Jacques-Alain Miller has delivered unto us his thoughts on Google. In case the name does not signify, Jacques-Alain Miller is the son-in-law of the late Jacques Lacan and editor of his posthumously published works. He is not a Google enthusiast. The search engines follows “a totalitarian maxim,” he says. It is the new Big Brother. “It puts everything in its place,” Miller declares, “turning you into the sum of your clicks until the end of time.”
Powerful, then. And yet – hélas! – Google is also “stupid.” It can “scan all the books, plunder all the archives [of] cinema, television, the press, and beyond,” thereby subjecting the universe to “an omniscient gaze, traversing the world, lusting after every little last piece of information about everyone.” But it “is able to codify, but not to decode. It is the word in its brute materiality that it records.” (Read the whole thing here. And for another French complaint about Google, see this earlier column.)
When Miller pontificates, it is, verily, as a pontiff. Besides control of the enigmatic theorists’s literary estate, Miller has inherited Lacan’s mantle as leader of one international current in psychoanalysis. His influence spans several continents. Within the Lacanian movement, he is, so to speak, the analyst of the analysts’ analysts.
He was once also a student of Louis Althusser, whose seminar in Paris during the early 1960s taught apprentice Marxist philosophers not so much to analyze concepts as to “produce” them. Miller was the central figure in a moment of high drama during the era of high structuralism. During Althusser’s seminar, Miller complained that he had been busy producing something he called “metonymic causality” when another student stole it. He wanted his concept returned. (However this conflict was resolved, the real winner had to be any bemused bystander.)
Miller is, then, the past master of a certain mode of intellectual authority – one that has been deeply shaped by (and is ultimately inseparable from) tightly restricted fields of communication and exchange.
Someone once compared the Lacanian movement to a Masonic lodge. There were unpublished texts by the founder that remained more than usually esoteric: they were available in typescript editions of just a few copies, and then only to high-grade initiates.
It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to that digital flatland of relatively porous discursive borders about which Miller complains now. As well he might. (Resorting to Orwellian overkill is, in this context, probably a symptom of anxiety. There are plenty of reasons to worry and complain about Google, of course. But when you picture a cursor clicking a human face forever, it lacks something in the totalitarian-terror department.)
Yet closer examination of Miller’s pronouncement suggests another possibility. It isn’t just a document in which hierarchical intellectual authority comes to terms with the Web's numbskulled leveling. For the way Miller writes about the experience of using Google is quite revealing -- though not about the search engine itself.
“Our query is without syntax,” declares Miller, “minimal to the extreme; one click ... and bingo! It is a cascade -- the stark white of the query page is suddenly covered in words. The void flips into plenitude, concision to verbosity.... Finding the result that makes sense for you is therefore like looking for a needle in a haystack. Google would be intelligent if it could compute significations. But it can’t.”
In other words, Jacques-Alain Miller has no clue that algorithms determine the sequence of hits you get back from a search. (However intelligent Google might or might not be, the people behind it are quite clearly trying to “compute significations.”) He doesn’t grasp that you can shape a query – give it a syntax – to narrow its focus and heighten its precision. Miller’s complaints are a slightly more sophisticated version of someone typing “Whatever happened to Uncle Fred?” into Google and then feeling bewildered that the printout does not provide an answer.
For an informed contrast to Jacques-Alain Miller’s befuddled indignation, you might turn to Digital History Hacks, a very smart and rewarding blog maintained by William J. Turkel, an assistant professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. (As it happens, I first read about Miller in Psychoanalytic Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution by one Sherry Turkle. The coincidence is marred by a slip of the signfier: they spell their names differently.)
The mandarin complaint about the new digital order is that it lacks history and substance, existing in a chaotic eternal present – one with no memory and precious little attention span. But a bibliographical guide that Turkel posted in January demonstrates that there is now extensive enough literature to speak of a field of digital history.
The term has a nice ambiguity to it – one that is worth thinking about. One the one hand, it can refer to the ways historians may use new media to do things they’ve always done – prepare archives, publish historiography, and so on. Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) is the one handbook that ought to be known to scholars even outside the field of history itself. The full text of it is available for free online from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which also hosts a useful selection of essays on digital history.
But as some of the material gathered there shows, digitalization itself creates opportunities for new kinds of history – and new problems, especially when documents exist in formats that have fallen out of use.
Furthermore, as various forms of information technology become more or more pervasive, it makes sense to begin thinking of another kind of digital history: the history of digitality. Impressed by the bibliography that Turkel had prepared – and by the point that it now represented a body of work one would need to master in order to do graduate-level work in digital history – I contacted him by e-mail to get more of his thoughts on the field.
“Digital history begins,” he says, “with traditional historical sources represented in digital form on a computer, and with 'born-digital' sources like e-mail, text messages, computer code, video games and digital video. Once you have the proper equipment, these digital sources can be duplicated, stored, accessed, manipulated and transmitted at almost no cost. A box of archival documents can be stored in only one location, has to be consulted in person, can be used by only a few people at a time, and suffers wear as it is used. It is relatively vulnerable to various kinds of disaster. Digital copies of those documents, once created, aren't subject to any of those limitations. For some purposes you really need the originals (e.g., a chemical analysis of ink or paper). For many or most other purposes, you can use digital representations instead. And note that once the chemical analysis is completed, it too becomes a digital representation.”
But that’s just the initial phase, or foundation level, of digital history – the scanning substratum, in effect, in which documents become more readily available. A much more complex set of questions come up as historians face the deeper changes in their work made possible by a wholly different sort of archival space – what Roy Rosenzweig calls the "culture ofabundance" created by digitality.
“He asks us to consider what it would mean to try and write history with an essentially complete archival record,” Turkel told me. “I think that his question is quite deep because up until now we haven't really emphasized the degree to which our discipline has been shaped by information costs. It costs something (in terms of time, money, resources) to learn a language, read a book, visit an archive, take some notes, track down confirming evidence, etc. Not surprisingly, historians have tended to frame projects so that they could actually be completed in a reasonable amount of time, using the availability and accessibility of sources to set limits.”
Reducing information costs in turn changes the whole economy of research – especially during the first phase, when one is framing questions and trying to figure out if they are worth pursuing.
“If you're writing about a relatively famous person,” as Turkel put it, “other historians will expect you to be familiar with what that person wrote, and probably with their correspondence. Obviously, you should also know some of the secondary literature. But if you have access to a complete archival record, you can learn things that might have been almost impossible to discover before. How did your famous person figure in people's dreams, for example? People sometimes write about their dreams in diaries and letters, or even keep dream journals. But say you wanted to know how Darwin figured in the dreams of African people in the late 19th century. You couldn't read one diary at a time, hoping someone had had a dream about him and written it down. With a complete digital archive, you could easily do a keyword search for something like "Darwin NEAR dream" and then filter your results.” As it happens, I conducted this interview a few weeks before coming across Jacques-Alain Miller’s comments on Google. It seems like synchronicity that Turkel would mention the possibility of digital historians getting involved in the interpretation of dreams (normally a psychoanalyst’s preserve). But for now, it sounds as if most historians are only slightly more savvy about digitality than the Lacanian Freemasons.
“All professional historians have a very clear idea about how to make use of archival and library sources,” Turkel says, “and many work with material culture, too. But I think far fewer have much sense of how search engines work or how to construct queries. Few are familiar with the range of online sources and tools. Very few are able to do things like write scrapers, parsers or spiders.”
(It pays to increase your word power. For a quick look at scraping and parsing, start here. For the role of spiders on the Web, have a look at this.)
“I believe that these kind of techniques will be increasingly important,” says Turkel, “and someday will be taken for granted. I guess I would consider digital history to have arrived as a field when most departments have at least one person who can (and does) offer a course in the subject. Right now, many departments are lucky to have someone who knows how to digitize paper sources or put up web pages.”
