A few years back, critics of postmodernism, both left and right, chuckled at the academic sting pulled on the journal Social Text when it published Alan Sokal's bogus article on the socially constructed nature of nature. For conservatives, that the journal ran Sokal's fuzzy call for a progressive postmodern science confirmed the fundamental divide between the politicized humanities and the objective sciences--proof positive of cultural studies run amok. In all the discussion that followed, however, little notice was paid to the origins of post-World War II radical critiques of science. In the shadow of Hitler and Stalin and in the wake of the Vietnam War, theorists from Theodor Adorno to Donna Haraway have been concerned with the ways in which science has colluded with acts of barbarism.
Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado examines the tragic consequences of medical and social science research on the Venezuelan Yanomami and reminds us why scientific practices and theories should indeed be the domain of social critics. White scientists in the jungle have long been central characters in the stories the West tells about itself. Alongside Humboldt and Mengele, Tierney's book now adds to the tropical pantheon James Neel, founder of the University of Michigan's human genetics department, and Napoleon Chagnon, perhaps the world's most infamous living anthropologist.
Well before Darkness's publication, Tierney's most damning charge--that Neel and Chagnon provoked, perhaps knowingly, a fatal 1968 measles epidemic responsible for "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of deaths--has created a scandal that threatens to distract from the real significance of his research. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the book may create a crisis "unparalleled in the history of anthropology." At a special American Anthropological Association forum in mid-November, defenders of Neel charged libel and politicized agendas. One panelist proclaimed that Tierney's "anti-science views" would jeopardize future vaccine efforts and lead to more deaths from disease. Chagnon, evoking the terms of the Sokal affair, has responded that only "cultural anthropologists from the Academic Left" who "despise the words 'empirical evidence' would take Tierney's claims seriously."
Empirical evidence is not lacking in Tierney's copiously footnoted book. Like all good chronicles of Western rationalists who lose their mind among primitives, Darkness in El Dorado is filled with absurd and disgraceful behavior: a French anthropologist who loses himself for decades in a sexual Eden; the world's wealthy holding a tuxedo dinner catered by helicopters on a jungle mountain; researchers who try to kill one another with machetes or commit suicide after being spurned by a Yanomami lover. But aside from his Joseph Conrad-like musings as to what it is about the Yanomami that made white people crazy, Tierney has written a fascinating, but also frustrating, ethnography of the practices and beliefs of cold war medical and social science researchers.
Tierney focuses primarily on the long and strange career of Napoleon Chagnon, who originated the myth of Yanomami aggression in his book The Fierce People, the all-time-bestselling ethnography. Chagnon portrayed the Yanomami as one of the most violent cultures on earth, where villages went to war to procure women and serial murderers bred at a higher rate than men who did not kill.
Tierney convincingly demonstrates his charge that unethical methodology and false science produced this myth. He also describes its often fatal consequences.
Most cultural anthropologists now believe that the wars Chagnon witnessed were provoked by Chagnon himself. He offered axes, machetes, fishhooks and pots in exchange for ethnographic information, creating tensions among villages that vied for monopoly control of his wares. Within months of Chagnon's arrival in 1964, three different fights broke out between villages that had previously been at peace for decades. Anthropologist Brian Ferguson reports that Chagnon was "very much involved in the fighting and the wars. Chagnon becomes a central figure in determining battles over trade goods and machetes."A Yanomami reports that Chagnon offered him an outboard motor in exchange for help, including the procurement of a Yanomami wife. Shotguns, a seemingly unlimited supply of trade goods and willingness to don feathers, face paint and a loincloth allowed Chagnon to transform himself from an "impoverished Ph.D. student at the bottom of the totem pole to being a figure of preternatural power."
Tierney argues that many of Chagnon's data are simply false. The Yanomami do not have a particularly high murder rate, nor do men who kill reproduce more than those who don't. Neither are the Yanomami particularly well-nourished--a claim that Chagnon uses to argue that men fight over women and not food.
In the United States, Chagnon and his sociobiologist allies continue to portray the Yanomami as an untainted relic of our past--a handy control group used to prove the biological basis of a range of aggressive human traits. In Latin America, the endurance of the myth of Yanomami aggression has reinforced racism and justified indifference. Both the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments have used unfavorable images of the Yanomami to justify their failure to protect them from migrants, who, starting in the late 1980s, increasingly entered the region, resulting in the death from disease and violence of untold numbers of Yanomami.
Tierney is at his best when he discusses Chagnon's career within the cultural history of the cold war. Born poor in Michigan, Chagnon used the expanding university system to climb out of poverty. Like many at the time who through discipline and hard work improved their class standing, Chagnon developed a visceral antipathy toward communism. It manifested itself in an intense masculine persona that earned Chagnon a reputation for barfighting and academic brawling. One of Tierney's insights is that Chagnon's theories had their "genesis during the Vietnam War and its cultural equivalent on the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, where hippies in tepees chanted slogans like 'Make love, not war.' The whole point...was that you had to make war in order to make love--that violence was part of the natural order.... As a cold war metaphor, the Yanomami's 'ceaseless warfare' over women proved, that even in a society without property, hierarchies prevailed."
Tierney is on to something important here. The Fierce People was published in 1968, a particularly tough year for the United States abroad. American officials justified counterinsurgency campaigns that were taking place in the jungles of Latin America, Africa and Asia in decidedly Chagnonian terms. As one 1968 dissenting State Department memo put it: "We have condoned counter-terror.... We suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that... murder, torture, and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."
Tierney rightly reads The Fierce People as a piece of home-front propaganda. To counter those who argued that war was caused by struggles over resources (a central claim of New Left interpretations of both the cold war and the Vietnam War), Chagnon "engineered a bold creation myth, a ferocious Garden of Eden, where the healthy, well-fed Yanomami fought for... sexual pleasure.... It was not the Yanomami but Chagnon's fellow Americans who belonged, in reality, to one of the best-fed, healthiest societies in history. America enjoyed abundance so delirious that it seemed, for a short time in the 1960s, that its citizens would not agree to the stress of world combat against Communism.... At that critical moment, The Fierce People... came to reverse a dangerous complacency, proof that the battle is never won, that the fight can never be abandoned."
By the late 1980s Chagnon was in trouble. Tierney misses an important opportunity to discuss how the decline in Chagnon's fortunes was tied to the end of superpower tensions. At home, a generation of anthropologists critical of its discipline's role in justifying US foreign policy came into professional power. In Venezuela his former research subjects were demanding that he be barred from entering their territory. And reflecting the post-cold war extension of economic activity into areas previously off-limits, gold miners poured into the Amazon, causing widespread ecological destruction and social dislocation. Challenged by his liberal colleagues, harangued by feminists, threatened by dark-skinned peoples and adrift in the new post-cold war economy, Chagnon became an international version of the angry white man.
Chagnon did what many did at the end of the cold war--he went private. He teamed up with a flamboyant Venezuelan industrial gold miner, who turned "tracts of forest into mud soup," and the mistress of the Venezuelan president, who has since fled the country following indictments for corruption and fraud. The three came close to establishing a private biosphere in Yanomami territory that would have given them political authority over the Yanomami and monopoly rights over mineral and scientific claims. In order to muster international support for their scheme, they shuttled journalists and scientists in and out of remote Yanomami communities on lightning helicopter tours, without providing protection against possible contagion. Newspapers and television news ran stories of recently discovered "lost villages," while "foreign scientists carried out huge amounts of plant and animal samples."
When Venezuelan and international opposition scuttled his plan to set up a fiefdom in his former field site, Chagnon, now largely shut out of anthropology journals, stepped up efforts to disseminate his theories in the popular press. Although Chagnon often casts himself as an embattled truth-seeker--the preferred role of most biological determinists, no matter how much funding or open access to the media they have--Tierney points out the "abject admiration many male journalists apparently felt for the great anthropologist." He cites a fax that Matt Ridley, the science reporter at The Economist, sent to Chagnon apologizing for not writing a more sympathetic piece: "I have written it in the way that the International Editor wanted, which means 'impartially.' (She is a bit PC, herself.) So you may find it less unambiguously sympathetic to you than you might have hoped, but it is about as far as I dare go.... I do hope you like it."
What will make and, unfortunately, probably break Darkness in El Dorado is its description of the deadly 1968 outbreak of measles that coincided with the arrival of an expedition, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and headed by Neel and Chagnon, to collect Yanomami blood samples.
Tierney's speculation that Neel may have been responsible for the epidemic is based on Neel's decision to use what was by 1968 an antiquated vaccine, Edmonston B, which was contraindicated for isolated populations such as the Yanomami. Tierney suggests that Neel chose this vaccine to prove that American Indians were not genetically vulnerable to European germs. Since Edmonston B produced the same level of antibodies as an infection of real measles, follow-up antibody tests would allow for a comparison of European and Yanomami immune systems. This may be why, according to Tierney, Neel opted for Edmonston B even though it was known to cause measleslike symptoms among isolated groups and even though a cheaper, safer vaccine (but one that did not produce antibodies comparable to the disease) was available. Tierney argues that because Edmonston B produces symptoms similar to measles, its use may have ignited the outbreak; he goes even further by proxy, citing a medical historian who ventures that Neel may have intentionally started the epidemic.
Tierney unfortunately has presented his case in a way that allows for easy dismissal. He provides compelling evidence that Neel and Chagnon did indeed treat the vaccination campaign as an experiment. For instance, by Neel's own telling, in the first village, before the epidemic, the team inexplicably vaccinated only forty Yanomami out of a total population of seventy-six, even though it had enough doses for all. Combined with the fact that most in this village had been tested for measles antibodies two years earlier, the inoculation of half the village created a fortuitous control group for Neel's published findings. It also seems that the vaccine did induce fevers and rashes in many Yanomami. Nevertheless, the fact that Tierney gives no direct evidence to back up his most serious conjecture--that the measles epidemic was caused by the vaccine--threatens to discredit his entire study. (Also, in response to the pre-publication controversy, most medical experts insist that it is impossible for a vaccine, no matter what symptoms it may bring on in the inoculated, to spread as an epidemic.)
Tierney's missteps here speak to a larger problem with his book, which draws its inspiration more from The X-Files than from the Frankfurt School. Tierney tries too hard to link the actions and motives of the individuals involved in a tight net of intrigue, misrepresenting cold war social science as a secret society of an elected few.
Of course, for many, the actions of the United States during the cold war don't make sense any other way. Consider this history: Neel, who did research on Hiroshima survivors, was funded by the Atomic Energy Commission to collect thousands of samples of Yanomami blood because it was thought it could be used as a baseline to measure degrees of genetic mutation. In 1958 the AEC, which in other instances engaged in deadly human radiation experiments, paid Marcel Roche, a Venezuelan doctor who worked on Neel's 1968 expedition, to inject the Yanomami, without their knowledge, of course, with radioactive iodine to study why they did not suffer from goiters. Tierney should not be entirely blamed if he didn't have a theory, other than conspiracy, to explain this.
