“Bill O’Reilly has connected the dots to identify me as being behind the occupation,” said Frances Fox Piven. “I’m sorry to say that’s not true.”
We were talking, by phone, about the continuing protest on Wall Street -- what it meant, how it was developing, and where things might go next. Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, had gone downtown to join the protests a couple of times. Now in its fourth week and endorsed by several unions (most recently, the Communication Workers of America), Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has spun off hundreds of similar demonstrations around the country, including one outside the Federal Reserve building in Chicago.
We had a lot to discuss. But at some point, I was duty-bound to ask about the craziness. Or rather, it might be better to say, about the latest craziness. Over the past few years, Piven has emerged as Public Enemy Number One for the U.S. right wing, which believes that an article in The Nation 45 years ago that she wrote with her late husband Richard Cloward laid the groundwork for Obama’s plans to turn the U.S. into a somewhat larger version of North Korea, or something.
The whole thing makes about as much sense as one of those diagrams Glenn Beck used to put up on his chalkboard. Which is, as they say, no accident. It was the former Fox News celebrity who made Piven the focus of rage by attacking her repeatedly on his program.
“It was going on for almost a year before I knew about it,” she told me. “My students pointed it out to me on YouTube. I paid attention for a while but stopped. It’s boring.”
Well, apart from the death threats. She says they’ve started coming in again over the past week, since another Fox talking head played a clip of her remarks in support of Occupy Wall Street. It seems as if death threats would be anything but boring. But Piven sounded unfazed, if a bit weary of the subject. What really gets her going, by contrast, is talking about the dynamics and possibilities of the occupation movement. (More on that later.)
Other scholars I’ve contacted discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement as analysts, not advocates. They’ve been spared Piven’s drama. But insofar as they consider OWS to be a response to actual economic and social problems -- rather than the work of dirty hippies and commie sympathizers -- they may yet risk serving as fodder for somebody’s boosted Nielsen ratings.
David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California at Irvine, has offered a running commentary on the occupations through his blog Politics Outside, and discussed the movement’s relationship to the Tea Party in an op-ed for The Washington Post. He is an associate editor of the University of Minnesota Press series Social Movements, Protest, and Contention and has chaired the American Sociological Association’s Section on Collective Behavior and Social Movements. We discussed Occupy Wall Street (and its spin-offs) via e-mail.
“The people who've assembled in Zuccotti Park” near Wall Street, he said, “have a wide range of reasons for being there; some of them explicitly say that they are not political. But the growth of the campaign, the emulative efforts across the country, and the kinds of responses it’s generating, are all a function of this political moment, which is characterized by an economic (and political) crisis where their interests are woefully underrepresented.”
I asked Meyer to imagine that he’d received a proposal for a book on the movement for the Minnesota series. What would he want it to cover?
“One interesting project,” he said, “would be to trace the origins and politics of the different Occupy efforts around the country, which will vary depending upon who gets involved in the efforts. I'm sure they're different, in terms of style and issues and militancy.” The author would need to situate the movement in the context of “a decades-long increase in economic inequality, supporting -- and being supported by -- decreased regulation of business and dramatically increasing costs of political campaigns. It would note the 2008 collapse, the election of the first black president, the Tea Party mobilization, and the shift of balance in governance dramatically to the right. The Occupy movement is an attempt at redress, and it needs to be seen that way.”
Comparisons between OWS and the Tea Party are inevitable, if hardly inarguable. My impression as a supporter of the occupations (albeit one averse to sleeping bags) is that the young protesters have been inspired by the Arab Spring in a way that the older conservatives in the Tea Party haven't been -- and that the occupation movement has been more spontaneous, and considerably less well-funded, than the Tea Party.
“I make a lot less of the international dimension than you suggest,” Meyer replied. “I completely believe that Tahrir Square was inspirational to some of the Occupiers, but there were plenty of other inspirational events around the world that didn't provoke a comparable response in the U.S. (think, for example, about the revolutions of 1989, plus Tiananmen Square). It was the current context that made that inspiration viable. And, I suspect, if it wasn't Egypt it would have been something else in these circumstances.”
And the force of circumstances makes the occupation movement and the Tea Party resemble each other more than either would care to think. “That's not to suggest they're the same or symmetrical,” Meyer said. “….To oversimplify, they were both angry about the Wall Street bailouts: Tea Partiers were angry that government was giving out money; Occupiers were angry that it was going to the extremely rich. They're also both marching through the trajectory of protest movements in America, generating responses from mainstream politics that end up defining them.”
For all its journalistic convenience, the term “populism” is less a political label than an incitement to endless debate -- not to mention the cause for some heavy theoretical lifting, of late. That the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street alike are called populist shows how fluid it can be as a category. In both cases, the movement identifies itself as an effort to mobilize “the people” against “the elite.” Rhetorical similarities notwithstanding, they articulate their grievances in very different ways -- in part because each has its own understanding of the composition (not to say complexion) of “the people.”
In the 1990s, Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, offered an analysis of the common ideological denominator among variants of American populism. Each had inherited elements of a 19th-century conception of political and social conflict as a struggle between the many people who produced wealth (farmers, craftsmen, industrial workers, entrepreneurs) and the smaller group of exploiters who manipulated it (speculators, bankers, monopolists, bureaucrats). This “producerist” ethos could manifest itself in otherwise contrasting versions of populism, depending on how immigrants and racial minorities were regarded – whether as producers (in left populism) or exploiters (for the right variant).
The OWSers have identified themselves as defending 99 percent of the population against the speculation and corruption of the top 1 percent. But Tea Party rhetoric has been much more overtly producerist, it seems to me, than the Occupy Wall Street movement has been. I wrote to Kazin to ask what he thought.
“You're right,” he replied; “the TPers employ producerist rhetoric far more than have the OWSers, although if labor keeps promoting the latter, that could change.… From what I've seen and read, OWS discourse is populist in the majoritarian sense (99% vs. 1%) and in the focus on high finance, which has been a villain since Jefferson's day. The old figure of the pot-bellied, top-hatted banker (sometimes straight from the Monopoly game) has staged a comeback, from protest signs to a recent New Yorker cover.”
Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (Knopf), appeared shortly before the occupation began. Its subtitle might be taken by the movement as an encouraging word. But he is concerned that the protesters have used only half of producerist symbolism.The porcine plutocrat in spats makes for an easily recognizable image, but it's not enough.
“The antithesis,” Kazin pointed out, “in the form of the moral worker/wage-earner/producer, isn't much present, in part because most demonstrators have never seen themselves that way and in part because it's become associated with the Palin-esque right."
Here, I take Kazin to mean that her salt-of-the-earth, just-folks manner has enabled Palin to take on the role of spokesperson for the hard-working American. Be that as it may, "producerist" morality is just about the last set of values embodied in her career; she is as purely a creature of consumerism and celebrity culture as any figure in American politics. But the right's positioning of itself as the voice of the silent majority has been effective enough to make populist language sound almost intrinsically conservative.
And this is a problem for Occupy Wall Street, "as it has been for the left since World War II," said Kazin. "In a sense, the evocation of 99% is a sign of discursive weakness: it calls up a unified ‘people’ that everyone knows doesn't and can never exist.”
It may be that more nuanced ideas about the economy and social structure will emerge -- or already have. Keeping track of the movement even a week ago was much easier than it is now. Type the single word “occupy” into Google News and the results include reports from Boston, Atlanta, San Jose, Des Moines, and Austin. But speedy dissemination is one thing and sustained momentum, or real impact, something else altogether.
After reading his first post on OWS at Orgtheory -- a group blog on the study of movements, networks, and organizations -- I wrote Brayden King to get a better sense of how the movement looked to someone who studies group structures and processes. King is assistant professor of management and organization at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
For a movement to have be “potentially transformative,” he explained, it needed to meet three basic conditions. One is “movement capacity, such as resources and organization,” while another is “public attention, usually transmitted through the news media.” The third element is a vulnerable target. (It is not difficult to see how each might tend to reinforce the others.)
