Wednesday, March 09, 2005

welcome to my rudimentary online archive

August 3, 2011

Welcome to my rudimentary online archive

I am a contributing editor at New York Magazine, Tablet Magazine, and a frequent contributor to the National of Abu Dhabi.

I write about contemporary culture for n+1.

Click here for a link to the Kindle Single version of the Face of Seung-Hui Cho

Contact me wesley DOT yang AT gmail DOT com, Search Engine Optimization and Submission

Here are thirty-one stories. They are:

1. -- "Highbrow Fight Club", about the upstart intellectual magazine, n+1, in the Dec. 15 issue of the New York Observer.
2. -- "Beloved Home Land, But How to Sell Sam?" about the trouble the writer Sam Lipsyte had in getting his second novel published, from the Feb. 14 issue of the Observer.
3. -- "Rosy View of a Riotous Year," a review of Mark Kurlansky's "1968: The Year that Rocked the World," from the Observer.
4. -- "Living Room Cold War," a review of Thomas Doherty's "Cold War, Cool Medium," a historical survey of the conjunction of television and McCarthyism," from the Observer.
5. -- "Hitler's Best Friend," a review of "Speer, the Final Verdict", by Joachim Fest, from Salon. Com.
6. -- "The Governor Who Loved Poetry Too much", from
7. -- "The Philosopher and the Ayatollah," about Michel Foucault's embrace of the Iranian Revolution in the Boston Globe Ideas Section

8. -- "White Collar Blues," a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bait and Switch" from Los Angeles Times
9. -- "Poets, Inc" a piece looking at how the stewards of the $175 million Lilley grant to Poetry Magazine intend to intervene in the course of the art form.
10. -- "Star Gazing" from The New Republic Online, a review of Francine Du Plessix Gray's memoir of her parents.

11. -- "Hell House" a piece from the New York Observer on a Hell House staged at St. Ann's Warehouse.
12. -- Another New Yorker's Diary from the New York Observer, about Salman Rushdie, Seymour Hersh, and Scott Ritter Speaking at the Society for Ethical Culture

13. A review of Walter Benn Michaels' The Trouble With Diversity published in the Los Angeles Times
14. "A Literary Submission" -- Covering a talk at the New York Public Library with Laura Kipnis and Esther Perel

15. A review of William T. Vollman's "Riding Toward Everywhere," in the New York Sun.
16. An essay on meritocracy from the New York Sun
17. A review of book about why men can't grow up for the New York Times Book Review.

18. An essay on Arthur Schnitzler's novel the Road Into the Open for Nextbook.
19. An essay on Otto Weininger for Nextbook.

20. A review of Jane Mayer's _The Dark Side_ for the National of Abu Dhabi.

21. An essay on Gregor Von Rezzori's THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR and MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE for Nextbook.

22. A review of Alexander's Waugh biography of the Wittgenstein family, THE HOUSE OF WITTGENSTEIN: A FAMILY AT WAR

23. A review of David Sanger's survey of the global legacy left behind by the Bush Administration, THE INHERITANCE: THE WORLD OBAMA INHERITS AND THE THREATS TO AMERICAN POWER

24. A review of Mahmood Mamdani's polemical history of conflict in Darfur, SAVIORS AND SURVIVORS: DARFUR, POLITICS, AND THE WAR ON TERROR.

25. A short review of a collection of essay by George Scialabba WHAT ARE INTELLECTUALS FOR?

26. A review of two books about surviving apocalypse from the Abu Dhabi National.

27. An essay on Jews and rock and roll for Nextbook.
28. A short essay for New York Magazine about a summer fling.
29. A review of Neil MacFarquhar's book THE MEDIA RELATIONS DEPARTMENT OF HIZBOLLAH WISHES YOU A HAPPY BIRTHDAY from the National of Abu Dhabi.

30. An essay on the ten-year anniversary of the emergence of Britney Spears from the n+1 website

31. An essay on the Dreyfus Affair's contemporary significance from Tablet Magazine.

32. A critical reading of all the Sex Diaries printed by New York magazine since April 2007, published in New York Magazine.
33. A profile of Tony Judt for New York Magazine.
34. A review of Nell Irvin Painter's A HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE for the Abu Dhabi National

35. A short profile of Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, in New York Magazine
36. A profile of Evan Kohlmann, the government's most prolific expert witness in terrorism trials.

37. A review of Margaux Fragoso's memoir of her molester, Tiger, Tiger, for New York Magazine.
38. A review of A BILLION WICKED THOUGHTS, a study of Internet pornography by two computational neuroscience from the New York Times Book Review.

39. A piece about the suicide of the hacker and activist Aaron Swartz from New York Magazine

Dec. 15, 2004

‘Highbrow Fight Club’

by Wesley Yang

"In case I fail to resolve all aspects of the Meaning of Life in this essay," began Mark Greif, 29, seated beneath a portrait of Gandhi at scholarly Labyrinth Books on 112th Street and Broadway last month, "rest assured: There will be a Part 2."

The rangy, bespectacled Mr. Greif’s cheeks flushed crimson as he launched into "The Meaning of Life, (Part 1)," his contribution to the second issue of n+1. n+1 is the tiny, self-financed biannual literary and political journal that Mr. Greif launched with Benjamin Kunkel, Marco Roth and Keith Gessen this summer, whose ambitions include—but are not limited to—"the revitalization of civilization."

The four editors—each, in Beatles-esque fashion, epitomizing a distinct type (the jock, the dreamer, the heartthrob, the "effete intellectual")—continue to exude, on the cusp of their 30’s, the dewy self-possession that attends a lifetime of precocity. n+1 proposes to "revive progress" by looking back to the highbrow taste-mongering and radical politics of the New York intellectuals: Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Mary McCarthy, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe and Hannah Arendt. n+1’s attempt to restore the life of the independent intellectual begins, oddly enough, with raising the self-esteem of this beleaguered clan, one often heard bemoaning its marginalization. The boys have made, among themselves, "the n+1 laugh" a name for the "kind of laughter—deep laughter—that can overthrow kingdoms," said Mr. Gessen. "Which mostly occurs toward things written in n+1 itself." There is clearly a sense in which they are a Socratic gathering of mutually admiring men (whose fights are sometimes resolved by 23-year-old managing editor Allison Lorentzen) giving each other courage for a brave adventure—a kind of highbrow Fight Club.

"We’re not posing as New York intellectuals," Marco Roth, 30, told me earlier. A graduate of Dalton and Columbia, now a doctoral candidate in comp lit at Yale, Mr. Roth is a self-described "effete intellectual" whose Parisian-inflected French apparently astonished Jacques Derrida, as he reported in an essay commemorating the recently deceased thinker at (the Web site, to which I have contributed, where they post a grab bag of commentary, e-mail and, according to a short-lived policy promulgated on the site itself, "only that which sucks"). Mr. Roth’s English wife, Emily Wilson (a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, and A.N. Wilson’s daughter) was at the reading with their newborn daughter in tow. "[The New York intellectuals] are a kind of aspiration—a hope," said Mr. Roth.

The reading, for a crowd of 60 friends and supporters (including the historian and critic Caleb Crain, Newsday assistant books editor Peter Terzian, Vanessa Mobley of Henry Holt and New Yorker–anointed fiction phenom Nell Freudenberger), turned out to be endearingly flustered, punctuated by nervous little asides—a sharp contrast to the swaggering tone of the magazine’s inaugural issue, which featured attacks on … the entire intellectual situation. (The name n+1 is an algebraic notation for an advancing series.) At St. Mark’s Bookshop, n+1 has sold 70 copies, making it the biggest-selling venue for the magazine’s tiny first print run. "For a new journal, that’s very impressive," said store manager Michael Russo. Slowly, others have taken notice. Pankaj Mishra, author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World and a frequent New York Review of Books contributor, browsing n+1 on the newsstands, "was struck by its fresh, honest and extremely intelligent stance," and signed on as a contributor.

Upstart journals are often showcases for newcomers starting their careers; n+1 is an eccentric detour for writers already launched on them. Mr. Gessen, 29, with his big, toothy grin, wild eyes and mop of dark hair, fled Soviet anti-Semitism with his family in 1981, at the age of 6. He has written for The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic Monthly, and recently signed on to write regularly about books for New York magazine, in which he has called The New York Times a paper "owned by proper German Jews, and written by Philistines," and pronounced "the end of the twee literary sensibility—that of Dave Eggers and company." Mr. Gessen opened the reading by talking extempore about the inspiration behind n+1, citing Dissent, The Partisan Review, some avant-garde Russian journals, but also—something much more telling—four defunct magazines of the 1990’s.

Feed, Suck, Hermenaut and Lingua Franca pioneered a deft, swift, funny way of writing about ideas—one that was mordant about and skeptical of the pieties of the Baby Boomers, big media and academia. In the mid-1990’s, these alternative voices were reaching critical mass, and New York seemed to bloom with possibility for enterprising young intellectuals. The irony is that these journals were among the first casualties of the economic meltdown that proved their skepticism right. Taken together, their failures begin to look like the verdict of the market on young intellectuals. Though they launched many writers and editors high onto the mastheads of a half-dozen leading publications, a special way of writing and thinking lost a home. The young live and work in conditions—of extortionate rents, ruinous competition and pervasive nepotism—more conducive to turning out those familiar young New York characters: résumé polishers, internship seekers, beleaguered staffers, reluctant lawyers, toilers in think tanks, foundations, academic theory mills.

And every few years, writers have wrung their hands over or blithely reaffirmed the death of the independent intellectual in books or major articles, with the present compared unfavorably to the 1950’s "Age of Criticism." It was in the pages of the Partisan Review and its spinoffs that the New York intellectuals showed the "powerless power" that little magazines could wield.

They wrote some of the most important essays of the century, and shaped the politics and tastes of generations of writers and critics—all without exceeding a circulation of 15,000. But before they became grave pontificators on the Responsibility of Intellectuals, Partisan Review co-founder William Phillips reminds us, the New York intellectuals were "cocky kids, driven by a grandiose idea of launching a new literary movement, combining older with younger talents, and the best of the new radicalism with the innovative energy of modernism." n+1 has the cockiness. By proposing to fill it, the magazine exposes a vacuum in our public life.

n+1 uses two institutions—McSweeney’s and The Believer on the one hand, and the culture section of The New Republic on the other—as surrogates for "the age of demented self-censorship" it proposes to smash open. (It also puts the hatchet to The Weekly Standard.) It calls The New Republic’s culture section "the best literary section in the country" before denouncing its "wholly negative" method as a "fake refinement that turns into a vulgarity baser than any other." "It’s a very damaging mistake," the piece avers: "the idea that sniffing out the tasteless is the same thing as taste."

"The New Republic seems to want to find ways to catch people out saying things beyond the pale, so they might never have to be thought of again," said Benjamin Kunkel, the pensive, fine-mannered, golden-haired n+1 editor who just delivered his first completed novel, titled Indecision—about a prep-school boy footloose in Ecuador while taking a space-age drug to combat his terminal case of indecision. (The novel was sold to Random House "for a big pile of money," Mr. Gessen informs me.) Despite the company he keeps, he is, Mr. Gessen says, "pure goy," a graduate of St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire.

Lee Siegel, one of the New Republic critics targeted for criticism, responded with a brief rejoinder. "I sympathize with their aspirations for the culture," he said, "but I wish that the quality of their work was on the level of their ambition."

n+1’s attack on McSweeney’s and The Believer proceeds by taking Mr. Eggers and his movement seriously. (The mags did not return requests for comment.) The journal admires the way Mr. Eggers used the existing media to build an alternative one and a literary community around it.

"The form of what Eggers has done is exemplary. It shows us certain possibilities," said Mr. Greif, who is also a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.

But content-wise, the piece argues, "the innovation of the Eggersards was their creation of a regressive avant-garde": a veneration of childhood and innocence that mirrors the sentimental popular culture, as well as an emphasis on gags that are "absurdist in the degraded sense, that is, pointless."

"There may be some of the narcissism of minor differences at work here," conceded Mr. Crain at the reading, noting that The Believer and n+1 share certain important virtues—namely, detachment from the "tyranny of the publicity and news cycles."

The Believer would likely assent to n+1’s attacks on The New Republic, and vice versa. But n+1 argues that both Mr. Eggers and The New Republic would rather shut people up than engage in an honest, public contest of ideas. At the reading, Mr. Gessen said he wanted to create a magazine that would allow people to use their intelligence to the fullest to tackle challenging and risky subjects. "It used to be, in the 1950’s, that you’d write for, say, Fortune magazine for money and the Partisan Review for love. We need a new outlet that can be the magazine that lets you say what you really want to say."

n+1 wants to say a number of things that its editors believe responsible liberal opinion won’t permit.

"Try saying that the act we call ‘war’ would more properly be termed a massacre," the opening editorial statement suggests, "and that the state we call ‘occupation’ would more properly be termed a war; that the conspiracy theories, here and abroad, which have not yet been proved true by Seymour Hersh or the General Accounting Office are probably, nonetheless, true and see how far you get." In "Paranoiastan," Masha Gessen (Keith’s big sister and the former U.S. News and World Report bureau chief) endorses the theory that the Russian security service F.S.B. blew up an apartment building a few years back and blamed it on the Chechens. "Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy" uses the original Western war epic, the Iliad, to explain the nature of contemporary U.S. warfare and, by extension, our failures in Iraq. "Against Exercise" assails the sweaty public rat cages known as gyms. "Palestine, the 51st State," a modest proposal for extending American statehood to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is an example of the "political surrealism" that Mr. Greif hopes will awaken "a numbed and straitjacketed conventional wisdom."

"We say the thing that seems like craziness, but goes for the underlying principles most commentators can’t loosen their ties to remember. When I watch the network news, I think: "Who’s insane, them or me?" he said. Mr. Greif, at the age of 17, discovered the "excremental philosophy" of Georges Bataille at Boston’s Commonwealth School and realized that the "thing I most wanted to be when I grew up … was a French intellectual." (He ended up pursuing this goal at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, where he’s currently a doctoral candidate in American studies.) He continued: "Until the day he’s asked to draft some legislation, a dreamer had better be reckless."

This "recklessness" has, unsurprisingly, been received with praise and criticism. The New York Times Book Review and Salon critic Laura Miller, a supporter of the magazine, voiced a common skepticism about the bid to reclaim the legacy of the Partisan Review crowd: "I don’t really see the point of determining that you’re going try to be a reincarnation of some previous cultural moment. I don’t lend much credence to people who obsess about Paris in the 20’s, or to the idea that if we could just get to the right place with the right sort of people, everything would be epochal and romantic."

Paul Berman, attacked in an editorial statement lamenting that "some of the best people in our intellectual class … gave their ‘critical support’ to a hubristic, suicidal adventure in Iraq," was a good sport. "In my view, n+1 has the right spirit," he wrote via e-mail. "The editors have their opinions, which I agree with X% of the time, and not X+1. But they are dedicated to their own liveliness more than to any particular opinion, and this is the important thing—to be alive to the moment. They don’t seem to need a cane to get up from their easy chairs. They want to escape the provincialism of American intellectual life, on which I agree with them X squared %. All in all, their magazine had better be pretty good—if not, our future is screwed."

But the suspicion is that n+1’s freedom to aspire to lofty things is merely the prerogative of privilege—notably, gender privilege. The founding editors are all male, and out of 20 articles in the first issue, 19 were written by men.

"These guys should know from their studies at Yale that, as Harold Bloom said, every generation of young men comes along and kills the father and says they are going to start a revolution and say the things no one has ever said before," said Elizabeth Merrick, the co-founder of the Cupcake Reading Series. Ms. Merrick was recently named New York’s "Best Feminist Literary Whistle-Blower" by The Village Voice for criticizing the established journals of opinion—The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books—for their 80 to 90 percent male (she counts them up) cast of writers. Ms. Merrick admires n+1’s writing, but "the real revolution would’ve been to have half women and half men. Another elite boys’ club—we have enough of those already."

"How can they possibly call us chest-thumping Neanderthals?" mused Mr. Gessen. "I mean—have they looked at Marco?" Mr. Roth’s feline features and wild Jew-fro make for the kind of profile you picture caricatured on a Barnes and Noble bag: the languid eyes, the pallor, the graceful arabesques of a cigarette-bearing hand, the suggestion of innumerable allergies, the diminutive man’s proud hauteur. For Mr. Gessen, the "male-centric" problem will be solved with the next issue, which is slated to have at least three new female contributions, including "a magnificent 20,000-word essay from a six-foot-tall Turkish woman," Elif Batuman, about Isaac Babel.

Mr. Roth concedes "there is probably an intensity to our bonding—and our fights—that being all male has helped." He continues: "The women in our lives are successful professionals. Their attitude toward this project has been one of justified condescension. Now the magazine exists, and we’ll see what happens next."

It’s too early to tell if n+1 can realistically expect to close the yawning gap between its improvisatory origins and its historical ambitions, or yoke together its founders’ highbrow tastes and far-left-of-center politics in a coherent way, or build (as they claim to want to) a movement of young intellectuals. Or, for that matter, if the return of the New York intellectual style—with its egotistical polemical tone and taste for the grand generalization—is really what the world wants, or needs. Despite this, n+1 is ready to take its swing.

"I kept waiting for someone to take me aside and say, ‘Write what is highest and best in you to write,’" said Mr. Greif. "In retrospect, it was an absurd thing to believe. I slowly came to the realization that if I wanted the freedom to say all that I wanted to say, I would have to do it myself."

You may reach Wesley Yang via email at:

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This column ran on page 1 in the 12/20/2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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February 14, 2005 TheFrontPage 2005

New computerized inventory systems give retailers and publishers alike access to an author’s sales record.

Beloved Home Land, But How to Sell Sam? He’s Cute, But Fuzzy

by Wesley Yang

"Publishing had its head up its ass!" said Gerald Howard, the tall, gray-haired executive editor at large of Doubleday/Broadway Books, nattily attired before a row of Chuck Close paintings. "Or at least, that’s how I felt in my angriest moments."

Maybe Mr. Howard was carried away by the antic mood that the novelist Sam Lipsyte had just unleashed in the shabbily genteel setting of the National Arts Club last month. Mr. Lipsyte read from his second novel, Home Land (published in January not by Mr. Howard’s Doubleday, but by Picador USA), and left much of the audience teary-eyed, giddy with the rush of his scabrous rhetoric. Pockets of others remained stony-faced. It was a familiarly divided response to Mr. Lipsyte’s combustible mixture of aphoristic wordplay and wild, explicit invective.

The novel is a series of painfully candid updates to a suburban New Jersey high-school alumni newsletter by a 33-year old man who "did not pan out." The New Yorker called it "hilarious and noble"; Vanity Fair called it "dizzying and hilarious"; Time magazine called it "a hilarious rant crackling with rueful truth," to lead a spate of mostly celebratory reviews. Home Land has exceeded its modest sales expectations six weeks into its launch, prompting Picador to reprint. And so there was cautious optimism and even a sense of vindication that night, because Home Land—and here’s what Mr. Howard was angry about—nearly became the tombstone of Mr. Lipsyte’s career two years ago when no publisher in the city would buy it at any price.

"I knew for a fact, insofar as these things can be facts, that this book was better than 95 percent of the fiction published in any given year," said Mr. Howard. "Why weren’t people picking up this tremendous book? What the hell was going on? It had me muttering to myself for a long time."

A question quickly sprang to mind: If Mr. Howard loved Home Land so much, why didn’t he publish it himself? His answers, and the answers of some other editors who also passed on Home Land—there were 30 in all, at 24 houses, a pretty remarkable number—helped to illuminate certain realities of the publishing business. There’s disagreement on whether or not these realities are new. But one thing is clear, according to Mr. Howard: "It just can’t be a good thing that a book this accomplished would find such a hard row to hoe."

"As a younger writer, you have this illusory sense that ‘as soon as I publish the book, it’ll be O.K.,’" Mr. Lipsyte said at the Comfort Diner on 23rd Street. Balding, bearish, gazing out from behind thick plastic-frame glasses, Mr. Lipsyte speaks in a lulling tone punctuated by bursts of self-deprecating irony. "And no, nothing’s O.K." Mr. Lipsyte speaks without bitterness about his initiation into what he might call "the cold soft facts"—a phrase from Home Land—of publishing. It’s a common enough fate, afflicting the gifted and mediocre alike: If your first book doesn’t sell, you may be out of luck. But it struck Mr. Lipsyte’s many admirers as a singular injustice.

Mr. Lipsyte has garnered a devoted cult following around this city ("He is, to some of us, a god figure," said the novelist Gary Shteyngart, author of The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) beginning with his first collection of short stories, Venus Drive, from the small press Open City Books. But his first novel, The Subject Steve, failed to achieve career-making breakout success. The book was released on Sept. 11, 2001, to mixed reviews and quickly sank from sight. Fewer than 5,000 of the 10,000 copies that Broadway Books printed sold, making for a tidy loss on Mr. Lipsyte’s $60,000 advance.

When Mr. Lipsyte sent out Home Land in early 2003, it went to Mr. Howard first. But though he tried to buy it, others prevented him. Home Land didn’t find favor with some readers at the house who supported The Subject Steve. "In combination with his sales record, I was left with very little or no hand to play," said Mr. Howard.

Mr. Lipsyte then entered the limbo of the mid-career writer, seeking his third publisher for his third book. Long after other agents would have moved on to easier sales, his agent, Ira Silverberg, persisted. He sold the book in England, where it came out in February 2004 to rave reviews. Mr. Silverberg’s crusading zeal was about more than what promised to be a rather meager commission. (The book sold for $15,000.) Mr. Silverberg had something he wanted to prove. "There’s nothing wrong with the book," Mr. Silverberg apostrophized, thinking of the editors that turned it down. "There’s something wrong with you! And to the powers that be that didn’t find this book funny, to them we say now: Ha, ha. Because a lot of others did." (Mr. Silverberg was referring to the positive reviews. Though far from a best-seller, Home Land is selling at a decent clip—more than 2,000 copies in its first six weeks, and at an accelerating pace.)

One editor who tried to buy it, only to have his editor in chief kill the sale, argued that the decision-making by editorial committee at most major houses around the city "tends to flatten out the aesthetic," which hurt Home Land’s chances. "When you have a really good satire, you’re not going to get everyone in the room to agree it’s fantastic. Some people aren’t going to think its funny; some people are going to be offended. And if you need a complete consensus on a book like this, it’ll never be published."

But there are factors other than taste that determine a novel’s fate. Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic Books—who liked Home Land, but not enough to buy it—spelled out some of the realities impinging on writers like Mr. Lipsyte. "Historically, first books were the hardest ones to launch: You’d always expect that you weren’t going to make any money for the first several books," he said. "Now, the reverse is true. The media has this voracious hunger for the new next thing. It’s much easier to sell that. That’s just a reality of today."

Mr. Entrekin continued: "The toughest cases are when you have these serious writers whose critical acclaim and the quality of their work hasn’t translated into sales. Everybody sort of gives you one shot. Everyone needs that immediate hit right away, and if it’s not happening, it’s very hard to stay the course."

Michael Pietsch, senior vice president and publisher at Little, Brown, disputed the suggestion that the hunger for novelty is new. "That seems to me to be a timeless thing. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Norman Mailer—these were all youthful sensations."

What has changed, he said, is the scope of the success possible when you do manage to hit with a new writer. Huge bookstore chains on every highway, Internet retailers, blogs, book clubs and other tools of publicity have changed the scale of the business. The incentives for finding the hot young writers are just stronger than ever; Mr. Pietsch pointed out that each of the last four years, a debut novelist has sold more than 100,000 copies. E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was the top-selling book of 1974, with 200,000 copies sold, he noted. More than 50 books topped that figure in 2004. "We’re putting out and selling more books than ever before," said Mr. Pietsch.

The search for the hot new thing leads to bidding wars for first short-story collections, piles of money thrown at first-time novelists that haven’t sold a short story, frenetic media blitzes for neophytes in their 20’s. The eventual long-term consequences of this model for literature is less clear. It is perhaps significant that Mr. Pietsch cited three of the kind of novelists that come along once or twice a generation, while now publishers launch a new round of debut heroes at us each year.

There’s a little less wiggle room for a writer like Mr. Lipsyte and others with the bad luck to find themselves cast adrift from their first house and seeking anchorage elsewhere. Mr. Lipsyte would’ve been best served if Broadway Books had been willing to stay the course with him. However, new computerized inventory systems give retailers and publishers alike access to an author’s sales record.

"The sales record just makes the nature of your challenge absolutely clear from the start," said Mr. Pietsch. It was a challenge that no one, for more than a year, was prepared to take.

"I’ve got a lot of my own guys struggling to keep publishing. And to take on one more that you know is going to be a struggle—that’s a tough thing," Mr. Entrekin said.

Mr. Lipsyte eventually found his devoted partisan in Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor Lorin Stein, who worked out a special arrangement whereby Mr. Stein edited the book and F.S.G. partner Picador USA put it out over here. "This was, for many of us, our favorite book," he said. "We just could not understand what was happening."

Mr. Stein suggested that the governing aesthetic of some editors might have damaged the reception of Home Land. "It seems like there are a lot of editors who are acquiring things that sort of … flatter their idea of what their houses should be putting out—things that resemble some preconceived, essentially nostalgic idea of what a ‘realistic novel’ is supposed to look like," said Mr. Stein. "And in many cases, these books tend to be kind of dull, sort of ersatz. It’s like what Ralph Lauren is to real clothing designers."

Salon book critic Laura Miller argued that Mr. Lipsyte’s troubles finding a publisher were more localized. "This is the kind of book that cries out ‘voice of a generation.’ It’s something a 26-year-old is going read and say, ‘This is my life,’" she said. "But when you write that kind of book, you have to be marketable in that role. And when you have someone that isn’t so young, and it’s not their first book, it’s harder to market it as being totally new."

Mr. Lipsyte recounted a conversation with the marketing department of a house that was mulling over whether or not to buy Home Land. "They said, ‘How would you market yourself?’ I hemmed and hawed for about an hour. They stopped me: ‘No, really—how would you market Sam Lipsyte?’

"I said, ‘I dunno—the New Dark Funny Guy?’ They said: ‘Well, we’ll let the critics be the judge of that.’"

They passed.

"What this experience did for me is allow me to free myself of some notion that there’s a certain kind of event that’s going to deliver me," Mr. Lipsyte said. "Or that even one’s day-to-day life will be eased financially, spiritually or emotionally by becoming a published author."

Mr. Lipsyte never expected or aspired to be a famous author. ("Yeah," he deadpans, "I’m all about the bling.") But he did think he’d be able to write fiction without having a day job—a pipe dream for Mr. Lipsyte, as for so many others. Mr. Stein said he’d like to make a home for Mr. Lipsyte at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "That would be great," said Mr. Lipsyte. But he remains cautious. He knows that in your career as a writer, anything can happen—or fail to.

Mr. Lipsyte emphasizes his last-hour reprieve rather than his protracted trial. He knows that many others will never get a second chance. At 25, Mr. Lipsyte, the son of New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte, left an abortive rock project and the dissipations of the road to care for his dying mother. The last two years spent caught in the sometimes cruel vise of the art of literature and the business of publishing have been eventful in other ways. He got married two years ago and had a son seven months ago, whom he helps to care for while working on his next collection of short stories in Astoria, Queens. His future career path is clear—to pay the bills in any way he can (he teaches writing at Columbia) while pursuing his art without thought of worldly success.

"Things turned out well for this novel," he went on. "It was published, and some people are getting to read it. That was my goal. I just get a little worried for the next person who doesn’t fit neatly into a slot, whose work resists obvious marketing strategies."

You may reach Wesley Yang via email at:
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This column ran on page 1 in the 2/14/2005 edition of The New York Observer.


March 8, 2005 5:52 AM Article Search 2000 THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
What we get is a fast, if not quite deft, gloss.
Rosy View of a Riotous Year—With Awkward Ironies Omitted

by Wesley Yang

1968: The Year That Rocked the World, by Mark Kurlansky. Ballantine Books, 464 pages, $26.95.

You can still find a handful of people (many of them now tenured) who will summon a nostalgic pang for the wild slogans spray-painted around Paris during the May 1968 student uprising. Overheated, purple paradoxes like "Be realistic—demand the impossible" or "All Power to the Imagination" seemed just audacious enough to usher in the millennium if declaimed with sufficient idealistic fervor. All that fateful year, kids were surging into the streets of Prague, Warsaw, Berlin, Mexico City, Berkeley and New York. The old Cold War liberalism—anti-communist, incrementalist and shackled to the timid definition of politics as the "art of the possible"—seemed about to topple, displaced by a spontaneous youthful rebellion. The youths proposed to abolish war, racism, colonialism, injustice, sexual repression, authoritarian work relations and the discontents of affluence—without casting a single vote, or firing a single shot.

By the year’s end, these grand hopes were in ruin, pummeled into submission by riot police (or police riots) in Chicago and Morningside Heights, outfoxed by a geriatric but still swift Générale de Gaulle in Paris, shot to pieces in Mexico City and crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks in Prague. All that political purism delivered a Nixon Presidency, energized a global conservative reaction and blew out what remained of its strength in a welter of mindless anti-Americanism, terrorism and lunatic schemes for violent revolution only partially redeemed by their ineptitude. (The bomb-making Weathermen wound up blowing up no one but themselves in a West Village townhouse.) And yet, as Mark Kurlansky puts it in the concluding chapter of his clumsy attempt at generational hagiography, 1968 remains a year "that was valued and is missed."

There are two sensible ways to explain this. For one, conflict is exciting, and makes everyday life seem drab in comparison. More substantively, the insurgent spirit of the times changed the world, particularly in the realm of middle-class manners and mores. On the eve of a student takeover of Columbia University, a Barnard student’s illicit off-campus co-habitation with her boyfriend made the cover of The New York Times for several weeks running. It’s a measure of the successful revolution that it renders the overthrown standards literally unthinkable, and this was an honest-to-goodness revolution. As it was with unmarried co-habitation, so it came to be with gay rights, women in the workplace, no-fault divorce, youth culture, a pervasive mood of anti-authoritarianism and the institutionalization of certain ethnic grievances in universities. All of these now-familiar fixtures emerged from the crucible of the 60’s. (Plus, as socialist writer and activist Michael Harrington pointed out, "Everybody was getting laid.")

Culture warriors continue to heap praise and blame—both deserved—on the 60’s and its consequences. At its best, the movement punctured complacency, shook up tired formulas and tried to give political expression to concerns about the fate of the soul in a managerial society—all good things. But Mr. Kurlansky, best-selling author of Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, wants to make a larger claim, which neither his writing nor the historical record can sustain.

Here’s how he puts it: "The thrilling thing about the year 1968 was that it was a time when significant segments of the population all over the globe refused to be silent about the many things that are wrong with the world …. And this gave the world a sense of hope that it has rarely had, a sense that where there is wrong, there are always people who will expose it and try to change it."

There was a great moral drama at the heart of the movements of 1968, rooted in the continuing civil-rights struggle and in resistance to a war in Vietnam that was both a crime and a blunder. (It’s a blunder for a democracy to commit crimes, and a crime for so powerful a state to blunder with American, and other, lives.) But the conflict was not a simple morality play, and by casting it as such, Mr. Kurlansky confuses his own emotions with historical judgment.

Most of 1968: The Year That Rocked the World is a fast if not quite deft gloss, a recap of the astonishing crush of events. Mr. Kurlansky is fond of television and gives it deserved credit for spreading the mood of revolt, but insufficient blame for exaggerating the outrageous, nose-thumbing antics of the youth culture at the expense of its moral vision. The book often resembles a text-bound version of those innumerable grainy, green-toned montages familiar from a dozen television documentaries—images of miniskirts, Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Abbie Hoffman, the Living Theatre, a dying Robert Kennedy and Dr. Benjamin Spock rush by in a blur, with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" as the soundtrack. He hopscotches from the first stirrings of the attempted Czechoslovakian reforms known as the Prague Spring to the civil-rights movement, to the emergence of Polish dissident Adam Michnik, to the West German controversies over a too-partial de-Nazification. He cites the famous letter from S.D.S. organizer and Weatherman Mark Rudd to Columbia University president Grayson Kirk, which ended with a quotation from LeRoi Jones: "Up against the Wall, Motherfucker, this is a stick-up." In one perplexing passage, Mr. Kurlansky claims that the Port Huron Statement’s anti-anti-communism "first started to be expressed in the 1950’s with the film characters portrayed by James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley."

The book’s signal weakness is its (deliberate, one suspects) failure to discriminate between what Paul Berman has identified as the two completely different political revolutions of 1968. One sought to impose European totalitarianism in the Third World under the banner of "national liberation." The other was a revolt against European totalitarianism in the Eastern bloc. Though the groovy, swirling currents of the time made them seem like a common project, the two revolutions were necessarily opposed to one another.

By 1968, a radical critique of American intrusion into places it didn’t belong had turned into the chant of "Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh, the N.L.F. is gonna win," and a romantic infatuation with Third World revolutionaries—Che, Castro, Mao, Ho and, unbelievably, Kim Il Sung. The irony was not lost on many observers at the time: The Czech students were fighting for the very rights—free speech and genuine representation—that American and West European students both took for granted and disdained as inadequate to a vaguely defined "participatory democracy" that had, by 1968, increasingly merged with an open embrace of Chinese- or Soviet-style dictatorship. An America swamped in a sea of its enemies became the fond hope of too many highly placed American and European radicals. Rather than parse out these nuances, Mr. Kurlansky recycles the lame rhetoric of moral equivalence, noting that the Czech protesters "were being watched by secret police, but so were American and European student demonstrators." This is simply hopeless, an equation too silly to require debunking.

Because he fails to discriminate between the two strands of revolutionary fervor, Mr. Kurlansky runs into difficulties when he attempts to trace a direct line of descent from the movements of 1968 to the successful nonviolent revolutions that swept away Soviet communism in 1989. It was the revolution against totalitarianism that was redeemed in 1989, and not the Third World adventurism of 1968-era S.D.S. One of the heroes of many Eastern Bloc dissidents turned out to be (of all people) that bugbear of conservative reaction, Ronald Reagan, who said this of the student protesters in California while he was governor in 1970: "If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement." The Eastern Bloc dissidents were perhaps deluded in their choice of heroes, but their admiration for President Reagan underscores the point that the story isn’t as simple as Mr. Kurlansky would like it to be.

Mr. Kurlansky’s account of the Presidential election of 1968 is also hobbled by his biases. Nixon’s winning "Southern strategy" was indeed based on pandering to Southern whites with thinly veiled racist appeals to "law and order." Mr. Kurlansky puts it like this: "Republicans get the racist vote and the Democrats get the black vote, and it turns out in America there are more racist voters than black voters." Alas, that was only half of Nixon’s strategy; the other half was to mobilize the Northern working class against the would-be revolutionary vanguard. (National Liberation Front flags—never in the majority at the anti-war rallies, but increasingly visible by 1968—only furthered Nixon’s cause.)

When the Black Panthers embraced a program of armed resistance after the death of Martin Luther King, they quickly got themselves shot or locked up in a half-dozen cities, demonstrating what ought to have been the obvious practical disadvantage of declaring war on a state which has many more guns than you have. The radical chic of violence and anti-Americanism (Susan Sontag writing that the "white race is the cancer of human history," the New York Review of Books printing the recipe for Molotov cocktails on its front cover and so forth) took in a numerically tiny minority of the movement, but elites—by definition—have a disproportionate influence, controlling institutional structures and articulating symbols. In tune with the anti-elitist rhetoric of the time, movement leaders pretended not to be leaders; many wound up exercising power without responsibility and discredited the actions of millions. As Joseph Epstein put it in the early 1970’s, Park Avenue radicalism promised to render America a "vast desert populated by the bored rich and the nihilistic young."

Tactical, strategic and, indeed, moral blunders go a long way toward explaining the seeming paradox, unmentioned by Mr. Kurlansky (who keeps mistaking himself and his peers for "everyone"), that as the war in Vietnam grew more unpopular, so did the anti-war movement. As former S.D.S. leader Todd Gitlin has pointed out, the largest left-wing movement in American history was not crushed by repression alone: The movement leadership actively collaborated in its own destruction.

Some readers of 1968 will cheer themselves hoarse as Mr. Kurlansky defends the undeniably brave exploits of the movement’s principle actors. But the cheering enthusiasts need their boomer self-satisfaction challenged rather than indulged. The book is full to the brim with tragedy—the senseless bloodletting in Vietnam, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. But there’s another tragic story, an ambiguous and ironic story, that’s not told here: It’s about the premature death of a good and worthy dream, smothered in a morass of the dreamers’ own making.

Wesley Yang has reviewed books for Salon, the Washington City Paper and the San Francisco Chronicle.

This column ran on page 24 in the 1/5/2004 edition of The New York Observer.


March 8, 2005 5:51 AM Article Search 2000 THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
Living-Room Cold War: Broadcasting McCarthyism

by Wesley Yang

Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture, by Thomas Doherty. Columbia University Press, 305 pages, $27.95.

It is often said that television came into its own as a political medium during the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. We now know that the old story is misleading in several ways. Kennedy’s aura of youthful, radiant health was an illusion sustained by a secret regimen of pills and shots. The decisive edge in the election—one of the closest in American history—came not from Kennedy’s poised patrician grace, but from the backroom chicanery of his father’s political associates. Furthermore, as Thomas Doherty reminds us in Cold War, Cool Medium, his engaging survey of the conjunction of television and McCarthyism, television had already emerged as "the grand cathedral for the secular ritual of American democracy" six years earlier, when a glowering, sputtering junior Senator from Wisconsin undid himself and the doctrine that bears his name before an audience of 20 million.

Senator Joe McCarthy’s legend looms so large that he’s credited with things he never actually did, like investigating Hollywood (that was the House Committee on Un-American Activities), collaring a Communist spy (he never caught a single one) or initiating a "loyalty" program that expelled thousands of loosely defined "loyalty risks" from government (that was President Harry Truman, and the purge was mostly complete before 1950). The major successes of domestic anti-Communism—the spies caught, the Communist Party eviscerated—belong to others. But no one before or since has made quite the same all-pervading stink as McCarthy.

Lacking any positive vision of American life, he battened on the sectional, social and class fault lines that divided Americans, catalyzing them into a single fanatic crusade. In McCarthy’s updated demonology, an Eastern, internationalist, Anglophile, Ivy League–educated diplomat was as good as red, and probably pink in the trousers to boot. His fantasies cast liberals as "dupes" at best—at worst, as the willing agents of a Communist conspiracy poised to take over the world. His gift for publicity affixed his name to a tendency that preceded and outlasted him by decades.

Mr. Doherty’s wide-ranging, impressionistic portrait of the era climaxes at the fateful moment when television—battered by the blacklist, easily cowed by sponsor pressure or public protest of any kind—stopped appeasing McCarthy and struck back, hard. Though he’d said many preposterous things by February 1954 and been exposed repeatedly by the print media (his most infamous charge called General George Marshall, architect of the plan to stem the Soviet advance in Western Europe through economic aid, a Soviet agent at the center of "a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"), his public-approval rating remained high. But on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow began the counterattack. That evening’s episode of his documentary news program See It Now was a montage of clips exposing the Senator’s snarling, bullying excesses, followed by a short statement condemning McCarthyism in measured but firm language. It was the first explicit act of defiance by television, and it quickly proved decisive.

Two days later, the Eisenhower administration stopped appeasing McCarthy and joined the fight. The ensuing Army-McCarthy hearings, staged to air out charges that McCarthy’s controversial young lawyer Roy M. Cohn had sought preferential treatment for a draftee private (his colleague and very close confidant, G. David Schine), provided the scaffold from which McCarthy happily hung himself. The public watched him up close for the 36 days of the hearing, and recoiled. Shortly afterward came Senatorial condemnation and his effective neutralization as a force in American politics.

Mr. Doherty, a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and a noted film historian, deftly recaps this familiar story. Not surprisingly, some of the book’s strongest material is contained in his close readings of the fraught cultural subtexts surrounding the anti-Communist hysteria. He sifts through material as familiar as I Love Lucy and Liberace’s unwavering fidelity to mother and bachelorhood, along with less-well-remembered dustups over the ethnic sitcom The Goldbergs and the syndicated anti-Communist spook series I Led Three Lives, to illustrate the racial and psychosexual dynamite smuggled into many popular entertainments. He explains how the blacklist worked and concludes that it amounted to a "classic protection racket," enriching the self-appointed adventurers that vetted loyalty risks, and revisits the now-forgotten televisual triumphs of Eisenhower and Nixon. Hewing to a kind of muscular centrism, he sympathetically details the travails of an actor hounded into suicide by a loyalty committee run amok, but also (again, familiarly) scolds Lillian Hellman for harping on the sufferings of McCarthy’s victims while implicitly excusing the far greater abuses of the Soviet gulag. In the name of free expression, he denounces both McCarthyism and the proto–political correctness of the NAACP’s boycott of Amos ’n’ Andy, which he calls McCarthyism’s "mirror image."

Mr. Doherty makes more of television’s eventual turn against McCarthy than he should. Conventional wisdom, he tells us, casts television "as a co-conspirator in the conformities and repressions of Cold War America." In fact, he argues, "During the Cold War, through television, America became a more open and tolerant place." There’s some truth to this: Variety shows like Ed Sullivan’s showed remarkable courage by showcasing black and white talent together. But television’s influence in the 50’s is hard to gauge, and its legacy is too mixed to justify Mr. Doherty’s warm embrace. He also shows that television was slavish in its deference to McCarthyism for the first three years, and even the heroic confrontation established troubling precedents.

Just as the liberal establishment "contained" McCarthyism by stiffening its own militant anti-Communism, inciting a generation of Ivy League tough guys to prove in the jungles of Vietnam how "hard" they were on Communism, so television beat McCarthyism by adopting some of the Senator’s favorite smear tactics. ("There is a quality in the man," Leslie Fielder once wrote, "that makes McCarthys of us all.") Murrow used out-of-context clips that distorted the issues to convict an opponent on purely visceral, emotional grounds. The attack burnished the myth of the "liberal" media, but it really demonstrated a new kind of specifically televisual power. The Army-McCarthy hearings made McCarthy look like something worse than a scoundrel—they made him look like a loser. As anyone who has sat through Cokie Roberts’ smug dismissals of all substance and principle can attest, the "cool medium" can cut tyrants down to size—while enabling a tyranny of its own.

While the cool-medium thesis that Mr. Doherty imports from Marshall McLuhan to explain McCarthy’s inevitable failure on television seems plausible at first, objections soon spring to mind. The hot and scabrous style of the Irish brawler has made a comeback on the allegedly cool medium. By assaulting the cautious pieties of institutional liberalism, Fox News has grabbed the ratings, the dollars and the aura of brash insurgency that millions of Americans today mistake for—yes—"cool." The inexcusable Ann Coulter has scored a best-seller by glorying in McCarthyism; she’s revived the sentiments expressed in the McCarthy-era hymn "Nobody Loves Joe But the Pee-pul."

Though scuppered by his own audacity, McCarthy nonetheless helped to shift the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus sharply rightward for a generation. Today, his open admirers and unacknowledged epigones conduct a war on dissent whose methods he would have recognized. Call it McCarthy’s revenge on the fancy-pants, the liberals, the professors—and the cool medium of television, which built him up, knocked him down and may yet serve his ends.

Wesley Yang has reviewed books for Salon, the Washington City Paper and the San Francisco Chronicle.
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This column ran on page 25 in the 10/27/2003 edition of The New York Observer.

Hitler's best friend
The debate over Albert Speer's responsibility for Nazi war crimes rages on in a new biography of the Third Reich's master architect and planner.

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By Wesley Yang


Sept. 26, 2002 For people who spoke so ardently about Aryan beauty, the leading Nazis sure were a funny-looking lot. Of course, it all began with Hitler, the beady-eyed chap with the bristly little moustache and the greasy forelock flapping in the breeze of his own histrionics. The drug-addled Reichmarshall Hermann Goering, whose complacent decadence wrecked the Luftwaffe, had an icy stare peering out from a sallow, bloated face. The arch anti-Semite, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was a diminutive, club-footed and rat-faced character. About SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, who calmly arranged the execution of millions, a snide associate once opined "If I looked like him, I should not speak of race at all." And from there, the view seldom improved.

But then there was Albert Speer, Hitler's principal architect and, later, the efficient organizer of the German war machine. While the rest of his cohort were case studies in every human weakness (and looked it), Speer's handsome face exuded cultivation and inner serenity. In fact, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the director of "Triumph of the Will," said that it was a glimpse of him in a newspaper photograph that helped quell her doubts about the Nazis. "When I saw that photograph," Riefenstahl told Speer biographer Gitta Sereny, "I thought how extraordinary that a man with a face like that should be for Hitler -- if he was, I thought, then there had to be something to it all."

Joachim Fest's new biography, "Speer: The Final Verdict," which appeared in Europe last year and is now hitting American bookstores, picks up on the suggestion, made first by Sereny, that Hitler and Speer's relationship had a homoerotic (though not a homosexual) intensity. In either case, their mutual admiration and devotion shaped Speer's life. "If Hitler had any friends," Fest quotes Speer at Nuremberg, where he sat charged with war crimes, "I would have been his friend."

This, the fourth book-length biography of Speer, has many virtues. Its author, a historian who worked with Speer in editing the former Nazi's memoirs, packs the complicated conundrum into 300 pages and offers an even-handed assessment that dutifully surveys all the controversies. Nonetheless, it is the second-best book written on Speer, after Sereny's "Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth," a more extensively researched and readable book (if somewhat digressive and overlong at a sprawling 700 pages). Readers looking for a short, thorough review of Speer's entire career will find it neatly packaged here.

Riefenstahl surely exaggerated, in retrospect, both her doubts about the Nazis and the role that Speer's image played in dispelling them. But she scarcely exaggerated the impression Speer made on most of the people he met. Even the judges and prosecutors at Nuremberg, who sentenced Speer to a 20-year prison term for war crimes, concurred that he was a higher caliber of man than the rest of Hitler's inner circle.

The privileged scion of two generations of wealthy architects, Speer's manner contrasted sharply with that of the thick-neck arrivistes comprising both the Nazi rank and file and its leadership. But it wasn't only superficial traits that set Speer off from the "repulsive bourgeois revolutionaries" (the phrase is Speer's) that surrounded him. For, when it came to certain defining matters of grave consequence, as we shall see, Speer chose differently than the rest.

