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A more virulent nuclear era has superseded the perils of the cold
Sister, they say heed the hymn in your heart.
You've learned you've an odd rhythm in your heart.
You and I versus our brothers: pitched war.
The four of us in the swim of your heart.
I saw a bird chasing moths trace spirals
in the air, how you love him in your heart!
The wind blows an apple, an acorn down.
Let's revise: follow each whim in your heart.
In the west, weft ascends warp. In the east,
weft treads warp. Silk Route wisdom in your heart.
Knowledge an ocean shaped by desire,
who defines the idiom: in your heart
of hearts? How many hearts do we have? When
one breaks song soothes like a balm in the heart.
Who'll play dub to your syncopated lub?
Endeavor, love, 'gainst tedium in the heart.
The hated math teacher played, "Less is more,"
with my name. Whence the harem in your heart?
A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a
"middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This
not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story
"Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting
youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This
man is respectfully called mastermoshai.
Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the
cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday
morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali
face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes
did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face
belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator,
wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary
men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead
"straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are
advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a
Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by
"It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator
says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the
literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in
another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into
a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our
poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or
literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears
provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.
The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are
already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and
productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have
passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity.
His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a
"transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life,
mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize
that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like
the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general
claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and
sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former
colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a
literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative
writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges
Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time,
also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or
the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is
about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical
Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in
Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals.
Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's
affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he
takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.
Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He
also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to
lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a
choice in the matter."
Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to
practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she
wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the
rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that
"it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed
him; she must possess his gift as well."
This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a
malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee
had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great
restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of
Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.
We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small
group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are
storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close
reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book
of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious
search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and
fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its
most responsible function.
There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary
festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that
there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country.
But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a
university professor who was interested only in promoting the female
students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man
in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat
caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I
I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also
there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel
room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC.
Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the
BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."
I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the
call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that
the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did
Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then
was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a
writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and
endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?
Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real
Time. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above.
A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated
demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more
extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person
account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock
the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every
day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more
nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.
"Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each
other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual
exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence,
offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its
own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better,
recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His
first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States
under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book
award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New
World, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his
A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time,"
which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the
British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an
executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or
memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married
woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony
of her parents' house.
The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been
able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought
tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to
fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a
suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet
pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian
details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor
spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the
recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief
disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career
Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has
more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about
the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the
newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance
that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with
ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is
with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential
ordinariness is what we usually call life.
Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does
not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard,"
a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of
his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose,
history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart
of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the
In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in
Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay
about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how
the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay
were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in
the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called
incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered
The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal
nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While
reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which
Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I
thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement
of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was
also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate
pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces
of silence and filled with near-poetry.
It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more
vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of
Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization
provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes
that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are
not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine.
The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a
slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a
mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present
in the stories of Real Time.
In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots
orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of
fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the
democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a
question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of
seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.
What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath
in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of
language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical
discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that
captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri
sees unfolding around him:
It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the
movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not
clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall
of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL
had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself
for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to
appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on
the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had
eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to
In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America. This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.
The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.
Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.
Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.
But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.
Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.
Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.
These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:
A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.
This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.
There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:
race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.
So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"
Popular perception notwithstanding, the theory of natural selection was
accepted by every serious evolutionist long before Darwin. Earlier
scientists interpreted it as the clearest possible evidence for
intelligent design of the universe. William Paley's Natural Theology
(1802), for example, employs the famous image of the "great watchmaker" to account for the perfect adaptation of creatures to harmonious ecosystems. Darwin's innovation, which may appear small but is in fact immense, lay in his claim that natural selection is the only cause of evolution.