“The OWS faces prime conditions,” King explained, “because they have great capacity for action due to all of the people they've mobilized and their masterful ability to coordinate large-scale protest. The public is paying attention, allies and foes alike. And their targets are extremely vulnerable to attack given the poor reputation of politicians and financial institutions.”
But the three conditions do not, in themselves, generate either structure or strategy.
“If I were researching the OWS,” King wrote, “I'd want to be a fly on the wall and observe their strategic decision-making and see how they arrive at decisions about which targets to go after, what specific goals they're going to pursue, etc.” Calling the occupations “well-positioned to be tactically successful,” King said that “once they've collectively decided to do something, they will be carry it out because of the enormous resource capacity and organization they've created.” That leaves open an enormous question, though: “How do you arrive at strategic decisions when there is no hierarchy and when you're trying to keep together a broad coalition of diverse groups?”
The problem he poses is an old one, and difficult to solve through strictly procedural means:
It also leaves open the question of what the intended effect of the movement ought to be.
One possibility is that OWS might, like the Tea Party, emerge as a factor in electoral politics. The protesters “could become the barb in the side of the Democratic Party and force them to move further left in their policy agenda,” said King. “They could reawaken an interest in labor issues. They could put pressure on Democrats to become tougher on financial regulation and loosen the grip that the elite financial network has on Democratic economic policy making.…” That would mean settling on particular campaigns or pieces of legislation to support or oppose, “as the Tea Partiers did when they aggressively attacked Obama's health care program and galvanized Republicans to resist those reforms.”
Legislation and campaigning have not been the focus of OWS thus far. Another possibility is that it might have an impact over the much longer term. The protesters "may instead decide to never pursue a specific policy agenda,” King said. “Instead, they may be content to serve as a base for the mobilization of the left and as a platform for solidarity-building. The long-term benefits of this kind of mobilization could be great, especially if it eventually fosters a coherent philosophical vision of the future, but the short-term benefits might be muted. Without a clear set of targets and goals, the OWS might not be able to generate the same political influence that the Tea Party did.”
The movement's sudden growth and present course probably reflect the fact that the pull of electoralism is at its weakest just now. And simply at the level of logical consistency, being anti-Wall Street and pro-Obama is not really feasible. As a candidate in 2008, he received more money from the financial sector than John McCain did. The list of people in the administration with strong ties to Goldman Sachs is not short. But lesser-evilism will be on the rise soon enough.
Decisions about the next step for the movement will need to be made. And it's a matter of time before OWS's short-term maneuvers are influenced less by ideological debate than by meteorological necessity. But with a whole generation of people facing the prospect of long-term joblessness, it's not hard to picture things on Wall Street becoming very rowdy indeed in, say, March.
“This isn’t going to be over very quickly,” according to Frances Fox Piven. “Picking Wall Street was brilliant, and it was absolutely right to conceive the action as an occupation, not the usual protest. It’s reinventing the demonstration. With a protest, the target just has to sit it out, knowing that you won’t be there tomorrow. The young people who are involved in this are going at it with some tenacity.”
The most interesting part of the conversation came when Piven began to discuss what she called the “very acute moral sensibility” of the movement. This choice of terms bothered me a little. Too much sentimentality pervades our political discourse, whether of the left or right. Acute moral sensibility counts for less, in social conflict, than a feel for strategy and tactics.
But Piven went on to cut right through these reservations. “The central moral issue of American political economy now is inequality,” she said. It had been growing before the economic downturn, and the past few years have driven awareness of it home.The people involved in the occupations “are trying to find different ways to expose what extreme inequality is doing to us," she continued. "They’ve reached out to all sorts of allies. They’ve been reaching out to labor unions and the unions have responded with support. When was the last time that happened?"
With the occupations movement, something has changed. "As you know," Piven said, "a lot of politics on the left for many years has been about identity as ‘us and them.’ Realizing and recognizing our differences was necessary, but it also caused a lot of damage. With Occupy Wall Street, there's no identity politics in it at all. It’s all kinds of people -- old, young, very diverse, very open. Nothing the demonstrators have said is offensive to potentially allies. And I don’t think that’s just a tactic. It’s a new mood or feeling, it's deeply solidaristic.”
By contrast, the hostility directed at Piven -- the hostile messages, the cyberstalking, people following her around with cameras – sounds much less important to her. It’s a sideshow. She’ll keep participating in the occupations, and speaking in support of them.
As for her detractors, she imagines they, too, will carry on. "They attend my lectures and write everything down,” she said. “Then they publish distorted quotations on their blogs. It’s what they do.”
In January 2002, on his way back from an academic conference, a young journalist named David W. Miller was killed by an intoxicated driver, along with the two people who were giving him a ride home from the airport. As often happens, the drunk was unhurt. Now he's in prison -- where, with any luck, he will serve every single day of his sentence. There are old and very reasonable arguments for why justice cannot, by definition, be a matter of revenge. But I am happy to ignore them, in this case -- for David was my colleague, and someone I respected enormously, and he was just about to take off a couple of months of paternity leave following the birth of his second child. It does not seem possible that the man who killed him could suffer enough.
Now, it would be sentimental overstatement for me to claim a deep friendship. But there was more to our collegiality than the usual blend of mutual tolerance and bland amicability required to make a workplace tolerable. That we could talk without yelling at one another seemed, at the time, like a tiny miracle of civilization. David had worked for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review and was not exactly shamefaced about being a conservative -- while in my cubicle there was a portrait of Lenin.
In fact, he looks down on me now, here in my study at home. I have sworn to take his picture down if, and only if, Henry Kissinger ends up on trial for crimes against humanity. (Frankly, I'm tired of looking at old V.I., but am still awaiting that necessary bit of evidence that bourgeois democracy is capable of truth and reconciliation.)
David and I had the occasional, let's say, spirited conversation. Neither of us ever persuaded the other of much. With hindsight, however, it's clear that knowing him was incredibly instructive -- and not just because he kept up with scholarship in the social sciences that were far from my own stomping grounds.
He was, as the saying goes, a "movement conservative," in touch with the ideas and arguments being cooked up in the right-wing think tanks. But he was as intellectually honest as anyone could be. Around the time we first met, he had just published an article on the famous "broken window syndrome" -- that basic doctrine of conservative social policy -- showing there was scarcely any solid research to back it up. And when he did argue for any given element of the right's agenda, it was hard to escape the sense that he did so from the firm conviction that it would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In short, talking with David meant facing a repeated obligation to think the unthinkable: that someone could be a conservative without suffering from either cognitive deficit or profound moral stupidity.
Of course, any person who spends very long on the left must come face to face, eventually, with the hard truth that a certain percentage of one's comrades are malevolent, cretinous, thoughtless, or palpably insane. This is troubling, but you get used to it. What proves much more disconcerting is the realization that someone from the other side possesses real virtues -- and that they hold their views, not in spite of their better qualities, but in consequence of them.
All of this came back to mind upon reading a recent profile of Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher. In most respects, it is a typical newspaper piece on a thinker. That is, it avoids any effort to discuss his work (or even to describe it) and focuses instead on his personality, which on a generous estimate may be described as curmudgeonly.
There was one passage in particular that hit home. It's when Scruton says, "One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
Scruton is on to something. Of course, the point is very seriously blunted by the way he pretends that Manicheanism is a peculiarly leftist failing. In his heart of hearts, he must know better. Certainly the American right is very keen on the language of apocalyptic confrontation with absolute evil.And Scruton himself is not above a certain amount of nastiness, once the polemical fires are stoked.
That's just the way of the passions, though -- the tendency in our nature that must be controlled by "the inner check," to borrow a very old-fashioned conservative notion discussed by the political scientist Wesley McDonald, who teaches at Elizabethtown College. In his book Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published last year by the University of Missouri Press, he explains that the inner check is that factor in the soul that can subdue the more vicious parts of one's nature -- in the interest of the common good, and of the higher human potentialities.