Darkness in El Dorado unconvincingly attempts to trace this shameful history directly to Neel ("I felt that Neel was the key"), unfairly describing him as an extreme eugenicist. This is unfortunate, for Tierney could have written a more powerful book by demonstrating how the cold war produced acts of barbarism regardless of individual motive.
This is not to let Neel and Chagnon off the hook. They were instrumental in the creation of a body of knowledge that valued the Yanomami not for their own sake but for what they could provide cold war science. Their blood was believed to contain answers to questions raised by the new post-Hiroshima world, while their culture was thought to be a distilled version of what the West once was and, for some, should be again.
In the documentary made of the 1968 expedition, Neel and others are shown professionally inoculating Yanomami, who are presented as pictures of vibrant health. Sound outtakes reveal a different story. The team was exhausted, sick and panicked as the epidemic escaped their control and ravaged the Yanomami. Neel can be heard ordering the cameraman to stop filming a sick Yanomami. Whatever the cause of the measles outbreak, it is probable that the research team exposed the Yanomami to respiratory infections and other illnesses. The outtakes also reveal that Neel and Chagnon were much more concerned with making the documentary and collecting blood samples than with containing the epidemic. They broke quarantine lines to procure donors and quickly abandoned the area so that their blood would not be ruined in the tropical heat.
Tierney's effort to pin the tragic history of the Yanomami on Neel speaks to a larger problem, both in his book and in current ways of thinking about colonialism. With the failure of socialism and the discrediting of revolutionary movements and governments, many First World activists have thrown their energy into advocating on behalf of the cultural rights of native peoples. Much of this work is profoundly apolitical, justified more by appeals to Indian virtue than by critical analysis. This kind of activism too easily sets itself up for dismissal when it is revealed that Indians may have their own interests and may not be as innocent as portrayed.
This problem is reproduced in Tierney's book. It speaks to the poverty of our political culture that Tierney, an experienced investigative reporter, refuses, either out of ignorance or bias, to discuss the history of the Amazon in reference to colonialism, capitalism or racism. Instead, he searches for the mastermind behind the mayhem. Tierney creates a kitschy Heart of Darkness-like tale and casts himself as Marlow and Chagnon as Kurtz (Neel, perhaps, could be King Leopold). Well before we hear any Yanomami voices, we learn of Tierney's battles against jungle thieves and malaria, heroically rescuing Yanomami children and fending off evil gold miners.
Tierney's narrative rightly demonstrates how objective scientists can be implicated in a history of atrocity--and his gaffes should not distract from this history--but it can't account for the fact that while the AEC was paying for Neel's and Chagnon's jungle excursions, it was also funding the work of Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, along with other progressive scientists and anthropologists. These scholars became powerful critics of how the supposed objective research of their colleagues served not-so-objective agendas and had not-so-benign consequences. These politicized scholars have served science well--proof positive that Adorno was right, that "science needs those who disobey it."
I have been waiting for Manifesta to come out. I had certain hopes for this book. In particular, I was looking forward to using it as a corrective addition in a course I'm teaching on "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture." When I first taught this class last spring, my students became increasingly frustrated with the overwhelmingly personal tone of the contemporary feminism we were reading. Our central texts, and until now they have been the central texts of the self-proclaimed Third Wave, were three anthologies, all published in the past five years: Barbara Findlen's Listen Up: Voices From the Next Generation; Rebecca Walker's To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism; and Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake's Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. While each of these collections takes its own approach to the Third Wave, they share an emphasis on the singular experience of young women and the occasional young man as grounds for a new generation of feminist politics ("young" in this context generally designates those born between 1964 and 1980). Specifically, all three anthologies grapple with how to combine some version of feminist politics with what Third Wave Agenda calls the "lived messiness" of real life. After reading assorted articles in which individual Third Wavers describe their intimate struggles with eating disorders, gender dysphoria, racial difference and antifeminist workplaces or, conversely, their sustaining attachments to various punk rockers, my students begin to ask, "Isn't there some Third Wave theory we could read?"
Last spring I suggested to my students that, for the moment, this return to experience in all of its messy multiplicity might be the unifying theory of the Third Wave (we might see it, for instance, as a historically necessary return to the "personal" moment of "the personal is political"), but I share their longing for a militant, argumentative feminism--one that would abandon the personal essay with its fetishization of contradiction and get on with elaborating a political program. Contemporary feminism needs the kind of intervention Manifesta purports to be. Billed as "a powerful indictment from within of the current state of feminism, and a passionate call to arms," Manifesta aims to challenge the experientialism and fragmentation of the emerging Third Wave with history, political argument and activism. These are, to my mind, exactly the grounds on which to confront the Third Wave, but how effectively Manifesta manages this confrontation is another question entirely.
Written by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, both journalists, activists and Third Wavers themselves, Manifesta turns out to be a strange book. Some of this strangeness no doubt derives from its collaborative production. The two writers seem to be trying to repress, rather than sharpen, their differences, and this results in a book that is, narratively, both bland and contradictory by turns. This general atmosphere of forced consensus extends to the content as well. As Richards outlines in her introduction (each writer provides an introduction, not to the book but to herself), she and Baumgardner created Manifesta by combining their separate book projects, one on activism and the other a cultural analysis of current feminism, into one text. The end result is a long, wide-ranging and episodic book that touches on everything from Barbie and Riot Grrrls to voter registration and Title IX without ever fully integrating its cultural and activist components. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is its title, for Manifesta is neither short nor scrappy like the best of its genre (e.g., the SCUM and Communist manifestoes). I was, however, encouraged to find that the book does contain (finally! on page 278) an actual "thirteen point" manifesta that distills its uncontroversial pro-choice, pro-ERA, anti-domestic violence agenda.
Its structural peculiarities aside, Manifesta does supply several potentially powerful correctives to contemporary feminism--the first of which is a historical perspective. One of the striking features of works of Third Wave feminism published so far is their general impatience with, and desire to break from, the feminist past. (Although the editors of both Listen Up and Third Wave Agenda make a point of pledging their allegiance to the Second Wave, their contributors for the most part do not.) Third Wavers frequently accomplish this break by declaring the Second Wave outmoded, unrealistically militant and irrelevant to the lives of young women. Melissa Klein describes this renunciation in her contribution to Third Wave Agenda, "Duality and Redefinition":
Many young women hesitate to take on the mantle of feminism, either because they fear being branded as fanatical "feminazis" or because they see feminism not as a growing and changing movement but as a dialogue of the past that conjures up images of militantly bell-bottomed "women's libbers."
In Third Wave writing, reductive caricature--those "bell-bottomed feminazis"--often displaces and deters real historical knowledge about the politics, accomplishments and legacy of the Second Wave, not to mention earlier feminisms. (For an especially sharp and poignant instance of the Third Wave's failure to recognize the Second, see the foreword and afterword to Rebecca Walker's To Be Real, in which a bewildered Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis wrestle with the treatment that feminism of the sixties and seventies receives in the book.)
Baumgardner and Richards reject this species of feminist ahistoricism. Point 5 of their manifesta aims
To tap into and raise awareness of our revolutionary history.... To have access to our intellectual feminist legacy and women's history; for the classics of radical feminism, womanism, mujeristas, women's liberation, and all our roots to remain in print; and to have women's history taught to men as well as women as a part of all curricula.
Against the Third Wave's rebellious declarations of independence, Baumgardner and Richards insist on a cross-generational, continuous understanding of feminism secured through the study of feminist history. "Having no sense of how we got here," they write, "condemns women to reinvent the wheel and often blocks us from creating a political strategy." Manifesta works throughout to supply some of this prehistory by linking current feminist cultural forms and figures to earlier ones. The Lilith Fair, for instance, is presented in the tradition of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and prosex profemininity Girlie feminists are recognized as descendants of Helen Gurley Brown.
The authors systematize their version of feminist history in a chapter titled "What Is Feminism?" Here they produce a sketchy, breakneck overview of United States feminism from Seneca Falls, through the Nineteenth Amendment, the Second Wave and the ERA, up to the Third Wave. They make some attempt to be multiculturally and politically inclusive by mentioning Native American matriarchies, Sojourner Truth and Emma Goldman, but what they call feminist history here is fundamentally the history of white, middle-class liberal feminism and its record of US governmental reforms. Manifesta's restricted focus on liberal feminism is, unfortunately, systemic. In the rest of the book, where Second Wavers provide most of the historical counterpoint, Baumgardner and Richards repeatedly offer up liberal feminists as representative of all feminism: Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem... Please note that our authors met while interning at Ms.
Feminists on the left and feminists of color will not find their history represented in Manifesta. The contributions of Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Lydia Sargent, bell hooks, Heidi Hartmann, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, to name only a few, go pretty much unmentioned. This historical prejudice is especially striking, given that recent anthologies tend to date Third Wave feminism from the critiques that women of color launched against liberal feminism toward the end of the Second Wave. In this context, Manifesta's historical sensibility reads as reaction, as a call for a return to some imagined white, homogeneous Second Wave feminism. On the few occasions that Baumgardner and Richards deign to mention leftish feminisms, they criticize leftists not for their politics but for being unnecessarily divisive, for undermining some presumed feminist consensus. Barbara Ehrenreich and Katha Pollitt, for instance, receive sharp criticism for having the gall to "[point] their fingers" at other feminists.
This anxiety about feminist dissent permeates Manifesta. Like a mantra, Baumgardner and Richards repeat phrases like "everyday feminism," "the same old feminism" and "organic" feminism, as if there were some reassuring common sense that united all feminists. For our authors, this "same old feminism" designates the same old liberal reformism, and while I praise their historical instincts--the Third Wave needs its past more than it knows--I wish Baumgardner and Richards had worked harder to be more fully historical. Not only do they provide the feminist history that is most likely to be familiar to readers without their help (through mainstream institutions like Ms., NOW and the Democratic Party) but their reductive version of the feminist past is unlikely to speak to the interests and experiences of women of color, working-class and radical women, or queers (though of all differences among women, they give the most lip service to sexual difference). Manifesta's history simply isn't adequate for comprehending, much less galvanizing, the actual class, racial, sexual and political heterogeneity of American women.
