This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
January 7, 2015
I heard news of the killing at about the time the streets of Paris were filling with mourners raising their signs: “Je suis Charlie.” I felt nothing for the dead, and then sorrow that I felt nothing. Certainly, I was not shocked. Unless one is right up in it, mass political killing isn’t shocking anymore; it’s a day job. Take a drone operator: he sits in a trailer in Nevada tracking his prey on a screen, watching the target count out money for bread, talk with his friends (conspirators?), play with his children, make love with his wife, doodle idly, until the moment another drone operator hits the button to release the missile that will tear that faraway man and anyone near him to pieces. None of the best men and women of the West link arms to decry the drone operator’s handiwork. They do not weep, even for him. Like his victims, he is known but invisible, necessary but overlooked; the images of smoldering body parts are his private horror, tearing him apart in a parking lot after a twelve-hour shift. So, no, protest as we might, we are not shocked by killing, merely by who is killed. Which is why those signs in Paris, broadcast relentlessly, filled me with dread. “I am white,” they said. “I am lucky and smug, educated just enough to cloak my bigotry in the snowy garment of freedom, deluded or cynical enough to call peddling the hoariest of conventional ideas subversive.” If we are Charlie, I thought, heaven help us all.
Then I scoured the attic of memory for some human things, some light and sturdy anger, for if an honorable language of resistance was not to be found in the killers or the victims or the pinched solidarity, it is not to be found in bile or a contest between the dead, either.
July or August 1979
It was one of those days that brought ladies in scuffs and thin housecoats out of the tenements and onto the sidewalk, fanning themselves on plastic lawn chairs. A dog day, a phrase I didn’t appreciate until walking on 14th Street one afternoon in the desperate heat, dreadfully poor, and spying a dog plodding toward me with his tongue hanging out. A $10 bill was pasted there. The dog moved slow, I slower; everyone else on the street hurried by, not noticing the mangy animal or the moist tongue, or not needing the $10—all but one, a slim black man eyeing that bill as hungrily as I. We two stopped, the dog advancing between us. What were the chances, I tried to calculate, that I could make a clean swipe of it, that the dog wouldn’t bite, that if he did he wouldn’t have rabies, that if he did have rabies I could endure the shots, but would I have to pay for them? A lot of “ifs” for $10. Maybe the man was thinking the same, maybe recalling beautiful, doomed Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God. We watched each other like hunters, tense with daring but more with fear and a prickly shame; then laughed together, absurd and only half-relieved, as the instant to strike passed and the dog went its way with the cash.
On just such a day, in the cool refuge of the dollar cinema, I first saw The Battle of Algiers. The world looked different after that. I had been shielded the way most Americans, most white kids anyway, were from the European colonial experience. “Vietnam” had meant mainly a US atrocity and an antiwar movement that belonged to the spectacles of childhood. France, whose art, cooking and language served mostly to satisfy our pretensions, was out of the Great Power game and had somehow escaped the charge of racism. White power I considered America’s special curse, though one that only vaguely implicated Polish, Northern, freewheeling me.
Something shifted, some door of perception flung open, as the three Arab women on-screen removed their abayas and dyed, powdered and otherwise made themselves up into Europeans, able to pass as colons at police barricades. This is the film’s emotional center. Their transformation is an irrevocable act. They have become soldiers, the colonized appropriating the style of the colonizers in order to kill them. At the cafe where one of the women leaves her basket, the counter is thick with the French young—in my memory, white women smiling and raking their fingers through their hair moments before the bomb goes off. None of them deserves to die, just as 157 men, women and children in the Casbah blown up earlier by settlers and police did not deserve to die, just as Algeria did not deserve 130 years of colonization, massacre, torture and humiliation.
Many years later, I would be pleased to know Eqbal Ahmad, a lovely man and rigorous anti-imperialist, who among many things in his too-short life had been part of the National Liberation Front’s delegation in peace talks with the French, and later a researcher and adviser on the film. He told this story: Gillo Pontecorvo, the director, initially had the soundtrack play Beethoven every time a pied noir died, and an Arabic dirge every time a native Algerian died. “This is something I don’t like,” said Saadi Yacef, his associate director, as the film was nearing final cut. “You have to have the Algerian dirge for both of us. Otherwise, we are separating even the dead according to nationality.” Yacef had written a book from prison that became the basis for the script; an FLN leader, he played himself in the film.
Thus the same dirge plays for all the dead, many hundreds of thousands by the time the war ended: most Algerian, most killed by the French, though savagery knew no nationality. An occupation so begun could not have ended otherwise unless the French had quit at the start of the insurrection; they chose torture and slaughter instead. It’s often said that the movie is an argument for terrorism, and there may be no more economical insight into the choice of “weapons of the weak” than when the rebel leader tells the press that the nationalists would gladly exchange their women’s baskets for the French army, air force, navy, police—all of which were deployed against the Algerians. On that summer day, though, I read the film as an argument against innocence. In ways apparent and obscured, the regime of segregation and violence had worked for the easygoing girls at the cafe, even as it inured them, threatened them. They were not innocent, which is not the same as saying they were guilty. The film is not about them, us, anyone whom power seemingly protects, but I walked from the theater as if from a sermon for an insurrection of the mind.
April 1, 1980
Revolution, Andrew Kopkind had written in 1968, though not in The Nation, “is at once the most tragic and redeeming social experience. It is what societies do instead of committing suicide, when the alternatives are exhausted and all the connections that bind men’s lives in familiar patterns are cut.” I had not had that as an assist in mulling Algerian tragedies, nor did I meet Andy on this day, my birthday, when I mark my beginnings at the magazine. He would not arrive for two more years, but had I not approached the reception desk looking more for possibility than a paycheck—asking, remarkably to me now, “Do you use free workers?” and being told, “We call them interns”—it’s doubtful I would have read the lines above or met him or, because of him, Alexander Cockburn, and so Edward Said and Eqbal and… The crackling universe of unsettling ideas turned out to be vast. Not vast enough, never vast enough. I had slipped through a crack to privilege. There would be no honest way of thinking again about the multiple “connections that bind men’s lives” without also taking that into account.