A latecomer to the Nazi Party, plucked from youthful obscurity by Hitler's personal favor, Speer, at age 28, replaced Hitler's deceased chief architect in 1934. The two jointly began to conceive a reconstruction of Berlin that would make it "the grandest and most beautiful city in the world."

It is easy to forget that Hitler ruled Germany in peace for four years before plunging into the foreign policy that ignited the war -- or that the Fuehrer could scarcely show his face in public for the adoring masses that hemmed him in wherever he went. Yet this was so, and during this period, Hitler treasured the company of the handsome young architect who made the Fuehrer's own thwarted artistic dreams come vividly to life.

Speer would later call the architectural vision he dreamed up with Hitler "monstrous," and indeed, its gigantic, pretentious pseudo-classicism expressed little beyond the worship of brute, despotic power. In any case, the onset of war smashed Hitler and Speer's dreamy idyll. By 1940, Hitler dominated all of continental Europe and was hailed by many, Speer among them, as the greatest conqueror in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Fest's book is one of its principal premises. Fest argues that Speer epitomized the naive nonpolitical technocrats whose obedience made Hitler's triumph possible. Although this exculpatory line is at least as old as Speer's Nuremberg defense and became a kind of orthodoxy ("the Speer legend" as Geoffrey Barraclough put it in an unsparing 1971 attack in the New York Review of Books) it fails to be convincing when accompanied by the record of Speer's career.

Though Speer may never have been either a devotee of the Nazi ideology or more than a casual anti-Semite, his uncritical identification of Germany with Hitler's aims infused him with a missionary fervor. It was his willingness, as an architect, to take on and meet seemingly impossible deadlines that confirmed the impression of a dedicated follower and convinced Hitler that he was suited for greater responsibilities.

In February 1942, Fritz Todt, Hitler's minister of armaments and the builder of the Autobahn, died in a suspicious and still-unexplained plane crash. The following morning, Hitler named Speer to assume the vacated post. The "nonpolitical" Speer's metamorphosis into a calculating political infighter was immediate.

Speer, who had no prior experience with armaments of any kind, transformed the "small and not very influential" ministry into a dominant one. Within a year, he was the undisputed dictator of the German war economy. "He had scarcely achieved one success before he extend his tentacles towards a further accretion of power," Fest notes.

This remarkable feat of political maneuvering brought immediate results: Tank production increased fivefold and plane production fourfold by the war's end. Two factors permitted Speer to succeed where his predecessors had failed: He had the full faith of the Fuehrer behind him, and he worked with fanatical zeal. Speer basically abandoned his wife and six children to work 18- to 20-hour days in his new job. Fest carefully describes how Speer brought about these political changes, but he lapses into shopworn formula toward the end of the relevant chapter:

"Speer never asked himself what the purpose of the 'Speer revolution' was or what it set out to achieve, nor did he face up to any of the many questions raised by his actions."

It makes more sense, however, to say that a man who strives to build more and better weapons for a war being waged by a leader he unreservedly admires knows exactly why he is toiling. He is building weapons -- yes, because he wants to win the war.

Fest offers no plausible rejoinder to this argument and resorts to evasion and omission to defend his thesis. For instance, Fest notes that Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931, but not that he also joined the brown-shirted paramilitary SA, or that the Nazi Motor Corps he joined a year later was a wing of the SS. Speer was no jackbooted street fighter. But an SA membership surely raises doubts about his supposed nonpolitical detachment, doubts that Speer and Fest have both suppressed.

A few years before his death, Speer told Sereny: "Of course I was perfectly aware that he sought world domination. What you -- and I think everybody else -- don't seem to understand is that at that time I asked for nothing better. I wanted nothing more than for this great man to dominate the globe."

So much for nonpolitical technocracy. The Germans would have had to capitulate for want of ammunition by 1943 or even 1942, were it not for Speer's labors. At the height of his power in 1943, Speer was spoken of as a potential successor to Hitler. Although it is unclear how serious this prospect was, Speer avidly pursued all hints and rumors while they still circulated. This is hardly the behavior of a nonpolitical man.

Soon afterward, the tide of intrigue turned abruptly against Speer, as it often did against the power-hungry in Nazi Germany. At the Oct. 6, 1943, conference at Posen, his effort to enlist Himmler's aid in forcing local party bosses to comply with his total mobilization sparked dissension, marking the end of Hitler's unqualified backing.

Speer's memoir, "Inside the Third Reich," neglects to mention that later that same day, Himmler gave one of the most infamous speeches of the regime's history. In it, the SS head disclosed to the entire military and party leadership that the Final Solution to the Jewish question had been extermination. All of Speer's closest associates were present, and a strong case has been made that Speer was there, too.

Fest follows Sereny in concluding that Speer's claim to having remained ignorant of the Holocaust after the Posen speech (whether he was present or not) is scarcely credible. "The weight of the evidence about the extent of his knowledge of the crimes is indeed crushing," concludes Fest. The prosecution at Nuremberg never tried to rebut his avowal of ignorance of the Holocaust. He maintained this stance until the end of his life, and died a fearfully isolated man as a result.

After the bestselling success of "Inside the Third Reich," Speer had a second career as a kind of professional talk-show penitent. Speer's willingness to talk to almost anyone who sought him out was at least partially an attempt to compensate for the friends who abandoned him after the book's publication. Many of these unrepentant ex-Nazis called him a traitor playing to the peanut gallery of contemporary orthodoxy. For many of these people, Hitler's only crime was that he lost the war; they rejected Speer's acceptance of his guilt and criticism of the Fuehrer.

Critics like writers Erich Goldhagen, Matthias Schmidt and, later, Dan van der Vat in his 1998 biography "The Good Nazi: The Life And Lies Of Albert Speer," called Speer's confessions a cynical ruse; they rejected his avowal of ignorance and discovered several holes in Speer's account of himself. Both groups agreed that Speer was an opportunist whose credibility as a witness to the era was tainted. Both groups claimed that he seduced the Allies with his looks, charm and clever strategy. The difference, of course, was that while the diehard former Nazis would have preferred to see Speer defend Hitler, the second group would rather he had been hanged.

Yet Speer's defense at Nuremberg, which was sometimes evasive and underhanded, cannot be dismissed as merely a ploy. Alone among the accused, Speer never hid behind the legality that he was merely "following orders," even if he did claim that his own naiveté prevented him from fully grasping what those orders meant. The complicated truth about Speer, it seems to me, is that he was both scheming to present himself in the most sympathetic light at Nuremberg and also coming to a uniquely principled acceptance of his own guilt at the same time.

This remarkable stance won him the respect of even his prosecutors and just may have saved his life. Speer was convicted for his use of millions of slave laborers brought in from occupied territories to build armaments in German factories. Thousands of these 5 million workers died from illness, malnutrition and overwork. The stocky, coarse-mannered, blunt-featured subordinate who actually seized the workers Speer requisitioned was hanged.

The criteria for judgment at Nuremberg seemed disturbingly arbitrary to some. Many former Nazis went to their deaths for less than what some of the Allied generals had done. But the principle established there, however imperfect its realization, was sound: Those who serve governments that sponsor atrocity should expect a day of reckoning. On this point, Speer alone of his peers achieved moral clarity.

For the peaceful years from 1933 to 1939, which Speer spent immersed in architectural fantasy with Hitler, were, after all, also the years in which the concentration camps and the most fearsome police state in world history were built. And they were the years in which the Nuremberg Laws steadily tightened the noose around the necks of Germany's Jews.

By 1942, when Speer took over as armaments minister, the order legalizing the slaughter of innocents on the Eastern Front had already been issued in advance of the Russian invasion. Hitler was finally turning toward his great historical task, the enslavement of Russia.

Such were the ambitions of the man Speer saw fit to serve, admire and love until the late autumn of 1944. Such was the man that Speer felt he needed to risk flying through Allied controlled skies to bid farewell to in an underground bunker in besieged Berlin. The responsibility for having been seduced into believing in and working for such a man cannot simply be pinned on the seducer. The seduced had choices too, choices of action and inaction, and these choices cut to the heart of what every German must confront when asked: What did you do during the war?

In the last few months of the war, Speer did take a stand against his patron and friend. When an embittered Hitler ordered the destruction of all German industry in advance of the Allied armies closing on Berlin, Speer openly defied him. He traveled the country, convincing local officials to ignore the orders at the risk of his own life. This action stands alongside the failed July 20, 1944, army plot to kill Hitler as one of the shamefully few brave and conscientious acts of a Nazi leader.

That he made no similar stand in 1942 or in October 1943, was Albert Speer's great crime. And he knew it. And, as Fest notes in his concluding chapter, this awareness makes Speer unique in the bloody history of totalitarian politics. It should not trouble or surprise us that Speer's Nuremberg defense and memoirs were in some ways self-serving or misleading. Rather it should astonish us that this man, alone among the thousands who passed the buck in a century of atrocities, came to a reckoning, however imperfect, with his conscience.

And while it should also not surprise us that many who prefer simple moral certitude will find appalling the discernment, affability and dry wit lodged in this Nazi war criminal and try to make Speer's exceptional qualities proof of his insidiousness, the truth is not simple. Speer served out his 20-year sentence to the last day, returned to society a penitent. He died a tortured man. He anonymously donated much of his book's profits to Holocaust survivors, keenly aware of how pathetically inadequate such gestures were in the face of the passivity he showed when it counted.

In Spandau Prison, where his fellow war criminals ostracized him, Speer kept a diary smuggled out bit by bit on scraps of toilet paper. Published as "Spandau: The Secret Diaries," it is one of the best prison diaries ever written and very nearly a great work of literature. It is, on one hand, the literary equivalent of the handsome face that Speer presented to the world. But it is also a moving document of a criminal helpless before the enormity of his failings.

In the end, despite the equivocations and self-deceptions, even some of the fundamental untruths that Speer maintained -- Speer really was different.

And that should be the final verdict.

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About the writer
Wesley Yang lives just outside of New York.
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The Governor Who Loved Poetry Too Much

Outside of New Jersey, the loudest (until now) political firestorm of the James McGreevey administration came from an unexpected source. The Governor wound up getting publicly scourged not, as he had before and would again, for being a water-carrier for wealthy men, but for lending the state’s endorsement to an irresponsible poet.

Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, was an odd choice for the honor in a state that has not distinguished itself in the realm of racial tolerance, much less socialist revolution. And it wasn’t as if Baraka had become a wizened old man of American letters—he had perhaps served out some visiting professorships, but no one could accuse him of becoming, as the young LeRoi Jones once accused his elders of becoming, like “[Ralph] Ellison silenced and fidgeting in some college.” He had parted company with institutional poetry decades ago; while the angry yet formally innovative work of Jones survived in anthologies of postwar American poetry, the flailing invective of Baraka was excluded from publication in “serious” poetry journals. But a state arts council that was either imbued with a penchant for mischief or sympathetic to a ruined hulk of failed, sometimes noxious, ideological enthusiasms handed him the ceremonial title, a bit of boilerplate accompanied by a $10,000 prize.

And then, a year after the World Trade Center attacks, Baraka publicly recited a histrionic poem in the harsh rhythm-inflected idiom he’s adopted since renouncing modern American poetry in favor of a strident anti-imperialist militancy. It was called “Somebody Blew Up America,” and it was phrased in the form of a series of questions:

Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain’t nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air
Who own the water
Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Who? Who? Who?
Who own the ocean
Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio
Who own what ain’t even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws
Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying
Who the Beast in Revelations
Who 666
Who know who decide Jesus get crucified

It wears you down a bit, no? It has a certain elemental force, and amid the sometimes muddled historical account there is the visceral expression of a deep truth: that many of the downtrodden of the earth have experienced world history in the age of European and American ascendancy as one continuous calamity.

Who put a price on Lenin’s head
Who put the Jews in ovens, and who helped them do it
Who said America First and ok’d the yellow stars
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebkneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced, tortured, assassinated, vanished

Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
The Scottsboro Boys,
The Hollywood Ten
Who set the Reichstag Fire

The crowd listening to this at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in September of 2002 must have grown pedantic with Baraka eventually: the Hollywood Ten weren’t framed, you know, and Julius Rosenberg was a spy, and it turns out the man who was convicted of having set the Reichstag fire is probably the man who really did it—a single Dutchman acting on his own. But it wasn’t until Baraka asked the following—

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

— that the first nationally covered firestorm of the McGreevey administration erupted. Outrage was voiced, the ADL got involved, McGreevey demanded Baraka’s resignation. Baraka refused, the state tried to take away the honor, but found that there was no administrative procedure for doing so. Rather than let him hold the prize, New Jersey abolished it. And Baraka’s continued exclusion from the ranks of respectable poets was renewed with fresh emphasis.


There had been local problems, too. In late 2001, McGreevey met a young Israeli poet named Golan Cipel at a performing arts center in Cipel’s hometown of Rishon Lezion, where he was working in public relations; the two immediately hit it off, and a mere six months later McGreevey had signed him on to serve as his campaign’s outreach coordinator to the Jewish community. Cipel moved into a townhouse a block away from McGreevey’s in Woodbridge. The controversy kicked in when McGreevey hired Cipel (over recently retired FBI director Louis Freeh) to the post of counterterrorism advisor. This, even though Cipel had no experience in intelligence or law enforcement of any kind. It was a move that demonstrated, in the words of one Israeli terrorism expert, “incredible chutzpah.”

When, amid great uproar, the FBI refused to brief Cipel on homeland defense because he was a foreign national, McGreevey tried to keep him on as a “special advisor” with unspecified duties. Cipel would continue to bounce around from job to job in McGreevey’s vicinity, at one point resuming his task as “liaison” to the state’s sizable and wealthy Jewish community and weathering the storm around Baraka’s poetry.

But the real business of New Jersey is of course business, and McGreevey was getting some done. The man who had introduced McGreevey to Cipel was Charles Kushner, a billionaire from Livingston, New Jersey, a landlord to 22,000 apartment dwellers, the “unofficial banker to the state,” a Marc Rich-like figure to Jewish institutions of NJ, a friend to Benjamin Netanyahu, and McGreevey’s principal donor. Kushner subsequently became the focus of a Federal Election Commission probe into illegal campaign contributions, and last month it was reported that Kushner had hired a prostitute to solicit his brother-in-law, videotaped the brother-in-law’s acceptance of said solicitation (she seemed like a nice girl, and her car had broken down), and then tried to blackmail him out of testifying before the Commission.

Kushner’s was the most spectacular of the many large and small acts of corruption that had plagued McGreevey throughout his administration. The Governor’s brief and mixed political legacy is a series of promises made and then either wholly or partially traduced. He introduced a regional planning system designed to reverse the trackless sprawl development that has been the bane of the state’s public life since the Second World War—and handed developers the expedited approval process that they had lobbied for so they could perpetuate this pattern precisely. He signed a bill protecting undeveloped swaths of North Jersey, even as he punted on his promise to change the “pay to play” system that institutionalized a culture of legalized kickbacks which had fueled his own political ascent. Something in the very fiber of New Jersey politics—the unfathomable riches of New York City to the east, the garish neon billboards of a second-rate gambling town to the south, and then, to the west, the terrifying hulking mass of the rest of the country—narrowed the range of the possible. In New Jersey, as in the Inferno, there were merely different shades of corruption, but no way out.

And then, as the drama of McGreevey’s downfall came to a head, even the Governor’s most cherished bulwark seemed to crumble: Cipel, it was said on the television, might not have been what he claimed to be.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, I also am taken with the word “poet.” I mean, a poet would be an odd person to name as your homeland security chief, given the fact he had no training in terror fighting or terrorism at all. He simply was an Israeli who had caught this guy’s eye. . . I mean, this guy was taken with this person, to say the least. And this...

BOB INGLE [GANNETT NEWS SERVICE, NEW JERSEY]: Well, let me go back to the beginning there.


INGLE: Sandy McClure, who is one of our investigative reporters, did the majority of the work on this story. And as far as the poet thing goes, there was a rumor going around that the fellow had written a book of poetry. We can’t find it. If it ever happened, we can’t find the publisher. We can’t find the poetry. So I’m not sure where that came from and, if, in fact, that ever actually happened.

“We can’t find the poetry.” What did poor Governor McGreevey think, upon hearing this? Four days later, breaking his public silence, Cipel himself told a group of Israeli journalists that he wasn’t even gay.


According to McGreevey’s people, it was a mere twenty days after Cipel’s lawyer demanded $50 million to make a threatened sexual harassment lawsuit go away that the Governor appeared on national television to declare himself a Gay American. In the intervening weeks, Cipel’s demands had steadily diminished: if $50 million could not secure his silence, then $5 million would have to do. Toward the end, Cipel was prepared to be placated by $2 million and the Governor’s expedited recognition of a medical school that Touro College, a small Jewish university in New York, wanted to build in the state. Touro College’s advisory board was distinguished by the presence of billionaire philanthropist Charles Kushner. Rather than let himself be bullied or bribed, McGreevey came out, proving that there are limits to every man’s venality.

Yet McGreevey’s hiring of the author of Cipel was an act of waywardness that remains inscrutable. Here is a man whose classmates at the Kennedy School of Government remember him as a dreamboat exuding effortless charisma, a striver on course to be in the Senate by 50 and target the White House soon afterward. Even his high school history teacher thought he was an ambitious jerk. So how, having spent his whole life calculating political expediency, could he end up such a fool? In the obscurity of the conterterrorism mystery a thousand conspiracy theories will bloom; Al Jazeera has already speculated that Cipel was an agent of the Mossad sent to infiltrate the United States in cahoots with the sinister Jewish billionaire. It is the kind of theory that would gratify Amiri Baraka, who has continued lashing out at McGreevey’s obeisance to “the Israeli lobby” ever since the abolition of the laureate post. Who own what ain’t even known to be owned?

Not, as it turns out, McGreevey. All along he had been a haunted man forced to hide himself as a condition of the life he wanted. Two things had to remain below the surface: the fact of his part-time homosexuality, which he disguised behind two (2) wives and two (2) children, and the fact that, even in an age of big political money, he was a particularly amiable face of selfish men's private interests. When the circumstances he had recklessly courted made it impossible to sustain them, he told the world about the first lie. But not about the second. Indeed, the genius of the gambit was to hide the bigger lie behind the unconditional positive regard the media extends to all who put themselves through the ritual of pained confession. There was a time when a preoccupation with deviant sex was the repressed but ever present secret somewhere near the heart of a paranoid America’s persecutorial manias. Today, Jim McGreevey’s confession of the politician’s dilemma must be filtered through the language of sexual disclosure. “Which master was I trying to serve?” McGreevey mused, referring to the struggle between the rewards of staying hidden and the stirrings of what he euphemistically called his “truth.” Sex used to be the thing hidden; now sex is the thing that other secrets hide behind.

Maybe the waywardness and chutzpah McGreevey showed vis-a-vis his poets expressed an unconscious wish. He did not literally love poets or poetry—he didn’t choose Baraka, and early on in his administration, he proposed to help balance the budget crisis he inherited by cutting off all funding for the arts. But maybe a man who has hidden everything important and true might harbor fugitive longings for deliverance from his lies. Deliverance through self-exposure, through scandal, through the freedom to say whatever he wished.

In 1966, Amiri Baraka announced his new path as a rabble-rousing black nationalist with a call for “poems that kill,” for words that could “crack the [people’s] faces open to the mad cries of the poor.” He traded the comfortable powerlessness of the lonely lyricist for the illusion of efficacy that the sixties momentarily vested in wayward visionaries like him. He gave up the literary game, moved to Newark, survived a brutal beating at the hands of the police, saw the city burn as the political project of the sixties collapsed. He saw his sister and daughter murdered. He wrote radical poems, some of which convey a visceral sense of harrowing things that he knows to be real, some of which succumb to an ugly glorification of violence, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and hate. He failed us, he failed himself, when he became a dupe of fascists and fools. There can be no tragedy in the world of New Jersey politics, since there is no nobility to be traduced, only mediocre men grasping for money and power, and the literary genre of McGreevey’s masterly confession, ultimately, is farce. But his tenure began with tragedy, that of Amiri Baraka, who really wasn’t, it turned out, such a great choice for poet laureate.

--Wesley Yang
The philosopher and the ayatollah
In 1978, Michel Foucault went to Iran as a novice journalist to report on the unfolding revolution. His dispatches — now fully available in translation — shed some light on the illusions of intellectuals in our own time.

By Wesley Yang June 12, 2005

"IT IS PERHAPS the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane." With these words, the French philosopher Michel Foucault hailed the rising tide that would sweep Iran's modernizing despot, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Shah, out of power in January 1979 and install in his place one of the world's most illiberal regimes, the Shi'ite government headed by Ayatollah Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini.

Foucault wasn't just pontificating from an armchair in Paris. In the fall of 1978, as the shah's government tottered, he made two trips to Iran as a "mere novice" reporter, as he put it, to watch events unfold. "We have to be there at the birth of ideas," he explained in an interview with an Iranian journalist, "the bursting outward of their force; not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggle carried on around ideas, for or against them."

While many liberals and leftists supported the populist uprising that pitted unarmed masses against one of the world's best-armed regimes, none welcomed the announcement of the growing power of radical Islam with the portentous lyricism that Foucault brought to his brief, and never repeated, foray into journalism.

"As an Islamic movement it can set the entire region afire, overturn the most unstable regimes, and disturb the most solid," Foucault wrote enthusiastically. "Islam — which is not simply a religion, but an entire way of life, an adherence to a history and a civilization — has a good chance to become a gigantic powder keg, at the level of hundreds of millions of men."

Foucault penned seven dispatches for the front page of the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra as well as subsequent articles in French. But until the publication this month of Kevin Anderson and Janet Afary's "Foucault and the Iranian Revolution" (University of Chicago), which includes the first full translation of Foucault's Iranian writings, few of the English-speaking scholars who have otherwise pored over everything Foucault wrote and said have dealt with the episode at length.

Foucault's Iranian adventure was a "tragic and farcical error" that fits into a long tradition of ill-informed French intellectuals spouting off about distant revolutions, says James Miller, whose 1993 biography "The Passion of Michel Foucault" contains one of the few previous English-language accounts of the episode. Indeed, Foucault's search for an alternative that was absolutely other to liberal democracy seems peculiarly reckless in light of political Islam's subsequent career, and makes for odd reading now as observers search for traditions in Islam that are compatible with liberal democracy. But at a time when religion is resurgent in politics and Western liberals are divided between interventionists and anti-imperialists, Foucault's peculiar blend of blindness and insight about the Islamists remains instructive.

. . .

When Foucault went to Tehran, he was France's dominant public intellectual, famous for a critique of modernity carried out through unsparing dissections of modern institutions that reversed the conventional wisdom about prisons, madness, and sexuality. In his most famous work, "Discipline and Punish," Foucault argued that liberal democracy was in fact a "disciplinary society" that punished with less physical severity in order to punish with greater efficiency. More broadly, his counternarrative of the Enlightenment suggested that the modern institutions we imagined were freeing us were in fact enslaving us in insidious ways.

In the fall of 1978, an escalating series of street protests and violent reprisals and massacres by the Iranian police had placed the shah and the Iranian populace on a collision course. The uprising consisted of a broad coalition, including Communists, student leftists, secular nationalists, socialists, and Islamists. But by late 1978, the Islamists — directed by Khomeini from Paris, long a center for Iranian exiles — were the dominant faction. The shah abdicated in January 1979, and Khomeini returned to rapturous rejoicing on Feb. 1, 1979.

Foucault was virtually alone among Western observers, Anderson and Afary argue, in embracing the specifically Islamist wing of the revolution. Indeed, Foucault pokes fun at the secular leftists who thought they could use the Islamists as a weapon for their own purposes; the Islamists alone, he believed, reflected the "perfectly unified collective will" of the people.

The Iranian Revolution, Anderson and Afary write, appealed to certain of Foucault's characteristic preoccupations — with the spontaneous eruption of resistance to established power, the exploration of the limits of rationality, and the creativity unleashed by people willing to risk death. It also tied into his burgeoning interest in a "political spirituality" (by which he meant the return of religion into politics, a suspicious phenomenon in rigorously secular France) whose rise was then still obscured by the Cold War. These preoccupations made Foucault both more sensitive to the power of political religion, but also more prone to soft-pedal its dangers. In his articles, Foucault compared the Islamists to Savonarola, the Anabaptists, and Cromwell's militant Puritans. The comparisons were intended to flatter.

In an interview with an Iranian journalist conducted on his first visit, in September 1978, Foucault made plain his disillusionment with all the secular ideologies of the West and his yearning to see "another political imagination" emerge from the Iranian Revolution. "Industrial capitalism," he said, had emerged as "the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine." The failure of Communism, for which Foucault had no great sympathy, left us, "from the point of view of political thought," he argued, "at point zero."

"Any Western intellectual with some integrity," he continued, "cannot be indifferent to what she or he hears about Iran."

To Anderson, a political scientist at Purdue University, Foucault's reckless enthusiasm for the Islamists seemed to contradict his public image. "We think of Foucault as this very cool, unsentimental thinker who would be immune to the revolutionary romanticism that has overtaken intellectuals who covered up Stalin's atrocities or Mao's," he said in a recent interview. "But in this case, he abandoned much of his critical perspective in his intoxication with what he saw in Iran. Here was a great philosopher of difference who looked around him in Iran and everywhere saw unanimity."

The authors dissect the shortcuts and evasions that led Foucault into his distinctive stance. For example, he accepted at face value the idiosyncratic reading of Islam promulgated by Ali Shariati, an Iran-born, French-educated sociologist who promulgated a militant Islamist ideology identifying martyrdom as the only true path to salvation. He also spoke of an Islamist ideology shot through with Western elements as if it were a unified and absolute Other. He accepted a mythological rendering of Shi'ism as a historical religion of resistance, when, in fact, it was imposed by authoritarian force upon Iran in the 17th century and had collaborated with authoritarian power more often than it had resisted it.

And Foucault never considers the rights of women in Islam until his very last disillusioned missive, which appeared in Le Monde in May 1979. When an Iranian woman living in exile in Paris named "Atoussa H." wrote a letter to Le Nouvel Observateur in November 1978 castigating Foucault for his uncritical support of a solution that could prove to be worse than the problem, he airily dismissed her claims as anti-Muslim hate-mongering.

In the event, Foucault's enthusiasm for the revolution rapidly turned to disappointment. Early on, Foucault assured his readers that "by ‘Islamic government' nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control," and that "there will not be a Khomeini government." A month after the Iranian electorate overwhelmingly voted to designate Iran an Islamic republic under Khomeini, the repression of women, political dissenters, and non-Muslim minorities that would characterize the regime was unleashed. In fall 1978, Foucault had praised the revolution's distrust of legalism. But in spring 1979, Foucault wrote an open letter to Khomeini's Prime Minister Bazargan, urging respect for the legal rights of the accused.

. . .

Foucault, who died in 1984, refused to engage in public mea culpas, despite the fierce debate that broke out in France over his ideas about Iran. His final word on the affair, a 1979 essay titled "Is It Useless to Revolt?," acknowledged the revolution's wrong turn but reaffirmed the principle of revolt. Afary and Anderson, however, speculate that his later engagement from public issues and his revision of his earlier intransigence toward the Enlightenment were the signs of a man chastened by experience.

There is a long tradition of Western intellectuals going abroad to sing the praises of revolutionaries in distant lands and finding in them the realization of their own intellectual hopes. But the irony of Foucault's embrace of the Iranian Revolution was that the earlier intellectuals who had sung hymns to tyrants tended to share a set of beliefs in the kind of absolutes — Marxism, humanism, rationality — that Foucault had made it his life's work to overturn. Rather than pronounce from on high, Foucault sought to listen to what he took to be the authentic voice of marginal people in revolt and let it speak through him. In practice, this turned out to be a distinction without a difference.

Anderson says that the debate over these 25- year-old writings has relevance when some leftists focus more energy on criticizing an administration they scorn than on speaking against a radical Islamist movement that also violates all their cherished ideals.

"It's not that radical Islamism is getting a pass from Western progressives and liberals, but it is the case that many are not being critical enough," says Anderson. When certain polemicists are spreading simplistic ideas about "Islamo-Fascism," he continues, "there's a tendency to say that this isn't so. But the fact is that while radical Islamism has many features and faces, everywhere it is antifeminist, everywhere it is authoritarian, and everywhere it is intolerant of other religions and other interpretations of Islam."

"These conservative, reactionary movements," Anderson says, "may be in conflict with a conservative Bush administration — but that doesn't make them any less conservative or reactionary. The debate on Foucault helps to throw all this into high relief."

Other Foucault scholars also see an enduring value in his turn toward political spirituality. James Bernauer, a Jesuit priest who teaches philosophy at Boston College and has written several books on Foucault and theology, sees in the late Foucault's embrace of spirituality a resource for thinking about how to integrate politics and religion.

"Religious discourse has an enormous power to move people to take action, to see beyond their immediate self-interest," Bernauer says. "And Foucault had an ability to see this, to see past the pervasive secularism of French intellectual life, that was quite remarkable. For better or worse, political spirituality is with us, and Foucault was one who helped us to focus our sights on it."

Wesley Yang has written for The New York Observer, Newsday, and The New York Times.

The white-collar blues
'Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream'
Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books: 242 pp., $24
By Wesley Yang

September 4, 2005

BACK in 1989, Barbara Ehrenreich's magisterial "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class" charted the emergence of a "meaner, more selfish outlook, hostile to the aspirations of those less fortunate" among the professional-managerial classes.

Sixteen years later, the white-collar class is reaping its share of the political and economic pain its changed mood has abetted. The corporate world is nowadays subject to "a perpetual winnowing," as Ehrenreich puts it in "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream," expelling, with a terrifying indiscriminateness, even the most efficient workers, in good economic times and bad. It all amounts, Ehrenreich writes in her follow-up to the bestselling first-person account of the working poor, "Nickel and Dimed," to a "rude finger in the face of the American dream."

An unspoken part of "Nickel and Dimed's" appeal was how it fed an almost prurient fascination with the bodily pain inflicted on the middle-class's underlings. Watching the respected author sweat-soaked in stifling heat, forbidden to take a drink of water, on her hands and knees while scrubbing a linoleum floor, made visible something that is always right in the open but invisible to middle-class eyes. The appropriate response to our blindness is, as Ehrenreich put it, "shame" — but the images linger on in the reader's mind partly because of the visceral jolt they deliver.

Such dire immediacy is missing from "Bait and Switch," which focuses on the subtler psychological exactions made on the dignity of the middle class. We watch as Ehrenreich posts her résumé at and HotJobs, consults "career coaches," labors over her (concocted) résumé and 30-second "elevator speech," attends networking events and "boot camps," and receives a business-professional image makeover.

She skewers the florid inanity of much that she encounters with her characteristic wit, painting a picture of a corporate world "paralyzed by conformity, and shot through with magical thinking." The world she describes demands absolute obedience (in marked contrast to the "rules-breaking" cant of the new economy-era managerial gurus), which it repays with absolute indifference.

The leader of a job "boot camp" dispenses a putrid mélange of New Age mind-cure that dominates the "transition industry" ("Every unit increase in your personal sense of well-being increases your external performance exponentially," expressed in the style of a formula, "EP/PSWB") and turns out to be himself a psychologically broken man. Workers are urged never to blame their employers or the economy for their straitened condition, lest bitterness infect the "winning attitude" they must at all times exude.

The obfuscatory jargon serves a transparent purpose — to present as inevitable and thus beyond politics the one-sided withdrawal of the social contract that used to assign mutual responsibilities to employers and workers. The white-collar job-seeker faces, she notes, "far more intrusive psychological demands than a laborer or clerk." Browbeaten from all sides to display "cheerfulness, upbeatness, and compliance," submissive employees turn out to be the easiest to fire.

Ehrenreich's next foray, into the faith-based job-networking scene, is both sad and farcical. She is enjoined to "network with the Lord" and is exposed to lecture topics such as "how clutter can be an obstacle to God's grace," with a smattering of racism, sexism and homophobia to wash it all down. One wonders what the Jesus Christ who smashed the money-changers' tables in the Temple would have made of all this.

After seven months of searching, only two "jobs" call her back — both sales positions without benefits, offices or guaranteed salaries. One is for Mary Kay cosmetics, the other for Aflac insurance.

It's hard to know exactly how to apply the lesson of her example. That a woman in late middle age with a fake résumé that edits out and replaces her worldly accomplishments with fictitious "consulting work" — and maybe I'm too easily buying into the corrupt realities Ehrenreich is protesting here — can't find a job in her chosen field doesn't feel so surprising.

Ehrenreich makes her experience an effective window into the corporate world by mixing in reportage of her fellow job seekers' often heart-rending predicaments and apt quotations from other books on the subject. But she never quite manages to arouse the vivid indignation of parts of "Nickel and Dimed."

She closes the book with a handful of common-sensical political proposals — universal health insurance, expansion of unemployment benefits — and suggests turning the unemployed into an activist cadre. After chronicling what she sees as the acquiescence of the white-collar unemployed, she urges on them "the courage to come together and work for change, even in the face of overwhelming odds." The call has a certain sadly perfunctory ring to it.

For the last 30 years, Ehrenreich has insisted that when workers think only to save themselves and push economic pain onto others, we all lose together. And then she's gone and tallied up the costs of our failure to learn this simple lesson. Though "Bait and Switch" isn't her most compelling book, it's an honorable addition to an essential body of work. We need her lonely, eloquent voice, but more than this, we need others to join in and many more to begin heeding it.

Wesley Yang is a critic whose work has appeared in several publications, including and the New York Observer.

Poets, Inc.
Can a big pot of money - and a savvy marketing plan - make poetry matter again?

By Wesley Yang January 8, 2006

THREE YEARS ago, a pharmaceutical heiress made Poetry magazine, the venerable monthly that discovered T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, the richest literary journal in the history of the world. The sum of $175 million, given by Ruth Lilly, made the subject of poetry into news fit to print in just about every newspaper in America.

The sum's vastness enticed some poets into imaginative flight. The poet Rafael Campo rhapsodized in an opinion piece in the Globe that a ''Poetry Palace" built with the gift might come to house ''factory workers and firefighters, immigrants, and descendents of slaves," and that ''such a rich community of poetry-lovers could truly repair this broken planet." In the London Independent, Campbell McGrath had a more modest but (as it turns out) no less fanciful wish: ''I hope that, as much as possible, Poetry will find a way to call up individual poets and say, 'You're not going to believe this, but we're going to give you money."'

Of course, some in the literary world have declined to get caught up in the excitement. ''We have thousands of very bad poets in the USA. There are also 20 or so good ones," writes eminent Yale critic Harold Bloom in a recent e-mail. ''All that money should be used to fight poverty and illness here and abroad."

The coverage, by turns dutiful and bemused, threw into sharp relief the wider culture's neglect of poetry. That so many could hope for so much from Ruth Lilly's gift-about as much as it cost to make ''Waterworld"-showed how humble are the art form's worldly expectations.

Nonetheless, the stewards of that large sum believe they can use it to bring poetry ''back into the mainstream of American culture," says John Barr, the president of the Poetry Foundation, which was formed to manage the bequest. The foundation hired Barr, a former Wall Street executive and published poet, to implement a strategic vision that is as notable for what it does not do as for what it does. Campbell McGrath's wish is going to go unfulfilled: The foundation won't be handing out grants to poets or institutions.

Instead, the foundation's strategy emphasizes rebuilding a general, nonspecialist, and, crucially, nonacademic audience for poetry. This approach seems consistent with a notorious polemic by the poet, critic, and former General Foods marketing executive Dana Gioia, now the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. In an essay entitled ''Can Poetry Matter?" published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1991, Gioia argued that an ''American poetry establishment" had ''imprisoned poetry in an intellectual ghetto." Though more books of poetry were being published than ever before-"a moment of unprecedented expansion for the art"-the university-based subculture of poetry had turned inward, and renounced a broader readership, he argued.

Now the richest poetry institution in the country has declared its intent to break up the insularity of the poetry world in two ways-through the stinging polemics in the back of a revamped Poetry magazine under the editorship of Christian Wiman and through a series of programs designed to jumpstart interest in poetry among nonspecialist readers.

''We believe that the golden age for any art happens when that art is written for and derives its energy from the general audience of its time," said Barr in a recent telephone interview. ''And if and when an art form becomes a more closeted and insular affair, it's going to lose some of that energy."

Not everyone shares Barr's vision, however, and some critics of the foundation's initiatives wonder whether poetry can, or should, restore its cultural authority by way of a marketing campaign.

. . .

Indeed, Barr doesn't hesitate to use the language of corporate marketing to talk about his outreach efforts, speaking of ''demographic groups" and ''poetry users." With annual budgets that should range from $5 million to $10 million a year, Barr says, the Poetry Foundation's ultimate goal is to create a general readership for poetry large enough to make it possible for more poets to succeed in a commercial marketplace rather than rely on academia to make a living.

The foundation's initial slate of programs should all be up and running by the end of this year. A major website, scheduled to launch on Jan. 20, will present an archive of classic and contemporary poetry, along with daily news coverage of the poetry world that will be broadly reflective of the art as a whole but aim to stir up spirited exchanges, said the site's editor, Emily Warn.

The foundation is funding American Life in Poetry, a weekly column by the United States poet laureate, Ted Kooser, in mid-sized and rural newspapers reaching an estimated audience of 3.85 million readers, along with a program to help newspapers identify and secure permission to print poems. Results from a foundation-funded national survey on Americans' poetry reading habits should become available in the spring. And the foundation eventually hopes to build a ''National Home for Poetry" that will serve as library, museum, and think tank-"a kind of Aspen Institute of poetry," according to the press release.

The foundation also created two new prizes in 2005 that seem like a subtle jab at the poetry establishment. The Emily Dickinson Award, for a poet over the age of 50 who has not previously published a book of poems, went to the 79-year old Landis Everson. The Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism-aimed at calling attention to critics who write for general rather than specialist audiences-went to New York Times contributor and New Criterion columnist William Logan. Logan's exacting reviews, Wiman has noted, have earned him the moniker ''the most hated man in American poetry."

The choice of Logan as its first honoree is entirely in keeping with the newly pugnacious tone of Poetry magazine's review section. ''Part of what I've tried to do is to make Poetry into a place where people can expect honest reviews," said Wiman, a plain-spoken fellow from East Texas who has taught at Stanford and Northwestern. ''If the readers are going to disagree with something, they're going to disagree vehemently, but at least they'll have a genuine reaction."

Founded in 1912, and once synonymous with the triumphs of early American modernism, the magazine remains committed to its famous ''open door" policy-to publish the best poetry in any style, genre, or approach. But Wiman doesn't shrink from offering blunt prescriptions. ''More poems should rhyme. More poems should have meter. More poems should tell stories in accomplished ways. More poems should do the things that people like poems to do," he said. ''There is great stuff that's being written in an insular and esoteric vein. But there should also be a broad band of poetry available to common readers."

The magazine's efforts to engage a broader audience seem to be working. When Wiman took over Poetry in October 2003, the magazine's circulation was 11,000. Today it stands at roughly 29,000.

. . .

The Poetry Foundation's posture as a kind of heavily endowed insurgency trying to shake up the poetry world has drawn two kinds of critics: those who think the foundation is addressing an illusory crisis and those who think the foundation's approach is misconceived.

Jordan Davis, a poet, critic, and blogger who edited the recent edition of Kenneth Koch's collected poems, is a participant in New York's active poetry demimonde. ''The art is in much better shape than people want to say for whatever reason," he said. ''Often it's the case that people just have their own ideas of what kind of poetry they like, and they don't want the other stuff to be acknowledged."

Richard Nash, the publisher of the fiercely independent Brooklyn-based Soft Skull Press, is about to scale back his extensive poetry list, most of which he's lost money on. Nash believes that the future of poetry lies with small-scale ''poet-entrepreneurs" working at a grass-roots level and through the Internet to rebuild an audience from the ground up.

''America is nothing but an agglomeration of subcultures," he avers in response to the idea that poetry has left the mainstream. ''You can't build these worthy, top-down 19th-century institutions to meet the cultural needs of a 21st-century world. The new poetry audience is going to be built face to face, one book at a time."

University of Rochester professor James Longenbach considers the effort to make poetry ''matter" or ''relevant to the lives of Americans" a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes poetry work. His 2004 book ''The Resistance to Poetry" opens with an extended brief on behalf of poetry's marginalization. ''Poets can do without much money," he wrote in an e-mail, ''and that's a good thing. . . . Poets have much more aesthetic freedom precisely because nobody cares how or what they write. That freedom is priceless."

Ultimately, the Lilly gift may be an experiment relevant to all serious art struggling to subsist in America. What can you change with a large amount of money? What should you try to change? And will those changes ultimately serve the art form in the way you hoped?

''Even people who don't read much poetry want to hear that poetry is good for us and that we can do something-even spend money-to make it better," Longenbach writes by e-mail. ''That doesn't mean that it is good for us or that it will be better."

Wesley Yang is a journalist and critic in New York.

Star Gazing
by Wesley Yang
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 06.16.05

It's easy to see why so many critics loved Francine Du Plessix Gray's Them: A Memoir of Parents. A daughter's account of Manhattan's first media power couple coats the celebrity confessional with a high-culture sheen. The rich also suffer, we are told. And amid such opulence and so many people you've heard of! Gray tells of the suffering and omits none of the names. What's more, the book's principals--stepfather Alexander Liberman, the head of Condé Nast, and mother Tatiana Du Plessix, a hat designer and mid-century fashion icon--brush up against grand historical currents in Europe. From V.I. Lenin to Tina Brown, the Libermans follow an exemplary twentieth-century trajectory, occupying all the cherished roles of the American mise-en-scène along the way. They begin as plucky survivors, become ruthless social climbers, and end up ruined and banal amid their affluence. The tale is told in Gray's professionally competent, though insufficiently edited, prose. In all this, Gray's chronicle of ambivalence toward the folks duplicates the methods her father perfected at Condé Nast, from whence the culture's highest-toned, most beautifully apportioned trash issues.

Whatever other troubles they may impose on the world, the rich are sometimes funny. Too many reviewers treated Gray's account of her parents with a hand-wringing solemnity. Michiko Kakutani praised "an intense and remarkably powerful portrait of her mother and stepfather" executed with "love, judgmental candor, and at least a measure of forgiveness." And that's not wrong--but it takes at face value Gray's intoxication with her parents in a way that a culture less tenderly solicitous toward the rich might not. For although Gray has been justly lauded for refusing to write "Mommie Dearest" for the Manhattan publishing set, in fact, Gray's wordy judiciousness tends to pall, and it is when Them dips into repellant comedy that the book succeeds best. "Tatiana was one of the most dazzling self-inventions of her time, a force of nature all right," Gray writes. "And those of us who loved her may remain under her spell until the day we die." The rest of us are free to observe that Tatiana sounds a lot like Eva Gabor on "Green Acres." She once greeted a friend with: "Take off sweater, ees disgusting." "Dostoevsky ees just a journalist," Tatiana pronounced at one of the many parties she hosted in her East 70th Street townhouse. "Everybody knows women's brains are smaller than men's." "You found dress at Bloomingdale's?" she demands of one terrified houseguest. "Bloomingdale's ees for sheets." "I can tell by the way your wife walk whether she has clitoral or vaginal orgasm," she tells Andre Emmerich. And to one friend of Gray's who has arrived in a raincoat: "Take off that raincoat! Eet look like a contraceptive!"

Tatiana of Saks, as she was known, never learned enough English to read The New York Times. But she had plenty of her fellow White-Russian aristocrats to hobnob with, and, later in life, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Joseph Brodsky, among others. America likes to think of itself as a place of refuge for huddled masses that came here to get rich through honest labor. But in the twentieth century, it also became a harbor for arrogant snobs of many colors that had to flee left-wing revolutions. Their hauteur continued to overawe Americans raised on democratic notions and therefore always a little titillated by anti-democratic ones.

It's no accident that the world of fashion is one of the few places where otherwise-useless titles retain their currency. The discarded finery of ages past is always embarrassing. It reminds us that fashion is inevitably doomed for swift obsolescence. It takes despotic self-possession to decree, as Gray quotes one habitué of her mother's salon: "The Toreador look! Small heads are in this fall!" The aristocrat, the celebrity, and the clinical narcissist have the power of their various pathologies. Why do the rest of us get such a contact high from the self-intoxicated? Maybe because they carry the absolute standard of their whims like a beacon through a relativistic age.

Tatiana liked to claim direct descent from Genghis Khan. But her title came from an "extraordinarily handsome" but ruined aristocrat from a "bleak place, ransacked by indigence and prejudice and piety." She had chosen her first husband over the great love of her life, the poet of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom she met in Paris a few years after arriving as a "gorgeous unwashed savage" to live with her grandmother. Mayakovsky wrote some of his best known love lyrics to Tatiana, then a 22-year-old refugee living with her grandmother in Paris, but the affair was never consummated. Years later, Tatiana would protest that she could not answer the question posed to her by a would-be chronicler of the episode: "How large was Mayakovsky's prick?"

Bertrand Du Plessix had a diplomatic post in Warsaw that Tatiana lost him by declaring her detestation for Poles at dinner. They quickly set about leading separate-but-cordial romantic lives. Du Plessix was shot down while flying over the Mediterranean to join De Gaulle in Britain after the Nazi invasion. By this time, Du Plessix had already taken up with Alexander Liberman, with whom she would flee to America after the Nazis invaded France.

Liberman was the son of a Russian Jew who had been a Menshevik revolutionary in 1905 and later Russia's dominant timber magnate. After the revolution, his father served Lenin, but the secret police eventually put an end to this service after Stalin's accession to power. By then, Liberman had gone to British public schools. He would later become the first Jew to graduate from France's most exclusive private school. In France, he became Tatiana's bulwark and protector, and played this role until her death, fulfilling her every whim and enduring her every outrage. When Alexander presented her with a "very pretty, rather conventional brooch" as a birthday present, she responded by chucking it at his face. "It is pathetic!" she exclaims. "How could you not know that this is just the kind of object I detest?" Whenever Alexander tried to bring up some topic of emotional importance, she would say, "You want to have another one of your Jewish conversations?" When he suggested (through a surrogate) that the couple have another child, she responded, "Why? So that I can bring another Jew into the world?" (It would, however, be unfair to tag her an anti-Semite--she upbraided Alexander for snubbing a visibly Jewish man on a French train in 1940.) It was just another "outrageous" pronouncement of hers, meant to shrug off the suggestion of having a baby in the most indelicate way possible.