The second correction that Manifesta brings to the Third Wave is an insistence on political argumentation. If Third Wavers are vulnerable to charges of navel-gazing, of musing endlessly and confessionally over the contradictions between feminism and life, the authors adamantly resist this deferral of political consciousness. Throughout Manifesta they insist on making feminist sense of the world, using anecdotal narratives and statistical data (they admit to being obsessive fact-checkers) to remind us that the pay gap between women and men persists and remains substantial (74 cents to the dollar, by current calculations), that rape and domestic violence still operate to restrict women's independence, that the sexual double standard continues to distort female sexuality and that reproductive rights are only partially and tenuously secure. Although their political consciousness remains disappointingly close to their own experiences and needs as young professional white women (they give an inordinate amount of time to the injustices that face female journalists in New York City, while other feminist issues, like daycare, racism, gay-bashing and collective bargaining in the pink-collar ghetto, receive little to no treatment), at least Baumgardner and Richards model the process of politicizing experience, of seeing the personal as political. "Consciousness-raising," they argue, "must precede action."
At a deeper level, however, Manifesta simply isn't argumentative enough. In fact, the argument we most expect from a work of contemporary feminist theory--a systemic analysis of the causes of women's oppression today--is entirely absent. If the Third Wave intends to remake feminism for this generation, then it needs a comprehensive account of the specific material conditions that currently determine (and determine differentially) the social and economic position of women in the United States and outside the United States as well. Such an account requires thinking through systems (capitalism, patriarchy, racism, homophobia) in the way many Second Wavers did, although it does not require that the Third Wave simply redeploy arguments generated in the seventies. After all, material conditions change. Instead of systemic argumentation, however, Baumgardner and Richards offer up a loose platform of issues: prison reform, pay inequality, military access for women, negative body images, the ERA, egalitarian healthcare, etc. Because Manifesta lacks a coherent structural account that could link these disparate issues (e.g., through the underlying socioeconomic processes that produce them), readers are unlikely to recognize any inner logic in this collection of so-called women's issues. Nor can Manifesta provide an argument for prioritizing one issue over another. In Baumgardner and Richards's account, feminism becomes analytically rootless, seemingly implicated everywhere, but no more effective or necessary in one arena than another.
In the absence of sustained structural analysis, our authors use large quantities of populist boosterism to hold the book together. Their populism underwrites two of Manifesta's larger claims, the first of which is that despite what critics say, feminism is everywhere in contemporary culture, just waiting to be acknowledged. The authors announce the existence of what they call a contemporary "Feminist Diaspora"--a large, dispersed population of "everyday" feminists who embody the Second Wave's success in establishing feminism as part of our cultural common sense. "For anyone born after the early 1960s," they assert, "the presence of feminism in our lives is taken for granted. For our generation, feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it--it's simply in the water." Of course this is a controversial proposition, as it assumes that the feminism of the sixties and seventies was disseminated uniformly to young women throughout the United States, irrespective of class, racial, educational or geographical distinctions. You get a very different picture of feminism's reach if you talk to women who, although "born after the early 1960s," were raised in rural areas, in immigrant families or in working-class neighborhoods. But if it's true, as our authors say, that feminism can now be taken for granted, that it has become part of popular consciousness, this presents Baumgardner and Richards with a unique dilemma. "The only problem," they acknowledge, "is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert." So even though they see "a generation of [young women] leading revolutionary lives," our authors concede that these same women are "best known for saying, 'I'm not a feminist, but...'"
Point 1 of the manifesta contains their plan for attacking this lack of feminist self-identification: "To out unacknowledged feminists, specifically those who are younger, so that Generation X can become a visible movement and, further, a voting block of eighteen- to forty-year-olds." As far as I can tell, "outing," in this context, consists of making feminism so enticingly broad and nondemanding that young women, realizing they are in no way required to interrogate themselves or their social practices, will claim feminism for themselves. "Maybe you aren't sure you need feminism," Baumgardner and Richards coax,
...or you're not sure it needs you. You're sexy, a wallflower, you shop at Calvin Klein, you are a stay-at-home mom, a big Hollywood producer, a beautiful bride all in white, an ex-wife raising three kids, or you shave, pluck, and wax. In reality, feminism wants you to be whoever you are--but with a political consciousness.
By asserting that young women are already feminists, if unconscious ones, Baumgardner and Richards feel empowered to claim that there is, indeed, a feminist "movement" afoot today. Although they admit that it does not consist of "a huge force of conscious feminists" (i.e., it does not look like anything we'd recognize as collective action), they repeatedly refer to "the movement" as if saying the word could call the social form into being. I share Manifesta's desire for a movement (the fizzled Riot Grrrl was arguably the closest--and it wasn't very close--we've come to collective feminist action in the last decade), but I don't believe that calling whatever women do to survive "a movement" or trying to swell the feminist ranks with prepolitical young women is the most effective way to get us there.
Baumgardner and Richards's populist strategies also emerge in the second of their larger claims, namely that political differences between types of feminism really don't, and ideally shouldn't, matter all that much. Our authors take a staggeringly latitudinarian approach to feminism. They stage extended defenses of Naomi Wolf and Katie Roiphe, both of whom most feminists consider conservative backlashers, in order to assert their rightful membership in the feminist camp. "We have to put down our relentless search for feminist purity," they argue,
...and look at Katie Roiphe, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Naomi Wolf, and the rest of the emerging young women as what they are: feminists, the next generation.... Yes, all feminists deserve critique and debate, but save your political vitriol for the young babes who are right-wing and political.
Baumgardner and Richards also extend feminist inclusion to "Girlie" types, those young women, vaguely associated with Bust's readership, who find personal empowerment in the cultural trappings of traditional adolescent femininity. They even make a case for Monica Lewinsky as a contemporary feminist icon, calling her "a twenty-three-year-old White House intern who owned her own libido and sexual prowess."
What our manifesta writers hope to gain by stretching feminism to its outer limits in order to include Roiphe, Wolf, Girlies and Lewinsky is a kind of "big tent" feminism that could take on "right-wing babes" like Christina Hoff Sommers, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter. And they are not the first Third Wavers to promote this kind of feminist populism. Rebecca Walker, in To Be Real, argues that we should "[broaden] our view of who and what constitutes 'the feminist community,'" so as to "stake out an inclusive terrain from which to actively seek the goals of societal equality and individual freedom." What they lose in the stretch, however, is any real content to feminism, other than the crudest and too often imaginary distinction between the right and left wing. Baumgardner and Richards would do for feminism what Clinton did for the Democrats over the past eight years: try to absorb, rhetorically, everyone from left-liberals to centrists in order to build a strategic coalition against the radical right. But why should the broad spectrum of feminists be forced to define themselves negatively and homogeneously against a few shrill right-wingers? While feminists need to be able to come together around issues that concern us, and I think we do, our differences are politically meaningful and, to my mind, ultimately productive. Roiphe, Wolf et al., for instance, raise important questions about the Third Wave revalorization of beauty, sexual power and femininity. What happens to feminism when it reclaims the very sources of power the patriarchy has always been happy to grant us? Why is it difficult to recognize feminist "agency" in the circumstance of a young female intern, smitten with male presidential power, dropping to her knees? Rather than subordinate our differences in the service of the flabby populism Manifesta promotes, I would like to see contemporary feminism embrace contention, sharpen its differences and strengthen its analysis.
There are limits, however, even to Baumgardner and Richards's feminist magnanimity. Their inclusionism breaks down not only around the "divisive" left but in their engagement with psychoanalytic Second Waver Phyllis Chesler. Chesler elicits their ire for, apparently, using the wrong tone of voice. In her 1997 Letters to a Young Feminist, Chesler draws on her longstanding engagement with feminism to delineate what she sees as the Second Wave's "legacy" to the next generation. Specifically, she focuses on the contradictions produced by Second Wave feminisms (e.g., between the ideology of "sisterhood" and the reality of female competition, between movement egalitarianism and the hierarchies "professional" feminism reproduced) and presses younger feminists to learn from and supersede these contradictions. In keeping with her training, Chesler approaches her Letters through the lens of the family drama and uses the persona of a feminist mother to address imagined feminist daughters (and, in the last chapter, her real-life feminist son). The phony intimacy of this address makes for some serious rhetorical melodrama: The reader is regularly addressed as "darling" and "my dear" by an overbearing Ma Chesler. Despite its stylistic goofiness, however, Chesler's book remains one of the few Second Wave feminist "memoirs" (and there are now many) that work to instrumentalize, rather than glorify or recant, the feminist past in order to serve the feminist future.
Baumgardner and Richards are unable to recognize how Chesler's book, like their own, attempts to build a bridge between the Waves. Instead, in an angry "Letter to an Older Feminist," our authors perform their rebellion against Chesler and her cohort, exclaiming "You're not our mothers." "We let you off your mother trip," they announce, "Now you have to stop treating us like daughters. You don't have the authority to treat us like babies or acolytes who need to be molded." As much as our authors say they want to connect with the Second Wave, they clearly want the connection on their own terms. It's OK for Chesler to participate in the Third Wave as an icon, as an inspiring bit of history, but Baumgardner and Richards would rather she quit trying to contribute her own work. "Read our books, buy our records," they command the Older Feminist. Ever vigilant of ageism when it's directed at younger feminists, here Baumgardner and Richards themselves, unnecessarily, reproduce a generation gap.
My favorite part of Manifesta, and the final corrective it offers to the Third Wave's nearly exclusive focus on cultural critique, is its insistence on activism. In the final section of the book, in a chapter titled "What Is Activism?" Baumgardner and Richards push young feminists to take action. "Activism," they write, "starts with the acknowledgment of injustice, but it doesn't stop with the rant...or even with the manifesta." To insure that their readers develop realistic expectations, the two debunk what they say are four myths about activism: that "activism will bring an immediate and decisive victory," that activism "has to be huge," that activism requires "superleaders" and, finally, that contemporary feminism is "politically impotent." Baumgardner and Richards also challenge the common preconception that volunteering is necessarily the highest form of activism. They make a fabulous distinction between "activist" and "charity" types of volunteer work, defining the latter as those positions (like candy stripers and literacy instructors) that have a long tradition of relying on unpaid female labor. Readers are directed away from the feminized sector and are encouraged instead to turn their efforts toward the "activist" groups--those "organizations that are too ahead of their time to be funded by the government"--and to continue to lobby for pay for their work. Central to successful activism, Baumgardner and Richards suggest, is a "clear intention, a realistic plan, and an identifiable constituency," and they provide steps for developing these strategic elements. In addition to an appendix containing contact information for numerous activist organizations (along with record labels, makeup brands and sex-toy shops), Baumgardner and Richards also provide a series of "creative social justice" issues that they think warrant activist involvement, such as political asylum for female refugees who have suffered gendered forms of violence, getting female reproductive care into prisons and pressing the National Honor Society to strike down its exclusion of pregnant women. For each issue they provide concrete avenues for action: Lobby the President, recruit Ob-Gyns to go into prisons, petition the NHS with lists of male members who have impregnated women.