See also, "superego." But there is perhaps a value to the more frankly moralistic expression "inner check." The superego is what makes you neurotic. By contrast, the inner check is what makes it possible to say, as Scruton does, "I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
For an instructive display of the inner check in action (and a reminder of how much work it has cut out for it) you might check out a recent exchange concerning Unholy Alliance by David Horowitz.
According to its author, this is the book that provides the ballast of heavy thinking to back up "Discover the Network." And a good thing it does, for otherwise "Discover" might be regarded as a laughable exercise in guilt-by-association that makes the John Birch Society's None Dare Call it Conspiracy look like sober political analysis.
So it was interesting -- encouraging, even -- to see that Timothy Burke had written a long commentary on the book. The impression one gets from reading Burke's essays, over time, is that his ideas are measured without being equivocal. He tends to be scrupulous about defining where his arguments are coming from and where they are going. That precision is not the same as rigidity, however. He would probably be identified by most conservatives as a man of the left. But more than anything else, his writings call to mind a comment by Raymond Aron, who for decades was considered the anti-Sartre of French political and intellectual life. "The last word is never said, and one must not judge one's adversaries as if one's own cause were identified with absolute truth."
During a previous exchange, Horowitz had challenged Burke to grapple with Unholy Alliance, which demonstrates (says Horowitz} the linkage between radical Islamism and the American left. And Burke took up the gauntlet.
Burke begins by noting that "there is an intellectual history waiting to be written that plausibly connects the New Left with some of the forms of romantic anti-Western sentiment among some American (and European) activists and intellectuals that flourished between 1980 and the present."
He adds that such a book would do well to examine "a wider, more diffuse 20th Century history of connections between anti-Western ideas, texts and political commitments within Europe and the United States that would not be isolated in any simple way to 'the left' (indeed, would cross over at points to authors and thinkers typically regarded as conservative)."
Let's be clear on this: from the start, Burke more than half concedes a point that Horowitz takes as urgent: that there are indeed continuities between some parts of the Third World-ist left and modes of thought and politics that are, in the strictest sense, reactionary. But Burke thinks that the matter has to be faced with a certain degree of rigor and scholarship. Otherwise, why bother?
Burke argues that Horowitz has not offered even the most rudimentary approximation of the kind of analysis that he has promised. And yet Burke also makes an extremely (to my mind, astonishingly) generous estimate of Horowitz's potential to write something intelligent and serious.
In answer, Horowitz has issued a petulant, abusive, and interminable response that one suspects will turn into a chapter in his next autobiography.
At this point, it is hard not to think of the "inner check" -- the doctrine that there is (or should be) a small voice of constraint within the soul. "Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite," as Russell Kirk put it in The Conservative Mind (1953), "for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason."
The inner check is not a part of the self -- but, rather, that internal force subduing the self, which would otherwise howl and rave, and demand that the world adore its every claim to glory. Reading Burke and Horowitz side by side, it's not hard to come to figure out which one really embodies that principle.
Now, over the past couple of years, I've tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35, taught me so much by his example -- by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, it's meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.
To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output -- journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. It's not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it.But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside one's familiar ruts.
But now it's time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.
By now, you may have have read and watched, and wept and yelled, quite enough on the topic of Hurrican Katrina and its aftermath -- and in that case, probably, can take no more. If so, please come back on Thursday, when Intellectual Affairs will begin its weekly coverage of new books.
My plan had been to devote today's column to Astra Taylor's Zizek!, due to be be screened during the Toronto International Film Festival (September 8-17). It's a smart and wry film, and worthy of the attention -- but given the other images I've had to process over the last week, this does not seem like the moment. And Taylor herself agrees, so we'll count on revisiting Zizek!
But for now, a brief roundup of some recent, or otherwise pertinent, discussions of Katrina. This survey won't try to be exhaustive. If you've come across something brilliant, provocative, profoundly chowderheaded, etc. that ought to have been linked here -- well, please use the comments section to let the world know.
For a good selection of commentary from around the world, by all means start out with the digest prepared by the staff of Open Democracy. And as ever, Alfredo Perez provides a running log of recent articles at Political Theory Daily Review, where for now the coverage of Katrina is linked in the middle column, "Town Square." No doubt more and more essays will be appear in the "Ivory Tower" section in the months ahead.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that our president is not a hard-reading man. The difficult of imagining him with a book is integral to the aura of wholesome folksiness, otherwise so difficult to project for a millionaire Yalie scion of the WASP establishment. No one can seriously doubt that he is telling the non-reality-based truth (as he sees it) in stating that it was impossible to anticipate the impact of Katrina.
And yet, and yet.... An astonishing account of the destruction of New Orleans by a hurricane appeared in National Geographic -- last October. We're not talking about some boring old memo, either! It's National Geographic, people, the magazine with the bright and vivid pictures. Surely someone in a position of responsibility might have shown him that?
He might also have benefitted from a look at Chris Mooney's article at the Web site of The American Prospect from late May. But that is probably pushing it.
"In a parliamentary democracy," as Henry Farrell wrote over the weekend, "George W. Bush would almost certainly either have resigned by now or be on the point of resigning." The point has not been lost even on the likes of David Brooks -- in normal circumstances, one of the G.O.P.'s reliably feisty attack poodles (to borrow the expression coined by James Wolcott.
Urging us to keep things in perspective, though, we have Niall Ferguson, the most celebrated historian of (and in) that globalizing project known as the growth of Empire. On Sunday, he reminded us that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was pretty awful, too, and that the tendency back then was to attach moral significance to natural disaster. Now, a quarter millennium later, that temptation is being indulged again -- but by a motley crew of leftists, environmentalists, and those opposed to the Iraq war, all of them looking for scapegoats. (Also, the jihadists, who are glad to think of the boost in oil prices.)
It is difficult to take the measure of such chutzpah. Not so long ago, Ferguson was the most serious, and certainly the most prominent, contemporary champion of counterfactual history: that is, the use of the alternative scenarios as a took for thinking about the possible outcomes of events. ("What if Hitler had been killed in 1918?" etc.) The strongest claim for the value of counterfactual history is that it undercuts determinism -- which, in turn, makes us more aware of possibility, of decision-making, of individual responsibility.
Well, how's this for an exercise in the counterfactual rewriting of history? Suppose that most members of the National Guard were, you know, inside the national borders. Imagine that there were old copies of National Geographic on Air Force One. Daydream about accountability.
Of course, there are other ways of looking at the situation. For example, the case of New Orleans could be revisted from a strictly free-market perspective -- as proof of the failure that naturally follows from obliging the government to take on responsibilities better left to private initiative.
"So who should own the public levees?" asks Will Baude, of the Federalist Society at Yale Law School. "The standard analysis certainly labels them as the classic domain of the government, and if we can design an institution that can do an effective job, I am all for it. But I do think there are structural reasons to suppose that we might be able to come up with alternative, perhaps non-governmental, institutions that would do a better job of holding back le delugeï¿½?
Worse even than the creeping socialism of public utilities is the moral rot that we have seen manifested in the streets, according to Robert Tracinski. "What Hurricane Katrina exposed," he writes, "was the psychological consequences of the welfare state.... People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. And they don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men."
Clearly not! The solution is obvious. Somebody needs to get the collected works of Ayn Rand down to New Orleans right away, preferably in a waterproof edition.
It seems a matter of time before there is a large body of analysis concerning how race and class have been addressed (or ignored) in the wake of Katrina. But so far, not so good. An exception has been Rachel Sullivan's two-parter ( here and here ) followed by her quick list of some relevant information on social inequality. But things have been relatively quiet, so far, on the H-Net African-American Studies list.
Then again, my eyes are now rather blurry.... If you've come across anything having major consequences for how we should understand the past week -- or the future it has opened -- then please share that information in the space below.
UPDATE: How could I have overlooked the page of links at the History News Network? Well worth a look.
