublished poems are derivative of Williams's work, relying too much on parochial images or idiomatic speech to convey an idea or emotion. Still others are a heap of images and phrases that Oppen had yet to refine into a few radiant and haunting parts of speech. "The New People," for instance, which dates from the late 1950s, opens with a description of a neighborhood's gentrification: "Crowding everywhere/Angrily perhaps/The world of stoops,/The new young people//With their new styles, the narrow trousers/Of the young men and the girls' bee hive/hair-do's this year they seem a horde." The scene is a messy version of the milieu portrayed in poem twenty-five in "Of Being Numerous": "Strange that the youngest people I know/Live in the oldest buildings//Scattered about the city/In the dark rooms/Of the past.... They are the children of the middle class.//'The pure products of America--'//Investing/The ancient buildings/Jostle each other." It's telling that like most of Oppen's unpublished poems, "The New People" lacks the generic adjectives and nouns that Oppen treasured: thin, strange, home, populace, little and, most important, small.
Davidson's arrangement of the uncollected and unpublished material is curious. Instead of organizing the entire volume chronologically, which would have involved interspersing the uncollected published poems between the contents of the seven published books and placing the unpublished poems (which are often difficult or impossible to date) at the end of the volume, Davidson has placed the uncollected and unpublished poems in a single annex following Primitive. If you want to compare published, uncollected or unpublished poems, which Davidson's editorial notes to individual poems often encourage, be prepared for some page-flipping between poem and poem and poem and note.
The notes themselves are usually informative, providing snippets of relevant biographical and bibliographical information. A few notes could stand to be more precise. The fifth poem in "Of Being Numerous" begins with one of Oppen's most famous images: "The great stone/Above the river/In the pylon of the bridge//'1875.'" Here is Davidson's gloss: "Probably a reference to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built between 1869 and 1883, making 1875 a likely date for one of the pylons." A glimpse at any good history of the bridge's construction will reveal that its two granite pylons (or towers) were completed in 1875, and that on the eastern and western facades of the Manhattan pylon, centered between the apexes of its great gothic arches, is a stone engraved with the digits "1875." (The Brooklyn pylon is undated.) The engraved stone is easily seen from the pedestrian walkway that runs above the bridge's roadways.
Verifying the location of the engraved stone is important, and not merely for precision's sake. "The great stone" is a central poem of Oppen's canon because it symbolizes the poet's relationship to the visible world. He seizes on a public object--the engraved marker--as an image of consciousness: "Frozen in the moonlight/In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness//Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/Which loves itself." Clarifying that Oppen is referring to the Brooklyn Bridge helps to underscore the unromantic nature of his aesthetic. Oppen's stance is the antithesis of Hart Crane's, who in the opening lyric of his long poem "The Bridge" pleads with the granite and cables to "lend a myth to God." In Oppen's poem, the bridge does not become heroic or mythical in the poet's eyes. And even though "1875" hovers at a height that, in the topography of Oppen's poetry, is usually cluttered by the absurd parapets of office buildings, the engraved stone is hardly above it all. Instead, both stone and poet remain public, functional and objective, firmly lodged within the bridge's design as well as the various streams and cycles of space and time churning below and above: the East River, automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic and the moon's orbit.
Oppen was well acquainted with the Brooklyn Bridge. It loomed over the building where he rented a workroom and was not far from the three different apartments in Brooklyn Heights where he and Mary lived at different times between 1960 and 1966. Brooklyn Heights occupies a bluff directly across the East River from lower Manhattan, and while walking around Oppen's old neighborhood it's impossible not to wonder what he would have thought about the devastation of September 11. One recalls an image of Manhattan in "Of Being Numerous":
A city of the corporations
Or a line Oppen used repeatedly in his correspondence, "the girder/Still itself among the rubble," which is a misquotation of a line from Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Golden ("Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/a girder, still itself among the rubbish"). But these images, though provocative, are mere fragments, and Oppen's work is likely to disappoint someone who thinks that poems of the past can somehow divine the physical and emotional dimensions of the recent catastrophe. "The events of Sept. 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions," the poet Mary Karr explained recently in the New York Times, before describing her September 11 reading list, "including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief--if not actual salvation--during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form."
I can't imagine a sentiment more alien to Oppen's work. How peculiar to have one's aesthetic convictions "nailed home" by an act of mass murder, and how more peculiar still for Karr to proclaim, after having assimilated September 11 into poetic accounts of past disasters, "Here I stand, bat cocked, ready for whatever impossible pitch history flings." Oppen wrote often about disasters, but he never counseled a quick flight into culture as a remedy for them. His poems are as void of softball pitches as they are of similes. Things are not "like" other things; they appear and exist before your eyes. In this respect, Oppen's work offers no figurative or topical premonitions of what occurred on September 11; neither thing is like the other, which is precisely why his work remains remarkable and relevant. Hardly a self-contained world of words, the poetry of George Oppen is a place where words about the world must be earned--phrase by phrase, line by line, poem by poem.