Last week,Intellectual Affairs took up the topic of what might be called scandal-mania -- the never-ending search for shock, controversy, and gratifying indignation regarding our “master thinkers.” Unfortunately there haven’t been enough “shocking revelations” recently to keep up with the demand. So the old ones are brought out of mothballs, from time to time.
A slightly different kind of case has come up recently involving Zygmunt Bauman, who is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds and the University of Warsaw. Bauman is a prolific author with a broad range of interests in social theory, but is probably best known for a series of books and essays analyzing the emergence of the new, increasingly fluid and unstable forms of cultural and social order sometimes called “postmodernism.”
No doubt that fact alone will suffice to convince a certain part of the public that he must be guilty of something. Be that as it may, Bauman is not actually a pomo enthusiast. While rejecting various strands of communitarianism, he is quite ambivalent about the fragmentation and confusion in the postmodern condition. His book Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty, just issued by Polity, is quite typical of his work over the past few years -- a mixture of social theory and cultural criticism, sweeping in its generalizations but also alert to the anxieties one sees reflected in the newspaper and on CNN.
In March, a paragraph concerning Bauman appeared at Sign and Sight, a Web site providing capsule summaries in English of the Feuilletons (topical cultural articles) appearing in German newspapers and magazines. It noted the recent publication in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of an article by a Polish historian named Bogdan Musial. The piece “uncovers the Stalinist past of the world famous sociologist,” as Sign and Sight put it.
It also quoted a bit of the article. "The fact is that Bauman was deeply involved with the violent communist regime in Poland for more than 20 years,” in Musial’s words, “fighting real and supposed enemies of Stalinism with a weapon in his hand, shooting them in the back. His activities can hardly be passed off as the youthful transgressions of an intellectual seduced and led astray by communist ideology. And it is astonishing that Bauman, who so loves to point the finger, does not reflect on his own deeds."
A few weeks later, another discussion of the matter appeared in The Irish Times -- this one by Andreas Hess, a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Dublin. The piece bore what seems, with hindsight, the almost inevitable title of “Postmodernism Made Me Do It: A World Without Blame.” (The article is not available except to subscribers, but I’ll quote from a copy passed along by a friend.)
Summing up the charges in the German article, Hess said that secret files recently declassified in Poland revealed that Bauman “participated in operations of political cleansing of alleged political opponents in Poland between 1944 and 1954. The Polish files also show Bauman was praised by his superiors for having been quite successful in completing the tasks assigned, although he seems, as at least one note suggests, not to have taken any major part in direct military operations because of his ‘Semitic background.’ However, to be promoted to the rank of major at the youthful age of 23 was quite an achievement. As the author of the article [in the German newspaper] pointed out, Bauman remained a faithful member of the party apparatus.”
Hess goes on to suggest that “Bauman’s hidden past” is the key to his work as “one of the prophets of postmodernism.” This is not really argued so much as asserted -- and in a somewhat contradictory way.
On the one hand, it is implied that Bauman has used postmodern relativism as a way to excuse his earlier Stalinist crimes. Unfortunately for this argument, Bauman is actually a critic of postmodernism. And so, on the other hand, the sociologist is also guilty of attacking Western society by denouncing postmodernity. Whether or not this is a coherent claim, it points to some of what is at issue in the drama over “Bauman’s secret Stalinism,” as it’s called.
Now, I do not read German or Polish -- a decided disadvantage in coming to any sense of how the controversy has unfolded in Europe. Throughout the former Soviet sphere of influence, a vast and agonizingly complex set of problems has emerged surrounding “lustration” -- the process of "purifying" public life by legally disqualifying those who collaborated with the old Communist regimes from serving in positions of authority.
But let’s just look at the matter on purely in terms of the academic scandal we’ve been offered. I have read some of Bauman’s work, but not a lot. Under the circumstances that may be an advantage. I am not a disciple – and by no means feel committed to defending him, come what may.
If he has hidden his past, then its revelation is a necessary thing. But then, that is the real issue at stake. Everything turns on that “if.”
What did we know about Zygmunt Bauman before the opening of his files? What could be surmise about his life based on interviews, his bibliographical record, and books about him readily available at a decent university library?
One soon discovers that “Bauman’s hidden past” was very badly hidden indeed. He has never published a memoir about being a Stalinist -- nor about anything else, so far as I know -- but he has never concealed that part of his life either. The facts can be pieced together readily.
He was born in Poland in 1925 and emigrated to the Soviet Union with his family at the start of World War II. This was an altogether understandable decision, questions of ideology aside. Stalin’s regime was not averse to the occasional half-disguised outburst of anti-Semitism, but that was not the central point of its entire agenda, at least; so it is hardly surprising that a Jewish family might respond to the partition of Poland in 1939 by heading East.
Bauman studied physics and dreamed, he says, of becoming a scientist. He served as a member of the Polish equivalent of the Red Army during the war. He returned to his native country as a fervent young Communist, eager, he says, to rebuild Poland as a modern, egalitarian society – a “people’s democracy” as the Stalinist lingo had it. His wife Janina Bauman, in her memoir A Dream of Belonging: My Years in Postwar Poland (Virago, 1988) portrays him as a true believer in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
But there is no sense overstressing his idealism. To have been a member of the Polish United Workers Party was not a matter of teaching Sunday school classes on Lenin to happy peasant children. Bauman would have participated in the usual rounds of denuciation, purge, “thought reform,” and rationalized brutality. He was also an officer in the Polish army. The recent revelations specify that he belonged to the military intelligence division -- making him, in effect, part of the secret police.
But the latter counts a “revelation” only to someone with no sense of party/military relations in the Eastern bloc. Not every member of the military was a Communist cadre -- and an officer who was also a member of the party had a role in intelligence-gathering, more or less by definition.
But a Jewish party member was in a precarious position – again, almost by definition. In 1953, he was forced out of the army during one of the regime’s campaigns against “Zionists” and “cosmopolitans.” He enrolled in the University of Warsaw and retrained as a social scientist. He began to research on the history of the British Labour Party and the development of contemporary Polish society.
One ought not to read too much dissidence into the simple fact of doing empirical sociology. Bauman himself says he wanted to reform the regime, to bring it into line with its professed egalitarian values. And yet, under the circumstances, becoming a sociologist was at least somewhat oppositional a move. He published articles on alienation, the problems of the younger generation, and the challenge of fostering innovation in a planned economy.
And so he remained loyal to the regime -- in his moderately oppositional fashion -- until another wave of official anti-Semitism in 1968 made this impossible. In her memoir, Janina Bauman recalls their final weeks in Poland as a time of threatening phone calls, hulking strangers loitering outside their apartment, and TV broadcasts that repeated her husband’s name in hateful tones. “A scholarly article appeared in a respectable magazine,” she writes. “It attacked [Zygmunt] and others for their dangerous influence on Polish youth. It was signed by a close friend.”
Bauman and his family emigrated that year, eventually settling in Leeds. (He never faced a language barrier, having for some years been editor of a Polish sociological journal published in English.) His writings continued to be critical of both the Soviet system and of capitalism, and to support the labor movement. When Solidarity emerged in 1980 to challenge the state, Bauman welcomed it as the force that would shape of the future of Poland.
These facts are all part of the record -- put there, most of them, by Bauman himself. By no means is it a heroic tale. From time to time, he must have named names, and written things he didn’t believe, and forced himself to believe things that he knew, deep down, were not true.
And yet Bauman did not hide his past, either. It has always been available for anyone trying to come to some judgment of his work. He has been accused of failing to reflect upon his experience. But even that is a dubious reading of the evidence. A central point of his work on the “liquid” social structure of postmodernism is its contrast with the modernity that went before, which he says was “marked by the disciplinary power of the pastoral state.” He describes the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as the ultimate, extreme cases of that “disciplinary power.”
Let’s go out on a limb and at least consider the possibility that someone who admittedly spent years serving a social system that he now understands as issuing from the same matrix as Hitler’s regime may perhaps be telling us (in his own roundabout, sociologistic way) that he is morally culpable, no matter what his good intentions may have been.