In one sense, this was merely a change of emphasis: The impulse of
pre-Darwinian evolutionists, faced with incontrovertible evidence of
natural selection, had been to ask why it occurred. They sought after
the "final cause" of evolution, and they found it in the proposal of an
intelligent designer. But one of the essential principles of modern
science is that such final causes are unknowable. Science must limit
itself to "efficient" or "material" causes; it must not ask why things
happen, but how. Darwin applied this principle to evolution. Whereas his
predecessors had seen the adaptation of organisms to their environment
as the effects of design, Darwin saw the physical development of
creatures as the sole cause of evolution. The great watchmaker had been
As Stephen J. Gould (who died as this issue was going to press) shows in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Darwin's breakthrough was
essentially methodological. Darwinism is what you get when you focus on
the micrological details, resolutely refusing to lift your eyes to the
level of the whole. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this
methodological sine qua non for scientific investigation was imposed on
every discipline, but it originated in the "dismal science" of
economics. The "political economy" of Adam Smith began from the material
actions of individuals in pursuit of their own selfish ends, and
extrapolated from this micrological level to abstract generalizations
about the economy as a whole.
What Smith calls "the economy" is thus an amalgamation of all the
self-interested actions of individuals, and precisely the same is true
of what Darwin understood as "evolution." In fact, Darwin consciously
and deliberately imported Smith's economic methodology into biology in
order to refute natural theology's argument from design. As Gould baldly
puts it, "the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith's
economics transferred to nature." He is reluctant to dwell too long on
this kinship, no doubt because he understands the severity of the threat
it poses to Darwinism's pretensions to objectivity. Gould's ally and
sometime collaborator Richard Lewontin has criticized him for such
reticence in several exchanges first published in the New York Review
of Books. Lewontin has called Gould's work "curiously unpolitical"
for failing to draw out the implications of "the overwhelming influence
of ideology in science." For Lewontin, "Darwin's theory of evolution by
natural selection is obviously nineteenth-century capitalism writ
large," and attempts to press it into the service of psychology are
The distinguishing theoretical characteristic of both Darwin and Smith
is reductionism--they reduce all knowledge to the level of the
individual. As Gould notes, "The rebuttal of the former centerpiece of
natural history--the belief that organic designs record the intentions
of an omnipotent creative power--rests upon the radical demotion of
agency to a much lower level, devoid of any prospect for conscious
intent, or any 'view' beyond the immediate and personal." Today,
technological progress has enabled evolutionists to carry Darwin's
reduction a stage further. The smallest individual Darwin could study
was the organism, but it is now possible to analyze the behavior of the
gene. People like Richard Dawkins now claim that evolution is driven not
by competition between individual organisms, but by struggles among
Many evolutionary biologists keep a guilty silence regarding the ethical
implications of their theory, but Dawkins positively revels in
dehumanization. His imagery dwells lasciviously on the mechanical--our
bodies are merely "lumbering robots," or "survival machines" for genes.
His infamous book The Selfish Gene (1976) abounds in brazen
antihumanist provocations: "I am treating a mother as a machine
programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the
genes which reside inside it." Nor does mechanization stop with the
body; evolutionary psychology views the mind itself as a machine,
reducing our thoughts and ideas to the chemical reactions that accompany
them. Dawkins has even propounded a theory that the history of ideas
follows rules analogous to competitive gene selection, reducing
dialectic to a tedious and pointless struggle between what he calls
"memes." Lately he has taken to writing letters to the British press,
suggesting that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush will be enlightened
if they "study memes."
The idea that genes determine all social behavior, that human beings are
machines, evidently strikes a chord in the Western popular mind.
Postmodernist works such as Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto"
celebrate the "posthuman" from what their authors apparently regard as a
radical perspective, while the theoretical texts of Michel Foucault and
Jean-Francois Lyotard advocate a micrological materialism that excludes
on principle any interest in "totalizing grand narratives." As John
Dupré has recently remarked, this "tyranny of the microscopic"
really constitutes an "intellectual pathology" whose significance is
sociological rather than scientific. Gould swats Dawkins away easily
enough--sardonically appropriating his vocabulary to dismiss his theory,
cruelly but fairly, as an "impotent meme"--but he does not explain why
such theories have come to seem plausible to many in the general public.
To examine that, we have to back up about 65 million years.
Reptilia served as Exhibit A then. Imagine Triceratops glancing
up from its grazing to notice a seven-mile-wide asteroid descending
rapidly toward its head. Triceratops had not expected this.