While Tatiana would rise to preeminence as a funny, rude host of celebrity-studded parties, Alexander rose by means of his "remarkable gift for jumping into the lap of power." Along the way he helped to launch the careers of Irving Penn and Helmut Newton, among others. He stabbed just about everybody in the back when they were no longer useful to him. Iva Patcevich was the fellow Russian émigré that had been his best friend, constant companion, and mentor at Condé Nast. When Patchevich was demoted from publisher after snubbing the new owner, Si Newhouse, Alex cut him out of his life, seeing him again, by accident, only once. "Alex never took a stand for anybody," was how Condé Nast's former CFO put it. "I must go plant the poison," he would tell Tina Brown when a talented rival seemed to threaten his power. "Alex was very much Si's courtier," was how Anna Wintour put it. "Be extremely Machiavellian at all times," was his parting advice to James Truman, his successor at Condé Nast.

Through all this he retained, Gray writes, "a kind of self-protective contempt for his work at Condé Nast." He thought of himself as an artist first. (He also had a career as a painter and sculptor.) Gray came to realize that though her father established a reputation as one of New York's indispensable hosts, presiding "like a high-class maitre d', looking affable and yet utterly detached," he "had loathed them. That most other human beings bored him to death. That he had a chilling lack of interest in them. That he looked at hospitality as merely serviceable, another boring expedient that humored Mother and helped him to climb the power ladder."

The Libermans were lousy parents. Tatiana was remote and couldn't be bothered. They lied to Francine for a year about the fate of her father and then got the babysitter (Gitta Sereny, who would go on to become a leading European journalist) to tell her. At eleven, she suffered from malnutrition. The parents were out partying six nights a week and didn't know their daughter never ate dinner. They got Marlene Dietrich to tell her about her period when the time came.

Gray oscillated between cycles of rebellion and doomed attempts to win her parents' love. At one point she dreams of a country retreat: a "snug Tudor parsonaglike country home with dark wood paneling, chintz curtains, ottomans tufted in deep Burgundy, cozy kitchens where I would put up blackberry jam." The painter Cleve Gray, who was "generally horrified by the world of fashion," eventually delivered her the rustic life she yearned for. But not before enduring a stint covering fashion in Paris in the mid-1950's, where she dated an alcoholic prince to placate her mother's lust for titles. "Fucking Goons for Mom," was how she put it in her debut roman a clef Lovers and Tyrants, which covered similar ground as Them in the guise of fiction. "I was running as fast as I could, like a track star on speed, toward their affection and approval, all the time shouting 'I'm just like you now, please pay attention, pay attention at last.'" Gray's genuinely heart-rending predicament is shared by the rest of the star-struck toward the objects of their admiration--the admiration exacerbates the resentment and vice versa.

In 1965, Tatiana was fired as hat designer at Saks when hats fell out of fashion. Tatiana, whose enormous vitality had been sustained by a daily round of barbiturates, declined in the absence of work. Alex enabled her spiraling descent into alcoholism and addiction. The family moved to the country and curtailed their social schedule. The Russian exiles wound up attaining a rather Chekhovian fate. Genna, their hired friend, "lolled about and whined about the boredom of country life." Mother looked forward to her narcotics. Alex watched pornographic movies. "Bring on the ah-ah girls!" he would enthuse.

After Tatiana died, an ailing Alex married his Filipina nurse and turned his back on the world of fashion. He made his nurse and the writer Dodie Kazanjian--who would later write an authorized biography of Alexander--executors of his will. "In effect, he had fired his original family--an activity he had trained for well at Condé Nast." His new wife decorated the couple's big gaudy new apartments at 87 U.N. Plaza and in Miami with "lacy doilies," "fussy pink porcelain vases, " a massive crystal chandelier hung over the dining room table," calling to mind, as Gray puts it "the homes of shady diamond dealers in Singapore or mafia bosses in Jakarta." He becomes a "T-shirted patriarch, lounging in his recliner and smiling with embarrassment as Filipino toddlers were thrust onto his lap." Anna Wintour reports that the Libermans "mostly saw garage mechanics." His entertainment consisted of jaunts to Atlantic City in a white limousine and dining out at "pseudo-Asian eateries."

This acidic portrait of Alexander's declining years is rooted in a daughter's justifiable rage at parental rejection. But it is interesting to observe how much the odium heaped on Alex is rooted in the worldview of her mother that Gray had ostensibly rejected. Indeed, Gray ventriloquizes her mother throughout these passages, repeating her parenthetical refrain: "Tout ce que je deteste." And for all that, Gray raised her children in the Connecticut woods with the devotion her parents never showed her. Yet she never lived less than the A-list life her parents delivered to her.

It's a terrible thing to end up star-struck by your own remote and neglectful parents. One satisfaction that we can take from this overstuffed book, filled as it is with interesting thumbnail sketches of colorful characters and events, is that we don't have to be.

Wesley Yang has written for The New York Observer, The Boston Globe Ideas section, and The New York Times Book Review.

Hell House at St. Ann’s:
Dear Jerry Falwell,
Meet N.Y.’s Sinners!

By: Wesley Yang
Date: 10/9/2006
Page: 5

The pretty brunette in the tortoiseshell glasses and the keffiyeh wanted to know if she was going to be scared.

“There are some pretty shocking things in there, some pretty startling things,” the usher told her, smiling. “But probably no.” From behind the curtain, and above the spooky synthesizer washes, came screams for help, howls of pain, crazed laughter. The usher pursed her lips, seeming to consider: “I think you’ll be O.K.”

Then the tall, burly man in the black cloak with the hood appeared. His orotund voice boomed and rasped. “Welcome, ladies and gentleman. I’ve been expecting you. We’re all going to have so much fun tonight at our … Hell House!”

When you heard that the avant-garde theater group Les Freres Corbusier would be staging a Hell House at the avant-garde theater space St. Ann’s Warehouse, you wondered what they meant by it and how it would go over.

The night began with a gang rape. In the first room, one of nine we walked through, “Jessica” isn’t having the best time at her first rave. But look, there’s like this “totally hot guy” that’s “totally checking her out.” The hot guy, “Chad,” can see Jessica isn’t entirely comfortable—and he wants to help. “Try one of these,” he says, offering her a little pill. “It will relax you.”

Moments later, Jessica’s sprawled on the floor. “She’s out,” declares Chad, whipping off his shirt. “Let’s rape her!”

The Reverend Jerry Falwell first dreamed up the Hell House in the 1970’s as a way to scare kids away from sin and back into the arms of Christ. Colorado Pastor Keenan Roberts began selling Hell House kits—scripts, stage directions and a soundtrack are available for $200—back in 1996. Roberts claims that more than 3,000 churches stage Hell Houses every year.

Les Freres Corbusier used one kit to create a perfect replica. A disclaimer of sorts had been tacked up next to the ticket window: “THIS AUTHENTIC DEPICTION OF A HELL HOUSE IS MEANT TO EDUCATE AND INFORM ABOUT A PARTICULAR RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT, NOT TO ENDORSE ANY SPECIFIC IDEOLOGY.”

One thing, however, was clear. Merely by sticking faithfully (as it were) to the script—by playing it (as it were) straight—Les Freres Corbusier has unleashed the edgiest entertainment to be had anywhere in the city. Not since the Meese Commission Report on Pornography has so much stagy titillation been collected in one place.

St. Ann’s Warehouse is a converted space amid picturesque post-industrial ruins by the waterfront under the Manhattan Bridge. At Sunday night’s opening, smatterings of smartly attired hipsters clustered at the candlelit tables in the enormous high-ceilinged waiting area and took a moment to parse out their stance toward what awaited them. Many motives were present. They were prepared to be giddy, but also to be frightened. By turns, they were appalled but curious, jaded sensation-seekers looking for a dose of high camp, or concerned liberals anxious to see at first hand what the red states think of them. The ambivalence made the room vibrate with a queasy intensity.

“I’m mostly here to see a freak show,” conceded Amy Slonaker, a 34-year-old lawyer and record collector. “But it also does actually dovetail with some of my intellectual interests,” she said, interlocking her fingers together to illustrate the connection. Ms. Slonaker grew up in an Evangelical Christian family in Santa Barbara, Calif., and studied religion in college. “I decided that it was all bullshit in junior high school,” Ms. Slonaker continued, “but I just kind of kept quiet and didn’t rock the boat until I could finally escape.”

Later, a clearly shaken Charles Mee, the playwright, stopped for a moment to reflect on what he had just seen. “First of all,” he began, “it’s amazing …. The very thought that this is a play that thousands of people see and take seriously is almost unbelievable. You don’t believe the text unless you already believe the context. It just seems stupid and preposterous and not funny—just appallingly unbelievable and unpersuasive.”

In one scene, a doctor wearing a yarmulke withholds treatment from a once-catatonic woman whose feeding tube has just been ripped from her throat. The woman has sprung back to life, but the doctor is unmoved.

“And so then you have to think as a left-winger,” Mr. Mee continued. “Is all of our left-wing theater equally unpersuasive unless you already believe, unless it’s confirming your prejudice? Is it really funny for somebody in the theater to just say the words ‘George W. Bush’?”

Brian Dooda, a 29-year-old theater archivist who lives in Greenpoint, was more blithe. “I’m definitely here to laugh,” he said. “But listen, I think this is probably something that even the evangelical kids laugh at.”

Irony is not, by its nature, a thing that can die; to declare the death of irony is to make yourself its fool. But something can happen to irony when you lose a stable point of reference from which to distinguish, say, an anti-gay screed from high camp, or anti-pornography crusading from pornography itself, or Christian proselytizing from the darkest blasphemy.

Later on in Hell House, we see a high-school cheerleader laid out on a stretcher in her uniform, complete with pom-poms. She is drenched in blood. There is blood splattered on the wall and on the scrubs of the doctor, who smokes a cigarette as he cues up the vacuum cleaner. We move into a red womb and see large aluminum forceps extract a girl dressed as a fetus from the birth canal.

Finally, we are taken on a guided tour of Hell. Wailing, lamentations, shrieks. A man grabs me by the arm. “He told me I was born gay, and I believed them!” he shouts. “Allah told me to blow up the subway!” screams a man with an Indian accent. “He said that was what I should do, and I believed him. But I was wrong, so wrong!” A man in a tuxedo lisps out a flamboyant show tune: He’s on his way to his wedding. He’s in Hell, but why isn’t he suffering? We laugh and laugh—we can’t help but laugh.

Then we found ourselves in a room filled with light arrayed with white curtains. A bearded man in a white robe appears wearing a beatific expression. It’s an actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus. His amateurish delivery is a sign of his very professionalism. But after all the din and all the chortling we had done, the words he spoke cast a sudden hush around the room—and even in the presence of all these unbelievers, you felt something move in you to be with these other people and hear kindly words and fair promises declaimed. It was perhaps the most insidious moment of all.

“If you believe with your whole heart that I was raised from the dead, and you confess with your mouth that I am the Lord,” the actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus assured us, “you will be saved. And your name will be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and every single person whose name is in that book will spend eternity with me in Heaven.”

Left-Wingers Listen: Rushdie, Ritter,
Hersh Foresee Our Doom

By: Wesley Yang
Date: 10/23/2006
Page: 5

Left-wing New York gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture at 64th Street and Central Park West on Monday night. They came to hear dark prophecies, to hear insults hurled at Cheney and Bush, and to hear it done with a fervor equal to the sick loathing that has gripped them in the last six years. Hundreds filled the nontheistic pews to capacity.

Seymour Hersh and Scott Ritter did not disappoint. Mr. Ritter is a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990’s who turned against the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. His new book, Target Iran, uses the foreign press and Mr. Ritter’s undisclosed intelligence contacts to describe American and Israeli preparations for war with that country. He continually roused himself to a fury and drew volleys of cathartic applause.

“There will be war with Iran,” he declared. “If we start bombing Iran, I’ll tell you right now, it’s not going to work …. What will happen is that the Iranians will respond and we will feel the pain instantaneously, which will cause the Bush administration to go to Phase 2, which will be boots on the ground.

“And those troops could end up trapped in Iraq.” His voice swelled. “And there is no reserve to pull them out! And my concern at that point is that we might resort to the use of nuclear weapons to try to break the backbone of Iranian resistance.”

He concluded: “If we do, the genie ain’t going back into the bottle until at least one American city is taken out. So tell me—which one do you want gone? Seattle? Los Angeles? Boston? New York? Pick one, because at least one is going.”

Mr. Hersh, the New Yorker writer, delivered, as he often does, a tidbit that probably won’t make it into print. He described a long private e-mail written by someone who works with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to its generals. It explained the dangers of striking Iran and ended with a facetious prescription for the way forward in Iraq.

“We should say we’re really, really, really sorry, and we really, really, really are,” Mr. Hersh began. “Let’s get Saddam Hussein, put him in a prayer meeting with President Bush, tell Halliburton it can do reconstruction—let’s take a mulligan and get the hell out of there.”

Left-wing New York had gathered at the Society for Ethical Culture the Wednesday before as well. That night it was Salman Rushdie, the proverbial canary in the mineshaft of the great political tsuris threatening to engulf the 21st century. The people were there to hear religion calumniated by a puckish wit who had seen its darkest edge pressed against his throat. The people that were out to get him are out to get the rest of us, too.

These people, Mr. Rushdie argued, ought to be called “Islamic terrorists.” “If the terrorists themselves are saying they are doing what they are doing in the name of Islam, then I see no reason why we shouldn’t put those two words together to describe the world as it is,” he said.

Liberal German Jews who thought even Reform Judaism was too godly for them started Ethical Culture in the 1870’s. The rows of wooden benches that you would, in a different setting, call “pews” are presided over by nontheistic sculptures of a woman in a flowing gown holding a baby.

“They should put a sign around that baby’s neck,” said the man seated behind me, “that reads, ‘I AM NOT THE BABY JESUS.’” The bearded fellow, a tax attorney on business from California, was in good spirits. “It’s the closest I’ve ever been,” he noted, “to an atheistic church.”

Ethical Culture is, in other words, le plus bien of all the bien pensant milieus in this city, and Mr. Rushdie had come to explain to these people an error that he thinks they and others like them had made. Out of friendliness to Third World movements that deploy the rhetoric of liberation, Mr. Rushdie said, many liberals and progressives had failed to see them with the proper clarity.

He sprang to his own defense over a stray comment that recently hit the press. He had said that the veil wasn’t an icon of identity, but something that Muslim men bullied young women to wear. In a word, that it “sucked.”

“Islamic radicalism—whether it’s Al Qaeda, Wahhabism or whatever—is not interested in creating greater social justice,” he said later. “It’s interested in what the Taliban did. It’s interested in a new religious, fascist rule over the planet.”

Karl Marx is often quoted calling religion the opiate of the people. They often leave out the sentence that precedes it: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” An unstated subtext of the evening’s triumphant secularism was that religion and identity are the refuges of people with little else going for them.

“Flood them with iPods and let MTV save the world!” Mr. Rushdie declared, half-facetiously, about the means to the end of Islamic theocracy in Iran. It is the liberal dream, glibly stated, and it seemed to indicate the place where Mr. Rushdie’s fine, educated, cosmopolitan sensibility met its limit.

For a pensive moment toward the evening’s end, he no longer seemed to be pronouncing or delivering his tightly honed aperçus. Maybe, he said, if the world’s wealth were more evenly distributed, fewer would be inclined to wage war against it. “Marxism is so out of fashion these days,” he noted. But.

He seemed a bit wistful and tentative at this moment, and though it’s hard to know what an audience thinks, others seemed to share in the mood.

All these fortunate people, most had less than Mr. Rushdie, but most had, by any absolute standard, a very great deal.

They could imagine how hard it might be to grow up poor and despised in some backward corner of the earth, and could maybe even see how you might end up being cross with the world. All of their deepest convictions had been directed toward the amelioration of just these conditions—but not enough had been done, and a terrible storm seemed about to be unleashed upon them. And despite Mr. Rushdie’s rousing peroration, in which he called on us to defend our liberties against those who would take them from us (not through war, but through renewed commitment), it was by no means clear that we could get ourselves on the right side of what we sensed was coming.

copyright © 2006 the new york observer, llc all rights reserved


'The Trouble With Diversity' by Walter Benn Michaels

By Wesley Yang
Special to The Times

November 20, 2006

The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality
Walter Benn Michaels
Metropolitan Books: 244 pp., $23

WALTER Benn Michaels has written one of the least equivocal books in recent memory. "Almost everything we say about culture," he begins in his introduction, "seems to me mistaken, and this book tries to show why." He lists a few of these mistaken ideas: "That the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that there's a value in making sure that different cultures survive."

And that's just laying the groundwork for his real intent. Michaels is an English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is well known in academe as a tenured gadfly assailing the pieties of his profession. He would like to reverse the direction in which American wealth has been flowing for the last 30 or so years (that is to say inexorably upward, out of the hands of most of us and into the hands of the very rich).

And in "The Trouble With Diversity," his first foray into political polemic, he seeks to expose the con perpetrated on the American public that has united both parties around a neoliberal economic policy enriching the few at the expense of the many. You might be surprised to learn the culprit he names. "If you're worried about the growing economic inequality in American life," he explains in his introduction, "no battle is less worth fighting than the ones we fight for diversity."

Michaels has no patience for the multiculturalists who want to celebrate many identities. He has no more patience for the critics of multiculturalism — Samuel Huntington and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among them — who want to defend an American identity. (Let's face it, he's an impatient guy.) He rejects the idea of identity itself. What is race? It is well known, he writes, that there's more genetic variation within racial groups than between them.

What is culture? Michaels argues that our respectful talk about cultures is just a way of preserving racialist thinking. He asserts that belief in cultures is based on circular logic (how do we know what practices belong to certain identities if there are no intrinsic identities for them to belong to?) but we cling to it out of an ulterior motive.

Celebrating diversity and promoting affirmative action, Michaels writes, has turned the political left "into the accomplice rather than the opponent of the right." Here's how: Racists used to tell Americans that the differences that mattered among people had to do with the color of their skin rather than the size of their bank account. This diversionary strategy helped the ruling elite keep its money unmolested.

Michaels' characteristic move is to argue that multiculturalists now tell us an inverted version of the same story, with more or less the same effect. Anti-racism today, according to Michaels, does the work that racism used to do. Instead of hating people who are racially different from us, we now celebrate the differences of those who are culturally different from us. This makes politics into "nothing but etiquette" in which we battle over "what color skin the rich kids should have." We should not be surprised, Michaels argues, that it took "about ten minutes" for multiculturalism to go from "proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management tool."

Michaels is on to something here. He is at his best when he is running his chain saw through other people's cant. He mostly sticks to this strength. His method is to insist that we be as principled as principle demands. He shows how affirmative action props up the flimsy fiction that our universities are meritocratic. He avers that if we really cared about equal opportunity, we would abolish private schools and fund all public schools equally. He notes, familiarly, the absurdity of turning disability into an identity category. He tackles the ways that the "diversity" model has eroded serious thinking about politics, culture, belief and ideas.

Culture, Michaels says, provides us with a model of "diversity without inequality" that helps us to pretend that real inequality doesn't exist. So we begin to think of the "poor" as another identity group who should be respected instead of as disadvantaged people whose condition should be abolished. Once we apply this model to the realm of ideas itself, we begin to think it's more important to respect other people's ideas than to prove or debunk them.

But the trouble with "The Trouble With Diversity" — what makes its stimulating argument seem at times like a long non sequitur — is one of its guiding assumptions: Is the primary reason we're obsessed with identity really our desire to change the subject from class?

A simpler explanation than the vaguely conspiratorial one that Michaels advances is that people want to know who they are and want to belong to something that is larger than themselves. Any clarifying discussion of the uses and abuses of identity must begin with this acknowledgment.

Michaels reminds us that if we believe, as multiculturalists do, that all cultures are equally valuable, there's no reason for anyone to fight to preserve or advance his or her own. Clever move, but it's merely a debater's point — as many of Michaels' prickly little salvos turn out to be, on closer examination — and it avoids the question posed by cultural diversity: How do we reconcile differing cultures within a framework of tolerance and justice? Michaels is content to conjure away this vexed question with his truth tables.

Class and race interact in ways more complicated than Michaels wants to admit. The New Deal coalition that once made the country a more equal place than it is today was held together by racism (the solid Democratic South was also the segregationist South) and split apart by racism (the solid Democratic South became the bedrock of Republican reaction).

This is not a paradox; history doesn't work with the tidy logic that Michaels would prefer. Maybe this helps explain how he can write a passage as appalling as this one, which refers to his intentions in Chapter 4: "The question it asks is why we should care about the past, and the answer it gives is that we shouldn't…. Henry Ford said a long time ago, 'History is bunk'; the purpose of this chapter will be to show that he was right."

It's a tribute to Michaels' writerly virtues that a book marred by such rhetorical excesses remains a captivating read and a necessary provocation. Even when he is being wrongheaded, or just plain wrong, about our increasingly unequal country, Michaels confronts us with an essential challenge.


Wesley Yang is a critic whose work has appeared in several publications, including and the New York Observer.

Kipnis and Perel: A Literary Submission
By: Wesley Yang
Date: 11/27/2006
Page: 2

Paul Holdengräber, resplendent in a cream-colored suit beneath the spotlights at the South Court Auditorium of the New York Public Library, was caught last Saturday afternoon between an attractive female therapist on his left and an attractive female scourge of therapeutic culture on his right. He did not seem to regret his predicament.

“I have the distinct pleasure … ,” he began in his droll, circumlocutory, Austrian-sounding speech. “I think today is a good day to say ‘pleasure’: I’m sitting between Esther Perel on my right, and Laura Kipnis on my left—I’m feeling like a very happy man today. We’re here to talk about a very serious subject—lust—but before I explore, explode the subject …. ” Then he went on to explain how the session would end: The admonitory opening flourish of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would interrupt the ensuing colloquy, alerting him and us that 45 minutes (“the length of a psychiatric session,” Mr. Holdengräber said) had elapsed.

Ms. Kipnis and Ms. Perel are two recently minted experts in that perennial subject of journalistic concern: What Do Women Want? And though they spent parts of the session impugning the basic assumptions of each other’s work, they have many things in common.

Ms. Perel is the author of Mating in Captivity, a therapeutic book with an edge that recommends, among other things, fantasy re-enactments of “forced seduction” as a marital aid. Ms. Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic and, more recently, The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability. Both of them parse out the highly contested meanings of sex, love, lust, marriage, romance and adultery in the postmodern, post-feminist age; both of them have a flair for the aphoristic; both stand opposed to the tiresome, indeed destructive, cant of other doctors, pundits and political activists who have taken up the subject before them. Each purports to speak forbidden truths that every honest woman knows.

These, of course, are the obligatory moves by which any would-be bold new voice conscripts itself to the very agenda it denounces (that of continuing a noisy and unedifying pseudo-controversy in the pages of our quality magazines)—which is not to say that either of them lack wit or say only things that are untrue. Poked and prodded by the deliciously hammy Mr. Holdengräber, who runs the library’s public-education program, the two put on a spirited performance that kept the audience engrossed and amused.

The audience consisted of tasteful couples d’un certain age whose attendance at such an event might be interpreted by a smart-alecky observer as a tacit confession. Interspersed in their midst were handfuls of younger, sensitive New Age guys accompanied by the kind of cashmere-clad, carefully groomed women you imagine enunciating with rapid-fire precision around a handsomely varnished seminar table at a college in New England. Ms. Kipnis and Ms. Perel’s provocative rhetorical salvoes had the appealing virtue of resembling genuine thought, without ever quite attaining it.

Ms. Kipnis began: “Will all the adulterers in the room please stand up?”

When no one dared take a stand, Ms. Perel said. “Will all those who have ever thought about adultery please stand up?”

A voice from the front row asked, “Can we just raise our hands?”

Ms. Perel then went on to marvel, in her toothsome French-Israeli accent, that Americans tolerate multiple divorces and remarriages but have “a great intolerance for the concept of renegotiating boundaries for adultery.” This intolerance emerges, Ms. Perel said, from a peculiarly modern—and a peculiarly American—idealism about relationships.

“It feeds into the idea that there is one relationship that can be for everything,” she said. “And if you find out that this relationship isn’t going to do that for you, you will opt out and say, ‘I chose the wrong person and will now look for the person who can really give me everything’—instead of questioning the structure of the relationship.”

Against this model, Ms. Perel made a case for the kind of adultery that can save a marriage.

“Some affairs are the death knell for a gasping relationship that was already on its way out,” Ms. Perel said. “But for many others, it’s the alarm that gets people reinvigorated and re-engaged—nothing like the threat of loss to get people interested in each other again, sexually or otherwise.”

Mr. Holdengräber then asked Ms. Kipnis if Against Love—which advances the quasi-Marxisant (Althusserian, to be precise) notion that modern monogamy, requiring endless work and the intervention of outside experts, is a form of voluntary collective imprisonment—was a pro-adultery polemic. In an oft-quoted passage, she described what she called the “domestic gulag,” spelling out, over eight pages, all the things she can no longer do as a married woman. Ms. Kipnis said that we might think of adultery as a kind of inchoate protest, expressing a “basic utopian impulse” for “something more.”

“Adultery doesn’t need me to be its proponent,” Ms. Kipnis said. “It’s doing quite well on its own.”

“But,” Mr. Holdengräber shot back, “I think it gains some momentum with you behind it!”

Mr. Holdengräber pressed Ms. Perel to explain whether the adultery she advocated was theoretical or active.

“Does the erotic only mean when people have had sex?” Ms. Perel asked. “People can sit with each other like this and discuss books and ideas and be in a completely erotic experience.”

“Indeed, indeed,” Mr. Holdengräber replied. “No, no, I completely agree.”

“I didn’t mean to implicate you!” Ms. Perel said.

“But why not?” asked Mr. Holdengräber. “Well—I’m sorry you don’t want to.”

Ms. Kipnis brought her skepticism to bear on the edifice of what she called the “therapy-industrial complex”: “Can you teach lust or desire at the point at which people go to these consultations?” she asked. “The flogging of something dead in order to instill some iota of life in order to perpetuate it—it’s hard for me to imagine a joyful sort of work of that sort. Is desire renewable?”

“It may look like I’m just another representative of my field, but I am actually a bomb within my field,” said Ms. Perel. “I’m just throwing over a lot of sacred cows and assumptions that have gone unexamined.” Chief among the cows she’s flayed is the therapeutic belief that “intimacy begets sexual desire.” To the contrary, Ms. Perel argued, intimacy and love can sometimes serve as an obstacle to the expression of sexual desire, which is “much more selfish, much more raw, much more objectifying, much less into that caring, protective element—which can be why it is harder to lust in the same place you look for stability and connection.”

The balance of the evening went to Ms. Perel. Mr. Holdengräber seemed to favor her, and every point that Ms. Kipnis made was met with a well-rehearsed speech from Ms. Perel, or with aggressive questioning by Mr. Holdengräber.

“There are all sorts of industries that thrive on trying to solve the problem of declining marital desire, from therapy to sex toys. The therapy-industrial complex is dedicated to producing optimism about this situation,” Ms. Kipnis said early on.

“But what about if Esther is actually helping people?” said Mr. Holdengräber.

“I do!” said Ms. Perel.

“If I was getting $250 an hour, I could produce optimism on demand, too!” Ms. Kipnis shot back.

“You mean because you are paid less, you are not inclined … ,” began Mr. Holdengräber.

“Far less,” said Ms. Kipnis.

“Maybe that’s why you’re not optimistic,” Mr. Holdengräber said.

Ms. Perel’s book is a glib masterpiece of absorption, repackaging the insights of D.H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer into sharp, simple aphorisms for the consumption of a therapeutic readership. Mostly she talked about the tension between adventure and security, and the difficulty of preserving mystery and imagination.

But her “edgier” insights were meant to tell educated, post-feminist men and women the kind of arguably retrograde things that popular entertainment has never ceased to revel in. Which is not to say they’re wrong.

“The democratic values that we cherish in the workplace and in many parts of our relationship don’t always work that way, erotically speaking,” Ms. Perel said. “Neutralizing all power differentials can be contrary to the way that desire operates. There is an element of aggression—that wanting, that hostility, that conquering urge—that is not allowed anymore in the equalizing, egalitarian model,” she added.

“We don’t want to go back to the way things were. But you may want the egalitarian model between 6 to 8 p.m. in the kitchen, and something else in the bedroom after 10 p.m.”

The ultimate paradox, however, of Ms. Perel’s paradox-laden book is the tidiness with which its paeans to ruthlessness, risk and the uncontainable power of the erotic are delivered. She quotes a sex therapist advocating rape fantasies as “healthy dominance and powerful surrender.” In this way, she makes the dangerous safe for all of us who want to derive the benefits of risk-taking without actually exposing ourselves to any potential harm—and all under the beneficent tutelage of a dynamic, well-spoken and fetching European therapist. It seemed an offer that few with the means to accept would want to refuse.

Ms. Kipnis seemed to concur. “I’ve written a lot in The Female Thing about how gender equality, in political and social terms, got mapped onto questions of sexuality such that a demand for men to be more like women became, in America, a kind of political demand. And female desire is much more complicated than that. We are dealing with the confusion.”

At one point toward the end, Ms. Kipnis conceded that for all her fire-breathing polemic against love, she has always been, in fact, and remains a romantic. “I’m intensely romantic,” Ms. Kipnis said. “Too romantic.”

A summary of the afternoon’s back-and-forth might be spelled out as a set of pointers to men like this: Be nice, but not too nice; talk to us, but don’t get mired in everyday triviality; be nurturing, but not smothering; and whatever else you do, however much you respect and treat us like equals in all other settings, in the bedroom, don’t you dare forget to throw us down onto the covers, or up against the wall.

copyright © 2006 the new york observer, llc all rights reserved

The New York Sun
January 16, 2008 Wednesday
Down and Out in Tulsa and Reno
"Contempt for my privileged railroad follies may be warranted," William T. Vollman concedes in the first chapter of "Riding Toward Everywhere" (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $26.95), his account of train-hopping in the contemporary American West. He knows that a fortunate man who does for kicks what a less fortunate man does out of desperation is suspect, and he wants us to know that he knows. But he also knows that riding the railcars as a recreational hobo "gives me pleasure and makes me braver," and so he's willing to risk seeming a "dilettante or a hypocrite" if his writing can do for us what his travels have done for him.
It's a fair bargain, if he can deliver. And even if he can't, he wants it to be known that "all the same," his short but scattered account of a handful of illicit train rides "was still written 'sincerely.'" (The inverted commas are Mr. Vollman's - no one will fail to see his sincerity.)
He is managing expectations here, as he does throughout the book: Early on, he concedes with admirable forthrightness, and also accuracy, that "My critique of American society is fundamentally incoherent." Back from many years of exploring the darkest war-torn corners of the earth, Mr. Vollman feels something amiss in his home country. We have, he tells us, grown slavishly conformist and compliant in "plastic America." We hand over our bags to the inspection of the "security men," handing over our freedom and dignity in the process.
But he has trouble thinking his grievances through, and even more trouble expressing them cogently. Something is pushing him, in middle age, to endure hardship and exposure, "to skulk like a rat through railyards," risking illness, injury, violence, or imprisonment on the rails, and all of it is related, in an unspecified way, to his need to break out into some larger, ill-defined freedom.
Sometimes you wonder if the freedom that eludes Vollman isn't freedom from the compulsion to write. He has no legitimate challenger to the title of world's most garrulous author, nor for the title of world's most ambitious author. Nothing but the largest themes will do for him, as his previous work testifies. There was "Rising Up and Rising Down" (2004), the 3,300-page, seven-volume reflection on violence. There is his Seven Dreams series, a projected seven-novel cycle depicting the confrontation between North American Indians and the settlers. In 2005, Vollman won the National Book Award for his 832-page "Europe Central," a series of "parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision." Taken as a whole, his massive and still burgeoning body of work seems the triumphant product of the world's most heroically self-actualized sophomore.
"Riding Toward Everywhere" is a minnow swimming alongside these whales. But Mr. Vollman addresses his railcar "follies" in the same way he does everything else in the rest of his work. He careens from hyperventilating flights of lyricism to rubbing the reader's face in the world's filth, from earnest rumination on the world's moral condition to sudden gestures of renunciation of all meaning and purpose, especially his own. This honesty ceases to be refreshing once you've seen it repeated a few dozen times.
There is an organized group riding the rails, he reports, that kills for sport and tattoos their kills on their bodies. Nonetheless, to be out among the rails, not just theoretically but practically within the reach of such people, remains preferable to "sitting clean, comfortable and legal on a passenger train whose windows are invariably small and dusty." There's the exhilaration of breaking the rules, and the sensual excitement of it all, which he evokes beautifully, about which more anon. But then questions still linger.
"Isn't going anywhere the same as going nowhere?" he asks. "Isn't running away from everything the same as running toward everything? In which case, isn't fear the same as happiness? Would I be riding the freight trains if I wasn't trying to escape from something?" Anyone can think such confused, meaninglessly portentous thoughts; Mr. Vollman writes them down, and then publishes them. Moreover, he means them, though not in the sense that you mean a question when you want it to be answered.
"Do I love shadows because I fear the third dimension? Am I a writer and a printmaker in an effort to control my perception of the world by constricting it to my level?" Finally, he wonders, "aren't all these questions, which rush through my mind and depart unanswered, nothing but shadow-shows themselves?" He has a gift for remaining two steps behind the reader when it comes to staying a step ahead of him.
But that's Mr. Vollman for you. He is fearless in the greater and lesser senses of that word: Unafraid to venture into war zones, consort with junkies, prostitutes, the homeless, and the mujahideen, he risks his life for a fugitive glimpse of other people's hidden sorrow and pain. Often he outraces his lesser tendencies. Sometimes he lives up to his reputation as the outstanding poete maudit and gramophone of the age.
But he also, alas, has the courage to be interminable. He does not flinch from writing dreadful sentences (a man who stops talking joins "the army of the silent"). He has the wherewithal to be a stilted parody of Walt Whitman ("I love cities as much as solitude, prostitutes as much as trees"), and the cojones to wallow in pseudo-profundity ("Where am I? What if I am not here because I am not myself?").
He also portrays the handful of lost souls he encounters on the rails with beautiful simplicity and kindness. "I remember that half of his snaggly teeth were missing, I remember that one eye was open wider than the other, and I recollect very well the two pale lumps on his left eyebrow, but his smile was so gentle and loving and good, and he was so shyly patient the way he stood there with branches poking into his wrinkled neck; he was as lonely and eager to play as an abandoned child."
It's not enough. Without the exoticism, extremity, or world historical ballast of his other works, Mr. Vollman can't keep the reader engaged. Early on, he confesses to the dearth of his ideas. "I apologize if I make this point too often. I have few points to make." Closer to the end, he reflects on how little he has said in so many words. A good magazine-sized idea makes for an unwieldy book, even at 288 pages.

For all that you come away from it with, liking Mr. Vollman and admiring things about him, "Riding Toward Everywhere," if you manage to make it all the way through, is a pleasure to put down.
"I had expected my travels to be picaresque, teeming with wise, bizarre or menacing outlaw characters. In fact my various odysseys were haunted by absence, with only here and there a few lost voices - singing about the way things used to be back then, as if they were crickets who had inexplicably outlived the summer."

Mr. Yang is a writer in Jersey City.

The New York Sun
April 14, 2008 Monday
Princeton's Flim-Flam Man
Back in 1999, Nicholas Lemann published a remarkable book about the American class system. The first half of "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy" chronicled how a few idealistic mid-century college administrators sought to use a standardized test to remake the composition of the Ivy Leagues, and thus to replace the New England WASP ascendancy that controlled the country's ruling institutions with a new national elite made up of bright people from every class, region and ethnicity. He called it a kind of "quiet, planned coup d'etat."
The new elite thus installed was, according to Mr. Lemann, well-meaning and ostensibly liberal, but in fact risk-averse, self-interested, out of touch with the rest of the country, temperamentally unsuited for democratic politics, and fated to preside over widening American inequality, offering its own achievement as a kind of fig leaf to hide the larger failures of the system. In the second half of the book, Mr. Lemann used a few exemplary life stories to show how the new meritocrats uncritically identified their own progress through an educational hierarchy with the cause of equal opportunity itself, and to gently remind us that these two goals were, in fact, not only not one and the same, but in many respects incompatible.
Mr. Lemann was going after the meritocracy at its strongest rather than its weakest point. Of course his book acknowledges what everybody knows: that an industry exists to help the children of the wealthy game the admissions system; that meritocracy is inevitably compromised by the special exemptions made for athletes, the children of alumni, and set-asides for racial groups that would otherwise be almost entirely unrepresented at elite colleges; and that the twin policies of affirmative action and alumni preference limit the representation of the two groups that would otherwise make up a much larger portion of every freshman class - Asians and Jews. But the real problem with meritocracy, Mr. Lemann argued, is not that we don't have enough of it, but that the ideal itself might be an empty one. Despite the compromises and hypocrisies built into the admission process, plenty of high-achieving students from modest backgrounds make it into our elite colleges, just as the SAT-boosters intended. The problem was much deeper: Turning education into a race for worldly spoils was, according to Mr. Lemann, "destructive and anti-democratic," and it "warped the sensibilities" and "distorted the educations" of those who ran in it.
Something of the spirit of Mr. Lemann's critique of meritocracy presides over "The Runner" (New Press, 192 pages, $22.95), David Samuels's account of the misadventures of James Hogue, "the Ivy League impostor." (In truth, Hogue is one of many such hucksters, but his story won special attention after Mr. Samuels detailed it in a 2001 New Yorker article.) Hogue was a 29-year-old drifter, petty thief, and inmate in the Utah correctional system who in 1989 successfully reinvented himself as "Alexi Indris-Santana," a self-educated half-Mexican-American ranch hand with a 1410 SAT score, who could run a 4-minute mile (as Hogue really could do), and who had abstained from organized education since moving with his mother from Topanga, Calif., to Switzerland in 1978.
Once he arrived at Princeton, Hogue, who had previously attended the University of Wyoming (from which he did not graduate) on a running scholarship, earned straight A's, and made it into the college's most exclusive eating club. His peers talked about him as a natural candidate for a Rhodes scholarship. He was, as Mr. Samuels puts it, widely acknowledged to be "easily the most interesting member of the Princeton class of 1993." Eventually, he was caught and expelled; he went to Colorado to continue conning people, and then back to jail, for a raft of property thefts he committed there.
Hogue begins as an enigma; by the end of the book he is an enigma onto which Mr. Samuels has pinned various portentous epithets. "He exposed the emptiness and pretence at the heart of the so-called American meritocracy." He was "exhibit A in my personal catalog of reasons why the Ivy League should be abolished." His lies were "deeply rooted in the Western religious tradition that holds that believers are born in Christ and leave behind their prior sinful nature," and directly analogous to "what our Founding Fathers did when they declared themselves independent from the authority of King George III."
Mr. Samuels's brief against the Ivy League has less to do with a concern for political equality, however, than with his ambivalence about his own passage through Harvard and Princeton. Harvard delivered Mr. Samuels from his parochial fate in Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox community; the day he received his entrance into Harvard, Mr. Samuels writes, "the dark clouds of obedience parted and a heavenly finger reached down and touched my forehead. I was transformed into a living, breathing person, an individual with the God-like ability to be whoever I want to be."
Mr. Samuels seems both enamored with and disdainful of the Ivies' credentialing power. Again and again, Mr. Samuels indicts the Ivy League colleges for being institutions of privilege rather than citadels of Enlightenment learning, in which the best and brightest are imbued with the highest values. Of course, the schools have always aspired to be the latter - and have accomplished the task for many students - while still ratifying existing privilege with ruthless effectiveness.
Mr. Samuels, like Mr. Lemann, is disturbed by a system that gives a small handful of students, the vast majority of whom began life with advantages, a kind of lifetime membership to a prosperous elite. But he is so hung up on the ways that meritocracy fails to live up to its own equal-opportunity standards that he doesn't consider the more radical argument: The real difficulty arises not when the system fails, but when it succeeds.
The term "meritocracy" was coined in 1958 by British sociologist Michael Young to name a chilling dystopian future, not a positive ideal. In this future, a cognitive elite would be identified and enshrined by scientific testing, and, confident that the system which exalted them was just, would feel no obligation to the losers in the supposedly free and fair competition. Over time, this elite would grow increasingly remote from the non-elite, and preside over a world ever more polarized between the haves and have-nots. Even if - indeed, especially if - this competition was perfectly fair, Young argued, the results would be monstrous.
Michael Young's book was a kind of science fiction, of course, and it doesn't exactly describe our world as we know it. Our economy is open to innovation from anywhere, and still affords space for people with initiative to prosper. Those who rise through corporate America or start new enterprises come from state colleges and the Ivy League alike.
But the Ivy League mania that overtakes a certain class of parents is not without its justification: The competition is intense because the rewards can be vast, and because the penalties for failure can be even greater. The people who make it through this gantlet tend to be smart enough and cynical enough to know what Mr. Samuels knows about the Ivy League and the nature of equal opportunity in America. This produces within the institutions "a somewhat oxymoronic liberal elitism," as Mr. Lemann called it, "a fierce competitive protectiveness toward their privileged position combined with discomfort over their role as a generator of wondrous economic advancement for their graduates."
So we have our meritocrats: well-meaning but out of touch, full of amour propre, but weirdly self-loathing, anxious to identify themselves with the virtue of conscience, and yet cynical about everything, especially themselves. Mr. Samuels' strange book, which chronicles his strong sense of identification with an Ivy League impostor, intends to use his own personal story to illuminate the mind-set of this curious tribe, and manages to do so with even greater fidelity than he perhaps intended.

Mr. Yang is a writer living in Jersey City, N.J.

September 7, 2008
Nasty Boys
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The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men

By Michael Kimmel

332 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.95

The great question haunting our lifestyle journalists — are our daughters having healthy, empowering sex? — has an implicit counterpart: If not, are the emotionally misshapen men of their generation to blame? Michael Kimmel, a sociologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the author previously of the cultural history of “Manhood in America” and one of the leading lights of the emerging academic subfield known as men’s studies, has finally asked, and even tried to answer, that question, at book length.

Back in 1960, 77 percent of women and 65 percent of men under 30 had attained the five milestones that mark a transition to adulthood: “leaving home, completing one’s education, starting work, getting married and becoming a parent.” In 2000, those figures had declined to 46 percent of women and 31 percent of men. One-fifth of all 25-year-olds live with their parents. “The passage between adolescence and adulthood,” Kimmel concludes, “has ­morphed from a transitional moment to a separate life stage.”

Young middle-class white men feel the relative decline in their status particularly acutely, Kimmel argues. Their privileges are under siege. Women compete with them in the work force. Formerly deferential minorities demand respect. The values of consumption have eclipsed those of masculine production. And all of this new competition occurs in a context of general downward mobility. The response of these young white guys to such confusing conditions, Kimmel asserts, is to withdraw into a place he calls “Guyland.”

They move into communal housing with their college buddies. They work dead-end jobs. “The young have been raised in a culture that promises instant gratification,” he tells us. “The idea of working hard for future rewards just doesn’t resonate with them.” They play video games like Grand Theft Auto, in which the player’s avatar can have sex with a prostitute and recover his money by murdering her. They watch pornography in groups, “jiving with each other about what they’d like to do to the girl on the screen.” They “ ‘hook up’ occasionally with a ‘friend with benefits,’ go out with their buddies, drink too much and save too little.” They listen to violent rap music and to talk radio hosts who encourage their sense of “aggrieved entitlement” toward a world that has snatched away the masculine dominance they imagined would someday be theirs.

On the one hand, Kimmel tells us he is writing about the kind of children who “were rewarded for every normal developmental milestone as if they were Mozart.” On the other hand, these boys are all taught the “Guy Code” — a set of crude injunctions (“boys don’t cry,” “don’t get mad, get even,” “bros before hos,” “size matters”and so forth) whose “unifying emotional subtext . . . involves never showing emotions or admitting to weakness.” Meritocratic parents who strive to turn their ordinary progeny into gifted children do not teach the pitiless masculine creed of frontier America, but Kimmel uses both of these journalistic clichés to describe the same people when it serves his purpose.

Masculinity, Kimmel tells us, is not biological or “hard-wired” but rather “coerced and policed relentlessly by other guys.” “Homophobia — the fear that people might misperceive you as gay — is the animating fear of American guys’ masculinity.” High school is “a terrifying torment of bullying, gay-bashing and violence.” Later, he acknowledges that gay-straight alliances now exist at many high schools. This fact alone would suggest, as every other indication from the mainstream media does, that homophobia is a problem almost unimaginably reduced in virulence in the last decade.

In college, Kimmel tells us, guys are initiated into fraternities through “increasingly barbaric” hazing, in which “the cement of the brotherhood is blood, sweat and tears — and, apparently, vomit and semen.” (He describes here the fraternity hazing practice known as the “Ookie Cookie.”)Later, he acknowledges that we do not know if hazing is in fact a bigger problem than it used to be. “Even if it was worse back then, which it probably wasn’t, so what?” he asks. “The point is, of course, that standards change.”

No. The point is, Kimmel has tried to link fraternity initiations that may or may not be “increasingly barbaric” to the emergence of a supposedly new social formation, “Guyland,” that supposedly explains why men can’t grow up. If his description of that world is not accurate — if the violence, bullying, hazing and homophobia that he claims have gotten worse have in fact gotten better, or stayed the same — then we have to look elsewhere for explanations. We’ve had fraternities for a long time, and hazing deaths or gang rapes have occasionally occurred in them. But their graduates used to reach the five milestones of transition into adult life earlier than they do today. So what does the Ookie Cookie really tell us?

Kimmel has named a real sociological condition and described some of its broad outlines vividly. But he recapitulates too much lurid old news, like the Glen Ridge rape case and the Spur Posse, on the premise that such events “are only the furthest extremes of a continuum of attitudes and behaviors” that touch nearly all young men. This is true in a sense too trivial to be illuminating: it’s absurd to use the same cultural dynamics to explain both gang rape and sports talk radio. Kimmel asserts that the pressure to behave like a loutish Guylander is stronger now than ever before — a statement that the youth-extending urban hordes will recognize as absurd on its face.