Alas, this is not quite so exciting as “Postmodernist Conceals Sinister Past.” It doesn’t even have the satisfying denouement found in “The God That Failed,” that standard of ex-Communist disillusionment. Sorry about that.... It’s just a tale of a man getting older and – just possibly – wiser. I tend to think of that as a happy story, even so.
In the cartoons, an astonished character will at times need to grab his eyeballs as they come flying out of his head. Something like that happened to me a few months ago while going through the fall catalog of Columbia University Press. Buried deep in its pages – well behind all the exciting, glamorous titles at the bleeding edge of scholarship – was the listing for Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy by Richard D. Kahlenberg. (It has just appeared in hardback.)
This was a title one might reasonably expect to see issued by a commercial publisher: Shanker, who died in 1997, was for many years the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which he helped build into one of the strongest unions in the AFL-CIO. It now has more than a million members, including about 160,000 who work in higher education; even if only one in a hundred were interested in the union’s history, that is quite a potential audience.
At the same time, it was a surprise to find the book published by a press better known for titles in cultural theory: works embodying a certain abstract radicalism, several miles in stratosphere above the labor movement. And Shanker, besides being a union bureaucrat, was something of a hardboiled ideologue – a fierce Cold Warrior, but no less ardent a Culture Warrior, denouncing both affirmative action and multiculturalism in tones that were, let’s say, emphatic.
Such “tough liberalism,” as his biographer calls it, made the labor leader a punchline in Woody Allen’s post-apocalyptic comedy "Sleeper" (1973). A character explains that no one is quite sure how civilization ended, but historians think it all started when “a man named Albert Shanker got his hands on an atomic bomb.”
A lot has changed since the days when a new movie by Woody Allen was a major event. And in any case, no labor leader has emerged in recent decades with quite the cultural and political profile that Shanker once had. Yet his name still has the power to provoke. There are Shankerites and anti-Shankerites.
Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, DC, admires Shanker and gives him the benefit of the doubt, more often than not. That tendency comes through, I think, in the IHE podcast we recently recorded. But Kahlenberg is not totally uncritical of Shanker. As we talked following the taping, Kahlenberg mentioned the passions stirred up by the leader's memory.
Some followers remain convinced that “Al” was right about more or less everything -- including the Vietnam War, which Shanker supported. Kahlenberg also looked into charges by Shanker's opponents that he received funds as part of the American intelligence community’s activity within the labor movement.
That accusation is hardly a surprising or implausible. All things considered, it would be surprising if Shanker were not connected with "the AFL-CIA” (as certain networks within the intelligence and labor communities were sometimes called). But Kahlenberg says critics haven’t offered solid evidence to back up the accusation. There is a difference between firm conviction and real proof. This is a matter some historian will eventually need to revisit, nailing things down with serious documentation.
Tough Liberal is not the first book about Shanker. But the previous volume, Dickson A. Mungazi’s Where He Stands: Albert Shanker and the American Federation of Teachers, published by Praeger in 1995, was not really a biography. Nor was it much of a contribution to labor history, given that Mungazi identifies Samuel Gompers (who died in 1924) as the first president of the CIO (established in 1935).
So Kahlenberg has made a real contribution by telling the story of this charismatic and/or megalomaniacal labor leader’s career. I say that as a reader who did not pick up the biography with any admiration for its subject – nor put it down converted to Shanker-style “toughness.” (Actually it made me think maybe Woody Allen was right.) But it’s an engaging book, and essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Cold War liberalism and its complicated legacy.
Further reading (and listening): An excerpt from Tough Liberal is available at Columbia UP's website. An early review of it appears in the latest issue of Washington Monthly. An extremely favorable treatment of the biography and of Shanker himself has recently appeared in The Wall Street Journal. For something altogether less laudatory, see the essay appearing ten years ago in the socialist journal New Politics. And by all means, lend an ear to the interview with Richard Kahlenberg, available as an IHE podcast.
Not all Islamophobes are fanatics. Most, on the contrary, are decent people who just want to live in peace. Islamophobia forms only part of their identity. They grew up fearing Islam, and they still worry about it from time to time, especially during holidays and on certain anniversaries; but many would confess to doubt about just how Islamophobic they feel deep down inside. They may find themselves wondering, for example, if the Koran is really that much more bloodthirsty than the Jewish scriptures (Joshua 6 is plenty murderous) or the Christian (Matthew 10:34 is not exactly comforting).
Unfortunately a handful of troublemakers thrive among them, parasitically. They spew out hatred through Web sites. They seek to silence their critics, and to recruit impressionable young people. Perhaps it is unfair to confuse matters through calling the moderates and the militants by the same name. It would be more fitting to say that the latter are really Islamophobofascists.
Some might find the expression offensive. That is too bad. If we don’t resist Islamophobofascism now, its intolerance can only spread. And we all know who benefits from that. One name in particular comes to mind. It belongs to a fellow who is now presumably living in a cave, drawing up long-term plans for a clash of civilizations.....
Maybe I had better trim the satirical sails before going totally out to sea. As neologisms go, “Islamophobofascism” probably sounds even more stupid than the term it mocks. But there is a point to it.
“Islamofascism” is a noxious and counterproductive term -- a bludgeon disguised as an idea. Its use comes at a cost, even beyond the obvious one that goes with making people dumber. “Islamofascism” is the preferred term of those who don’t see any distinction between Al Qaeda, the Iranian mullahs, and the Baathists. Guess what? They are different, which might just have been worth understanding a few years ago. (Better late than never, maybe; but not a whole lot better.)
The more serious consequence, over the long term, is that of offering deliberate insult to those Muslims who would be put to the sword under the reign of Jihadi fundamentalists. Disgust for cheap stunts done in the name of “Islamofascism awareness” is not a matter of doubting that the jihadis mean what they say. On the contrary, it goes with taking them seriously as enemies.
It should not be necessary to qualify that last point. Somebody who wants to kill you is your enemy, whether you care to think in such terms or not; and the followers of Bin Laden, while subtle on some matters, have a least not been shy about letting us know what methods they consider permissible in pursuit of their ends. The jihadis mean it. Recognizing this is not a matter of Islamophobia; it is a matter of paying attention.
And paying attention means, in this case, recognizing that most Muslims are not our enemies. It is disgraceful to have to spell that out. But let’s be clear about something: The jihadis are not our only problem. As anyone from abroad who likes and respects Americans will probably tell you, we tend to be our own worst enemy.
There is a strain of nativism, xenophobia, and small-mindedness in American life that is always there -- often subdued, but never too far out of earshot. To call this our fascist streak would be absurdly melodramatic. Fascism proper was, above all, purposeful and orderly, while fear and loathing towards the “un-American” is often enough the woolliest form of baffled resentment: the effect of comfortable ignorance turning sour at any demand on its meager resources of attention and sympathy.
This quality can subsist for long periods in a dormant or distracted state -- expressing itself in muttering or small-scale acts of hostility, but nothing large-scale. Perhaps it is restrained by the better angels of our nature.
But it means that the unscrupulous and the obtuse have a ready supply of raw material to mold into something vile when the occasion becomes available, or if there is some profit in it. H.L. Mencken explained that a demagogue is “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." The problem with this definition, of course, is that it is the product of a simpler era and so not nearly cynical enough. For a demagogue now, truth and knowledge have nothing to do with it.
For the really suave expression of Islamophobofascism, however, no local sideshow can compete with an interview that the British novelist Martin Amis gave last year. At the highest stages of cosmopolitan literary influence, it seems, one may express ideas worthy of a manic loon phoning a radio talk-show and get them published in the London Times.
“There’s a definite urge -- don’t you have it? -- to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order,’ ” Amis said. “What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation -- further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan.… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.”
The cultural theorist Terry Eagleton issued a response to Amis in the preface to a new edition of his book “Ideology: An Introduction” -- first published in 1991 by Verso, which reissued it a few weeks ago. It stirred up a tiny tempest in the British press, which reduced the argument to the dimensions of a clash between two “bad boys” (albeit ones grown quite long in the tooth).