Rick Perlstein, a friend from the days of Lingua Franca, is now working on a book about Richard Nixon. Last year, he published a series of in-depth articles about the Republican Party and the American conservative movement. (Those are not quite the same thing, though that distinction only becomes salient from time to time.) In short, Perlstein has had occasion to think about honesty and dissimulation -- and about the broad, swampy territory in between, where politicians finesse the difference. As do artists and used-car salesmen....
It’s the job of historians to map that territory. But philosophers wander there, too. “What is truth?” as Nietzsche once asked. “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms. Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” Kind of a Cheneyo-Rumsfeldian ring to that thought. It comes from an essay called “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” which does, too, come to think of it.
So anyway, about a week ago, Rick pointed out a recent discussion of how the Bush Administration is dealing with critics who accuse it of fudging the intelligence that suggested Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The link went to a comment by Joshua Micah Marshall, who is a liberal Democrat of the more temperate sort, not prone to hyperventilation.
“Garden variety lying is knowing it’s Y and saying it’s X,” he wrote, giving Lyndon Johnson on the Gulf of Tonkin as an example. The present executive branch, he continued, shows “a much deeper indifference to factual information in itself.”
Rick posed an interesting question: “Isn't Josh Marshall here describing as the Administration's methodology exactly what that Princeton philosophy prof defines as ‘bullshit’?” That prof being, of course, Harry Frankfurt, whose short and best-selling treatise On Bullshit will probably cover everyone’s Christmas bonus at Princeton University Press this year.
In February, The New York Times beat us by a day or so with its article on the book, which daintily avoided giving its title. But "Intellectual Affairs" first took a close look, not just at Frankfurt’s text -- noting that it remained essentially unchanged since its original publication as a scholarly paper in the 1980s -- but at the philosophical critique of it presented in G.A. Cohen’s essay “Deeper into Bullshit.”
Since then, the call for papers for another volume of meditations on the theme of bull has appeared. Truly, we are living in a golden age.
The gist of Frankfurt’s argument, as you may recall, is that pitching BS is a very different form of activity from merely telling a lie. And Marshall’s comments do somewhat echo the philosopher’s point. Frankfurt would agree that “garden variety lying” is saying one thing when you know another to be true. The liar operates within a domain that acknowledges the difference between accuracy and untruth. The bullshitter, in Frankfurt’s analysis, does not. In a sense, then, the other feature of Marshall’s statement would seem to fit. Bullshit involves something like “indifference to factual information in itself.”
So does it follow, then, that in characterizing the Bush team’s state of mind three years ago, during the run-up to the war, we must choose between the options of incompetence, dishonesty, and bullshit? Please understand that I frame it in such terms, not from any political motive, but purely in the interest of conceptual rigor.
That said.... It seems to me that this range of terms is inadequate. One may agree that Bush et al. are profoundly indifferent to verifiable truth without concluding that the Frankfurt category necessarily applies.
Per G. A. Cohen’s analysis in “Deeper into Bullshit,” we must stress that Frankfurt’s model rests on a particular understanding of the consciousness of the liar. The mind of the bullshitter is defined by contrast to this state. For the liar, (1) the contrast between truth and untruth is clearly discerned, and (2) that difference would be grasped by the person to whom the liar speaks. But the liar’s intentionality also includes (3) some specific and lucidly grasped advantage over the listener made possible by the act of lying.
By contrast, the bullshitter is vague on (1) and radically unconcerned with (2). There is more work to be done on the elements of relationship and efficacy indicated by (3). We lack a carefully argued account of bullshit’s effect on the bullshitee.
There is, however, another possible state of consciousness not adequately described by Frankfurt’s paper. What might be called “the true believer” is someone possessing an intense concern with truth.
But it is a Higher Truth, which the listener may not (indeed, probably cannot) grasp. The true believer is speaking a truth that somehow exceeds the understanding of the person hearing it.
During the Moscow Trials of the late 1930s, Stalin’s attorney lodged numerous charges against the accused that were, by normal standards, absurd. In many cases, the “evidence” could be shown to be false. But so much worse for the facts, at least from the vantage point of the true believer. If you’ve ever known someone who got involved in EST or a multi-level marketing business, the same general principle applies. In each case, it is not quite accurate to say that the true believers are lying. Nor are they bullshitting, in the strictest sense, for they maintain a certain fidelity to the Higher Truth.
Similarly, it did not matter three years ago whether or not any evidence existed to link Saddam and Osama. To anyone possessing the Higher Truth, it was obvious that Iraq must be a training ground for Al Qaeda. And guess what? It is now. So why argue about it?
On a less world-historical scale, I see something interesting and apropos in Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors. In the latest issue, David Horowitz makes clear that he is not a liar just because he told a national television audience something that he knew was not true.
(This item was brought to my attention by a friend who teaches in a state undergoing one of Horowitz’s ideological rectification campaigns. My guess is that he’d rather not be thanked by name.)
Here’s the story so far: In February, while the Ward Churchill debate was heating up, Horowitz appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s program. It came up that Horowitz, like Churchill, had been invited to lecture at Hamilton College at some point. But he was not, he said, “a speaker paid by and invited by the faculty.”
As we all know, university faculties are hotbeds of left-wing extremism. (Especially the business schools and engineering departments. And reports of how hotel-management students are forced to read speeches by Pol Pot are positively blood-curdling.) Anyway, whenever Horowitz appears on campus, it’s because some plucky youngsters invite him. He was at Hamilton because he had been asked by “the conservative kids.”
That came as a surprise to Maurice Isserman, a left-of-center historian who teaches at Hamilton College. When I saw him at a conference a few years ago, he seemed to have a little gray in his hair, and his last book, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington, was a biography of the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. No doubt he’s been called all sorts of things over the years, but “conservative kid” is not one of them. And when Horowitz spoke at Hamilton a few years ago, it was as a guest lecturer in Isserman’s class on the 1960s.
As Isserman put it in the September/October issue of Academe: “Contrary to the impression he gave on "The O’Reilly Factor," Horowitz was, in fact, an official guest of Hamilton College in fall 2002, invited by a faculty member, introduced at his talk by the dean of the faculty, and generously compensated for his time.”
I will leave to you the pleasure and edification of watching Horowitz explain himself in the latest issue of Academe. But in short, he could not tell the truth because that would have been a lie, so he had to say something untrue in order to speak a Higher Truth.
My apologies for the pretzel-like twistiness of that paraphrase. It is all so much clearer in the original Newspeak: Thoughtcrime is doubleplus ungood.
Two images of William Jennings Bryan have settled into the public memory, neither of them flattering. One is the fundamentalist mountebank familiar to viewers of Inherit the Wind, with its fictionalized rendering of the Scopes trial. In it, the character based on Bryan proclaims himself “more interested in the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks.” He is, in short, a crowd-pleasing creationist numbskull, and nothing more.
The other portrait of Bryan is less cinematic, but darker. The classic version of it appears in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The American Political Tradition, first published in 1948 and still selling around 10,000 copies each year, according to a forthcoming biography of the historian. Hofstadter sketches the career of Bryan as a populist leader during the economic depression of the 1890s, when he emerged as the Midwest’s fierce and eloquent scourge of the Eastern bankers and industrial monopolies.
Yet this left-leaning Bryan had, in Hofstadter’s account, no meaningful program for change. He was merely a vessel of rage. Incapable of statesmanship, only of high-flown oratory, he was a relic of the agrarian past –- and the prototype of the fascistic demagogues who were discovering their own voices, just as Bryan’s career was reaching its end.
Historians have been challenging these interpretations for decades -– beginning in earnest more than 40 years ago, with the scholarship of Lawrence W. Levine, who is now a professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University. It was Levine who pointed out that when Bryan denounced evolution, he tended to be thinking more of Nietzsche than of Darwin. And the Nietzsche he feared was not today’s poststructuralist playboy, but the herald of a new age of militaristic brutality.