While I love its demystification of activism, I remain unenamored with Manifesta's overall political vision, which never moves much beyond liberal reformism. For all their talk of "revolution," Baumgardner and Richards are primarily interested in, as they call it, putting the "participatory back into participatory democracy." The book, moreover, contains no clear sense of how issue-by-issue reformism of the type they advocate could lead to the "revolutionary movement" and larger social transformation they often invoke as their long-range goal. Despite its political tunnel vision, however, Manifesta works productively, in my view, to reorient the Third Wave toward action, particularly action beyond just the cultural level. Baumgardner and Richards encourage young feminists to engage with politics, the law and (to some extent) the economy, and they supply concrete strategies and realistic expectations for beginning this kind of activist work. Manifesta provides a solid starting place for reformist-style activism, and in the current moment, any activism is better than none. Who knows how young feminists might be revolutionized through the types of activism Baumgardner and Richards advocate; Manifesta could lay the groundwork for more radical forms of political action.
All in all, I think Manifesta suggests a formula, if not the specific content, for a better version of Third Wave feminism. We need to build on the feminisms that have preceded us, but we need the history of all feminisms, not just the least controversial, most mainstream forms. We need to embrace political argument, but we need to root our arguments in a larger understanding of the conditions that oppress us--all of us. We also need to be able to argue among ourselves about what feminism at this historical moment ought to look like, and to do that we have to dispense with the idea--itself an artifact of the backlash--that feminism needs warm bodies more than it needs theory or principles. We need to fight the seemingly widespread preconception that a state of feminist grace is prerequisite to action and that essay writing should be our preferred mode of activism. We need to get busy in the ways Manifesta urges and in many more. Without meaning to, Manifesta also prompts us, through some of its engagement with "older feminists," to think about how the Third Wave may be founding itself on unexamined ageism. In the end, a better version of Third Wave feminism might involve changing the name as a first step toward unloading altogether the dubious politics of generationality.
They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:
I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.
Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."
In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.
This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."
"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."
In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.
That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.
We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:
This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.
He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."
Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.
Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.
Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.
Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:
For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.
It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, "Why I Write")
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian's, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts"; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting--after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was "a sort of gutless Kipling." William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were "dull, empty windbags." Off with the heads of "the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles" and "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Wouldn't it be loverly "if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we're just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it's the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud's funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having "loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future," and on the other by H.G. Wells, as "a Trotskyist with big feet." And George himself told us that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
To buy or not to buy turns out to have been the question of the century in America--Just Do It or Just Say No. And in the past fifteen years, consumer society has moved to the center of historical inquiry as well. It began with the social history of commercial culture and the advertising industry, in books such as Kathy Peiss's Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985). Drawing inspiration from the pioneering anthropological explorations of Dick Hebdidge (Subculture, The Meaning of Style, 1979), Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things, 1988) and, especially, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (The World of Goods, 1979), investigators then turned to the cultural history of how ordinary people use and assign meanings to commodities. A good example of this genre is Alison Clarke's Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In recent works--such as Robert Collins's More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000) and Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)--they have studied the political history of how nation-states promote and foster particular regimes of consumption. Where once consumption was deemed relevant only to the history of popular culture, in other words, it is now seen as intertwined with the central themes of American history, touching as it does on economics, politics, race relations, gender, the environment and other important topics.
Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a pioneering and prolific historian of Europe and America, has explored the social, cultural and political dimensions of consumption before. In the past decade, he has published a half-dozen books on topics ranging from the history of leisure and working-class commercial amusements to the material culture of children's toys. Cross may study leisure, but his scholarship suggests that he doesn't take a whole lot of time to participate in consumer society. Fortunately, his work ethic has enabled the rest of us to understand our consumer ethic with clarity and historical perspective. Indeed, An All-Consuming Century displaces Daniel Horowitz's still-impressive but less wide-ranging The Morality of Spending (1985) as the best survey yet written of the history of modern American consumer society. Much more than a summary of recent scholarship (although it performs this task admirably), it is an informed, balanced, thoughtful and surprisingly passionate meditation on the making and meaning of our society. Avoiding the extremes of celebration and condemnation that too often pass for analysis, Cross's searching book is imbued with a generous concern for the revival of an active, democratic and participatory public sphere.
According to Cross, a paradox lies at the heart of American consumer society: It has been both an ideological triumph and a triumph over politics. Although it may be "difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology," this is, Cross argues, precisely how it functions. It is, in his words, the "ism that won," the quiet but decisive victor in a century of ideological warfare. Over the course of the twentieth century it became naturalized to such an extent that few citizens "consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it."
In describing this ideological victory, Cross eschews conspiratorial interpretations of advertising and business collusion and gives consumer society its due for concretely expressing "the cardinal political ideals of the century--liberty and democracy--and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation." It won, Cross believes, because in large measure it met people's basic needs, helped them to fit into a diverse society even as it enabled them to forge new understandings of personal freedom, and served to fulfill, rather than mock, people's desire for the pleasures of the material world.
In spite of its popularity and successes, Cross believes that the ascension of consumer society has come at great cost: the abrogation of public life in favor of private thrills. By valorizing the private over the public and the present over the past and future, consumer society has "allowed little space for social conscience" and truly democratic politics. Rather than shoring up civil society, consumerism has pretty much replaced it: "The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded" as individual acquisition and use of goods has become the predominant way that Americans--and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world--make meaning of their lives. The suggestion that there should be limits to commercialism--that there are sacred places where the market does not belong--is, according to Cross, no longer taken seriously in a society that equates commercialism with freedom. Moreover, by the end of the century, "there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption." The politics of consumption, in Cross's view, makes alternative conceptions of the good life virtually unimaginable in large part because it encourages people to think about themselves in isolation from the rest of society and from their history. (Reading Cross's book, I was reminded of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, in which a customer at an urban diner sits alone, utterly disconnected from the humanity that surrounds him.) If Cross ultimately loses sight of the paradoxical nature of American consumerism and concludes on this dark note, An All-Consuming Century nonetheless provides important resources for others to explore the democratic potential of consumer society.
The narrative unfolds both chronologically and analytically. Cross divides the development of modern consumer society into four periods: 1900-1930, 1930-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980 to the end of the century. In this breakdown, the first three decades of the century were a takeoff period, during which a number of crucial elements converged to make America a consumer society. Cross consistently overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century America was a "traditional" society, untainted by commercialism; many elements of consumer society were born in the market revolution of the early 1800s and the corporate revolution of the later nineteenth century. But he is right to single out important developments that transformed the country from what we might call a nineteenth-century society with consumerist features to a full-blown consumer society in the twentieth century. The keys were increases in leisure time and personal income on the demand side, along with new products and innovations in selling on the supply side.
New, nationally advertised, branded products became widely available and affordable after the turn of the century. These products alleviated material needs, but more than that, Cross astutely notes, they became markers of new feelings of "comfort and ease" and "new sensations of power and speed." Modern products like cigarettes, candy and soft drinks made the sensational available on a daily, indeed almost hourly, basis. Amusement parks like Coney Island and other "cheap amusements" also made the regular purchase of spectacular thrills affordable for working people. In the consumer society, the utilitarian was always mixed with the sensual. The embodiment of this mixture was, of course, the great symbol of early-twentieth-century consumer society, the automobile. Already characterized by an increasing number of what Cross calls "private pleasures," in this period, as he shows, mass culture contributed to political and social changes as well: It blurred ethnic and class divisions and encouraged the children of immigrants to redefine themselves as members of a blended, multiethnic, if still racially segregated, youth culture.
The period 1930-1960 was one of consolidation in time of crisis. The constraints of the Great Depression and World War II led to a "frustrated consumerism more than a rejection of the capitalist system." Rather than blame the new consumerism, most policy-makers and indeed many ordinary Americans came to see "underconsumption" as the root cause of the slump. After the war, government policy encouraged the development of mass purchasing power rather than efforts to equalize the distribution of wealth. During the cold war, consumer society became "a positive answer to communism." In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon drove this point home by contrasting modern American appliances with outdated Soviet culinary technology. Despite the linkage in these years between consumption and freedom, Cross notes that the consumerism of the postwar years was not hedonistic but "domesticated," focused on the suburban home and the nuclear family. Signature developments of these years were Levittown, McDonald's and Holiday Inn, sites of responsible, respectable, family-oriented consumption.
From 1960 to 1980 consumer society faced a very different set of challenges but emerged stronger than ever. First, the counterculture challenged the very premises of consumerism, and in the 1970s, the specter of scarcity called into question the permanence of the cornucopia upon which consumer society depended. In spite of these challenges, "consumption became even more ubiquitous." Indeed, Cross suggests, the roots of the even more individualistic and socially fragmenting consumerism of the late twentieth century lay in part in the 1960s critique of consumerism: While countercultural figures critiqued conformity and idealized the "authentic self," many Americans sought to achieve this authenticity through consumption. Businesses began to modify the Fordist practice of mass production in favor of flexible production and segmented, demographically distinct markets. Drawing on the work of cultural critic Thomas Frank (rendered throughout the book as "Frank Thomas"), Cross writes that consumerism became "adaptable to the green and the hip." Similarly, during the energy crisis of the 1970s those politicians who took the shortage to be the result of overproductionwere rebuked as naysayers. With great political success, Ronald Reagan attacked President Jimmy Carter for a speech in which Carter had the temerity to suggest that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." Reagan called that 1979 "malaise" address un-American in its pessimism and its call for restraint.
The trend toward fragmented, individualistic consumption accelerated during the last two decades of the century, an era that Cross labels "markets triumphant." Radical faith in the virtues of the market led politicians like Reagan to put a moral gloss on the "unfettered growth of market culture in the 1980s." Government constraints of an earlier era, in the form of environmental and advertising regulation, weakened, and commerce entered unfettered into areas where it had previously been kept at arm's length: children's homes and classrooms. By century's end the "Victorian notion that some time and place should be free from commerce" seemed as quaint as a Currier and Ives lithograph. Cross, who has a knack for unearthing telling statistics, notes that "supermarkets carried about 30,000 different products in 1996, up from 17,500 in 1986 and about 9,000 in the mid-1970s." Even the all-time-high consumer debt--$1.25 trillion by 1997--did nothing to stop the belief that the future of American prosperity and freedom depended upon the continuing expansion of the realm of consumption. Indeed, shopping had become the nation's primary form of entertainment, and monuments to consumption like the gargantuan 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America became a haven for tourists from around the world.