Nature had prepared it for the expected; it could expect to spend a
great deal of time fighting with Tyrannosaurus rex, for example,
and was formidably well-equipped for that purpose. But natural selection
had not prepared it to withstand a direct hit from a piece of rock a
The lump of stone that crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula
ended the Cretaceous Period by showering the earth with fire and
brimstone, thus destroying 70 percent of living species, including
almost all the dinosaurs. This was something of a spanner in the works
of natural selection, from which it may not recover. The implications of
this catastrophe, conclusive evidence for which was discovered only in
1980, have yet to be fully assimilated by evolutionary theory. For most
of the twentieth century, orthodox Darwinists held that natural
selection--the competitive adaptation of individual organisms to their
environment--was the exclusive motor of evolutionary change. Now they
must qualify this dogma, but it is proving a laborious process.
Many scientists remain convinced that catastrophic change is the
exception. If it weren't for that pesky asteroid, they gripe, natural
selection would have continued unabated. They note that natural
selection will always work ceteris paribus--that is, other things
being equal, under the controlled laboratory environment in which modern
scientists conduct their experiments. It will work, that is to say, in
the absence of the unexpected. But don't we know from experience that
the unexpected happens all the time, and occasionally with catastrophic
The "K-T event," as the asteroid strike is known, casts suspicion on the
doctrinaire claim that evolution is solely the result of the competitive
adaptation of individual organisms to their environment. It indicates
that the external constraints under which adaptation occurs must
inevitably exert an influence on the course of evolution. And it raises
the possibility that random, "chance" events play at least as
significant a role as the incremental, purposive process of natural
Although it represents a mortal threat to mainstream Darwinism, the
theory of catastrophic evolution is quite consistent with Stephen Jay
Gould and Niles Eldredge's epochal discovery of "punctuated
equilibrium." Punctuated equilibrium, or "punk-ek," holds that evolution
does not take place incrementally but rather in spurts that are divided
by long periods of stasis. It departs from Darwin by implying that
natural selection by competition among individual organisms cannot be
the exclusive cause of evolutionary change, since such competition does
not pause for periods of equilibrium.
Darwin is often thought to have rescued the history of life from the
superstitious fantasies of religion, by basing his theory on good,
solid, empirical evidence. But, as Gould and Eldredge noticed, the
empirical evidence does not indicate that evolution proceeds by
incremental, incessant natural selection, as Darwin claimed. In fact,
the empirical evidence indicates quite the opposite. When we look at the
living species around us, we do not find a continuum of creatures in
infinitesimally graduated stages of evolution. We find, instead, clearly
distinct species. We find the same when we look at the fossil record;
paleontology testifies that evolutionary stasis is the norm, and that
change takes place in abrupt bursts, as though suddenly spurred forward
by some external stimulus.
One of the many fascinating questions raised in Gould's The Structure
of Evolutionary Theory is why Darwin did not see this. Why did he
insist on attributing sole determining power to natural selection in
defiance of the evidence? His own explanation was that the fossil record
gives a false impression because it is radically incomplete. But this
does not alter the fact that natural selection is an imposition on the
available evidence, a bold reading against the grain. Did Darwin nod?
Why was he so convinced that all evolution is caused by natural
selection among individual organisms in competition with one another?
Gould does not explain this, almost certainly for a very interesting
reason: He has often been accused, by sociobiologists and orthodox
Darwinians, of handing ammunition to creationists. There is no room for
an intelligent designer in a universe formed entirely through relentless
competition between selfish individuals, but because it allows that
external factors may influence evolution, the theory of punctuated
equilibrium is not incompatible with theories of intelligent design--a
fact that has caused no small embarrassment to its authors. The charge
of neocreationism is deeply unfair--Gould testified against creationism
in landmark court cases and ridiculed it mercilessly in his writing. He
opposed intelligent design on the grounds that it is "theology" and not
"science." In this book, obviously intended as his legacy to scientific
posterity, Gould repeatedly and emphatically protests that no matter how
many revisions and qualifications he may impose upon Darwin, he remains
a faithful follower of the great man. In a rare and revealing mixed
metaphor, he claims to have retained "the guts of the machine," and he
uses a cumbersome simile involving a piece of coral to argue, again and
again, that his own work is merely an "addition" to Darwin.
