I fell in love with the grand reading room of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library long before ever setting foot in the place. The occasion was Damon Knight's Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, the first biography of America’s great chronicler of strange phenomena.
Fort, who died in 1932, tirelessly collected reports of spontaneous teleportation, poltergeists, downpours of frogs (the one in the film Magnolia is a nod to Fort) and mysterious objects hovering in the pre-Wright Brothers sky. He wrote about them with tongue in cheek, to mock scientific confidence in the fundamental rationality of the universe. It would be fair to call him a surrealist historian. Fort’s irony went right by me at the age of 12, but I had a typical prepubescent interest in the paranormal (fueled in part by rumors that The Exorcist was so scary that it had actually killed members of the moviegoing public or driven them insane) and Fort’s biography was shelved somewhere along that stretch of the Dewey decimal system.
Fort's interest in anomaly notwithstanding, it was Knight’s description of an ordinary scene in the eccentric writer’s daily life that burned itself into my memory as vividly as any episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The passage is bit long, but as the evocation of a place and a mood it is magnificent:
“In the reading room of the New York Public Library, that mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o’-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like mouldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, These are books that no one has opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust. White book dust, bone dust: garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested, it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt where, in the years from 1905 to 1920, Charles Fort sat? Many people must have wondered why he was here behind his tall stack of books: but one does not ask. Perhaps there is another like him there today, silent and determined under the green-shaded lamp.”
Finally able to do research there 20 years later, I was disappointed to find the main reading room somewhat less gloomy than depicted. (A later visit to the manuscript archive proved more satisfactory on that score.) I was there on a hunch that there might be a review of C. L. R. James’s World Revolution in a Canadian Marxist splinter group’s newspaper from the 1930s, as indeed there was. Knight was right about dust -- the brittle paper flaked with every turn of the page. It was an experience of deep connection, both with the history I was there to study and with the countless geniuses and cranks who had worked at the reading room’s long tables down the many years.
In 2012 it looked for a while as if Fort’s specter might end up homeless. Efforts were afoot to transform the library -- to remove books from the shelves in its vast basement and send them to New Jersey, and replace the reading room itself with something more cheerful and revenue enhancing. A tourist-friendly spot, where you could get a coffee, perhaps, and check your email.
Plans to renovate the 42nd Street library only became public knowledge when Scott Sherman revealed it in a cover story for The Nation, where he is a contributing writer. Following his lead on the story, I wrote this column on the impending disaster. Anthony Marx, the library’s president, responded with an article designed to mollify scholars -- who, as my reply indicated at the time, were not falling for it.
The more the word got around, the greater the outcry. There were letters. There were petitions. The library was flash-mobbed by a group called Books Not Billionaires. The architecture critic for The New York Times weighed in on the plan and found it wanting, not to say atrocious. By May 2014, the plan was dead.
Now in Sherman’s book, Patience and Fortitude: Power, Real Estate, and the Fight to Save a Public Library, published by Melville House, we have the full story -- or as much of it as can be told at this time, given the refusal of some parties to be interviewed. The title might sound a little bit portentous, but it isn’t: Patience and Fortitude are the two famous marble lions outside the library’s main entrance. The sculptor did not christen them. The names are part of the building’s lore, coined by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and adopted by patrons.
Sherman’s deeply researched but swiftly paced account of the rise and fall of the Central Library Plan (as it was called) doubles as a record of how deeply the institution became rooted in the city’s history and folkways since it opened its doors in 1911. None of which, it seems, counted for much in the scheme that was in place on the library’s centenary.
From thousands of pages of documents he obtained under New York’s Open Meetings Law, the author reports that the CLP, “conceived in the boom years preceding the recession of 2008, was a mystifying combination of austerity and devil-may-care overreach” that “was pushed along, in absolute secrecy, not by professional librarians but by a tight, core group of wealthy trustees from the worlds of finance and real estate.”
Sherman credits the trustees with having had good intentions, but it is worth stressing that he found none of the pseudopopulist rhetoric about “democratizing the library” during the planning phase. That was secreted only when necessary, like ink from a frightened squid. Once details of the plan were made public and subject to debate, the rationalizations collapsed -- as the 42nd Street structure itself might have, given the deep architectural flaws in the proposed renovation.
Patience and Fortitude makes clear that if the library had a golden age (a decade or so on either side of World War II, by the author’s reckoning) it has nonetheless had a long history of fiscal turmoil, and of leadership that was better suited to facing the challenges before it at some times than at others. What became an issue for the first time only in the most recent crisis was the fundamental understanding of the 42nd Street library as a world-renowned cultural institution that occupies some prime real estate, rather than the emphasis being the other way around.