In Cross's telling, the attractions and problems of consumer society are in effect one and the same: the cult of the new, immediate gratification and the valorization of "private pleasures." Consumerism is the "ism that won," owing to its ability not only to withstand challenges but, through a magical jujitsu, to co-opt them. Although initially formulated in terms neither celebratory nor condemnatory, Cross's story is ultimately one of declension. While he avoids the nostalgia of many commentators, there is little doubt that Cross finds contemporary consumer society to be a negative force: asocial, apolitical, amoral and environmentally dangerous. Whereas consumerism once helped integrate the diverse inhabitants of an immigrant nation in a youthful mass culture, by century's close, cynical marketers were happy to divide an equally multicultural nation into segmented demographic units based on "multiple and changing lifestyles." Thus the shift from an integrative, public-spirited popular culture in the early twentieth century to an increasingly privatized, solipsistic commercial culture of the late twentieth century. What was seductive in 1900--cornucopia and pleasure for the masses--became obscene by 2000, as a cultural stimulant turned into a dangerous narcotic.
An All-Consuming Century is one of the few indispensable works in the ever-expanding library of books on American consumer society. But in an otherwise rich overview the author has surprisingly little to say about the role of women, African-Americans and ethnic minorities (and nothing about regional variations) in the construction of consumer society. These are serious omissions. As admen and women's organizations recognized early on, women have performed the vast majority of the unpaid labor of consumer society: the shopping, budgeting and refashioning of older items. Cross notes that African-Americans were excluded from many of the benefits of the emerging mass culture, but he does not address the ways popular culture served to reinforce both the whiteness of the "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe--a skin privilege that was not yet fully acknowledged by the majority culture--and the otherness of Asian and Latino immigrants.
Nor does Cross discuss the attractions of nationwide retailers and national brands for African-Americans, who often took advantage of what the historian Edward Ayers has called the "anonymity and autonomy" made possible by the advent of the Sears catalogue (and chain stores in the nonsegregated North), whose mass customer base and "one price" system reduced the possibilities for racial discrimination that frequently accompanied visits to the corner store. For this group, the private pleasures occasionally afforded by the advent of national markets offered advantages over the public humiliations that so often accompanied local commerce.
Cross's relative neglect of women and minorities leads him to underestimate the importance of grassroots consumer activism as well, which has often been led by members of these groups. Meat boycotts, cost-of-living protests, "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns and sit-ins were integral to the development of American consumer society because they represented demands to expand the benefits of consumerism beyond a middle-class elite. One of the most important women's political organizations of the first half of the century, the National Consumers League, which pioneered the crusade for "ethical consumption" and labor rights, goes unmentioned. Cross stresses the ways marketers attempted to co-opt the civil rights movement, but he does not address the degree to which the demand for full participation in consumer society was a key ingredient in that crusade for social justice. By virtually ignoring these movements, Cross leaves out an important part of the story of consumer society--efforts to unite citizenship with consumption.
The critics of consumer society whom Cross discusses most often are proponents of what he calls the "jeremiad," the high-culture dismissal of mass culture as vulgar. He condemns the elitism and arrogance of such thinkers and is surely correct to note that their criticism had little impact on ordinary shoppers. Cross is less critical of the "simple living" tradition and calls the self-provisioning movement of the 1960s "the most positive aspect" of the counterculture. He argues that "the idea of the 'simple life,' perhaps never more than a daydream, had almost ceased being even a prick to the conscience," but he only briefly mentions the growing popularity of the "voluntary simplicity" movement, a topic addressed in more detail in Juliet Schor's The Overspent American (1998).
Cross also develops a persuasive critique of the consumer rights movement. While the Depression era saw the rise of groups like Consumers Union, which sought to make consumers a greater force against the power of business and advertisers, he notes that by focusing primarily on product quality and prices, many consumer rights groups have served only to reinforce "the individualism and the materialism of American consumption." This tradition of angry but apolitical individualism can still be found at innumerable websites, like starbucked.com, that highlight at great length the indignation of formerly loyal customers: "The sales clerk who sold me the machine was rude, then decidedly refused to hand over the free half pound of coffee given with every purchase of a Starbucks espresso machine...." The democratizing power of consumer demands for corporate responsibility is too often dissipated by such narrowly cast diatribes.
In spite of the failure of the jeremiad, the seeming irrelevance of simplicity and the individualization of the concept of consumer rights, Cross is too definitive about the nature of the "victory" of consumer society. Many Americans still recognize that however much advertisers and marketers attempt to cover it up, consumption is fundamentally a social and political act. So although it is true that "late twentieth century consumerism turned social problems into individual purchasing decisions," it is also the case that individual shopping decisions have frequently been viewed in the context of social problems. As consumer activists from the League of Women Shoppers in the 1930s through environmentalists today have pointed out, the goods that we buy leave ecological, labor and government "footprints." In spite of corporate attempts to fetishize goods, diligent activists like John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Northwest Environment Watch have described--and tried to estimate--the hidden social costs incurred by the purchase of quotidian products, including coffee and newspapers. The actions of students in the antisweatshop campaigns of recent years indicate that a growing number of consumers are looking behind the logo to determine the conditions under which the clothing they buy is made. As Naomi Klein has recently argued in No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, the ubiquity and importance of brands provides an opening for protesters who can threaten, through consumer boycotts and other actions, to sully corporate America's most valuable asset, the brand name. One teen in Klein's book puts it this way: "Nike, we made you. We can break you." Cross may decry the "inwardness of the personal computer," but the protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization and Washington International Monetary Fund meetings reveal that the Web creates alliances and expands social bonds. The history of consumer activism--and its recent incarnations--shows that consumerism does not necessarily lead to an antipolitics of radical individualism.
Cross does put forth important arguments about the "excesses of consumer culture": the environmental degradation, the waste, the lack of free time and the sheer mind-numbing meaninglessness that accompany modern consumerism. But these must be balanced with the recognition that most Americans, especially those in the working class, have viewed the enjoyment of the fruits of consumer society as an entitlement, not a defeat. This should not be dismissed as false consciousness or "embourgeoisement." Far from allowing consumerist demands to erode political impulses, working people--through living-wage, union-label and shorter-hour campaigns--have consistently politicized consumption. Rather than pitting the culture of consumption against democracy, it will be important to continue this tradition of democratizing, rather than demonizing, the culture of consumption. In his assessment of the twentieth century's most influential "ism," Cross provides important warnings about the difficulties of such an effort. But in its stress on the paradoxes of consumer society--an emphasis that then too rapidly gives way to condemnation--An All-Consuming Century also provides lessons from history about the necessity of the undertaking.
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.
In their 1996 book The Next War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Peter Schweitzer concoct some troubling scenarios they imagine could confront the United States. One is with Mexico: It's 1999, and a radical nationalist comes to power with the assistance of drug traffickers, resulting in a flood of migrants and drugs across the US boundary. In response, the Pentagon sends 60,000 troops to the border region. Tensions between the two countries mount over the next few years, leading to a full-scale US invasion of Mexico that restores law and order within six months. In constructing this nightmare scenario, the authors draw on a long history of depicting undesired immigrants as invading hordes and the international boundary as a line of defense. Peter Andreas recounts this hawkish vision in his provocative and highly persuasive Border Games: Policing the US-Mexico Divide. He argues that predictions of an inevitable march toward greater levels of militarization in the region--of which the Weinberger/Schweitzer vision is the most extreme--ignore the necessity of maintaining a porous boundary because of the significant and intensifying levels of economic integration between the United States and Mexico.
Still, as part of the US government's war on drugs and "illegal" immigrants in the border region, the enforcement regime has grown dramatically over the past two decades, as chronicled by Andreas. The antidrug budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for example, rose 164 percent between fiscal years 1990 and 1997, while the overall budget for the INS nearly tripled between FY 1993 and 1999, from $1.5 billion to $4.2 billion, with border enforcement the biggest growth area. At the same time, transboundary trade has reached unprecedented heights because of the 1994 implementation of NAFTA. This exacerbates the challenge of "enforcement." As a 1999 government report cautioned, "Rapidly growing commerce between the United States and Mexico will complicate our efforts to keep drugs out of cross-border traffic." With a daily average of 220,000 vehicles now crossing into the United States from Mexico--and only nine large tractor-trailers loaded with cocaine required to satisfy annual domestic demand in the United States--the task facing US authorities is daunting.
Given such practical contradictions, it's the creation of an image of boundary control that has been most significant. As Andreas explains--and this is his well-written book's central point--the escalation of border enforcement is less about deterring drugs and migrants than it is about symbolism. In other words, state elites are more concerned about giving a good performance for reasons of domestic political consumption than they are about realizing the stated goals of boundary enforcement. In fact, the political-economic costs of too much success serve to limit enforcement. As one high-level US Customs official cited in Border Games stated, "If we examined every truck for narcotics arriving into the United States along the Southwest border.... Customs would back up the truck traffic bumper-to-bumper into Mexico City in just two weeks--15.8 days.... That's 1,177 miles of trucks, end to end."
To the extent that there is an appearance of success, however (statistics showing more interdiction, for example), it helps to realize a variety of political agendas. As Andreas contends, "Regardless of its deterrent effect, the escalation of enforcement efforts has helped to fend off political attacks and kept the drug issue from derailing the broader process of economic integration."
Thus, in the case of NAFTA, the deceptive image (one carefully crafted with the Clinton White House) that Mexico under Carlos Salinas de Gortari was having significant success in the binational war on drugs facilitated a reluctant Congress's passage of NAFTA. Moreover, the Administration promised that NAFTA would bring even greater levels of transboundary cooperation in the drug war and lead to more resources for boundary enforcement.
NAFTA also intertwined with the Administration's offensive against unauthorized immigration (a matter Andreas does not discuss), which was, in part, the US answer to massive disruption in Mexico's rural and small-business sectors brought about by growing economic liberalization. While Administration officials promoted NAFTA as a boundary-control tool (by creating better, high-paying jobs in Mexico, went the argument, NAFTA would lead to less immigration from Mexico to the United States), they also understood that NAFTA would intensify pressures to migrate among Mexicans displaced in the name of economic efficiency. As INS Commissioner Doris Meissner argued to Congress in November 1993, "Responding to the likely short- to medium-term impacts of NAFTA will require strengthening our enforcement efforts along the border."
For Andreas, specific developments are often the "unintended feedback effects of past policy choices" as much as the result of particular bureaucratic incentives and rewards. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), for example, led to the legalization of large numbers of unauthorized immigrants as a way of ultimately reducing unsanctioned immigration. IRCA's main effect, however, was "to reinforce and expand already well-established cross-border migration networks" and to create a booming business in fraudulent documents.
These "perverse consequences" laid the foundation for the anti-immigrant backlash that emerged in the early 1990s--most vociferously in California, a state especially hard hit by the recession and feeling the effects of a rapidly changing population due to immigration. In advancing this argument, Andreas cautions that his goal is "not to provide a general explanation of the anti-illegal immigration backlash." Rather, he seeks to show how political and bureaucratic entrepreneurs partially whipped up public sentiment and channeled it "to focus on the border as both the source of the problem and the most appropriate site of the policy solution." While there is much merit in such an approach and the explanation that flows from it, it is insufficient.