Still, old caricatures die hard. It may be difficult for the contemporary reader to pick up Michael Kazin’s new book, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan (Knopf) without imagining that its title contains a snarl and a sneer. Isn’t the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity and anti-elitist sentiment always just a disguise for base motives and cruel intentions? To call someone godly is now, almost by default, to accuse them of hypocrisy.
But Kazin, who is a professor of history at Georgetown University, has a very different story to tell. Revisionist scholarship on Bryan -- the effort to dig beneath the stereotypes and excavate his deeper complexities -- has finally yielded a book that might persuade the general reader to rethink the political role played by “the Great Commoner.”
In an earlier study, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (Basic Books, 1995), Kazin described the emergence in the 19th century of an ideology he called “producerism” – a moral understanding of politics as the struggle between those who built the nation’s infrastructure and those who exploited it. (The farmer or the honest businessman was as much a producer as the industrial worker. Likewise, land speculators and liquor dealers were part of the exploitive class, as were bankers and monopolistic scoundrels.)
The producerist ethos remains a strong undercurrent of American politics today. Bryan was its most eloquent spokesman. He wedded it to a powerful (and by Kazin’s account utterly sincere) belief that politics was a matter of following the commandment to love thy neighbor. As a man of his era, Bryan could be obtuse about how to apply that principle: His attitude toward black Americans was paternalistic, on a good day, and he was indifferent, though not hostile, concerning the specific problems facing immigrants. But Kazin points out that there is no sign of nativist malice in Bryan’s public or private communications. Some of his followers indulged in conspiratorial mutterings against the Catholics or the Jews, but Bryan himself did not. At the same time -- canny politician that he was -- he never challenged the growing power of the Klan during the 1920s.
It’s an absorbing book, especially for its picture of Bryan’s following. (He received an incredible amount of mail from them, only about two percent of which, Kazin notes, has survived.) I contacted Kazin to ask a few questions by e-mail.
Q: By today's standards, Bryan seems like a bundle of contradictions. He was both a fundamentalist Christian and the spokesman for the left wing of the Democratic Party. He embodied a very 19th century notion of "character," but was also exceptionally shrewd about marketing his own personality. For many Americans, he was a beloved elder statesman -- despite losing his two presidential bids and otherwise spending very little time in elected office. How much of that contradictoriness is in Bryan himself, and how much in the eye of the beholder today?
A: Great question! The easiest part to answer is the first: for Bryan and many other reform-minded white Christians, there was no contradiction between their politics and their religion. The “revolution” being made by the Carnegies and Vanderbilts and Rockefellers was destroying the pious republic they knew, or wished to remember (slavery, of course, they forgot about). What Bryan called “applied Christianity” was the natural antidote to the poison of rampant capitalism. The rhetoric of Bellamy, the People’s Party, and the Knights of Labor was full of such notions -– as were the sermons and writings of many Social Gospelers, such as Washington Gladden and Charles Stelzle.
On the character-personality question – I think Warren Susman and many historians he influenced over-dichotomize these two concepts. No serious Christian could favor the latter over the former. Yet, the exigencies of the cultural marketplace and of celebrity culture in particular produced a fascination with the personal lives of the famous. So Bryan, who was as ego-obsessed as any politician, went with the flow, knowing his personality was boosting his political influence. Being a journalist himself, he understood the rules of the emerging game. Do you know Charles Ponce De Leon’s book about celebrity journalism in this period?
Q. Oddly enough, I do, actually. But let's talk about the people to whom Bryan appealed. From digging in the archives, you document that Bryan had a following a loyal following among professionals, and even successful businessmen, who saw themselves as part of the producing class threatened by the plutocratic elite. Was that surprising to discover? Normally you think of populism in that era as the politics of horny-handed toil.
A: As I argued in The Populist Persuasion, when “producerism” became a popular ideal in democratic politics, Americans from many classes were quite happy to embrace it. It thus became an essential contested concept. But among a broad cross-section of people, the critique of finance capital was always stronger in the South and West, where Bryan had his most consistent support, than in places like Philly and NYC.
As for the letters -— I enjoyed that part of the research the most, although it was frustrating as hell to find almost no letters that were written during the campaign of 1908 and only a small number from then until the 1920s. If only WJB or his wife had revealed, somewhere, the criteria they used when dumping all that correspondence! That, at least,would have been a consolation. Of course, if they had kept nearly all of it, I’d still be there in the Manuscript Room at the Library of Congress, tapping away.
Q: I get the impression that Bryan might well have become president if women had been able to vote in 1896 or 1900. How much of his appeal came from expressing the moral and cultural ideals associated with women's "civilizing" role? And how much of it was sex appeal of his rugged personality and magnetic stage presence?
A: Ah, the counterfactuals! Bryan’s image as a “godly hero” certainly did appeal to many women, as did his eloquence and good looks (the latter, at least while he was in his 30s and early 40s). His support for prohibition and woman suffrage would have appealed to many women as well.
In 1896 and 1900, he carried most of the states where women then had the vote (in the Mountain West). Although that may have been because of his free silver and anti-big money stands, which is probably why most men in those states voted for him. On the other hand, his radical image could have limited his appeal to women elsewhere in the country. Women voters, before the 1960s, tended to vote for safe, conservative candidates.
Q: Another counterfactual.... What if Bryan had won? What sort of president would he have been? The man was great at making speeches; none better. But could he really have cut it as Chief Executive?
A: As president, he probably would have been a divisive figure, perhaps an American Hugo Chavez -— but without the benefit of oil revenues! If he tried to carry out the 1896 platform, there may have been a capital strike against him, which would have brought on another depression. If he hadn’t, the Populists and many left Democrats would have deserted him. The sad fact is that he hadn’t built a strong enough constituency to govern, much less to win the election in the first place.
Q: Finally, a question about the subjective dimension of working on this biography. Any moments of profound disillusionment? Rapt admiration? Sudden epiphany?
A: I wish I had time to pursue this important question at length -- perhaps I’ll write an essay about it someday. But briefly: I started reading all those fan letters and experienced an epiphany. Millions of ordinary people adored this guy and thought he was a prophet! And he was certainly fighting the good fight -– against Mark Hanna and his friends who were initiating the U.S. empire.
I also was impressed by his ability as a speech-writer as well as a performer. He could turn a phrase quite brilliantly. But after a year or so, I had to come to grips with his bigotry against black people and his general inability to overcome his mistrust of urban pols (although he didn’t share the anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism of some of his followers).
The problem was, in the America of a century ago, Bryan would not have been a hero to the white evangelical grassroots if he had been as clever and cosmopolitan a pol as FDR. So I ended up with a historian’s sense of perspective about the limits of the perceptions and achievements of the past. In recent speeches, E.J. Dionne muses that perhaps we should ask “What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?” I’m not sure that’s a useful question.
Recently, a New York Times reporter called me to discuss legal matters. He co-wrote a story about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the next day's Congressional hearing on domestic spying and other anti-terrorism matters.
The Times story briefly included mention of our conversation, outing me as a long-time friend of the AG, identifying me as one of his "supporters," and using a quip that I had used, that Gonzales was "one of my three Republican friends." He also printed one of several examples I had related concerning Gonzales' lawyering skills, and he accurately noted that he and I "disagree on almost every issue." Alberto and I came to Houston as professionals at the same time in 1982, and we have had many personal and professional activities in common, as young Mexican American lawyers in the same city will do.
The conversation had been nearly an hour, and the reporter accurately and fairly captured my answers to his many questions, which ranged from Governor Bush's DUI to whether or not the Geneva Convention covers al Qaeda. I get calls regularly from reporters, and thought nothing more of it. However, when I came into my office on Monday morning, I found about 20 e-mail messages from fellow faculty members across the country, condemning me in one way or the other about the remarks I made. The story had been posted on several faculty-driven listservs, along with public and private remonstrances and notes of support. One said, " Este buey no merese tu apoyo" (This mule doesn't deserve your support), while another was headed: "What are torture and war crimes against Muslims/Arabs/Asians of Color between friends?" Thinking that I could not address each one, I posted this note on a law professor listserv:
"All I have to say is that I have many friends, including most who wrote me. I have never required loyalty oaths of my friends, nor they of me. I disagree with many people about many things, but have never set as a precondition of friendship that we agree on social or political issues. I am not about to start doing so now."