Stone lions alone cannot defend such a unique location. Patience and Fortitude show how writers, teachers, students and scholars intervened before things reached the point of no return. Scott Sherman’s book is certain to find appreciative readers, because it is one for readers, who desperately need an advocate once the money starts talking.
In the summer of 1996, I spent two weeks driving around Greece with my girlfriend and my undergraduate adviser. We argued all the time: me and my girlfriend; me and my adviser; my girlfriend and my adviser. One stop was particularly memorable for its unenjoyableness. We spent a day and a night at Monemvasia, a fortified Crusader town on a massive rock off the coast. The whole time, my adviser berated me to learn more about the extensive history of the place and turned his nose up at my girlfriend, who wanted to find a nightclub on the island.
To be fair, my adviser was not actually on the trip. He was in my head, or rather, I had internalized him. I couldn’t have a conversation without hearing him remark on the substance (or lack thereof) of my comments. He haunted my relationships and my thoughts. I carried him everywhere, like Anchises on my shoulders.
As my adviser would have pointed out, that was Sartre's metaphor for the superego, which he (Sartre, not my adviser) claimed not to have, his father having died when he was two. And perhaps that’s all my adviser was, a pumped-up academic superego, driving me to know more, to be less dumb, to write better.
He -- and he had a name, Antoine Raybaud, and a face: sea-blue eyes that burned when he stared, a beaked nose, broad smile and churlish gray curly hair -- would have given growth hormones to anyone's superego. His lectures were like Stéphane Mallarmé's salons, two hours of noteless improvisations on poetry and artistic creation. His seminars were fearsome: like a cat toying with its prey, he would hide the answers to his questions in ambiguous phrases, leaving us dangling in confusion. When the inevitable wrong answer was proffered, he would bat us away with a “Non, non, c’est pas ça du tout.” And then a long, oppressive silence would ensue, until another foolhardy student would offer up a sacrificial comment.
He taught in French, because this took place at the University of Geneva, where I was a student. Raybaud himself was French, a graduate of Normale Sup’, the elite French university for future academics. He had come to Geneva to replace the legendary Jean Starobinski, one of the greatest literary critics of the twentieth century. I had known none of this when choosing French as my main subject at the university. But Raybaud was well aware of his place in institutional history: perhaps he could hear Staro’s voice in his own head, belittling his lectures.
The atmosphere in Raybaud’s seminars was so tense that every detail of that room is seared into my memory. The tables, arranged in a long rectangle, with a no man’s land in the middle; the door to the hallway, at the center of the room, always slightly ajar; a mobile whiteboard in front of one window; and then, beyond, the tantalizing views of the Salève mountain and the chestnut trees in the Parc des Bastions -- their beauty all the more wrenching when students were driven to tears by Raybaud’s caustic remarks on their presentations.
I didn’t have to take his classes. Still, a tiny group of us kept on coming back. Despite the hardships, Raybaud’s classes were mesmerizing. He interpreted texts like a magician, making meaning appear where we could only see words. The seminars became less painful, as Raybaud slowly warmed to us. But he never relented in his expectations. Every single paper I submitted to him, from my first essay to my final thesis, he made me rewrite. Once, on my way to his office, I bumped into him in the hallway; he glanced at the first few paragraphs of my assignment, then handed it back, saying, “Allez, refaites-moi ça.” (“Do it over.”) I went home and spent hours trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Eventually I rewrote the entire paper; even I could tell that it turned out much better.
Natacha, Bernard and I were his last students; he retired the year we graduated. His last seminars were luxurious: we spent six months, just the four of us, reading “Un Coup de Dés.” During that last seminar, it became clear we were initiates. We had come close to being broken, but had broken through.
I often wonder whether Raybaud’s tough love wasn’t the best pedagogy I could have received. I don’t dare repeat his method on my own students. But I fear I may be failing them by being too friendly, by not pushing them to their limits, not giving them a chance to surpass themselves. This is not a teaching style for all students, to be sure. But I know that without his punishing comments, I would be a lesser scholar today.
While Raybaud did not do much to enhance my vacations or relationships, having that voice in my head, for so many years, was not always a bad thing. By forcing me to rewrite every paper I handed in, he turned me into my toughest critic. I needed to internalize him, if I wanted to make any progress. Had Raybaud merely told me what was wrong with my arguments, I would never have learned the most important lesson of all: how to spot my own weaknesses.
After six years -- which was how long most of us spent in our studies, since we paid next to nothing -- the demon who had hounded me across Greece had become a friend. We were close, if not intimate: I could never bring myself to call him “tu,” even though he encouraged me to call him Antoine. He shared his own disappointments, or what he called his “insuccès”: not failure, but something almost worse, a lack of recognition.