We interns toiled in a big room with a big couch, a Nerf basketball hoop and a wall of shelves weighty with bound volumes dating from July 6, 1865. My assignment was to consult those, as well as riotous files on an upper floor and other sources, to draft a list of Nation “firsts”—first to publish James Baldwin, first to warn of the Bay of Pigs, first to reveal what strontium-90 was doing to human bones, etc.—and anything else that might spark up a promotional piece one day.
To start with the bound volumes meant entering the world of E.L. Godkin; opening the files was a dip into the 1950s–’70s of Carey McWilliams. Godkin I’d imagined as a brave Reconstructionist; McWilliams, with a column in 1980, seemed part of the unheroic present. I was wrong about both, though it took a while—years, really—to grasp the full import of my mistake.
I didn’t like Godkin, who certainly hadn’t liked my people, immigrant industrial workers whose only distinctive quality was that sometimes they struck and had to be starved or shot like wild animals. What linguistic brio he brought to journalism, considered bold and iconoclastic in 1865, he put in the service of the ruling ideology. What differences he had were a matter of degree. The ugliness beneath his irony and refinement—his disdain for workers and faith in boundless free-market opportunity, his impatience with black protestations (Vote with your feet if you’re scared, he advised), his denunciations of regulation and of the poor as shiftless degenerates, his determination that racism was not a white problem—prefigures nothing so much as the blowhard faction of the contemporary right. Limbaughism without the false populism.
I dismissed him as a racist and elitist, as indeed he was, but now he too seems a figure of tragedy, affecting worldliness while cosseted among the “best men,” trumpeting independence while hewing to the conventions of money power, professing the virtues of culture but evincing no interest in the human persons who create it or become its casualties. A small, sour man, he left one big gift: he forces us to face our history without evasion, something he could not do, something America’s failure to do is blowing up the world.
February 6, 1982
Of course, Carey McWilliams was courageous. Like his predecessor, Freda Kirchwey, he flouted official ideology when that was hardest, and when most liberal institutions surrendered to anticommunism. But many people have courage; there wouldn’t be black Americans or a history of resistance without it. Red-baiting had seemed a tarnished antique when I’d riffled through McWilliams’s files. Now here was Susan Sontag at a Town Hall event engaging in a version of it, and declaring semi-famously that people would have learned more about the Soviet bloc reading Reader’s Digest than The Nation since 1950. They might have learned more about the United States reading Consumer Reports and the Bible, but they wouldn’t have learned much about the nature of US power, which is the first responsibility of anyone deriving its benefits and enduring its costs. Sontag’s speech, a trifle on its own, prefigured Limbaughism too: coarse, aimed to offend, insincere. It was also in vogue. Anticommunism was back in Reagan’s America, and with that, McWilliams’s fragmentary papers, letters and “Night Thoughts”—typed memos to himself—no longer seemed like curios. They were traces of a longer-view project to preserve space for the insurrectionary thought. Andy Kopkind would soon explain the anatomy of “The Return of Cold War Liberalism,” its new forms and old function: elevating military values, blunting debate, foreclosing any left alternative, bleeding the Third World. For the rest of the decade-plus, he and Alex Cockburn and others would refresh the language of the left, dissecting the deceptions of Reaganism, its liberal helpers and heirs; giving air to opposing movements; revealing the US hand in wars from Latin America to the Middle East to Africa and Asia; foreshadowing the coming catastrophes. Whatever frustrations I might’ve had with McWilliams’s magazine—that it was interested in but not of the movement energies of the era—the man had bequeathed a singular heritage. Not policy ideas, though those would come; not a preoccupation with glorious victims, though victims he surely championed; rather, an example of gutsy iconoclasm and genuine solidarity. He made future bravery possible.
April 28, 2015
Not all anniversaries are commemorated. The day the pictures from Abu Ghraib were first broadcast is like any other now. When was that again—2004? A year earlier, the Pentagon had screened The Battle of Algiers for its Special Ops chiefs, but what was the aim? Torture and war have been the steady gruel for so long, it’s hard to keep track of details if the images are not seared in the brain as symbols of your people’s subjection. In the media, it seemed almost quaint that the killers in France mentioned Abu Ghraib. That particular scandal had a short run here; after the Army’s first trial of a low-level soldier in January of 2005, only a handful of reporters followed the others. By then, there seemed to be no national conscience left to shock. I was among those reporters, and an image memory from one of the later trials stays with me: there’s a break in the proceedings; lawyers and the few spectators mill about; the jurors are gone, but one has left his video monitor on (jurors had them to scrutinize the photos); it shows two naked, hooded prisoners simulating fellatio; the image is plain as the wallpaper, and no one blinks. The forced simulation of fellatio is by no stretch the worst abuse committed by US agents or troops. It is, however, perhaps most telling of the American mind on terror. The body in pain evokes nothing. The Muslim is a pinup donkey. Humiliation—because there was no mistaking the two men in hoods for people making love—is a commonplace. The “shock jock” is Everyman, and empathy flies away.
Our jokes are tired. Our lynching-picnic roots have been showing a long time. Revolution may not be in the offing, but social suicide is possible. In such a situation, where being offensive is the dominant theme of cultural and political life, to offend is not radical, any more than murder is. Where everything is irreverence, reverence is the resistant act—for ourselves, for the integrity of another human soul, for the connections that bind us, in possibility and peril. 150th