Quickly mounting to impressive heights of inanity, the coverage and commentary managed somehow to ignore the actual substance of the dispute: what Amis said (his explicit call to persecute all Muslims until they acted right) and how Eagleton responded.
“Joseph Stalin seems not to be Amis’s favorite historical character,” wrote Eagleton, alluding to the novelist’s Koba the Dread, a venture into Soviet political history published a while back. “Yet there is a good dose of Stalinism in the current right-wing notion that a spot of rough stuff may be justified by the end in view. Not just roughing up actual or intending criminals, mind, but the calculated harassment of a whole population. Amis is not recommending such tactics for criminals or suspects only; he is recommending them as a way of humiliating and insulting certain kinds of men and women at random, so they will return home and teach their children to be nice to the White Man. There seems to be something mildly defective about this logic.”
Eagleton’s introduction doesn’t underestimate the virulence of the jihadists. But his remarks do at least have the good sense to acknowledge that humiliation is a weapon that will not work in the long run. (As an aside, let me note that some of us don't have the luxury of either ignoring terrorism or regarding it as something that will be abated by a more aggressive posture in the world. Life in Washington, D.C., for the past several years has meant rarely getting on the subway without wondering if this might be the day. The "surge" did not reduce the faint background radiation of dread one little bit. Funny how these thing work out, or don't.)
Anybody with an ounce of brains and responsibility can tell that fostering an environment of hysteria is useful only to one side of this conflict.“The best way to preserve one’s values,” writes Eagleton, “is to practice them.” Well said; and worth keeping in mind whenever the Islamophobofascists start to rush about, trying to drum up some business.
We shouldn't regard them as just nuisances. They are something much more dangerous. Determined to turn the whole world against us, they act as sleeper cells of malice and stupidity. There are sober ways to respond to danger, and insane ways. It is the demagogue’s stock in trade to blur the distinction.
The United States does not torture. We have been told as much by the president, and more than once, in terms that are clear, forceful, unqualified. Even (so one must surmise) categorical. If the United States permits an interrogation technique, then it cannot be torture. Q.E.D.!
And so it is very disagreeable to have to quote statements such as the following: "Waterboarding is a torture technique that has its history rooted in the Spanish Inquisition. In 1947, the U.S. prosecuted a Japanese military officer for carrying out a form of waterboarding on a U.S. civilian during World War II. Waterboarding inflicts on its victims the terror of imminent death. And as with all torture techniques, it is, therefore, an inherently flawed method for gaining reliable information."
The nattering nabob of negativism in this case happens to be writing in Armed Forces Journal, which might be described as something like a trade journal for the U.S. military. One notes that the comment, published recently, is framed not in moral terms, but strictly with reference to torture's failure to meet the industry's needs: "In short, it doesn’t work. That blunt truth means all U.S. leaders, present and future, should be clear on the issue."
Well, it's a little late for that now, of course. Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, both of the American Civil Liberties Union, have recently edited a volume called Administration of Torture: A Documentary History from Washington to Abu Ghraib and Beyond (Columbia University Press) that collects government memoranda from 2002 through 2005. They were selected from more than 100,000 pages of material released under the Freedom of Information, though only after litigation.
They add up to an account of how official talk of the "New Paradigm" after 9/11 led American forces to condone acts that would be would be be called torture if anyone else in the world did them. Perhaps we shouldn't get into semantics. But then again, even the expression "New Paradigm" seems a bit evasive. While John Milton was a bit inconsistent as a libertarian, Paradise Lost offers a plainspoken gloss on the thinking reflected in the documents gathered in the Columbia volume:
So spake the Fiend, and with necessitie, The Tyrants plea, excus'd his devilish deeds.
Jameel Jaffer, one of the editors of Administration of Torture, answered a few questions by e-mail. A transcript of the exchange follows.
Q:Your introduction states that the prohibition of torture is "jus cogens." A puzzled layman turning to The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations discovers that this term "refers to a body of principles or norms in international law which override and supercede others" -- such that no treaty, for example, can be in violation of it. Piracy and genocide are prohibited by the same terms. But according to the same dictionary's account, "the precise application of jus cogens is not universally agreed upon."
Does international law include a clear, sharp definition of the criteria for torture? A line where it is distinguished from the kind of vigorous and disagreeable questioning of enemy combatants that is bound to happen during wartime? Or is this a matter in which "the precise application of jus cogens is not universally agreed upon"?
A: Everyone, including the Bush administration, agrees that the law prohibits torture. Torture is proscribed by the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture. It is also proscribed by the U.S. torture statute and the U.S. war crimes statute. I don't think anyone seriously argues that torture is anything other than a jus cogens norm. A problem arose in 2002, though, because the Office of Legal Counsel issued legal opinions that defined torture exceedingly narrowly -- vanishingly narrowly, in fact.
The OLC's unconscionably narrow definition of torture allowed the Bush administration to adopt interrogation methods that went far beyond those that had previously been considered acceptable. It's important to recognize, though, that the dispute was not over whether torture was illegal; it was over what kinds of methods would constitute torture. The U.S. torture statute defines torture to mean any act "specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering."
What the OLC did in 2002 was to decide that methods like forcing prisoners into stress positions, waterboarding them, confining them in freezing cold cells, etc. didn't amount to torture. It concluded, absurdly, that an interrogation method would amount to torture only if it caused pain equivalent to that caused by organ failure or death. And it made the argument that even if interrogators engaged in torture, they couldn't be held criminally liable if they were acting under the president's authority as commander in chief.
It's worth pointing out that the Geneva Conventions proscribe not just torture but also cruel, inhuman, and degrading (CID) treatment. In 2002, though, the Bush administration took the position that al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners weren't protected by the Geneva Conventions -- not even by the most basic protections enshrined in "Common Article 3." Ultimately Congress enacted new statutes to make even clearer that CID was illegal. The Bush administration then did for "CID" what it had previously done for "torture": it just redefined the phrase so that the phrase wouldn't encompass the interrogation methods that it wanted to use. We're in court now arguing that the OLC's 2005 memos about CID should be released to the public.
Q: Some of the bureaucratic crosstalk among these documents can be a challenge to keep straight. There are exchanges among the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Other material here quite unambiguously documents inhumane and even lethal treatment of prisoners. Most of that testimony seems to have been gathered in 2004 and '05, following the outcry over Abu Ghraib.
Do earlier documents show that reports of such treatment went up the chain of command? Or did things operate on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis, so to speak?
A: One of the most useful sets of records we obtained through the FOIA came from the FBI. The records I'm thinking of are e-mails and memos written by FBI agents who were stationed at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003. The e-mails and memos document the agents' concerns with the harsh methods that were then being used by military interrogators. Towards the end of 2002, FBI agents began to express these concerns to their superiors, and on several occasions representatives of the FBI met with General Geoffrey Miller (who was then the commander of the military base at Guantanamo) to convey their concerns to him.
But the problem was not that military interrogators were exceeding the authority they had been given. The problem was that they were exercising the authority they had been given. They had been authorized to hold prisoners in stress positions, deprive them of light and auditory stimuli, strip them naked, isolate them for weeks at a time, and use military dogs to terrorize them. When military interrogators used those methods against prisoners, they weren't inventing the methods ad hoc. The methods had been approved by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld.
Q: Your Freedom of Information Act request (and subsequent litigation) led to the release of more than 100,000 pages of material. It sounds like this might be the tip of the iceberg. Two years ago the CIA destroyed videotapes of the interrogation of Al Qaeda figures, and recordings of the questioning of Jose Padilla have been "lost."
How much do you know about the kinds of material you are being denied access to? Are you aware of documentation that may already have gone down the memory hole?
A: Donald Rumsfeld famously distinguished between the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns". Here, the known unknowns -- the records we know that the government is withholding -- include photographs of prisoner abuse at facilities other than Abu Ghraib; a September 2001 Presidential directive that authorized the CIA to set up a system of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere; and an August 2002 Justice Department memorandum that advised the CIA about the legality of waterboarding and other extreme interrogation methods.