But his vulnerability taught me a final lesson. Anchises is not really someone else, only your own voice in disguise. Raybaud was the name I gave to a part of my mind I’ve since recognized as my own. He no longer disrupts my vacations or family life, but without his rigor, there is a side of myself I may never have discovered. Antoine died in 2012, and I never had the chance to reveal just how much I owed him. But a part of him will always be a part of me, reminding me that, no matter how painful or tiring, I should really rewrite that paper one more time.
Dan Edelstein is professor of French and, by courtesy, history, and the W. Warren Shelden University Fellow in Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.
Only satire can look certain horrible realities in the eye, as The Onion did with its article from last year about a lone-wolf mass shooting of random strangers. Its headline cut to the quick: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
It’s the real American exceptionalism. Rampage shootings do take place in other countries (the 1996 Dunblane school massacre in Scotland, for example), but rarely. They remain distinct events in the public memory, rather than blurring together. In the United States the trauma is repetitive and frequent; only the location and the number of victims seem to change.
With Charleston we have the additional grotesquerie of a presidential candidate calling Dylann Roof’s extremely deliberate act an “accident” while the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a point of denying that it was terrorism. (The shooter was an avowed white supremacist who attacked an African-American church and took care to leave one survivor to tell the tale. By no amount of semantic weaselry can it be described as anything but “[an] act of violence done or threaten[ed] to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry,” to quote the director's own definition of terrorism.) But American rampage shootings do not always express an ideological agenda, or even a motive intelligible to anyone but the gunman. The meaninglessness of the violence, combined with its regularity, is numbing. So with time our scars grow callused, at least until the next spree rips them open again.
A few years ago Christopher Phelps, an intellectual historian who happens to be my closest friend, moved with his family to England, where he is now a senior lecturer (i.e., an associate professor) in American and Canadian studies at the University of Nottingham. At some point the British media began turning to him for commentary on life in these United States. “I tend to be asked on radio shows when there's a need for American expertise -- and implicitly an American accent, which adds an air of authenticity,” he wrote in an email when I asked him about it.
Among the topics he’s been asked about are “the re-election of Obama, the anniversary of JFK's death, and even what comprises the East Wing of the White House, since one only ever hears about the West Wing.” Of late, America’s everyday mayhem keeps coming up. In 2013 he discussed the Trayvon Martin case. Last August, it was the girl whose training in automatic weapons on an Arizona firing range ended when she lost control and sprayed her instructor with bullets. Phelps appeared on a nationally broadcast talk show hosted by Nick Ferrari, which seems like the perfect name for a bigger-than-life radio personality.
Ferrari wasted no time: “What is it with Americans and guns?” he asked. A fair question, though exceedingly blunt.
“I should have anticipated that, I suppose,” Phelps says now, “but I froze like the proverbial deer in the headlights, stuttering away.” Since then, unfortunately, he has gained experience in answering variations of the question. “The producers need people to do it,” he explains, “the university media team work hard to set up the gigs, and you feel as an American you should step in a bit to help modulate the conversation, but it sweeps away my life for a day or two when I have other plans and some psychopath shoots up America.” (The BBC program for which he was interviewed following the Charleston shootings can be found here.)
“It is still depressing,” Phelps continues, “in fact draining, to be put in the position of explaining my people through this kind of event, but reflection has prompted some better ways of answering.”
A one-sentence question about the American pattern of free-range violence takes many more to address at all concretely. Phelps's assessment bears quoting at length:
“While I'm as drawn to generalities as anyone -- I've always thought there was something to H. Rap Brown's declaration that ‘violence is as American as cherry pie’ -- it’s important to realize that most American households do not possess guns, only a third do. So gun owners do not comprise all Americans but a particular demographic, one more white, male and conservative than the general population.
“The shooters in mass killings, likewise, tend to be white men. So we need to explain this sociologically. My shorthand is that white men have lost a supreme status of power and privilege, given a post-’60s culture claiming gender and racial equality as ideals, yet are still socialized in ways that encourage aggressiveness.
“Of course, that mix wouldn't be so dangerous if it weren't easy to amass an arsenal of submachine guns, in effect, to mow people down. Why do restrictions that polls say Americans consider reasonable always get blocked politically, if gun-owning households are a minority? For one thing, the gun manufacturing corporations subsidize a powerful lobby that doubles as a populist association of gun owners. That, combined with a fragmented federalist system of government, a strongly individualist culture and the centrality of a Constitution that seems to inscribe ‘the right to bear arms’ as a sacred right, makes reform very difficult in the United States compared to similarly positioned societies. This suggests the problem is less cultural than political.”