First, as many have argued, the backlash of the 1990s was not simply against "illegal" immigrants but, to a large degree, against immigrants in general--especially the nonwhite, non-English speaking and the relatively poor. Moreover, as Andreas shows in a stimulating chapter that compares and contrasts similar developments along the Germany/Poland and Spain/Morocco boundaries, the seeming paradox of "a borderless economy and a barricaded border" is evidenced along boundaries that unite and divide rich and poor in other parts of the world. Given the locales of these developments and their uneven impacts on different social groups, there is need for another type of explanation.
How does one explain the differential treatment of the interests of the rich (enhanced trading opportunities) and those of the poor (those compelled by conditions to migrate and work without authorization)? It is in this area that Grace Chang is of great help. Disposable Domestics offers a refreshingly new perspective on immigration control. Chang's tone is overtly political and more polemical than that of Andreas, but her approach is equally rigorous. Her goal is to make poor immigrant women visible, to humanize them, to highlight their contributions and tribulations, and to show them as actively trying to contest their conditions of subjugation.
Chang argues persuasively that poor immigrant women--largely Third Worlders--have become a central focus of "public scrutiny and media distortion, and the main targets of immigration regulation and labor control" in the United States. To show the continuity between past and present, she provides an overview of the long history of imagery portraying immigrant women as undeserving users of welfare services and hyperfertile breeders of children. In doing so, she makes an invaluable contribution, showing how the regulation of immigration and labor is inextricably tied to matters of gender, as well as to those of class, race and nationality.
The author effectively challenges mainstream assumptions that surround the immigration debate. For example, she argues that studies attempting to measure the costs and benefits of immigration--regardless of their findings or the agendas behind them--ultimately reduce immigrants to commodities or investments. Chang sides with an emerging consensus among immigrant advocates that sees such studies as missing the point, and instead emphasizes the human and worker rights of all immigrants. In this regard, she criticizes immigrant advocates who have fallen into the trap of dividing immigrants between good ("legal") and bad ("illegal").
Chang highlights the folly of this approach in recounting the trials of Zoë Baird, Clinton's first nominee for Attorney General. When it came to light that she employed two undocumented immigrants as domestic servants--a common "crime" among two-career, professional couples--her nomination was sunk. What led to public outrage, according to Chang, was more the "resentment that this practice was so easily accessible to the more privileged classes while other working-class mothers struggled to find any child care," rather than the flouting of the law per se.
Throughout, Chang gives us moving accounts of gross exploitation of immigrant women working as domestics or caretakers, showing that relatively well-off households often look specifically for "illegals" to save money and to facilitate their privileged lives. Indeed, "the advances of many middle-class white women in the workforce have been largely predicated on the exploitation of poor, immigrant women." For Chang, this explains why "the major women's groups were conspicuously silent during Baird's confirmation hearings"--a manifestation of the racial and class privileges their members enjoy.
Recent antiwelfare efforts in the United States, which Chang explores in another provocative chapter, also rely on the exploitation and scapegoating of immigrant women. She compares representations of poor women--native and immigrant--used both in the promotion of welfare "reform" and in efforts to regulate undocumented working women. In both cases, poor women are portrayed as exploiters of the system (to facilitate their hyperfertility) and as criminals--either as welfare cheats or as "illegals." For welfare mothers, the resulting backlash is "workfare"--a program that forces them to work (outside their homes, under the assumption that raising children is neither work nor a benefit to society), but not for a wage. They work for their welfare benefits instead, a remuneration usually far below what they would earn as employees. Meanwhile, government officials, corporate spokespersons and household employers mask their exploitation of low-wage employees as beneficence, purportedly providing them with opportunities, training and preparation, and the ability to assimilate into respectable society.
The war on the poor (welfare reform) and that against unauthorized immigrants are also sometimes functionally tied. Virginia's state office of social services, for example, cooperated with the INS to open up jobs held by "illegals" for workfare participants. This, along with INS raids of workplaces in the midst of unionization drives, according to Chang, is a growing trend. It is far from clear, however--at least on the basis of the anecdotal evidence Chang presents--that such events indicate a long-term, upward trend. Indeed, while anti-union employers have long used the INS to undermine immigrant-worker organizing, with a number of especially outrageous incidents taking place in the late 1990s, those appear to have diminished over the last couple of years, apparently due to the outcry from union, immigration and human rights activists. In part, the discrepancy reflects the fact that Chang wrote the book--more a collection of essays stitched together--over several years, with some of the chapters having appeared in previous publications.
Chang tends to see the factors that create and drive immigration and the mistreatment of low-wage immigrant workers as derivative of an overarching economic logic and a resulting set of intentional, goal-oriented practices. Thus, the workfare/INS-raid nexus illustrates the "true function" of the INS: "to regulate the movement, availability, and independence of migrant labor." More generally, immigration "is carefully orchestrated--that is, desired, planned, compelled, managed, accelerated, slowed and periodically stopped--by the direct actions of US interests, including the government as state and as employer, private employers, and corporations." United States elites keep Mexico and other countries in "debt bondage" so that they "must surrender their citizens, especially women, as migrant laborers to First World nations." And the purpose of California's Proposition 187, which would have eliminated public health, education and social services for unauthorized immigrants, is "perhaps" to mold immigrant children into a "category entirely of super-exploitable workers--those with no access to language or other skills and, most of all, no access to a status even remotely resembling citizenship that might allow them the safety to organize."
Such contentions imply a level of unity within the state and coherency in thought among economic and political actors (who are seemingly one and the same) that simply do not exist. They also downplay the agency of immigrants--who appear to be mere pawns of larger forces--and factors internal to their countries of origin driving immigration. Finally, such economic reductionism is puzzling given Chang's emphasis on race, gender and nationality. It seems at times, however, that she thinks that these are mere tools for highly rational, all-knowing and all-powerful economic elites.
This is why we need to appreciate the autonomous roles of race-, class-, gender- and nation-based ideologies in informing much of the anti-immigrant sentiment--factors that do not always dovetail with the interests of capital. Indeed, those elements are frequently at cross purposes. More than anything, anti-immigrant initiatives over the past thirty years have been the work of opportunistic and/or entrepreneurial elected officials, state bureaucrats and the cultural right--often small grassroots organizations and right-wing think tanks--rather than the business sector. Historically, capital has been generally pro-immigration. As the New York Journal of Commerce gushed in 1892, "Men, like cows, are expensive to raise and a gift of either should be gladly received. And a man can be put to more valuable use than a cow." Today, the Wall Street Journal advocates the elimination of border controls for labor. While this probably does not represent the view of most capitalists, it is significant nonetheless. And in the case of Proposition 187--as Chang reports--California employers, while collectively failing to take a public stand on the measure, generally opposed it for fear that they had much to lose if it passed. That said, the author is undoubtedly right to castigate employers for doing little or nothing to stand up for the rights of immigrants from whose labor, and from whose politically induced marginalization, they profit.
Given the divergent emphases and approaches of Andreas and Chang, very different solutions emerge from their arguments. Andreas criticizes the overemphasis on the supply side of unauthorized immigration and drugs. In terms of immigrants, for example, he observes that among wealthy countries, the United States "imposes the toughest penalties on the smuggling of migrants and related activities yet is among the most lenient with those who employ them." Similarly, he criticizes the scant resources available for enforcing existing workplace rules, which would undermine the ability of employers to exploit unauthorized workers, and he chides Congress for failing to develop a forgery-proof identity card system. (His stand on continued drug policing in the border region is less clear, although he calls for framing the drug problem as one of public health rather than law enforcement.)
Andreas seems resigned to the continued emphasis on border controls, too, despite demonstrating their brilliant failure. As one INS official he quotes explained, "The border is easy money politically. But the interior is a political minefield." Ending the border buildup is also a political minefield--one Andreas seems unwilling to enter. He is decidedly critical of the border status quo and aware of the hardships it causes (a topic to which he gives insufficient attention), but he critiques it on its own terms. In this regard, he does not stray outside the mainstream confines of debate.
A law-enforcement approach to unauthorized immigration is destined to fail. The ties between the United States and Mexico (and increasingly much of Latin America) are too strong, migrants are too resourceful and creative, and Americans are too resistant to the types of police-state measures that would prove necessary, to reduce unsanctioned immigration significantly. A far more effective and humane approach would be to work with progressive sectors of Third World societies to address the breakdown of political, economic and social systems and/or institutionalized injustice that often leads to immigration.
De-emphasizing boundary policing will likely reduce the deaths of unauthorized migrants (almost 600 in the California border region alone since 1994). But increased internal enforcement will create other difficulties, such as increased discrimination against those who do not look "American." It will also cause greater hardships in immigrant households, many of which contain people of different legal statuses. Should the US deport a principal breadwinner (an "illegal") from such a household, for example, leaving behind his or her US citizen children and "legal" spouse to fend for themselves?
Although Andreas argues that "the state has actually structured, conditioned, and even enabled (often unintentionally) clandestine border crossings," he discusses this matter in narrow terms, focusing on how previous "solutions" to the putative problems had an exacerbating effect. Meanwhile, he neglects the role played by the government and US-based economic interests in creating the conditions that fuel immigration. Thus, no issues of moral or political responsibility enter the analysis.
Grace Chang, on the other hand, puts a strong emphasis on the responsibility of the United States in fueling outmigration; it benefits from immigrant women's labor and wreaks havoc in Third World countries through the likes of military interventions and the imposition of structural adjustment programs. For Chang, the question is not one of trying to devise the best policy to control the unauthorized but of bringing about the changes needed to realize the rights of immigrants as workers and as human beings. In making this case, Chang correctly calls upon those of us who benefit from an unjust world order to stand in solidarity with immigrants--especially low-wage, Third World women who enable our privileged lifestyles--in their struggle for social justice at home and abroad.
One of the most remarkable--but unremarked, other than superficially--aspects of globalism is its erosional effect on the role of the state as we've known it since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. Indeed, as Nation editorial board member Richard Falk notes in opening Human Rights Horizons, "The sovereign state is changing course due primarily to the widespread adoption of neoliberal approaches to governmental function.... There exists a broad cumulative trend toward the social disempowerment of the state," and "market forces operate as an impersonal agency for the infliction of human wrongs." Advancing their cause despite the privatizing of government functions--the ultimate in deregulation--may be "the most pressing framing question for human rights activists," Falk asserts in this scholarly meditation.