We were off to the blogging/listserv races. Since then, I have received dozens of faculty responses, public and private, mostly along these lines: "Hell, Michael deserves this because he in effect endorsed Gonzales" to "Man, I disagree with his choice of friends but he clearly has the right to choose his friends" with all the degrees along this spectrum. The most vociferous have accused me of war crimes, guilt by association, and the like. The most cutting mistook my reluctance to respond further to each iteration as thin-skinned aloofness: "And it is really too bad that some people can be talked into shutting up or walking away just because their feelings get hurt."
A few lawyer friends and family members weighed in, uniformly positive, and reminding me how much they always disagreed with me on various matters. A few whose voting behavior I did not know revealed themselves as Republicans, and assuming I was counting them among the three I had thought I had; overnight, my Republican posse doubled.
After a week of this, I am astounded that people do not see the difference between friendship and politics. It is not often I need to guard my left flank; this whole thing has me baffled, and somewhat amused. I feel like I am in a Mark Twain novel, looking down at my own funeral from the church balcony.
In an odd way, this whole thing has been salutary -- being slimed by some of these folks in public actually helps (such as the "war criminal" calumny from one bozo who has kept carping), but some of the scorchers I have received (in English and Spanish) were of more interest to me. For example, a professor whose work I have always admired wrote me: "Michael, for what it's worth, I think that you are you entitled to have whatever friends you want to have, and to maintain your friendship despite some political disagreements. But further, such disagreements can deepen real friendships, and when the one or both of the friends are important political actors, maintaining the friendships can also improve national politics by giving those actors access to different information and opinions than they might get from their toadies."
That is my story and I am sticking to it. I am the oldest of 10 children, and we disagree all the time. How could it be otherwise with friends and colleagues?
At the end of the day, I have come to believe that Al Gonzales is probably more worried than I am about our friendship ruining reputations, now that he has been outed as my friend. The whole imbroglio with the nomination of Harriet Miers shows that Republicans can be fickle with friendships and affiliations, but I work hard to keep my friends. And as a postscript, the then-University of Houston president who hired me and with whom I have stayed in touch over the years, Barry Munitz, was in the news this week over the situation at the Getty Trust, where he resigned as president. I do not know Barry's political affiliations, but it has been a tough week for my few friends in high places.
But I will say this: when he returns to Houston, it is Al Gonzales' turn to buy.
Michael A. Olivas
Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center.
The heated rhetoric surrounding immigration reform legislation in Congress threatens to drown out an important, bipartisan effort to resolve a decades-old inconsistency in federal immigration law concerning postsecondary tuition costs for undocumented students who have graduated from high schools in the United States.
The “DREAM Act,” which was incorporated into the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration reform bill last week, would allow states to provide in-state tuition for postsecondary education to undocumented students who have attended (for at least three years) and graduated from high school in their states.
Federal immigration law now prohibits them from doing so, though that has not stopped several states, including “red” states like Utah, Kansas, and Texas, from adopting such legislation in recognition of the fact that there are more than 50,000 of these students each year that graduate from high school as -- in nearly every way -- children of the American dream.
Of the DREAM Act, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) stated, “I find it inconceivable that we would provide greater benefits to persons who are here illegally than to American citizens. It makes a mockery of the rule of law."
However, Congress must ensure the debate over the education of undocumented students is actually grounded in the law, rather than rhetoric. Federal law related to this issue was interpreted more than 20 years ago by the United States Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision.
Plyler v. Doe involved a Texas law that effectively banned undocumented minor children from participating in public elementary and secondary education. The Court heard arguments that sounded quite similar to those used to deny in-state college tuition for the same students: that providing K-12 education rewards illegal immigration, that we should not give public benefits to those in the country illegally. The significance of this case is not that it settled once and for all the ideological arguments surrounding immigration. Rather, the Court created protective legal precedent for minor undocumented students by carefully examining the intersection of immigration law, the distribution of public goods, and individual rights as protected by the Constitution of the United States.
The Supreme Court’s decision addressed the question: Did a child break the law because the parents brought the child into the country illegally as a minor? The Supreme Court said “no.”
The Court ruled that such children, in fact, were entitled to equal protection under the law, one of America’s most cherished legal principles. As cited in the Court’s opinion, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall…deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
As a population within the state’s jurisdiction, undocumented students were, therefore, entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the opinion of the Court, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., wrote, “To permit a state … to identify subclasses of persons whom it would define as beyond its jurisdiction, thereby relieving itself of the obligation to assure that its laws are designed and applied equally to those persons, would undermine the principal purpose for which the Equal Protection Clause was incorporated in the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Court further argued that federal immigration law, despite “sheer incapability or lax enforcement,” was not a justification for denying children equal protection and access to education.
In recognition of this principle, several state legislatures have passed laws to allow in-state postsecondary tuition for undocumented students who have attended public high schools in state for more than three years. They realize the legal “no-man’s land” these students occupy, and have sought to remedy it under the law.
The central relevance of the Supreme Court’s case to this debate over in-state tuition for undocumented students is that we cannot simply ignore what Justice Brennan called the “shadow population” of students who go about their daily lives and contribute to our society in the same way that we all strive to contribute. Moreover, we cannot deprive these students of the equal protection that our Constitution provides simply because they graduate from the high school setting where the Supreme Court has decided that it applies.
Though the issue is easy to weigh down with heated rhetoric, we hope that the law will, in fact, prevail, and that Congress will pass the DREAM Act. As Justice Brennan concluded, “[W]hatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.”
Last month, Thomas M. Kean and Lee H. Hamilton published Without Precedent, an account of their time as co-chairs (Republican and Democratic, respectively) of the 9/11 Commission. Whatever the uses of a deliberate and scrupulous bipartisanship in political life, it does not make for good memoir-writing. I read it, but kept slipping into that mild coma that is an occupational hazard for anyone who reviews a lot of not-very-good or just-sort-of-okay books for newspapers.
Yet one thing about Without Precedent did prove quite interesting: the strong emphasis on conspiracy theorists. Or rather, to be more exact, the authors' preoccupation with trying to head them off at the pass. The spectre of the Warren Commission must have haunted their dreams. They put a lot of thought into establishing what they call "core principles" intended to prevent "the kinds of conspiracy theorizing that have followed in the wake of other inquiries." They mention this guiding intention not once or twice, but roughly a dozen times.
"We decided to be open and transparent," they write, "so that people could see how we reached our conclusions about 9/11, and we demanded access to every document and witness in part to demonstrate that we had left no stone unturned in our investigation. We also adopted a policy of openness to the general public: people could send information to our offices, and somebody would review that information."
Clearly preventing conspiracy theory was a major concern -- which also suggests that Kean and Hamilton must have known that it was, for all practical purposes, an effectively hopeless endeavor. The impulse to frame things in terms of conspiracy has very deep roots. It is not an American specialty, by any means. But there is something sobering about reading the pamphlets from the years just before the Revolution and discovering that the patriots were, let's say, a tad paranoid at times. (George Washington worried about the "systematic plan" of King George and minions to turn the colonists into slaves "as tame and abject," as he put it in an interesting turn of phrase, "as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.")
The idea that malevolent secret forces are at work behind current events is much too seductive to banish. And now, as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, we have regular reminders that the 9/11 commissioners' efforts at prophylaxis have failed. The single best-publicized source of conspiracy theory on the matter is a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth whose members have been much in the news lately. Both Kevin Barrett and William Woodward belong to the group, and I've read Barrett's work in one of their journals.