We learned several weeks ago that the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel is withholding three legal memos, all written in May of 2005, that narrowly construe the laws against cruel treatment and contend, wrongly, that waterboarding and other extreme methods can be used without offending those laws. When we learn of documents like the May 2005 memos, it's difficult not to wonder what else is still out there -- what unknown unknowns will come to light tomorrow.
Q: You write: "Senior administration officials, perhaps emboldened by Congress's failure to conduct any serious inquiry into past abuse, continue to violate domestic and international law." This volume reads like a dossier for a trial in the Hague. Suppose that did come to pass. Who would end up in the dock? Who is most culpable? (We're speaking hypothetically, here, of course, since that outcome does seem unlikely.)
A: I think any investigation would have to look at the very highest levels of the Bush administration. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (who later became Attorney General) wrote legal memos that were intended to allow interrogators to use inhumane methods and to insulate interrogators -- and officials -- from war crimes charges. John Yoo, a lawyer for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, wrote legal memoranda that allowed the use of torture. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld authorized interrogators to use inhumane methods at Guantanamo, and Lieut. General Ricardo Sanchez authorized interrogators to use similar methods in Iraq. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller supervised the use of inhumane methods at Guantanamo and oversaw the "Gitmo-ization" of Abu Ghraib.
And it was President Bush, of course, who directed the CIA to set up secret detention centers abroad, allowed the CIA and Defense Department to adopt methods that in some cases amounted to torture, and said that al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners should be treated humanely only to the extent consistent with "military necessity." All the available evidence suggests that principal responsibility for the abuse and torture of prisoners belongs not to small groups of "rogue soldiers" but to senior officials in the Bush administration.
As has become the annual tradition, the American Historical Association is out with its report lauding the health of the academic job market in history. The report, culled exclusively from job listings in Perspectives (an AHA publication) and Ph.D. completion statistics reported by history departments, shows that there are more available positions than there are historians produced. Other disciplines issue similar reports. While the AHA report may be viewed favorably by some such as scholars in Asian history, the most underpopulated field for historians, for others it reflects a general lack of concern from the association for the untenured and the graduate student. And the problems discussed here apply to many other disciplines as well.
As a national organization and the most powerful entity in the historical job market, the AHA has done surprisingly little to help the newest members of their profession. On the whole, historians pride themselves on their concern for social justice. In 2005, for example, the Organization of American Historians uprooted its annual conference and moved it to another city in a show of solidarity with hotel workers. When it comes to the plight of the discipline’s own working class, the unemployed job seeker, this compassion and concern is absent. In its place is an annual report from the AHA talking about how good it is for some. For others, there isn’t much the AHA can do. I find this lack of action, especially when compared to what is normally shown for the less fortunate, disheartening.
While the AHA can do nothing to overcome the dearth of tenure-track positions (which is a reality that deans, trustees, and legislators control), the association has a great deal of control over two things: job market statistics and the interview process. These areas, which some might say are of secondary concern, have made the job search a very inhospitable place. For one, the association could conduct a statistically sound study of the job market based on an actual survey of departments and job seekers. Drawing attention to the total number of jobs and the number of Ph.D.’s produced in the past year overlooks the fact that visiting faculty and independent scholars are also on the market. A more thorough census would provide better information to AHA members and possibly even a snapshot of many other employment concerns, including how the positions stack up in terms of pay, tenure-track status, and other key factors.
More importantly, the organization could do a number of things to reform the poorly designed hiring process that leaves applicants floating in a limbo of uncertainty throughout much of November and December. The lack of communication between search committees and job seekers is so common that it is now taken for granted along with death and taxes. Job applicants no longer expect any professional courtesy. While this results in a good bit of anxiety for anyone on the market, it can also lead to undue financial hardships that could easily be avoided. As a former editor of the H-Grad listserv and one currently searching for a tenure-track position, I can safely say that these concerns are pressing on the mind of most applicants.
The key to these job market reforms is the AHA itself. As the group most vested in the hiring process, it has done little to actively rectify some of the more egregious concerns with the job market. I have compiled a short list of changes that could be adopted with one vote at a business meeting. And most of these changes would benefit not just the AHA, but other disciplinary associations, especially in the humanities, where good, tenure-track jobs are not widely available. While this will absolutely not correct the disparity between job seekers and open positions, it will go a long way towards making the process a more fair and equitable institution.
1. Take a more accurate census of the job-seeking population annually. There is a glut of history Ph.D.'s. Everyone knows this. Yet for the past three years, the AHA has been trumpeting the idea that the job market is improving based solely on data that have no correlation with the actual situation. The AHA, like other associations, bases its data on job applicants solely on the number of new Ph.D.’s, ignoring the fact that so many of the past few years’ new doctorates remain either unemployed or in temporary positions, off the tenure track and with low pay and benefits. By only counting the new Ph.D.’s, the figures for job-seekers are significantly lower than they should be. The research being produced by the AHA needs to be more accurate so as to guide job applicants and graduate students as to their chances of finding a position. Since candidates who utilize the AHA Job Register at the annual meeting have to be registered as a meeting attendee, the AHA should include a census form with the conference registration. Questions such as "Are you a job seeker?," "What is your area of specialty?," "Have you ever had a tenure-track position?" and “How many years have you been on the job market?” would give a more accurate picture of just how truly dire the job market is. A follow-up survey every April would round out the study and enable applicants to assess their position in the market for the following fall. Job seekers could then make career choices based on tangible facts, rather than hearsay and propaganda.
2. Make the Job Register service a privilege that has to be earned. The AHA has a good deal of influence on the job market but has yet to utilize it in any significant way. Since most tenure-track positions are advertised in the AHA Perspectives and interviews are conducted at the AHA annual meeting, the AHA should mandate certain conditions that must be met before interviewing and advertising space is sold. If those conditions are not met, the AHA should deny departments the right to use their facilities and their ad space, thus adding substantial cost to the interviewing institutions. University HR departments and academic deans, often cited as the reason search committees are unable to communicate with applicants, would either allow the departments to comply with these provisions and foot the bill for a more expensive interview process. Lack of communication and the posting of identical positions without a hire for three or more years are two of the problems that stand out at the moment, but the usage could be expanded in future years to address new situations as the AHA sees fit.
3. Require that search committees inform applicants of their interview status via e-mail 30 days before the annual meeting. Graduate students, visiting lecturers, and independent scholars are, on the whole, not independently wealthy. Traveling across the country to stay at an upscale hotel in a major city just after the holiday season is a lot to ask, especially if a candidate has no interviews. Applicants, though, are at the mercy of the search committees, some of whom notify interviewees a week or less before the annual meeting. Applicants are forced to either keep their rooms and plane tickets past the cancellation date in the hopes that their phone will ring or pay higher airfares and higher hotel rates for last-minute bookings. Letting candidates know their interview status a month in advance would alleviate that situation and prevent the least paid of the profession from shouldering the heaviest and most burdensome travel costs. The AHA should set guidelines that search committees must let all job applicants know whether they will have an interview at the AHA 30 days before the annual meeting or face some sort of Job Register sanction up to suspension from its benefits for a set period of time as determined by the AHA.
4. Establish a general listserv for search committees and job seekers. Search committees are notorious for their lack of communications. Job seekers have pooled their resources into a number of academic career wikis, but these can be misused and are dependent on the truthfulness of the poster. The AHA can alleviate this uncertainty by creating a listserv and mandating that those who use the Job Register would agree to notify the AHA by e-mail at important phases of the job search process. Which steps those are would be open for negotiation, but everyone, committees and candidates alike, would know what those benchmarks are ahead of time. The AHA, and this is the critical step, would aggregate these notifications and send them out via a daily listserv to all job applicants who choose to subscribe. Under this system, for example, all who applied for the position in Pre-Modern China at Boise Valley State could know that the search committee has made AHA invitations, has made invitations for on-campus interviews, or that Dr. Damon Berryhill had accepted the position. Job applicants, who usually have no idea how the searches are progressing, would be more informed when fielding other offers and would no longer need to contact each institution directly for updates. Participation would also be in the hiring institution’s best interests, as it would reduce the need to communicate one on one with job candidates (a very time consuming task for search committee members) but still create a much more open system of communication for job seekers.