Falk moves between the specific and the general, whether geographically (from Rwanda to Kosovo to the Gulf War) or institutionally (the UN, NATO, World Bank, IMF), to try to tease out the foundations and implications of a new world moral order. He eschews easy answers--"it remains premature at this point to set forth 'the lessons of Kosovo'"--and is skeptical, yet he presents signs of hope: Global media provide "vivid images...of popular activism and makes the struggles in one setting suggestive...in another," for instance, and in one of its dynamics, globalization "is creating a stronger sense of shared destiny among the diverse peoples of the world."
You have "little trace," exclaimed Gershom Scholem in a letter he sent to the great Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt, of "love for the Jewish people." It was the early 1960s, and Scholem, one of Israel's most prominent intellectuals, was responding to her analysis of Adolf Eichmann's trial. Scholem's attack was spurred by several assertions Arendt had made, including her allegation that the Jewish officials in the ghettos--the Judenrat--expedited the extermination machine; if they had not collaborated with the Nazis, Arendt wrote, fewer Jews would have been killed.
Scholem's criticism expressed the prevailing view held by Israel's elite. Not surprisingly, Arendt was censored in Israel, and it took thirty-six years before an Israeli press agreed to translate her writings. Although the recent appearance of Eichmann in Jerusalem in Hebrew has rekindled an age-old debate, it seems that Israelis can now relate to the Holocaust in a more mature way.
Corners of the Jewish establishment in the United States may not be ready to cope with similarly forceful criticism, though, judging from the response to Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry. A review put forth in the New York Times tossed it aside as "an ideological fanatic's view of other people's opportunism, by a writer so reckless and ruthless in his attacks that he is prepared to defend his own enemies, the bastions of Western capitalism, and to warn that 'The Holocaust' will stir up an anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise discounts." There are two major problems with this line of criticism. First, it summarily dismisses Finkelstein's arguments without any attempt to engage his disturbing accusations. Second, instead of concentrating on the book, the reviewer goes after the author, implying that Finkelstein, the son of survivors, represents a neoteric breed of anti-Semite. In this way, it resembles the assault on Arendt.
On the book's first page Finkelstein distinguishes between the actual historical events of the Nazi holocaust and "The Holocaust," a term denoting an "ideological weapon." He notifies the reader that The Holocaust Industry deals only with the ideological component, which is used to cast both Israel and "the most successful ethnic group in the United States" as victims. Victim status, in turn, says Finkelstein, enables the Zionist state, which has "a horrendous human rights record," to deflect criticism, and US Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to advance dubious financial goals.
Others have already shown that the holocaust has served to justify pernicious acts. Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, said as much over a decade ago in his book The Seventh Million. In the early 1980s, Israeli scholar Boaz Evron observed that the holocaust is often discussed by "a churning out of slogans and a false view of the world, the real aim of which is not at all an understanding of the past, but the manipulation of the present." Thus, Finkelstein's contribution to the existing literature involves his concentration on US Jewish organizations. He attempts to go beyond Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life [see Jon Wiener, "Holocaust Creationism," July 12, 1999], which focused in part on abuses committed by Jewish organizations and intellectuals, by providing a much more radical critique. Finkelstein strives to show how the organizations have "shrunk the stature of [Jewish] martyrdom to that of a Monte Carlo casino."
The major claim of the first chapter, "Capitalizing the Holocaust," is that until the 1960s "American Jewish elites 'forgot' the Nazi holocaust," their public obliviousness induced by a fear of being accused of "dual loyalty." Finkelstein urges the reader to keep in mind that the United States opposed Israel's 1956 invasion of Egypt and did not become an ardent champion of the Jewish state until the mid-1960s. Accordingly, he avers, Jewish elites were apprehensive about accentuating the holocaust for fear that this would be interpreted as favoring Israel over the United States.
The reader is also reminded that after World War II, Germany became "a crucial postwar American ally in the US confrontation with the Soviet Union." It was, I believe along with the author, a sad moment in Jewish history when organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League "actively collaborated in the McCarthy-era witch hunt." The crux of Finkelstein's argument in this context is that Jewish organizations "remembered" the holocaust only after the United States and Israel had formed a strategic cold war alliance. They suddenly realized that "The Holocaust" (in its capitalized form) could be employed as an ideological tool.
Finkelstein does not hesitate to use blunt language rather than euphemism; and although he usually applies words in a precise manner, at times he gets carried away in his analysis. For instance, at the very end of the first chapter, after discussing the dissolution of the longstanding alliance between American Jews and blacks, he claims that "just as Israelis, armed to the teeth by the United States, courageously put unruly Palestinians in their place, so American Jews courageously put unruly Blacks in their place." The book offers no support for the sentence's second clause; the analogy it sets up, too, is erroneous and can easily be used to discredit Finkelstein and thus his more serious charges.
The book's principal weakness, however, develops in its second chapter, "Hoaxers, Hucksters and History." Finkelstein dedicates this portion of the book to undermining two "central dogmas" that "underpin the Holocaust framework: (1) The Holocaust marks a categorically unique historical event; (2) The Holocaust marks the climax of an irrational, eternal Gentile hatred of Jews."
My criticism has nothing to do with Finkelstein's analysis of the second dogma, whose paradigmatic example is Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners. The main thesis underlying Goldhagen's book--which has been acclaimed in some quarters but derided in many others--is that ordinary Germans were no less anti-Semitic than National Socialist Party members. Goldhagen's theory serves the notion that Jews can always fall prey to Gentiles, which makes them the quintessential and eternal victims. And if "'all people collaborated with the Nazis in the destruction of Jewry,'" then, as Boaz Evron points out, "everything is permissible to Jews in their relationship to other people." Together with Ruth Bettina Birn, an international expert on Nazi war crimes, Finkelstein examined Goldhagen's references one by one, and in their book A Nation on Trial they concluded convincingly that Hitler's Willing Executioners is not worthy of being called an academic text.
My problem, rather, lies with Finkelstein's attempt to demonstrate that the holocaust was not a unique historical event. I disagree with Elie Wiesel, who for a "standard fee of $25,000 (plus a chauffeured limousine)"--in Finkelstein's aside--insists that "we cannot even talk about it," and I follow Finkelstein's admonition that it's helpful to compare it with other historical events. Yes, Finkelstein is right that Communists, not Jews, were the first political casualties of Nazism, and that the handicapped were the first genocidal victims. He is also correct that Gypsies were systematically murdered. But these facts do not prove that the holocaust was unique only "by virtue of time and location," in his formulation. Even though mass genocide has occurred elsewhere, death trains, gas ovens and Auschwitz have not. The holocaust, including the horrific experience of European Jewry, was unique.
Finkelstein's error is in conflating two issues: the uniqueness of the holocaust, on the one hand, and how this uniqueness is interpreted and put to use in manipulative ways, on the other. He fails to recognize that one need not debunk the uniqueness of an event in order to compare it and criticize its use and abuse.
Nonetheless, when it comes to analyzing how "The Holocaust" has been employed to advance political interests, Finkelstein is at his best. He shows how "The Holocaust" demagogues draw a link between "uniqueness" and "Jewish chosenness" and demonstrates how both are used to justify Israel's rightness, regardless of the context. His most notable contribution is in the third chapter of his book, "The Double Shakedown," where he couches as an exposé his view that "the Holocaust industry has become an outright extortion racket." The chapter deals with a few specific cases but mainly focuses on the circumstances leading to the compensation agreement between Switzerland and a number of Jewish organizations. In this disturbing affair the devil is in the details, and Finkelstein has done his homework.
The empirical evidence he supplies is alarming. He documents how Jewish organizations have consistently exaggerated numbers--of slave laborers or the amount of "victim gold" purchased by the banks--in order to secure more money. This sort of inflation was recently repeated in an October 23 letter written by Burt Neuborne--the lead counsel in the Swiss banks case--to The Nation. Neuborne claimed, for instance, that if one takes into account that there were "more than 2 million wartime accounts" whose records have been destroyed, then the $1.25 billion compensation provided by the Swiss "barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds." Neuborne fails to mention the findings published by the Independent Committee of Eminent Persons, also known as the Volcker Committee, in its Report on Dormant Accounts of Victims of Nazi Persecution in Swiss Banks (1999). The committee established that approximately 54,000 dormant accounts had a "possible or probable" relationship to Holocaust victims, and of these only half had any real likely connection. Considering that "the estimated value of 10,000 of these accounts for which some information was available runs to $170-200 million," even Raul Hilberg, author of the seminal study The Destruction of the European Jews, infers that the "current value of the monies in the dormant Jewish accounts is far less than the $1.25 billion paid by the Swiss."
Hilberg himself has accused some Jewish organizations of "blackmail," and Finkelstein describes in detail how this economic strong-arming was carried out. While the high-powered lawyers representing the organizations haggled with the Swiss, the Jewish lobby launched an extensive campaign. This drive included the publication of studies--supported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center--that accused Switzerland of "knowingly profiting from blood money" and committing "unprecedented theft," and claimed that "dishonesty was a cultural code that individual Swiss have mastered to protect the nation's image and prosperity." Using its leverage, the lobby utilized these allegations in the House and Senate banking committees in order to orchestrate a "shameless campaign of vilification" against Switzerland, in Finkelstein's words. Simultaneously, it convinced officials in a number of states, including New York, New Jersey and Illinois, to threaten the Swiss banks with economic boycott. Finally, the banks bent in response. Call it what you will, ingenious lobbying or conspiracy theory, Finkelstein manages to disclose how this well-oiled machine has utilized abhorrent methods to fill its coffers.
The World Jewish Congress has amassed "roughly $7 billion" in compensation moneys. One reads that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger earns an annual salary of $300,000 as chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims, while ex-Senator Alfonse D'Amato is paid $350 an hour plus expenses for mediating Holocaust lawsuits--he received $103,000 for the first six months of his labors. Most of the attorneys hired by the Jewish organizations earn around $600 an hour and their fees in total have reached several million. One lawyer asked for "$2,400 for reading Tom Bower's book, Nazi Gold." These attorneys might be demanding a smaller fee than is common to such litigation, but even a small percentage of a billion dollars is a lot of money. One should keep in mind that Finkelstein's mother received $3,500 for spending years in the Warsaw ghetto and in labor camps--the same amount D'Amato made in ten hours' work. These numbers plainly suggest that the "struggle," as much as it may be about paying damages to victims, has elements of an out-and-out money grab.
Finkelstein's analysis here boils down to three major criticisms: First, US Jewish organizations have been using shady methods to squeeze as much money as they can from European countries; second, while these organizations "celebrate" the "needy victims," much of the money gained in the process does not reach the victims but is used by organizations for "pet projects" and exorbitant overhead salaries; and third, that Jewish organizations' ongoing distortion of facts and emotional manipulation foments anti-Semitism. While his arguments are convincing, his attempt to be provocative leads to carelessness. His claim that the "Holocaust may turn out to be the greatest theft in the history of mankind" is preposterous, especially considering the history of imperialism. And yes, the "Holocaust industry" probably engenders some anti-Semitism; but Finkelstein should also clearly state that any misbehavior by Jewish organizations does not, and never can, provide an excuse for it.