Following the massacre of 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre waited several days before issuing a statement. Whether he meant to let decent interval pass or just needed time to work up the nerve, his response was to blame our culture of violence on… our culture of violence.
He condemned the American entertainment industry for its constant output of “an ever more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty” in the form of video games, slasher movies and so forth. The American child is exposed to “16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18” -- encouraging, if not spontaneously generating, LaPierre said, a veritable army of criminals and insane people, just waiting for unarmed victims to cross their paths. “The only way to stop a monster from killing our kids,” he said, “is to be personally involved and invested in a plan of absolute protection.”
The speech was a marvel of chutzpah and incoherence. But to give him credit, LaPierre’s call for “a plan of absolute protection” had a sort of deluded brilliance to it -- revealing a strain of magical thinking worthy of… well, when you get right down to it, a violent video game. Despite living in a society full of people presumably eager to act out their favorite scenes in Natural Born Killers and American Psycho, having enough firepower will give you “absolute protection.”
On many points, Firmin DeBrabander’s book Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society (Yale University Press) converges with the analysis quoted earlier from my discussion with Christopher Phelps. But DeBrabander, an associate professor of philosophy at Maryland Institute College of Art, places special emphasis on the corrupting effect of treating the Second Amendment as the basis for “absolute protection” of civil liberties.
The vision of democracy as something that grows out of the barrel of a gun (or better yet, a stockpile of guns, backed up with a ready supply of armor-piercing bullets) involves an incredibly impoverished understanding of freedom. And it is fed by a paranoid susceptibility to “unmanageable levels of fear,” DeBrabander writes, and “irrationalities that ripple through society.”
He turns to the ancient Stoic philosophers for a more robust and mature understanding of freedom. It is, he writes, “a state of mental resolve, not armed resolve. Coexisting with pervasive threats, Seneca would say, is the human condition. The person who lives with no proximate dangers is the exception. And it’s no sign of freedom to live always at the ready, worried and trigger-happy, against potential threats; this is the opposite of freedom.” It is, on the contrary, “a form of servitude,” and can only encourage tyranny by demagogues.
“Freedom,” DeBrabander goes on to say, “resides in the ability to live and thrive in spite of the dangers that attend our necessarily tenuous social and political existence -- dangers that are less fearsome and debilitating to the extent that we understand and acknowledge them.” It is only one of many good points the author makes. (See also his recent essay “Campus Carry vs. Faculty Rights” for Inside Higher Ed.) And the certainty that another mass shooting will take place somewhere in the United States before much longer means we need all the stoicism we can get.
Let me tell you how I ended up on Jihad Watch. This is a tale of the new red scare wending its way across college campuses. More than an account of my own travails, this is an anatomy of how critical thought about Islam and Judaism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism is today monitored in the academy with the goal of chilling reflection.
In March, at the University of Rochester, I gave a lecture entitled “Judeophobia and Islamophobia” in which I sought to consider the links between Muslims and Jews in contemporary European and American discourse and put it into historical perspective. In attendance was an appointed watchdog for Campus Watch, A. J. Caschetta, a lecturer in English at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
In May, he published his “report” of my talk on the website of the Middle East Forum. It was a pastiche of falsehoods, innuendos and quotes out of context, entirely obfuscating what I actually said. I was accused of maintaining that Islamophobia has replaced Judeophobia, an indefensible position given the rising tide of anti-Semitism globally. It was also alleged that I deny the history of Islamic Judeophobia historically and at present. These charges stem from the fact that I sought to consider the two forms of hatred in tandem. While it is demoralizing to suffer through this kind of defamation, the real harm is the way anti-anti-Semitic hit men like Caschetta feed hate speech.
I had a sense something had happened in the blogosphere when I began to receive anti-Islamic hate mail in my inbox, and requests for the lecture from as far away as Sydney, Australia. This happened because Campus Watch flies its flag under the auspices of the Middle East Forum, a well-financed initiative under the leadership of Daniel Pipes that monitors Middle East studies in the academy.
Campus Watch is part of a network of networks, including StandWithUs, AMCHAInitiative, the David Horowitz Freedom Center and most recently Canary Mission, linked to groups like Jihad Watch. Jihad Watch and these other fora send daily blasts to all those who sign up to receive them on their websites and use email and social media to share their message. Within this self-referential set of bubbles, each consumes the propaganda of their fellow warriors in what they describe as a war for hearts and minds. College campuses are thus key strategic territory in the battle since this is where young minds are shaped.