It is frustrating to me when scholars who have spent years examining the forces of reform and progress will take no action to better the lives of their fellow historians. Individuals who have studied the great reformers and crusaders of the past will simply throw up their hands and exclaim “its just the market!,” when confronted with horror stories of graduate students and visiting faculty on the hunt for tenure-track jobs. These people do nothing as if, by some sort of divine incantation, the injustices of the hiring process are set in stone and beyond human control. This is the attitude that needs to change the most.
It is worth mentioning that graduate students make up the largest constituency group of the AHA membership. As the H-Grad listserv and the academic careers wiki continue to gain popularity, it will not be much longer before job seekers figure out how to organize themselves and make their voices heard one way or another. One anonymous poster on the job wiki for American historians has already suggested that all job seekers flood this year’s business meeting and vote no on every provision until the AHA takes up job market reform. The leadership of the AHA should adopt these reforms, or at the very least make a reasonable effort to study them, in order to make the job market a more tolerable place for the profession’s newest members and to take the first steps toward a more equitable and open hiring process.
Michael Bowen is assistant director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service and a visiting lecturer in the history department at the University of Florida.
Hurricane Katrina is a disaster so recent that it is, in a sense, still underway. It isn’t just that large parts of New Orleans are in ruins after two and a half years, or that many of its residents are gone for good. According to one survey, something like a third of the population now living in the city intends to leave . The Journal of American History has just published a special issue, “Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?” that presents 20 papers covering New Orlean’s unique place in the American social and cultural landscape. It is also a reminder of just how much of city’s historical ambiance is now well and truly in the past, lost for good.
The issue is available online, in an edition that includes both audio slideshows and a set of maps and timelines. Rather than try to describe everything available in “Through the Eye of Katrina,” I’d like to take a short look here at two papers from it in particular. They frame the events of August 2005 as part of an unfinished story.
The final paper, “What Does American History Tell Us About Katrina and Vice Versa?” is by Lawrence N. Powell – a professor of history at Tulane University and one of the issue’s editors. That seems an odd place for it to appear. The paper feels very much like an introduction, and it can be recommended as a good place for the reader to start.
My impression is that Powell would like very much to believe that something like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s argument in The Cycles of American History (1986) is true. The idea is that our political life and national temper go through more or less regular swings of the pendulum, whether between liberalism and conservatism, or between public-mindedness and an emphasis on private interests.
This idea has been around for at least 100 years. The first widely circulated version was put presented by Henry Adams’s somewhat eccentric younger brother Brooks in the 1890s. Another cyclical theory was put forward by Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who predicted from it that a long period of conservative dominance would begin in the United States around 1978. Given that he died one year after Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964, this seems unusually farsighted. The model advanced in the mid-1980s by Junior (who passed away in 2007) held that U.S. history tends to go through cycles lasting 30 years each – with 15 years of expansive public-mindedness being followed by 15 of conservative retrenchment.
Powell doesn’t endorse any particular timetable in his paper, which is probably for the best. (Historians should avoid poaching on the professional expertise of astrologers.) But he does suggest that Katrina might yet prove to be a “detonating event” in setting off whatever seismic changes in public life are now underway.
Assuming, that is, that any such shifts really are underway. “American politics have been in a conservative phase for so long,” writes Powell, “thirty-five years and counting, that is hard to imagine an abrupt shift in the national Zeitgeist happening anytime soon.” He notes that the spirit of privatized effort “has been hard to miss in the Katrina recovery” – with the preferred mode of public assistance taking the form of tax credits for developers and “multimillion-dollar debris-removal contracts that were sole-sourced to politically connected corporations.”
But however locked into trickle-down thinking the current recovery efforts have been, the experience of Katrina has raised concerns about the state of the country’s infrastructure and emergency-preparedness. That may, in turn, require national action at the level of policy and budget – no matter what the talk-radio Zeitgeist says about it.
"We have probably gone too far down the road of states’ rights federalism,” writes Powell, “for some sort of New Deal–type agency such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to arise any time soon. The need for such a regional entity, with the capacity to coordinate relief and recovery activity across multiple levels of government and between public and private actors, has never been more apparent than now. All the same, the pendulum does seem to be swinging back toward the public sphere. When conservative southern Republican politicians start intervening in the insurance market or call for regulating outsourcing (as the governor of Florida has recently done), it is a sign the country is overdue for a conversation about the role of government.”
Geographers make an important distinction between “site and “situation,” as Ari Kelman points out in his paper “Boundary Issues: Clarifying New Orleans’s Murky Edges.” And in the history of the city, it is been a difference that’s made a difference. “Site” refers to the concrete geographical specifics of where an urban area is located. By contrast, “situation” is a matter of human attitude and need – what advantages it offers, relative to other places.
Site and situation are related, of course. But they can be at odds – and in New Orleans, are they ever. Kelman notes its “near-perfect situation” as a city built “on the east bank of the continent’s greatest river, near its outlet, in an era before technologies began circumventing the vagaries of geography.....Just downstream from the city lay the Gulf of Mexico, which provided access to the Atlantic world of trade.” But the site is near-perfect in its potential for disaster: a city built on sediment, with the riverfront being its highest point of elevation, with most of it below sea level and having no natural drainage.
Kelman, who is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis, describes three centuries of attempts by the city to compensate for its “site” problems through engineering – a series of efforts that have had complicated implications for its economy and social structure. It’s a valuable narrative that helps to place the events of August 2005 in a long-term perspective.
But when Kelman reaches the point of addressing the post-Katrina future, something puzzling happens. In the final lines of the paper, he writes: “It now appears New Orleans will try again to engineer itself out of harm’s way, once more attempting to improve its levees and drainage system. The various committees seem captivated by the notion that it is possible to separate the city from its surroundings, a myth that will not die, no matter how many of New Orleans’s residents do.”
This left me scratching my head. Just what alternative is there to improving the levees and drainage system? Is the implication that site has so trumped situation that repopulating New Orleans is a bad idea? While Powell’s article expresses ambivalence about prospects for the future, I found Kelman’s remarks inscrutable – so decided to ask him for clarification.
It turns out that confusion is a reasonable response, because Kelman himself intended his final remarks to be ambiguous. He has been studying the city’s history and its reconstruction efforts and has written about Katrina for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor. He isn't against either hydraulic engineering or repopulating the city, as such. But at this point, no he sees no cut-and-dried policy option recommends itself as a real solution to its current problems.
"There’s no good solution to what ails New Orleans," he told me by email. "That was true before Katrina; it’s true now. Higher levees and better drainage conjure the illusion of safety without offering any real guarantees that people will be safe, particularly if the next storm comes soon, if the money runs out (a sure thing), or if global warming isn’t a hoax. The illusion of safety, then, makes it easy for people to live in harm’s way without reckoning with the danger. But, on the other hand, making people leave their communities heaps social insult atop environmental injury – not that I see the social and the environmental as being easily separable.”
So what is to be done?
"I have no idea," he writes. "Better leadership – a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local authorities, with real input from the grassroots, like Common Ground and others – would have been nice. But Katrina had the bad manners to come calling during the Bush years.... So we suffered through our first libertarian catastrophe. And we seem not to have learned much from it. That’s pretty grim, I know.... But we need to do more for the city. Maybe we will after this coming November."
Well, OK. Keep hope alive, etc. But in the final analysis it seems as if both Powell and Kelman are counting on the idea that a swing of the pendulum must be coming – and that when it does, things will start to change. Whole campaigns are being run on the principle that revitalized optimism can fundamentally transform the American situation.