Finkelstein does not spend all of his ire on his critique of Jewish organizations; he forcefully condemns US double standards as well. Why, for example, was a Holocaust museum built on the Washington Mall while there is no similarly high-profile museum commemorating crimes that took place in the course of American history? "Imagine," he says, "the wailing accusation of hypocrisy here were Germany to build a national museum in Berlin to commemorate not the Nazi genocide but American slavery or the extermination of Native Americans." Along the same line, the United States pressures Germany to pay compensation for its use of slave labor, but few in government dare mention compensation for African-Americans. Swiss banks are asked to pay back money taken from Jews but are allowed to continue profiting from the billions of dollars deposited by tyrants like Mobutu and Suharto at the expense of indigenous populations.
Informing Finkelstein's analysis is a universal ethics, which echoes Arendt's important claim that Eichmann should have been sentenced for his crimes against humanity rather than his crimes against the Jews. His book is controversial not entirely because of his mistakes or his piercing rhetoric but because he speaks truth to power. He, and not the Jewish organizations he criticizes, is following the example set by the great Jewish prophets.
Impeachment trials have notably lacked drama or even importance. Often, they have been an anticlimax to the convulsive events that precipitated them. Andrew Johnson's trial extended over several months and was a tepid sideshow to the profound political and legal struggles that marked Reconstruction. The British Parliament considered Warren Hastings's fate sporadically for eight years after he was impeached for his mismanagement of India policies, a subject heatedly debated for decades. The constitutional stakes sometimes appear high, but impeachment is essentially a quasi-legal extension of politics.
The impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton followed form. Here was a proceeding whose remarkable moments seem in retrospect to be Robert Byrd's bombastic oratory, Arlen Specter's idiosyncratic attempt to import Scottish law by rendering a verdict of "Not Proven," Henry Hyde's ongoing fits of pique toward the Senate and misguided media speculations about "concessions" and "compromise" after one of the House managers of the proceeding, Lindsey Graham, lightened up and said "reasonable people can disagree." Most senators even followed a script for their questions, asking ones planted by the lawyers or the leadership. The affair had all the spontaneity of a Pointillist painting.
Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Joe Conason and Gene Lyons's The Hunting of the President treat impeachment briefly as a mere coda to earlier stories of alleged presidential wrongdoing. Both books recognize that the interesting and important political story centered on the assault against Clinton, which had gathered momentum after his election in 1992. That story was unscripted and owed more to accident and inadvertence than to design. The President and his wife were accused, among other things, of crooked land deals, suspected insider commodity trading, drug-running and complicity in the murder of a presidential-assistant-cum-alleged-paramour, Vincent Foster. Finally, we had the National Dirty Joke. The Toobin and Conason/Lyons books essentially tell the same story, and tell it rather well.
Peter Baker, a Washington Post reporter, set out to write "an authoritative and straightforward history" of the impeachment and trial. This subject pales by contrast to the earlier story, for it has little drama, mystery or subtlety. Baker is apparently determined to give us everything he accumulated in his reporter's notebook. His details are numbing; we have an abundance of trivia, rumor and anecdote, leaving him (and us) short on analysis and insight. But publishing publicity departments love this stuff. Press releases for the book emphasize the President's request to attorney David Kendall to tell Hillary that "something had obviously gone on" between her husband and Monica Lewinsky. It was the "longest walk" of Kendall's life, but he "laid the foundation" for Clinton to tell his wife. Certainly Clinton's modus operandi was nothing new or startling.
Typically, such books rest upon the usual unnamed sources. "I wish I could name them all," Baker writes. But it is not difficult to dope out his sources, and their obvious, self-fulfilling purposes. Representative Asa Hutchinson, one of the House managers, talked with Baker at length. Baker apparently found him the most interesting of the prosecutors (Hutchinson could mute his sanctimoniousness and stick to the legal issues), or at least the one most willing to speak. Baker can tell you at length what Hutchinson was thinking and what motivated him. Needless to say, Hutchinson comes off better than his colleagues.
Baker seems to have chronicled the recollections of every participant and weighted them equally. We hear about the origins of Joe Lieberman's famous speech, from its inception on the laptop to the incremental additions made before delivery. We are reminded of that very forgettable, very carefully planted rumor that Bob Woodward would report a second Clinton affair, with another intern. Remember Larry King panting over that one?
We learn that Senator Strom Thurmond flirted like a silly old man with the President's female lawyers. Baker finds a few themes and uses them repeatedly. Thus, the Democrats would consistently expose Republican partisanship and "win by losing." Then we had the "don't irritate Byrd" strategy, meaning that the Democrats decided to pander to their silly old man.
Baker even reveals how Washington really works. At one point, Representative Robert Livingston, on the verge of gaining the speakership, apparently decided to scuttle the case, but his chief aide--an unsung Beltway hero--persuaded him that Tom DeLay's secret room of evidence would prove the President was a rapist. "So what you're saying," Livingston said to the aide, "is we have to impeach the bastard?" Comes the breathless answer from the aide, eager to be immortalized: "Yes, I'm saying we have to impeach the bastard." Finally, Baker performs a useful service by identifying Lisa Myers of NBC as a "key player." And here we thought she was a working journalist.
Baker implicitly acknowledges the widely held notion that Tom DeLay steamrollered the House impeachment process. DeLay made mincemeat out of Peter King, the New York conservative who tried to form a bloc of Republicans opposed to impeachment. Finally, despairing, King informed Clinton, "There are people in my party who just hate you." Livingston's staff described DeLay as "the godfather." He made Livingston, he threatened him and he unmade him. But Baker leaves DeLay in the shadows, with no explanation of the sources of his power or how he held the House in his sway.
David Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment inquiry, Chicago Democrat (of a sort) and Hyde's fellow Knight of the Catholic Church's Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher, has given us a book as comical and over the top as himself. Remember: This is the man who called up fifteen generations of fighting Americans from their graves to judge the House Judiciary Committee's action. His ready audience, which has shot the book to near the top of the bestseller list, gets plenty of red meat. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's report is treated as gospel; never mind that Starr acknowledged that without Monica Lewinsky's falling into his lap, he had no other case against the President.
Schippers's thesis is simple, and in part quite right: The Senate Republicans had no intention of seriously trying the case and sold out their House counterparts. Unfortunately, he explains this with scathing denunciations of "compromise" and "bipartisanship," when in fact a significant number of Senate Republicans simply did not believe that Schippers's case amounted to high crimes and misdemeanors, or that the President deserved to be thrown out of office.
The Senate treated the House charges with disdain, often bordering on contempt, much to the managers' dismay and scorn. The senators even refused to provide partisan cover for the managers when they failed to mount a majority in favor of either of the two articles of impeachment. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, whose Appropriations Committee chairmanship gave him enormous clout and who is no stranger to partisan battles, offered the most revealing insight into senatorial minds. Stevens voted to acquit Clinton on the perjury charge but voted him guilty on the obstruction count--the latter a mere "courtesy" to the managers. Stevens had no illusions. The world remained a dangerous place, and he forcefully said he would not vote to remove the President if he knew his vote would be decisive to the outcome. With remarkable candor, he said that Clinton had "not brought that level of danger to the nation which...is necessary to justify such an action." Stevens correctly gauged the national mood; this trial simply was not serious.
Stevens had hinted at this from the outset, infuriating Schippers. Yet Schippers was, inadvertently, right about bipartisanship. Current wisdom has it that the Clinton trial was a bitter, partisan affair and, as such, was doomed to failure. But just as bipartisanship worked to bring down Richard Nixon a quarter-century earlier, it may well have tarred and discredited Clinton's accusers. The Senate certainly had its share of Clinton-haters. Trent Lott in 1974 had rejected impeachment as unthinkable; he had no trouble, however, applying it to Clinton. The usual suspects--Phil Gramm, Robert Bennett, Rick Santorum et al.--followed in lockstep. But Republican defections denied the impeachers any semblance of respectability and gave Clinton some measure of satisfaction.
There was no chance of removing the President once he had the support of his fellow Democrats. At that point, Republicans faced a choice: They could maintain party orthodoxy and vote for Clinton's removal, or they could freely vote to hold the bar high enough to reject his removal from office. Enough Republicans were persuaded that the President did not merit extreme sanction--and they exposed the whole affair as a meaningless, vindictive exercise.
Impeachment and removal belonged, then, to the Bob Barr set within the Republican Party. Most Republicans preferred resignation; impeachment proved to be a grasping, last-ditch effort to humiliate Clinton. Resignation would not only satisfy the hatred for him but provide payback for the Nixon affair a quarter-century earlier. When Livingston dramatically announced his own resignation (after it was publicly revealed that he'd also had an affair), he called upon the President to do the same. "Sir, you have done great damage to this nation.... I say that you have the power to terminate that damage and heal the wounds that you have created. You, sir, may resign from your post," Livingston pleaded.
Resignation had seemed a viable possibility months earlier, in the immediate wake of the Lewinsky revelations. Clinton's real moment of danger came when Democrats, many of whom dislike him, briefly flirted with the idea of abandoning him. But that effort ended for several reasons, not the least of which turned out to be polls showing public apathy or outright support for Clinton. Democrats decided to resist Republican attempts to force out the President, by resignation or later by impeachment. Even as the Senate went through the last-minute ritual of its vote, Phil Gramm said that a leader with honor "would fall on your own sword." But Gramm had (for him) a startling revelation: Richard Nixon had a sense of shame; Clinton had the hide of an elephant.
For Tom DeLay and his cohorts, who had known removal was unlikely but turned to impeachment to embarrass the President and tarnish his legacy, irony abounds. Not for the first or last time did Republicans underestimate Clinton; and not for the last time was he so blessed by his enemies. Prosperity and other Democrats proved indispensable allies.
There are no heroes in this tale, no redeeming moral or social virtue to offer in rendering American history. It is a smarmy story of petty politics, propelled by out-of-control media coverage. The constant theme is that the perpetrators remained wholly disconnected from that amorphous thing we call "the people." We are neither puritans nor prudes--probably the real subject here was infidelity, and that is a subject too many have had to contend with firsthand, or have preferred not to. In the end, the American people saved Bill Clinton--almost in spite of him.
After Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial, regret quickly took hold and impeachment was discredited for more than a century. Watergate and Nixon revived it in 1974. Now, our choices seem plain. Either impeachment will be used readily as a partisan weapon or it will become moribund once again. Neither result is healthy for the American constitutional system.
Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy and Conason and Lyons's The Hunting of the President knew the real story lay prior to impeachment.