For all this, “Guyland” bristles with excellent raw material. Kimmel has an ear for the telling quotation. Some are worth the price of admission all on their own:

“When I tell moms about the gender asymmetry of the oral sex ‘epidemic,’ for example, or what the hooking-up culture actually is like,” Kimmel writes, “they seem shocked at how predatory it is, how the sex seems so disconnected from anything resembling even liking the other person. The fathers, though, get jealous.” One man — the 48-year-old father of a 19-year-old boy — asks him to clarify: These guys are getting it on with, “like, different girls all the time and . . . the girls are willing to do that?” And “she doesn’t even expect him to call her — let alone, like, be her steady boyfriend? Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be 20 years younger.”

Kimmel closes his book with a heartfelt plea for parents to remain active in the lives of their “guys” and help them become mature, empathetic, ethical men. With fathers like that — good luck.

Wesley Yang writes about contemporary culture for and n+1.

Beginning of the End
Decadence and anti-Semitism in Arthur Schnitzler's Vienna
By Wesley Yang

Arthur Schnitzler
Arthur Schnitzler, 1878
One hundred years ago, Arthur Schnitzler published his most ambitious novel, The Road into the Open. He declared it his most personal work; it would be his least understood. It was like his other work in that it portrayed an affair between an aristocrat and a woman of the lower middle class—a subject he claimed as his own in the cynical, melancholy comedies that had made him one of the most popular playwrights of the Austrian fin de siècle. It was unlike his other work in that it depicted Viennese Jews struggling to breathe in an atmosphere poisoned by anti-Semitism.

The readers of Schnitzler’s day were not ready for this. They found The Road into the Open perplexing, and mostly ignored it, passing on that neglect to posterity. Many decades would pass before scholars of another era would restore the book to its central place in Schnitzler’s oeuvre. A new translation by Roger Byers was issued in 1992 by the University of California Press. It tried to improve upon the only previous English translation, from 1923, by recreating in English the music of the German original. It introduced a new generation of readers to a unique work deserving of a still wider readership—the “only enduring novel written in any language before 1945 which highlights urban Jewish intellectuals of the pre-1914 period,” the cultural historian William Johnston wrote in his introduction to the 1991 Northwestern University Press edition, and the only prose fiction in which Schnitzler portrayed an entire social world.

By 1908, in Parliament and on the streets, the terminal descent into class warfare and race hatred that would tear the Austro-Hungarian Empire apart had already begun. The city was governed by an avowed anti-Semite; its gutter press was filled with attacks on the Jews; German and Slavic nationalists exchanged bloodthirsty invective in Parliament. A 19-year-old Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna that year and found there, fully formed, the rhetorical arsenal that he would brandish in a later time and a different place.

Then again, the Christian Socialist mayor Karl Lueger—charming, elegant, much beloved in the city—pursued no discriminatory policies against Jews, dined with them openly, collaborated with them in the governance of the city, and harmed no one on the basis of their race or nationality. And Vienna was home to the largest Jewish middle class in the world. Nowhere else had Jews progressed so rapidly, prospered so well, or assimilated so quickly. Schnitzler was a characteristic product of this milieu. Born into the Jewish quarter of the city, the Leopoldstadt, in 1862 (“when it was still a quite elegant neighborhood,” he observed in his memoirs) to a prominent laryngologist who counted many of the city’s theatrical stars among his clients, he was raised in privilege, followed his father into medicine, and trained in the same psychiatric clinic as Sigmund Freud. He allied himself with the aesthetic revolutionaries who named themselves Young Vienna, chased women (he was one of the great erotomaniacs of his age, meticulously recording each of his orgasms in a diary), and strode into a successful literary career.

And yet this unbroken record of pleasure and success was shadowed by fear. Prosperous and fully enfranchised, the Jews of Vienna bore a crushing psychic burden that distorted their relations to themselves and others. “Speaking broadly,” the Gentile anti-hero of The Road into the Open, Baron Georg Wergethin, observes early on of the Jewish friends that surrounded him, “he found their tone to each other now too familiar, now too formal, now too facetious, now too unsentimental; not one of them seemed really free and unembarrassed with the others, scarcely indeed with himself.” In the novel, Schnitzler the former doctor lays out a clinical anatomy of the psychic scars imposed on the Jews by their liminal position as privileged outsiders in Austrian society. His characters can neither fully embrace nor wholly reject their equivocal role in an unjust and disintegrating society. They twist themselves into a fantastic array of personal and political contortions in an effort to break out of the impasse, and into the open.

Schnitzler's Gentile baron is a privileged outsider in a world of privileged outsiders. Georg attends to the sorrows and involutions, the gossip and political disputes, of the Jewish writers and artists that frequent the salon of Salomon Ehrenburg, a munitions manufacturer. There are no observant Jews in this social milieu; the Galician immigrants who had crowded into the Leopoldstadt in the decades after emancipation (transforming the elegant neighborhood of Schnitzler’s youth) do not appear here. In a series of set pieces in the Ehrenburg salon and in Italian resorts, Schnitzler deploys a contrapuntal method to survey the full range of responses to anti-Semitism as his Jewish characters are

tossed to and fro as they were between defiance and exhaustion, between the fear of appearing importunate and their bitter resentment at the demand they must yield to an insolent majority, between the inner consciousness of being at home in the country where they lived and worked, and their indignation at finding themselves insulted in that very place.

Salomon Ehrenburg’s son Oskar represents capitulation: he aspires to be absorbed into the Catholic aristocracy; only the threat of disinheritance prevents him from converting. The beautiful Therese Golowski has become a leader of the Social Democratic movement, though her passion for social justice conflicts with her taste for beauty and luxury. (“She will either end up on the scaffold, or as a Princess,” another character predicts.) When we first learn of her, she has been imprisoned for defaming a member of the royal family at a coal miner’s strike; later, she appears at an Italian resort on the arm of a famous aristocratic horseman. Her younger brother Leo is serving as a military officer in the east. Though possessed of all the courtly virtues, he has become a fervent Zionist, and embraces the cause of the Galician masses yearning for a return to their spiritual homeland. He embodies the spirit of Jewish self-assertion. He will go on to challenge an anti-Semitic persecutor to a duel, and shoot him dead.

Georg draws closest to the novel’s most complex and most tortured Jewish character, the playwright Heinrich Bermann. His satirical plays, like Schnitzler’s, have been attacked by the conservative and clerical press. He admits to Georg to being adversely affected by the attacks, and, speaking on behalf of the Jews, tells him: “It doesn't take much to awaken the self-contempt which is constantly lurking in us; and once that happens there is hardly a fool or scoundrel with whom we are not ready to take sides against ourselves.” Bermann manages his tortured Jewish self-consciousness through brutal candor. He is free with criticism of himself and others, and he does not exempt his co-religionists. Characteristically, his statement of Jewish pride takes the form of an avowal of hatred:

There are Jews who I really hate, hate as Jews. They are those who behave in front of others, and sometimes among themselves, as if they weren’t Jews at all. Who try to appease their enemies and despisers in a cheap, cringing manner and think they can ransom themselves like this from the eternal curse, which weighs on them, or from that which they only feel as a curse.

Bermann has watched anti-Semitism destroy his father, once a successful lawyer, who was driven out of the German Liberal Party and financially ruined when his clients desert him. Bermann is keenly aware that even the best-intentioned Gentiles, such as Georg, are not immune to it. But he rejects the Zionist enthusiasms of Leo Golowski with equal fervor. In a lengthy colloquy with Leo, Bermann avers that to depart Austria for a desert under the rule of the Ottoman sultan would be a capitulation to the worst of the Jews’ enemies. He insists on his right to live in Austria. “He would accept Zionism as a moral principle and as a welfare scheme if it would honestly make itself known as such; but the idea of the establishment of a Jewish state on religious and national grounds appeared to him an insane revolt against the spirit of all historical development.”

Running parallel to Georg’s social life among the Jews is a sad and chastened account of his affair with Anna Rosner, a music teacher from a lower-middle-class German family. The young Schnitzler had inveighed against the hypocrisy of the old Victorian sexual morality, though not without acknowledging the dangers of unleashing the instincts. In The Road into the Open, Schnitzler pits fathers and sons, Gentile and Jew, in a series of exemplary generational conflicts that seldom redound to the credit of the sons.

Georg impregnates Anna, and takes her on a journey to hide the fact. He does not know whether he will marry her. Much of the novel is consumed by lengthy accounts of vacillation and drift. He is haunted by the memory of past affairs. “If the world were coming to an end tomorrow,” he muses, not long after learning of the pregnancy, “It would be Cissy I’d choose to spend the night with me,” speaking of a minor personage on his social scene.

This hesitation is shocking to the elderly Doctor Stauber, a friend of Georg’s deceased father, who tries to shame him into marrying Anna: “Just think for a moment how your blessed Herr father, who didn’t even know Annerl, would have felt about the matter. He was surely one of the brightest men, and the most free of prejudice, that one can think of. And despite that, don’t think for a moment that it would be completely without shock even to him.” Stauber’s tone is at once condemnatory, beseeching, and self-effacing. He knows that sexual mores have changed, that his shock is a product of another world in which “certain concepts stood authoritatively firm, when everyone knew quite well: one must honor one’s parents, or else one was a lout...or: a true love comes once in one’s life...or: it is an honor to die for the Fatherland...” He knows that it is impossible to invoke such concepts without self-irony, that they have lost their morally coercive power over a younger generation that has freed itself from the influence of the fathers.

A possibility of this new freedom was that the surfeit of possibility itself could paralyze the will, and evacuate the heart. This incapacity recurs elsewhere in the novel. Time and again, the young fail to rise to the standards of decency set by their parents. Stauber rallies to Anna’s side in her time of need. Anna’s parents bear the burdens of their misfortune humbly. Her lazy, resentful brother Josef embarks on a career with an anti-Semitic newspaper owned by the demagogic Alderman Jalaudek. Bermann confesses that receiving the news of his father’s death troubled him less than his concern over new developments in his latest affair with an actress.

Schnitzler’s dialectical method has a way of destroying all contrasting arguments; neither assimilation nor resistance, flight nor defiance, the worker’s utopia nor the embrace of German culture will deliver these characters into the open. The malign stasis of Viennese political life never resolves. The characters continue to drift, avowing causes and living lives for which they are each, in different ways, temperamentally unfit. Georg’s domestic drama finally concludes in sterility and death. His child is stillborn in a rented house on the outskirts of Vienna. He will not marry Anna. He gazes on his dead child and is overtaken by sorrow, as he gazes at a future that will not be born:

There lay this sweet, tiny body, which was ready for existence, and which now could not move. There shone large, blue eyes, as if longing to drink in the light of the sky, blind as death before they had ever seen a single ray. There opened, as if thirsty, a tiny, round mouth, which would never be permitted to drink from the breast of a mother. There stared this pale child’s face, with fully formed human features, that would never receive and experience the kiss of mother or father. How he loved this child! How he loved it, now that it was too late.[end of story]

Wesley Yang has written about books and culture for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and n+1.

Copyright 2003-2008, Nextbook, Inc.

Was This Man a Genius?
The twisted mind of Otto Weininger
By Wesley Yang

Otto Weininger
Posthumous photo of Otto Weininger
In Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character—published four months before his suicide, at twenty-three, in 1903—a brilliant mind comes unmoored. Based on a grotesque premise, the book reasoned shoddily to monstrous conclusions. It distinguished itself as notably anti-Semitic in fin-de-siècle Vienna, a setting in which the distinction wasn’t easy to earn; and it is perhaps the most misogynistic book written in any language in the history of the world. It embraced the Wagnerian opposition of the heroic Aryan to the materialistic Jew; enthusiastically cited Houston Stewart Chamberlain1, the theorist of racial degeneration read so avidly by Hitler; and ended by endorsing the voluntary self-extinction of the human race.

A book like this survives, to the extent that it does (a new English translation—the first since 1906—by Ladislaus Lob was issued by Indiana University Press in 2005, with a preface declaring it “The Book That Won’t Go Away”), principally as a reminder of the perverted thinking that was midwife to an age of atrocity. Fin-de-siècle Vienna, the place where, as the historian Norman Stone puts it, “most of the twentieth-century intellectual world was invented,” gave us psychoanalysis, analytic philosophy, atonal music, and architectural modernism, among other attainments, but it also bequeathed a darker legacy. While it was nurturing Ludwig Wittgenstein2, scion of a family of wealthy and accomplished secular Jews, in one part of the city, a vastly less fortunate and gifted young man, squirreled away in a men’s rooming house—Adolf Hitler—was failing in his bid to earn admission to the academy of art, and schooling himself in the doctrines of race war and Aryan superiority flourishing in the intellectual undergrowth of that city (and, alas, not only there, and not only in that city).

But Weininger’s strange book, the only one he published in his short life, survives not just as a primary source in the history of political and psychosexual pathology, but also in the history of thought and art. It straddled the young Hitler’s Vienna and the Vienna of Wittgenstein, Freud, Oskar Kokoschka3, Adolf Loos4, Gustav Mahler, and Clemens Krauss5 in an utterly eccentric way that casts an oblique light on both of the city’s legacies.

For one thing, Wittgenstein himself credited Weininger as one of the ten thinkers who decisively influenced him—exactly how remains a matter of scholarly speculation and dispute. (In a letter to G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein remarked that “he was fantastic, but he was great and fantastic,” going on to assert that “roughly speaking, if you just add a ‘~’ to the whole book it says an important truth.”) Wittgenstein was far from alone in his admiration. Many of the canonical figures of the heroic period of early Modernism—Karl Kraus6, August Strindberg7, Hermann Broch8, James Joyce, and Franz Kafka—read and discussed him and, in ways both apparent and obscure (few of them uncritically embraced his assertions about women or Jews), were influenced by him. There was something remarkable about the book that some of the best minds of his generation were content to call genius. His writing, Elias Canetti9 recorded in his diary of Vienna in the 1920s, “cropped up in every discussion.” Ford Madox Ford described the “immense international vogue” the book experienced after Weininger’s death thusly: “One began to hear singular mutterings amongst men. Even in the United States where men never talk about women, certain whispers might be heard. The idea was that a new gospel had appeared.”

The new gospel purported to resolve for the first time—and for all time—the “Woman Question,” by means of an investigation into the deep structure of femininity and masculinity—it was an inquiry into not women but Woman. It is a sprawling, unstable admixture of scientific and pseudoscientific theorizing, cultural polemic, and philosophical argument that imposes a paranoid coherence on its breathtakingly disparate elements. Even while heaping rhetorical abuse upon women and Jews, Weininger argues explicitly against any infringement of their rights. To understand the weird fascination the book exerted on its readers, one must appreciate it for all that it was: an impassioned defense of the autonomous self against the forces that would turn it into a thing to be manipulated, an impossibly idealistic assertion of neo-Kantian ethics, a glimpse into one tortured young man’s psychosexual panic, and a sounding board for an inflamed epoch’s sexual and racial obsessions. Though Weininger’s view of women is practically incomprehensible to those of us raised in the postfeminist present, it merely advanced with fanatical rigidity a view that permeated his age, expressed in the violent misogyny appearing in the paintings of Alfred Kubin, Egon Schiele, and Oscar Kokoschka, among others, which is vividly summoned up by the title of Kokoschka’s avant-garde play Murder, Hope of Woman.

Sex and Character begins with an argument about method, assailing the experimental psychology of the day—which had famously declared, in the words of its leading exponent, Ernst Mach10, that the “self was beyond salvage.” The autonomous and unified subject of liberal political philosophy had come under assault; following the philosophical skepticism of David Hume, the experimental psychologists saw the mind as a mere bundle of sensations. They eschewed introspection as a valid form of investigation, and restricted research to what could be measured in a laboratory. Psychology, then, as Weininger puts it, “completely fails to reach those problems normally described as eminently psychological, the analysis of murder, of friendship, of loneliness, etc.” In place of this impoverished account of the self, Weininger argued, we needed a new “characterology,” which would inquire into the stable and unique source of individuality, into that “something that reveals itself in every thought and every feeling.”

Weininger rooted his concept of the self in Kant’s transcendental, suprasensible “intelligible” subject, whose existence could never be demonstrated empirically, but only deduced. This self makes our perception of empirical reality possible. For how could we conceive of time if we were merely caught up in the flux of sensation from isolated moment to isolated moment? Some part of us must partake of eternity in order for us to know eternity, and it was, Weininger said, this suprasensory self that was responsible for all of the highest expressions of the human spirit. “The desire for value expresses itself in the general striving to emancipate things from time,” he wrote. The genius is the person who remembers everything because he is capable of endowing every moment of his life with meaning.

It is this intelligible self in each of us that gives humanity its special moral significance. Kant’s “categorical imperative” enjoins us to treat all others as ends in themselves rather than means to other ends. The categorical imperative defined for Weininger the curious vision of utopia articulated in his book: a world in which people engage in mutually respectful relationships that inspire individual genius and spiritual perfection. It also defined the negative utopia that Weininger saw emerging all around him:

Although in a later chapter Weininger concedes that women are not “animals or plants,” but in fact “human beings,” they qualify for this distinction only in the most rudimentary, basely biological way.

a modern world in which people were becoming mere cogs in a gigantic machine, using each other for their own basely material ends, and negating the very existence of a higher world. Our materialistic, mechanistic science was but one of the many faces this creeping degeneration wore. Our glorification of sex was another.

Throughout Weininger’s account of the intelligible self and of genius, he continues to denigrate women in a way that feels compulsive and almost beside the point, noting that if men are capable of conscious thought, women are capable only of calculating immediate material advantage, and that if men are capable of spiritual aspiration, women are capable of mimicking—expertly—whatever men present to them as the proper values to emulate. Thus far, we remain within the context of the misogyny of the age—the misogyny of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and a thousand after-dinner boors.

It is when Weininger turns fully to the subject of Woman that the book begins its long slide into extremism. He proclaims Woman to be nullity itself: incapable of reason, creativity, or spiritual aspiration; sexually insatiable (“under the spell of the phallus”); psychologically incoherent, desiring nothing more than her own subordination to man—“a hollow vessel covered for a while in makeup and whitewash.” Although in a later chapter Weininger concedes that women are not “animals or plants,” but in fact “human beings,” they qualify for this distinction only in the most rudimentary, basely biological way. In a passage devoted to acknowledging the “meanness and inanity” that may appear in individual men, he nonetheless concludes that “the most superior woman is still infinitely inferior to the most inferior men.”

Weininger’s misogyny is eccentric. His extremism leads him, at times, to sound rather like a radical feminist. He will have nothing to do with the sentimental veneration that imprisons women while pretending they are more virtuous than men. He wants to debunk what he sees as the great lie written into the traditional narratives structuring relationships between men and women. Love itself is a form of imprisonment. And “all eroticism, even the most sublime, remains a threefold immorality: selfish intolerance for the real empirical women, who is merely used as a means to an end . . . and who is therefore denied an independent life of her own.”

Weininger closes his long inquiry into the “Nature of Woman and Her Purpose in the Universe” by laying the responsibility for the moral condition of women on men: “Man must redeem himself from sexuality in order to redeem Woman.” Weininger acknowledges that this will mean the extinction of the human race. It is a small price to pay for the emancipation of woman, and the perfection of humanity.

Tacked onto this exhaustive inquiry, the weird fascination of which is impossible to convey in any quotation or series of quotations, Weininger wrote a single chapter that would help to define the category in which he is, along with “crazed misogynist,” best remembered—that of the self-hating Jew. For Weininger was the son of a solidly middle-class Jewish goldsmith much admired for his knowledge of his craft. Secular in orientation, anti-Semitic in his opinions, Leopold Weininger nonetheless, according to his daughter, Rosa, “thought as a Jew and was angry when Otto wrote against Judaism.” Like other sons of the newly emergent Jewish middle class, Weininger went to a private high school, where he learned multiple languages and attended to self-cultivation with an intensity that is scarcely conceivable today. There, he came upon a dawning conviction that has afflicted hormonal adolescent men throughout history: that he was a genius. This subject would absorb much of his attention in Sex and Character, in which he defines “genius” as a capacity for universal empathy with other men and with the universe as a whole. The genius becomes the “microcosm” able to absorb and reflect everything he encounters.

Weininger was a tortured soul who “lived in complete isolation” with his books, according to his father, and held himself aloof from the pursuit of sex and drinking that characterized the social lives of his classmates at the University of Vienna. His letters refer to his inability to experience pleasure or love, and an overpowering sense of his own moral corruption. There is no evidence that he ever had sex with a woman, and no conclusive proof that he was either sexually abused as a child, as David Abrahamsen speculated in his 1946 book The Mind and Death of a Genius, or homosexual, as others have speculated. Chandak Sengoopta’s excellent 2000 monograph Otto Weininger: Sex, Science, and Self in Imperial Vienna includes a letter from Weininger to his closest friend in which he reports success in administering male hormones for the purpose of converting a homosexual “patient” who was, in fact, “already preparing for his first coitus!” Sengoopta asserted that it was “strongly likely” that the “patient” was Weininger himself.

In 1902, Weininger wrote a dissertation on sexual characteristics that his professors admired, but not without misgivings. Weininger’s assertions on women “could not be described as anything other than fantastical,” one of his advisors wrote. (The same professor would later call the latter half of Sex and Character “shocking and repulsive.”)

Weininger openly acknowledged that he was himself “of Jewish ancestry,” and then went on to argue that Jews, like women, are “soulless people” who lack intelligible selves.

The dissertation would eventually become Sex and Character, but not before failing to earn the endorsement of Sigmund Freud, who nonetheless described Weininger as a striking personality “with a touch of genius.”

Soon after completing his dissertation, Weininger converted to Protestantism—doing himself no worldly favors in that Roman Catholic capital, but instead announcing his commitment to the austere creed of Northern Germany, and the religion of his hero, Immanuel Kant. But in a footnote to his infamous chapter on Judaism, Weininger openly acknowledged that he was himself “of Jewish ancestry,” and then went on to argue that Jews, like women, are “soulless people” who lack intelligible selves. But he does this in a characteristically eccentric way that has nothing to do with the eliminationist anti-Semitism of the Nazis, and everything to do with his own anguished wrestling with his own identity.

“From now on,” Weininger wrote, “when I speak of the Jew I mean neither a specific individual nor a collective, but every human being as such, insofar as he participates in the Platonic idea of Judaism.” The Jew is “relatively amoral, never very good and never very bad,” and the “opposite pole of the aristocrat,” for whom “the strictest observation of the boundaries between human beings” is the guiding principle of conduct. Yet the Jew is also “the born communist and always wants community.” At the same time, the Jew is the spirit of irony and debunking, wishing to denude the world of mystery, and strip away the spirit from the material world. Never truly revolutionary, but always subversive, “he is an absolute ironist, like—and here I can only name a Jew—like Heinrich Heine11.” Capable of adapting himself to all situations, he never really possesses an inner being.

Weininger goes on:

It is like a condition before being, an eternal wandering back and forth before the gate of reality. There is nothing with which the Jew can truly identify, no cause for which he can risk his life unreservedly. What the Jew lacks is not the zealot but the zeal, because anything undivided, anything whole, is alien to him. It is the simplicity of belief that he lacks and it is because he lacks this simplicity and stands for nothing positive that he seems to be more intelligent than the Aryan and is supple enough to wriggle out of any oppression. Inner ambiguity, I repeat, is absolutely Jewish, simplicity is absolutely un-Jewish.

Jewishness is thus, for Weininger, as it was for many others, a spiritual condition more or less identical with modernity itself. (And certainly not, as it was for the most virulent anti-Semites, either a malevolent or a uniquely powerful force ruling the world from the shadows.) It is also roughly analogous to the diagnosis of the Jewish condition advanced by the pioneering Zionists, who dreamed of a Jew restored to psychic health and vigorous manhood by a renewed relationship to the land. Weininger rejects Zionism as the solution to the Jewish question, but curiously he retains it as an unreachable ideal. “The Jews would have to overcome Judaism before they could be ripe for Zionism.” This cannot be done collectively, Weininger argues: “Every single Jew must seek to answer it for his own person.” But by posing the greatest obstacle, Judaism also occasions the highest possibilities. Thus, “Christ was the greatest human being because he overcame the greatest adversity,” as “the only Jew who has ever succeeded in defeating Judaism.”

This struggle against the Jew in each of us was, for Weininger, clearly a battle the culture at large was losing:

Our age is not only the most Jewish, but also the most effeminate of all ages . . . an age of the most credulous anarchism, an age without any appreciation of the state and law . . . an age of the shallowest of all imaginable interpretations of history (historical materialism), an age of capitalism and Marxism, an age for which history, life, science, everything, has become nothing but economics and technology; an age that has declared genius to be a form of madness, but which no longer has one great artist or one great philosopher; an age that is most devoid of originality, but which chase most frantically after originality; an age that has replaced the idea of virginity with the cult of the demivierge. This age also has the distinction of being the first to have not only affirmed and worshipped sexual intercourse, but to have practically made it a duty, not as a way of achieving oblivion, as the Romans and Greeks did in their bacchanals, but in order to find itself and to give its own dreariness a meaning.

One recognizes in this peevish rant the intransigence of youth. In differing forms Weininger’s concerns were the concerns of anti-modernists of every persuasion, including some of our most admired writers. But they come together in Weininger with a rigidity and literalism, an absence of humor or detachment that marks his work as that of a callow, sheltered, and disturbed personality. Weininger might conceivably have worked through his issues over time, had he taken Freud’s advice and spent another ten years gathering data for his wild assertions, perhaps abandoning them in the process. Weininger’s propositions tell us nothing useful or true; instead they enact for us a drama that is of continuing significance to a world in which bright young men—traumatized by sex, infatuated with piety, and obsessed with Jews—continue to try to live in opposition to the age by dreaming of apocalypse.

The fin-de-siècle anti-modernists feared a world from which all nobility and heroism would be banished, and in which the individual would be swallowed up by a technological mass society. Their fears were not without basis. The more reckless among them, who substituted crude symbols, like the Woman or the Jew, for concrete analysis of large social processes, made more than an intellectual error. They helped to make the earth, for a time, into hell. Weininger became the microcosm of his age, but not in the way he intended.

Wesley Yang has written about books and culture for The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer, and n+1.

Copyright 2003-2008, Nextbook, Inc.

Blight unto the nations

* Last Updated: December 05. 2008 5:19PM UAE / December 5. 2008 1:19PM GMT

Mayer reports on the psychologists who provided cars to the inmates at Guantanamo Bay – and then helped to break them. Courtesy Corbis

Wesley Yang reads Jane Mayer's acclaimed study of the American turn to torture.

The Dark Side
Jane Mayer

When the United States government decided to “take the gloves off” in the interrogation of detainees captured in the War on Terror, it looked to various sources for guidance. Jane Mayer names them all in The Dark Side, with a particular emphasis on the scientists who turned their knowledge of the human personality to dark purposes. She reports on the psychologists who, in direct violation of their most basic ethical commitments, provided care to the inmates at Guantanamo Bay – and then advised interrogators on how best to break them. The core of her book – the vital piece of the story that Mayer herself broke in the pages of the New Yorker – is her disclosure of the role played by military trainers who formerly taught American soldiers how to withstand torture. These experts “reverse engineered” their techniques to help the CIA design a protocol for questioning the 14 “high value detainees” (including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, and Abu Zubaydah, the alleged “operational head” of al Qa’eda, who turned out to be mentally unbalanced) they were holding in secret “Black Sites” around the world.

The detainees were subjected to extremes of hot and cold, bombarded with sounds and lights, stripped naked and doused with cold water, deprived of sleep, forced into painful “stress positions”, shackled by the wrists from the ceilings in a position that required standing on tiptoes for eight hours at a time, sexually humiliated in various ways, threatened with dogs, slammed against walls, forced to wear dog collars and deprived of any sensory stimulus at all for months on end. The idea was to induce the “learned helplessness” that psychologists had shown it was possible to create in dogs. They were also waterboarded – hung upside down while water was poured over their mouths and noses to create the sensation of drowning. As we now know, they began to speak at length. They revealed some details already familiar to the intelligence agencies, helped to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of how the September 11 attacks were executed – and spewed a great deal of alarming nonsense (false confessions and concocted plots) that sent American investigators on a wild chase after illusory leads.

One problem with these techniques was that they were contrary to American and international law; another problem was that they could brutalise the sensibilities of the men enacting them (look back at the Abu Ghraib photographs for a reminder); yet another problem was that many of them had been developed by the Soviets for the purpose of extracting false confessions from political prisoners, a goal that is, on the face of it, antithetical to the discovery of “actionable intelligence”. Or, as one military officer warned, the techniques were “immoral, unethical and they won’t get good results.” Mayer traces the way these methods spread from the tightly controlled settings of secret CIA detention centres outward to the military prisons run by the Department of Defense in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, growing unmoored from their ostensible purpose (as brutality will often do) and culminating in the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the murders of at least four detainees.

The practices used against the high-value detainees were expressly authorised by the CIA’s Deputy Director of Operations, James Pavitt, and openly discussed by Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, George Tenet, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. They were permitted by a secret legal opinion issued by the Attorney General’s Office of Legal Counsel, the executive branch entity responsible for advising the President what the law permits him to do. An OLC memo written in August 2002 defined torture as a crime that was nearly impossible for anyone to commit (an infamous passage argued that abuse was not torture unless it was “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death”) and asserted that the President had the inherent prerogative to do anything he deemed necessary to defend the country, regardless of what the law said about it. This remarkable legal doctrine, which empowered the president to govern as a lawless dictator in a war without temporal or geographic limits, was the chiefly the product of two men: Dick Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington, and a midlevel OLC official named John C Yoo.

The doctrine was the legal expression of Cheney’s long-standing political goal of expanding – he would have called it restoring – the discretion of the President to act decisively, unencumbered by judicial oversight or Congressional interference. Yoo and Addington, who were, for a time, “running the War on Terror almost on their own,” as one official told Mayer, pursued this agenda with a singular ruthlessness neatly summarised in Addington’s promise to “keep pushing and pushing and pushing until some larger force makes us stop.”

Addington and Yoo’s legal creativity, which resembled “the advice of a mob lawyer to a Mafia don on how to skirt the law and stay out of prison,” as Anthony Lewis put it, enabled the government to engage in the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, the indefinite detention without charge of suspects captured in Afghanistan, and the “extraordinary rendition” of suspects in the War on Terror, who could be snatched up by American forces anywhere in the world and sent to the prisons of Egypt, Syria, Thailand, or other temporary partners in the War on Terror for “aggressive” questioning. This so-called New Paradigm began to emerge when the government declared that detainees captured in Afghanistan were not eligible for protection under the Geneva Conventions, which the United States had both initiated and signed. It eventually met its demise in a series of Supreme Court decisions that reversed the President’s claims of unlimited authority.

The story has already been told by the mainstream American press, that embattled institution, which prised it from the grip of the most secretive administration in American history. But Mayer has added to this record a remarkably poised narrative reconstruction of these disclosures that will permit those who are so inclined to relive the most wretched episodes of the Bush era. In the end, Mayer demonstrates, all the most important information – such as the whereabouts of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad – was almost always generated by non-coercive means.

The book relies heavily on the testimony of those Mayer calls “patriotic critics inside the administration and out who threw themselves into trying to head off what they saw as a terrible departure from America’s ideals, often at an enormous price to their own careers.” These include experienced FBI investigators who had successfully prosecuted terrorists through patient, non-coercive means, establishing some of the best information we have on al Qa’eda; official military defence lawyers who issued sternly dissenting opinions to Pentagon policies that condoned torture; and the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel, Jack Goldsmith, a hardline conservative and friend of Yoo who found himself repealing OLC decisions on warrantless wiretapping and rescinding the “golden shield” protecting CIA interrogators from prosecution established in the Yoo torture memo.

Perhaps the most courageous of these critics was the former Navy General Counsel Alberto J Mora, who led an effort within the Pentagon to end coercive interrogation at Guantanamo. Mora believed that torture was contrary to American values and the practices of the United States military. He is right about this. America’s founders were steeped in Enlightenment values that abhorred torture: George Washington outlawed the torture of British soldiers, and the American military has never openly condoned the practice, even when it faced enemies, such as the North Vietnamese, who employed it. “The debate here isn’t how to protect the country,” Mora declares. “It’s how to protect our values.”

The polemical energy of Mayer’s book comes from her outrage at the violation of these values. In her introduction, she characterises the Bush Administration’s conduct in the War on Terror as “a quantum leap beyond earlier blots on the country’s history and history,” and “a dramatic break with the past.” She invokes the judgment of the eminent liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, that “no position taken has done more damage to the American reputation in the world – ever.”

But Mayer overplays her hand, going on to write that “in fighting to liberate the world from Communism, Fascism and Nazism, and working to ameliorate global ignorance and poverty, America had done more than any nation on earth to abolish torture and other violations of human rights.” Here Mayer confuses the fact that America has always supported human rights in principle with the idea that it has always championed them in practice.

The tactics of the New Paradigm, after all, did not have to be invented from whole cloth. After September 11, Cheney turned to the CIA’s archives in search of examples that had worked in the past. “He was particularly impressed,” Mayer writes, “with the Vietnam War-era Phoenix Program.

“Critics, including military historians, have described it as a programme of state-sanctioned torture and murder. A Pentagon contract study later found that 97 per cent of the Viet Cong it targeted were of negligible importance. But as September 11, inside the CIA, the Phoenix Program served as a model.”

Mayer doesn’t have another word to say about the Phoenix Program, and her reticence is telling, in a book that is otherwise so exhaustive in the way it details the histories of its major players and the institutional background of the responsible agencies. The Phoenix Program was a CIA-directed operation to interrogate, detain or assassinate a network of Viet Cong insurgents who were themselves torturing and assassinating South Vietnamese officials. A Senate investigation later concluded 20,000 Viet Cong were killed in the process.

Mayer doesn’t specify what Cheney took from the Phoenix Program, but he certainly found confirmation that we had done these things before, and on a massive scale. CIA interrogation manuals issued in 1963 and 1983 and used by American client states in the proxy battles of the Cold War in Latin America and elsewhere also listed ways to force a recalcitrant subject to talk. She quotes a historian of the CIA noting that our latter-day torturers not only used those techniques, “they perfected them” – underscoring the fact that they were already there to be perfected.

Mayer is too scrupulous a reporter not to mention these departures from American values. But she is also too committed to a particular narrative – in which America’s status as the country that “had done more than any nation on earth to abolish torture and other violations of human rights” has been suddenly hijacked by bad men in the Bush administration – to follow that disclosure to its conclusion.

Which is simply this: America has always remained true to its values – except in the rather numerous instances when it has violated them. While the struggle to defeat Fascism and Communism were worthy endeavours for which America deserves historical credit, both wars were fought in ways that would have landed American presidents before a war-crimes tribunal, at least according to the human rights standards that Americans have helped to foster, America’s struggle against fascism included the only military use of nuclear weapons by any nation and the firebombing of German cities for no strategic purpose other than terrorising civilians; America’s war against Communism involved training our client states in the use of assassination and torture – often against very bad men who were torturers and murderers themselves.

These are the genuine paradoxes of power that no nation-state aspiring to global leadership can evade. Americans confronting a world of enemies who wish to do it harm have responded to those threats with varying degrees of restraint or its absence, stupidity or wisdom, and have compiled in the process a long and extremely mixed record of both heroism and abuse – sometimes fatally intertwined – that absolutely rules out the kind of wounded innocence that Mayer repeatedly sounds throughout The Dark Side. That she can sustain this view – and in this she resembles almost every other mainstream writer on the subject – in the face of her knowledge of precedents like Operation Phoenix, and despite the relentless rigour she brings to the pursuit of the darkest truths, testifies to a deeply ingrained predisposition of a certain kind of liberal: those who wish to reconcile a heroic view of the American past with a moralistic approach to foreign affairs.

This matters not just because we should have our historical record straight; it matters because illusions about inherent American virtue are precisely what has led a whole class of well-intentioned Americans to misjudge the limits of American power and its capacity to do good in the world. And that misjudgement is as relevant to the calamity of the last seven years as any of the failures Mayer so meticulously describes.

Wesley Yang writes for Nextbook and n+1, and has reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.

The Lost World
Why Gregor von Rezzori yearned for an era he never knew
By Wesley Yang

Gregor von Rezzori, the only son of a loveless marriage, entered the world at an unpropitious time—1914—and in an inauspicious place—the city formerly known as Czernowitz, capital of the region known as Bukovina, in the final days of the Hapsburg empire. He was a refugee before his first birthday and would never find a way back home. That “lost, bygone world, golden and miraculous,” as Rezzori calls it in his recently reissued 1989 memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear, had been destroyed in the cruelest war the world had ever seen. By the time he was old enough to speak, he was already nostalgic “for something forever lost, something I had already lost the moment I was born.”

Gregor von Rezzori
Gregor von Rezzori
Rezzori would devote his writing life to this curious nostalgia for a world he had never really experienced, and whose protracted death throes it had been his misfortune to experience—in the unhappy role of “flotsam of the European class struggle.” In contrast to his elder sister, born four years earlier, “before the general proletarianization of the postwar era, in a world that still believed itself to be whole,” Rezzori had been, as he put it, “a true son of the era of universal disintegration.” His writings concern the fate of people like himself, belonging to a “a dying and largely superannuated caste,” and forced to live amid the ruins. He made it through the two world wars intact and found a comfortable place for himself in the new world, which he occupied with the great ambivalence of an exile from a place to which there can be no return. He wrote radio scripts and screenplays, acted in films, married an Italian countess, and wrote a series of German-language novels whose reputation has steadily waxed with the passage of the years. He died in 1998, having outlasted the “short 20th century,” as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called it, referring to the great class struggle that divided Europe until 1989. He has found in NYRB Classics, which reissued The Snows of Yesteryear and published his 1979 novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite in 2007, a devoted steward of his legacy.

Part of what lent that lost world its golden aura was the deference it gave to German-speaking servants of the emperor, such as Rezzori's family. Amid the wild palimpsest of peoples deposited by centuries of conquest and migration in Eastern Europe—Romanians, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Armenians, Bulgarians, Germans, Poles, Greeks, Turks, and Jews—the Austrians assumed the role of “cultural compost,” the self-deprecating term that Gregor's father used to name the virtual monopoly on political, cultural, and economic power held by a city-dwelling German minority in the east. The city to which the Rezzoris returned in 1919 was now part of the new state of Romania, in which the Rezzoris found they were “taken over by another class to which we deemed ourselves superior but which, in fact, treated us as second-rate citizens.”

On the one hand, losing their place at the top of the racialized caste system that had permitted the many nations of Eastern Europe to live together in peace was, “for the class to which my parents belonged,” he wrote, “a fall into chaos, into impotence and deprivation, hopelessness and squalor.” Then again, humiliation merely aggrandized, as humiliation suffered by the kinds of people who “considered ourselves members of a class of masters,” will often do, the family's threadbare pretensions to greatness:

We felt excluded, but on the other hand, our isolation made us feel out of the ordinary and even that we belonged to a chosen elite. The myth of lost wealth rankled in us but also made us arrogant. All our efforts were directed at not being deemed declassé.

This disappointed upbringing, spent in “cannibalistic solitude” among hostile strangers (a short distance from the Dniester River, the border across which the bloody birth pangs of a new proletarian utopia were taking place), made Rezzori an acute witness to the psychological condition of the Germans between the wars. Something new and dire had been unleashed into the world by the carnage of the Great War. “A species of men arose from that ghostly landscape of bomb craters and trenches whose bestiality was unconstrained,” Rezzori wrote. “A free field was given to the Hitlers and Stalins to come.”

Whereas the Rezzoris fled the loss of their privileges into self-devouring neurotic obsession (the exhaustive exposition of which makes up the bulk of The Snows of Yesteryear), other Germans responded more actively. Aggrieved at the loss of their position, morally adrift in a world in which the old traditions and hierarchies had been destroyed, thirsting for a return to greatness, inured to mechanized violence, fearful of the Bolshevik menace from the East, and even more fearful of morally subversive elements within, certain elements of the German people went on a search for scapegoats. They readily found them in the Jews.

Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is in many ways the fictional counterpart to The Snows of Yesteryear, sharing with it a social, geographical, and cultural setting, and many individual anecdotes. A loose collection of five long thematically linked short stories, the book follows its protagonist, Arnulf, through a series of episodes in which he finds himself engaged with Jews as friends, rivals, employers, business partners, persecutors, and above all, lovers—first a middle-aged Jewish shopkeeper, then the orphaned daughter of a Viennese professor, and lastly, in a short-lived second marriage, a Jewish woman who was nonetheless, as he puts it, “truly the most goyish shikseh he had ever encountered.” Arnulf is emphatically not a Hitlerite monster, or a Nazi street brawler, but, like Rezzori, a well-bred Austrian from a civil service family in the former Bukovina. He exhibits, without apology, the social snobbery of his class, but none of the racial resentment of the Nazis. He is a believer in settled hierarchies, fixed institutions, and people who know their place in the world:

The specifically Jewish quality in Jews had never repelled me so much as the attempt—doomed from the start—to hush it up, to cover it over, to deny it. The yiddling of Jews, their jittery gesticulation, their disharmony, the incessant alternation of obsequiousness and presumptuousness, were inescapable and inalienable attributes of their Jewishness. If they acted as one expected them to act, so that one could recognize them at first, one was rather pleasantly touched. They were true to themselves—that was estimable.

Gregor von Rezzori
The 19-year-old Arnulf's contempt for those who refuse to know their place is transparently a compensation for a man who has lost his own place. He moves to Bucharest after the war and finds himself working as a window dresser for a cosmetics company—“a hod carrier, an out and out menial, for mostly Jewish shopkeepers.” He finds himself woefully unprepared for the job. Stuck amid the ups and downs of the commercial cycle, Arnulf learns empathy for the Jews. “Their hereditary milieu was the world of open possibilities, in which a man could just as easily become a Midas as get stuck in the lowliest form of donkey work,” he says. “I now understood their restlessness, their anxieties, their messianic expectations, the abrupt change from immeasurable arrogance to shamefaced self-debasement.”

Rezzori has a remarkable lyric gift that he uses to describe the wide expanses of Bukovina. In a series of beautiful set pieces, he evokes the vanishing world of Germanic chivalry, already in its last stages of degeneration into the debased kitsch that the Nazis would exploit, the emerging commercial melee of post-war Bucharest with its Armenian and Jewish shopkeepers and its red light district; and shabby-genteel Vienna, where he socializes almost exclusively with Jewish artists and musicians. He is a great hit at their parties, telling Yiddish stories and jokes he has learned on the streets of Bucharest, Czernowitz, and Lvov. Later he accidentally finds himself caught up in the surging crowds celebrating the Anschluss that brought the rump state of German Austria into the Third Reich. He is on his way to meet his girlfriend, whom he plans to marry. “The morbid, rhythmic stamping of their feet hung like a gigantic swinging cord in the silence that had fallen on Vienna,” he writes:

What the hell are we marching for? I asked the man beside me.

“Anschluss,” he barked.

Well, that literally meant “connection,” and that was exactly what I was looking for.

Should a book about the deadliest hatred of the 20th century, particularly one by a German, be so mordantly funny, so cheerfully alive? But this, of course, is how people live history. They are inattentive and self-absorbed; they worry about their next sexual conquest while the conquest of the world is being planned in distant chancelleries. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is a horror story precisely because it so resolutely refuses to feel like one. The story it tells is of a passive, attenuated complicity, which is all the more harrowing for its passivity—for without this passivity which encompassed all but a heroic, and mostly destroyed, few, none of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime would have been possible.

Both The Snows of Yesteryear and Memoirs of an Anti-Semite close with a similar note of ambivalence. Though each in its own way ruthlessly exposes the complicity of imperial German nostalgia with history's greatest crime, both books retain a connection to that lost world, and much distaste for the new one that took its place. In the epilogue to The Snows of Yesteryear Rezzori returns to the city of his youth, now known by its Ukrainian name of Chernovtsy, in 1989. It is a place whose racial ferment was settled once and for all in 1945, with a massive ethnic cleansing (the Jews were the first to go, to unmarked mass graves, or to extermination camps, during the war itself) that left a racially homogenous Ukrainian city behind. He finds the buildings all meticulously preserved, but the spirit of the place—its “restlessly vicious, cynically bold and melancholically skeptical spirit”—expunged. The post-war settlement had imposed decades of continuous peace on the continent. But at what cost? At no cost that can easily be quantified, but one that is nonetheless real, and which it is the job of our artists to recall.

Wesley Yang has written about books and culture for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and n+1.

Photos courtesy of the estate of Gregor von Rezzori.
Second photo © Giovanni Giovannetti.

Copyright 2003-2008, Nextbook, Inc.

Unto the Sons
What the Wittgenstein family gained and lost
By Wesley Yang

In 1938, a few months after the Anschluss absorbed Austria into the Third Reich, Paul Wittgenstein, “his face white with horror,” entered a room occupied by his eldest sister, Hermine, and disclosed to her: “We count as Jews!” Paul was a highly decorated veteran of the Great War and a musical celebrity in Vienna. His brother Ludwig was a philosopher regarded by a growing cult of brilliant young men in England as a god. The Wittgensteins had been, for three generations, a family of practicing Roman Catholics, yet the baptismal certificates of their grandparents disclosed that three out of four of them were Jews before conversion. This classified them, in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws governing racial purity of the Nazi state, as Jews. The designation stripped them of the right to vote and to hold key jobs in the press, politics, law, the civil service, and the arts, and subjected them to a series of petty prohibitions (such as the right to sit on a park bench) that were “intended to make life in the Reich so disagreeable for the Austrian Jew that he would leave the country of his own volition,” as Alexander Waugh puts it in his new book, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. It also placed Paul himself, the father of two bastard children of an unmarried German woman, in violation of the infamous Section 2 of the Nuremberg Law for Protection of German Blood and German Honor forbidding extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans.

Paul and Ludwig Wittgenstein
Paul and Ludwig Wittgenstein
It had not occurred to the Wittgensteins, erstwhile possessors of one of the largest fortunes in Europe, that anyone would try to persecute them, least of all for an identity they had long ago disclaimed. The latter third of Waugh's book is taken up with an account of the bureaucratic and legal maneuvers by which the Wittgensteins sought to evade the fate of European Jewry by means of all the considerable resources at their disposal. Their legal hope, such as it was, rested on the claim that one of their grandparents had, in fact, been the bastard child of a gentile nobleman. In the end, they secured their freedom only by releasing the bulk of their fortune to the Nazi state. The story underscores the macabre fact that even the wealthiest, best-connected, and most patriotic Austrians—those who, like the Wittgensteins, had literally sacrificed both life and limb in the service of Austria—were not exempted from the cruel exactions of the Third Reich. It also underscores the equally macabre fact that, in the end, such people were usually able to buy their way out of persecution, at the cost of millions of pounds of gold.