That is rubbish, and Gould must have known it. The Structure of
Evolutionary Theory is an "addition" to The Origin of Species
in the same sense that Capital is an "addition" to The Wealth
of Nations. Gould certainly built upon Darwin's work, assuming its
premises as his own and erecting his own theory on the foundation of a
meticulous analysis of the original texts. But there comes a stage in
the construction at which, in fulfillment of the dialectical law,
quantitative change becomes qualitative change, and the extension to the
edifice deserves to be called a new building.
Despite (and because of) his vehement denials, I believe that Gould
reached that stage. His theory is more than a supplement to Darwinism,
it is an alternative view, a paradigm shift. Gould has deprived natural
selection of the exclusive role Darwin assigned to it, using the most
unimpeachable logic and the most scrupulous empirical research.
Gould obviously liked to limit the destructive impact of his criticism
to distortions of the founder's aims. But Darwin cannot so easily be
exonerated--Gould himself admits that the work of Dawkins constitutes "a
furthering and intensification of Darwin's intent." Indeed, Gould often
refers to theorists of gene selection as "ultra-Darwinists" or
"Darwinian fundamentalists," because they take the master's reductionist
method to the logical conclusion permitted by modern technology. Gould
would have been mortified to hear it, but his own interpretation
suggests that, were Darwin alive today, he might be Richard Dawkins.
Traditional creationism is based on a literal reading of Genesis and
represents no intellectual danger to Darwinism. The recent advocates of
"intelligent design," however, demand to be taken a little more
seriously because of their recent political and pedagogical successes;
they admit to the apparent age of the earth as established in the
geological record, for example, and accept the fossil record as evidence
of species change. Hard-fought cases involving the boards of education
of Kansas (1999) and Ohio (2002) have established a new beachhead for
intelligent design in the public mind, while simultaneously throwing a
shadow on natural selection's claim to be the exclusive motor of
The idea that schools in Kansas might depart from Darwinist orthodoxy
induced apoplexy among the commissars of science. John Rennie, editor of
Scientific American, urged colleges to be skeptical of applicants
from Kansas: "If kids in Kansas aren't being taught properly about
science, they won't be able to keep up with children taught competently
elsewhere. It's called survival of the fittest. Maybe the Board of
Education needs to learn about natural selection firsthand." In an
edition of the American Spectator, a leading theorist of
intelligent design, Michael Behe, professed to be mystified at Rennie's
outburst: "What is it about the topic of evolution that drives so many
people nuts? Why does a change in a farm state's high school examination
policy call forth damning editorials all the way from London, England,
and have normally staid editors threatening children?"
The answer is obvious, blindingly so. Behe does not see it because he,
like most advocates of intelligent design, approaches the issue from a
socially conservative point of view. Much scholarship on intelligent
design is sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based
foundation that describes itself as "dedicated to exploring and
promoting public policies that advance representative democracy, free
enterprise and individual liberty," and whose mission statement commits
it to boosting the "common sense" of the "free market." It is this
commitment, I suppose, that distracts Behe from one of the reasons the
American establishment goes "nuts" when the educational privilege of
natural selection is threatened: A threat to the exclusivity of natural
selection--individual competition--is a threat to market ideology.
(Although he tactfully pays it less attention than it deserves, Gould
acknowledges the full extent of Darwinism's complicity with Adam Smith.
But the alterations Gould introduces into evolutionary theory do not
depend on its ideological kinship with classical economics.)
Neither Behe nor his book Darwin's Black Box rate a mention in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and Gould's silence on the
subject of intelligent design can be regarded as extremely eloquent. He
would have denied it, but this book really charts Gould's arduous
passage through Darwinism and his emergence on the other side. This
breakthrough seems to have been facilitated by his discovery of the
literature that Darwin was writing against. Gould blithely informs us
that "I had never read [Paley's] Natural Theology straight
through before pursuing my research for this book." Lay readers may find
this an astonishing confession from the world's leading Darwin scholar,
but those familiar with scientists' undiscriminating rejection of
metaphysics will be unsurprised. Having forced himself to pick up the
book, Gould finds that Paley's primary observation is "undoubtedly
correct," and largely accepted by Darwin--nature does indeed indicate
exquisite adaptation to environment. The difference lies in the reason
Darwin gives for this order in creation. Paley thought it bespoke a
benign creator, but Darwin "seems to mock the standard interpretation in
a manner that could almost be called cruel" when he introduces the
micrological economics of Adam Smith:
as the cruellest twist of all, this lower-level cause of pattern seems
to suggest a moral reading exactly opposite to Paley's lofty hopes for
the meaning of comprehensive order--for nature's individuals struggle
for their own personal benefit, and nothing else! Paley's
observations could not be faulted--organisms are well designed and
ecosystems are harmonious. But his interpretations could not have been
more askew--for these features do not arise as direct products of divine
benevolence, but only as epiphenomena of an opposite process both in
level of action and intent of outcome: individuals struggling for
Read that last sentence again. What might bring about the triumph of the
"opposite process" to "divine benevolence"? Clue: It is not the blind
indifference of nature. The history of human thought is hardly silent
concerning the struggle between a benevolent deity and a cruel mocker.