Perhaps it can. But if Katrina taught us nothing else, it proved that situation isn’t everything. Anyone who wants lasting change needs to think about engineering some improvements to the site. That won't come easily, and it takes a lot of optimism to think that will happen at all.
"Chicago 10," which opened in theaters a few days ago, is one of the most exciting movies ever made about any aspect of the 1960s. It is also among the most frustrating; for it turns out that excitement is only just so much of a virtue in a documentary film. Sensation minus context is desensitizing. And in a number of ways "Chicago 10" marks an almost complete triumph of visual intensity over historical memory.
Yet it is also the product of some impressive digging in the video archives. Much of the footage in it was shot by television crews roaming the streets during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. Thousands of people had gathered in Chicago to protest the Vietnam war, by any means necessary; and thousands of cops marched in formation to prevent them from doing so, also by any means necessary. Guns were not actually fired in the process, which is something of a miracle. In one harrowing scene, a group of demonstrators taunts the police, challenging them to shoot.
You see Walter Cronkite on the evening news (a sober and avuncular anchorman, like nobody now in broadcasting: the living voice of the middle of the American road) comparing Mayor Daley’s city to a police state. There is a shot of a placard in the streets of Chicago saying “Welcome to Prague.” For this was one of those moments in history when the whole world was not just watching but, it seemed, performing from a common script. At the same time as Chicago was turning into an armed camp, Soviet troops were busy putting down Czechoslovakia’s experiment in reforming its own regime.
The confrontation in Chicago between the protesters and the forces of law and order is chronicled, day by day; and the tensions build up to a frenzy when the police go on a rampage. One unnamed and seemingly apolitical Chicagoan describes sitting in a bar, minding his own business, when the cops stormed in, making everybody leave under the threat of being pounded senseless. Anyone with long hair did not get a choice in the matter.
The street scenes are intercut with animated sequences based on transcripts of the government’s prosecution of those it accused of organizing the demonstrations. This is not the first time the court case has been put on screen (both the BBC and HBO have done so in previous decades) nor will it be the last, since a film called "The Trial of the Chicago 7" is in production this year. That title is something of a misnomer, since the Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale was the eighth defendant until his case with severed from that of his alleged co-conspirators. In "Chicago 10," the figure is bumped up to include the two lawyers who represented Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, et al. -- since they, like the defendants, were cited for contempt of court.
As hyperkinetic eye candy, “Chicago 10" is as good as it gets. A soundtrack with Eminem rapping his fantasy of an anti-Bush insurrection is, I suppose, one way to make history come alive. Likewise with turning the courtroom antics of the revolutionaries look like something out of a video game. But the mash-up between archival footage and music-video aesthetics has the effect of stripping the events out of any sort of historical context. In making their work as up-to-date as possible in style and overtone, the movie makers seem never to have asked whether they might also be doing a disservice to the past.
All the fast cuts and visual tricks here might be justified by reference to the presumed demands of Today’s Youth, with their supersaturated yet shrinking attention spans. But if kids born in the 1990s really are the intended audience, why give that quick shot of the sign reading “Welcome to Prague” without any explanation for it? (My apologies, of course, if it turns out that Today’s Youth are completely up to speed on postwar Eastern European history.)
How is it that the film never mentions that student protests in France a few months earlier led to a general strike that almost brought down the government there? The “May events” in Paris were still on many people’s minds as the summer wound down; they help to make sense of what might otherwise look like plain craziness, at times, in the streets of Chicago. But no hint of the outside world ever breaks into any frame of the film. It revisits the past in an almost isolationist, if not solipsistic way -- quite as Tom Brokaw did in a recent TV program that treated the year 1968 as if it had unfolded almost entirely within the United States. (The convulsions in Paris, Prague, and Peking that year were dispatched in about two minutes.)
In the case of "Chicago 10," the perspective is shallow as well as narrow. Events are not simply yanked out of the past and detached from their contemporary global significance.They are shown without concern for long-term causes or effects. Incidents and images are presented without any reference at all to a larger narrative in which they might have some meaning. No effort is made to discuss the effects of the Chicago protests and the conspiracy trial in American politics. And that really takes some doing.
When we talk about the “culture war” now, the expression is usually just a very tired metaphor. But what happened outside the Democratic convention was an early battle in it, and a very literal one.
The turmoil gave many people a sense that the whole country was hurtling towards a much greater showdown. That prospect has dimmed for the protesters who marched in the streets, then, but it never really did for the “silent majority,” as the winner of the presidential campaign later that year put it.
In his bookChicago ‘68 -- first published 20 years ago by the University of Chicago Press, which is now reissuing it -- David Farber, now a professor of history at Temple University, quotes a position paper that Richard Nixon wrote as a candidate: “The first right of every American, to be free from domestic violence, has become the forgotten civil right of the American people.”
Obviously Nixon did not mean freedom from having your head massaged by a policeman’s billy club. The Republican candidate’s complaint was that the government was abdicating its responsibility to protect the individual’s right to be left in peace. “Instead,” writes Farber in his paraphrase of Nixon’s argument, “that state has pledged itself to a policy of inclusion, a policy that insists that the state has the right to intrude in local affairs and order private citizens to accept the rights of other citizens -- the blacks, the Latinos, the poor, the protestors -- to intrude on their privacy. Such a policy, Nixon is implying, naturally leads to a situation in which certain citizens would intrude violently into other people’s lives, marching and sitting in an taking over streets and even burning and destroying private property.”
The upheaval in Chicago consolidated that feeling. But it also added something else -- an element still lingering in the mix of resentments that fuels so much of American political culture. “Chicago 10" exists because there were so many TV cameras in the streets. And it’s clear that the police gave members of the press extra special attention -- beating them with the gusto they would otherwise have reserved for, say, student radicals carrying the Vietcong flag. Sympathy for the police and contempt for the news media were, for the “silent majority,” two sides of a common rage.
“Both stem from a mistrust of disembodied authority,” writes Farber. “Both feelings come from a suspicion that some outside, elite power has taken control of what should be commonsensical and local.”
A better movie would have found some way to portray that suspicion, and to address how much of it is still in the air, four decades later -- a legacy that has outlasted any dream in the streets that year.
It was three months before the Bicentennial and a group of high school students in Boston were saying the Pledge of Allegiance. One of them held a large American flag. But this was not the commonplace ritual of citizenship that it might sound. The teenagers, all of them white, were just as swept up as their parents in the protests over court-ordered desegregation of the Boston public schools; and much of the rhetoric swirling around the anti-busing movement appealed to the old patriotic tropes of resistance to tyranny, defense of the rights of the citizen, and so on. The kids who milled around in front of City Hall in Boston were enjoying their chance to share in the Spirit of ‘76 while also skipping class on a Monday morning.
The people in the anti-busing movement were not, they often insisted, racists. It so happened that a young African-American lawyer named Ted Landsmark had a meeting at City Hall that morning to discuss minority hiring in construction jobs. He turned the corner and walked into a scene that would be recorded for posterity by Stanley Forman, a photojournalist for The Boston Herald American. In a picture that won Forman his second Pulitzer Prize in as many years, we see Landsmark in the right-hand half of the image. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he is the only black person in the crowd. But what dominates the scene is the teenager who had been holding the American flag a little earlier, during the Pledge, and now wields it as a weapon, seeming to drive it like a lance into Landsmark’s body. Forman later titled his photograph “The Soiling of Old Glory.”
Frozen in mid-action, the image is brutal. But what makes it especially so is the expression on the kid’s face – a look of pure hatred and rage, his teeth showing, his upper lip curled in what seems to be (according to some research in affect theory) the universal physical manifestation of disgust. Other people in the crowd look on with what seems to be interest or even pleasure. It appears that nobody is ready to help Landsmark. A man standing just behind the lawyer seems to be holding him, so that kid with the flagstaff can get a clear shot.
But according to Louis P. Masur in The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America, just published by Bloomsbury Press, the picture is a misleading in that regard. Masur -- a professor of American institutions and values at Trinity College, in Connecticut -- analyzed the other images the photographer shot that day and finds a different story unfolding.