The Nazi episode effected the final split between the surviving Wittgenstein siblings and scattered what remained of their vast fortune. It was a fortune that had taken a single lifetime to build. Waugh devotes a chapter to the rise of its progenitor, Karl Wittgenstein, who went from “rebellious American barman to multimillionaire Austrian steel magnate” in 33 years. During that time Karl had risen from salaried engineer at an ironworks to the owner or principal shareholder in the Austro-Hungarian empire's largest iron, steel, mining, munitions, and financial companies. In 1898, he retired at the age of 51 and turned to a life of cultivated leisure. He was the most successful of a family of 11 that included “judges, soldiers, doctors, scientists, patrons of the arts and government administrators—all of them prominent.” He had fathered nine children of his own, some of whom were notable for their gifts, some of whom were notable for their beauty, and he amassed “magnificent and valuable collections of furniture, art, porcelain, and autograph musical manuscripts.”

His happiness was at its height. But the Wittgenstein industrial fortune took a single lifetime to dissipate. Waugh devotes much of the book to the madness, waste, expropriation, and misfortune that afflicted Karl's heirs. In 1902, his eldest son, Hans, disappeared in America, an apparent suicide. In 1904, his next eldest son, Rudy, emptied a vial of potassium cyanide into a glass and drank it. Karl forbade his family to mention the names of either of his lost sons, driven “not by a lack of feeling on his part, but by a surfeit of it.” Waugh goes on to observe that "the effect of his censorship created an atmosphere of unbearable tension in the home, causing a split between the Wittgenstein children and their parents that time would never heal."

None of his remaining three sons was equipped or inclined to take over the empire which he bequeathed at his death in 1913: “Kurt was lightweight, Paul and Ludwig both worryingly neurotic and fundamentally uninterested in business. By the time of his dying, none of them was married.” They were made for other vocations. Kurt, the eldest survivor, followed his father into industry, leaving for America to expand the company’s interests there. He would eventually kill himself on the battlefield after spending much of the war struggling to evade an American prohibition preventing him from fighting in the war he so fervently wished to join. Paul launched on his promising career as a pianist. Ludwig left for Cambridge, where, by 1912, “without having a single significant piece of written philosophical work and while still only in his mid-twenties, he was being hailed by many of the brightest minds of Cambridge University as a genius.”

the Wittgenstein siblings
Hermine, Helene, Margarete, (back) Paul and Ludwig (front)
Ludwig would go on to become, as Waugh puts it, “an icon of the 20th century.” The visual metaphor is a deliberate one. Waugh is uninterested in Ludwig's thought. Every story he tells reinforces the impression, unmistakably Waugh's own, that the cult of Ludwig Wittgenstein is the product of eminent men like Bertrand Russell and George Moore who had “fallen under the spell of Ludwig's striking looks, manner and extraordinarily persuasive personality,” and gone to find in his “incomprehensible” writings an intellectual richness that may or may not have existed. This derisory attitude was shared by Ludwig's family. “Shaking their heads, they found it amusing that the world was taken in by the clown of their family, that that useless person had suddenly become famous and an intellectual giant in England.” Ludwig renounced his share in the family fortune and went to work as a primary school teacher, eventually getting himself fired for brutalizing his students. He had first considered suicide at 11, and the thought never strayed very far from his consciousness.

At the center of the narrative Waugh casts Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his arm in the Great War and went on to become perhaps the greatest, certainly the most famous, one-handed pianist in history—far more famous than Ludwig in his own lifetime. Inspired by the example of the blind composer and family friend Josef Labor (a composer forgotten by posterity, but regarded by his Wittgenstein family patrons as among the greatest ever), Paul devised an extraordinary one-hand technique that permitted him to recreate the fullness generated by a two-handed pianist. Waugh gives lengthy and amusing accounts of Paul’s dealings with the composers whom he commissioned to write music for his one hand, including Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, and Sergei Prokoviev. (“Performers must not be slaves!” Paul told Ravel during a dispute over a concerto he had commissioned; “Performers are slaves!” Ravel shot back.) Waugh quotes many admiring accounts of Paul’s concerts by some of the leading music critics of his age, but the reader cannot help suspecting that Prokofiev had it right when he observed, “It may be that his misfortune had turned out to be a stroke of good luck, for with only his left hand he is unique but maybe with both hands he would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists.”

There is something determinedly contrarian, even a bit perverse, about Waugh's decision to write a biography diminishing the 20th century’s best-known philosopher at the expense of the one-handed pianist in his family.

There is something determinedly contrarian, even a bit perverse, about Waugh's decision to write a biography diminishing the 20th century's best known philosopher at the expense of the one-handed pianist in his family. The project feels, at times, like a deliberate thumb in the eye of, as Waugh puts it, “a cult . . . whose membership includes many who have never opened his books or tried to understand a single line of his thought,” which is also the group from which Waugh’s readers will almost certainly be drawn. But even readers hostile to Waugh’s dismissal of Ludwig Wittgenstein will find something to admire in The House of Wittgenstein. Waugh has a gift for the historical set piece that makes his writing a continual pleasure—a cinematic rather than a novelistic pleasure, lingering on surfaces, eschewing depth. He writes with delight of the sumptuous interiors of the Wittgenstein palace, but also of the squalor of Russian POW camps during the Great War. And the story itself, coolly recited with poise and authority, has the advantage of arriving front-loaded with the pathos and dread of the 20th century.

In the end, the Wittgensteins succeeded in their bid to sunder their fate from that of the Jewish people, whom they had never regarded as their brethren, and with millions of dollars remaining. The ordeal left them permanently estranged. Paul Wittgenstein lived the rest of his life in Great Neck, Long Island, having made an honest woman of his mistress, whom he smuggled out of Germany and into the United States. He never returned to Vienna. One by one, cancer took each of the remaining siblings. The fabulous Wittgenstein palace, monument to one of Europe's grandest fortunes, and incubator to one of its most gifted families, was razed for redevelopment.

Wesley Yang has written about books and culture for the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and n+1.

The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts
and the Challenges to American Power
David Sanger

Toward the end of his survey of George W Bush’s foreign policy and the morass in which it has left his successor, David Sanger indulges in a flight of rhetorical license. He drafts, in perfect New York Times journalese (an exercise for which that paper’s chief Washington correspondent is well-equipped), an imaginary report on a nuclear explosion triggered near the Jefferson Memorial. The story radiates the dread and pathos of mass death narrated in a neutral tone:

Like the North Korean nuclear test in 2006, it was half explosion, half fizzle. But the North Koreans conducted their test deep in a cave. This one happened within view of the blue Oval Room in the White House, where tourists making their way through public rooms saw the flash outside the windows. They survived, at least the initial explosion, because the deadly radiation ring stooped just short of the South Lawn. But in milliseconds the Reflecting Pool was gone, and there was no sign of the tourists, the hot-dog vendors, or the black-barked cherry trees.

In The Inheritance, Sanger writes several such imaginary news reports describing biological and cyberterrorist attacks that spread mass panic and cripple the American economy. Every significant detail dramatised in these stories is pegged to a vulnerability that Sanger proceeds to describe. He observes that the nuclear sensors installed in American ports “will pick up almost anything that is radioactive, except for an atom bomb”, and laments the billions spent on missile defence to “counter a threat that does not yet exist, with a technology that may not work” while other programs to keep nuclear weapons secure and out of the reach of terrorists went “wildly underfunded”. He quotes one cybersecurity expert who is willing to concede that the 2003 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace “could probably stop a 14-year-old”.

Sanger’s resort to speculative fiction betrays a certain impatience. He has already ticked off a familiar litany of Bush Administration failures in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan. He wants to link these failures to a growing likelihood of an attack on American soil, turning a Bush-era polemical tactic against the men who once wielded it so recklessly, and redeploying it in support of new global exertions to clean up their mess. The nuclear weapon in Sanger’s imaginary account is assembled with the help of “sleeper agents in Pakistan’s weapons labs”. Earlier in the book, Sanger visits the compound in which the Pakistani military houses its nuclear weapons, guarding them against anyone – whether Islamist extremists or American special forces – who might attempt to snatch them.

The situation in Pakistan is the most dire of a series of threats for which Sanger provides the most alarming possible interpretation. Sanger consciously styles himself as the tutor to a young president, on whose behalf he has assumed the burden of explaining the ways of the American national security state to its citizenry. The world, as he sees it, bristles with threats to America. For crisis after crisis, Sanger informs his readers that the hour is already late.

As the latest in a long line of New York Times reporters who have faithfully conveyed the outlook and the facts most consistent with the “muscular centrism” of the American foreign policy establishment, Sanger enjoys unparalleled access to top policymakers. From out of their attributed and unattributed judgments and disclosures, he has assembled a guide to a new conventional wisdom coalescing in Obama’s foreign policy camp as it prepares to renew negotiations with an Iran closing in on a nuclear weapons capability, send tens of thousands of soldiers to shore up the failing state of Afghanistan, and find a way to handle a bankrupt Pakistan that has spent the last eight years playing the “double game” of pretending to fight Washington’s War on Terror while using some of the billions in aid delivered for that purpose to support cross-border attacks by the Taliban on Nato troops.

Elements of this new conventional wisdom are easily recognisable from Obama’s campaign speeches. It does away with the high-flown rhetoric about liberating the world that characterised George W Bush’s first term, eschews the reflexive hostility to negotiations that allowed Iran and North Korea to proceed with their clandestine nuclear programs, relinquishes the “regime change fantasy” that empowered hardliners in every state that America sought to isolate and tip toward oblivion, and repudiates the polarising logic that divided the world into two hostile camps. It ridicules Bush’s assertion that Iraq is the “central front” on the War on Terrorism, and laments opportunities to take the strategic initiative with Iran and North Korea that were overlooked while American energy and resources were directed toward the wrong war.

Above all, it decries the betrayal of the hopes of Afghanistan that Americans would make good on promises to flood that war-beleaguered territory with reconstruction aid. Bush promised another Marshall Plan, but wound up delivering a minuscule fraction of the assistance devoted to the reconstruction of Kosovo – leaving the Taliban free to regroup and take back territory from which they had been briefly scattered, as they continue to do at an ever escalating pace.

These are the easy targets for any review of the Bush years to assail. Sanger hits them capably and often. He finds good anecdotes and apt quotations from pertinent observers, and pithy formulations of his own to underscore for posterity the gaping ironies of the Bush years. He reserves his deepest scorn for Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the ideologues in their service who, drunk with power after rapid military successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, believed they could crush the Iranians by isolating them, wait for Kim Jong Il to fall, and walk away from Afghanistan without defeating the Taliban. They batted away an Iranian proposal, delivered by fax in 2003, for a “grand bargain” that would have made Tehran an ally of convenience in America’s War on Terror in exchange for guarantees that the United States would not follow through on the bloody course set by its National Security Strategy of 2002 and its “Axis of Evil” rhetoric. Instead, the Administration tried to squeeze the Iranians through sanctions and isolation, and now Iran is closer than ever to having enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb. This pattern of intransigence begetting the opposite of its intended effect was repeated in North Korea, which now has between six and eight nuclear warheads.

Sanger documents a shift in Bush’s foreign policy that dates back to the replacement of Rumsfeld by Robert Gates in 2006. He shows how Condoleezza Rice and Gates worked to make end-runs around Cheney’s hardline stance on Iran and North Korea. By retaining Gates, Obama announced that the early years of his presidency would be devoted to the ongoing work of putting out the raging fires left behind by the Bush years. The question is whether Obama will have space left over to initiate changes in America’s global posture that go beyond the simple restoration of basic diplomatic practice – or whether the crises that Bush has piled up can be met without more radical changes.

One of Sanger’s purposes is to tamp down expectations for dramatic change – to show the extent to which the hard reality of the world, as Sanger frames it, “will constrain [Obama’s] choices more than he has acknowledged”. For in the end, the new conventional wisdom proposes to unmake Bush’s errors through aggressive action – chiefly sending tens of thousands of new troops into Afghanistan.

The new stewards of American power know that there are limits to what can be achieved through military force, and are determined to use diplomacy and other forms of persuasion to achieve ends they have been wise to curtail. Afghanistan will not be, as Robert Gates put it, “a Central Asian Valhalla” under the benign protectorate of the American imperium; National Security Advisor James Jones authored a study that called for dismantling the rhetorical edifice of the “War on Terror” and negotiations with those Taliban willing to renounce al Qa’eda. Reconciliation with Iran is on the lips of all of our major officials, as well as acknowledgements of the interests of regional actors other than the United States in the outcomes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

This restoration of standard diplomatic practice is salutary and represents grounds for hope. But American foreign policy since the Second World War has been defined more by continuity than by rupture – even in the Bush era – and much remains unchanged in this conventional wisdom that might prevent Obama and his team from acting in accordance with what they know.

In his preface, Sanger laments that after September 11 America “squandered many opportunities to project American influence around the globe”, and “pursued a path that has left us less admired by our allies, less feared by our enemies, and less capable of convincing the rest of the world that our economic and political model is worthy of emulation”. He renews the obsession with “rebuilding American credibility”, rules out “withdrawing from the world” as “no longer an option”, and reasserts that Obama must “restore the leverage that comes from backing up diplomacy with the explicit or implicit threat of military action”.

This is more than just the standard American foreign policy boilerplate that you get from Democrats intent on asserting that they are strong and that the world still yearns for the steadying hand of American power. Statements like these mark the limits beyond which American foreign policy thinking has not been able to stray since 1945. Sanger’s reporting shows us the reality of an America that must bargain from a position of weakness in every crisis it faces. He shows us an Afghanistan 70 per cent of whose territory is controlled by a resurgent Taliban, facing a central government without effective sovereignty and no legitimacy among its citizens. He shows us a military option against Iran that would at best set that country’s nuclear programme back by two years while radicalising a whole generation of young people who are America’s best hope for moderation. He shows us a military in Pakistan that considers its support of the Taliban and other Islamist militias to be in their core existential interest. This weakness was badly exacerbated by Bush’s blundering, but it was a weakness (defined as an incapacity to control events in far away places) that was a structural condition of the world before Bush thought to venture into it. What is fascinating about The Inheritance – and in this it is exemplary – is that in spite of what it knows and what it shows us about the world, it can only respond with further exhortations to ceaseless activity and widening commitments to avert grave and growing dangers.

This disconnect between what American policy makers know and their reflexive obeisance to the idols of the national security state – an obsession with “credibility,” tendency to perceive every departure from its preferred outcomes as a threat, and its need to demonstrate American influence where no influence exists – remains the great problem facing the country. Seventeen thousand American troops are headed to Afghanistan even as America’s senior leadership provides a chastened and realistic account of its goals. Will Obama have the nerve to act in accordance with this realism, or will he succumb to the idols to which Sanger winds up paying tribute?

Wesley Yang writes for Nextbook and n+1, and has reviewed books for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.

The devil is in the details

The international community is presently engaged in a high-stakes game of poker with the government of Sudan. At stake is the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, the permanent sitting tribunal whose purpose is to punish those that commit the worst crimes against humanity. Also hanging in the balance are the lives of 2.5 million Darfurian refugees who have been driven from their homes by a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign launched by the Sudanese government in response to rebel attacks in the region in 2003.

Both sides in this international stand-off have already demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice those lives for the sake of the principles they support. The Sudanese government has thrown out 13 international aid groups who provide the food and medicine necessary to sustain those refugees, under the pretext that they gathered evidence for the ICC against Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir. The ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo went ahead with the indictment in full knowledge that this was the likely consequence. He claims to be acting in the interest of justice alone, without reference to the political or humanitarian situation – and no one disputes that by arming and abetting mounted Arab proxies (later dubbed “devils on horseback” in the press) to put down a rebellion with indiscriminate violence against civilians, al Bashir violated the spirit and letter of international law (as have many rulers before him). We have a struggle for primacy between the two principles – national sovereignty and international law – that seems likely to define global politics for the rest of this century.

Providing an accurate account of these principles, and the intricate politics in which they are embedded, involves wading through self-serving and overwrought claims from both sides while weighing two genuine and incommensurable claims to legitimacy. In his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, the distinguished Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani does his readers the considerable service of laying waste to many of the dangerous and self-serving illusions of one side of this argument. But he erects a mirror edifice of illusions in its place; getting the story straight requires disentangling the true from the misleading in Mamdani’s account.

On one side, there are the claims of universal justice that the ICC purports to represent. The ICC is the institutional face of a growing movement seeking to make real the promise of “Never Again” inscribed into the Convention on Genocide of 1948. The ICC indictment of al Bashir was the first against a sitting head of state, and it was hailed in editorial pages across America as a great progressive advance for global justice. Even those who worried about the consequences of the indictment still placed hope in its deterrent value. The goal was to worry the minds of subsequent heads of state tempted to use mass rape and murder as a counter-insurgency tactic.

Taken on its own terms, in narrow isolation, this is a worthy and unassailable mission. But nothing exists in narrow isolation, least of all moral purity and universal justice. Such claims exist in a real world of actual politics amid complicated histories, which many Darfur activists have made it their business to elide – portraying the conflict in Darfur as what Mamdani dubs “a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart”.

On the other side are the rights of sovereign governments to govern themselves without outside interference, which the Sudanese government and the Arab nations that have rallied to its side purport to defend. Sovereignty has been, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the currency of the international system, and, as Mamdani reminds us, a privilege hard-won by postcolonial states only recently.

In the wake of the American misadventure in Iraq, the weird confluence of moralistic rhetoric and bellicose policy that characterised Bush’s foreign policy, the complicity of so many ostensibly liberal hawks caught up in the Iraq War fervour, and a history of one-sided enforcement of humanitarian rules, it should surprise no one that the leaders and intellectuals of formerly colonised states are wary of the claims to universal justice emanating from what Mamdani dubs the “new humanitarian order”. At this week’s Arab Summit in Doha, Arab leaders, many of them signatories to the ICC, (which the United States has refused to sign) lined up in unanimous support of al Bashir.

The human rights lobby views this emphasis on sovereignty as the first and last resort of butchers who employ anti-colonialist rhetoric to defend their crimes. Weary of the grubby compromises of diplomats and corporations willing to do business with tyrants and criminals, one faction of the human rights community calls for armed western intervention to defend helpless victims of state violence everywhere. The Save Darfur movement, an aggressive and media-savvy coalition “whose scale recalls the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s”, rose up with the intention to turn Darfur into a test case for western action to halt what it called a genocide in progress.

Mamdani devotes the first section of his book to assailing the credibility of Save Darfur. He accuses them of inflating the scale of the killing, obfuscating the reality of a “civil war” and “cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency” that it called genocide, bombarding viewers and readers with “a pornography of violence” that removed the conflict from its political context, sustaining an impression of ongoing genocide long after the claim was plausible, portraying the conflict in racialised terms as a genocide conducted by Arabs against Africans and ceaselessly advocating for hard-line policies more likely to harm than to the help the victims they intended to save. On each of these counts, Mamdani assembles a more or less devastating case. Save Darfur publicised a figure for the number of deaths – 400,000 – that was twice as high as reliable estimates (Mamdani cites a study commissioned by the US Government Accountablity Office to this effect) and escalated its rhetoric at precisely the moment – January 2005 – when the scale of killing fell dramatically. Save Darfur have continued to clamour for aggressive action despite a humanitarian crisis that was largely stabilised due to the cooperation of the Sudanese government with aid agencies that had reduced the mortality rate to between 100 and 200 month in Darfur – “below emergency levels”, according to The World Health Organisation.

Most important for Mamdani’s purpose, though, is the Save Darfur Coalition’s emphasis on the race of the perpetrators and victims: “The central claim is that perpetrators and victims in Darfur belong to two different racial groups, Arab and African and that the Arab perpetrator is evil.” Mamdani is not content to say, as he does, that Save Darfur are committed to policies that will do harm. He intends to demonstrate that they are part of a more insidious agenda written into the War on Terror. To strip Darfur of its politics serves a political project of its own, and Mamdani makes it his mission to reveal its workings – what he sees as the foundation of a post-Cold War order in which American clients and proxies act with impunity while rogue states are subject to violent discipline at the hands of the international community, with America at its head. It is a politics notable for denying that it is a politics at all and, as Mamdani narrates it, one that portends a bleak future for the inhabitants of the developing world.

In the long historical section that makes up the centre of the book, Mamdani traces the centuries-long intermingling of Arab and African identities in Darfur, and their reciprocal permeability. He also shows how these identities were politicised under the “indirect” rule practised by British colonial administrators that pursued a policy of “re-tribalisation” of the various groups that shared Darfur by assigning homelands to certain groups and denying them to others.

This backdrop allows Mamdani, in his third and final section, to return to the question with which the book opens. Since Americans are inclined to regard Africa, to the extent that they regard it at all, as a site of “meaningless anarchy – in which men, sometimes women, and increasingly, children, fight without aim or memory,” why has there been “a global publicity boom around the carnage in Darfur”?

The worst conflict since the Second World War, with a death toll of 3.9 million between 1998 and 2004, raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the figure of “excess deaths” caused by the Iraq war likely outstrip the same numbers in Darfur. Yet only Darfur, a conflict in a remote and impoverished region without oil or other significant exportable resources has generated a lavishly funded advocacy organisation. For Mamdani, the answer is embedded in the definition of genocide itself. “Only when extreme violence targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different ‘on grounds of race, ethnicity, or religion’ is that violence termed genocide,” Mamdani observes:

“Given that colonialism shaped the very nature of modern ‘indirect rule’ and administrative power along ‘tribal’ (or ethnic) lines it is not surprising that both the exercise of power and responses to it tend to take ‘tribal’ forms in these newly independent states. From this point of view, there is little to distinguish mass violence unleashed against civilians in Congo, Northern Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and so on. Which one is named ‘genocide’ and which one is not? Most important, who decides?”

The new humanitarian order is, as Mamdani describes it, “a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East,” in which subjects exchange their political rights as citizens of sovereign states for the “human” rights possessed by “wards in an open-ended international rescue operation” in a humanitarian “system of trusteeship” administered by an international community that lacks either accountability or responsibility. The world he describes looks a lot like the world as the Palestinians under the jurisdiction of UNRWA see it, and the vision Mamdani projects of an Africa delivered piecemeal to the good intentions of the international community is a stark one.

A problem with this claim, however, is that the record of American policy in Sudan challenges it. Indeed, proponents of humanitarian intervention in Darfur make a diametrically opposite charge against the American government – that it has subordinated its interest in the cause of human rights to its desire to maintain relations with Sudanese intelligence to aid the War on Terror. Mamdani’s argument also passes over the American response to Sudan’s much longer, more brutal and more complex civil war, a two-decade conflict pitting Christians and animists from the south of the country against the Arab Islamist cabal to the north that controlled the state and the military.

It was here that al Bashir pioneered the technique of using proxy war conducted by mounted Arab warriors. And it was this conflict that first aroused activist concern among the evangelical Christian movement at the base of George W Bush’s electoral coalition.

Islamists in Sudan were waging a brutal war against the Christian coreligionists of the single most belligerent electoral constituency in American politics. If the goal of American policy was, as Mamdani alleges, to “slice Africa by demonising one group of Africans, African Arabs”, then surely the Sudanese Civil War was the perfect opportunity to carry out this agenda. But the Bush administration instead expended considerable diplomatic resources cajoling the North and the South to make peace in a negotiated settlement that Mamdani himself acknowledges as Bush’s only foreign policy accomplishment.

While there were plenty of hardline advocates for the fantasy of regime change in Sudan, the United States remained effectively committed to the stability of the Bashir regime, as the only guarantor of the peace deal it had signed, through the end of the Bush Administration.

And so, when Mamdani describes the “the responsibility to protect” as “a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonise Africa”, he is mistaking the fantasies of American activists for the policies of their government. He is also asserting the existence of a hidden nefarious agenda where none exists, and providing a false clarity that is the merely the obverse of the good-and-evil dichotomy of the War on Terror and the humanitarian order that he assails.

This overreaching damages the credibility of Mamdani’s powerful and incisive criticism of the international justice movement. So much of what Mamdani argues is true, and so much of it cuts against the grain of the usual coverage of Darfur in ways that are essential for the broader public to understand. And neither he, nor the rest of us, can afford to squander the opportunity to set the record straight.

Wesley Yang is a frequent contributor to The Review.

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Learn about the Summer Writers Colony at The New School in NYC
Apr/May 2009
What Are Intellectuals Good For?
By Wesley Yang

What Are Intellectuals Good For?
by George Scialabba
$15.00 List Price
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Early in his new book of essays and reviews, George Scialabba declares himself a “utopian” and a “radical democrat,” though he concedes, parenthetically, that he owns up to this identification “on fewer days of the week than formerly.” It is the most succinct statement Scialabba provides of the sensibility governing What Are Intellectuals Good For?, which collects the work of more than two decades spent addressing the broadest philosophical and historical issues in five thousand words or fewer in the back pages of newspapers and magazines.

Scialabba is acutely conscious that the utopian impulse, having been held responsible for the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, is often derided these days. Still, qualified embraces such as the one above are Scialabba’s stock-in-trade. He stakes out a position, for example, in reviewing Russell Jacoby’s polemic The End of Utopia that permits him to say “Hold it, not so fast” to Jacoby’s own professed utopianism: “There is a rational kernel within the shell of anti-utopian prejudice. . . . [W]e all want to see the plans. And there are no plans.” At the same time, Scialabba sounds an equally skeptical “Yes, but” to the Soviet historian Robert Conquest’s “unwillingness to play fair with the revolutionary and utopian impulses—to admit that they might have any sources except a lust for domination.” Scialabba’s criticism is closely calibrated within the narrow band between these two statements of principled dubiousness.

Indeed, even his affirmation of the importance of injudiciousness is a model of judiciousness. “A sense of the simultaneous urgency and futility of much social criticism—i.e., the tragic sense—is a necessary part of the critical temperament,” he observes. “To resist this sense is the critic’s everyday responsibility. To give in to it, to risk excess, loss of dignity, disconnection, may also, on occasion, be his duty.”

Scialabba writes with marvelous fluency and conversational ease and is a gifted expositor of the ideas of friend and foe alike. “To perceive as readily and pursue as energetically the difficulties of one’s own position as those of one’s opponents; to take pains to discover, and present fully, the genuine problems that one’s opponent is, however futilely, addressing”—this is his account of disinterestedness as Matthew Arnold understood it, and surely a description of the author’s own outlook. This posture gives him considerable authority on the relatively infrequent occasions he lets fly against one or another false idol. Edward Said’s polemical manners in Culture and Imperialism, he writes, “are atrocious, sneering, overweening, ad hominem. Too often, he innocently misinterprets or not-so-innocently misrepresents other people’s arguments.”

Scialabba has heroes, a somewhat eccentric assortment, presented here as models of intellectual engagement— especially Richard Rorty, Noam Chomsky, and Christopher Lasch, the subjects of the book’s dedication and all of whom, in some respects, he serves less well than he does the writers he admires less. The claims he makes on behalf of Rorty (“Rorty, though less original than Plato, is a better philosopher”) and Chomsky (Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is “the finest political essay of the last several decades”) are reckless. Lasch receives searching and detailed exposition, even though Scialabba predicts he will remain “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Reading straight though this volume leaves one with an appreciation for Scialabba’s many gifts—particularly his rare combination of intellectual depth and reach with readability. He inhabits his role comfortably, without histrionics or nostalgia and with an untroubled resignation toward the contemporary intellectual’s diminished standing in a cultural world now dominated by specialized knowledge and professional guilds. He manages, nonetheless, to provide a personal guide through the controversies of the age. There is much to admire about this modesty.


Wesley Yang considers two very different guides to surviving (and conceptualizing) the worst.

Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life
Neil Strauss

Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects
Dmitry Orlov
New Society

“Try to form a picture in your mind: it is a superpower, it is huge, it is powerful, and it is going to come crashing down.” So writes Dmitry Orlov in the introduction to one the oddest books in recent memory, 2008’s Reinventing Collapse.

As Orlov reminds us, this kind of thing has happened before, and recently: in 1991 the geopolitical rivalry that defined the latter half of the 20th century ended with the total collapse of the Soviet Union and the idea on which it was founded. Eighteen years hence, the victor in that ideological death struggle is adrift in a crisis of its own making. It would be impetuous, and almost certainly wrong, to extrapolate the inevitable, reciprocal collapse of the United States from the apparent trends of the moment. No responsible writer would attempt it.

Dmitry Orlov is not a responsible writer. A Russian-born software developer who lives in Boston (he recently sold his apartment and moved on to a boat in anticipation of the coming catastrophe), Orlov is not, as he is careful to explain, “an expert or scholar or activist”, but “more of an eyewitness”. Having observed the Soviet collapse, he provides what he insists is a preview of the coming American sequel, along with a sly satirical overview of American life that feels especially true in some of its exaggerations.

It is Orlov’s goal to open questions that have been closed since the end of the century about the industrial system of which the USSR and the United States were merely two antipodes. For all of the eccentricity of Orlov’s approach to those questions, they are beginning to feel increasingly relevant. “Feelings aside,” Orlov writes, “here are two 20th century superpowers who wanted more or less the same things – things like technological progress, economic growth, full employment and world domination – but disagreed about the methods. And they obtained similar results – each had a good run, intimidated the whole planet and kept the other scared. Each eventually went bankrupt.”

Orlov’s account is undeniably radical and paranoid, but his plain language brings a kind of clarity to aspects of American life that are usually described in a contorted jargon worthy of Soviet ideologists. His summary of the system of American consumerism is characteristic:

“Once the consumer has been properly addled into accepting a continuous flow of disposable, shoddy instantly obsolete products, the next obvious profit-seeking step is to lock up this state of affairs within a financial arrangement based on debt. The two-pronged approach involves outsourcing production to countries with cheap labour and spare energy resources, while providing domestic consumers with access to consumer credit to make up for the shortfall in wages from the lost manufacturing jobs.... To service this debt, the consumers must work ever harder while consuming ever less: an arrangement over which Soviet central planners would surely have salivated profusely.”

Orlov is a leading figure within the fringe subculture of Peak Oil, whose adherents are certain the planet will soon run out of the cheap petroleum that is the lifeblood of the gigantic industrial apparatus that powers the world as we know it – or at least the world of those of us living amid the consumer abundance known as the American Dream. It is a dream that responsible people now concede will have to shrink in the face of present economic hardship (to say nothing of the future dangers of global warming). But no responsible person seems willing to suggest this requires a qualitative change in the system of production and consumption that led to the crisis.

The Peak Oil theorists have taken the not at all fanciful prospect of a hard limit on economic expansion set by an external constraint and parlayed it into a thoroughgoing critique of modern life that yokes together (in various configurations, depending on the temper of the author) variants of the familiar civic republican, romantic, puritan, anti-modernist, communitarian, environmentalist and leftist sentiments that have, since the advent of the industrial revolution, successively fought a losing rearguard action against the advance of industrial modernity.

Capitalism has more or less destroyed or reduced to impotence each of these forms of protest, causing them, as Werner Sombart said of the socialist movement in America, to “founder on roast beef and apple pie”. The Peakists glimpse an end to roast beef and apple pie, and have seized upon it as an opening for rollback. They begin with the most pessimistic – but not entirely outlandish – projections about the future of oil production (arguing that the world has pumped at least half of its available oil, that remaining reserves will be considerably more costly to extract, and that production has already begun to decline) and look with total despair on the world’s ability to manage an orderly transition away from oil. From there they proceed to para-political fantasies about a world wiped clean of all the excrescences of modern life that they deplore, from fast food to McMansions.

Orlov’s apocalypse is notable for its sobriety and relative good cheer. It is the cheer of a person unburdened by any wish to salvage technological civilisation from its demise. On the one hand, his predictions are grim: Americans “will expect to be fed, sheltered, defended from each other and told what to do. Many of them will be angry and disoriented and look for someone to blame.” But the empirical basis of his speculations keeps him anchored. “An economy does not collapse into a black hole from which no light can escape,” he writes. “Instead, something else happens: society begins to spontaneously reconfigure itself, establish new relationships and evolve new rules, in order to find a point of equilibrium at a lower rate of resources expenditure.”

He provides helpful suggestions to Americans for the transition from adherence to the American dream to survival under duress. “When faced with a collapsing economy,” he writes, “one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money. Access to actual physical resources and assets, as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships, quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash.” The worldview he counsels is one of patience and stoicism: he proposes that Americans become more like Russians, whose basic apathy, disdain for the Soviet system and stubborn rootedness in a worldview that eschewed hard work, material wealth and economic growth made them exceptionally patient survivors.

The mixture of exuberance and pessimism that runs throughout Orlov’s work reflects the radical ambivalence of a critic who is certain that our world is destined to die and feels that it isn’t fit (practically, but also morally) to survive. The new world will have its share of bloody chaos. It will also be a place in which people will have to be courteous, decent, abstemious and community-minded to survive. Orlov distrusts technology, but he trusts in humanity’s resilience to rebuild. One discerns in Peak Oil and related apocalypses the last redoubt of a certain kind of beleaguered humanism that has come to despair of political or cultural change achieved through the self-conscious activity of people working in concert to control their world – even as disruptive technologies make the radical transformation of the world into nightmare or utopia seem increasingly real.

A sign that apocalyptic survivalism has begun to encroach on the mainstream is the presence atop the bestseller lists of Neil Strauss’s latest keen exploitation of the fears and fantasies at the core of the American psyche, Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life. Radicals, environmentalists and Dick Cheney are not the only people indulging fears of a mortal peril threatening the republic. Now even America’s lifestyle journalists are beginning to worry.

Cultural historians of the future may discover, to the general embarrassment of our literary classes, (and our men) that post-millennial American manhood was best conveyed in a series of gimmicky bestsellers written at a fifth-grade reading level by a rock critic turned dating guru. Strauss’s methods have been remarkably consistent: first he enters a disturbed subculture just as it is shucking off its marginal status. He has chronicled the giddy triumphs of a heavy metal hair band, (in The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, about Motley Crue) a pornographic entertainer, (in How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale, about Jenna Jameson) and a group of men devising a quasi-scientific method to seduce women (in The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists). All of Strauss’s protagonists have tried to make the fantasies of omnipotence at the heart of the American Dream real, and to their sorrow and detriment, they succeed hugely. Then, by means of mechanical artifice, he turns these stories – of misshapen personalities who came to wield inhuman power by succumbing to all of their darkest impulses – into heartwarming affirmations of life and love.

The hero of Emergency is Strauss himself, and we follow as he loses his faith in the ability of American system of consumption to nourish him in a state of infantile ease and manly incompetence, and sets about, in the company of various survivalists, paranoiacs, billionaires and right-wing libertarians, to prepare for what the oncoming collapse of civil order. When that dark day comes, Strauss writes, “I don’t want to be hiding in cellars, fighting old women for a scrap of bread, taking forced marches at gunpoint, dying of cholera in a refugee camp, or anything else I’ve read about in history books.” By the end of the book, Strauss has answered the call of history by teaching himself to “find water in the desert, extract drinkable fluids from the ocean, deliver a baby, fly a plane, pick locks, hot-wire cars, build homes, set traps, evade bounty hunters, suture a bullet wound, kill a man with my bare hands and escape across the border with documents identifying me as the citizen of a small island republic.”

The goal, he determines early on, is “true sovereignty” – absolute self-sufficiency in the face of any contingency. This fantasy of total individual mastery is, of course, the terminal stage of the skill-based problem-solving approach to life that Strauss lived, chronicled and (ostensibly) repudiated at the end of The Game, in which the skinny, balding nebbish transformed himself from an “Average Frustrated Chump” into a master pick up artist dating 10 women at once. In that book, Strauss and his fellow theorists of the female libido created a conceptual model of human beings as “biological machines programmed to survive and replicate,” and devised ways to manipulate that programming to serve their own interests. But where the players of the Game subdued the mystery and terror of love to a method of perfect human efficiency, Strauss, the ultimate survivalist, who masters every skill set of every guru he meets, hopes to subdue fear, fortune and death itself with his individual will.

Strauss’s descriptive passages are often extraordinarily vivid, but the hand-holding passages in which he delivers canned epiphanies to orient the reader to his developmental arc are invariably stilted. At one point, Strauss wonders “what my aim in life was and why I was so determined to survive. What was it all for?”

“The answer came to me instantly: I wanted to survive because I wasn’t done living.” “If our lifespan is a movie,” he continues, “I want to see it all, until the very last credit rolls and the screen goes dark.”

And so the quest that begins with a man’s awakening from the daydream world of consumerism and his embrace of a salutary fear that restores him to manly authenticity and engagement with the material world discloses itself – but how could it have been otherwise? – as merely a variant of the same anxious and contentless voyeurism that led him to turn the women of Los Angeles into “crash test dummies” for his own manipulations. Strauss has no principle or cause beyond himself – a fact which makes his book the perfect vessel to deliver the lesson of survival in a cruel world to a readership similarly without recourse to love, faith, community, or allegiance to larger commitments or values.

Where Orlov’s apocalypse is really a kind of moralistic criticism of the American Dream, Strauss conscripts the threat of total breakdown to endorse and legitimise the extreme form of a worldview already widespread in America today. In Strauss’s hands, survivalism exposes the great paradox at its centre – that the individual who survives only for the sake of surviving will inhabit a ruined world that makes literal the solipsism of the survivalist enterprise. It was of such people that the theorist of thermonuclear war Herman Kahn asked, “Will the survivors envy the dead?”

Wesley Yang, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for Nextbook and n+1.

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Their Magic Moment
How Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tapped into the soul of '50s America—and made it sing

By Wesley Yang | 7:00 am July 2, 2009 Print This Post

Elvis Presley singing "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog"

CREDIT: Don Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty ImagesDon Wright/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Though it has been the subject of history textbooks and PBS documentaries for decades, rock and roll still retains the power to make the learned things said of it seem hopelessly pedantic. It is, on the one hand, a slight musical endeavor: three chords; four accented beats; bass, guitar, and drums; an excitable front man who will carry on shouting for three minutes; a simple verse-chorus structure; repetition; overpowering volume; rhyming couplets, most of them unswervingly fixated on the subject of sex between teenagers (or, let’s face it, statutory rape). On the other hand, everything thrilling and grotesque about America is implicated in the rise of this vernacular art. It was the sound of America’s poorest, most despised people—slaves who became sharecroppers who migrated north to became tenement dwellers in Memphis, Chicago, and Kansas City, and trashy whites from the brawling culture of the Appalachian mountains. It turned out that America’s most despised people were also its most creative, and that some of them weren’t upright and God-fearing (though many of them were), but in fact mischievous, irreverent, impulsive, drunken, and sex-obsessed. Through the medium of television and recording, the sound of their erotic delirium became the common property of its white middle-class teenagers, and through these exemplary consumers, the world.

It was the instrument of a revolution in bourgeois manners and mores. What other country would dress its privileged children in the garb of its sharecroppers and coal miners, or school them, three minutes at a time, in the sexual mores of the ghetto, selling them commercial fantasies of freedom and authenticity that would seduce the young everywhere? The industry spawned by the music has long since grown (like the old Elvis) cynical, corpulent, corporate, and corrupted; and (like the aging Michael Jackson) inhumanly strange, sequestered in appalling opulence, frozen in childhood, and besieged by creditors. But as with all things that go wrong on a grand scale, rock and roll was once, like the young Elvis, extraordinary—a vision of a miscegenated American future as compelling as the linked arms of Freedom Fighters that were then rising up across the South.

It was the early 1950’s and America was changing. Who would serve as the vanguard of this change? You would need people eager to embrace the new, able to serve as intermediaries linking black and white, high and low, sensitive enough to hear joy where others heard only squalor, clever enough to hear opportunity where others only heard noise, alive to the mordant humor of the ghetto, heedless of existing prejudices and conventions, enterprising enough to invent an industry where none had existed before. You needed Phil and Leonard Chess in Chicago; Syd Nathan at King Records in Cincinnati; Lester, Jules, Saul, and Joe Bihari at Modern Records in Los Angeles; Leo and Eddie Mesner at Aladdin Records just down the road; and Alan Freed on first the Cleveland, then the New York City airwaves. You needed Jerry Wexler and Herb Abramson at Atlantic Records in New York; a teenaged Michael Bloomfield playing in the first integrated electric blues band in Chicago in 1963; and the former Robert Zimmerman in the cafes of Greenwich Village. You needed people who could operate at the bloody crossroads where commerce, art, and social change were converging. All of which is to say that you needed Jews.

Here is how Lester Sill, national sales manager for the independent blues label Modern Records explained it to a teenaged Jerry Leiber, (“Kid, I think you’re going to like this music,” Sill told Leiber before handing him a recording of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun,”) then a part-time clerk at Norty’s, a little record shop in Los Angeles that sold Frankie Laine records and cantorial music from Russia and Poland:

“‘The big labels,’ explained Lester, ‘like RCA, Columbia and Decca are ignoring the really great popular Negro artists because they just don’t understand or care about the music. They don’t think it’s worthwhile, artistically or commercially. Well, I don’t have to tell you how wrong they are.’”

The voice reminiscing above belongs to Jerome Leiber, who would go on to become one half of the songwriting team that wrote and produced some of the most important and best rock and roll singles ever, including “Kansas City,” “Stand By Me,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety-Yak,” “This Magic Moment,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Searchin’,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Hound Dog.” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller began writing songs in 1951, at the age of 18, for a label producing what were then known as “race records” for Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, the Robins, the Drifters, Big Joe Turner, and Ruth Brown. By 1958, at the age of 25, Leiber and Stoller had been dubbed “the Gilbert and Sullivan of rock and roll,” and “the Grandfathers of Rock and Roll.” They would go on to write and produce the major hits of the Drifters and the Coasters, establish themselves as the first independent record producers in the industry, and nurture the talent of one Phil Spector.

Hound Dog, the Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, just released by Simon and Schuster, is a slight volume of edited interviews that recapitulates much of what was already known about the songwriting duo, and some delightful new anecdotes of uncertain veracity. The first third of the book captures the excitement of those early days when the music was still unknown to white audiences and the big record companies had no regard for it. For anyone remotely susceptible to the heartbreaking innocence of that period, the sly, keen, slightly-outdated hip patois recorded in that book is an unmitigated delight.

“Like Lester, many of the label owners were Jewish. ‘Look at the way the big iron and steel companies threw the scraps to the Jews,’ said Lester. ‘That’s how Jews started in the scrap metal business. Same thing in music. The majors see a great artist like Jimmy Witherspoon as scrap. They don’t want to deal with what they consider junk. Well, some of these small labels were actually junk dealers before they got into the music game. Through experience, they learned what some see as junk might actually be precious jewels.’”

Jerry Leiber first heard black music in homes where he delivered “five-gallon cans of kerosene and ten-pound bags of soft coal,” as an errand boy for his mother, who owned the only grocery store willing to extend credit to blacks in the neighborhood. His father had been a “door to door milkman who died penniless,” when Leiber was five. Leiber’s first language was Yiddish; his earliest attempt to play boogie-woogie on piano ended when his Uncle Dave, “without warning, violently slammed down the wooden keyboard cover,” in the midst of a lesson.

Mike Stoller’s aunt was a child prodigy who graduated from the Vienna Conservatory at 12, but his introduction to boogie-woogie came under the gentle direction of the stride pianist James P. Johnson. Stoller grew up listening to Richard Strauss, Shostakovitch, and Sibelius, but “it was black music,” he explains, “that excited my deepest passion. I heard the lyricism in Richard Strauss, I felt the elegance of Bach, but boogie-woogie really reached my eight-year old soul.” Where music had been, for his mother’s German Jewish family, the hallmark of social superiority, young Stoller’s interest in music “was purely visceral.” Is there a clearer illustration of the Old World’s cultural hierarchies succumbing to the blandishments of the New World’s freedom to reinvent oneself in any guise?

Stoller would write the music, noodling along on the keyboard while Leiber tossed out phrases off the top of his head. Many of their hits were written in fifteen minutes or fewer. The story of their ascent within their field is rapid and untroubled. “Our interest was in black music and black music only,” Stoller declares. His own musical vocabulary spanned the blues, R&B, avant-garde jazz and classical music of his day, but he deployed all of it in search of the most immediate impact, and without any consciousness that the music they were making was other than ephemeral. “If you had asked me and Mike back then,” Leiber says about the great Robins song “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” we would have said that we loved the recording, that it might even be a hit, but we assumed that in a few months the song—and, for that matter, all our songs—would be, like a pile of old comic books, discarded and forgotten.” Stoller observes that when he was writing hit songs “stratification of popular music was absolute. At the top were giants like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin. At the bottom were guys like us.” Leiber quotes Random House’s co-founder politely inquiring: “Why did you write something called ‘Hound Dog’?” The “highbrow view of the day” was that “rock and roll was trash.” The view had something to recommend it, according to the sexual mores of the day. Leiber wrote the lyrics with a vocabulary, as Stoller puts it that was “black, Jewish, theatrical, comical,” telling stories, as Leiber tells it, about “heartache and pain, but also unrestrained joy and unrestrained sex.”

“She wasn’t built for power
She wasn’t built for speed
But she was built for comfort
And that’s what I need.”

In 1953, Leiber and Stoller wrote a song for Big Mama Thornton called “Hound Dog,” which became a hit on the R&B charts. At one point during the session Leiber encourages Thornton to “attack” a certain part of the song. Thornton interrupts him. “‘Come here boy,’ she said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. ‘I’ll tell you what you can attack. Attack this…’ she added, pointing to her crotch.” The opening lyric, as Thornton had sang it, went like this:

You ain’t nothing but a hound dog
Quit snooping ‘round my door
You can wag your tail,
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more”

In 1956, Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan show singing

You aint’ nothing but a hound dog
Crying all the time
You ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine”

“The song is not about a dog,” Leiber observes. “It’s about a man, a freeloading gigolo. Elvis’s version makes no sense to me,” going on to opine that “there’s no comparison between the Presley version and the Big Mama original. Elvis played with the song. Big Mama nailed it.” Nonetheless, Presley’s choice of the song made Leiber and Stoller, as Leiber puts it “awfully goddamn lucky,” to be placed at the forefront of “the bigger commercial revolution in American music: teenage rock and roll.”