In her final chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government,” Hannah Arendt suggested that what linked Stalinism and Nazism was the reduction of history to ironclad laws, whether race or class. What they shared in common was the truth about the movement of history. Today the “clash of civilizations” has cemented as this new truth.
What I sought to accomplish in my lecture was a form of ideology critique. I did so by reflecting on a series of narratives that have emerged in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher murders that have split off the ideology of the Koachi brothers and Coulibaly from the sociology of their marginalized experience as Muslims in France.
I insisted that such a split, whether by the right or the left, is untenable if we seek to understand such events. My example was Lassana Bathily, the Hyper Cacher worker of Malian Muslim background who saved Jews by hiding them in the freezer of the kosher market. His story short-circuits the narratives about an essentially radical Islam, as well as the story about how oppression leads people to terrorism as the weapon of the weak.
I went on to discuss the history of the concepts of anti-Semitism (which was coined in the 1870s, racializing the much longer history of anti-Jewish prejudice) and Islamophobia (which was birthed as a term only in this generation but whose history goes back to the Middle Ages).
Then I addressed the vexing question of whether anti-Semitism should be hyphenated. The minutia of the hyphen actually has major consequences in how we think about the relationship between Muslims and Jews over time, and how this has changed in the last century. Those scholars who refuse to hyphenate anti-Semitism insist that “antisemitism” only applies to Jews and has always only applied to Jews. They also tend to insist that antisemitism is a unique form of racism, wholly different from anti-black or anti-Muslim discrimination.
But in the 19th century, when the term “Semite” was defined in opposition to “Aryan,” this was carried out in scientific, literary and artistic works that not only racialized much earlier tropes of Jews, but also images of Arabs, Saracens, Turks and Muslims. The two groups were unified by their shared Semitic language family.
I referenced a set of historical examples of this long history: the Crusades, which gave rise to the first mass killings of Jews en route to liberating holy sites in Jerusalem held by Saracens; the Fourth Lateran Council (1225), which mandated marking not only Jewish but also Muslim clothing; the Spanish Inquisition, which targeted not only Jews but Moors; post-expulsion Europe, when 90 percent of Jews lived under the crescent of Islam; the depiction of Jews as Turks in Renaissance art, as in many paintings by Rembrandt; and I cited authors like writer Johann Gottfried von Herder, who called Jews the “Asiatics of Europe,” and Benjamin Disraeli, who said the Jews were an “Arabian tribe” and the Arabs “only Jews upon horseback.”
I then explained that the sometimes overlapping images of Jews and Muslims were definitively decoupled around the time that the construct “Judeo-Christian” made its historical appearance in the 1930s. “Judeo-Christian” was originally a formula used to appeal to Christians to aid Jews who were targeted for annihilation in Europe by the Nazis. It was effective because it stressed a shared lineage.
Following the Holocaust and with the creation of the state of Israel, Jews stressed their Judeo-Christian commonality, which over time was interpreted as the foundation of Western civilization, and later of American democracy and human rights. What made the decoupling definitive was that this was precisely the period when large swaths of the Islamic world began to demonize Jews in unprecedented ways, drawing upon the iconography of the European anti-Semitic arsenal, spurred by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This quick history is certainly not the whole story of either Judeophobia or Islamophobia -- their linkages and disconnects -- and only the briefest outline of what I addressed in my public lecture. But in talking about rising Judeophobia globally since 2000, I ended by explicitly critiquing the position that was then used as the title of Caschetta’s article: “Are Muslims the new Jews?” The entire point of what I discussed was to problematize such one-sided views.
The ear attuned only to ideology, as Arendt defined it, is tone-deaf to such deconstruction. The real jihadists don’t want to think critically and contextually. The narrative of the “clash of civilizations” explains everything to them. This is true of those warriors of the faith who seek who oppose the “Zionist-Crusader conspiracy” and restore the Caliphate just as much as for those crusaders who pull Judeophobic passages from the Quran and insist they meant the same thing in the eighth century as they have come to mean in the new millennium, as Caschetta did during the Q&A session.
Ideology, as Arendt suggested, is underpinned by an ahistorical belief in the truth of your understanding of the motor of history. Ideology critique is what some corners of the academy offer at its best. This is precisely why the new McCarthyism monitors its lecture halls with watchdogs. The Campus Watchers don’t want students to reevaluate and reframe the latest well-worn clichés. But not doing so stokes hate speech, and this can feed violence.
So what do I tell the members of my synagogue, fellow parents at the Jewish day school my kids attend, my colleagues in Jewish studies associations in America and Europe about why I ended up on Jihad Watch? I tell them the new McCarthyism has arrived.
Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities and professor of history at Rhodes College.