“The man who, in a a previous image, is in motion racing to the scene has arrived and is grabbing Landsmark,” writes Masur. “It would appear that he has joined the fray to get in his punches and, worse yet, is pinioning Landsmark’s arms so that the flag bearer has a clear line of attack. In fact, the person holding Landsmark is Jim Kelly, one of the adult organizers of the protest, and he has raced in not to bind Landsmark but to save him from further violence.... He dashed in to try to break up the fight. In another photograph taken a moment later, he can be seen holding his arms out wide trying to keep the protesters back as Landsmark stumbles to safety.”
Knowing this, writes Masur, “changes our understanding of the photograph.” To a degree, perhaps, yes. But no degree of recontextualizing can gainsay the interpretation of the scene offered by the victim of the assault. “I couldn’t put my Yale degree in front of me to protect myself,” Landsmark told a newspaper reporter a few days after the attack. “The thing that is most troubling is that it happened not because I was somebody but because I was anybody....I was just a nigger they were trying to kill.”
The image is iconic. It does not simply reproduce an event; it crystallizes something out of life itself.
“The camera freezes time,” as Masur writes, “giving us always a moment, a fraction of a narrative that stretches before and after the isolated instant.” The Soiling of Old Glory reconstructs some of that narrative – drawing for the most part on published sources, especially the account of the Boston busing crisis given by the great American journalist Anthony Lukas in his book Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (1985).
Protesters often insisted that they hated busing, not African-Americans -- but as someone put it at the time, nobody went out to beat up a school bus. Masur treats the photograph itself as a turning point in the crisis. “However strenuously the anti-busing movement emphasized issues other than race,” he writes, “the photograph shattered the protesters’ claim that racism did not animate their cause and that they were patriotic Americans fighting for their liberties. The photograph had seared itself into the collective memory of the city and installed itself in the imagination of both blacks and whites.”
Masur understands the photograph as leading, “at first, to turmoil and self-scruitny, and later, to progress and healing.” Such a perspective is bound to be appealing to many people, especially given the desire now to imagine a “post-racial” America. In any case, the photograph itself certainly sticks in one’s memory – and not just as a document of a particular conflict. An analyst must try to account for something of its power; and this task is not any easier given the relative neglect by scholars of photojournalism itself as a topic for critical study.
Unfortunately, in the course of meditating upon the image, Masur sometimes exhibits rather serious failures of what is sometimes been called “hermeneutic tact.” This is a feel for the limits of interpretation: a sense that ingenuity might, beyond a certain point, involve a kind of violation of what the process will bear. Hermeneutic tact, like the social kind, is impossible to codify. But you know when someone has violated it, because you wince.
At one point, the author claims that the mob member wielding the flag like a spear “suggests the stabbing of Christ in the side by the Roman solider Longinus, who afterward was converted to Christianity and was canonized.” No, it doesn’t – not even if you squint really, really hard. Here, free association leads to something akin to a context salad. Likewise with some musings about the title Forman gave his photograph: “The verb soiling means defiling or staining,” writes Masur. “But with the root soil, it also suggests planting. Flags are thrust into the ground as statements of control, whether by explorers in the New World or by American astronauts on the moon. In an extreme act of desecration and possession, the protestor, it seems, is trying to implant the flag into the black man and claim ownership.”
We now have a precise technical term for this sort of thing, thanks to the efforts of Harry Frankfurt. A good editor would have found a way to remove such passages, or at least buried them in the quiet graveyard of the book’s apparatus. They are distracting yet take nothing away from the lasting power of the image itself. Looking at it, I felt the urge to reread Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro” – a speech from 1852 that Masur, oddly enough, never cites, though it is hard to think of a more pointed and fitting account of how certain beloved symbols may serve as instruments of oppression. More was happening within the frame of Stanley Forman's action shot than any single analysis can quite exhaust.
We are coming to the end of a decade with no name. As the 1990s wound down, there was a little head scratching over what to call the approaching span of 10 years, but no answer seemed obvious, and no consensus ever formed. A few possibilities were ventured -- for example, “the Noughties” -- but come the turn of the new millennium, they proved about as appealing and marketable as a Y2K survival kit. Before you knew it, we were deep into the present decade without any commonly accepted way of referring to it.
The lack seems more conspicuous now. We are in the penultimate year of the '00s (however you want to say it) and much of the urgent rhetoric about “change” in the presidential campaigns implies a demand for some quick way to refer to the era that will soon, presumably, be left behind.
It has become second nature to periodize history by decades, as if each possessed certain qualities, amounting almost to a distinct personality. To some degree this tendency was already emerging as part of the public conversation in the 19th century (with the 1840s in particular leaving a strong impression as an era of hard-hitting social criticism and quasi-proto-hippie experimentation) but it really caught on after the First World War. In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (Norton, 1991), the late Christopher Lasch wrote: “This way of thinking about the past had the effect of reducing history to fluctuations in public taste, to a progression of cultural fashions in which the daring advances achieved by one generation become the accepted norms of the next, only to be discarded in turn by a new set of styles.”
Thus we have come to speak of the Sixties as an era of rebellion and experimentation, much of it communal. And you could read books by 1840s guys like Marx, Kierkegaard, and Feuerbach in cheap paperbacks, if you weren’t too stoned. In the Seventies, the experimentation continued, but in a more privatized way (“finding myself”) and with a throbbing disco soundtrack. By the Eighties, greed was good; so were MTV, pastel, and mobile phones as big as your head. In the Nineties, it seemed for a little while as if maybe greed were bad. But then all the teenage Internet millionaires started ruling over the end of history from their laptops while listening to indie rock and wearing vintage clothes from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
Of course there are alternative points of emphasis for each decade. This kind of encapsulated history is not exactly nuance-friendly. But it’s no accident that bits of popular culture and lifestyle have become the default signifiers summing up each period of the recent past. “The concept of the decade,” wrote Lasch, “may have commended itself, as the basic unit of historical time, for the same reason the annual model change commended itself to Detroit: it was guaranteed not to last. Every ten years it had to be traded in for a new model, and this rapid turnover gave employment to scholars and journalists specializing in the detection and analysis of modern trends.”
Well, we do what we can. But it seems as if the effort has failed miserably over the past few years. The detectives and analysts have gone AWOL. There is no brand name for the decade itself, nor a set of clichés to clinch its inner essence.
While discussing the matter recently with Aaron Swartz, a programmer now working on the Open Library initiative, I found myself at least half agreeing with his impression of the situation. “This decade seems Zeitgeist-free,” he said. “It’s as if the Nineties never ended and we’re just continuing it without adding anything new.”
But then I remembered that my friend is all of 21 years old, meaning that roughly half his life so far was spent in the 1990s. Which could, in spite of Aaron’s brilliance, somewhat limit the ability to generalize. In that regard, being middle aged offers some small advantage. My own archive of memory includes at least a few pre-literate recollections of the 1960s (the assassinations of 1968 interrupted "Captain Kangaroo") and my impression is that each new decade since then has gone through a phase of feeling like the continuation of (even a hangover from) the one that went before.
It usually takes the Zeitgeist a while to find a new t-shirt it prefers. On the other hand, I also suspect that Aaron is on to something -- because it sure seems like the Zeitgeist is having an unusually hard time settling down, this time around.
In the next column, I’ll sketch out a few ideas about what might, with hindsight, turn out to have been the distinguishing characteristics of the present decade. Perhaps the fact that we still don’t have a name for it is not an oversight, or a bit of bad semantic luck. According the Lasch, decade-speak is a way to understand the past as a story of progress involving the rise and fall of cultural styles and niches. If so, then it may be we might have turned a corner somewhere along the way. The relationship between progress, nostalgia, and the cultural market may have changed in ways making it harder to come up with a plausible general characterization of the way we live now.
More on that in a week. Meanwhile: What do you call the current period? Does it have its own distinct “structure of feeling”? When we fit it into our thumbnail histories of the recent past, how are we likely to understand the spirit of the age?