The book then settles into the rhythm of professional success, punctuated by conflict, as the duo negotiates the treacherous waters of the music business. They go on to write Peggy Lee’s signature mid-life crisis hit “Is That All There Is?” in which the aging singer faces mortality with resignation that is at once cheerful, rueful, and mordant. The book ends with the obligatory flourish of showbiz gratitude for blessings bestowed by fate, but ends on a note struck all those decades ago by the nihilistic chanteuse. Leiber and Stoller began life as “horny teenagers” obsessed with the sound, rhythm, and preoccupations of the lustful music emerging from the black underground. They managed to make being a horny teenager into a profitable vocation, and became rich, honored, and successful men, carving out a permanent place in American cultural history for the ephemeral songs they wrote in 15 minutes or fewer. Facing mortality and clinging to life amid failing health, Leiber admits that he thinks back “to the days of cognac and tobacco with deep nostalgia.” Aging and mortality—the insistent facts for which rock and roll has no reply. And he tells his interlocutor that:

“If my next medical report is ‘Leiber, you’ve run out of options. You’ve got a month at most to put your affairs in order,’ then this is my plan: I’m going to buy a fifth of Maker’s Mark bourbon, a carton of Camels, and as many Billie Holiday records as I can carry. I’m going to break out the booze and have a ball.”

“If that’s all there is.”

More in: Big Mama Thornton, Elvis Presley, Hound Dog, Jerry Leiber, Leonard Chess, Mike Stoller, Rock and Roll, Syd Nathan

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Summer Fling
I attended the second and third sessions of the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Blair Academy in Blairstown, NJ. There we were encouraged to think of ourselves as we already did: as people set apart from the ordinary school population by the curiosity and talents that our peers (the prematurely mustachioed boys and the girls with the big hair) were intent on snuffing out. The idea that there were children possessed of abilities beyond the ken of what the world could regard without jealousy and malice and that you were one of them was at an early stage of the universal diffusion that would instill a mild personality disorder into every child of college-educated parents in America. By now we know that all of the children are above average; back in the summer of 1987, the idea of running a camp consecrated to this proposition still seemed obnoxious. Of course I wanted to go.

Here I would learn my first significant lesson in love, which was also a lesson in society. The camp was an artificial setting that reversed the hierarchies of the American public school, giving the assorted nerds, drudges, grinds, closet homosexuals and Asians who attended a taste of social preeminence they might not otherwise experience. As was usually the case in such instances, the popular people turned out to be the ones who still had it going on in the conventional sense. A clique of wealthy, attractive, and stylish – according to the curious standards of 1987 -- Asian people turned their ethnic solidarity into an instrument of domination of others. I was happy to discover that I was not excluded from this solidarity, though I was not myself wealthy, attractive, or stylish. The Asian kids came from Bergen County suburbs like Tenafly and Alpine, and they had discovered music – New Order, Erasure, and Depeche Mode – that felt more interesting and subversive than alternative music has the capacity to feel anymore. We looked down on white people and coined a derisive term, “meegs” (short for the Korean word – itself a derisive term – for “white person,”) to refer to them.

It was my first exposure to the quality of self-entitlement that could inhere in other people, (that there were people far more self-entitled than these people could ever have dreamed of being, and for better reasons, did not change the effect it had on me -- all perception being relative to one's own restricted experience,) and I did what I could to adopt it. With surprising success. Because by the end of the first weekend, when everyone had begun to pair off, I found that my ruminative nature and watchful demeanor had somehow earned me the affection of the bubbly center of our little clique – adorable, sparkly-eyed, babyfat Carissa – with whom, by the end of the camp, I would finally reach a milestone I would not reach again until I arrived as a freshman at college – first base.

While all of this was going on, a pale and solitary white girl with a drawn expression and long butterscotch blonde hair had conceived of a crush on me. I recall her sad eyes regarding me as I engaged in the supercilious antics that the camp setting had empowered me to unleash. The look in her eyes is one I will never forget, though of course I affected not to notice it. It was pure ardor. And so the little tableau I want to paint for you here is just this – sitting in the front seat of the short bus with Carissa's head against my shoulder, and the pale blonde girl – I never did learn her name – in the back seat with her face in tears. I knew back then that I was gaining a privileged glimpse into what genuinely rich and popular boys (white boys, mostly, but not all) in the real world were going to go on to experience all the time, as often as the world (which was happy to collaborate with them in the satisfaction of this desire) would allow – the exquisite pain, and pleasure, of a breaking a young girl's heart. What I experienced at that moment was a premonition of what I knew I was going to see more of throughout my life – women preferring to be used and discarded by worthless men who cared nothing for them to all other alternatives – and it made me sad for two reasons: because it was sad in itself, but also because I knew then that my momentary glimpse into an experience outside of my own true portion -- the experience of being among the popular, rich, and stylish people that others would look upon with longing and ardor -- was an accident that fate was quickly going to correct.

Innocent abroad

* Last Updated: July 10. 2009 10:49AM UAE / July 10. 2009 6:49AM GMT

An Iranian youth at an internet cafe in Hamadan on May 26. MacFarquhar places some hope in the internet, but recognises that oppressive regimes can always adopt a new policy: “Say what you want, and we will do what we want.” Nima Daymari / AFP Photo

Neil MacFarquhar’s new book tours the Middle East in search of hope and US policy prescriptions. Wesley Yang considers the accomplished and well-intentioned reporter’s blind spots.

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East
Neil MacFarquhar

It is customary for foreign correspondents to open their retrospective volumes by tracing the genesis of an unhealthy obsession with the beautiful yet cruel region in whose conflicts they have spent so many years enmeshed. “High school for me, I am now embarrassed to say,” admits Thomas Friedman in the prelude to his remarkable From Beirut to Jerusalem (written before his discovery of Indian capitalism transformed him into one of the planet’s most annoying pundits) “was one big celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War.” Robert Fisk writes in the preface to his massive compendium, The Great War of Civilisation, of being propelled into journalism by a childhood viewing of an Alfred Hitchcock film in which he hears a resonant phrase naming the vocation to which he then began to aspire – “one of the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth”.

These anecdotes make plain what is easy enough to read between the lines of any correspondent’s pretensions to Olympian authority: their peculiar infatuations inform everything they write. Thus, Fisk’s heroic conception of his role leads to high eloquence and invective, while Friedman takes us in a self-effacing way through the stages of a young American Zionist’s discovery that Jerusalem in the 1980s was not “the Jewish summer camp of his youth”. Books of this kind are sometimes interesting for what they tell and show us about the world; they always provide a privileged glimpse into the assumptions held by that tiny handful of people deputised by the Western press to be their eyes and ears in alien lands.

Neil MacFarquhar opens his correspondent’s travelogue, The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday, with a reference to the “deep sense of curiosity, mingling with atonement”, that tugged at him from the Middle East. MacFarquhar was born into an expatriate family on the Mediterranean coast of Libya in a tiny Esso company compound that “felt more Texan than Libyan”. The oil town was surrounded by a chain-link fence that kept out the Libyans, who were “mostly strangers viewed from afar”. Only after his family’s departure in 1975 did MacFarquhar “launch a retroactive search for what I had missed on the other side of the fence”.

This self-portrait confirms an impression that MacFarquhar’s dispatches as the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times conveyed (he held that job from 2001 to 2006). He is neither a Zionist, an anti-American, nor a flinger of great rhetorical thunderbolts. Nor is he that fixture of the international scene, the slightly sadomasochistic war reporter who delights in descriptions of the terror and calamity. He is a good American liberal in the best sense of that (sometimes unjustly) maligned phrase – empathetic, well-meaning, slightly abashed by his postcolonial inheritance – who would like to feel hopeful about the region. His book is a record of the deep ambivalence any American liberal will feel when confronting MacFarquhar’s principal heroes, “the smart men and women committed to a secular, pluralistic future” in the Middle East. Weary of “the constant, bloody upheaval that captures most attention” in the western press, MacFarquhar deliberately sidesteps “the gory attacks, the beheadings and bombings” that absorbed most of his energy during his stint in the region. Instead he sets out to introduce his readers to “people with real humanity, likeable people whose work I admired and whose goals were uplifting”.

These include Fayrouz, the beloved Lebanese singer who symbolised a Beirut that was “a cosmopolitan meeting ground where East and West melded together into something unique and widely admirable”; Fawzia Dorai, a Kuwaiti columnist and TV talk show host who offers marital and sex advice to callers; the journalists at Al Jazeera who “blasted away the cobwebs hobbling news in the region” and “horrified Arab dictators used to exercising complete control over the news”; Ekkehard Zitzman, then “the last brewer on the Arabian peninsula”, who forbore a volley of firebombs every Ramadan with heroic equanimity (before fundamentalists burnt his facility to the ground); and the popular TV chef Ramzi, whose success “certainly indicated that there is a wide audience across the Arab world eager to learn more about other countries, to look beyond its traditions toward other ways of doing things”.

These diverting portraits are accompanied by somewhat ungainly glimpses into the “lighter side” of the Middle East, which is typically conveyed through the apparently incongruous juxtaposition of ancient belief with modern technology (such as Dial-A-Sheikh, a subset of the practice of “Fatwa shopping” by which some devout Muslims will consult numerous religious authorities in search of rulings that license their particular desires) and the weirdly adorable adoption of the accoutrements and attitudes of bourgeois post-modernity by its most determined antagonists (such as the annual birthday poem sent to MacFarquhar from

MacFarquhar hopscotches around the region introducing his readers to dissident bloggers in Bahrain, a controversial Saudi theologian who argues that the Wahhabi sect should not have a monopoly on interpreting Islam, a female Saudi education professor who still bears a stigma for having been one of the 47 women who defied the ban on women driving in a famous protest back in 1990, and a young Jordanian poet and activist. All of these men and women confront overwhelming obstacles, neatly summarised by MacFarquhar thusly:

“The stifling control of the secret police; the absence of the rule of law even if the constitution seems to guarantee it; the fact that one tribe or one clique has controlled each government for so long; the inherent difficulty in working alone because organising is mostly banned; the daunting power of the Muslim Brotherhood or other religious parties; and finally, the keen disappointment that a new generation of rulers did not automatically introduce a new way of thinking.”

MacFarquhar endows this litany, intimately familiar to readers of the Arab Human Development report (and to the millions who endure the conditions named therein), with a human face by relating the stunted aspirations of activists in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria. The stories become as repetitive as the violent ones that MacFarquhar eschews. In Saudi Arabia – where political parties and NGO’s are banned, there is no right to assembly, and all of the 10 daily newspapers are owned by “royal princes or their close associates” who censor debate in their pages – “reformists repeatedly found themselves hobbled by the utter lack of a platform to so much as discuss change”. A human rights lawyer in Syria, where every gathering of five or more people is technically illegal, points out that “the opposition has no power and no programme”. In Bahrain, the royal family has responded to the rise of the internet with a new policy, as effective as the old: “Say what you want, and we will do what we want.”

While touring these obstacles, MacFarquhar is continually on the lookout for ways that America might do good in the region, chiefly by nurturing indigenous forces for change in ways subtle enough to avoid the backlash that an open American embrace typically triggers. He points out that America’s incursion into Iraq (“the biggest, messiest experiment in changing the practice of minority rule”) has discredited the cause of democracy and civil rights by allowing ruling despots – who collaborate with the rhetoric of the War on Terror by portraying themselves as “the finger in the dyke holding back the raging sea of radical Islam” – to simultaneously paint indigenous reformers as American stooges.

In a similar vein, he suggests that a single-minded focus on elections amounts to overreaching in a region that first needs to build the rudiments of civil society. He proposes that Americans increase the amount of foreign aid targeted toward development, become more vocal in condemning all forms of repression, and refuse to moderate that criticism just because a foreign government serves America’s immediate policy goals. He urges a return to “a time when the US was known for defending the little guy, when the guiding principle of American foreign policy was doing the right thing”.

The blameless banality of these suggestions, most of which are both apposite and true in their way, winds up in tension with many of MacFarquhar’s observations elsewhere in his book. It begins as a view of the “lighter side” of the Middle East; it becomes, almost in spite of itself, a rather crushing account of political paralysis. The “smart, energetic, dedicated activists out there working to transform the region may not have reached a critical mass”, he writes. They may “face terrible odds in confronting the brutal machinery that keeps so many dictators in power”. But, he concludes somewhat lamely: “they are determined to make a difference.”

This statement, which describes the lonely and isolated dissidents whose values MacFarquhar shares, of course leaves out the energetic and dedicated people whose methods terrify him. Indeed, the humour embedded in the title of his book is premised on the American assumption that Hizbollah is beyond the pale. But MacFarquhar also acknowledges that Hizbollah “were the only group bent on change” in Lebanon. Discussing that country’s vaunted “Cedar Revolution”, MacFarquhar notes that “it was a name dreamed up in Washington, and one I could never bring myself to write in any story”, since the “protests did not seem to be anything remotely resembling a revolution”: “nobody was demanding fundamental reordering of the outdated division of spoils that allotted political power to various sects according to the circa 1940 population numbers”, and “nobody expected an end to the dominance of feudal families who divided up political power and patronage among themselves”.

MacFarquhar’s recognition of the need for a “fundamental reordering” of power relations in a region dominated by ruling minorities who control all political and economic power and who understand, as he quotes one Bahraini reformer observing, “that sharing power means losing power”, does not square with the incremental liberal meliorism that he wants to believe in.

It would be useful for Western authors considering the predicament of Middle Eastern politics to remember the history of their own countries, all of which were governed by unaccountable minorities as recently as a few hundred years ago. In order to arrive at the orderly and pacific condition that Europe currently enjoys – with religion an afterthought, free speech unabridged, and nobles reduced to an ornamental status – the continent passed through centuries of war, revolution, genocide and ethnic cleansing, including the cruelest instance of each of the preceding the world has ever seen. Out of this crucible arose the unique political cultures of the West. And these cultures proclaimed universal values that were, in the event, inextricably bound up with the exercise of arbitrary power around the world, including the Middle East.

Nothing ordains that the Arab world will have to follow Europe’s bloody path to modernity, but remembering this history will provide some larger perspective on the spasms of hope and despair that afflict well-intentioned Western liberals like MacFarquhar. He refers to “a brief moment of high optimism among reformers in the Arab world, a time when the US put Arab leaders on notice that business as usual was no longer acceptable”. This implies that the strong reformist rhetoric of Condoleeza Rice, which was immediately abandoned after Hamas’s victory in Gaza, represented an important squandered opportunity that might really have made a difference if the follow up had been other than “anaemic”, the consistency other than “non-existent”.

This disillusionment does not make sense from someone who knows the reality of the Middle East’s fraught relationship with the United States as well as MacFarquhar does. Given America’s other policy commitments, what did he expect? The weird innocence of his disappointment suggests that for all the restraint, subtlety and patience MacFarquhar urges on American policymakers, he still wishes ardently for change far beyond the scale of what any outside actor, particularly one so historically compromised, can bring about in the region. Change comes from the people who are able to deliver it, at a time when the conditions are right, and it is not always for the better. The first thing Americans facing this reality must do, its best-intentioned liberals not excepted, is refrain from fooling themselves into thinking otherwise.

Wesley Yang, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for Nextbook and n+1.

Inside the Box
February 2nd, 2009

I knew about Britney Spears a few months before the rest of the world. What I mean by this is that I was a viewer of The Box in 1998. You could call into The Box to request a video, and the idea was that at some interval after you had made your call, the video you had requested would appear. I sometimes thought about doing this, but the logistics of it seemed daunting to me, and I could never muster the nerve. Instead, I was content to watch the videos that others had chosen, which were not the videos I would have chosen. To judge by the videos that did play—and there seemed no difference between this pseudo-democracy and the usual kind of pre-programmed channel, since the same handful of videos rotated with numbing regularity—The Box catered to an "urban" demographic underserved by MTV, which was then in a transitional phase of its existence, long past the heroic days when it featured gender-bending synth-pop from limp-wristed limeys with a perpetual sob in their voice, and just at the beginning of Carson Daly's brazen ascent at TRL.

The Box played the trashiest videos by the trashiest acts with the lowest production values. And many of these videos showed a lot of skin, which made them an indispensable resource to young men caught in the New Jersey suburbs. Back then, in the days of dial-up Internet access (and it may be hard for our younger readers to conceive of this) it was hard to find things to masturbate to if you weren't ready to admit—as mostly people weren't, back then—that you were a disgusting pervert willing to spend money to see women treated like objects in front of a camera.

If you had one of the old cable boxes, you could press channels 3, 5, and 7 simultaneously and get a flickering, distorted look at the Playboy Channel. Sometimes the screen resembled a gold mosaic bearing the faint outlines of an image; other times a chaos of harsh colors in scrambled flux. Occasionally, it would resolve into a clear image, though only for a few seconds at a time. You would see a breast surging in slow motion as it passed through a sprinkler, brushed by the water's prismatic spray, or cut-off jean shorts shucked off onto a haybale. Or a car wash would degenerate into a naked sudsy free-for-all. Though you could not hear, you could imagine the various soundtracks—the perfunctory fiddle and banjo accompanied with the airless syn-drum beat; the wart-hog growl and squeal of a neon pink BC Rich, as the guy with the black-painted fingernails eased off the whammy bar. Time was short: you had to be ready to respond to these inducements, to answer the call to solitary arousal.

If you wanted to see a picture of a penis penetrating a vagina, you had to venture out to a former warehouse space on the West Side Highway and pay $25 for a magazine that came hidden in a brown paper sleeve. You had to put yourself in the company of seedy characters bathed in blear light amid the all-pervading odor of ammonia. If this was your interest, you desired something known then as "hardcore" pornography, which was ostensibly against the law as recently as the early 1990s. It was a curious time to be trapped in the hormonal tempest of that period of life—between the Meese Commission's report on pornography, and the publication of Catherine MacKinnon's groundbreaking work (and more than thirty years after the release of the Beatles' first LP)—when one of the consequences of sexual exploration was death from an incurable illness, and when Christian morality and radical feminism both inveighed against what the consumption of pornography was doing to the heart and soul and loins of a people.

We took these dire admonitions at least partially seriously, we earnest youth of America, because though we didn't really believe in any Christian creed, we believed that there was something inherently precious and singular in everyone (but particularly in ourselves) that deserved to be loved, something that was endlessly fragile and needful of protection. Even if we held the hysterical aspects of campus feminism at a remove, we believed that equality was the foundation of the true love that would express itself in an intimate, mutually fulfilling eroticism. That's what we thought back then.

My mood in those days was somnolent. I drove a 1989 Nissan Pulsar NX that my parents had bought me for $500. I was working as a reporter at a free weekly newspaper in East Brunswick, NJ, earning $15,482 a year and living in Milltown, NJ. I would drive down a peculiar strip of Route 18 that looked like one of those long tracking shots that filmmakers rely on to establish a mise-en-scene of anonymity and cheapness—those garish colors attenuated by years of grime, those ghostly commercial icons suspended on massive pedestals projecting into the sky, and all those tons of polished metal darting around the off-ramps bearing their vulnerable human cargo. You grew accustomed to risking death at the jug-handled turn ramps that were unique to New Jersey highways. It felt like the end of the world.

The music I preferred on these excursions were hissy dubbed cassette tapes of Glenn Gould playing Bach in that bludgeoning, affectless style he invented, so remorseless in its inhuman power. The music, turned up all the way so as to be audible over the wide open windows—the car had no air-conditioning—felt a little bit like purgatory, and a little bit like anesthesia, and most of all like the cold rapture of thought struggling to transcend its surroundings. I've never felt as alone as I did in that little box, the hot wind battering my face, cutting through those desolate stretches of big box stores, passing through the newly built subdivisions that had sprung up on raw pastureland. But sometimes, when the music was high, and the sun was a hot smear at high noon, or you were hurtling down an empty stretch of road at night, you felt the immense power of the car you were driving to propel you beyond yourself and into—Jameson called it the hysterical sublime.

Those were the days when (if I wasn't watching the Box) I would work my way through the dense thickets of the pseudo-philosophical jargon that proposed to name this condition in which I was living, to dignify it with a lofty vocabulary that radiated a paranoid dread that seemed to be the only feeling worth feeling back then, the only feeling that was real and alive. What was this malign historical stasis I was living through, that my own life seemed so helpless a product of, in which there was no fate beyond bored passivity in the face of capitalism's triumphal march?

When I first saw Britney Spears on the Box, in the fall of 1998, what I thought about was Britny Fox. Now, Britny Fox was a terrible hair metal band that had scored a hit earlier in the '90s with a song called "Girlschool." It featured a classroom full of Catholic schoolgirls gyrating to the beat in defiance of a stern teacher. They roll up their shirts to expose their abs, and muss their hair, but they don't go any further—there isn't anywhere further to go. Thus the video, which started off promisingly, reaches a narrative impasse, and the women just keep swaying around in the classroom for the rest of the song.

But that was a sexist video by a horrible hair metal band that exploited women. Britney Spears was something else—an inflection point in the culture. TRL's arrival in Times Square was an important signpost in that neighborhood's new identity. Giuliani's quality-of-life police ran out the junkies and the prostitutes. Disney remade the square as a gleaming, candy-colored monument to anodyne, family-friendly, corporate-sponsored mass entertainment. Britney, the former mouseketeer, literally straddled the divide between Times Square's old and new identities. It was a further elaboration of the "winner take all system" that still obtained in the world of 1998, whereby all the money that might once have supported an ecosystem of joke-tellers in the Catskills was sitting in Jay Leno's pocket. Instead of an army of diseased whores, there would be one perfectly airbrushed youth whom the whole world would watch together.

Now, none of this became clear to me until the spring of 2001, when Pepsi ran an amazing ad in which Bob Dole is sitting alone in his bedroom, bathed in that eerie blue light cast by the TV screen, watching Britney Spears dance around singing an anthem of generational change that is also a paean to Pepsi. And this one-handed war hero and Presidential aspirant who was, by that time, better known as a commercial spokesman for Viagra, is as engrossed by the image of the young Spears as any man who would like to have an erection but requires the help of cutting-age technology would be. His dog barks, and Dole says: "Down Boy."

And there was something about this moment more eloquent, radical, and true than anything I had read in those candy-colored paperbacks. It was like a wild utopian novel condensed into a single, electric image: freedom, spontaneity, youth, and a sexuality that was boundless, innocent, and all-encompassing confronting age, authority, infirmity, limitation, subsuming and vanquishing it. Or it was like a dark dystopian satire folded into an instant: a man of power and authority prostituting himself to the seduction of a dream world concocted by corporate masters who feed out endlessly deferred dreams of power, success, and love in the name of fizzy, corn-syrupy water. The commercial did not merely suggest, but actually demonstrated in the most palpable way, that no man had the dignity to rise above this fate.

Most of all, it was a picture of the world as it was, it felt like the American present, and it felt like life. I went on Amazon and liquidated what remained of those theory books, while they still retained some value. It was the spring of 2001 and American prosperity was at its height. We had elected George W. Bush president, Britney Spears was the biggest pop star in the world, and I had finally acquired a broadband connection. I was ready for what was to come.

—Wesley Yang

The End of the Affair
In a book on the Dreyfus Affair, writer-lawyer Louis Begley offers a 21st-century J’accuse

By Wesley Yang | 12:45 pm September 4, 2009 Print This Post
Alfred Dreyfus being stripped of rank in a public ceremony, 1895

Alfred Dreyfus being stripped of rank in a public ceremony, 1895

As the 19th century was ending, Europe engaged in a series of dress rehearsals for the calamities awaiting it in the 20th. The Dreyfus Affair was the most conspicuous of these portents of the terror and inhumanity to come. The conviction of a French artillery officer of Jewish extraction for a treasonous act committed by another exposed virtually every ailment that threatened the modern state—justice perverted by those charged to uphold it, the institutions of a free society turned against the rights they were designed to preserve, and the explosion of Jew-hatred that would, in a later decade, rally the mediocre to the banner of universal murder.

“Death! Death to the Jews!” resounded in the courtyard of the École Militaire as fellow soldiers ripped the decorations off of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ cap and sleeves, tossed his badges of rank onto the ground, and broke his saber in two. This was during the ceremony of degradation that preceded his internment in the penal colony of Devil’s Island. Dreyfus, a recent graduate of the nation’s elite military academy assigned to the General Staff, had been convicted on the basis of a resemblance, controverted by one of the experts assigned to evaluate it, of a single scrap of his handwriting to that of a document seized by a spy from the German embassy enumerating a list of items (the infamous bordereau, as it came to be known) delivered by a French agent to his German handler. The rest was prejudice, guesswork, and group-think: his accusers were never able to establish any motive (Dreyfus was a devoted family man and the inheritor of a large industrial fortune), and the character testimony adduced against him consisted of the aimless tittle-tattle of resentful classmates assured by their superiors that he was a traitor. The army rallied around documents brazenly altered by one of their agents to buttress a fabricated certainty. These documents were secretly presented to the military jurors who would go on to convict him, in defiance of the most basic courtroom propriety. Overcoming the army’s intransigence and its deceptions would take more than a decade, and a struggle for truth and justice of unprecedented scope.

Present in that crowd of onlookers was the Paris correspondent of Vienna’s largest newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse. Writing five years after the event, that writer, Theodor Herzl, who had in the intervening years recast himself in the role of political visionary, lamented that such an event could occur even “in republican, modern civilized France, one hundred years after the declaration of the Rights of Man.” He discerned in those bloodthirsty chants “the wish of the enormous majority in France to damn a Jew, and, in this one Jew, all Jews,” and concluded that in that call “the edict of the Great Revolution”—which had granted Jews full citizenship rights more than half a century before any other country—“has been revoked.” The implied question was clear—if this is what is done to a Jew in France, what will they scruple to do to him in Austria, Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine?

The call for Jewish blood would resound throughout France in the years to come, inflamed by a rabid right-wing press ascribing all the efforts to secure justice for the condemned to a diabolical “Jewish syndicate.” The syndicate, in the paranoid vision of its antagonists, was composed of Jewish international bankers and all the venal politicians, journalists, Socialists, Republicans, and anti-clericalists whom they had bribed or found common cause alongside in the assault against all that was traditional, decent, honest, God-fearing, virile, and orderly in the French nation.

These were the chauvinist, nationalist, and anti-Semitic notions that would someday metastasize into the mass political movement known as fascism. But the Dreyfus Affair was only a symbolic enactment of the infamies to come. Dreyfus survived his ordeal on Devil’s Island and lived to see his total vindication. The French military that re-convicted Dreyfus in 1899 for a crime that its highest ranking officers knew by then he had not committed awarded him, in 1906, with its highest decoration. The countervailing forces that rallied to Dreyfus’ cause, by the end of the affair, had effected a total rout of their opponents; indeed, this rout was a condition of his vindication.

The Dreyfusard party began as a party of one—Dreyfus’ brother Mathieu. One by one, men of talent and energy were converted to the cause. Among them were the great novelists Anatole France and Émile Zola, who penned, in the wake of a military court martial’s exoneration of the crime’s true culprit—a penniless adventurer and rake named Count Esterhazy—the most consequential work of crusading journalism ever published: the open letter to the French President Felix Faure in defense of Dreyfus that went by the name of J’accuse. The men of science and letters who emerged as a new force in society during the affair—the “intellectuals,” as they were first dubbed by Georges Clemenceau—were joined by a voice that ought to have been decisive. Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, former head of the Statistics Section, found evidence implicating Esterhazy in the course of his investigations. “What do you care if that Jew rots on Devil’s Island?” his superior asked him, pointing out, as Louis Begley puts it in his elegant summary of the affair Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters “that if Picquart did not tell anyone, no one would know.” To which Picquart responded: “What you are saying General, is abominable. I will not in any event take this secret with me to the grave.”

As Dreyfus’ enemies heaped ever greater stakes on the defense of his conviction, so the Dreyfusard cause came to stand for all of the values against which his enemies inveighed—the accountability of the military to civilian rule, the legitimacy of the Republic to represent the nation of France, and a renewed commitment to the French Revolutionary principles of equality before the law. Eventually the Dreyfusards swelled to include the most powerful men in France, who used the affair to assert greater civilian control over the military and to break the independent power of the Catholic Church—whose newspapers had called for the expulsion of the Jews from France.

The story of how a case of petty espionage and skulduggery in the Army came to polarize all of France into two warring camps is among the most copiously documented events in world history. In its labyrinthine complexity and its many novelistic flourishes, it seemed to anticipate, and indeed to provide the template for, all subsequent political scandals, miscarriages of justice, and abuses of government secrecy that followed it. Wherever truth and fairness are sacrificed on the altar of national security, wherever a legal contest expands to become a political or cultural struggle—an echo of the affair resounds.

It is for this reason among the most frequently referenced events of recent history. The trial and execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, the nuclear espionage conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Wen Ho Lee case—even the OJ Simpson trial, have drawn, with varying degrees of plausibility, comparisons to the Dreyfus Affair. The Weekly Standard even had the chutzpah to call the acquittal by the U.S. Senate of Bill Clinton on the charge of high crimes and misdemeanors for perjuring himself on the subject of his sexual dalliances with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky “Our Dreyfus Case.”

In the period after 9/11, one began to hear of new Dreyfus Affairs, linked to the resurgence of anti-Semitism among Arab youth in Europe. The New York Times called the murder of Ilan Halimi —in which French Arab youths kidnapped, tortured, and killed a young French Jew—“today’s Dreyfus Affair,” while The New Republic attached the headline “Dreyfus Affair 2.0” to an account of a story in which a French court had vindicated the charge made by an online media critic that a French television report about the killing of a 12-year old Palestinian refugee by Israeli soldiers had relied on stage footage.

Both of these attempts to channel the legacy of the Dreyfus Affair cast the significance of that event solely as a matter of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-defense. But Jewish self-defense, narrowly construed, was only one of the many aspects of that multifarious event. The Dreyfus Affair awakened Herzl to the need for Jews to answer aggressive nationalism with a self-empowering national movement of their own. But the assault against the Jews was always also an assault against the universal values of the Enlightenment, of which the Jews had been the special beneficiary.

Begley was a successful lawyer at a major New York firm when he published his first novel in 1991, at the age of 57. Wartime Lies was fictionalized account of his own flight from the Nazis, made at the age of seven. In Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters, he acknowledges the faults of the assimilationist creed of Dreyfus’ and Herzl’s day, laments the “tendency of French Jews to minimize the importance of anti-Semitism, remain passive, and avoid speaking out against outrageous behavior,” and deplores the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Halimi case and other events like it. But he opens his book by drawing a direct parallel between Devil’s Island—where Dreyfus was held in solitary confinement for five years for a crime he did not commit—and Guantanamo Bay.

The choice amounts to an implicit insistence that Jewish self-defense and the defense of the rights of despised minorities everywhere are always one and the same cause, and that any ostensible pursuit of Jewish interests that countenances the violation of due process and Constitutional protections for the accused, or that winks at lawless behavior in our government or intelligence agencies, is a betrayal of the memory of the Dreyfus Affair. Thus Begley’s riveting account of the affair—as clean, poised, and concise as any yet written—is also an intervention in the politics of the moment and a reminder that though the Jews must be for themselves in a time of great tension and danger, they must not be for themselves alone.

Begley begins his case in the most confrontational way possible, with an act of empathy that many Americans will be reluctant to undertake. He begins by hailing the Obama Administration’s decisions to end “an era of dragnet detentions and mistreatment or worse of alleged enemy combatants, and secret CIA prisons,” and to “bring the United States back under the rule of law.”

“One supposes that the news of Senator Obama’s victory on November 4, 2008, must spread from cell to cell in Guantanamo—except perhaps to those in which detainees, some of them shackled, are held in solitary confinement—and one can imagine the stirring of hope among the prisoners. One can even more easily imagine the joy with which the news of the stay of the trials before the military commission has been greeted.”

Here Begley is extolling the effect of Obama’s election on the morale of Guantanamo inmates. One reflexively imagines—as the writers of the Dreyfus’ time must have had to wonder about the next broadside from La Libre Parole, the scurrilous anti-Semitic newspaper owned by Edouard Drumont, author of La France Juivie—what our scurrilous American right-wing press will make of such an utterance. But though the invitation to empathy seems politically impermissible in the current environment, Begley insists that it is precisely in our reluctance to extend empathy to the enemy combatants imprisoned in Guantanamo that we most resemble the French public that turned its back on Dreyfus. “Just as at the outset of the Dreyfus Affair the French found it easy to believe that Dreyfus must be a traitor because he was a Jew, many Americans have had no trouble believing that the detainees of Guantanamo—and those held in CIA jails—were terrorists simply because they were Muslims.”

There were 800 detainees in Guantanamo Bay in 2001. The claim made by Donald Rumsfeld that they were “the worst of the worst” has been decisively rebuked by the subsequent release of 600 of them without trial or charge by the Bush Administration. Most of them really were just bumbling nobodies who happened to get in the way of the wrong venal US allied warlord after 9/11. But some of them—particularly the “high level detainees” in CIA jails—have the blood of thousands of American innocents on their hands. Not that Begley doesn’t know this, but it bears repeating simply because of a structural problem built into the analogy between “inmates of American detention during the War on Terror”—a category encompassing hundreds of the guilty and not guilty—and “Dreyfus”—one innocent man—can lend itself to a certain misleading equivalence that Begley, in his zeal to make his argument, does not always avoid.

These minor reservations aside, Begley has written a brave and important book. Beneath its lawyerly precision, the book vibrates with what one feels must be a personal passion. Begley fled a Europe destroyed by hate and fear, a world in which the dread of enemies without and within led an ancient and civilized nation to imprison, torture, and kill without restraint, and to wage a war without limits while husbanding an intact sense of its own righteousness and victimization through it all. He found in America a virtuous haven for himself and others of his kind which permitted him to join the ranks of its wealthy elite in a single lifetime—only to observe, in old age, the lawless depredations of the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11. “As each generation confronts the outrages committed in its name,” he writes, permitting his lawyerly voice to lift toward eloquence, “analogies to past outrages become clear, illuminating. And so does the need for a response to the question that has been posed time and again without losing its urgency: Will there be in that generation men and women ready to defend human rights, and the dignity of every human life against abuse wrapped in claims of expediency and reasons of state?”

The Dreyfusards answered the call in their own time. The answering voices confronting malign forces in the time of Begley’s childhood were not sufficient to the task posed to them.

Of our own time, Begley writes:

“Journalists dedicated to exposing the abuses of the Bush Administration, members of the federal judiciary unflinchingly upholding the rule of law, military lawyers who have put their careers at risk by taking a stand against torture and kangaroo trials, and civilian lawyers and law professors of all ages who have devoted thousands of hours without pay as legal defenders of Guantanamo detainees have given the answer for the United States. They have redeemed the honor of the nation.”

The Liveliest Mind in New York

Tony Judt’s dazzling, cantankerous brain is one of this city’s great treasures. Now, two years into a devastating battle with ALS, it is all he has left.

By Wesley Yang
Published Mar 7, 2010

(Photo: Marco Grob)
It’s a bit of a struggle to get comfortable right now,� says Tony Judt, who is seated in a book-lined office in an apartment above Washington Square. He says this in a matter-of-fact way. He has been resting a little, as he does for short spells throughout the day. The room is very warm and quiet, save for the whirring of the air pump that keeps his diaphragm functioning and his labored intake through the bi-pap valve embedded in each of his nostrils. Three large computer monitors stand adjacent to one another on a long desk. They run a looped slideshow�snapshots of Judt walking with his wife, clowning around with his children, wearing various styles of glasses (square and clunky giving way to round and sleek), sitting in a chair with an arm draped casually across its back.

Now Judt excuses himself and very patiently gives instructions on how to make sitting upright, for a time, bearable. Just a little bit forward with the legs, please. All right. Now�up�and back. His nurse, a sturdy man with a black ponytail, wrestles with the electronic knobs that control the many moving parts of his wheelchair. No�up, as far as it can go. Far as it can go. That’s right. Just a little bit down. And now back. That’s right. Judt requires the assistance of a microphone to be easily heard, and the speaker crackles with the sound of his sighs.

The disease that has paralyzed most of Judt’s body�amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease�has reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper, though it still retains the distinctive rhythms and intonations that made it, until recently, a commanding instrument. Judt is, by common assent, one of the most eloquent and erudite public intellectuals working today��one of the great political writers of the age,� in the judgment of the political philosopher John Gray. He presides over the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he supports research, schedules lectures, and shapes the direction of European historical studies. He has written eight books on the history of politics and ideas in Europe, and is a famously tough-minded and combative writer of essays, reviews, and op-ed pieces. All in all, he is one of the most admired and denounced thinkers living in New York City.

ALS is incurable, fatal, and little understood. It leaves its victims mentally intact. It does not obliterate sensation, and it does not inflict any pain. As Judt puts it, �You’re free to sit there quite calmly contemplating your own steady decline.� Recently, he dictated for The New York Review of Books a short essay offering his readers a glimpse into his bedroom at night. �There I lie,� he wrote, �trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.�

He went on to invite his readers to imagine deleting their ability to move their arms and legs from various daily settings�to scratch their hand, or shift position at night�and consider the effect this would have on their morale. Morning, he wrote, brings �an occasion to communicate with the outside world and express in words, often angry words, the bottled-up irritations and frustrations of physical inanition.� By the time he refers to his �cockroachlike existence� of �humiliating helplessness,� his simple thought experiments have posed a paradox: How can a man enduring the unbelievable torment described within the essay have retained the clarity and poise to have written it?

The essay was unlike anything he had written before: an intimate view of the author’s private anguish. �I can’t remember another piece of memoiristic writing that created such waves of interest in our little pond,� says the writer and Columbia professor Todd Gitlin. It was not, however, the whole of his written output. After spending a few months absorbing the shock of his diagnosis eighteen months ago, Judt has become enormously prolific: dictating essays and opinion pieces, delivering a public lecture to a packed auditorium, and assembling material for three books, one of which�a rallying cry on behalf of a renewed social democracy�will be published next week. Consigned to a broken body but perfectly sound in mind, he has acquired something of a second presence beyond that of a historian and public intellectual�a figure whose pathos haunts the thoughts of others. �There are many days now where I find myself thinking about Tony Judt,� says Gitlin, �and I hardly even know him.�

�I use words to make sense of my life,� explains Judt. �Words can make the illness a subject I can master, and not one that one simply emotes over.� Longtime admirers believe Judt’s writing is stronger than it has ever been. �He has been able to do some of his best work,� says Robert Silvers, the editor of TheNew York Review of Books, who has assigned Judt more than 60 pieces over the years. �The pure intensity of effort and courage needed to arrive at the ability to do it is something difficult to imagine. It’s a great victory for him.�

Next: Why he declines that there is something heroic in what he has accomplished.

Judt politely declines to entertain any suggestion that there is something heroic in what he has accomplished. �It’s not heroic. Heroism consists of doing things you don’t have to do and that cause you tremendous cost that you’re willing to accept in order to do the thing you feel you have to do. It doesn’t cost me anything to write. Where I do think I deserve merit points is for sheer strength of will. The natural thing to do is to say �fuck it’�to lie down with a whiskey and watch old movies. It takes willpower to say, �I’ll be happier if I do this than if I just lie there, bored.’ �

Judt’s academic reputation rests on the 2005 publication of Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. It was an enormous success: The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who is collaborating with Judt on a follow-up book, calls Postwar �the best book on its subject that will ever be written by anyone�; Louis Menand, reviewing the book in The New Yorker, wrote that Judt’s scope was �virtually superhuman.� Postwar recounts two related stories: How Western Europe banished political extremism by building a robust welfare state, and how Eastern Europe first succumbed to and later released itself from communist rule. The book hinges on a series of painful ironies, each of which Judt pins down with precision. He both exposes the self-serving myth of European resistance to the Nazis during the war and acknowledges that it was precisely on the basis of such myths that a ruined Europe was able to restore itself. He also observes that because war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing had separated the fractious, ethnically diverse regions of Eastern Europe into tidy, homogenous nation-states, �the stability of postwar Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.�

Judt regards himself as a teller of hard, impolite truths. �I’ve always been willing to say exactly what I think,� he declares. To wit: His own NYU history department used to be mostly �dull and p.c.�; most other historians are unable to write �to save their lives�; and public intellectuals who aren’t an expert in something are �blah-blah generalists�and then you’re David Brooks. And you’re garbage.�

In his writing, Judt has a way of electrifying the atmosphere around intellectual debates, flinging shards of rhetoric sharp enough to shatter myths. Among his targets over the years: communism, the postmodern academy, French intellectuals, fellow liberals, fellow Jews. In 2006, he published an article in the London Review of Books accusing the American liberal intellectual class�singling out by name David Remnick, Peter Beinart, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Ignatieff, and Paul Berman�of a collective abdication of their critical responsibilities, calling them �useful idiots� of the Bush administration. In response, dozens of liberals who had opposed the war signed a manifesto denouncing the piece as �nonsense on stilts.�

To some extent, Judt’s Iraq essay could be read as payback for the sharp exchanges that had occurred three years earlier in response to another bombshell he had thrown. In an infamous article in The New York Review of Books titled �Israel: The Alternative,� Judt declared, �The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.� For Israel to remain a Jewish state, he wrote, it would be all but impossible to remain a democracy: The demographics of �Greater Israel� (which includes an overwhelmingly Arab population in the occupied territories) will soon make this logically impossible. Yes, Israel could dismantle its settlements, but this appeared to Judt a fantasy: �Many of those settlers will die�and kill�rather than move.� Or Israel could forcibly expel its Arab population, �but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project.� The alternative Judt floated was to establish Israel as a binational state�in effect, to give up on the Zionist project entirely.

Upon its publication, Judt was branded, as he puts it, as �a crazed, left-wing, anti-Zionist and self-hating Jew,� stripped of his contributing editorship at The New Republic, and labeled by Leon Wieseltier, his close friend and the editor there, as someone who had called for �the abolition of the Jewish nation-state.�

This is not a particularly helpful sobriquet for a Jew living in Manhattan, and Judt disputes the characterization of his essay (he was describing an emerging reality, he says, not advocating a solution). But to �think the unthinkable,� as he urged his readers to do about Israel’s future�and to say it aloud�has been Judt’s self-assigned mission. �I think intellectuals have a primary duty to dissent not from the conventional wisdom of the age (though that too) but, and above all, from the consensus of their own community,� he says. �So liberals should look especially hard at the uninterrogated assumptions of liberalism. Otherwise we are just hacks for a party line. If I have an Archimedean ethical standpoint, it really just consists of telling the truth as I see it even if I don’t much care for the implications, or if it offends my friends and my political allies.�

Next: His first faint warning signals of the disease.

Judt is a man of many commitments and loyalties, none of them unconditional, and all of them subservient to the preservation of intellectual independence. �I grew up among Marxist autodidacts, but was never a root-and-branch Marxist for that very reason,� Judt explains. �It’s like chicken pox: If you’re inoculated early enough, you don’t get it completely.� In the sixties, he spent his summers working on a kibbutz, but he now says he was �never entirely, wholeheartedly �part of the project.’ � This sense of dislocation followed him to Cambridge, where he studied and taught for twelve years yet never quite belonged. �At a certain point,� he says, �to remain slightly tangential to wherever I was became a way of �being Tony’: by not being anything that everyone else was.�

In the spring of 2008, the neuromuscular disease that was already stirring in Judt began sending out its first faint warning signals. While typing, he would slip and hit the wrong key, �as if your fingers wouldn’t quite do what you had told them to do.� Judt had undergone treatment for sarcoma in his left arm only six years earlier, and the prospect of another devastating illness was not on his mind. �Next thing you know,� he says, �you’re throwing a baseball and it doesn’t go quite as far as you expected, and you’re still thinking, �Oh, shit, I’m getting old.’ And then you go for a walk and your breathing is a bit tight, and you think, �I need to work out more.’ And it’s only when the doctor puts all these things together do you realize, �Wait a minute, what’s happening here is more serious.’ �

ALS causes the neurons that connect the brain to the spinal cord and the spinal cord to the muscles to degenerate. The brain loses the ability to control movement. The muscles atrophy and die. Judt was diagnosed in September 2008, and the rapid deterioration of the large muscles in the lower part of his body set in soon afterward.

�He always wanted to continue doing things until it was no longer possible,� says Casey Selwyn, a recent NYU graduate who worked as Judt’s assistant. �Things like turning pages, or typing, or using a mouse.� She watched as, one by one, these faculties faltered. �Until it was absolutely physically no longer possible,� she says, �he would keep doing it.�

Before his diagnosis, Judt had just begun imagining his next magnum opus, a follow-up to Postwar that would trace the history of twentieth-century social and political thought. These plans fell by the wayside��Reality is a powerful solvent,� he says�and in November 2008, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder proposed, in its place, that they collaborate on a series of interviews ranging across the breadth of Judt’s career.

The disappointment was painful�Judt had never worked with a collaborator before�but he was impressed with Snyder’s intellect, and the partnership has been successful. �So long as your collaborator is very talented,� Judt allows, �it’s great fun.�

Their discussions took place against the backdrop of Judt’s rapid decline. By January 2009, he had lost the use of his arms. By March, his legs began to fail. He was on a respirator by May. �Without actually saying �You’ll be dead next month,’ � Judt remembers, �the doctors said, �This is very fast. It’s unusual.’ � Every week for five months, Snyder interviewed Judt for hours on end. �We wanted to get enough material for Tim to finish up on his own in case I was not able to do it with him,� Judt says.

Soon after they finished their project, in May, a remarkable thing happened: Judt’s health stabilized. The large muscles in most of his body were long gone, but the small muscles that control eating, speaking, and swallowing remained unaffected. They could go at any time and take him with them, or they could last a long time�months, even years. No one knows why his body stopped degenerating, or what happens next.

The interview sessions with Snyder awakened in Judt the urge to start writing again, and to make some noise. In June, he returned to print for the first time since his diagnosis with an op-ed in the Times warning that if Obama failed to follow through on his call for a settlement freeze in the occupied territories, �the United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes.� In July, he wrote a eulogy for the left-wing Israeli journalist and historian Amos Elon in The New York Review of Books, contending that Zionism has, �for a growing number of Israelis, been corrupted into an uncompromising ethno-religious real estate pact with a partisan God.� Here was the old Tony Judt, renewing the old polemics. He was not backing down an inch.