Now, a word about labels before we go on. You will not find many kind words about the "The 9/11 Commission Report" in publications associated with Scholars for 9/11 Truth, such as the magazine Global Outlook. (It is now starting to show up at some newsstands, inconspicuously mixed in with other journals of news and commentary.)
But not all criticisms of the report have been works of conspiracy theory, by any means. A few months after it appeared, the essayist Benjamin DeMott made a shrewd initial assessment of the punches pulled by the commission in the course of its investigation. And there is a tough-minded little book by the political reporter James Ridgeway called The Five Unanswered Questions about 9/11, published last year. Each sees the official account of 9/11 as inadequate. The commission (they contend) did not push hard enough to identify and hold accountable those whose malfeasance permitted the terrorists a chance to strike.
According to Scholars for 9/11 Truth, however, the events of that day were not a product of systemic failure. Very much to contrary: It was an all-around success for the U.S. government, which attacked its own citizens and, in the case of the Twin Towers, used hidden explosives to bring them down through "controlled demolition," since the impact of two jetliners could not have done it.
Furthermore, there may have been a third plane in the air at the time. "Was it meant to confuse defensive response?" asks a contributor to The Journal of 9/11 Truth, published by the group. "Was it monitoring (or controlling) the attacks? Was it a back-up in the event of a miss on the towers?"
Let's ask another question, just to round things out: Did that mysterious third plane near the Trade Center actually, you know, exist?
My first encounter with this group's work was in February, when I came across a paper by James H. Fetzer, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, whose name seemed vaguely familiar. And so it was. I had interviewed him some year back about one of his books. Before 9/11, he had carved out a niche for himself in the world of JFK "assassinologists." (You are supposed to call them that. "Buffs" just makes them mad.)
Anyway, Fetzer had done some really groundbreaking work on the famous Zapruder film, which you have almost certainly seen at some point, whether or not you knew that was what it is called. It is the short, grainy, rather shaky home movie of the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas, in which the viewer sees the back of the president's head explode in a cloud of blood and brains.
Other conspiracy-minded researches had studied the horrific images, frame by frame, in an effort to determine just how many gunmen were involved and where they might be located. The ensuing debates kept assassinologists occupied for many years.
To Fetzer, their work seemed naive. He argued (at great length, and in a depth of detail that I cannot pretend to have fathomed) that the Zapruder film itself is a hoax. "The film was redone using techniques of optical printing and special effects," as Fetzer has explained, if "explained" is the word one wants, "which allow combining any background with any foreground to create any impression that one desires, which included removing series of frames that would have given the plot away, such as that the driver pulled the limousine to the left and stopped after shots began to be fired...."
Assassinology has been an overcrowded discipline for some time. Even in the mid-1970s, newcomers were being encouraged to specialize in ever more narrow sub-fields. (That advice sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?)
By contrast the subject of 9/11 offers a whole new set of problems. It demands fresh new developments in conspiratorial research -- new theoretical approaches to explain the evidence, or even to bring it into existence, as in the case of the mystery jet.
It proves difficult to read very much of this material without recalling that Richard Hofstadter once devoted a book to The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). Over the years, historians have spent a lot of time arguing with this or that element of its argument, and my friend Rick Perlstein has been merciless in his treatment of how Hofstadter approached Barry Goldwater.
Whatever its failings as analysis, though, Hofstadter's book is very good indeed as phenomenological description. So it is no surprise to find a good explanation for Scholars for 9/11 Truth in it, even though Hofstadter himself died in 1970.
The conspiratorial mentality or "paranoid style" -- for which important events in public life are best understood as the product of hidden, malevolent forces controlling history -- is strongly prone to assuming a scholarly form. As Hofstadter puts it: "One should not be misled by the fantastic conclusions that are so characteristic of this political style into imagining that it is not, so to speak, argued out along factual lines. The very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for 'evidence' to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed."
The charge that conspiratorial thinking is incoherent simply will not hold up. "It is nothing if not coherent," writes Hofstadter. The conspiratorial understanding of history is actually "far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities. It is, if not wholly rational, at least intensely rationalistic...."
And finally, it gives people overwhelmed by history something to do -- nothing very useful, perhaps, but then you can't have everything. It demands "the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions," writes Hofstadter, "the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable."
Well, there are all sorts of ways of handling trauma. It's no surprise that this one has emerged. Whether or not 9/11 itself could have been prevented, something like Scholars for 9/11 Truth was perhaps inevitable.
Like most of us in academe, I move in a number of educational circles. There are my colleagues at Johnson C. Smith University, my wife’s colleagues at Wingate University, and a host of others. I recently made a decision to try and expand my educational circle somewhat. I am running in a non-partisan election for a seat on the Union County, N.C. Board of Education. In doing so, I have begun to learn just how hard it is to run a campaign -- something that I should probably confess to not doing entirely well. Live and learn.
One of the things that I have been most surprised to learn has nothing to do with all the minutiae of campaigning. The thing that surprised me most was the reaction of my colleagues when they have heard I am running. They are proud of me with a reaction that almost borders on awe. This awe, however, is not entirely comforting. As best I can describe it, it is the awe reserved for martyrs and those who succeed through some slight madness that sets them apart. And before that sounds like it is going too far, the standard response to learning that I have thrown my hat into the ring is begins with something like “Good for you.” Almost immediately after this, however, comes the question, “What possessed you to run for office?” (The alternate is a reflection on what a thankless job it will be.)
Pay attention to that word possessed -- the one with religious and/or demonic overtones and the implication that no sane person would do this.
When it came up in my classes (I don’t teach in Union County so I don’t have to worry about a potential conflict of interest.), the students were more excited. They wanted to know why I was running and what I stood for. They wanted to know what motivated me. “Why did you choose to run?” replaced questions that implied a loss of mental control.
As I thought about this, I began to realize that I was looking at something that went beyond collegial humor and the wry cynicism that academics are famous for developing as a part of their pursuit of something like objectivity. I suspect that I am looking at a flaw in the way the academy approaches politics.
Because of the ongoing examination of the academy by groups concerned with whether there are a bunch of tenured radicals corrupting America’s youth, most of the discussion has been about whether or not professors are trying to indoctrinate their students in one political belief or another in their classrooms. This is, of course, an important concern. If an instructor cannot maintain a separation of our personal politics and our professional obligations, that instructor needs to learn to do so quickly.
But not all political activity is equal and we need to learn to embrace some of it for the benefit of our classrooms.
One of the big movements currently circulating in academe is the move towards “active and collaborative learning” -- a movement being simultaneously developed by academics as a way to improve student learning and a movement consistent with the Department of Education’s interest in seeing more measurable results of what goes in college classrooms. There are books and journals devoted to the study of these approaches and techniques. Several of these techniques, at their core, rely on modeling.
Now with that in mind, consider this: How often do we tell students that they need to vote and participate in their civic lives. How often do we assign plays like Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People or essays like Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then discuss the issues of war and civil rights that swirled around them yet limit the realm or discussion to the purely academic?
They often hear us speak. They do not often hear about what we do.
So long as we do not model behavior, students will not see anyone participating in the civic realm. The politicians they see on television aren’t real to them. They do not regularly see a person that they know and can personally identify with actively engaging in the civic discourse or hear about the struggle to choose the best course of action to make our towns better from an array of bad options.
What I am advocating here is not something tied to one party or political philosophy. Whether you are a left-leaning anthropology professor or a member of the right of center business school set, we should all be active participants in the civic realm and, importantly, our students should know that those activities are a part of our lives.
For those of you still worried about the long term effects of possession, this doesn’t mean you need to need to run for political office. There is a host of ways to be engaged. It could be something as simple as getting up extra early on Election Day and making sure that you are still wearing the “I Voted” sticker given to you at the polls when you ask your students if they have voted. I’m not saying to ask who they voted for, just whether they had voted. It could be letting them know about the civic or volunteer responsibilities you dealt with last night or over the weekend. You may, in fact, already be doing some of these things.