But Gould shies away from considering the theological implications of
his theory with the standard get-out clause: "This book cannot address
such a vital issue at any depth."
Many readers will be tempted to respond: "Why on earth not? It's 1,400
pages long!" But Gould was not eager to incur again, in his magnum opus,
the tired charge of neocreationism. He does begin to speculate about why
the homologous visions of Darwin and Smith should complement each other
so conveniently, and he also raises the question of why this connection
has come to seem so glaring in recent years. But his uncharacteristic
hesitancy reveals his discomfort away from scientific terrain: "I
venture these ill-formulated statements about Zeitgeist because I feel
that something important lurks behind my inability to express these
inchoate thoughts with precision."
Indeed it does. Later in the book, Gould remarks that "the exclusivity
of organismal selection...provides the punch line that allowed the
vision of Adam Smith to destroy the explicit beauty and harmony of
William Paley's world." Absolutely true. But the exclusivity of
organismal selection is what Gould denied, too. Is it really accurate,
then, to continue calling him a "Darwinist"? At one point, Gould demands
that creationists throw in the towel and acknowledge Darwin as "the
Muhammad Ali of biology." Ali was undoubtedly a great champion, but his
present condition renders Gould's image rather ambiguous. And then, too,
the reader is left in some doubt as to whether Gould saw himself in the
role of Angelo Dundee or Joe Frazier.
There is a difference it used to make,
seeing three swans in this versus four in that
quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its
effects were. Declarations of war, the timing fixed upon for a
about love, a sudden decision not to, to pretend instead to a kind
of choice. It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,
what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere
to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,
something that could know better, and should, therefore--but does not:
a form of faith, you've said. I call it sacrifice--an instinct for it,
or a habit at first, that
becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have
of what was true. You shouldn't look at me like that. Like one of those
on whom the birds once settled freely.
As if the back streets of our local city
might dispense with their pyrrhic accumulation of dust and wineful
offer a reprise of love itself, a careless love
rendered grand and persuasive
by its own shy handful of hope, some ballast such as this
on a summer afternoon when the air smells of slaughtered chickens,
and other problems, like the estranged spouse of a good friend,
holler from the passageway. It's always conclusive
in the bungled moment after you try to accomplish something irreducible.
So you say as you return empty-handed from the store,
having forgotten everything--your money, the list.
Almost everything that is wrong with Washington Post foreign
editor David Hoffman's new book about Russia's transformation into a
capitalist system, The Oligarchs, can be discerned in one small
and apparently meaningless passage on page 91. In it, the erstwhile
Moscow bureau chief of the Post (1995-2001) describes former
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais's reaction when, as a
young man, the future and now infamous "father of Russian privatization"
first read the works of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek:
Many years later, Chubais recalled the thrill of reading Hayek and
instantly gave his own example of how Hayek's theory worked in practice
in the United States. "One person is selling hamburgers somewhere in New
York," he told me, "while another person is grazing cows somewhere in
Arkansas to produce meat that will be used to make those hamburgers. But
in order for that person in Arkansas to graze cows, there needs to be a
price for meat, which tells him that he should graze cows."
Now, the reaction a sane person is likely to have when reading a passage
like this is, What kind of maniac experiences a "thrill" when reading
about hamburger distribution? A corollary question that occurred to me,
as I imagined this 20-year-old Soviet dreaming guiltily of Arkansas
cattle, was, Were there no girls at all in the Leningrad of Anatoly
It's a given that the answers to questions like these are not to be
found in the seminal analytical work of one of the Moscow journalism
community's most notoriously humorless foreign correspondents, but this
problem is less inconsequential than you might think. For it is
precisely Hoffman's inability to write honestly and perceptively about
ordinary human experience that makes The Oligarchs miss as badly
as it does in its attempt to describe the changes in Russian society
over the past decade or so.