Next: "(I have) an urgency about the need to be angrier about what needs doing."

�I would say that I have become more radical as I have gotten older,� he says. �I started out very radical when I was young, like most people, but I became less actively politically engaged in the middle of my life. And now I detect�and I don’t just think it’s because I have ALS�an urgency about the need to be angrier about what needs doing, what needs saving, and what needs changing.�

In a sense, it is Judt’s continued engagement with the world that has kept him sane. In order to pass the time at night, he has trained himself to enter into prolonged reveries: He organizes various memories into �a Swiss chalet,� placing certain thoughts in certain cupboards, and different examples in different shelves. The mnemonic device has worked well enough that he can wake in the morning and dictate the first draft of brief autobiographical essays, which he would send as e-mails to friends. They are now published as a series in The New York Review of Books, and will eventually be collected into a short book.

Some of the essays are charming reminiscences on light subjects such as his mother’s dismal British cooking. Recently, they have begun to dip, as if by the gravitational pull of Judt’s temperament, into ever more polemical forays. One recent essay on the dangers of identity politics assailed �para-academic programs� like gender studies and Asian-Pacific-American studies that �encourage members of that minority to study themselves�thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.�

In �Kibbutz,� Judt wrote about his youthful infatuation with Israel and his eventual disillusionment following the Six-Day War, when he learned, to his chagrin, that �most Israelis were not transplanted latter-day agrarian socialists but young, prejudiced urban Jews who differed from their European or American counterparts chiefly in their macho, swaggering self-confidence, and access to armed weapons.�

Ever since his friend Edward Said died in 2003, Judt has been assigned, not without his own participation, the mantle of the most visible intellectual dissident from the American consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The subject of Israel’s fate upsets him greatly. �It’s true I feel something between a kind of sorrow and anger that that country is going in that direction,� he says. �I feel I want to stamp hard on the toes of my fellow Jews and ask them: Have you any idea what kind of a place this is that you blindly defend?� He holds in greatest disdain those American Jews who have come down hard on his stance on Israel while declining to live there themselves. �The people whose necks hurt when I write about the Middle East tend to live in Brooklyn or Boca Raton: the kind of Zionist who pays another man to live in Israel for him. I have nothing but contempt for such people.�

In August of last year, Judt found himself planning out the agenda for the Remarque Institute. He told the dean of NYU that he intended to give a seminar about social democracy�its problems and its prospects today. In response, the dean suggested he consider making it a public lecture.

Samuel Johnson famously likened women preachers to dogs walking on their hind legs: �It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.� As the audience gathered at the Skirball Center at NYU one night last October�nearly 1,000 people, including much of New York’s intellectual community�there was considerable unease in the air. It was Judt’s first major public-speaking engagement since his diagnosis. Would this famously articulate speaker, rumored to be afflicted by a dreadful sickness, even meet the Johnsonian standard?

�We did not know what to expect,� says the Columbia University historian Istvan Deak, who had collaborated with Judt in the past. �We were worried about whether he would be able to speak at all, and how painful it would be to see this terribly ill man.� Judt himself knew that his mental capacity was undiminished. Still, he would be unable to take a drink or be adjusted if his body grew uncomfortable, and the logistics of having someone join him onstage to turn the pages of his notes were tricky enough that he decided to memorize the entire lecture. �It would have to be a pure adrenaline-driven performance,� he remembers.

After a fulsome introduction by the dean, Judt was wheeled onto the stage, accompanied by his breathing apparatus and swaddled in a black blanket. He looked ancient and regal and slightly unearthly; his head was clean-shaven, his nostrils distended by the bi-pap valves. Alone onstage, Judt had only two resources to draw on: his words and his will. But they were sufficient to keep the crowd enthralled.

Next: Why he left the auditorium satisfied.

Judt delivered a masterful performance, speaking for an hour and a half without interruption or hesitation. He began by referring to himself as �a quadriplegic wearing facial Tupperware,� and, after running through a concise history of his illness, declared, to an enormous upsurge of laughter and applause, �What you see before you is an original talking head.� As he turned to the substance of his speech, Judt’s voice grew stronger, spontaneously generating the same seamless structure of well-ordered thought that he had habitually produced before his illness. �Why is it,� he asked the audience, �that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so?�

Judt left the auditorium satisfied: He had delivered as vigorous a cry for the importance of old-fashioned left-wing ideas as had been heard in New York in some time. (�It was a good lecture by any standard,� he says, �not just the standard of quadriplegics with bi-paps.�) Afterward, in his apartment, Judt elaborated on the themes of his speech. �There is much more to be done,� he said, �in defense of what we used to think of as classical philosophical abstractions�justice, fairness, equality�in countries like the United States which have become increasingly unjust, unfair, unequal, and which are, by their nature, intuitively unworkable over the long run. If we say it’s not fair that Goldman Sachs can rip off the taxpayer, we are told that that is a silly way to talk and that it has nothing to do with fairness. Well, it has everything to do with fairness. You can’t run a society that is profoundly unfair for a long time without people becoming profoundly distrustful, and without social trust, there can be no common consent and no common goods, and no shared purposes. We need to find a way to once again talk about these things, in ways that used to be commonplace, but now have become radical propositions.�

The speech has had a prolonged afterlife. It was published in The New York Review of Books last December, and Judt worked quickly to expand it into a longer essay, which then aroused the interest of the Penguin Press, who encouraged Judt to expand it further. Judt calls the resulting book, Ill Fares the Land, �an essay on the possibility of living differently.� It was rushed to press, and will be released next week.

It has been a long time since such a political pamphlet has found an American audience. �Who knows if I can get a readership for a book like that,� he says. �But if I don’t try, I have no right to complain that no one is reading or writing such things.� Judt acknowledges the degree to which his illness has added to the curiosity surrounding his work. �I am a little caught between satisfaction at my newly increased reach and mild irritation at the reason for it,� he says. �I understand the sense in which it seems as though I am in a hurry. But as you’ll see when you read the book, I am quite convinced that the urgency lies in the external world and all I am doing is drawing attention to it.�

�You’re going to find this weird,� Judt says, �but the thing I do best is teach.� He considers his role as teacher to be more important than his work as a historian or public intellectual, and he has received hundreds of letters from former students over the years expressing their gratitude. Last spring, Judt taught an undergraduate class in his living room, and since then he has continued to teach a graduate seminar and the occasional individual student.

One Wednesday last month, as a blizzard blankets Washington Square, Judt is helping a second-year graduate student, whom we will call Gabrielle, construct a dissertation reading list on Jewish history.

Gabrielle is a fresh-faced woman in her twenties who speaks with a French accent. They settle into an easy rapport, readily interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences.

�So, how many books � � asks Gabrielle.

�Should we do in toto? Look, if the choices are between 20, 50, 100, and 500 � � Judt begins.

�We go for 500?�

�We go for 100, dear,� Judt replies. �There won’t be more than 100 books worth reading.�

Their talk ranges across the whole of European Jewish history�Eastern, Central, and Western Europe, the Sephardim, the �port Jews� living in places like Salonika and Alexandria. They arrange to meet weekly to plow through the reading.

�I have a request,� Gabrielle mentions. �I said yes to a seder in California. I’ll just be away for just four days, but I feel guilty.�

Next: �Nothing prepares you to die.�

�Guilty toward the work or guilty toward me? That’s why God created holidays. So people like you can go to California.�

After a while, they turn to more personal subjects. �I cannot resist Cambridge people,� Gabrielle confesses.

�That’s a bad basis on which to select anything�husbands, boyfriends, whatever,� says Judt with an amused nod of the head.

�I know!� Gabrielle says ruefully, shrugging.

�I had the same problem once, with midwestern Puritans, with similar consequences.�

They laugh. �All right, then, kiddo. You have your marching orders.�

After Gabrielle leaves, and in the remaining interval before his massage therapist arrives, Judt talks about focusing his unsentimental mind on the subject of his own illness. He give the impression that rationality is sufficient to master any situation. When a reporter for the Guardian asked him recently if he would ever consider euthanasia, he answered without hesitation. �It’s perfectly reasonable that there will come a point where the balance of judgment of life over death swings the other way.�

It is the fate of every strong, indomitable personality to confront his or her own decline, and no one, it seems, has done so with harder lucidity than Judt. �Nothing prepares you to die,� he says. �I imagine it helps if you are profoundly religious, if you absolutely, unequivocally believe that there is a purpose to all this, and that you are going to go somewhere nice. I don’t believe either of those things.

�I thought of this as a stroke of catastrophic bad luck,� Judt explains. �Neither unjust, because after all, there is no justice in luck; nor unfair��Why me and not you?’�which would be a ridiculous way to think of it; nor implausible, because it’s so implausible that plausibility is off the scale. Nor does it have meaning: One thing I always felt very strongly empathetic about in my reading of [the Italian chemist and Holocaust diarist] Primo Levi was his absolutely clearheaded sense that none of what had happened to him in the camps had any meaning. You might draw lessons from it in terms of experience, you certainly might draw political lessons. But at the existential level of one man’s life, it had no meaning. This has no meaning. What I do with it is up to me.

�History can show you that it was one pile of bad stuff after another. It can also show you that there’s been tremendous progress in knowledge, behavior, laws, civilization. It cannot show you that there was a meaning behind it. And if you can’t find a meaning behind history, what would be the meaning of any single life? I was born accidentally. I lived accidentally in London. We nearly migrated to New Zealand. So much of my life has been a product of chance, I can’t see a meaning in it at all. I can just see the good stuff that happened and the bad stuff.

�The meaning of our life,� Judt continues, �is only incorporated in the way other people feel about us. Once I die, my life will acquire meaning in the way they see whatever it is I did, for them, for the world, the people I’ve known. I have no control of that. All I can do is do the best, now.�

The white stuff

* Last Updated: March 18. 2010 8:12PM UAE / March 18. 2010 4:12PM GMT

The theories of European racial superiority that once justified and legitimised western dominance have now been largely consigned to the lunatic fringe, Wesley Yang writes, but their echoes still exert a powerful influence.

The History of White People
Nell Irvin Painter
WW Norton & Company

“Being white is not what it used to be,” Nell Irwin Painter observes at the close of The History of White People. But it has never been what it purported to be. For starters, it has never been a biological reality. As the molecular geneticists have demonstrated, all humans share 99.99 per cent of the human genome, and within the groupings that we have come to think of as “races” there are genetic variations as large as those that exist between them.

Neither has the “white race” ever been a stable or coherent cultural category. It is instead one of the many complex, ever-changing, and self-contradictory just-so stories that certain people told about who they were and why they were entitled to the world they had conquered. “No consensus has ever formed on the number of human races or even on the number of white races,” Painter observes. “Criteria constantly shift according to individual taste and political need.”

Painter’s book is thus an attempt to tell a coherent story about an incoherent idea – one that no one respectable tells explicitly anymore, but that still lingers and haunts us in certain ways. Fair-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed Northern Europeans never had a monopoly on the world’s beauty, accomplishment, intelligence, energy, enterprise, common sense or wealth. But they, and other Europeans who would like to have resembled them, did dominate much of the Earth for the past few hundred years, and they bequeathed many of their self-flattering views to the people they ruled.

One may violently repudiate the assumption of white beauty and superiority, but even in the age of Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Jennifer Lopez, one cannot deny these assumptions still exert pressure on the sensibilities of ordinary people everywhere. “The whiter the better,” one Chinese woman recently told a Washington Post reporter asking her about her use of the skin-whitening products that Chinese women have adopted en masse. This was on the one hand the expression of an old aristocratic Chinese prejudice against the sun-darkened complexions of working people – a prejudice shared by many cultures. It was also an expression of the prestige that hasn’t entirely slipped from the grasp of the small but disproportionately powerful minority of the world’s population reputed to possess – as one 18th-century writer gripped by Teutonomania put it – “the whitest, most blooming and delicate skin,” and “the tallest and most beautiful” men.

Northern Europeans first appear in the writing of classical antiquity as terrifyingly large and bloodthirsty barbarians – relentless in combat, and determined to preserve their liberties. The earliest conceptions of the tribal people called, with characteristic imprecision, Celts, Gauls and Germans, established many of the tropes that would later recur, in ever more outlandish iterations, in the racist writings of modern Europeans and Americans. Along the way, admiration for a mythological “Saxon” heritage inspired Thomas Jefferson to credit the unbroken lineage of the English people for the freedom-loving independence of the American character, while Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most influential American intellectual of the 19th century, enthused over “a rude race, all masculine, with brutish strength,” to be admired for their “beastly ferocity”. Though Painter acknowledges that Emerson knew “the toxic racial thinking of his time and rejected the worst of it”, she also claims he was the “philosopher king of white American race theory”, who lent his intellectual prestige to a series of related concepts of Anglo-Saxon beauty, virility, and fitness to rule that would serve as the intellectual foundation for more pernicious doctrines to come.

The core of the book is devoted to revisiting the vain and absurd things that certain white people have said of themselves, and the vile and cruel things they have said about others, with a special emphasis on the racial calumnies that wore the trappings of serious scientific investigation during the period in which European colonial domination of the globe was at its zenith – the late 19th and early 20th century. American racial scientists responded to the waves of immigration from Europe by emphasising what they claimed to be racial differences between European peo ples: first between the Celtic Irish arriving in the 1830s and 1840s and the Anglo-Saxon descendants of the British; later (after the Irish had been accepted into American national identity) between Northern Europeans and the Slavs, Italians, and Jews who flooded into the country in the late 19th century. These pseudo-scientists, most of whom possessed impeccable credentials from the best American universities, promulgated, as Painter puts it, “the fetishization of tall, pale blond beautiful Anglo-Saxons; a fascination with skulls and head measurements, the drawing of racial lines and the fixing of racial types; the ranking of races along a single evolutionary line of development; and a preoccupation with sex, reproduction, and sexual attractiveness”.

Much of the book is given over to dutiful short biographical accounts of once-eminent men forgotten to posterity, including Lothrop Stoddard, the author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White Supremacy; Madison Grant, whose 1916 “Nordicist” tract The Passing of the Great Race sold more than 1.5 million copies; and William Z Ripley, a professor at Harvard and MIT and the author of The Races of Europe, a 600-page compendium of “racial” research that divided Europeans into three hierarchically ordered races: the Teutonic, the Alpine, and the Mediterranean.

In a characteristic debunking, Painter observes of Ripley’s work (which was treated as an authoritative source for a quarter-century): “”He recognizes early on that these three racial traits – hair color, height, and cephalic index – are not reliably linked in real people. Short people can be blond; blond heads can be round; long heads can grow dark hair. He admits – and laments – that such complexity destroys any notion of clear racial types.”

Since none of these thinkers say anything of any intrinsic value, keeping score of which ones counted Celts among the white races and which ones excluded them doesn’t tell us much beyond what we already know about the arbitrary nature of these racial classifications. The upshot of all the detailed attention paid to ideas with no validity is the depressing realisation that twaddle of this kind was taken seriously by the best-educated Americans of their time, including ones that posterity is otherwise inclined to admire.

Racist and eugenicist ideas informed the imperialistic notions and adventures of Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge and resulted in the involuntary sterilisation of tens of thousands of American women. (Painter quotes the Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ notorious opinion in support of the sterilisation law: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”) These ideas served as the impetus for the Immigration Act of 1924, (which throttled back immigration rates until 1965,) and inspired Nazi theoreticians and policymakers. Eugenicist ideas also, as Painter acknowledges, played a role in the battles for birth control waged by the feminist activist Margaret Sanger and her circle. Plainly racist ideas motivated the first instances of widespread intelligence testing in the army and at Ellis Island (where 60 per cent of all Jews were found to be “morons”).

There were always countercurrents to the racist tidal wave. Painter cites David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, a proto-black nationalist pamphlet published in 1825, which argued that “the whites have always been a jealous, unmerciful, avaricious, and bloodthirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority.” Later, the work of the dissenting anthropologist Franz Boas and his disciples Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead laid the intellectual foundations for the total rout of racist ideas (aided by the example of Nazi Germany, where the full implications of those doctrines were played out) and the triumph of the more inclusive view of human diversity now broadly upheld by clear-thinking people around the world.

The ideas that Painter chronicles have long ago migrated to the lunatic fringes of American and European societies: diversity of colour, if not of means, is the explicit creed of the powerful people of the world, and yet, as she writes, “the face of poor, segregated inner cities remains black”. She might have added that the faces of the victims of failed states, pandemic diseases, famines and atrocities tend to be darker-hued as well. And so, at the end of the many changes that finally expanded the perquisites of white identity to all Americans of European descent, abolishing the intra-European racial categories that the racial scientists once promulgated, “the fundamental black/white binary endures”. Though history and genetics both teach us that “incessant human migration has made us all multiracial” – one-seventh of whites, one-third of blacks, four-fifths of Asians and nineteen-twentieths of Native Americans are closely related to someone from a different racial group – the incoherent fiction that is race continues, more than we might like to acknowledge, to influence the course of world history.

Wesley Yang, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for Nextbook and n+1.

New York Magazine

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A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers’ Sexual Habits and Anxieties

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* By Wesley Yang
* Published Oct 25, 2009

From left: The Car Salesman in a Relationship With an Older Woman, 32, Brooklyn Heights; The Temporarily Celibate Actress, 23, Astoria; The Single Brooklyn Bartender, 23, Williamsburg; The Mailroom Worker in an On-Again-Off-Again Relationship, 35, Upper West Side.
(Photo: Joshua Allen; Grooming by Bryan Lynde)

So there’s this iPhone app called Grindr. It’s a GPS-enabled social-networking service for gay men. It tells you how many feet away a possible hookup is standing. Each profile comes with a picture, a tagline, the relevant stats, and a declaration of interest. You scroll through a column of heads and torsos arranged in descending order of proximity, tapping on the ones that seem promising and chatting with the ones who want the same things you do. As you make your way through the city, the menu of men reshuffles, and the erotic terrain updates in real time.

Has the search for erotic gratification ever been so efficient? Until recently, being a cad or coquette took a lot of work: You needed to buy a little black book, and you had to go around filling it, and then you had to schedule your calls for a time when the target of your seduction was likely to be at home. The less-self-assured daters in New York faced the sickening anxiety of the first phone call, or the cold approach in the bar. There were palliatives designed to help people cope�the newspaper personal ads, the paid dating services, the dirty videos and magazines�but they were generally understood to be the province of weirdos and losers.

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The Sex Diaries

* The Polyamorous Paralegal
* The Horny Editor
* The D.J. With a Flair for Fantasy
* Read More Sex Diaries

No more. The social technologies that assist in dating and mating today are more than palliatives�they’ve changed the nature of the game. If the cold approach is more than you can deal with, put up a Craigslist ad, or join OkCupid, Manhunt, or Nerve. If the phone call makes you nervous, send a text message. And while you’re at it, send a text message to a half-dozen other people with everyone’s favorite late-night endearment: �where u at?� If nothing works out and you find yourself alone at home again, simply fire up XTube or YouPorn and choose from an endless variety of positions to help you reach a late-night climax.

Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with their sexuality digitally enhanced, and the rest of us are rapidly forgetting the world before we all were hooked into the same erotically charged network of instantaneously transmitted messages and images. This must be true across the country, but it seems particularly suited for a city as dense, morally libertine, and sexually spirited as New York. Part of the promise of this city has always been that there’s another prospective partner a subway stop away, but not until recently could that partner interrupt your daily business with a cell-phone snapshot of their parted thighs. And of course, the same technology that makes it easier to score also makes the sexual boast or confession easily transmissible to millions of other people.

Every Monday since April 2007, this magazine has posted on its Daily Intel blog a seven-day diary of an anonymous New Yorker’s sex life. It began as an experiment intended to entertain the bored at work, but the candor of the Diarists soon attracted an outsize and devout following. Since October 2007, they have been joined by a rambunctious cacophony of commenters as obsessive on the subject of sex as the Diarists themselves. They criticize, malign, offer support and tips, and digress into arguments about everyone else’s sex lives, as well as their own. The Diaries are often flooded with over 100 comments within 24 hours. Two months ago, the comments on one diary were closed down at 895.

Over the course of the Sex Diaries’ 132-week run, we have seen the city through the eyes of cuckolds and cheaters, sluts and prudes, victimizers and victims, starry-eyed lovers and detached pleasure seekers. We have followed aging women on dismal Craigslist dates, lonely gay men in pursuit of ostensibly curious straight guys, happily polyamorous couples, and co-dependent serial monogamists. We’ve watched some Diarists terrified of succumbing to their feelings and others unable to feel much of anything at all. We’ve watched a black man fly to meet a white couple at a T.G.I. Friday’s in the Midwest and have sex with the wife as the husband watched.

The Diaries can be arousing, a little. But in aggregate, they wound up doing something more interesting: They cracked open a window into the changing structure, rhythm, and rhetoric of sex in New York. The Diarists are a self-selecting group, of course: bizarrely oversharing New Yorkers motivated by the impulse to brag or, as often, the urge to fling their terrible abjection in the face of the world. But as we watched them struggle with the peculiar hazards of mating in New York today (failing spectacularly, or succeeding all too well), we saw that their hassles were everyone’s writ large, and their stories posed a question: Are the digital tools that make it easier to find sex compounding the confusion that accompanies it?

Next: The anxiety of making the wrong choice.

The editors of this magazine asked me to read all 800 pages of the Sex Diaries, and, using them as a source text, develop some kind of taxonomy of contemporary sexual anxieties. (Let others parse Chaucer, my role was that of exegete of �The Polyamorous Paralegal.�) So that’s what I’ve done. Herewith: ten things that seem to be making our playful, amorous youth crazy.

1. The anxiety of too much choice.
A fact so readily apparent that it has escaped reflection: The cell phone has changed the nature of seduction. One carries in one’s pocket, wherever one goes, the means of doing something other than what one is presently doing, or being with someone other than the person one is with. Take this excerpt from a 31-year-old straight male Diarist (�The Transportation Coordinator Seeing Three Partners�) living on the Upper West Side:

12:32 p.m. I get three texts. One from each girl. E wants oral sex and tells me she loves me. A wants to go to a concert in Central Park. Y still wants to cook. This simultaneously excites me�three women want me!�and makes me feel odd.

This is a distinct shift in the way we experience the world, introducing the nagging urge to make each thing we do the single most satisfying thing we could possibly be doing at any moment. In the face of this enormous pressure, many of the Diarists stay home and masturbate.

2. The anxiety of making the wrong choice.
A Diarist with any game at all has unlimited opportunity. A few find this enjoyable and are up to the task: Identify the single best sexual partner available, or at least the person most amenable to their requirements at the moment. They use their cell phone to disaggregate, slice up, and repackage their emotional and physical needs, servicing each with a different partner, and hoping to come out ahead. This can get complicated quickly, however, and can lead to uneasy situations.

An inordinate number of Diarists find themselves at the brink of enjoying one sexual experience, only to receive a phone call or text from another potential suitor. They become a slave to their compulsion and indecision. Consider these snippets in a week of one Diarist, who is deeply conflicted between her Pseudo and Ex:

2:55 p.m. Pseudo G-chats me. Looks like he might be interested in hanging out tonight after all. 9:30 p.m. Meet up with Ex and friends at bar. Text Pseudo to see if he’s up for doing anything.

2:20 a.m. At a bar with Pseudo and other friends. Ex drunk-texts me: �Wanna fuck?� 3:17 a.m. Half-bottle of wine plus mucho beer plus a few rounds of shots leads to me texting Pseudo, �Let’s get out of here and go back to my place.� 3:18 a.m. Pseudo texts back, �I don’t feel like dealing with you.�

11:45 p.m. At a bar with Pseudo. Ex drunk-texts me.

1:30 p.m. Ex calls and wakes me up. Says he needs to talk in person. 7:49 p.m. Text Pseudo and tell him about convo with Ex. Pseudo replies that he’s sorry, he hopes I end up getting what I want. What the hell does that mean? I have no idea what I want, clearly.

This compulsive toggling between options winds up inflicting the very damage it was designed to protect against.

3. The anxiety of not being chosen.
Among active Diarists, the worry that they will make the wrong choice is surpassed by the fear that they might find themselves without one. To guard against this disaster, everybody is on somebody’s back burner, and everybody has a back burner of their own, which they maintain through open-ended texts, sporadic Facebook messages, G-chats, IM’s, and terse e-mails. The Diarists appear to do this regardless of whether or not they are in a committed, or even a contractually sealed, relationship.

12:22 a.m. Tell him I want him. Clothes off, oral sex given and received.

12:45 a.m. IM sound from my computer. I’m currently busy, but I have a feeling who it is at this hour. Continue deliciously illicit activities which turn into both intercourse and mutual masturbation.

1:50 a.m. After we finish, check IM. I was spot-on; it is Mr. 34. And we all know what 2 a.m. IM’s mean.

Sometimes being relegated to the back burner is a sign of uninterest: the late-night booty call, the option of last resort. As often, it is a place to confine anyone who might become emotionally dangerous. The back burner is a confusing, destabilizing, and exhausting place to be, and yet none of the Diarists�even ones who appear sexually sated�appear to view it as anything but a fact of life. It is clearly less terrifying than the alternative, which is to not be on anyone’s.

Next: The anxiety of appearing delusional.

4. The anxiety of appearing overly enthusiastic.
The back burner is a game, and while the Diarists have various ideas about what constitutes winning, they all agree on how you lose: by betraying a level of emotional enthusiasm unmatched by the other party. Everyone’s afraid disarmament won’t be mutual.

To disarm unilaterally is a strategic error on so many levels�it commits you to a degree of openness you might not be able to maintain, and it exposes vulnerabilities that your counterparty might not be able to resist exploiting. It signals desperation, clinginess, high-maintenance. Most of all, it risks exposing the fond hope, better kept to oneself, that one yearns to leave behind the serial fuck buddies, friends with benefits, and other back-burner relationships to which one had, at some significant expenditure of effort, inured oneself.

The goal of any Diarist playing the game, therefore, is to withhold one’s own expectations until one understands what is expected by the other party. These negotiations require supreme discipline. If you betray the wrong kind of avidity at the wrong moment, your counterparty will not hesitate to pitch you into the shark tank:

3:30 a.m. I text Mike ... that I had a good time and would really like to hang out. Ten minutes later he texts me back saying the he would �be down� for hanging out and that we should do it on a weeknight when things aren’t crazy with the parties. I text him back saying he is confusing. He asks how. I felt daring and told him because I can never tell what he want from me. I haven’t heard from him since.

The Diaries are filled with these kinds of casualties and near misses. (�I love this man,� thinks one Diarist mid-coitus. �Mental anxiety attack when I realize I almost said this out loud.�) The commenters have no sympathy for these emotional miscalculations. This, by contrast, from one of the most well-received Diaries (�The TV Producer Who Knows Everyone�) that ever ran:

3 p.m. Already received two texts and countless Facebook IM’s from the Brit. Am slowly starting to realize I have a Stage Five Clinger on my hands. He asks me to hang out again this coming Sunday. I do not respond.

This Diary contained all of the elements that commenters favored: lots of action, multiple partners, emotional fickleness, bad judgment brashly flaunted, and tasty little morsels of private pain offered up in a drolly ingratiating tone.

5. The anxiety of appearing delusional.
The quality in a Sex Diary most admired by commenters is the kind of confidence (or masochism) that allows for ruthless candor. The commenters, it should be said, are a community unto themselves: part intimate support group, part vengeful gathering of Maoist Red Guards. Friends and underminers both, they make it clear that they are not just looking for masturbation material. They celebrate Diarists who exhibit the virtue of self-knowledge, and descend on those oblivious to their own weakness.

The Diarists seemed to recognize this, and over the years the journals have become increasingly reflective, with observational riffs and little bits of self-analysis. One Diarist calls herself �the most emotionally detached woman in the history of New York.� �I should probably be in therapy,� says another Diarist, �but instead I’m just hedonistic, and don’t let anyone get close. I know it’s all a power play.�

These are statements of psychological awareness, but they are also performances. They mask a deeper fear: that one might not be in complete control of one’s appearance. The Diarists cannot bear being judged without having let us know they have properly anticipated it.

6. The anxiety of appearing overly sincere.
Though the Diarists flaunt their emotional honesty, much of what they confess to concerns their terror of losing control. And there is no more efficient way to relinquish control than a sincere avowal of emotion.

The Diarists with the most active auctions use cutesy neologisms to assign categories to the multitude confronting them. One Diarist has three prospects: �the Ex-Boyfriend’s Friend (XBFF), the Art Director, and potentially the Love of My Life.� She’s hoping of the XBFF that �we can maybe talk about a possible long-distance pseudo-relationship.� (And she has been avoiding calling the potential LOML.) Another sends a cell-phone pic of her cleavage to �Band Dude� on day two of her Diary, but later that week finds herself in bed with the �Pseudo-Ex.�

The funny little names make for easy reading�they protect identities, and help us readers keep up with the narrative convolutions. But they also perform an important conceptual labor, subtly ironizing the ones about whom one might conceivably have feelings and neatly dismissing those labeled as a means to an end. There is a certain pride in understanding the limits of a transaction, and installing oneself in the safe position of narrator. This is particularly true for the female Diarists eager to portray themselves just as capable of using others as any man.

Next: The anxiety of appearing prudish.

You could argue that this playing-to-the-audience is a product of unique circumstances�the Sex Diaries are written for a readership, of course�but postgame narration and color commentary, like rigorous self-analysis, are a constant element of New York mating. Sometimes it feels like the principal reason we have friends.

7. The anxiety of appearing prudish.
The Diarists are eager to show themselves to have conquered modesty�as if anyone is still insisting they be modest. This is particularly true of the young women�and the Diaries are full of them�who operate at the weird place where male pornographic fantasies and their own fantasies of self-empowered pleasure converge:

11:39 p.m. Dance with a couple of my girlfriends. We spot some cute guys in the corner checking us out. Decide to give the guys a show and lock lips with one another. Watch guys’ jaws drop to the floor.

As for pornography, it plays a role in an extraordinary number of Diaries. Still, few Diarists of either sex are willing to betray any discomfort with it, per se. (�See, I have no issue with porn,� one Diarist assures us when discussing his friend’s enormous collection.) Instead they worry about everything related to porn. Its price, for instance. Or a partner’s overindulgence.Occasionally they do fear that the consumption of it may be wearing them out. This, it seems, is incontestable. The experiences of the lonely and the overstimulated by too much sex converge in weirdly affecting moments of intimacy. Picture the montage�a series of apartments in the soft, gray light of dawn:

10 p.m. Contemplate masturbating, pass out before I can summon the strength to find my vibrator.

3:01 a.m. Attempt to masturbate. Pass out with the vibrator still going.

3:30 a.m. Wake up with porn on my laptop and cock in hand. I guess I was really tired.

8. Internet-enabled agoraphobia
For some Diarists, online dating has become not just a supplement to their social lives, but a replacement for it. They prefer to game out all the angles of each prospective seduction ahead of time�to �control the environment and the message,� as one Diarist puts it�and regard the social world itself as �asinine bullshit/social Kabuki.�

The most practiced online daters have mastered the paradoxical etiquette of meeting strangers online and attaining swift mutual satisfaction:

11 a.m. I come across an ad from a sincere-looking South Asian fellow and respond. The fellow responds with a number. I call and we agree to hook up for drinks.

6:17 p.m. The fellow and I do a 69.

Simple. But a certain callousness toward the merchandise is an unavoidable side effect of entering a marketplace as both buyer and seller. If any of the Diarists have felt the sting of disappointment in finding an Internet correspondence go dead, they are immune to it now. They refer to online solicitations as if they were bidders on eBay, and browse potential options without the slightest titillation:

2:30 p.m. Cruise Manhunt, Craigslist, and Adam4Adam in a desultory manner. I’m not really horny. It’s kinda like picking up takeout menus from neighborhood restaurants. I just want to know what’s available.

The loneliest Diarists, seeking a respite from their loneliness, often find people even lonelier than themselves:

1 p.m. Kick off my weekly Sunday-afternoon tradition: �Find Steve on Craigslist.� Steve is a disgusting person I slept with back in April, who attributed my lack of an orgasm to his use of a hair-replacement product. Every Sunday, sure as the rising sun, he posts an ad where he comments about the weather and requests a �beautiful companion� to go to the beach/take a walk in the park/get a coffee/see a movie. He sickens me.

9. Separation anxiety
Collecting all of your friends onto a single page, as all social-networking sites do, alters the way you think about experiences. Formerly, you met people, did things with them, and selected a handful to carry forward into later stages of life. Life was a linear sequence of relationships that began and ended.

But just as Facebook has become an instrument for meeting and seducing new people, it is now also an archive of people you had once seduced or been seduced by:

2:30 p.m. Trying to put off my homework even more, I scan through my Facebook account, my BlackBerry, and my in-box trying to think if I am friends with any guys who I haven’t hooked up with already. Zilch.

And just as the new technologies keep reminding us of the existence of these old relationships, so they make the temptation to relationship recidivism irresistible to many of the Diarists. It seems as if half of the Diarists are either texting or being texted by old flames:

Next: The anxiety of being unable to love.

10:30 p.m. He has not called me back, I’m frustrated. Though we broke up a year ago, we usually see each other quite often; however it’s not clear if he is my boyfriend once again. I’m still in love with him. ... Don’t want to pressure him, because it’s the reason we broke up in the first place. I begin to think, What do I do to keep him interested and wanting only me?

Maintaining enough distance to permit a decisive break now requires more discipline than many people can muster, and a familiar category of relationship has become more widespread: those that one can never wholly embrace, but never finally refuse. This is wireless co-dependency, and the recovery movement potent enough to cure it (without insisting that its members unplug from the grid) has yet to come into being.

10. The anxiety of being unable to love.
And yet perhaps the most surprising psychological attribute of the Diarists, despite weeks upon weeks of guarding their vulnerabilities from the brutality of the marketplace, is their romanticism. True love! Who could say these words in public without acute embarrassment? It is nonetheless something that the Diarists keep referencing, despite the impression they convey that it is an ever-receding ideal. It’s an odd, negative sort of tribute�a vague longing for something all but lost, but perhaps worth clinging to nonetheless.

10 p.m. I want to love her. And I should. I just, well, don’t. She’s the best girlfriend anyone could ever hope to have. I wish that were enough to love her.

Reading the Sex Diaries all in one enormous gulp, as I have, caused me to surf on the edge of a terrible vertigo as I thought of the many wounds I had myself endured and inflicted during my brief career as a person with a New York City sex life. I had a thought analogous to the one I often have about cars: How is it that we hurtle around the country in these enormous steel boxes and ever survive? And yet people do, sometimes even in the Sex Diaries.

You would have to have read 800 printed pages of them to feel about the following Diary the same way that I did. There was nothing special about it�just an ordinary young man earnestly seeking a happy ending�and it is surely because I endured so much of the heartbreak written into this sprawling document that I make no apologies for the pleasure I took in it, or in disclosing that the somewhat sappy narrative climax contained therein brought me�in my own high esteem, as disenchanted a reader as any alive today�to tears in the reading room of the New York Public Library:

11:15 a.m. Co-worker makes comment that I am glowing. I smile, knowing it’s because of new boyfriend. 3 p.m. I write note to Ex explaining how I thought he should know that I am really happy and dating an amazing guy. It finally feels like some closure. 7 p.m. My head is in the clouds, and I forget to bring my sneakers to my dodgeball game. Still we are able to win one game. I catch game-winning ball! 9:35 p.m. Guy from league hits on me. I happily deny him: �Sorry, I just met an amazing guy, and I think I’m in love!� I smile, feeling really good about telling anyone and everybody about how happy I am and how wonderful he is. I cannot wait for our date tomorrow!

145 Minutes With Nassim Taleb
Shopping for Kafka with the Wall Street oracle turned aphorist and self-described flâneur.

By Wesley Yang Published Dec 5, 2010

(Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Halfway into our conversation, Nassim Taleb’s gray-bearded Levantine face tightens. “If I talk about finance, it corrupts my whole day,” he protests. “Don’t corrupt my day.”

We’ve strayed from a topic Taleb is eager to discuss to one he is anxious to flee. We are here in this French café in Morningside Heights to talk about Socrates, Seneca, Averroës, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein. These are his forebears in the art of the aphorism, a form he took up for several months earlier this year, resulting in his new book, The Bed of Procrustes, a compendium of Talebian witticisms and skeptical philosophizing: “You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.” “Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.” “You are only secure if you can lose your fortune without the additional insult of having to become humble.”

It is a work very different in format from The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, best sellers that predicted that the mathematical models Wall Street relied on to measure risk would help bring down the world economy. When the crash of 2008 came, it secured Taleb’s fame as the oracle of the Great Recession and made him, for a time, a ubiquitous cable-news presence, inveighing against the financial-policy elite.

Taleb’s previous career began at Credit Suisse First Boston, where he received his first-ever job evaluation. “I tore it to pieces in front of them. Life is worth living for these moments.” Moreover, CSFB did not fire him. He made what he has called his “fuck you” money when his bets against the market made him millions on Black Monday in 1987. He went on to work at UBS, BNP-Paribas, Banque Indosuez, and Bankers Trust. He was a pit trader in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and later ran his own investment firm. But he insists that his true vocation through it all was the 60 hours a week he spent reading for no other purpose than pleasure and self-cultivation.

Taleb has been on a media blackout (“completely fed up answering the same questions and repeating the ideas of The Black Swan,” his website declares), but is now acceding to a handful of interviews that his publishers are forcing on him. Even then, he agreed to meet with me only after I proposed talking philosophy. “Nietzsche called Socrates ‘a great mystagogue of science.’ He said this when he was 25!” he says, visibly moved by a thinker whose audacity outstripped his own.

Taleb has suggested this restaurant, to which he drove from his house in Westchester in his white Mini Cooper convertible, because of its proximity to Book Culture, “the best bookstore in the world.” He wants to pick up a copy of Kafka’s The Castle; he’s flying to Milan tomorrow to lecture at the office of the insurance company that employed the great writer as a legal clerk. But the location has a secondary appeal. It’s “the only neighborhood in New York,” he says, “where I can relax 100 percent. Because you never run into a finance person.”

We drift over to Book Culture. “The flâneur goes to the bookstore not knowing what he’s going to buy; that’s the whole point. This is one of the rare occasions where I know what I’m going to buy.” On the way, Taleb explains to me the content of his next book, Anti-Fragility, which he says will be about how we can create systems that mimic the resiliency of nature. “I realized I have an obligation to give a coherent account of how things should be, of how we should make decisions in the face of uncertainty.” In the first 300 pages of The Black Swan, “I destroyed their models.” In the next 100, “I intimated the shape of what should replace it.” Now, with Anti-Fragility, “I have a complete blueprint, from what you should eat to what we should do about the nation-state.”

It’s 3 p.m. We’ve whiled away half the afternoon in a café and an indie bookstore, like a pair of aimless Columbia undergraduates. As he weighs two translations of The Castle (he’ll pick an edition by Schocken Books), Taleb appears the picture of self-contentedness: a proud and irascible man in contemplative repose.

The Terrorist Search Engine
Evan Kohlmann spends his days lurking in the darkest corners of the Internet, where jihadists recruit sympathizers from across the globe. He has testified in over two dozen terrorism trials— and sees danger everywhere he looks. Is he prescient or naïve?

By Wesley Yang Published Dec 5, 2010

(Photo: Christian Weber)
Evan François Kohlmann acquired his unloved nickname in 2002, when an FBI agent who was consulting with him on a case dubbed him “the Doogie Howser of Terrorism.” The many detractors he has amassed over the years have never let go of that memorable handle. “Look,” Kohlmann says one afternoon earlier this year, sitting in the two-bedroom apartment where he spends his days and nights analyzing jihadist video, communiqués, and chatter on the Internet. “Someone gave me that nickname when I was 23 years old. I’m not 23 anymore. How old do I have to be before they stop it?”

The nickname is one of the reasons observers are inclined to underrate Kohlmann, who is 31. The outlandish but true story he tells—of Islamist revolutionaries spreading out from Afghanistan to wage holy war around the globe—is one you would expect to hear from a toffee-colored man with an Oxbridge accent, or a ruddy man with a buzz cut and no neck. You would not expect to hear it from Kohlmann, who is wearing, when I meet him, a close-fitting spandex biking shirt, black jeans, and Tevas. “It also doesn’t help that I look about 10 years old,” he observes.

But jihad is a subject that has fascinated Kohlmann since he was 18. He has served as the government’s expert witness in seventeen terrorism cases in the United States and nine abroad, making him the most prolific such expert in the country. He is hired to educate juries on the history and structure of Al Qaeda and on the methods it uses to finance itself and recruit new members. He is very effective on the stand. “Evan has succeeded because he is the best in that particular business,” says Thomas Hegghammer, a respected jihad historian at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. Kohlmann’s testimony has helped to convict 23 defendants in U.S. federal courts and in the military commissions in Guantánamo Bay.

Kohlmann’s indispensable font of evidence is the web. Since soon after 9/11, he has been arguing that the Internet is not only helping terrorists organize but is also serving as a recruitment tool to turn jihad sympathizers who have no connection to Al Qaeda into terrorists themselves. This notion once seemed eccentric, but over the past year “homegrown terrorists,” radicalized on the Internet, have appeared with regularity on the front page of the world’s newspapers. The U.S. government has targeted for assassination Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric whose exhortations to holy war, delivered in perfect English, are widely traded online. Al-Awlaki was directly in contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a military psychologist who went on a killing spree at Fort Hood, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear over Detroit last Christmas. Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old British woman, stabbed a British M.P. after downloading and listening to more than a hundred hours of Al-Awlaki’s sermons. Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the 19-year-old who was arrested last month for allegedly attempting to detonate a bomb at a Portland, Oregon, tree-lighting ceremony, submitted articles to the online jihadist magazine Inspire. And then there was the strange case of Jihad Jamie and Jihad Jane—two white American women who traveled to Europe last year in an alleged plot to murder an artist who had offended Muslims.

Over the summer, it was reported that both the CIA and Google had invested in a company that trawls the jihadi Internet for “open source intelligence.” This was a tacit acknowledgment of the value of what Kohlmann and a small group of like-minded private-sector analysts have been doing for more than a decade. “Evan’s usually one of the first on the scene when something is breaking,” says Jarret Brachman, the former research director of the Combating Terrorism Center, based at West Point. “You can’t deny a record of analytic success. I really thought he was ahead of the curve on the emergence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for instance.” Kohlmann watched online as AQAP, as terrorism researchers call it, transformed from a regional concern to an organization with international ambitions. (AQAP is likely responsible for the explosives packed into printer cartridges that grounded cargo flights in October.)

And yet Kohlmann’s analytic successes have continued to be shadowed by controversy—and for reasons more significant than his youthful appearance. Kohlmann has, for the past seven years, made his living as an expert witness for hire during an episode of American history that posterity may record as not among its proudest. Our criminal-justice system, chastened by its failure to take the 9/11 hijackers seriously before they struck, has greatly expanded the share of prospective terrorist threats that it treats as real. While this aggressive posture may well have contributed to the absence of any major attack since 9/11, it has also produced a raft of cases that tend to look more frightening at the initial press conference than they do once evidence is admitted at trial, and situations in which the only terrorist plots the defendants have participated in are those invented by the government.

Images from Kohlmann's website,; video complilations from Kohlmann and Steve Emerson; and Al-Qaeda videos from YouTube and other sites.
To his admirers, Kohlmann is just the kind of indefatigable obsessive we need to track down the fanatics who confront us. But by agreeing to testify in the trials of nearly every defendant placed before him, Kohlmann has earned a reputation among many scholars as a “hand for hire,” as London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges puts it, working in the “guilty-verdict industry.” Another leading terrorism scholar calls him a “whore of the court,” making basic analytical errors on the stand and engaging in a charade of expertise. It is the opinion of George Washington University constitutional-law professor Jonathan Turley that Kohlmann was “grown hydroponically in the basement of the Bush Justice Department.” Kohlmann says he simply testifies to what he sees on the web—and what he sees frightens him very much.

Over the past decade, Kohlmann has patiently assembled one of the world’s largest collections of jihadi material—terabytes’ worth of sermons, fatwas, newsletters, message-board discussions, and video. Especially video: hundreds of hours of terrorist-training camps, martyrdom wills, live footage from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, beheadings, explosions, and burned bodies. He has catalogued this material for easy retrieval by law-enforcement agencies hoping to match a name to a face or producers looking to illustrate a television-news report. The videos have names like Russian Hell in the Year 2000, Parts I and II, Martyrs of Bosnia, and The Destruction of the USS Cole. They are sophisticated media productions at the outer limit of human extremity, and they are Kohlmann’s daily bread.

“I oftentimes get to know the people that I’m studying … better than I know members of my own family,” Kohlmann once testified. The demands of his work and the odd hours he spends on the Internet have eliminated his social life. “I never go out,” he tells me from his home office in the meatpacking district. Once, when he brought a woman home, she was startled to find herself surrounded by dozens of pictures of bearded jihadists. She pointed at the image of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the disfigured London-based radical cleric who has hooks for hands, and told him, “You’ve got to take that guy off your wall.”

Kohlmann loads a video for me of a man building a bomb and narrates it in the high-octane vernacular he uses to good effect in court and on TV. The video, he explains, was released last fall, not long after the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, who planned to set off a bomb in Manhattan. “Najibullah Zazi was trying to pull off some kind of bomb plot involving nail-polish remover. So the other day, somebody goes on the forum and posts this homemade video which shows you how to produce the explosive that Zazi was trying to produce, except using all homemade ingredients. This here shows you how to produce a very powerful explosive using things you can buy at Duane Reade.

“Now, let’s say instead of building a bomb, you want to build a rocket. Like, for instance, there were guys down in South Carolina who were captured by the police with materials in their trunk that looked like they wanted to build a Qassam-style rocket. Well, it turns out that this guy has already very helpfully produced a video on how to produce rocket propellant. Again, it was posted on this forum saying, ‘Guys, you should do this. We can all do this. Look—I’ve done it.’ ” Kohlmann clicks on another file, pulling up another image of the same person in a different setting. “There. Look—it’s the same guy, once again, now producing rocket propellant. There’s the rocket right there!”