I know what some of you are saying. We are, on the whole, an overworked and underpaid profession and none of us have the time to put something else on our plate. The truth of the matter is that, unless they are CEO's or come from money, most of the people who are entering local politics are in the same boat. I have heard stories in the political circles I have begun to move in of people dipping into their home’s equity or retirement funds to finance some of their campaigns. While you may not want to make that kind of a sacrifice, you can still make a difference in the life of your students and your community just by making an attempt.
There is a final reason we, as a profession, need to become more engaged -- one that we need to consider and consider quickly. We won’t get the problems faced by the academy solved by the “them” in government until we meet “them” and find out that they are us.
Matthew M. DeForrest
Matthew M. DeForrest is assistant professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University.
"Sixty Minutes" reported a couple of weeks ago that George W. Bush is now, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, reading a book about the Algerian War.
My new year's resolutions preclude taking any of the various cheap shots made conveniently easy by this bit of news. No, mustn't. Instead, it's worth dwelling on an interesting fact there, between the lines. Even someone with a pretty slight knowledge of the literature on the Algerian conflict (okay, I confess it) will immediately know which book Kissinger recommended to the president. It's obvious.
First published 30 years ago, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, very quickly established itself as the standard account of that period available in any language.
The author had been a member of the British military in the 1940s and a foreign correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the early 1950s, before going on to write a three-volume history of warfare between France and Germany. He must know how to talk to people: Savage War reflects an extraordinary degree of access to participants in both the Algerian guerilla movement and the French occupying forces. Certainly no French historian had written anything comparable in scope or balance. Perhaps none could -- the passions of the conflict itself having been followed by years of public amnesia.
When Horne's book first appeared, it seemed to be an account of one major, but now largely closed, chapter in the history of postwar decolonization. Subsequent developments -- in Algeria and elsewhere -- have made the past prologue. Savage War has become a de facto textbook for American military officers facing time in Iraq. Doubtless it has close students on the other side, as well.
In recent years, used copies of the book have fetched at least $100 apiece online. Fortunately a paperback reprint has recently been issued by New York Review Books (the publishing house associated with the journal).
In a preface to the new edition, Horne notes that the Israeli press once mentioned that Ariel Sharon's favorite bedside book was a Hebrew translation of Savage War. He then quotes, with approval, a comment by Amos Elon, an eminent Israeli journalist and social critic. Sharon "must have tragically misunderstood it," wrote Elon. "That book could not tell him what to do, but it could have told him what not to do."
Horne goes on to spell out what George Bush and Tony Blair might have learned from a careful study of Algeria. His point is much the same as the one made by Elon. "At the very least," he says, "its lessons might have imposed caution before getting involved in Iraq in the first place."
He notes "at least three areas where the echoes are particularly painful, if not deafening."
One was how easily a guerilla force could maximize its impact through a focused and demoralizing use of force. The National Liberation Front (FLN) initially concentrated its firepower, not on the French military, but on members of the Algerian police who remained loyal to France. The result, writes Horne, was "a deadly loss of morale among the police, with defections to the FLN, and the French army defensively reduced to protecting the police, instead of concentrating on active 'search and destroy' missions." Sound familiar? "The 'insurgents' in Iraq," writes Horne, "have learned from this strategy with deadly effect."
A second parallel is the effect of porous borders. Geography is destiny. Whatever advantage the French army might secure within Algeria itself at any given moment, it was "paralyzed by its inability to pursue its FLN enemy across into its friendly bases in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco." Change that to "Syria and Iran" and the scenario is as familiar as the day's headlines.
Finally, Horne points to "the vile hand of torture; of abuse, and counter-abuse."
Let's be clear about something: Horne is no sentimental idealist. There is a reason that military officers study his work. He's pretty hardboiled. So when he says that one of the major lessons he learned from Algeria is that "torture should never, never, never be resorted to by any Western society," it isn't out of insufficient realism.
"In the production of reliable intelligence, regardless of the moral issue, torture is counter-productive," he writes. But it also proves disastrous in other ways.
Horne places less emphasis on morality than morale. And in that regard, torture is a weapon that can be relied upon only to blow up in your face. "In the Algerian War," he concludes, "what led -- probably more than any single other factor -- to the ultimate defeat of France was the realization, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that had been condemned under the Nazi Occupation." Torture is also a gift to the enemy, given "the propaganda value even the least substantiated rumors of it can arouse."
Another new reprint, this time from University of Nebraska Press, harkens back to the Algerian War's closest equivalent to dissemination of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The Question, by Henri Alleg, was published in France in 1958 and soon banned by the government, which only guaranteed that there was a huge audience for the clandestine edition that soon appeared.
Alleg was a French-born journalist for an Algerian Communist newspaper (the same one for which Albert Camus had been a cub reporter in the 1930s) who was arrested by the French military in 1957. The authorities wasted little time before putting him to "the question," as the idiom for torture called it. He managed to write a narrative of the experience while still in prison. It was smuggled out and published,, and very quickly translated into numerous languages -- attention for it benefiting, to no small degree, from the preface by Jean-Paul Sartre.
The Question appeared in England and the United States in 1958, but the book has been out of print for decades. Sometime in 2002, James D. Le Sueur, an association professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, decided that the time was right for a reprint. "I don't remember the exact date," he told me in a phone interview, "but it was before the abuse scandals."
Unfortunately his intuition was very good.
It made sense to think of University of Nebraska Press, in part because the publisher had already issued Le Sueur's edition of the wartime journal of Mouloud Feraoun, an important Algerian intellectual. Two years ago, Nebraska also brought out a revised edition of Le Sueur's book Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria.
There was also the matter of convenience. "I'm a faculty member," he says, "so I could just walk over to the press’s office."
ReadingThe Question now, you get flashbacks to the past few years, including the discussion over "waterboarding" -- an interrogation technique we were assured, from some quarters anyway, is really not that bad.
Alleg does not use the expression, but he describes waterboarding from the victim's side. After enduring a few sessions of electrocution, he was tied to a plank, a tube stuck in his throat, and a rag rapped around his head. "When you want to talk, all you have to do is move your fingers," one of the torturers told him.
"And then he turned on the tap. The rag was soaked rapidly. Water flowed everywhere: in my mouth, in my nose, all over my face. But for a while I could still breath in some small gulps of air. I tried, by contracting my throat, to take in as little water as possible and to resist suffocation by keeping air in my lungs for as long as I could. But I couldn't hold on for more than a few moments. I had the impression of drowning, and a terrible agony, that of death itself, took possession of me. In spite of myself, all the muscles of my body struggled uselessly to save myself from suffocation. In spite of myself, the fingers of my two hands shook uncontrollably."
Cheered by this sign that Alleg is ready to surrender, the torturers stop for a little while. Then they get really mad because he still won't talk. So under the faucet he goes, three more times -- passing out, waking to vomit water, and to endure the beatings. And this is only the beginning.
“My case is exceptional,” Alleg writes, “in that it has attracted public attention. It is not in any way unique.” If anything, as a French citizen, he got off lightly: Muslim prisoners were treated much worse.
As we discussed Alleg’s book, Le Sueur mentioned another title that I’ve heard of, but never read: The Gangrene. Published about a year after The Question, it provided an account of the “muscular interrogations” (as another euphemism puts it) of Algerian immigrants in France itself. The torture spread, like gangrene.
That book, too, is long since out of print. The English translation from 1960 was by Robert Silvers, who went on to found The New York Review of Books. It seems like a good candidate for a new edition.
On the other hand, making such books available only does limited good, in itself. In the preface to the new edition of Savage War, Alistair Horne notes that he sent a copy to Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 “at the suggestion of his staff.” For his trouble, he got a polite but dismissive reply.
Everything is bound to change, of course, given that there is a new Secretary of Defense. And the president is reading Savage War now -- all to the good. Things will really start to improve once he begins to apply what he’s learned. That’s assuming, of course, the Pentagon is actually building a time machine.