By the time Hoffman took over as the Post's Moscow bureau chief,
I had been living in Russia for about five years. First as a student and
then as a freelance reporter, I'd watched during that time as Russians
became increasingly disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. Kids
I'd studied with who had brains and talent found themselves working twenty-four-hour
shifts in dingy street kiosks or lugging feminine hygiene products door
to door, while the only people from my class who ended up with money
were morons and thugs who took jobs with local "biznesmen" (read:
mobsters) doing God knows what.
That was the reality for the Russians young and old who had the
misfortune to live through the early 1990s, when the inefficient old
planned economy was dismantled and something--I hesitate to call it
capitalism--was installed in its place. Honest, hard-working people were
impoverished overnight, while swindlers and killers quickly rose to the
top. The insult was exacerbated for Russians when they began to hear
that the rest of the world, America and the American press in
particular, was calling this process progress.
What America called a "painful but necessary transition," most Russians
saw as a simple scam in which Communist functionaries and factory
directors reinvented themselves by swearing oaths to the new democratic
religion and cloaking themselves in fancy new words like "financier" and
"entrepreneur." The only difference from the old system appeared to be
that the villas were now in the south of France instead of on the Black
Sea. The ordinary Russian also noticed that his salary had become
largely fictional and that all his benefits had been taken away--corners
had to be cut somewhere in order to pay for all those new Mercedes in
At the national level, this process was symbolized by the rise of the
oligarchs, a small group of rapacious and mostly bald men who were
handed huge fortunes by their friends in government. Eventually, they
were to take the place of the Politburo as the ruling coterie of the new
Men like bankers Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Alexander Smolensky and Vladimir
Potanin, industrialist Boris Berezovsky and media magnate Vladimir
Gusinsky became Croesus-rich seemingly overnight in those early years of
the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, they owned or controlled much of
the media and held increasing influence over Boris Yeltsin, a weak
autocrat who had grown dependent on their wealth and power to fend off
his political enemies.
The Oligarchs purports to tell the story of the rise of these
men. It is an exhaustive book, impressive in scope, that contains
extensive interviews with all of the key figures. But it misses because
Hoffman does not know what it is like to sleep in a street kiosk during
a Leningrad winter, nor does he particularly care to know; he writes
like a man trying to describe the dark side of King George from a
trundle bed in a guest room of Windsor palace.
Not that this is surprising. In his tenure as a reporter in Moscow,
Hoffman was notorious for being an unapologetic ideologue, the hardest
of hard-core cold warriors. The basic structure of a David Hoffman
article was generally to lead with a gloomy flashback to some grim
Soviet-era scene and then go on to describe how, with the help of
American aid, the courageous leadership of the democrat Boris Yeltsin
and the heroic efforts of Western-minded reform economists like Chubais,
things had since changed spectacularly for the better.
In other words, lead off with a picture of a groaning, overweight
housewife at the end of a long line to buy shoes that don't fit, and
close with a shot of an apple-cheeked cashier at Pizza Hut using her
salary to buy Nikes. That was Russia Reporting 101 during the 1990s, and
no one was better at it or more devoted to its practice than David
That said, it is surprising, even shocking, that Hoffman would employ
that technique in this book, given the subject matter. Hoffman begins
his book by focusing on the Soviet-era experiences of a characteristic
"ordinary Russian," a schoolteacher named Irina, and describing her
humiliating search for toilet paper on a summer day in 1985.
Use of these images made a kind of sense in the wake of the collapse of
Communism, but in Hoffman's book, published ten years after the fact,
the decision to spend the entire first chapter (titled "Shadows and
Shortages") describing the hardship of product-deprived Soviets in the
1980s can only mean one thing. Hoffman is setting up his reader to
understand the phenomenon of the oligarchs in terms of their eventual
benefit to society.
That benefit, in Hoffman's view, is clearly a Russia full of available
products and the triumphant building of a "rapacious, unruly
capitalism...on the ashes of Soviet communism."