These videos are discussed in online jihadist magazines like Inspire and Jihad Recollections and distributed on sites like that of Muntada al-Ansar—where Al Qaeda in Iraq released images of IED attacks on American soldiers—and Ansar Al-Mujahideen, the English-language message board where the Pakistani Taliban meet and greet their American fan base. Kohlmann discerns a strange intimacy emerging among the forum members, whether they’re in Afghanistan or the American suburbs. They reinforce one another in their beliefs and emphasize the importance of taking action. “Certain people start saying, ‘Well, if you support this so much, isn’t it your duty to join this?’ ” Though the members have never met in person, they develop ties with their message-board brothers possibly stronger than any they have with the people in their real lives. “And that’s when we start seeing people posting messages saying, ‘Look, guys, I love you, you’re wonderful, but I can’t sit here anymore. I’ve got to go out into the real world; I’ve got to go where death and destruction truly are.’ ”

In February, Kohlmann delivered a speech at the Center on Law and Security at New York University in which he portrayed a handful of recent terrorist scares as vindication. “I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last few years about recruitment shifting from the mosque and community center to the Internet, and a lot of people told me I was crazy or had an insular view on this,” he told the audience. Kohlmann then went on to relate the story of a suicide bombing that occurred at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan, in December, in which Humam al-Balawi, a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor, entered a CIA base, presumably as an informant. Instead, he blew himself up, along with seven CIA agents. “The disturbing part about this doctor is that we knew about Humam al-Balawi. Not in December or November. We’d known about him for years. He was famous,” said Kohlmann. “He was famous on the Internet.

Images from Kohlmann's website,; video complilations from Kohlmann and Steve Emerson; and Al-Qaeda videos from YouTube and other sites.
“Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, as he was known on the Internet forums, posted messages saying, ‘I’m going to Afghanistan. I’m going to fight there. I’m going to kill Americans.’ He said in an online Taliban magazine, ‘No matter how much they pay me, what they do to me, what threats they make, I’ll never give up this struggle. I’ll continue in this until I reach my mission.’ At that very moment, the CIA believed that he had been recruited as an informant. He was saying this in public, openly.”

In his apartment, Kohlmann relates the excitement that the revelation of Al-Balawi’s identity touched off. When the Pakistani Taliban identified the bomber by his online nom de guerre, he was astonished. “I nearly … my mouth hung open. I said, ‘I know who this guy is!’ At first I said to myself, ‘It can’t possibly be the same guy from the forum, can it? It can’t possibly be that guy.’ And sure enough, the forum participants were the first people who picked up on it, and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s our friend.’ ”

Kohlmann owes his terrorism education to a think tank called the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), where he began work as an intern in 1998, during his freshman year at Georgetown. IPT was founded by Steve Emerson, a former journalist who spent the nineties warning of the Islamic-militancy threat and assailing a Middle Eastern–studies Establishment inclined to mince words over whether Islamic militancy deserved the label “terrorism” at all. He was a polarizing figure, regarded as an Islamophobe alarmist by many—he famously described the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings by Timothy McVeigh as exhibiting a “Middle Eastern trait”—but credited for paying attention to the threat of Islamic terrorism when others were inclined to downplay it. Prior to 9/11, he had the ear of top White House counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, who has written that Emerson would provide him information on jihad that he could not get out of his own intelligence agencies.

Emerson, together with a handful of other polemicists such as Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, built a network of think tanks devoted to disseminating a hawkish view of the Middle East conflict they found missing from within the academy. The mutual distrust that arose between these two groups has created a curious gap in our knowledge of Islamic militancy in America. “Broadly speaking, among the people who have the knowledge of language, culture, and history, there is little interest in studying security issues because it’s seen as politically compromising and tied to a pro-Israeli or pro-government agenda,” explains Hegghammer, one of Kohlmann’s few defenders in academe. Hegghammer notes that a decade after 9/11, not a single professor at an Ivy League university specializes in jihadism. “And conversely, the people who do study security issues tend not to have the languages and culture. And so the people that wind up doing it tend to be fringe figures.”

September 11, 2001, was Kohlmann’s first day of law school at the University of Pennsylvania. When he heard the news, he got up to leave, telling the student sitting next to him, “This was an attack by Osama bin Laden, and I have to go do something about it.” Kohlmann remained affiliated with IPT through 2003, eventually assuming the title of senior terrorism researcher. Around that time, government prosecutors began to look for help in explaining global jihad to juries. Middle Eastern studies professors tended to be reluctant to testify, but the researchers affiliated with the Emerson wing of counterterrorist studies were already gathering open-source information that corroborated the government’s views of the threat. This is how a 25-year-old law student turned out to be among the best-qualified people prosecutors could find who was willing to take the work.

Part of what arouses the ire of Kohlmann’s critics is that his years with Emerson are his only formal credential. Kohlmann does not speak Arabic; has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan; does not hold a postgraduate degree in any related field; has no experience in military, law-enforcement, or intelligence work; and continues to submit—seven years into his career as a court-appointed expert on Al Qaeda—his undergraduate thesis on Arab mujaheddin in Afghanistan as evidence of his expertise. And yet judges continue to certify him, in large part in deference to previous judges and because of the weight that prosecutors place on his testimony.

“If they had other options, don’t you think they would take them?” he asks me. “The only reason I get these jobs is the fact that I do them properly.” Kohlmann can make up to $125,000 a year as an expert witness, and even more as a government consultant. These are not his only sources of income, but they are easily the largest.

Plotters and the Web

The case of Mohamed Osman Mohamud, the alleged would-be Oregon bomber, is similar to many in which Kohlmann testifies. The FBI affidavit paints a picture of Mohamud as a genuine threat—and perhaps the evidence presented in court will bear this out. But as the government emphasized in its public announcement of the charges, Mohamud never posed an actual danger to anyone other than himself.

Many post-9/11 terrorism prosecutions rely on a series of statutes prohibiting any “material support” offered to terrorism, a broadly sweeping term with vaguely defined limits. Under traditional conspiracy prosecutions, the government has to show that a defendant knowingly participated in planning to commit a crime. Under the material-support statutes, which were strengthened by the 2001 Patriot Act, the government has to show only that a defendant knowingly gave support to an individual or foreign group that has been designated as a terrorist entity, regardless of whether there was any intent to aid a terrorist act. “The statutes are like a utility infielder for prosecutors,” says Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law. It lowers the bar for what the government has to prove, and it is invoked whenever the conduct charged is not clearly criminal under other statutes.

The material-support statutes help the government solve a thorny constitutional problem: How do you use the courts, which are designed to punish prior conduct, to preempt terrorist acts before they happen? One recurring solution has been to launch terrorism prosecutions in which no criminal plans are even alleged—because the plot is fictitious and created by the government. In these sting operations, the government uses paid informants or undercover agents to tempt defendants into convoluted schemes to either commit terrorist acts or provide material support to terrorist organizations. The informants befriend their targets and encourage their grievances. They enable them with financial and logistical help. In many cases, they secure only ambiguous assent.

Mohamud’s terrorist plot was initiated by FBI agents who had worked on the sting operation for six months. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters he is “confident that there is no entrapment here.” Mohamud volunteered to informants that he had submitted articles to Inspire and Jihad Recollections, and his statements leave no doubt that he was a believer in holy war against American civilians. Prosecutors will argue that he had the motivation and means to act on his beliefs. But others have suggested that perhaps the FBI, as Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon, “found some very young, impressionable, disaffected, hapless, aimless, inept loner; created a plot it then persuaded/manipulated/entrapped him to join, essentially turning him into a terrorist; and then patted itself on the back.” The disaffected loner is a frequent presence in jihadi Internet forums. Whether they themselves are dangers or are only dangerous when enticed to be by law enforcement is an unanswerable question.

After the bombing, “I said, ‘I know who this guy is.’ And the forum participants said, ‘Oh my God, that’s our friend.’ ”

Two years ago, Kohlmann testified in a case that many American Islamic leaders have called a clear instance of government entrapment. The investigation began when a group of young men who lived in and around Cherry Hill, New Jersey, brought a video to a nearby Circuit City to be transferred to DVD. The footage included the men shooting weapons and shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”) in the Pocono Mountains. The clerk reported them to the local police, and the FBI subsequently dispatched two informants.

According to prosecutors, only one of the defendants spoke freely with the informant about his desire to join jihad and strike at Americans. He discussed various scenarios for attacks, and he took a drive with the informant to “case” Fort Dix. Three other men played paintball, shot guns, and tried to buy automatic weapons from another FBI informant. A fifth provided a map of the Fort Dix grounds. Together, the group watched videos of attacks on Americans.

It was acknowledged, however, that one of the defendants told an informant that it was forbidden by Islam to kill American soldiers in America and declared on tape that they would never engage in suicide missions. “We just talk. We know,” another was recorded saying. A third refused an offer to buy grenade launchers. And the defendant who provided a map of Fort Dix to the FBI informant did so because the informant had asked for it—and afterward tried to report the informant to the police.

Spending all his time scanning the web for jihadist activity has supplied Kohlmann with a narrative and a worldview, as well as the confidence to ascribe motivations to the narrative’s players. Often, when he is called as a witness at a conspiracy trial, Kohlmann is shown a series of videos, writings, and wiretapped conversations with an informant and asked to identify the people and groups referred to within them. The defendants may not have any connection to those named other than the fact that the names are mentioned in these materials. But even a neutral recitation of this material can present a very damning impression of a very dangerous person.

“What Kohlmann is brought in to do is to tell the jury that conduct that might look innocent in other contexts should be viewed with alarm because of the associations a defendant has,” says Vladeck. “It’s a gray area he’s working in here, because it walks a very fine line between prohibiting actual conduct and prohibiting associations, which is unconstitutional.” There is, of course, a legitimate purpose to the use of experts in terrorism prosecutions. Kohlmann’s virtually encyclopedic knowledge of names and dates and the broad narrative of jihad helps a jury to put a story in context. But he is also used by prosecutors for another purpose: to keep the jury’s attention fixed on their fears about the global conspiracy to murder Americans.

In the Fort Dix case, Kohlmann’s “forensic analysis” of the defendants’ hard drives concluded that the videos he found there “would be quite useful if you were planning a homegrown act of terrorism.” He noted that three of the videos have been present on the hard drive of nearly every case he’s worked on. “They are some of Al Qaeda’s best work,” he testified. At the end of his testimony, he was asked to reach a conclusion as to whether the materials were consistent with people conspiring to commit a violent act. He replied that they suggested “a clear, considered, and present danger to the community.” The jury convicted the men of conspiracy charges, resulting in four life sentences and one sentence of 33 years.

“The great problem with these cases,” says Vladeck, “is not that we can know that these defendants are innocent. Some of these conspirators probably are up to no good. But one quickly loses faith that we are drawing the right kinds of distinctions in every case.” Magnus Ranstorp, the research director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College and a widely recognized authority on terrorism, believes that Kohlmann’s conclusions rest on the most elementary social-scientific error: While it might be true that all self-radicalized terrorists watch jihadi videos, it does not follow that all people who watch jihadi videos become self-radicalized terrorists. “I think no serious academic would ever testify in such a cavalier fashion with such generalizations and quite frankly mumbo-jumbo-style analysis,” he says. “It takes about 30 seconds to spot that Kohlmann produces junk science in court.”

Kohlmann acknowledges that there are problems surrounding some of the cases at which he has testified but insists that prosecutors are doing the best they can, given the constraints they face. “I don’t believe that there is any kind of deliberate malfeasance in these cases. Has every informant been perfect? No. Have I been involved in selecting those informants? No. Have the U.S. Attorneys been entirely thrilled with all of them? No. But recruiting informants is not necessarily that easy. It’s not a perfect system, but I’m pretty confident that I haven’t been responsible for putting any innocent people behind bars.”

Sometimes you glimpse in Kohlmann’s eyes an unappeasable weariness. Maybe it’s all the dark things he’s been staring at for so many years, or maybe it’s just a bad case of eyestrain. When I meet him in the MSNBC studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza one morning, he has just returned from the doctor on account of his persistent migraines. He has already appeared on Morning Joe and is now back to prepare for a segment of MSNBC Live. Within minutes, he is talking to me about the intricacies of global jihad.

“Remember the name Abu Kandahar al-Zarqawi. You’ll be hearing that name again,” Kohlmann says, speaking over his shoulder as the tech straps on his mike. “He’s lining up to be the next Humam al-Balawi. You know when you throw up a water balloon and can see where it’s going to land? You can see where this one is going to land.”

Earlier this year, Kohlmann’s mood was lifted when a letter addressed to him was posted on an online forum. He sent the link in a mass e-mail titled “Ansar Al-Mujahideen Online Forum Members Are Pissed at Me.” But the excitement of tracking the terrorists through cyberspace is now dampened by the controversy he confronts at every trial. “It’s not pleasant, when you work very hard at something and not only are your motives questioned but your knowledge, your experience, your credentials—everything you have built is questioned.”

Kohlmann’s primary assistant, who does most of his Arabic translation, is a gregarious, sweet-natured Jordanian grad student named Laith Alkhouri whom he found on Craigslist a year ago. He was hired as an intern but has grown into a close collaborator, watching the message boards with his boss and producing the PDFs that Kohlmann posts to his website,

Kohlmann and Alkhouri have an easy, affectionate rapport. “I showed my mom the website to see my name on it, and she was like, ‘You are going to scare me,’ ” says Alkhouri. “She said, ‘I didn’t know that this is what you do.’ And she doesn’t know half of what I do, really.”

The job has become an all-consuming, 24-hour-a-day passion for the two of them. “I prefer to work with people who have native language abilities, but more importantly, people who can grasp this,” says Kohlmann. “It’s very difficult to find people like that. Laith is one of the very few people who I’ve managed to identify who has the linguistic and cultural background to begin with and can also learn the technical aspect. But Laith now knows this stuff like I do.”

Alkhouri chimes in: “No, you’re the master. I’m not in the same category.”

They hesitate, look at each other for a moment and then at me, slightly flustered, but then also proud.

One senses that Alkhouri renews for Kohlmann the spark of excitement he must have felt dipping into this shadowy netherworld for the first time, back in 1998, before anyone had heard of Al Qaeda, when Kohlmann was among the first Americans peering through his Netscape browser at the metastasizing threat that would come to dominate the first decade of the 21st century. One wonders what cost Alkhouri will end up having to pay for that excitement and who else will end up sharing in the payment of it. “I could be the one to catch Bin Laden,” says Alkhouri. “I know that’s big talk! But if I just find the right message that could lead somewhere …”

Indecent Exposure
A survivor tests the boundaries of just how far a memoir of child abuse should go.

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By Wesley Yang
Published Feb 13, 2011


(Photo: Sara Essex)

Margaux Fragoso has a remarkable lyric gift and no boundaries. Her first memoir, Tiger, Tiger, provides a detailed account, in prose that is highly aestheticized without failing to be anatomically correct, of the seduction and molestation of a 7-year-old girl by a serial child rapist in his fifties. It is at once beautiful and appalling, a true-life Lolita written in the high rhapsodic cadence of a Humbert Humbert, recollected in tranquillity by the victim herself. It is also a publisher’s dream, seemingly too fantastic to be true—one that could only be trumped if the molester had also been a Holocaust survivor. Fragoso brings dignity to the project through the pitiless precision of her writing, and her forthright pursuit of an ambition to write the ne plus ultra of the genre—the thing that is more like the thing that it is than any other thing can ever hope to be. For better and for worse, she mostly succeeds.

Fragoso’s account of the mutually abusive and intermittently sexual relationship in which she remained with her molester for fifteen years, until his suicide at the age of 66, is an unstable mixture of bildungsroman, dirty realism, and child pornography. Fragoso brings us into the airless cell of her home life: a mother on a shifting regimen of anti-psychotic and antidepressant medications; a violent drunk of a father; both of them devouring each other in the genteel poverty of Union City, New Jersey. She shows us how Peter Curran entices her into a house decorated in bright colors, teeming with iguanas, a turtle tank, a guinea pig, an alligator, and a big furry dog. Then follows a series of escalating tactics—first “an enhanced version of the itsy bitsy spider” and “Mad Gardener,” and then “Tickle Torture Time,” leading to passages in which she describes, with a stomach-turning mixture of whimsy and clinical detail, the way an adult man’s sexual anatomy looks to a girl of 7, 8, and 13.

It is a mixture that many readers will find too much to bear. Poetic accounts of sexual extremity tend to be anatomically vague; explicit accounts tend to deploy a traumatized flat affect. Fragoso is both explicit and poetic. A scene in which an 8-year-old Fragoso begs to be spared the oral-genital contact that Curran is urging upon her is perhaps the most indecent thing published in any major book of the last decade. It is executed with a remorseless candor that cannot fail to sear itself into the memory of whoever reads it. (She eventually acquiesces to the oral sex, comparing the motion to that of a “fangless rattlesnake devouring a live mouse.”) Many who have been thus seared will regret having witnessed what no person should have to see. Others will delight in her audacity for a range of savory and unsavory motives.

Fragoso remains with Curran through her teenage years, hiding their relationship in plain sight. A lifeguard sees a 9-year-old Fragoso kissing Curran in the pool; her father intervenes and keeps her away from him for the next two years, but her mother—whom Curran has platonically seduced—conspires with her to restore contact, which continues unabated for a decade. Fragoso grows up, has crushes on boys, even dates a college classmate while still seeing Curran. Starting at a young age, she is cruel to him and conscious of her power over him. He makes of her a religion; she mocks his toothless mouth. She unflinchingly portrays her complicity in her own victimization.

Fragoso explains, in the afterword, her motives for doing the book. They are both therapeutic and public-spirited: She has written to inform the world how pedophiles operate and how they think, so that they might be preempted by parents and the authorities before they can do harm. She has written to help herself to heal. She is married, with a daughter, though the details of exactly how she broke the cycle of madness and abuse are left (one suspects) for the sequel. But something in Fragoso’s flights of wild lyricism resists the therapeutic motive. A pedophile creates a “fantastic kind of reality” that can feel “like a drug high,” she writes. “And when it’s over, for people who’ve been through this, it’s like coming off heroin, and for years, they can’t stop chasing the ghost of how it felt … It’s like the Earth is scorched and the grass won’t grow back. And the ground looks black and barren, but inside it’s still burning.”

July 29, 2011
Sex, Lies and Data Mining


What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire

By Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

394 pp. Dutton. $26.95.

The concentrated essence of this curious book is contained in its 11th chapter, which attempts to explain what the “Mona Lisa” has in common with Chicken McNuggets, vampire novels and the concluding scene of most pornographic videos. Each of these works of human creativity, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam write in “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” exploits perceptual trickery to arouse and gratify our desires. The enigma of the Gioconda smile; the technologically engineered “crave­ability” of fast food; the alluring, “alpha among alphas” quality of the paranormal hero; that climactic moment beamed to watchers on a hundred million laptop screens: all rely on the artful manipulation of our brains.

That ultimate pornographic image in particular, the authors write, “is an erotical illusion that merges the visual with the psychological” and that juxta­poses “three sexual cues within a single stimulus: the penis (a visual cue), the ejaculation (which may be a sperm competition cue or possibly a cued interest in some men), and — most important — the woman’s emotional reaction, which may be a psychological cue of female pleasure (if she expresses delight) or a psychological cue of sexual submission (if she expresses surprise or dismay).” And you thought it was all just masturbation.

“A Billion Wicked Thoughts” promises to reveal “the truth about what men and women secretly desire — and why.” Ogas and Gaddam, cognitive neuroscientists who met as graduate students at Boston University, analyzed a year’s worth of terms entered into the search engine aggregator Dogpile between July 2009 and July 2010, and found that 55 million of the roughly 400 million terms were sexual in nature. The authors organized those searches into a ranked hierarchy of categories. “Youth” was No. 1 and “breasts” was No. 4. “Cheating wives,” “gay” and “penises” all made the top 10.

Ogas and Gaddam purport to have discovered in this data — with the aid of sex research, evolutionary psychology and comments posted on pornography hubs and other Web sites — “the finite set of sexual cues” (analogous to the five different taste cues our tongues can discern) hard-wired into our neural circuitry that “activate our desire software.”

Their breakdown is simple. Men like pornography. Women like romance novels. “Men’s brains are designed to objectify females,” Ogas and Gaddam write. Since men’s only concern is with the biological fitness of women for child­bearing, everything they need to know to feel desire is visible to the naked eye: “The shapely curves of female ornamentation indicate how many years of healthy childbearing remain across a woman’s entire lifetime.” Male desire is “solitary, quick to arouse, goal-targeted, driven to hunt.” That’s why there was a nearly perfect concordance between male reports of sexual arousal and evidence of physical arousal measured by a device attached to participants’ genitals in a well-known study by the sex researcher Meredith Chivers.

By contrast, Chivers found that a lot more blood flowed to the genitals of her female subjects than their self-reports would suggest. Straight men were physically aroused by videos of straight sex, but not by videos of gay sex or bonobos mating, and their self-reports confirmed what the sensors measured. Straight women were physically aroused by every­thing, including the bonobos, but their self-reports often contradicted what the sensors measured.

Chivers’s study shed light on the failure to produce a “female Viagra”: while increased blood flow to the penis is sufficient to incite a man to sexual desire, increased blood flow alone will not produce feminine desire. Ogas and Gaddam have come up with a speculative explanation for this mind-body gap: the existence of a neural structure that, they claim, “inhabits a woman’s conscious mind and intercepts signals coming from her body, preventing them from triggering conscious, psychological arousal.” This neural structure, which the authors term the “Miss Marple Detective Agency,” was supposedly contrived by evolution to protect a woman against the risks of reckless sex and to ensure that her partner would be a “strong and decent man willing to invest in a stable, long-term, child-rearing relationship.” Miss Marple has to be satisfied before a woman can be aroused.

Ogas and Gaddam argue that romance novels and their Internet-era counterpart, “fan fiction,” dramatize the workings of female desire. Such stories feature the strong, rich, handsome, competent, socially dominant alpha men whom women need to care for their offspring, and to whom they yearn to submit. How exactly a neural structure residing in the conscious parts of the brain can be innate to a single sex is never answered. Later, the authors write that every male has a set of “female software,” and vice versa; they concede that “male fans of sexual submission porn are accessing the female submissive circuitry their brain shares with women,” which raises the question of what makes the software female if both sexes possess it.

But there is no sense in scrutinizing for consistency a farrago like this book. Its value lies elsewhere — not as a scientific tract, but as a cultural document. Ogas and Gaddam treat pornography in a way that would not have been possible before our contemporary moment, in which, with a visit to a Web site like PornHub, “you can see more naked bodies in a single minute than the most promiscuous Victorians would have seen in an entire lifetime.” The authors implicitly assert pornog­raphy has become so ubiquitous that we can now treat it as if it were simply a natural part of human behavior, with no outside perspective from which to criticize or condemn it. Their easy confidence with this assertion is a new thing in the world, their book a fully realized projection of what it would mean to inhabit that world without regret.

Where Ogas and Gaddam’s “politically correct” and “socially conservative” readers might see something shameful or exploitative in women’s voluntarily stripping naked for the camera in exchange for a hat handed to them by Girls Gone Wild, the world’s largest and most successful soft-core porno­graphic franchise, the authors see in its creator, Joe Francis, an entrepreneur offering opportunities for gratifying the sexual programming of men and women alike. “Women are satisfying their own psychological cue of irresistibility, the exhibitionist desire to be desired,” they write. “Men, on the other hand, are very willing to pay to see such authentic, novel expressions of female sexual pleasure. Everybody’s happy.” Right? Right?

Wesley Yang is a contributing editor at New York magazine.

The Life and Afterlife of Aaron Swartz
The precocious coder, hacker visionary, and “pirate” was already a tech legend by the time he’d turned 17. But in the weeks since his suicide last month, at 26, his friends and comrades have tried to turn him into something else—a martyr.

By Wesley Yang Published Feb 8, 2013

(Photo: Sage Ross/DPA/Corbis)
Years before he hanged himself in his Crown Heights apartment, the hacker, writer, and activist Aaron Swartz used to debate with his then-girlfriend Quinn Norton whether the Internet would mourn him if he died. It was Swartz’s stubborn belief that no one would notice or care if he died young, as he often thought he was fated to do. Like many young men of great promise and fluctuating moods, Swartz was an unstable compound of self-effacement and self-regard—among the most empowered, well-connected young people in America, yet convinced that his very existence was a burden to others, even those who loved him. Back when Aaron was 20 and the journalist Norton was 33, before they had crossed over into a complicated romantic affair, Norton brought Swartz with her to a tech event in Berlin, where he and her ex-­husband, the tech writer Danny O’Brien, played a game in which they tried to “kill” themselves on Wikipedia, seeing how long they could remain dead before some volunteer editor restored them to life. Neither could remain dead for more than ten minutes.

There is a category of young person able to do things like contribute to the building of the Internet in their teens, or sell their tech start-ups for millions of dollars when they are 19, or rally a million opponents to a major piece of legislation when they are in their twenties. Usually such people are not the same young people who write on their blogs that they are too frightened to ask for a glass of water on a plane, or that “even among my closest friends, I still feel like something of an imposition, and the slightest shock, the slightest hint that I’m correct, sends me scurrying back into my hole.” Swartz was preternaturally adult when he was still a child and still a precocious child after he had grown to adulthood—“so vulnerable and fragile,” his friend Ben Wikler said. “He put up shields in all the wrong places.” He had done more in 26 years than most of us will do in a lifetime, but often avowed to others, and most of all himself, that he had done nothing of any worth at all.

By the time he was 17, Swartz had already secured a permanent legacy written in code. When he was 13, he was co-authoring a version of RSS, a system that allows streaming of news from across the Internet onto a single reader; in his later teens he helped to build and sell Reddit, a news message board that has grown into one of the world’s most heavily trafficked sites, and created the coding backbone of the Creative Commons licenses that allow artists and writers to claim or waive certain rights to control their works or share them online—the coin of the realm for a growing community of progressive activists known as the copyleft movement, devoted to building an economy of culture based on sharing.

But he was also an ailing person in great physical and emotional pain—a sufferer from ulcerative colitis and suicidal depression, which he described so vividly on his blog (once with enough specificity that a Reddit colleague had the police break down Swartz’s door). Norton spent much of 2010 keeping Swartz away from suicide, telling him, she told me, “This, the way this feels, this is gonna calm down. Like when you get a little bit older, this is gonna be okay. It’s not ever gonna go away completely, but it’s gonna be something you can manage.” As he confessed on his blog in late 2007, he was not merely ailing, he was also ashamed to bear the stigma of his illnesses, and the shame made it difficult to treat both of his conditions. “To some degree I was kind of like, ‘Stop making me deal with this,’ ” Norton told me. “ ‘Stop making me the only one who knows.’ ”

The progressive activist Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who began dating Swartz in the summer of 2011, after he and Norton had broken up and just before the federal indictment for hacking MIT’s JSTOR academic-article database that would define the last year of his life, knew a more securely grounded boyfriend than Norton had—one who was beginning to learn that “direct confrontation was often not the best way,” that participating in electoral politics might be more effective than in-the-shadows hacktivism, and who was doing the dishes for the first time in his life. He had assured her that the depressive episodes described in his blog were a thing of the past, and she says that nothing in his conduct gave her cause to doubt it. The first time she ever worried about his depression, she told me, was on the morning of January 11—the day she would discover him hanging from his belt in the apartment they shared.

Legal theorist Lawrence Lessig with Aaron Swartz at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2001, when Swartz was 14.  
(Photo: Rich Gibson/Wikimedia Commons)
The sanctification of Aaron Swartz began immediately—first online, then off. He had become a millionaire from the sale of Reddit to Condé Nast, but then turned his back on Silicon Valley for good to become an intellectual adventurer, teaching himself economics, sociology, history, and psychology by dropping into the lives of experts, as he well understood that any minimally informed admirer can do. He still worked on projects to organize and make available information online, but was increasingly intent on finding the secret to mobilizing masses to political action. Swartz was one of the early catalysts for the campaign that stopped the Internet regulation known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (and its corollary, the Protect Intellectual Property Act), which its opponents believe would have effectively allowed private companies to censor the Internet. During this campaign, which was waged while Swartz was still facing indictment, he emerged as a leader who occupied a position of unusual credibility and authority. And it was this transition, from a builder of platforms for machines that do precisely what you tell them to do to freelance scholar-activist poised to intervene in the messier realm of democratic politics on behalf of Internet culture, that made so many think of him, even at 26, as the kind of person who, as the writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote when he died, “could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics.”

At his funeral in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, where he was born and raised, the hundreds of mourners were a mix of members of family and Aaron’s far-flung networks, including some towering figures who had known Aaron since he was a chubby kid. There was Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, and the Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, eminence among Internet legal theorists, each channeling the cosmic sorrow and worldly rage already circulating online before a packed crowd of mourners clad in black, the men wearing kippahs.

First, there was remembrance of the person Swartz had been, full of adoration and tenderness and a kind of exasperated love for how preternaturally wise he could be and how mundanely stupid. Then there was remembrance of the circumstances under which he died—as an accused felon prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney of Massachusetts for the crime of downloading too many (4.8 million) academic articles from an online archive hosted by MIT, an extravagant gesture motivated by the cause of using technology to liberate culture from corporate ownership. After two years of exhausting negotiations, which had taken him no closer to an acceptable plea bargain, Swartz was three months from the start of his trial when he preempted it, and his legal plight loomed large in the way all of those around him understood his death. “Aaron did not commit suicide,” said Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, “but was killed by the government.”

In rhetorical salvos like these, at the funeral in Highland Park and at the vigils held in Cambridge and New York and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., Swartz emerged as a human repository of the Internet’s virtues and its unrealized fantasy of social transformation. Again and again, his friends made the point that Swartz’s open-access activism was merely the prologue to his truly immodest ambition to “hack the whole world,” and to realize his dream of “a world without any injustice or suffering of any kind.” His closest friends and family were keen to reject any effort to “pathologize” Swartz’s condition, though he had himself described it as sickness. “Aaron was depressed because God is depressed,” said Lessig at his funeral. “Look at this world and what we have done—who wouldn’t be depressed?”

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Aaron’s impossibly high standards and youthful enthusiasm and naïve brilliance,” said his friend and executor, Alec Resnick. “I can’t help but think that the whole point of people like Aaron is to show us how low and base and hidebound our expectations are.”

Those expectations were largely formed by his early life as a young prodigy raised among idealists. One day, when he was 3 years old, as Robert Swartz recounted to the funeral audience, Aaron asked his mother: “What was this ‘Free Family Entertainment in Downtown Highland Park’?” “She asked him, What was he talking about?” A volley of laughter issued from the audience. “He said, ‘Mom, it says here on the refrigerator.’ He had taught himself to read.”

He built a working ATM in the third grade—it distributed coupons and tracked student accounts. He created a Wikipedia-like site at 13, leading to introductions to Berners-Lee and others who shared the view on Internet advertising he shared then with the Chicago Tribune: “That’s not what the Internet was made for,” he said. “It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads.” He dropped out of high school after the ninth grade, and spent his days in conversation with grown-up technologists, missing out on the numbing busywork and status anxiety that fills the days of American high-school students—depicted so memorably in the Highland Park films of John Hughes. “High school had been the most unpleasant experience of my life,” said his father, who was supportive of Aaron’s decision. “If things come easily to you, and you understand things quickly, you spend a lot of time in school bored out of your mind.”

Swartz speaks against the Stop Online Piracy Act during a New York rally in January 2012.
(Photo: Daniel J. Sieradski/DPA/Corbis)
Robert Swartz is a compact, robust man with a ruddy face; he was a longtime owner of a small tech company and is now an intellectual-property consultant to, among other ­places, the MIT Media Lab. The company—which produced a Unix-like operating system—was named after his father, an entrepreneur and a nuclear-disarmament and peace activist who founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation.

In interviews, Aaron Swartz described his childhood as lonely and his suburb as a place without a center. In one of his early blog posts, Swartz had described Highland Park, not uncharitably, as one of the places where the parents were educated and well-meaning, and had looked upon the struggles for justice of the sixties with sympathy, though they did not themselves participate. It was a perfect place from which to escape into cyberspace; at a vigil at Cooper Union, Norton recounted a memory of Swartz singing Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” to her daughter.

After e-mailing Lawrence Lessig a suggestion on how to design certain Creative Commons licenses in 2002, Swartz went to work with him on it, beginning one of the many long and complicated mentor relationships that seemed to fill Aaron’s life. He enrolled briefly at Stanford University, incubator of tech entrepreneurs, despite never having finished high school (he was rejected from Berkeley), but left after a year for Paul Graham’s unstructured tech think tank Y Combinator, having found Stanford intellectually unchallenging. By day four, Swartz had already concluded that Stanford was a kind of “libertarian nightmare world.”

In the winter of 2007, after spending time with Norton in Berlin, Swartz’s colitis flared up. He holed up in Boston for a week, awol from Reddit, which he had already stopped treating like a serious commitment—he was fired when he eventually did show up at the offices in San Francisco. That week in Boston, he posted a fictional account of a suicide, which described among other things his hatred for his chubby boy’s body.

In 2009, Swartz took a monthlong vacation from the Internet—one of the first he had ever experienced. He wrote about it on his blog , which, when it wasn’t summarizing a social-scientific controversy, or criticizing the work or motivations of previous collaborators, was exploring the conflicted inner life he was so good at keeping from others.

“I am not happy,” he wrote. “I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that’s not how I was offline. I loved people—everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street.”

Toward the end of the post, Swartz reflected on the extraordinary life he has lived, one made possible by the Internet, and his willingness to seize its possibilities.

“I realize it must seem like the greatest arrogance to think one could escape life’s mundane concerns, like asking to live on a cloud, floating above the mere mortals,” he wrote. “But it was that arrogance that made me think I could contribute to adult mailing lists when I was still in elementary school, that arrogance that made me think someone might want to read my website when I was still just a teen, that arrogance that had me start a company as a college freshman. That sort of arrogance—not bragging, but simply inwardly thinking I could do more than was expected of me—is the only thing that’s gotten me anywhere in life. ”

“One of the things that makes him the Internet’s boy is he was already living in the future that I hope we get to,” said Norton. “Where everybody has the permission to act and be important and where hierarchies don’t prevent people from doing things or believing in themselves and just having a fucking life. We get a huge number of messages that we are not allowed in the world. We occupy social laws of living, and we are not allowed to leave them. And all we ever have to do is walk out. And I think one of the most extraordinary, moving parts of Aaron’s life, his story, is that he just didn’t accept the limits that we put on ourselves.”

In a blog post a few months later, Swartz engages in a brief philosophical inquiry into how a person can live a moral life. “The conclusion is inescapable: we must live our lives to promote the most overall good. And that would seem to mean helping those most in want—the world’s poorest people.” He would go on to specify which moral actors he found the most admirable. “Our rule demands one do everything they can to help the poorest—not just spending one’s wealth and selling one’s possessions, but breaking the law if that will help,” he wrote. “It seems like these criminals, not the average workaday law-abiding citizen, should be our moral exemplars.”

Swartz was a fellow at the Lessig-headed Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard in September 2010 when he allegedly began the batch download that would lead to his arrest and indictment. Over the course of several weeks, the indictment claimed, Swartz engaged in a game of digital cat and mouse as first JSTOR, then MIT sought to block his access to its network, causing JSTOR on two separate occasions to block all access to MIT computers for several days. Starting in November of that year, Swartz bypassed the wireless registration and plugged directly into the network from a closet on campus, hiding the laptop under a box and running a script to discover and download articles continuously.

The indictment alleged that Swartz was attempting to download the archive for the intention of sharing it online—perhaps carrying forward the agenda of the Open Access movement, which protested the locking away behind a paywall of academic articles. (He had taken a strong position on this issue with the online publication of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, a polemic written by Swartz and a small group of collaborators.) It charged him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. He faced up to $1 million in fines and up to 35 years in prison. The indictment was later amended to thirteen felony counts and as much as 50 years in prison. But those numbers are entirely notional; the plea-bargain phase settled on a reported offer of six to eight months if Swartz would plead guilty to thirteen felony counts. If he rejected the deal, as he did, the government would recommend a sentence as long as seven years, if he was convicted.

Whether any of this constituted a crime that ought to have been one of society’s priorities to punish depends on one’s perspective. No harm had come of it besides a few days of hassle for the MIT IT staff, and, as is always true of digital reproduction, taking copies of ­JSTOR’s archive left JSTOR with perfect copies of its own. JSTOR eventually made peace with Swartz when he returned the data, and the organization publicly announced it had no further wish to see him prosecuted. Though there were many efforts by the Swartzes to extract a similar statement from MIT, none came.

The analogy his supporters used to describe the crime was “checking out too many books from the library.” The U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts put it differently: Swartz was a thief. It was the latest skirmish in a battle over which analogies would control the digital world—the resort to analogies being a sign both of how rudimentary the legal concepts that govern the Internet are and how slow a consensus is to form about a new medium.

This was a battle fought along many fronts; in legal journals and academic symposia, where a cadre of activists who nurtured Swartz in their midst tried to build a new consensus about who should and should not control the circulation of ideas; in the everyday practices of a hundred million Internet users, who had grown inured to sharing music and videos online; in the offices and laboratories of software and media companies, where the latest copy-­protection schemes are devised in an ever-escalating arms race with those intent on undoing them; in the corridors of Congress, where lobbyists from the various media, old and new, seek advantage for their industries by shaping laws that reflect their economic interests; and in courtrooms, where those unlucky enough to be caught flouting the laws face prosecution for doing what the rest of us habitually do on the Internet—copy for free. Though its opponents had a stronger hold on the levers of power, the copyleft believed it possessed an unbeatable trump card: the future, in the form of everyone’s children, who had grown up without any encumbrances on “content.”

Swartz was one of those children, and his interventions began at the margins where the public right to information was unambiguous. In 2008, Swartz exploited a limited opening in the pacer court-document archive to download and release millions of records. The FBI investigated him but ultimately declined to prosecute.

At a memorial, Swartz’s friend Carl Malamud confessed that he wondered if his own hot criticisms of ­JSTOR—he had tweeted that charging $20 for a six-page article was “morally offensive”—had incited Aaron to take undue risks in hacking it. When I spoke to him a week later, Malamud still hadn’t answered the question for himself. I asked why he had said that he sometimes feels guilty.

“Because the boy got in trouble and he killed himself,” he said. “Did I encourage him to do ­JSTOR? There were quite a few of us banging the table about this. Did we incite him to do this, and could we have done more once he was arrested? I don’t know. I ask the questions, and I can’t answer them. I can’t look in somebody else’s head and figure out what he was thinking. I could second-guess myself and ask what I did wrong, and I hope folks at ­JSTOR and MIT are doing the same. This was a tragedy.”

Malamud described Swartz as having been “terrified” by the FBI investigation into the ­pacer download. Resnick recalls him worrying that the FBI was going to break down his door at any moment. And yet it didn’t seem to deter him—he continued to plot and carry out hacktivist assaults on databases designed to withhold information behind a fairly steep paywall. As the law professor Orin Kerr pointed out to me on the phone, here was the truly puzzling juncture in the data-liberation career of Aaron Swartz. “Many people would take being investigated by the Feds and let off without charges as an occasion to become more cautious and not to see it as a green light to do even more,” he said. “I would have told him not to do it, or else to do it if he wished, but to be aware that if he got caught, he was going to be prosecuted and he was going to face jail time.”

Swartz, connected to the leading legal lights of the Internet, almost certainly knew that already. Even more perplexing was that, by all accounts of those who knew his thinking best, Swartz had been drawing back from hacker activism even before the ­JSTOR incident. He had shifted his focus to economic inequality and health care.

“This was emphatically not what he was spending his time thinking about,” his friend Resnick said of the ­JSTOR hack. “At best it was a weekend project, which unfortunately went very wrong.”

I asked Malamud how terrified Swartz could have been if the ­pacer episode didn’t stop him from even a casual hacking of JSTOR. “I think he was still terrified, but he was also brave. He saw this as something that was right to do, and so he did it.”

The moralistic language spoken by the Open Access movement—with its invocations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks—may seem slightly perplexing to those of us raised with the common-sense view that works of science, art, and culture circulate in our society through institutions that fund them by charging fees to the public to access them. But the partisans of the open Internet were informed by a different experience and set of ideals than the rest of us, those of a techno-utopia that really existed and has been continuously under siege ever since John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist turned Internet visionary, co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and declared the independence of cyberspace as a self-regulating realm of perfect freedom beyond the reach of any territorial government’s laws.

That Swartz was a self-described hacker mattered greatly to his legal fate—through constant repetition in the media, many have come to associate the term with criminality, the breaching of restrictions on access, the stealing of secrets, even acts of espionage and cyberwarfare. But in the term’s original incarnation at MIT, the hacker was a kind of monastic devotee of the computer who practiced a new kind of ethics calibrated to explore the new world it was creating.

Steven Levy, in his seminal book Hackers, neatly evoked the working principles that governed the hacker ethic: “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” he wrote. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.…Imperfect systems infuriate hackers, whose primal instinct is to debug them.…In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt. Rules that prevent you from taking matters like that into your own hands are too ridiculous to even consider abiding by.”

The book describes all the hacker rule-breaking that unfolded in the MIT artificial-intelligence labs, with hackers crawling through the vents, stealing and making unauthorized copies of keys, to get access to the tools they needed for their explorations. Administrators at MIT have been dealing with, and indulging, such spirited rule-breaking for decades. MIT hacks usually involve some inventive mischief in the physical world, such as affixing parlor furniture to the underside of a campus archway, or stealing the Caltech cannon and transporting it across the country. No one is arrested or imprisoned for what everyone understands is an exercise of the high spirits of brilliant young men who earn their indulgence by being members of a technological elite at an elite institution. MIT hackers breach security to test their powers, to repay the insult of keeping them out, and never for base personal gain, never in order to steal credit-card numbers like some computer-enabled foreign thug. And yet the laws that keep out the Russian mob invariably end up prohibiting much of what the hackers do. And therein lies the tension: between the rules that can and should govern elite cadres of monastic devotees of knowledge in itself and the rules that can be applied to society at large. The sharing ethos confined to the MIT artificial-­intelligence lab was a great boost to technological progress; but released into the world, it has produced waves of innovation and disruption about which it takes a nearly religious faith to trust that they will all result in outcomes that will be better for everyone.

When I met Taren ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman in Brooklyn, she broke down only once during an hour-long conversation, when we came to the subject of what happened to Swartz’s case on the day he died. Just that afternoon, his attorney, Elliot Peters, was making a consequential discovery. There had been a puzzling 34-day delay between the arrest and the request for a warrant to search Swartz’s laptop—longer than the prosecution is allowed. And information that Peters recently received from the U.S. Attorney’s office was strengthening his bid to suppress the searches from that laptop in court. “We were all excited about this,” said Peters, “and I was already thinking of how I was going to cross-examine them, when I got this e-mail from Bob Swartz saying Aaron had committed suicide.”

“If only Aaron had waited another week or so,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, her face crumpling into tears. The family and their intimate supporters were gearing up for a public fight. The tagline would have been “Save Aaron,” the slogan accompanying it “Nerd does not equal criminal.”

But ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman had already begun to sense the “aversion and cringing” that overtook Swartz when he had to start asking people for money. His fear of being a burden on others, his horror of being made the center of attention, were interfering with his preparation for his own defense.

In order to defend himself, he would have had to confess to everyone that he had made a boneheaded miscalculation that had made him into the imposition on everyone’s time and money that he always feared that he was. He would have to admit that the ailing, depressed, imperfect shadow side of him was just as real as the brilliant, precocious, successful, morally exemplary side that everyone was celebrating.

“I remember talking to him about this; I told him that for someone with such clear vision about so much, one blind spot he had was how much he mattered,” said Wikler. “Aaron took his life in another small room with bare white walls. He couldn’t hear our voices at that moment.”

“He had this thing about not being able to bring yourself to do things you don’t want to do,” ­Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “Everybody has to do things that they don’t want to do. And we all know that it’s really annoying and maybe even painful. But those kind of things were even harder for him than for most people.” Swartz had said that he would rather spend the rest of his life without a fixed residence, sleeping on other people’s couches, than work at an office job that he did not want to take. “He occupied a higher plane where everything was thinking and writing and doing and meeting with people who were really interesting and smart. And he filled as much of his life as possible with that, far more than anybody else I know. But when it came to having to do something that he didn’t want to do, he couldn’t do it.”

In the end, he didn’t want to be the martyr he has become. The suicide that eventually thrust him into that role was also an attempt to evade it, by evading trial. A weekend side project on an issue he didn’t even care that much about anymore was keeping him firmly ensnared in the past, and might even blot out the new life he was entering.

“I used to tell him the most important thing was never to get caught,” said Norton. “I know these people and I know what they are capable of.” Toward the end of their relationship, Swartz and Norton began to part company on their view of the American political system, which Norton saw as irredeemably fallen and which Swartz had come to believe was preferable to others, in part because it allowed technocratic elites like himself to play an outsize role. “I swear to God that boy just wanted to live inside an episode of The West Wing,” she said. “He wanted to find the halls of power and do his earnest best to make everything a little bit better. And I just believed that was a dead end. And I felt like one of the tragedies of this whole story is that he proved me right.” Among the reasons Swartz turned down the plea bargains, Wikler told me, was that a felony would constrain him from having the kind of life he now wanted: “You can’t be secretary of Commerce,” he said, with a felony conviction. Early on, after his arrest but before his indictment, Swartz was offered an unusual deal—one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and three months in jail. He turned even that down.

François de La Rochefoucauld once observed that it’s not enough to have great virtues; one must use them with economy. As I listened to the tributes to Aaron Swartz in Highland Park and New York and online, this aphorism came to mind. Swartz had skipped out on the lessons taught by the American high school—the lessons in cynical acquiescence, conformity, and obedience to the powers that be. He was right to think these lessons injure people’s innate sense of curiosity and morality and inure them to mediocrity. He was right to credit his “arrogance” for the excellence of the life he lived. But if nothing else, these lessons prepare people for a world that can often be met in no other way; a world whose irrational power must sometimes simply be endured. This was a lesson that he contrived never to learn, which was part of what made him so extraordinary. It was Swartz’s misfortune, and ours, that he learned it too late, from too unyielding a teacher. It cannot serve society’s purpose to make a felon and an inmate out of so gifted and well-meaning a person as ­Aaron Swartz, and thus he was a victim of a grave injustice. But it bears remembering that the greater injustice was done to Aaron Swartz by the man who killed him.