That the vast majority of Russians could not and cannot afford those
products, or even earn enough to feed and clothe themselves, does not
concern Hoffman. The opening of the book, set in the old USSR, is full
of portraits of ordinary folks grasping for Beatles records and VCRs and
other Western delights (Hoffman even sinks so low as to use the
heavyweight champion of Russia-reporting clichés: the Soviet
citizen sitting despondent at the sight of a full refrigerator in a
Western movie). But those same ordinary people are conspicuously absent
from the middle and later pages, when the cracks in the new system--the
stalled salaries, the collapsed local industries, the crime-- begin to
In one particularly telling section, Hoffman describes Yeltsin's
surprise when he learned in early 1998 that his popularity figures in
poll ratings had dropped below 5 percent. According to the book, media
mogul Gusinsky and some of the other oligarchs discovered that Yeltsin,
kept insulated from the truth by his KGB aides, had no conception of the
depth of his unpopularity:
"Before the meeting, they agreed that someone would try to deliver the
raw truth to Yeltsin that he was no longer popular, a painful
realization that, according to [Yeltsin's chief of staff, Viktor]
Ilyushin, the president had not absorbed."
This passage is ironic because Yeltsin's surprise at this juncture of
the story is nearly identical to that of the uninitiated reader
traveling through Hoffman's book for the first time. Until he informs us
a few sentences later of Yeltsin's meager poll ratings, the pain felt by
the overwhelming majority of Russians during the early reform years is
When Hoffman first showed us the schoolteacher Irina, she was a Soviet
citizen deprived of toilet paper, and this was apparently worthy of
note. But if she remained a teacher through this Yeltsin poll moment in
the middle of the book, in 1996, Irina also saw her health benefits
taken away, her salary slashed to the equivalent of about $50 a month
(and possibly delayed for months in any case) and funding for her school
cut so severely that she would have to buy chalk out of her own pocket.
This is not considered noteworthy, in Hoffman's estimation.
The determination to keep the telling of the oligarchs' story within the
context of their eventual salutary effect on the country leads Hoffman
into some grievous oversights and contradictions. None of these are more
important than his insistence upon painting his oligarch subjects--in
particular, Khodorkovsky, Potanin and Berezovsky--as self-made
entrepreneurs who bucked the state system to make their fortunes. The
fact that he connects the rise of these men to the encouraging fact of a
Russia full of products on its shelves is even more misleading.
The reality is that none of these men produced anything that Russians
could consume, and all benefited directly from tribute handed down from
the state. Bankers like Smolensky, for instance, made fortunes through a
collusive arrangement with state insiders who gave them exclusive
licenses to trade in hard currency during a time when prices were set to
be abruptly freed. When hyperinflation set in (naturally) and the
population frantically scampered to convert their increasingly worthless
rubles into dollars, the currency-trading licenses became virtual
spigots of cash.
Furthermore, the oligarchs really became a ruling class only after the
"loans for shares" auctions in late 1995, a series of privatizations
that underscored the incestuous relationship between the state and the
new tycoons. The state "lent" huge stakes in giant companies (in
particular oil companies) in return for cash. Implemented and organized
by Minister Chubais, the auctions ended up being one of the great shams
of all time, as in many cases the bidders themselves were allowed to
organize the tenders and even to exclude competitors. In some cases, the
state actually managed to lend the bidders the money to make the bids
through a series of backdoor maneuvers.
Hailed at the time as the death knell of the state-controlled economy
and a great advance of the privatization effort, the auctions were
actually a huge quid pro quo in which bankers were handed billion-dollar
companies for a fraction of their market price (a 78 percent stake in
Yukos, the second-largest oil company in Russia, valued at least at $2
billion, was sold for just $309.1 million to Khodorkovsky's Menatep
Bank) in exchange for support of Yeltsin in the upcoming 1996 election.
Many Russians today consider loans for shares one of the biggest thefts
in the history of mankind. Hoffman, incidentally, didn't bother to cover
loans for shares as a reporter, either.
One final note about Hoffman. Many reviewers have lauded The
Oligarchs for its "readability." They must have been reading a
different book. If there is a worse descriptive writer in the journalism
world than Hoffman, I have yet to come across him or her. In those
passages in which he goes after the "breezy" conversational style of
David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin's Tomb (Hoffman's
Remnick inferiority complex is grossly obvious in this book), he
repeatedly breaks down into crass stupidities that reveal his lack of
knowledge about the country he covered for half a decade.
At one point, for instance, he describes the young Chubais as having had
a penchant for driving his Zaporozhets automobile at "terrifying
speeds." As the owner of two such cars, which feature 38-horsepower
engines and can be lifted off the ground by two grown men (or maybe four
Washington Post correspondents), I can testify that terror is not
and has never been in this machine's design profile.
Hoffman's atrocious Russian, a subject of much snickering in the Moscow
press community, also shines through in this book. He consistently
mistranslates Russian expressions and fails to grasp lingual/cultural references. For instance, when he talks about Chubais's habit
of spending long hours in the Publichka, which he says is what
"young scholars fondly called the [public] library," he appears not to
grasp that the "fond" nickname is a play on the term publichniy
dom, or whorehouse.
This might be because Hoffman is the only American male to have visited
Moscow in the 1990s and escaped without personal knowledge of the term.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that Hoffman is not the kind of
person one would normally consider an authority on the nontycoon Russian
That's particularly true given the ironic fact that prostitution was one
of the few real growth industries during the reign of the oligarchs, the
one feasible financial option for the modern-day Irinas of Russia.
That's modern Russia in a nutshell: plenty of toilet paper for the
asking, but no way to afford it except...the hard way.
If The Oligarchs is simply a wrongheaded book, then Building
Capitalism, by Carnegie fellow Anders Aslund, is legitimately
insidious. Aslund throughout the 1990s was a key adviser to reform
politicians like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, and as such his
assessment of the success of the privatization era is obviously
self-interested. He claims in the book that "populations have gained
from fast and comprehensive reforms," and that "economic decline and
social hazards have been greatly exaggerated, since people have
forgotten how awful communism was."
This is typical of Western analysis of Russia over the past ten
years--an academic who grew up in Sweden and lives in Washington,
telling Russians that their complaints about reform are groundless
because, unlike Western experts, they do not accurately remember what
life was like under Communism.
Aslund, who helped to design the privatization programs in the middle of
the past decade, goes on in the book to defend those blitzkrieg
liquidations of state industries on the grounds that such formal
privatizations were more equitable than what he calls "spontaneous
A major aim of formal privatization was to stop spontaneous
privatization, which was inequitable, slow, and inefficient. Reformers
feared it would arouse a popular political backlash against
privatization and reform, as indeed happened all over. Especially in the
[former Soviet Union], the saying "what is not privatized will be
stolen" suggested the urge for great speed.
It's not clear from this passage to whom this "great speed" idea was
suggested. Those "equitable" formal privatizations Aslund helped design
left billion-dollar companies like Yukos and Norilsk Nickel in the hands
of single individuals (Khodorkovsky and Potanin, respectively) for
pennies on the dollar. They were so corrupt and unfair that for most
Russians--the majority of whom were left impoverished by the
changes--the word "privatization" became synonymous with theft. Indeed,
Russians even coined a new term, prikhvatizatsiya (or
"grabitization"), that perfectly expressed their outrage over the
private commandeering of property they considered public and their own.
It should be admitted that the extent to which one finds success in
Russia's capitalist experiment--and the worth of the oligarchs who
administered it--is largely a matter of opinion.
If you believe that capitalism is about destroying a country's industry,
handing over its wealth to a dozen or so people who will be inclined to
move it instantly to places like Switzerland and Nauru Island, and about
humiliating the general population so completely that they are powerless
to do anything but consume foreign products and long for the "good old
days" of totalitarianism (polls still consistently show that 70 percent
of the population preferred life under Brezhnev to that of today's
Russia), then you have to judge the Russian experiment a success.
But if you believe that people are more than just numerical variables in
some dreary equation found in an Adam Smith reader (or perhaps numbers
lumped together with cows in Anatoly Chubais's dogeared Hayek text) then
you'll have a hard time finding any true capitalism at all in today's
Russia. Or in either of these coldhearted books, for that matter.
Our most cherished national symbols--from the Pledge of Allegiance to "America the Beautiful" to Lady Liberty's poetry--are rooted in liberal ideals.
One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities.