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Harper’s Magazine – January 2018

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FOUNDED IN 1850 / VOL. 336, NO. 2012
Cut Too Deep
Easy Chair
Harper’s Index
The Digital Poorhouse
Don’t Be Evil
Can’t Touch This
Take Me
And . . .
A manifesto
From the Archive
The Castro
Letter from Washington
Wall Street’s war on the Volcker Rule
Letter from India
What’s at stake when you marry for love?
The unlikely origins of the US-Mexico border
Letter from Saudi Arabia
Saudi women push for the right to exercise
How I learned the real meaning of dissent
MUNICH, 1938
Three novels of Egypt’s repressive present
The Armies of the Night fifty years on
Sylvia Totah Calabrese, Mike Maturo
Rebecca Solnit
Virginia Eubanks
dismantling the tech dystopia
Taylor Swift does not shake off sexual harassment
Clarice Lispector
Elizabeth Bick, Phyllis Galembo, Alison Elizabeth Taylor,
and emoji coders prove to be harsh judges of character
Fenton Johnson
Richard Rodriguez
Andrew Cockburn
Mansi Choksi
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Sarah Aziza
John R. MacArthur, Ludvík Vaculík
Robert Harris
Lidija Haas
Yasmine Seale
David Denby
95 Richard E. Maltby Jr.
Cover: © Gesche Jaeger/laif/Redux
John R. MacArthur, President and Publisher
James Marcus
Deputy Editor
Emily Cooke
Managing Editor
Hasan Altaf
Senior Editors
Katia Bachko, Giles Harvey,
Betsy Morais
Editor Emeritus
Lewis H. Lapham
Ellen Rosenbush
Washington Editor
Andrew Cockburn
Art Director
Stacey Clarkson James
Poetry Editor
Ben Lerner
Web Editor
Joe Kloc
Associate Editors
Camille Bromley, Rachel Poser,
Matthew Sherrill
Associate Art Director
Kathryn Humphries
Assistant Editors
Winston Choi-Schagrin, Matthew Hickey,
Ava Kofman, Stephanie McFeeters
Assistant to the Editor
Adrian Kneubuhl
Editorial Interns
Claire Bryan, Emma Grillo,
Christian Kreznar, Karl Williams
Contributing Editors
Andrew J. Bacevich, Kevin Baker, Dan Baum,
Tom Bissell, Joshua Cohen, John Crowley,
Rivka Galchen, William H. Gass,
Gary Greenberg, Jack Hitt, Edward Hoagland,
Scott Horton, Frederick Kaufman,
Garret Keizer, Mark Kingwell, Walter Kirn,
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, Gideon Lewis-Kraus,
Clancy Martin, Duncan Murrell,
Vince Passaro, Francine Prose,
Christine Smallwood, Zadie Smith,
Rebecca Solnit, Matthew Stevenson,
John Edgar Wideman, Tom Wolfe
Contributing Artists
Olive Ayhens, Lisa Elmaleh, Lena Herzog,
Aaron Huey, Samuel James, Steve Mumford,
Richard Ross, Tomas van Houtryve,
Danijel Žeželj
Vice President and General Manager
Lynn Carlson
Vice President, Circulation
Shawn D. Green
Vice President, Public Relations
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Cut Too Deep
In “Monumental Error” [Essay, November], J. C. Hallman unfairly skewers J. Marion Sims, the “Father of
Gynecology.” He attributes to Sims a
huge ego and the desire for fame, and
highlights actions that are shocking
by modern standards but were commonplace during the 1800s. For instance, Sims was from the South;
that he once owned slaves, a point
Hallman emphasizes, hardly makes
him unique. Though he did practice
his operations on enslaved women,
he did so only on those who needed
surgical intervention. He did not use
anesthesia during these procedures,
as noted, but anesthesia was not
widely available during his lifetime.
(Until 1986, in fact, infants younger
than fifteen months received no anesthesia during surgery at most
American hospitals.)
In addition, Hallman makes fistula,
a common affliction treated by Sims,
sound like minor bladder leakage.
Harper’s Magazine welcomes reader response.
Please address mail to Letters, Harper’s
Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y.
10012, or email us at
Short letters are more likely to be published,
and all letters are subject to editing. Volume
precludes individual acknowledgment.
Even today, it is a serious condition. In
parts of Africa, women with fistulas
are often excommunicated and left to
die. The lucky ones are treated by doctors using the same tools, techniques,
and position that Sims pioneered.
Removing Sims’s statue would be
the real monumental error. It should
remain in situ, with additional contextual information on site.
Sylvia Totah Calabrese
New York City
A Donkey in the Headlights
In her investigation into the Democratic Party’s recruitment strategies
[“Star Search,” Letter from Virginia,
November], Lisa Rab does not grasp
the party’s need to first overcome the
fear of its own liberal ideology, which
has plagued it since the McGovern
era. While stronger candidates are
necessary for electoral success, a party
that continues to rally only around individual personalities diminishes the
importance of progressive policies.
US voters hate cowards, and supporters of the Democrats are angered
by the party’s reluctance to espouse a
broader, positive legacy. On this matter, the party still seems mute, despite
the many opportunities that the cur-
rent regressive and unpopular administration presents for positioning.
Mike Maturo
Rossland, British Columbia
Rab notes that the Koch brothers
pledged $45 million for congressional
races in the ten months between the
Citizens United decision and the 2010
midterm elections. During that time,
something else just as significant did
not happen: the Democratic-controlled
House and Senate did not produce a
substantial legislative response to Citizens United. Instead they offered
mostly hand-wringing and rhetoric.
John Rucki
Amsterdam, Ohio
Road to Ruin
Dale Maharidge’s article regarding
America’s crumbling roads [“Bumpy
Ride,” Miscellany, November] is not
just about how physical changes beneath the surface of our roads cause
them to crumble but also about how
structural changes beneath the surface
of our politics are doing the same.
Politicians campaign on infrastructure projects that they know are
popular and are what our country
needs. Once a candidate is elected,
though, these promises disappear as
attention is directed to issues favored
by the biggest donors. We need to
support representatives who encourage restricting the influence on elections in order to restore balance to
the political agenda.
Letting our roads revert to the
gravel of the early 1900s is akin to
turning back the clock to an era before the Great Depression. No one is
served by an America that cannot
bring its goods to market or educate its
citizens and keep them healthy.
Barbara and Steve Miller
Haddonfield, N.J.
Technology Evangelists
Rebecca Solnit makes a strong case
for how “preaching to the choir” can
be a necessary and fulfilling ritual as
well as an effective political strategy
[Easy Chair, November]. I am, however, concerned by the rise in ideological
tribalism, now enhanced by algorithms and filter bubbles, and its effects: reducing empathy and reinforcing existing biases.
While I appreciate the strength and
radiance of the choirs that Solnit describes, I believe that their depth and
usefulness are best measured by how
their values are expressed beyond the
church walls on the other six days of
the week.
Roberta Werdinger
Ukiah, Calif.
The perfect gift
for the
on your list
Ruth Bader
Dissent Collar
All Good Things Are Wild
In his review of Laura Walls’s biography of Henry David Thoreau [“Into
the Wild,” Reviews, October], James
Marcus fails to acknowledge that in A
Plea for Captain John Brown (1859),
Thoreau largely abandoned the betterknown position he had taken in Resistance to Civil Government (aka “Civil
Disobedience”) ten years earlier.
When Brown attacked the government’s arsenal at Harpers Ferry, there
was an outbreak of national hysteria.
Contemporaries of Thoreau’s such as
William Lloyd Garrison pusillanimously maintained that slaveholders
could be shamed into abandoning
human slavery. This is essentially the
“moral suasion” philosophy that Thoreau had left behind for a more radical, courageous defense of Brown and
his military crusade against slavery.
Jan Dovenitz
Roslindale, Mass.
Enamel pins, neckaces,
and more available at
Enamel P
Early in his essay on modern education [“The Working Classroom,”
Readings, November], Malcolm Harris stumbles upon a pernicious false
dichotomy: “This generation is raised
on problem-solving to the exclusion
of play.” But true play is problemsolving—give kindergartners blank
paper and a box of crayons and watch
what happens. Removing play from
education is exactly the wrong way to
prepare students to “meet the demands of a changing world.”
Douglas C. Thompson
Belmont, Calif.
in !
(1-inch wid
All Work and No Play
donated to
The Bronx Freedom Fund,
International Refugee
Assistance Project, and
Center for Reproductive Rights
“A crucial read
right now.”
—Jelani Cobb
—Ira Katznelson, The Atlantic
“Spellbinding and
—Stephen Rohde,
Los Angeles Review of Books
—Jeff Guo, Washington Post
“A breathtaking
excavation of America’s
shameful contribution
to Hitler’s genocidal
policies. . . .
A brilliant page-turner.”
—Laurence H. Tribe,
Harvard Law School
“To get to the core of
race in America today,
read this new book. . . .
Prepare to be startled.”
—Bill Moyers,
“Eerie. . . . [Whitman]
illustrates how German
propagandists sought
to normalize the Nazi
agenda domestically by
putting forth the United
States as a model.”
—Brent Staples,
New York Times
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By Rebecca Solnit
he footage is eerie, a plunge
through a dim world of lush
seaweed, the underwater forests of the treeless Arctic. Objects
swim into view: a bell, a small fish, a
stovepipe, the barnacled bow of the
ship itself. One of the discoverers
said, “We spotted two wine bottles,
tables and empty shelving. Found a
desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the
drawer.” This ship, the Terror, sank
sometime after 1848 and was found
in 2016. It’s easy to see the discovery as something far away and long
ago, but there is another story to be
told about the ship’s role in the
scramble for the Arctic, which continues to shape the geopolitics of
the world.
The Terror and its sister ship, the
Erebus, set out from Greenhithe, a
village on the Thames downstream
from London, on May 19, 1845.
The expedition was headed by
John Franklin, an explorer who
hoped to find the Northwest Passage, a short route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that would
benefit trade and assert British
dominance in the far north.
The ships were equipped with
monogrammed silverware and three
years’ worth of food, including half
a ton of mustard, a dozen tons of
sugar, 9,450 pounds of chocolate,
and a mountain of canned goods, as
well as a sizable library and 2,700
pounds of candles, and were piled
with coal to burn.
They sailed up the west coast of
Greenland. From there, they pro-
ceeded into the tangle of islands at
North America’s frigid end. It was
not unusual for ships to get locked
into the ice over winter and then sail
on after the thaw, but somehow the
Terror and the Erebus never got
loose. Things went wrong, and then
wronger, though we don’t know
much about how and why.
According to a note scrawled by
two officers and placed in a metal
canister buried in a cairn, Franklin
died in the summer of 1847, though
his body has never been found. The
ships were abandoned in the spring
of 1848, the note in the cairn adds,
and the remnants of the crews set
out on a bleak trek southward in
pursuit of a last chance at survival.
By that time twenty-three others
had also perished. “H.M. ships Erebus and Terror were deserted on
the 22nd of April, five leagues
N.N.W. of this; having been beset
since 12th September 1846.” The
final addition reads, “And start tomorrow 26th for Back’s Fish River.”
Beginning in 1850, several expeditions were launched to search for
what had become a cause célèbre.
Franklin’s wife, Elizabeth, who had
been ambitious for his glory, insisted
for years that he might be alive and
was furious when the British Navy
awarded her a widow’s pension.
She financed the expedition that
found the note in the cairn, along
with a couple of skeletons, a heavy
boat on a sledge, and a pair of embroidered slippers.
In the Canadian Arctic in 1854,
a fur trader and explorer named
John Rae encountered an Inuit
man wearing the band from what
appeared to be a British Navy officer’s cap. The man told Rae that he
had heard from local seal hunters
that they had seen forty men dragging a boat and sledges across the
ice. Native people in the region
had articles from the expedition,
and Rae purchased some of them—
monogrammed spoons and forks, a
star-shaped medal—as evidence of
the explorers’ fate. In the Polar Museum in Cambridge, England, I saw
four of these pieces with Franklin’s
family crest on them. They suggest
an unwarranted confidence about
who these men were and what they
were doing.
Soon after this discovery, Rae reported what he had learned from his
Inuit sources:
From the mutilated state of many of
the bodies and the contents of the
kettles, it is evident that our wretched
countrymen had been driven to the
last dread alternative, as a means of
sustaining life.
This was a Victorian circumlocution for cannibalism. In 1981, archaeologists discovered confirming
evidence—a femur that had been
hacked, other human bones scattered with the disarray of food
scraps rather than the orderliness of
a burial. Later research suggested
that long bones were cracked to get
at the marrow; this is termed endstage cannibalism, the struggle to
extract the last bits of nutrition
from a corpse.
n the summer of 2008, Stephen
Harper, then the prime minister of
Canada, announced a partnership
with private explorers to find the Erebus and the Terror. At the time, Harper
was working to assert Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, not just over its
own territory but all the way to the
North Pole. It was a land grab, or rather
a water grab, since there’s no land
north of Canada. “Canada has a
choice when it comes to defending our
sovereignty over the Arctic. Either we
use it or we lose it,” said Harper.
His administration renewed interest in the Arctic. The polar regions have long been considered
international territory, but also
sources of power and wealth. In the
seventeenth century, fishing ships
around Greenland and Svalbard,
the archipelago far north of Norway, were decimating the whale
population in the area. In 1613, a
fleet of British warships patrolled
the international waters of Svalbard to defend British whalers and
drive off ships from Holland and
Denmark. By the Cold War, the
United States had built an enormous air base in northern Greenland,
less than a thousand miles from the
North Pole. Later that decade, a
US Air Force colonel noted that
“the Arctic is to us what the Mediterranean was to the Greeks and
Romans—the center of the world.”
As prime minister, Harper vowed
to make Canada an “energy superpower,” in part by exploiting the Alberta tar sands through a vastly destructive recovery process. He was a
staunch opponent of climate-change
research, but he was well aware that
global warming offered two opportunities. As the summer ice in the
Arctic melted faster and faster with
each passing year, trade through the
Northwest Passage would become a
reality, and lucrative for whoever
controlled it. In addition, the enormous oil reserves are currently worth
hundreds of billions of dollars.
When the first ship, the Erebus,
was discovered in 2014, Harper used
it to bolster a claim to historical legitimacy. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history,” he
declared, “given that his expeditions,
which took place nearly two hundred
years ago, laid the foundations of
Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”
It seemed peculiar for Harper to
claim Franklin as a legitimizing predecessor. As the Inuit politician
Jack Anawak put it, “Honoring
somebody who’s a failure I don’t
think is a good idea. I mean, he
failed at first at finding the Northwest Passage, and secondly, failed at
surviving in the North.”
When Justin Trudeau replaced
Harper in 2015, he charmed many
Americans, yet he pursued the development of the Alberta tar sands
and their attendant pipelines,
launched by the previous administration. In doing so, he ignored
warnings from climate scientists, including James Hansen, who predicted that fully exploiting the immense
reserves in the tar sands would lead
to runaway climate change.
n September 3, 2016, the
Terror was finally discovered,
almost intact, in a bay of
King William Island. Several years
earlier, Sammy Kogvik of Gjoa Haven, the sole settlement on the island,
had been out hunting when he spotted the masts sticking out of the ice,
but he had been quiet about it for fear
of being disbelieved. His father-inlaw, reports Paul Watson in his book
Ice Ghosts, had seen them, too, and
remembered old stories of a sunken
ship. Kogvik’s information eventually
led to the official discovery.
Just the day before, Russian president Vladimir Putin personally denied that Russia had hacked the
Democratic National Committee.
That fall, the connection between
the discovery of Franklin’s ship and
Russian interference in the American election was not explicit, but
they were two points on the same
map. Four days after the Terror was
found, Obama’s defense secretary,
Ashton B. Carter, warned Putin
against further meddling. The evidence of Russian interference piled
up like wood for a bonfire, but somehow it never became a powerful
enough story to prompt the outgoing
administration to act decisively or to
make urgent the question of whether
one candidate was colluding with a
foreign power.
Putin’s motives were variously stated
as sowing discord, weakening the
United States, revenging himself on
Hillary Clinton, or undoing the
Magnitsky sanctions imposed by
Congress in 2012 on members of the
Russian elite. Oil and gas are major
sources of wealth for Russia; it now
rivals Saudi Arabia as the world’s
largest oil producer.
As the climate journalist Alex
Steffen argued last year, perhaps
Putin’s agenda during the election
was not least—maybe most—about
the Arctic and oil. For Putin,
Trump held the key to keeping petroleum valuable enough for long
enough to let Russian profit-making
continue. Trump was the candidate
to rubber-stamp fossil-fuel exploration, to abandon the goals of the
Paris Climate Accord and throw out
the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions regulations, and to be
too incompetent and distracted to
compete for power in the Arctic.
Not only was Trump endlessly eager to oblige the Putin regime,
members of his campaign team and
then his Cabinet were entangled
with Rosneft, an oil and gas company majority-owned by the Russian government.
After the election, Trump appointed Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, which couldn’t have
been better for Putin. In the past,
Tillerson had opposed sanctions
against Russia. As ExxonMobil’s
CEO, he had led the world’s largest
oil corporation as it acquired drilling rights to 63.7 million acres of
Russian land, much of it in the
Arctic. After the election, Trump’s
pro-Russian rhetoric suggested a
potential thaw in relations, leading analysts to speculate about
ExxonMobil’s prospects in the Arctic. The corporation again filed for a
sanctions exemption in April so
that it could begin Arctic drilling
with Rosneft, which plans to spend
more than $4 billion on exploration
in Arctic seas.
tranded” is a word that comes
up again and again in the history of the Franklin expedition.
Ships like the Erebus and the Terror,
frozen into the ice, became a recur-
rent subject for nineteenth-century
painters. The ships caught in that
jagged white and blue look fragile,
tiny. Some were crushed; some sailed
again after the thaw.
Financiers use the term “stranded
assets” to describe reserves that may
be impossible to exploit. The conventional valuation of oil reserves
assumes, first, that they will be extracted and, second, that they will
be sold, but progress in green technologies has made this less likely.
Oil companies are valued on the
basis of their assets, but many factors may undermine their value, including low prices and policies limiting or banning extraction. It’s now
widely believed that the transition
to a clean-energy future is inevitable; the question is only how long
we will take to get there and how
much damage we will do en route.
From the perspective of the oil barons, of course, the question is actu-
ally how much profit they can still
wring out of the ailing earth.
The melting of the Arctic and
Antarctic ice, sea ice, and the
Greenland ice sheet is accelerating.
In coming decades, Arctic summer
ice is expected to shrink so much
from historic levels that the narrow
straits and roundabout route of the
Northwest Passage, so desperately
sought by Franklin and his crew,
may become irrelevant—new routes
will open up where once only sledges
and nuclear submarines could pass.
Other changes are speeding up, too.
Parts of the Siberian and North
American Arctic that are now navigable may become too treacherous
for vehicles and large animals as the
permafrost melts. In northwestern
Canada, 52,000 square miles are
melting, slumping, and creating
landslides that choke rivers and
lakes. Many of the world’s highest
mountains are themselves frozen to-
For your guide to the experience of a lifetime: 1-855-657-3319
gether; rocks and soil may start to
slide and slough. The Arctic is a
place few will ever see, but its fate
affects us all; the push to develop it
is both easy to miss and important
to understand.
The maps, charts, and atlases
from the era of the Franklin expedition were incomplete, omitting many
features of the Canadian Arctic, but
they were not wrong about the general outlines of the coasts. They will,
however, become obsolete in coming
decades as continents and islands assume new shapes. These landforms
will shrink; coastlines will change.
The coastlines that were recognizable 170 years ago will be in many
cases profoundly different. The most
dramatic new estimates suggest that
sea levels could rise eight feet by
2100. Many islands will vanish altogether, and new atlases will need to
be drawn up to chart the world we
are making.
Fantagraphics Books
P U B L I S H E R O F T H E W O R L D ’ S G R E AT E S T C A R T O O N I S T S
And Then the World Blew Up
Drawn, painted, and collaged in Mr. Fish’s many virtuosic
styles, And Then the World Blew Up is an eloquent
take-no-prisoners response to American political life.
On Thursday, January 25th at 7pm, Book Culture
on Columbus and Harper’s Magazine will host
Mr. Fish and New York Times bestselling author
Chris Hedges to discuss the book and the role of
radical editorial art in contemporary society.
Trump’s ABC
Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Ann
Telnaes with her first original book — Trump’s ABC,
a children’s board book for adults that chronicles
Donald Trump’s first six months in office in a format
cleverly designed to reflect the commander-in-chief’s
attention span and mental level.
Economics in Wonderland:
A Cartoon Guide to a Political
World Gone Mad and Mean
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich
regularly totes a large sketchpad and a magic marker
on speaking tours to help illustrate the disastrous
consequences of global austerity policies. Economics
in Wonderland collects Reich’s erudite talks for the first
time, along with his clean-lined, confident cartoons.
Percentage by which a marijuana user is likelier than others to eat fast food five or more times in a given week : 75
Amount the US pharmaceutical industry spent in 2016 on ads for prescription drugs : $6,400,000,000
Number of countries in which direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads are legal : 2
Percentage of moisturizers sold in the United States as “fragrance-free” that contain a fragrance : 45
Of moisturizers sold as “hypoallergenic” that contain a common allergen : 83
Estimated chance that a white woman in Washington, D.C., has a tanning-salon addiction : 1 in 5
Percentage change between 2005 and 2014 in the number of French people undergoing weight-loss surgery : +269
Factor by which an obese woman is less likely than other candidates in France to be offered a job interview : 6
Percentage of applicants for dog-walking jobs through the app Wag! who are successful : 5
Of recently graduated applicants for jobs at Goldman Sachs who are : 4
Percentage by which white job applicants in the United States were preferred over black applicants in 1989 : 36
In 2015 : 36
Percentage of black Americans earning less than $25,000 a year who say they have been called a racial slur : 40
Of black Americans earning more than $75,000 : 65
Percentage of US Latinos who would support a law criminalizing offensive speech about white people : 47
Of US whites : 26
Percentage of US whites who believe white Americans are discriminated against : 55
Who say they’ve experienced discrimination themselves : 21
Amount white supremacist Richard Spencer paid the University of Florida to give a speech last October : $10,564
Estimated amount the university paid for security : $600,000
Percentage of Asian-American doctors who have had a patient request a different physician because of their ethnicity : 22
Percentages of Democrats and Republicans who say workplace sexual harassment is a very serious problem in Hollywood : 55,58
In the rest of the country : 45,22
Percentage of news stories about Donald Trump during his first sixty days in office that were positive : 5
Percentage of 2016 Clinton voters who think it’s hard to be friends with Trump voters : 61
Of Trump voters who think it’s hard to be friends with Clinton voters : 34
Factor by which George W. Bush’s popularity among Democrats has increased since 2009 : 4
Average number of days the National Rifle Association waits to tweet after a major mass shooting : 6.3
Number of Texas inmates who donated money for Hurricane Harvey relief : 6,663
Number of days after the hurricane for which Texas prisoners lacked adequate food and water : 33
Portion of voting-age Floridians who have been disenfranchised because of felony convictions : 1/10
Percentage of youth library cards in New York City that were suspended due to overdue books before an October amnesty : 17
Total amount of debt that was forgiven : $2,250,000
Largest single fine : $1,422.69
Date on which New York City repealed a law requiring bars to have a license to allow dancing : 10/31/2017
Estimated percentage of bars that had such a license : 0.4
Amount a Canadian man was fined for singing “Everybody Dance Now” too loudly in his car : $117
Number of animated Jackie Chan Adventures episodes found on Osama bin Laden’s computer : 33
Of crocheting videos : 29
Figures cited are the latest available as of November 2017. Sources are listed on page 43.
“Harper’s Index” is a registered trademark.
Observe the LAW this holiday season!
TWO high-impact legal thrillers
from the mind of
Mike Papantonio!
“Mike Papantonio offers the rare combination of a top-flight trial lawyer who can write with a
high level of skill and spin a yarn right up there with John Grisham and David Baldacci.”
F. Lee Bailey, famed trial lawyer and New York Times best-selling author
“For a deep dive into law and politics, power and those who fight it, and the very human conflicts
that drive and tear at us all, read Law and Disorder!”
Thom Hartmann, nationally syndicated talk show host and best-selling author
Twitter: @americaslawyer
Facebook: @themikepapantonio
By Virginia Eubanks, from Automating Inequality,
which was published this month by St. Martin’s Press.
Eubanks is an associate professor of political science
at the University at Albany, SUNY, and a founding
member of the Our Data Bodies project.
orty years ago, nearly all the major decisions
that shape our lives—whether or not we are offered employment, a mortgage, insurance, credit,
or a government service—were made by human
beings. They often used actuarial processes that
functioned more like computers than people, but
human discretion still prevailed.
Today, we have ceded much of that decisionmaking power to machines. Automated eligibility systems, ranking algorithms, and predictive
risk models control which neighborhoods get
policed, which families attain needed resources,
who is short-listed for employment, and who is
investigated for fraud. Our world is crisscrossed
by information sentinels, some obvious and visible: closed-circuit cameras, GPS on our cell
phones, police drones. But much of our information is collected by inscrutable, invisible pieces
of code embedded in social media interactions,
applications for government services, and every
product we buy. They are so deeply woven into
the fabric of social life that, most of the time,
we don’t even notice that we are being watched
and analyzed.
Even when we do notice, we rarely understand how these processes are taking place.
There is no sunshine law to compel the government or private companies to release details on
the inner workings of their digital decisionmaking systems. With the notable exception of
credit reporting, we have remarkably limited access to the equations, algorithms, and models
that shape our life chances.
We all live under this new regime of data analytics, but we don’t all experience it in the same
way. Most people are targeted for digital scrutiny
as members of social groups, not as individuals.
People of color, migrants, stigmatized religious
groups, sexual minorities, the poor, and other oppressed and exploited populations bear a much
heavier burden of monitoring, tracking, and social
sorting than advantaged groups.
The most marginalized in our society face
higher levels of data collection when they access
public benefits, walk through heavily policed
neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or
cross national borders. That data reinforces their
marginality when it is used to target them for
extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out
for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback
loop of injustice.
Take the case of Maine. In 2014, under Republican governor Paul LePage, the state attacked
families who were receiving cash benefits through
a federal program called Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families. TANF benefits are loaded
onto EBT cards, which leave a digital record of
when and where cash is withdrawn. LePage’s
administration mined data collected by federal
and state agencies to compile a list of 3,650 transactions in which TANF recipients withdrew cash
from ATMs in smoke shops, liquor stores, and
out-of-state locations. The data was then released
to the public.
The transactions that were flagged as suspicious represented only 0.3 percent of the 1.1 million cash withdrawals completed during that
time period, and the data showed only where
cash was withdrawn, not how it was spent. But
the administration disclosed the data to suggest
that TANF families were defrauding taxpayers by
buying liquor, cigarettes, and lottery tickets. Lawmakers and the professional middle-class public
eagerly embraced the misleading tale they spun.
The Maine legislature introduced a bill that
would require TANF families to retain all cash receipts for twelve months, in order to facilitate state
audits of their spending. Democratic legislators
urged the state’s attorney general to use LePage’s list
to investigate and prosecute fraud. The governor
introduced a bill to ban TANF recipients from
using their benefit cards at out-of-state ATMs.
These proposed laws were patently unconstitutional and unenforceable, and would have been
impossible to obey—but that was not the point.
Such legislation is part of the performative politics
governing poverty. It is not intended to work; it
is intended to heap stigma on social programs
From a list of seventy-one types of US households,
as classified by Experian Marketing Services, the
world’s largest credit data company.
Golf Carts and Gourmets
Colleges and Cafés
Modest Metro Means
Status-Seeking Singles
Footloose and Family-Free
Settled and Sensible
Diapers and Debit Cards
Babies and Bliss
Kids and Cabernet
Digital Dependents
Full Pockets, Empty Nests
Town Elders
Generational Soup
Booming and Consuming
Birkenstocks and Beemers
Progressive Potpourri
Cul-de-Sac Diversity
True-Grit Americans
Countrified Pragmatics
Red, White, and Bluegrass
American Royalty
Tough Times
Tight Money
and reinforce the misleading narrative that those
who access public assistance are criminal, lazy,
spendthrift addicts.
This has not been limited to Maine. Across the
country, poor and working-class people are being
targeted by new tools of digital poverty management, and face life-threatening consequences as a
result. Vast networks of social services, law enforcement, and neighborhood-surveillance technology
make their every move visible and offer up their
behavior for scrutiny by the government, corporations, and the public.
Automated eligibility systems in Medicaid,
TANF, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program discourage families from claiming benefits
that they are entitled to and deserve. Predictive
models in child welfare deem struggling parents to
be risky and problematic. Coordinated entry systems, which match the most vulnerable unhoused
people to available resources, collect personal information without adequate safeguards in place for
privacy or data security.
These systems are being integrated into human
and social services at a breathtaking pace, with
little or no discussion about their impacts. Technology boosters rationalize the automation of
decision-making in public services—they say we
will be able to do more with less and get help to
those who really need it. But programs that serve
the poor are as unpopular as they have ever been.
This is not a coincidence: technologies of poverty
management are not neutral. They are shaped by
our nation’s fear of economic insecurity and hatred
of the poor.
The new tools of poverty management hide
economic inequality from the professional
middle-class public and give the nation the ethical distance it needs to make inhuman choices
about who gets food and who starves, who has
housing and who remains homeless, whose family stays together and whose is broken up by the
state. This is part of a long American tradition.
We manage the poor so that we do not
have to eradicate poverty.
merica’s poor and working-class people
have long been subject to invasive surveillance,
midnight raids, and punitive policies that increase
the stigma and hardship of poverty. During the
nineteenth century, they were quarantined in
county poorhouses. In the twentieth century,
they were investigated by caseworkers who treated
them like criminals on trial. Today, we have
forged a digital poorhouse. It promises to eclipse
the reach of everything that came before.
The differences between the brick-and-mortar
poorhouse of yesterday and the digital one of today
are significant. Containment in a physical institution had the unintended result of creating class
solidarity across the lines of race, gender, and
Only Castles Burning . . . , a mixed-media work by Alison Elizabeth Taylor, whose work was on view in December 2017 at James Cohan, in New
York City.
national origin. If we sit at a common table to eat
the same gruel, we might see similarities in our
experiences. But now surveillance and digital social sorting are driving us apart, targeting smaller
and smaller microgroups for different kinds of
aggression and control. In an invisible poorhouse,
we become ever more cut off from the people
around us, even if they share our suffering.
In the 1820s, those who supported institutionalizing the indigent argued that there should be
a poorhouse in every county in the United States.
But it was expensive and time-consuming to
build so many prisons for the poor—county
poorhouses were difficult to scale (though we still
ended up with more than a thousand of them).
In the early twentieth century, the eugenicist
Harry Laughlin proposed ending poverty by forcibly sterilizing the “lowest one tenth” of the nation’s population, approximately 15 million
people. But Laughlin’s science fell out of favor
after its use in Nazi Germany.
The digital poorhouse has a much lower barrier
to expansion. Automated decision-making systems, matching algorithms, and predictive risk
models have the potential to spread quickly. The
state of Indiana denied more than a million public
assistance applications in less than three years
after switching to private call centers and automated document processing. In Los Angeles, a
sorting survey to allocate housing for the homeless
that started in a single neighborhood expanded to
a countywide program in less than four years.
Models that identify children at risk of abuse and
neglect are proliferating rapidly from New York
City to Los Angeles and from Oklahoma to Oregon. Once they scale up, these digital systems will
be remarkably hard to decommission.
Oscar Gandy, a communications scholar at the
University of Pennsylvania, developed a concept
called rational discrimination that is key to understanding how the digital poorhouse automates inequality. Rational discrimination does not require
class or racial hatred, or even unconscious bias, to
operate. It requires only ignoring bias that already
exists. When automated decision-making tools are
not built to explicitly dismantle structural inequalities, their increased speed and vast scale intensify
them dramatically.
Removing human discretion from public services may seem like a compelling solution to
discrimination. After all, a computer treats each
case consistently and without prejudice. But this
actually has the potential to compound racial
injustice. In the Eighties and Nineties, a series of
laws establishing mandatory minimum sentences
took away discretion from individual judges.
Thirty years later, we have made little progress
in rectifying racial disparity in the criminal
justice system, and the incarcerated population
has exploded. Though automated decision-making can streamline the governing process, and
tracking program data can help identify patterns
of biased decision-making, justice sometimes
requires an ability to bend the rules. By transferring discretion from frontline social servants and
moving it instead to engineers and data analysts,
the digital poorhouse may, in fact,
supercharge discrimination.
hink of the digital poorhouse as an invisible web woven of fiber-optic threads. Each
strand functions as a microphone, a camera, a
fingerprint scanner, a GPS tracker, a trip wire,
and a crystal ball. Some of the strands are sticky.
Along the threads travel petabytes of data. Our
activities vibrate the web, disclosing our location and direction. Each of these filaments can
be switched on or off. They reach back into history and forward into the future. They connect
us in networks of association to those we know
and love. As you go down the socioeconomic
scale, the strands are woven more densely and
more of them are switched on.
When my family was erroneously red-flagged
for a health care fraud investigation in 2015, we
had to wrestle only one strand. We weren’t also
tangled in threads emerging from the criminal
justice system, Medicaid, and child protective
services. We weren’t knotted up in the histories
of our parents or the patterns of our neighbors.
We challenged a single strand of the digital
poorhouse and we prevailed.
Eventually, however, those of us in the professional middle class may very well end up in the
stickier, denser part of the web. As the working
class hollows out and the economic ladder gets
more crowded at the top and the bottom, the
middle class becomes more likely to fall into
poverty. Even without crossing the official poverty line, two thirds of Americans between the
ages of twenty and sixty-five will at some point
rely on a means-tested program for support.
The programs we encounter will be shaped
by the contempt we held for their initial targets:
the chronically poor. We will endure invasive
and complicated procedures meant to divert us
from public resources. Our worthiness, behavior,
and social relations will be investigated, our
missteps criminalized.
Because the digital poorhouse is networked,
whole areas of middle-class life might suddenly be subject to scrutiny. Because the digital
poorhouse serves as a continuous record, a
behavior that is perfectly legal today but becomes criminal in the future could be targeted
for retroactive prosecution. It would stand us
all in good stead to remember that an infatuation with high-tech social sorting emerges most
aggressively in countries plagued by severe
inequality and governed by totalitarians, and
here, a national catastrophe or a political regime change might justify the deployment of
the digital poorhouse’s full surveillance capability across the class spectrum.
We have always lived in the world we built
for the poor. We created a society that has no
use for the disabled or the elderly, and therefore
are cast aside when we are hurt or grow old. We
measure human worth by the ability to earn a
wage, then suffer in a world that undervalues
care, community, and mutual aid. We base our
economy on exploiting the labor of racial and
ethnic minorities and watch lasting inequalities
snuff out human potential. We see the world as
inevitably riven by bloody competition and are
left unable to recognize the many ways in which
we cooperate and lift one another up.
When a very efficient technology is deployed
against a scorned out-group in the absence of
strong human rights protections, there is enormous potential for atrocity. Currently, the digital
poorhouse concentrates administrative power in
the hands of a small elite. Its integrated data
systems and digital surveillance infrastructure
offer a degree of control unrivaled in history.
Automated tools for classifying the poor, left on
their own, will produce towering inequalities
unless we make an explicit commitment to forge
another path. And yet we act as if justice will
take care of itself.
If there is to be an alternative, we must build
it purposefully, brick by brick and byte by byte.
“Los Americanos, Mexico,” a photograph by Phyllis Galembo, whose work was on view in November at the New Gallery of
Modern Art, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
From Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks, which
was published last month by OR Books. The conversation from which this is excerpted took place in 2016 and
was moderated by Joseph Farrell, a journalist. Renata
Avila is a human rights lawyer. Sarah Harrison is a
journalist and human rights advocate. Angela Richter
is a theater director, activist, and writer.
renata avila: The intervention of Silicon Valley
in not only Washington politics but global politics is seemingly unstoppable. Its scope has
moved far beyond facilitating communications.
Silicon Valley is pushing hard to take on functions that used to be performed by national
governments, but globally and at a cost that lo-
cal providers cannot compete with. The leaders of the major tech corporations are received
by governments with the honors that correspond to a head of state.
It happens the other way around as well.
You see politicians stopping by Washington
and then flying on to Silicon Valley. The
wealth that these companies have is larger
than that of many countries put together. It’s a
new form of global oligarchy.
Technology is creating a dangerous divide
in wider society. Jobs in the most unstable
and fragile countries and in the most precarious sectors of all societies are going to disappear soon. So even though they will be able
to connect to the internet, the marginalized
won’t be able to use it to effect meaningful
change in their lives. They will simply be
connected to devices that control, measure,
monitor, and predict.
angela richter: We don’t have government, we
have Googlement.
sarah harrison: It’s not just that Google is being used by the government or collaborating
with the government. Google has actually
been integrated with the government in a really frightening way.
richter: It’s totally in the open. I think that the
From Ask Zelda, an advice column that ran in
SIDtoday, an internal newsletter for National Security Agency employees. This column appeared in July
2014, a year after Edward Snowden leaked classified
NSA documents, and was provided to Harper’s
Magazine in September in response to a Freedom of
Information Act request.
Dear Zelda,
Nearly a year ago our lives changed because
of one “bad seed” employee who took it upon
himself to share classified information with the
world that he did not comprehend. Now Americans are confused and have been misled. We
all continue to pay a price for his bad doing. I’d
like to know your suggestion on how we can
bring trust back to the American people.
A loyal American
Dear Loyal American,
Every time I think about what happened and
the ignorance of the people who are speaking
out against the agency, my circuits overheat.
Normally a pacifist, I fantasized about creating
a voodoo doll of Mr. Bad Seed.
It has been a doggone nuisance for our workforce. We have had to take time away from our
important missions to research the leak, answer
questions, and implement new measures that
hamper us in doing our jobs. The issue is similar to heightened airport security in response to
a terrorist attempt: everyone is inconvenienced
and has to suffer because of one bad seed.
A media storm is like a hurricane. When the
worst is over, we have to survey the damage and
plan a way forward. When we rebuild, we make
things stronger to survive another storm. I have
every confidence that the NSA of the future
will be stronger and more secure than ever.
Silicon Valley ideology is more dangerous than
the Islamic State, because, at a global level, it’s
so much more powerful.
avila: The Islamic State wants to occupy territory, control resources, and create a state. Their
aim is very concrete and tangible. In the case
of Silicon Valley, their domination is in our
minds. We have experimented with artificial
intelligence but have yet to experiment with
superintelligence, and these guys in Silicon
Valley will have in their hands the power to
control a machine that’s more intelligent than
humans. The people who will control this machine have a very specific ideology and set of
ethics. How will they govern the machine?
Then there’s the DeepMind project. I met
the guy behind DeepMind at a dinner party at
Google HQ in London. We had the inventor
of the web sitting on one side, parliamentarians from the UK government on the other,
some celebrities and musicians, and then
Google executives at the rest of the table.
The DeepMind guy gave the keynote speech.
He was bragging about how efficient his machine was at eliminating targets, and how good
combat robots would be for the world because
they would reduce civilian casualties. A musician who was listening, horrified, said, “Yes,
but this is still a killing machine, right?”
richter: I read today that Google has stopped
using their old motto “Don’t be evil.” Over
the past year I started to interpret the motto
as referring to the public: “Don’t be evil and
you have nothing to fear”—like a directive to
the people.
avila: The problems that we had forty years ago
we still have: racism, unequal distribution of
wealth, corrupt oligarchies. . . . Now we are just
putting a layer of technology on top of that. It’s
not going to fix what’s underneath.
joseph farrell: Can you give any examples of a
potential counterpower to Silicon Valley?
richter: I think what we really need is to develop
new models of utopia. This world is dominated
by Silicon Valley’s ideology. At some point this
brave new world will be revealed in all its emptiness. Silicon Valley’s ideology tells people
that they are superfluous and that machines
will rule the world. Is this a utopia? No! It’s just
a slap in the face of humanity.
harrison: People are too comfortable at present. So many of these developments that we
find troubling, for 90 percent of people it’s not
their problem.
avila: It is good to dismantle the idea that the
technological utopia will benefit all, that the
benefits of the digital age will reach everyone.
We have to make the exclusion visible and understand how our rights are being progressively
eroded. For instance, we need to start educat-
ing children to see that data collection is a
form of expropriation. We need to think about
how we can embed rights in code, about how
we can embark on creating a new legal design.
At the moment what we have is a situation
where those in power—the educators, the
judges, the data protection authorities—don’t
really understand new tech.
harrison: You can see it when parliaments debate new surveillance laws.
farrell: When you look to the next couple of
years, how do you see the future?
harrison: Coming up with answers to the problems faced by twenty-first-century civilization is
not easy, but without answers it’s difficult to get
the public interested in social movements.
There has to be a real promise of a solution for
getting involved in the struggle to be worth
their while. I think that’s something we should
work on within the left: having a concept of
what we would like our society to be like, even
if it’s not a fully developed utopia or a highly
articulated model of a new political system.
avila: And we shouldn’t sacrifice joy. Joy is a very
serious matter. We should have fun while we
fight—that’s something missing from our
harrison: We need to copy the Google concepts
of making what we create the best, the most
fun, and the easiest to use.
avila: No, we shouldn’t just imitate Google. We
can do better because we are a more diverse
crowd. If that bunch of boring dudes in Silicon
Valley created something so successful, a collective effort by brilliant people from all corners of the world can do something more powerful, something better.
From testimony given by the singer Taylor Swift in a
Colorado district court in August. Swift alleges that
David Mueller, a host at KYGO radio in Denver,
groped her when she posed for a photo with him and
his girlfriend during a meet and greet with fans in
2013. Swift’s team informed the station, and Mueller
was subsequently fired. In 2015, he sued Swift for
$3 million. The court decided in favor of Swift. Gabriel McFarland is Mueller’s attorney.
gabriel mcfarland: You contend that Mr.
Mueller inappropriately touched you on
one occasion.
From a memo sent in October by Unicode typographers to the organization’s technical committee,
which oversees the creation and modification of
emoji. The memo concerns emoji that are proposed
for introduction in June.
request for durian character
There are cute durian images on the internet
with the slogan “No hugs,” so I think that durian is a strong candidate to be encoded. Stronger than mango because mango is a very undistinctive shape.
clarify requirement for sliced bagel
This character has always disturbed me. If it
cannot be easily distinguished from a doughnut, why are we encoding it? Cutting in half
does not help because the black-and-white
glyph just looks like two doughnuts.
microbe: request to change name
This character does not make sense. The correct
term is “microorganism,” and that is a catchall for
single-celled organisms (bacteria, archaea, protozoa, unicellular algae, and unicellular fungi). This
is really too broad a field for ordinary use.
blue face with clenched teeth and icicles
This emoticon is ridiculous. Icicles do not typically form on people’s faces, though sometimes ice
may form on facial hair because of condensation.
grinning face with letters “ok” as eyes
What is this for? Why is this useful? We have
1F44C for “okay.” We have 1F44D for “okay.”
We have 1F592 for “okay.” We have 1F197 for
“okay.” Why is this not sufficient?
frowning pile of poo
This character is damaging to the Unicode
Standard. Organic waste isn’t cute. The idea that
our committees would sanction further graphic
characters based on this should embarrass absolutely everyone. I have to wonder what possible
good could come of encoding such a character.
I’m concerned that this character will open
the floodgates for an open-ended set of pile of
poo emoji, such as crying pile of poo, pile of poo
with look of triumph, pile of poo screaming in
fear, etc. Is there really any need to add a range
of emotions to pile of poo?
Institut->uncut peace since projects freshman, a painting by Petra Cortright, whose work was on view in October at Foxy Production, in New York City.
taylor swift: Yes.
mcfarland: I think you said it was more of a grab.
swift: It was a definite grab. A very long grab.
mcfarland: You contend that Mr. Mueller put
his hand underneath your skirt and grabbed
your bare bottom.
swift: Yes. He stayed latched on to my bare ass
cheek as I lurched away from him, visibly uncomfortably.
mcfarland: Can you describe how you moved
away from Mr. Mueller?
swift: The three of us were standing in a row,
like you would pose for a photo. I felt him
grab onto my ass cheek underneath my skirt.
The first couple of milliseconds, I thought it
must be a mistake, and so I moved to the side
very quickly so that his hand would be removed from my ass cheek, and it didn’t let go.
mcfarland: And you were trying to get as far
away from Mr. Mueller as you could?
swift: I got as far away from him as I possibly
could, being that I was intertwined with two
people with my hands on their upper backs.
mcfarland: Mr. Mueller never grabbed your
butt outside of your clothing?
swift: He grabbed my ass underneath my skirt.
mcfarland: So you acknowledge that Mr.
Mueller never grabbed your butt outside of
your clothing.
swift: Rather than grabbing my ass outside
of my clothing, he grabbed my ass underneath
my clothing.
mcfarland: And Mr. Mueller never otherwise
touched your rear outside of your clothing.
swift: He was busy grabbing my ass underneath my skirt, so he didn’t grab it outside of
my skirt.
mcfarland: And other than the incident underneath the skirt, Mr. Mueller didn’t otherwise touch you inappropriately?
swift: Other than grabbing my ass underneath
my skirt against my will and refusing to let go,
he did not otherwise touch me inappropriately.
mcfarland: After Mr. Mueller exited the photo
booth with Ms. Melcher, you continued on
with the meet and greet.
swift: Yes.
mcfarland: You continued on as if nothing
had happened?
swift: As soon as Mr. Mueller and Ms. Melcher
exited the meet-and-greet area, there was another group of fans in the photo booth, and I
would have had to say to them, “Excuse me,
can you please leave while I talk to my team.”
mcfarland: You think the fans would not
have understood that you needed just a couple seconds, so they step out and then they
step back in? You think that would have ruined their experience?
swift: I think that when people are excited
and they’ve been waiting in line for hours
and they’ve shown up early for the concert, I don’t want to make anything awkward or uncomfortable or make them feel
insecure. I want people to have a good
time at my meet and greets and my concerts. I do not want people to stick their
hands up my skirt and grab my ass.
mcfarland: You could have looked at the next
guests and said, “I’m really excited to meet
you guys, I just need two seconds.”
swift: Yes, and your client could have taken a
normal photo with me.
mcfarland: Do you think it’s odd that your
personal, professionally trained bodyguard let
this big guy get close to you, put his hand under your skirt, grab your butt, stay latched on
as you tried to get away, and not do anything?
swift: What Mr. Mueller did was very intentional, and the location was very intentional,
and it happened very quickly. I wasn’t going
to blame Greg Dent for something that Mr.
Mueller did. None of us could have expected
this to happen.
mcfarland: But if Mr. Dent was watching and
paying attention, do you agree that he had to
see you try to get away from him?
swift: I feel like these are questions for him.
mcfarland: So you’re not critical of your bodyguard for allowing Mr. Mueller to grope you
and then waltz out of the photo booth?
swift: No, I’m critical of your client for sticking
his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.
mcfarland: What was your reaction when you
learned that Mr. Mueller had been fired?
swift: I did not have a reaction.
mcfarland: You weren’t surprised that Mr.
Mueller was fired.
swift: I just wanted to never have to see him
again, and yet here we are, years later, and he
and you are suing me, and I’m being blamed
for the unfortunate events of his life that are
a product of his decisions, not mine.
mcfarland: Do you think Mr. Mueller got what
he deserved?
swift: I don’t feel anything about Mr. Mueller.
mcfarland: You don’t care about Mr. Mueller?
swift: I don’t have any feelings about a person
that I don’t know.
mcfarland: Let’s talk about the photo for a minute. You contend that this photograph shows
Mr. Mueller’s hand under your skirt grabbing
your bare butt as you’re trying to get away.
swift: Yes.
mcfarland: Yesterday we heard from your mom
that this dress is stiff like a lampshade, or
something like that.
swift: Yes.
mcfarland: Can you explain to me how, given
the stiffness of this skirt—if Mr. Mueller’s
hand is actually grabbing your bare cheek in
this photograph, why isn’t the front of your
skirt someplace else?
swift: Because my ass is located in the back of
my body.
mcfarland: But the skirt is stiff, so we just talked about when you lift up one side, the whole
skirt comes up like a lampshade.
swift: He didn’t lift up the front. He put his hand
underneath the back of my skirt, latched on to
my ass cheek, and wouldn’t let go.
mcfarland: In this picture, you’re obviously closer to Ms. Melcher than you are to Mr. Mueller.
swift: Yes. She did not have her hand on my ass.
mcfarland: Ms. Swift, have you ever watched
police shows?
swift: Yes. I named my cat after detective Olivia Benson from Law and Order: SVU.
mcfarland: Have you ever wondered why, in
the police shows, when they show a lineup,
they include five or six guys, they don’t put
just one in the lineup?
swift: In order to create an accurate lineup for
this, we would have had to have other men in
the meet and greet who had stuck their hand
up my skirt and grabbed onto my ass cheek,
but there was no one else like this. That was
the only person who did that, in my whole
career, in my whole life.
By Navid Kermani, from Wonder Beyond Belief, a
collection of his commentaries on Christian artwork
that was published this month by Polity. This essay
concerns the sculpture Christ Child (circa 1320),
which is in the collection of the Bode Museum in
Berlin. Kermani is a religious theorist and novelist.
Translated from the German by Tony Crawford.
he boy is ugly. His mouth, for example, that
open mouth; his receding lower and protruding
upper jaw; and the lips more so: the lower lip
short, or, more precisely, not short, but pressed,
extruded into two fat bulges, accompanied by an
upper lip pulled upward like a tent on two strings,
spreading out sideways to shelter the corners of
the mouth. The boy looks stupid with his gaping
lips—really stupid, more than just unbecoming:
dim-witted, a mean kind of dimwit with something awkward and boorish about him at the
same time, something of a spoiled brat thinking
only of himself. It is unpleasant, unsavory no less,
to imagine a kiss from him, no matter how readily
and easily we receive kisses from other children.
There are children like that, five-year-olds who
still scratch blithely in their unwiped bum crease
and hold out their shit to you. This one has lost
some paint precisely on the three fingers that
“Cabrillo Highway at Pescadero Creek Road, Variation 1,” a photograph by John Chiara, whose work was on view in December at Haines
Gallery, in San Francisco. Chiara’s monograph California was published in October by Aperture and Pier 24 Photography.
he holds up in blessing, from the tips of his fingernails past the second knuckle. At first glance he
seems about to stick his bent brown fingers down
your throat.
And how round he is—not fat in the sense of
overweight, but rounded, his nose wider than it is
long, his skin rotund like blown-up balloons. His
cheeks look all the more spherical because the retracted lower lip lifts up his ball-shaped chin. In
total, his face consists of three—no, four—no, five
balls, because his double chin and the tip of his nose
are also globular. The two breasts are likewise
round, like a woman’s, I notice, and the fat encircles
his upper and lower arms, forming more balls. A
cherub, a mother would call him, believing her
child the most beautiful on earth even if he is a
paragon of hideousness to everyone else, especially
an unbeliever or a believer of a different faith, like
me. My Catholic friend, whom I asked to go by the
Bode Museum on his next visit to Berlin, conceded
on the phone that the last thing he would associate
with the boy was beauty, grace, charm.
“Did you see his fingers?”
“I’m standing right in front of him,” my friend
whispered. He had no trouble finding the boy; he
asked the first guard he saw where to find the ugly
Christ Child and was shown the way with a grin.
The motif of Jesus as a child did not appear in
Catholic art until the thirteenth century, my
friend digresses, so the sculpture must be a very
early, immature specimen. St. Francis in particular
loved the Christ Child, he explains, and female
mystics cherished him in contemplation and
rocked him in their arms, feeling themselves one
with the Mother of God.
“That snotface?” I ask.
“Well,” my friend whispers. The sculptor of this
particular piece, he supposes, which is perhaps less
propitious to unio mystica, immortalized the features, and probably the dense curls, of his patron,
or his patron’s child.
“Aha,” I say, just to say something in reply to
his explanation, which doesn’t entirely satisfy me.
The years of Jesus’ childhood, when he was no
longer an infant and not yet a youth, are omitted
from Pope Benedict XVI’s Infancy Narratives.
Photograph courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco
Benedict describes the annunciation of the birth,
the birth itself, the visit of the three wise men, and
the flight into Egypt when Jesus was still a baby.
Benedict then continues the story only when Jesus
is nearing adolescence. There is, however, the
Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Although it was not
included in the canon, Christians gave it consideration as a testimony for many centuries.
I always found the Infancy Gospel to be a very
realistic text precisely because it is disturbing,
because it deviates very unfavorably from the notion we form, believing or unbelieving, of the adult
Jesus. For I never found the Infancy Gospel to be
logically consistent with the beloved infant and
the so fiercely loving later man. Playing on the
bank of a stream, for example, the five-year-old
diverts its rushing waters into little puddles by the
sheer power of his will. A neighbor boy takes a
willow switch and sweeps the water back into the
stream. The two boys quarrel, and up to here it
reads like a normal story: a scene between two
boys that could happen in any kindergarten. But
then Jesus cries out that the neighbor boy should
wither up like a dead tree, never to bear leaves or
roots or fruit again. And immediately the neighbor boy withers up completely, which can only
mean he dies, he dies a wretched death, plunging
his parents into sorrow, as the Infancy Gospel
explicitly says. Jesus, unmoved, goes home.
And the account continues, in exactly that style,
with those character traits: in the village, a boy
running by accidentally bumps Jesus’ shoulder.
What does Jesus do? Kill the boy with a single word.
And when the parents of this and the other boy,
and more and more people, complain to Joseph—
what does Jesus do? Strike them all blind. And
when his knowledge exceeds that of his teacher
Zacchaeus, he makes a laughingstock of the old
man in front of everyone; Zacchaeus despairs and
wants to die on account of this child, who must be
a paragon of hideousness.
Perhaps Benedict XVI, and my Catholic
friend along with him, are too spellbound by the
beauty they seem to find so important in Christianity, and hence in Jesus Christ, to see the
ugliness as well. I understand their persistence;
in a city like Berlin I need only attend a simple
Sunday service to concur with them that beauty
is sorely lacking in Christianity today. Poverty
alone can’t make a god great. But beauty can be
realized only together with its opposite. Jesus
himself said, or is said to have said, in a saying
transmitted by the church father Hippolytus,
“He who seeks me will find me in children from
seven years old.” That would seem to mean that
the Savior is not to be found in the five-year-old
that the Infancy Gospel describes. It means that
even the Son must first become that which, in
the canonical tradition, he is from the beginning. Jesus may have been a snotface, a monster
of a child, one who possessed miraculous powers
yet used them with malice. Malice is an attribute that is ascribed to God, too.
I wonder whether it was not by remembering
with shame the loveless child he had been that
Jesus became filled with love, ultimately an ecstatic, enthusiastic, understanding man who emphasized the good even in a felon, who praised
beauty even in what is ugly. This anecdote is a
favorite of the Sufis, and also the one I love best:
Jesus and his disciples come across a dead, halfdecayed dog, lying with its mouth open. “How
horribly it stinks,” say the disciples, turning aside
in disgust. But Jesus says, “See how splendidly its
teeth shine!” Jesus might have been speaking not
only of the dog but also of the child he used to be.
But the mother—you couldn’t wish it on any
mother to have such a son: announced by angels,
exalted by kings, and then he turns out to be a
spoiled brat brimming with supernatural power.
The Infancy Gospel mentions Mary only at the
very end, when Jesus is more than seven years
old. She must have agonized over him, felt
ashamed of his misdeeds, and yet stood by him,
loving her cherub unconditionally. That is his
mother, the epitome of the mother: no matter
how the child is. That is her son, every son, who
has to learn love from his mother. I wouldn’t
want to cradle this boy in my arms.
By Clarice Lispector, from The Chandelier, a
novel that will be published in March by New Directions. Lispector (1920–77) was the author of more
than a dozen novels and story collections. Translated from the Portuguese by Magdalena Edwards
and Benjamin Moser.
he was looking at herself in the mirror, her
white and delicate face lost in the half-light,
her eyes open, her lips without expression. She
was enjoying herself, liking that sleek, so sinuous
way about her, her shaded hair, her small and
skinny shoulders. How lovely I am, she said. Who
will buy me? Who will buy me?—she’d give a quick
smooch to the mirror—who will buy me: agile,
funny, funny as if I were blond but I’m not
blond. I have lovely, cold, extraordinary brown
hair. But I want someone to buy me so much
that . . . that . . . that . . . I’ll kill myself! she exclaimed and peering at her face frightened by the
phrase, proud of her own ardor, she laughed a
fake guffaw, low and shining. Yes, yes, she’d need
a secret life in order to be able to exist. From one
instant to the next she was once again serious,
tired—her heart was beating in the shadow, slow
and red. A new element, foreign until now, had
penetrated into her body. Now she was learning
that she was good but that her goodness would not
impede her badness. This feeling was almost old; it
had been discovered days ago. And a new desire
was touching her heart: to free herself still more.
By Alli Warren, from Little Hill, a chapbook that
was published this month by the Elephant. Warren’s
previous collection of poetry, I Love It Though, was
published last year by Nightboat Books.
Depicted in this diagram is a baby contemplating
an egg
It does not seem to me to be a human egg
But what do I
What have I ever known
Having never been inside my own body
Mutual exclusivity is an invention
She says confidently
It never occurred to me
Someone had to be the first to say it
I prefer the coextensive
I prefer languid feasts
Feting what is insightful and generous and kind
What’s the line?
“You should praise me”
Who said that?
I praise the sea
To go beyond the limits of her life—it was a phrase
without words that was rolling around her body like
nothing more than a push. To go beyond the limits
of my life, she didn’t know what she was saying,
looking at herself in the mirror in the guest room.
I could kill them all, she was thinking with a smile
and a new freedom, staring childishly at her image.
She was waiting for an instant, watchful. But no:
nothing had been created inside herself with the
feeling provoked, neither joy nor fear. And where
had the idea been born to her?—ever since the
morning she spent in the basement questions were
arising easily; and at every moment she was heading in what direction? Moving ahead learning
things whose beginnings all her life she hadn’t
even felt. Where had the idea been born? From
her body; and if her body was her destiny . . . Or
was she inhaling thoughts from the air and giving
them back as if they were her own, forcing herself
to follow them? . . . There she was in the mirror!
she screamed at herself, brutish and happy. But
what could she and what couldn’t she do? No, she
didn’t want to await some condition in order to
kill, if she had to kill she wished it freely without
any circumstances . . . that would mean going beyond the limits of her life, she didn’t know what
she was thinking. In a sudden exhaustion where
there was a certain voluptuousness and well-being,
she lay down on the guest bed. And like a door
that closes hurriedly and without noise, she quickly fell asleep. And quickly dreamed. She dreamed
that her strength was saying loudly and to the ends
of the earth: I want to go beyond the limits of my
life, without words, only the dark power guiding
itself. A cruel and living impulse pushed her forward and she would have wished to die forever if
dying gave her a single instant of pleasure, such
was the seriousness at which her body had arrived.
She would hand over her own heart to be bitten,
she wanted to go beyond the limits of her own life
as a supreme cruelty.
Then she walked outside the house and went
searching, searching with the most ferocious thing
she had; she was looking for an inspiration, her
nostrils sensitive as those of a thin and frightened
animal, but everything around her was sweetness,
and sweetness was something she already knew, and
now sweetness was the absence of fear and danger.
She’d do something so beyond her limits that she’d
never understand it—but she didn’t have the
strength, ah, she couldn’t go beyond her own powers. She had to close her eyes for an instant and pray
to herself brutally with disdain until in a deep sigh,
ridding herself of the final pain, forgetting at last,
she headed toward the sacrifice of destiny. Because
if I am free, if with a gesture I can make everything
new again—she was heading through the field
beneath a whitish sky—then nothing keeps me
from making that gesture; that was the murky and
restless sensation.
While she was walking she was looking at a
dog and in a gasping effort like that of emerging
from closed waters, like leaving the realm of what
one could do, she was deciding to kill him as she
walked. He was moving his tail, defenseless—she
thought about killing him and the idea was cold
but she was afraid she was tricking herself by
telling herself that the idea was cold in order to
escape it. So she led the dog with gestures to the
bridge over the river and with her foot pushed
him surely to his death in the waters, heard him
whimpering, saw him struggling, dragged by the
current, and saw him die—nothing was left, not
even a hat. She continued serenely.
Serenely she kept searching. She saw a man, a
man, a man. His long trousers were sticking to the
wind, his legs, his thin legs. The man, the man
was mulatto. And his hair, my God, his hair was
going gray. Trembling with disgust she headed
toward him between air and space—and stopped.
He, too, halted, old eyes waiting. Nothing in her
face would make him guess what was simply waiting to happen. She had to speak and didn’t know
how to say it. She said: “Take me.”
The mulatto man’s eyes opened. And before
long, silhouetted against the pure air and the wind,
against the light and dark green of the grass and
the trees, before long he was laughing, understanding. He lifted her, mute, laughing, his hair graying,
laughing, and beyond the prairie was stretching
beneath the wind. He lifted her, mute, laughing,
a smell of kept meat was coming from his mouth,
from his stomach through his mouth, a breath of
blood; from his open shirt long and dirty hairs
were emerging and around them the air was lively,
he lifted her by the arms and the sensation of ridiculousness was hardening her with ferocity—he
was dangling her in the air to prove that she was
light. She pushed him with violence and he mute
laughing mute walked and dragged her and invincible kissed her. Yet he was still laughing when she
stood and serenely, like the end of going beyond
the limits of her life, stepped with calm power on
his wrinkled face and spat on him while he, mute,
looking, wasn’t understanding and the sky was
lengthening in a single blue air.
She awoke immediately and when she opened
her eyes she was almost standing, her face clear
and anxious. Motionless she was feeling her own
body all the way to the end, large, her muscles
meek and happy. She wasn’t feeling numbness but
a possibility of moving herself with balance. What
had happened? quickly she understood, for a second she was confused, she thought she’d really left
the house, hesitated, returned to a vague good
sense. It had been a short dream, enough to let her
leave the limits of her life. Swollen and slow sensations were broadening her body. Surprised as after
an act of sleepwalking, she headed toward the
mirror: What was happening to her?
There was a strange ambiguity in her face
where her weakened eye was always dreaming, a
determination in her lips as if she were obeying
the fatality of a hallucination. She was feeling
that some countless time had passed and she was
remembering the house in whose center she
found herself as something far away. A sweet
power was weighing on her hips, lengthening
the smooth neck to which the big and irregular
cleavage was giving birth. In some way she was
no longer a virgin. She had lived more than she
had dreamed, lived, she would swear to it,
sincerely, though she also knew the
truth and scorned it.
Father was calling her from the parlor with
his voice that was never raised but could be
heard throughout the house. In a difficult reminiscence she noticed that he had already called
her while she was dreaming. She went down a
few steps, stopped in the middle of the staircase:
“Daddy, you called me?”
Esmeralda with her face wet with tears was
hesitating by his side, on her cheek the red outline
of the palm of a hand—Mother was hovering on
the threshold without support staring her old rat’s
dusky, slow gaze.
“Repeat what you . . . what we heard from that
person,” her father said to her.
“Daddy, Daddy.”
“Repeat it.”
“Repeat it!”
“I can’t.”
Father looked at everyone, victorious, old, sullen. In those moments of rage he seemed fatter
and shorter. “Then listen and confirm it: this slut
over here meets a male in the garden.”
Esmeralda sobbed: “But nothing happened this
time, nor ever . . . I already swore!”
“God!” screamed Father with sudden eloquence.
“What’s a poor man done in order to receive evil
spirits in his house for the second time! What has
a poor man done to see his life and that of the
house he made brought low by his own daughter!
Punish me, Lord, but bring down thy punishment
upon my own head!”
Virginia was watching him lucidly, her eyes
mobile and cunning. Her whole body was aching
in anticipation. Her father brusquely calmed down,
turned toward her: “Confirm what you said.”
“She’s the one who told?!” Mother screamed.
“No . . . no!” groaned Virginia, white, looking
at Father. He hesitated for an instant with clouded and hot eyes: “It doesn’t matter who it was,
what matters is that this . . . ”
Quick thoughts were crisscrossing inside her and
before anyone could expect it she let out a piercing
scream and fell. Her father kept her from rolling
down the stairs. Eyes closed, ears tensely on the
lookout for whatever was happening, she felt carried
upward in a slow flight. She was smiling inwardly
without knowing why amid the alert terror. The
effort she was making not to open her eyes and to
stay lifeless was absorbing her so strongly that for
several instants she stopped hearing and being
aware. When she cracked open her eyes she found
herself on the bed in the empty bedroom. A great
silence was enveloping the house, whispering
through every corner as on a Sunday. She stayed for
a few moments almost distracted pulsating sweetly.
In her body the blood was renewing itself. Standing in a light thrust she was at the door, searching
through the air in order to find out where the
people were. Nothing could be felt, the mansion
vast and naked. She felt herself smiling, brought her
fingers to her lips but these were still closed and
narrow and the smile had been only a thought. A
thought without joy but that was making her smile:
her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness. She
had committed a corrupt and vile act. Never
though had she seemed to have acted so freely and
with such freshness of desire. She needed to study
herself in the mirror, yes, yes, she thought with
urgency and hope. She was sensing that the guest
room could be reached without anyone’s seeing her.
She crossed the hallway rapidly, the steps of her bare
feet muffled by the purple carpet, her
heart beating violent and pale.
o there she was. Her face for an instant as if
eternal, her flesh devoutly mortal. There she was,
then, her innocent eyes peering inside her own
degradation. She would never manage to repeat
what she was thinking and what she was feeling was
happening to her evanescently, so immaterial and
fleeting that she couldn’t stop on any thought.
Surprised, intimidated by her own ignorance, she
was dangling for an instant, interrupting the movement of her life and looking at herself in the mirror:
that shape expressing something without laughter
but so inside itself that its meaning could never be
grasped. Looking at herself she wouldn’t be able to
understand, only to agree. She was agreeing with
that deep body in shadows, with her silent smile,
life as if being born from that confusion. Now her
permission for herself was seeming even more ardent as if she were allowing her own future too. And
she was seeing the future . . . yes, in a glance made
of seeing and hearing, in a pure instant the whole
future . . . Though she knew only that she was seeing
and not what she was seeing, just as all she could
say about blue was: I saw blue, and nothing more.
What had existed in her life was an indistinct and
infinite power, infinite and wild. But she could
never have demonstrated the existence of that
power as it would be difficult to prove that she had
the will to go on, that the color of the rose was
pleasing to her, that she was feeling strength, that
she was connected to the stone in the garden.
What had existed in her life, untouched and
never lived, had raised her through the world. But
just after accomplishing some act—having one
day looked one more time at the sky? Having
watched the man who was walking? Or after a
simple instant?—after accomplishing some act
impossible to refrain from, something fatal and
mysterious, her power had ceased.
Previously her most secure movement of life had
been disinterested, she’d notice things she’d never
use, a leaf falling would intercept the path she had
started out on, the wind would undo her thoughts
forever. In her being something had become more
serious and inflexible, a trembling brutality. Or
was she seeing it for the first time? Suddenly the
words from which she lived in childhood seemed
to have run out and she couldn’t find any others.
She was experiencing a worried feeling of regret
for living that moment, for being almost a young
woman and for being the one to whom the instant
was happening—she was seeming to feel that from
a deep untouchable freedom she could garner
strength in order to not allow herself. She was
looking at the silent and pale air of the room, an
instant immobile and without destiny.
How fatal it was to have lived. For the first time
she had aged. For the first time she was aware of a
time behind her and the restless notion of something she could never touch, of something that no
longer belonged to her because it was complete but
that she still clung to because of her incapacity to
create another life and a new time. Her childhood
had been wrinkled by the cold air that hurt inside
her nose with icy ardor; she was seeing herself as if
from far away, small, the dark shape in the fog already gilded by the sun, looking on the ground at
something she could no longer name; now her own
breath was seeming to surround her with a tepid
atmosphere, her eyes were opening in wide color,
her body was straightening into a human creature.
She gave a little shout of joy and promise: ah!
But she was just barely thinking the surface of what
was happening to her in those instants and was
paying attention to herself as if she were placing her
hand atop her beating heart and not being able to
touch it. She waited for an instant. Nothing was
happening then. Silence surrounded her and she
calmed down, looked at the mirror somberly shining. Stubborn, she was staring at her face trying to
define its fleeting magic, the softness of the movement of breathing that was lighting it and slowly
putting it out. The corruption was bathing her in
a sweet light. So there she was. So there she was.
There was no one who could save or lose her. And
that’s how the moments were unfurling and dying
while her quiet face was floating in expectation. So
there she was. Even yesterday the pleasure of laughing had made her laugh. And ahead of her stretched
the entire future.
From the series Street Ballet by Elizabeth Bick, whose work was published in September by ROMAN NVMERALS.
Courtesy the artist
A manifesto
By Fenton Johnson
n the spring of 2017, for the first
time since publishing a memoir set at the height of San Francisco’s AIDS
epidemic, I summoned the nerve to teach a course on memoir—which is to
say, at least as I taught it, a course on the necessity of personal witness, a
course against forgetting. Mostly I avoided the subject of AIDS, not wanting to be the grizzled old veteran croaking war stories to a classroom of undergraduates. But since AIDS memoirs are among the best examples of the
genre, I decided I had to foray into the minefields of those memories. I surprised myself by choosing not one of several poignant memoirs but the edgy
anger of Close to the Knives, by the artist David Wojnarowicz, with its hustler sex and pickup sex and anonymous sex on the decaying piers of Chelsea
and amid the bleak emptiness of the Arizona desert, one eye cocked at the
rearview mirror to watch for the cop who might appear and haul your naked ass to the county jail, sixty miles of rock and creosote bushes distant.*
Wojnarowicz was thirty-seven years old when he died of AIDS in 1992.
My students were fascinated by Wojnarowicz’s raw frankness. One student,
a father of two, wrote that I had not provided enough context for the book,
teaching me that this history-changing event, the brutality and horror of
AIDS, was more foreign to my students than the Vietnam War, no matter that
the disease is still among us, no matter that his ignorance will become his
children’s ignorance, which may lead them to be the next generation of HIVinfected. One student asked, “But how did they organize—I mean, without
social media?” So I showed documentary footage, the filmmaker’s version of
memoir, activists coming together in raucous planning meetings to orchestrate
the dumping of cremated ashes on the White House lawn or the carrying of
In 1990 Wojnarowicz was targeted by Donald Wildmon, the founder of the American
Family Association, who, according to Wojnarowicz’s attorney, “took 14 mostly gay pornographic images from small fragments of Wojnarowicz’s large collages, rephotographed
them stripped of their context and characterized them as Wojnarowicz’s art, financed by
the N.E.A. He then mailed the pamphlet to every member of Congress, more than 3,000
‘Christian leaders’ and more than 2,500 media outlets.” Wojnarowicz won a lawsuit
against Wildmon, the court finding that Wildmon had misrepresented the art. It enjoined
Wildmon from further distributing the pamphlets and ordered him to send a correction to
all 6,000 of the initial recipients.
Fenton Johnson’s most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Going It Alone,” appeared
in the April 2015 issue. He is the author of six books of fiction and non-fiction, including
Everywhere Home: A Life in Essays and Geography of the Heart: A Memoir.
a real dead body in an open coffin to the gates of the National Institutes of
Health. In my students’ curious, discomfited eyes, I understood that I might
have been showing films of creatures from another planet, so foreign was this
notion of working together to achieve change.
And perhaps to them we were creatures from another planet—acting up,
fighting back—so beaten down are they in the face of constant, implied
threats of lifelong unemployment from universities and corporations, so balkanized are they by social media, so overwhelmed are they, in their early
twenties, by the student debt with which we, their elders, have saddled them
so as to leave them no time for introspection or collective action.
How can we read our politicians’ and university presidents’ drumbeat
emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) at the same
time that they defund the arts and humanities as anything but pressure on
faculties to train a docile pool of drones? Deans and professors
promote the humanities as a training in critical thinking, but
critical thinking leads to criticism, the last student activity
university administrations want to encourage. I teach at such
a public institution, the University of Arizona, where arts and
humanities have sustained disproportionate cuts even as its
Board of Regents, in executive session, recently hired a new
president at a salary of just under $1 million annually, plus
perks, while simultaneously raising tuition. Meanwhile, the
university’s Freedom Center, founded with Koch brothers
money, receives a special appropriation from the Republicancontrolled state legislature.
Though I lived in San Francisco at the time, I did not join
the ACT UP activists who blocked the Golden Gate Bridge; I
stayed at my desk. Words, grammar, and syntax were my tools—
small, stainless-steel wedges I would use to split readers’ breastbones so that I might tenderly lift out their beating hearts and
display them to themselves, fully conscious, before restoring
them, with equal tenderness, to their chest cavities and sewing
up the wound. It is not my place to judge my success, but during
those years my self-declared goal was to make a stone weep,
because maybe the weeping of stones would bring about
change, real change—would make us understand that we have
no future in the rape of the world, that we have no future in
dividing and subdividing into nations and clans and fortified
mansions with manicured lawns and access codes, that we have
no future except through love.
Leaving my last class of the semester, I encountered a student
so lost in her texting, so oblivious to the living, breathing, gorgeous, fragile world, that had I not stepped aside she would have
collided with me. For me, veteran of the AIDS era of terror and
anger and heartbreak, her oblivion precipitated the past into
the present. Not even Dante could have devised a punishment
so perfectly suited to the crime: the use of a weapon, to quote Cornel West,
of mass distraction; a device that, by robbing us of our need to remember,
facilitates forgetting.
What we met and worked and marched and wrote and died
for was radical transformation. What we settled for was marriage.
he LGBT assimilationists’ rise to power is easy to trace. The
brave, righteously angry civil rights activists of the 1970s became the
brave, righteously angry AIDS activists of the 1980s and early 1990s, but
we died or lost ourselves to grief, and by the time the white coats figured
out the cocktail, by the time the drugs healed instead of killed, the people they saved were shells of themselves, and all that the survivors had
the energy to do was lie on the warm sands of Fort Lauderdale or by the
pool in Palm Springs and contemplate the mystery of survival. The
Self-portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1983–84, by David Wojnarowicz with Tom Warren © The Estate
of David Wojnarowicz. Courtesy the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P•P•O•W, New York City
cocktail that turned HIV from a death sentence into a manageable illness was perfected in 1996; the assimilationists moved the battle for
state-sanctioned marriage to center stage in national politics during that
year’s presidential election.
In those early years, proponents presented same-sex marriage for what
it was: a right-wing initiative whose goal was to enable the Republican
grandparents of Peoria to feel comfortable inviting their grandchild’s
same-sex lover to holiday dinners. At a forum on same-sex marriage held
in the late Nineties at New York’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, several architects and engineers of the initiative to single out the legalization of marriage as the principal—
indeed, the only—issue of consequence for the LGBT community
argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage was an essentially conservative undertaking. State-sanctioned marriage would tame an impassioned bunch of outlier renegades.
The crowd consisted almost entirely of white men; I saw only two black
men in the audience. Afterward I approached one of the speakers to
suggest that the demographics conveyed a message about the supporters
and primary beneficiaries of same-sex marriage. He dismissed my observation as irrelevant, saying that such audiences always skewed male. But
within the year the spin was changed, as evidenced by my encounter a
couple of years later in San Francisco’s Noe Valley with two young, white,
conventionally attractive lesbians, who brandished a clipboard and asked
whether I was willing to sign a petition to “legalize love.” In two years,
the pitch on same-sex marriage had gone from presenting it as a ticket
to the status quo—the ultimate insiders’ club—to a way to enable otherwise conventional people to feel they were participating in the romance
of revolution.
The assimilationists have won, with state-sanctioned marriage as the
very mortar cementing the bricks of the wall of convention that separates
us from ourselves, from one another, from all that is unfamiliar, strange,
challenging, and thus from learning and growth. The assimilationists have
won, with the neocons building their Wonder Bread philosophies upon
the ashes of queers who laid their lives on the line in the fight for AIDS
visibility and treatment. The assimilationists have won, those men and
women whose highest aspiration was to be like everybody else, whose
greatest act of imagination was picturing matching Barcaloungers in front
of a flatscreen television and matching, custom-designed wedding rings.
The evolution from ACT UP and Zen Hospice to state-sanctioned
marriage is precisely analogous to gentrification—the creative outliers
do the heavy lifting, and when a certain level of safety has been
achieved, the assimilationists move in, raise prices, and force out the
agents of change. But while we recognize and make at least cosmetic
efforts to address the darker aspects of gentrification, we have forgotten or marginalized the in-your-face, in-the-streets activists of the
LGBT left. So long as we, the outliers, insisted that we had something
to offer, that our world, where we formed enduring relationships outside the tax code and the sanction of church and state, where we created and took care of families of lovers and friends and strangers alike—
so long as we insisted that this world was richer, more sustainable,
more loving in so many ways than the insular world of Fortress Marriage, we got nowhere. Only when we exchanged our lofty ideals for
conventionality was our struggle embraced. Only when we sought to
exchange, in the words of the assimilationist attorney William Eskridge, “sexual promiscuity” for “the potentially civilizing effect” of
state-sanctioned marriage were we accepted—as if a community risking their lives to care for their own in the face of church and government condemnation was not the very highest manifestation of civilized
behavior; as if marriage “civilized,” to offer one of countless examples,
Harvey Weinstein.
State sanction of same-sex relationships conveys certain privileges—I
hesitate to call them rights—to a subset of the LGBT community even as
it mimics mainstream discrimination by reinforcing a hierarchy of affection. Once, loving same-sex relationships served as an obvious critique of
any necessary connection between love and marriage. Now the American
Family Association and Lambda Legal are in agreement: serious relationships lead to marriage. Everything else is just playing around.
The legalization of same-sex vows is another step in the monetization of
all human encounter. Under capitalism, love, like everything else that was
once sacred, has become inextricably entangled with Social Security perks
and property transfers and thirty-thousand-dollar weddings accompanied by
prenuptial agreements written in anticipation of divorce. When its advocates
spoke of marriage as a civil right, they were speaking not of love, which
remains mercifully and always indifferent to the law, but of property—its
smooth acquisition and tax-free disposition, the many advantages it affords,
one might say, to the married.
Popular culture has always created and sustained an elaborate myth
yoking love to marriage. Jane Austen, Henry James, and Zora Neale
Hurston, to name three novelists who come effortlessly to mind, were not so gullible. In their novels,
women are and understand themselves to be commodities and marriage the ultimate commodity transaction. Same-sex marriage extends that right, if it is
such, to any couple willing to submit their hearts to
the oversight of the law, though in the absence of the
economic inequality imposed on women I struggle to
understand why anyone undertakes such a course.
André Gide, among the first openly gay writers, offered
one clue—“The laws of mimicry,” he wrote in
I call them the laws of fear. People are afraid to find themselves alone, and so don’t find themselves at all. . . . You can’t
create something without being alone. . . . What seems different in yourself: that’s the one rare thing you possess, the one
thing that gives each of us his worth; and that’s just what we
try to suppress. [Instead] we imitate.
Writing in these pages more than twenty years ago, I
predicted that “the extension . . . to same-gender couples
of the marital status quo will represent a landmark civil
rights victory but a subcultural defeat.” In my view that
is precisely what has transpired. Now the lesbian in Lubbock can marry her partner, yes, but at the risk of losing
her job and the roof over her head, since the backlash
from the marriage victory has delayed indefinitely the passage of federal
employment and housing protections for LGBT people—protections long
supported by a majority of voters.
That there are exceptions to this rule—marriages I know, admire, and
respect, in which spouses work to bridge the wall, engage with the community, invite solitaries into their lives—does not belie the predominance
and glorification of Fortress Marriage as the norm: the married couple
whose friends are all couples, who divide the world into inside and outside,
who practice an intense, couple-centered version of collective narcissism.
Why does this matter? Because our salvation, our literal salvation in the
here and now, in this nation, on this planet, requires our abandoning those
ancient clan divisions in favor of the understanding that we are all one.
As the Buddha abandoned his family to undertake the search that led to
enlightenment, so Jesus, that communitarian proto-feminist celibate bachelor Jew, rejected the ancient clan divisions in favor of a new order—
Matthew 12:47–49:
Photographs by John Paul Evans from his series ’Till Death Do Us Part © The artist
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his
brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man
who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he
said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”
o turn the counterculture question on its head, can someone be
gay without being queer? Someone who, to adapt the words of Roy Cohn
in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, understands himself as a conventional man who fucks around with guys? Who puts what where is in fact
important, not because of the obsessions of the homophobes and misogynists but because in sex the receptive partner is vulnerable, open, at greater risk. These, it turns out, are the essential qualities of love, the essential
qualities of queer. And so what defines queer, finally, is not what one does
in bed but one’s stance toward the ancien régime, the status quo, the way
things have always been done, the dominant mode, capitalism.
Speaking with James Baldwin late in his career, a television interviewer remarked, “When you were starting out as a writer, you were black, impoverished,
homosexual. You must have said to yourself, ‘Gee, how
disadvantaged can I get?’ ” To which Baldwin responded,
“Oh, no, I thought I hit the jackpot! It was so outrageous,
you could not go any further. So you had to find a way to
use it.”
To be born bent, however that manifested itself, was once
to be forced to look within—to explore and express, in
Gide’s words, “what seems different in yourself.” This embrace of the gift of our essential difference was the wellspring
of queer creativity—for evidence, read or look at Walt Whitman, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Carson McCullers,
Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Anzaldúa,
Marsden Hartley, Audre Lorde, Agnes Martin, Baldwin,
Baldwin, Baldwin, to name only a few of the eminently
civilized writers and artists who understood commitment as
well as or better than any people taking marriage vows with
the knowledge of no-fault divorce waiting in the wings.
Their lifelong, selfless practice rooted itself in their fecund,
uneasy difference: their queerness. These queer writers and
artists took unbreakable vows to their art, dedicating their
lives to showing us, their audience, the human condition.
Through their art they showed us that the solitude we so
fear, that we will do anything to escape, even marry—that
solitude is an illusion, a scrim preventing us from seeing how
we are all one, we are all in this boat together.
Today, so long as we live in certain states and work
for certain employers and have certain incomes and submit to received
conventions of dress and gait and accent and beauty, we can assume the
mantle of amnesia that is the prerogative of the powerful and prosperous.
Now to be LGB (T remains beyond the pale) is no longer to be forced to
look outside the norms, since our largely white, entirely prosperous leadership has so enthusiastically embraced the norms. Now we
can forget AIDS. Now we can get married. Now we are become the suits.
ears ago, reporting on that ongoing capitalist tragedy called eastern Kentucky, I interviewed Harry LaViers, a Princeton graduate, as it
turned out, and among the last of the old-time coal barons, complete
with the gold Cadillac and an unmarked office. (He told me that anybody he was interested in talking to knew how to find him.) Capitalism
is the best system devised for getting goods and services into the hands
of people who want them, he said, then added that it was also extremely
cruel. I appreciated his frankness—none of this trickle-down, supply-side
folderol. One might think a truly civilized nation could acknowledge and
ameliorate the cruelty, and yet since the Reagan years our government has
been hell-bent on restoring unfettered capitalism, with its reliance on conquest, extraction, and exploitation, to its late-nineteenth-century shrine.
What can liberate us from this death spiral of consumption we have
created for ourselves? When I think of the vanishing species, the filth
and pollution we thoughtlessly dump onto Earth and our fellow creatures, the rising desperation evident on all sides, and of us, the rich
who have grown fat and sleek by plundering the resources of people in
desperate places, hoarding our wealth, building walls, the whole mess
of pottage for which we have sold our birthright of clean air, clean water, open space, a clear conscience—when I think of all that, I’m
drawn back to the blunt witness of Wojnarowicz:
Each and every gesture carries a reverberation that is meaningful in its diversity . . .
we have to find our own forms of gesture and communication. . . . With
enough gestures we can deafen the satellites and lift the curtains surrounding
the control room.
How is Earth’s situation today different from that of a person with
AIDS in 1985? Capital, backed by a growing and ever more heavily
armed police force trained to shoot, so thoroughly monitors and controls
every expression of resistance that the violent demonstrations of the
1960s come helplessly to mind. Our current political crisis arouses a dark
urge to respond to the rhetorical violence of Donald Trump with the literal violence it encourages. Would the Vietnam War have ended without riots on campuses? Would African Americans have made any progress without the burning of cities? Those events, and not World War II,
challenge my commitment to nonviolence. Wojnarowicz could be describing our age when he writes,
In a country where an actor becomes the only acceptable president . . .
whose vocation is to persuade with words and actions an audience who
wants to believe whatever he tells them—in this context, violence presents
a truth that can’t be distorted like words and images.
And yet if Pussy Riot can risk years in prison for defending the rights
of women and freedom of expression, then my challenge is to rise to the
model of their courage. Baldwin, our great twentieth-century prophet,
tells us, “Love has never been a popular movement. . . . The world is held
together—really it is held together—by the love and passion of a few people.” I take issue with his last point, since every day I encounter
people—a lot of people, uncelebrated, unacknowledged—who are making
gestures to help one another and heal the planet. Our challenge is to
bring their love, reinforced with knowledge, to the forefront: to showcase
it as the true desire of the heart, to act out the biological fact that creation and civilization build themselves as much around cooperation as
around competition; to teach, in the most emphatic way, our young to be
queer, which, as every parent and teacher knows, is through example.
I do not ask that others do as I do, when at a moment’s thought I can
name a dozen, a hundred who live with more integrity. I’m saying that
those of us who have been given choices have a responsibility to
choose the greater challenge, the harder path—the freedom found
through wisdom and restraint. We do a little more than
we think we are capable of doing, in the place and moment where history has put us.
write in peony season—extravagant, sweet-scented peonies, reason
in and of themselves not for optimism but for hope. Thanks to science, we
are the first empire in history to possess the knowledge of what we are doing to ourselves, the causes of our environmental self-destruction—
though, as prophets and artists and writers demonstrate, the visionary
imagination has no need of data to read the writing on the wall.
We are at an all-hands-on-deck moment in which we demonstrate either
that knowledge may lead us to wisdom or that there is no necessary connection. Let us never forget that it was the best and the brightest who engineered the debacle of the Vietnam War. But I take hope in every politician
or economist’s statement that Americans aren’t buying enough; in every
student’s reference to “sustainability” or “mindfulness,” terms that weren’t
in my college vocabulary; in the expansion of the concept and increasing
use of queer, founded in a shared resistance to the dominant model, the
glorification of greed. I have faith in the capacity of truth, if brought to light
and given time, to win its cause; the capacity of love to win its cause.
A lifelong Democrat, I place little hope in conventional politics, so invested are both parties in endless, unsustainable growth, or in conventional
religion, with its primary interest being the perpetuation of its power. Instead
I find hope in love, for one another, for our Earth. Those of us invested in
love can choose, must choose noncooperation. We buy less, we consume less,
we take ourselves off the grid despite efforts to force us to remain on it, we
politely decline the carrot of state-sanctioned marriage, we
dedicate ourselves to friendship as our organizing, bedrock
relationship; we study and talk about how to become, in
fact, a society of friends. Our quiet, simple lives are invisible sabots tossed into the gears of capitalism.
And yet we want to test ourselves—we need to be
tested, even as anyone with a minimal understanding of
religion or philosophy understands the impermanence
of all material things, especially those created by humans. So we seek our testing in the world of
our imaginations; we make commitments;
we take vows.
n regard to marriage, we need more and more
complex plots,” wrote Phyllis Rose in her 1983 book
Parallel Lives, a wise and thought-provoking treatise on
marriage grounded in her investigations into the lives
of five prominent Victorian couples. I enlarge Rose’s astute observation to read, “With regard to society, we
need more and more complex plots.” I seek models for
those plots among the queers—in this specific case, in
the caregiving models the LGBT community established in the darkest years of AIDS, before any conception of treatment, before state-sanctioned marriage. I
seek communities grounded not in marriage but in
friendship, because as partners to every successful marriage know, friendship can survive without marriage, but healthy marriage
cannot long endure without friendship.
In my memoir seminar, I asked my students, several of whom were married,
which they thought more important: marriage or friendship. Thirteen of
fourteen favored friendship, a response I found so incredible that I asked them
to keep their hands up while I counted a second time. In their raised hands I
find hope—I hear the voice of Walt Whitman’s camerados:
As I lay with my head in your lap, Camerado,
The confession I made I resume—what I said to you in the open air I resume:
I know I am restless, and make others so;
I know my words are weapons, full of danger, full of death;
(Indeed I am myself the real soldier;
It is not he, there, with his bayonet, and not the red-striped artilleryman;)
For I confront peace, security, and all the settled laws, to unsettle them;
I am more resolute because all have denied me, than I could ever have been
had all accepted me;
I heed not, and have never heeded, either experience, cautions, majorities, nor
And the threat of what is call’d hell is little or nothing to me;
And the lure of what is call’d heaven is little or nothing to me;
. . . Dear camerado! I confess I have urged you onward with me, and still
urge you, without the least idea what is our destination,
Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.
“ACT UP was an erotic place,” says one participant in the documentary
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012). Another attributes the organization’s success to “that combination of serious politics and joyful living.” I
take hope from knowing that, though ACT UP’s anger and tactics were crucial and can provide today’s activists with templates for action,
it is the hospice movement, cultivated and refined in the AIDS
wards of San Francisco, that has spread.
ome years back, as the author of a book on what it means to have
and keep faith, I was invited to the first and last Gay Spirituality Summit,
held at the Garrison Institute, on the Hudson River Palisades. The long
weekend revealed the rift between those for whom state- and churchsanctioned marriage was a breathtakingly revolutionary goal and the Radical Faeries, who caused an uproar by proposing a “morning masturbation
meditation” to clear the testosterone from the air so that the couple of hundred mostly male participants could attend to our business undistracted.
Why does their cheerful pragmatism strike our Gilded Age ears as
shocking? What timid times we inhabit! Even in 1915, Wallace Stevens, that insurance executive with New England snowmelt coursing
through his veins, could write in “Sunday Morning”:
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
On that particular Sunday morning, an impromptu assemblage brought
the Radical Faeries and the assimilationists together. We gathered on the
bluff facing across the great inland sea of the Hudson to the faux-Gothic
turrets and ramparts of West Point. The Faeries invoked cosmic energy, the
assimilationist rectors and ministers and rabbis and priests prayed to God
or YHWH, but we shared the ideal and hope of projecting loving kindness
and peace and harmony to our sisters and brothers across the river, so many
of whom—had you not noticed?—share our bent destiny and are drawn to
camaraderie, drawn to self-sacrifice, drawn to sisterhood and brotherhood.
Could we not build an Academy of Peace? Could we not increase funding in our public universities for arts and humanities, so as to provide our
unemployed and underemployed the means to conceive, create, and sustain
beauty? Could we not follow models established in other countries, converting our vacant housing and handsome, emptying monasteries and
convents—I live down the road from one—into sustainable communities
for the growing numbers who seek to live alone? Could we not take vows of
friendship—vows of love?
I feel your skepticism through the page, dear, thoughtful reader, and I stand
my ground. Is it not clear that conventional science, conventional economics,
conventional politics, and conventional religion are not going to rescue us
from ourselves? Can we afford to continue to cultivate and inhabit this age of
irony, with our minds separated from our incarnate bodies and the world in
which we live? In place of our age of irony, I imagine an age of reverence, chosen in full embrace of the knowledge of science, even as it grounds itself in the
calm conviction that we live and die in mystery, that all human endeavor
must begin and end in respect, for ourselves, for one another, for our fellow
creatures, for our wounded, beloved Earth. Let us all become queers.
1 9 9 0
By Richard Rodriguez
t was no coincidence that homosexuals migrated to San Francisco in the
Seventies, for the city was famed as a
playful place, more Catholic than Protestant in its eschatological intuition. In
1975 the state of California legalized consensual homosexuality, and
about that same time
Castro Street began to
eclipse Polk Street as
the homosexual address
in San Francisco. Polk
Street was a string of
bars. The Castro was an
entire district. The Castro had Victorian houses and churches, bookstores and restaurants,
gyms, dry cleaners, supermarkets, and an
elected member of the
Board of Supervisors.
The Castro supported
baths and bars, but
there was nothing furtive about them.
On Castro Street the light of day penetrated gay life through clear plateglass
windows. The light of day discovered
a new confidence, a new politics.
Also a new look—a noncosmopolitan,
Burt Reynolds, butch-kid style: beer,
ball games, Levi’s, short hair, muscles.
Gay men who lived elsewhere in
the city, in Pacific Heights or in the
Richmond, often spoke with derision
of “Castro Street clones,” describing
the look, or scorned what they called
the ghettoization of homosexuality. To
an older generation of homosexuals,
the blatancy of sexuality on Castro
Street threatened the discreet compromise they had negotiated with a
tolerant city.
As the Castro district thrived, Folsom Street also began to thrive, as if
in counterdistinction to the utopian
Castro. The Folsom Street area was a
warehouse district of puddled alleys
and deserted streets. Folsom Street offered an assortment of leather bars, an
evening’s regress to the outlaw sexuality of the Fifties, the Forties, the nineteenth century, and so on—an eroticism of the dark, of the Reeperbahn,
or of the guardsman’s barracks.
The Castro district implied that
sexuality was more crucial, that homosexuality was the central fact of
identity. The Castro district, with its
ice-cream parlors and hardware
stores, was the revolutionary place.
t was the glamour of gay life, as much
as it was the feminist call to career,
that encouraged heterosexuals in the
Seventies to excuse themselves from
nature, to swallow the birth control
pill. Who needs children? The gay bar became the paradigm for
the singles bar. The gay
couple became the
paradigm for the selfish
couple—all dressed up
and everywhere to go.
And there was the example of the gay house
in illustrated lifestyle
magazines. At the same
time that suburban
housewives were looking outside the home
for fulfillment, gay men
were reintroducing a
new generation in the
city—heterosexual men
and women—to the
complacencies of the barren house.
Puritanical America dismissed gay
camp followers as yuppies; the term
means to suggest infantility. Yuppies
were obsessive and awkward in their
materialism. Whereas gays arranged
a decorative life against a barren
state, yuppies sought early returns—
lives that were not to be all toil and
spin. Yuppies, trained to careerism
from the cradle, wavered in their
pursuit of the Northern European
ethic—indeed, we might now call it
the pan-Pacific ethic—in favor of the
Mediterranean, the Latin, the CathoQ
lic, the Castro, the Gay.
From “Late Victorians,” which appeared in the October 1990 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay—along with the magazine’s
entire 167-year archive—is available online at
© Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
Volunteer today!
14 metro areas nationwide
Wall Street’s war on the Volcker Rule
By Andrew Cockburn
which had been eligible for inclusion in
the National Register of Historic Places,
enraged national and state regulators,
who were further dismayed by toxic
Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor
of Harper’s Magazine. He coproduced
American Casino, a 2009 documentary
on the Wall Street crash.
spills in protected wetlands and other
environmental depredations. Rover was
temporarily stopped in its tracks in May
2017. Instead of rising, Marcellus gas
prices plummeted—and Goldman lost
its bet.
Such wagers were meant to be a
thing of the past. A decade ago, Wall
Street was a roaring casino and a trader could toss away $9 billion on a single
bet. The financial crisis that followed
in 2008 generated a forest of new regu-
or 173 years, the Stoneman
House stood peacefully in the
Tuscarawas Valley on the outskirts of Leesville, Ohio. The elegant
two-story brick structure was owned and
occupied by just three
families over successive
generations, and when
the last of them died, in
2015, it was bought by
Energy Transfer Partners, a Texas pipeline
company, which promised there would be “no
adverse effects” on the
historic site. The following year, ETP razed
t he hou s e to t he
ground, causing Goldman Sachs to lose
$100 million.
The doomed mansion was located close to
the projected path of
the Rover Pipeline,
which was being built to
carry natural gas from
the Marcellus Shale in
Ohio, Pennsylvania,
and West Virginia to Canada. Once the
$4 billion project was completed, Goldman traders had calculated, the price of
Marcellus gas would rise. They placed
their bet accordingly. Their wager depended on the pipeline proceeding according to schedule. But the brazen
destruction of the beloved mansion,
Illustrations by Nate Kitch
lations, most of them incomprehensible
to the average observer, not to mention
the legislators who voted for them. But
there was one reform that seemed simple to understand. It
was named for the man
who conceived it: Paul
Volcker, the venerated
former chairman of the
Federal Reserve.
In the early days of
the crisis, as the collapsing industry ran to the
federal government for
bailouts, Volcker proposed that commercial
banks should be forever
barred from proprietary
trading (referred to on
Wall Street as prop trading)—meaning speculative bets with their own
capital. Nor should such
institutions be permitted to bankroll hedge
funds or other inherently risky ventures.
His aim, Volcker told
me recently in a phone
call from his office in
Midtown Manhattan, was to change
the “whole psychology” of the banking
system. Is the primary function of
banks to “make loans and serve the
banking needs of their clients,” he
asked, or are they “preoccupied with
going off and making money with proprietary trades, which will often conflict with their customers’ interests?
That’s the issue involved here. They all
talk about how the client comes first.
They’ll say, ‘All our remuneration, all
our everything, is directed toward the
client.’ That can’t be true when you’re
doing proprietary trading.”
Once he touched on the subject of
prop trading, I brought up Goldman
Sachs. “They want to trade everything, for God’s sake!” cried the
sharp-tongued nonagenarian, cutting
me off. “They’ll trade the office rug
that I’m looking at.”
As we spoke, Goldman, its secondquarter trading profits down (in part
because of the losing Marcellus bet),
was leading an industry charge to
make the Volcker Rule go away—not
by getting it repealed in Congress but
by adjusting the rules and regulations
through which it has been enforced.1
They were certainly assured of a sympathetic hearing from the Trump
appointees now ensconced in the
regulatory agencies, notably Keith
Noreika, a corporate lawyer and
frequent advocate for the banking
industry who currently serves as acting comptroller of the currency, the
chief regulator of the banks. Meanwhile, the US Treasury, headed by
the former foreclosure profiteer Steven Mnuchin, announced plans in
June for “improving” the Volcker
Rule, which the department chided for
having “far overshot the mark.” Duly
encouraged, banking groups and their
lobbyists argued that the rule’s complexity imposed unbearable burdens on
bankers and had dried up liquidity,
meaning that banks lacked sufficient
funds to lend to deserving businesses.
I cited some of the lobbyists’ complaints to Volcker. “They’re paid to do
that,” he replied scornfully. “All I
know is that people stop me on the
street. Some of them are bankers,
who say, ‘Thank God for the Volcker
Rule. It has changed the psychology
of the trading operation in the bank.’
I don’t know how many of these people are just being nice to me, but I
Goldman spokesman Michael DuVally informed me that “Goldman Sachs takes all
of its regulatory obligations seriously, including those imposed by the Volcker Rule,”
adding the general observation that “market
makers facilitate trades for clients looking
to buy or sell, thus providing liquidity when
there is an imbalance between clients looking to add to their exposures and clients
looking to reduce or hedge their exposures.”
DuVally avoided addressing why the bank,
rather than a client, took the loss on the
Marcellus gas trade.
don’t get many coming up to me and
saying, ‘It’s a terrible rule.’ ”
he Volcker Rule was born of
political expediency. Despite
his towering prestige as the
man who stamped out the rampant
inflation of the early 1980s, Volcker
and his plan were studiously ignored
by President Obama and his advisers
until early in 2010. At that point, it
dawned on the administration that
the American people were outraged at
the way the banks had crashed the
economy and then been bailed out.
Furthermore, popular anger was taking a dangerous turn, signaled by the
election of Scott Brown, a former Cosmo nude model running on an antiestablishment platform, as a Republican senator in Massachusetts, presaging
the rise of the Tea Party. Two days after Brown’s victory, Obama summoned Volcker to the White House
and announced his support for the
Volcker Rule as a key component of
financial reform.
Sponsoring enactment of the rule
in the Senate were Carl Levin of
Michigan and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, both of them Democrats. Levin,
a veteran lawmaker, had a clear-eyed
understanding of the way the banks
operated. Merkley was a freshman
senator, spurred, as he told me recently, by having “seen firsthand the impact of predatory mortgages” on his
constituents back in Portland. Now
he had the chance to do something
about the system that was generating
those loans: prop trading. There was
no logic, he told me, in having a bank
“that is designed to take deposits and
make loans be placing high-risk bets
in a Wall Street casino.”
By 2010, the crash in the housing market was tearing communities apart across the country, as
millions of people faced foreclosure
and eviction. Yet these hapless bor-
rowers had already generated vast
profits for others. Unbeknownst to
most of them, their mortgages had
been “securitized”—that is, welded together by financial engineers into investment “products,” which were, in
turn, sold to other buyers. It was rarely
possible to track an individual subprime mortgage through the financial
Cuisinart in which Wall Street transformed such loans into profitable instruments. Thus the eventual buyers
had no idea whether the underlying
mortgages were being paid or not.
I was, however, able to follow one
such mortgage: a loan to Denzel
Mitchell, a young African-American
high-school teacher, which passed
through successive hands until Goldman Sachs blended it, along with
3,061 others, into a $629 million bond
called GSAMP 2006 HE–2 (Goldman Sachs Alternative Mortgage
Product Home Equity–2). In those
years before the crash, Goldman
was doing a roaring trade in
GSAMPs, selling them to credulous
institutions, many of them foreign,
that were either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that the underlying loans were almost certain to
default. Such prop trades brought in
a river of cash for Goldman—more
than $25 billion in net revenue in
2006—with commensurate payoffs
for the traders who generated them.
That year alone, Gary Cohn, who
oversaw Goldman’s trading division,
garnered $53 million in total pay. The
following year, he took home $70 million. Today, he is Donald Trump’s
chief economic adviser.
But there was more to it than that.
Back in 2005, at the peak of the subprime boom, Wall Street traders had
dreamed up the ABX index. By tracking a selected sample of mortgagebacked housing bonds, the index
would reflect the mortgage-backed securities market as a whole, and by extension, the American housing market. Launched in January 2006, the
ABX also offered the attractive option of buying and selling index futures. That is, traders could now place
bets on the movement of the entire
housing market.
Goldman was quicker than most to
place negative bets, predicting that the
housing market would tumble as more
and more homeowners defaulted. So, as
Denzel Mitchell struggled to keep a roof
over his family, the bank that owned
his loan was betting that he and others
would fail. That turned out to be a very
good bet, generating nearly $4 billion
in profits in 2007 alone.
Goldman was by no means the only
establishment to use the ABX. Among
the others were a small number of
traders in the London branch of
JPMorgan Chase’s Chief Investment
Office, a division of the
bank charged with investing customers’ deposits.
These particular London
traders oversaw what the
bank management termed
the synthetic credit portfolio, largely composed of
exotic derivatives.
The activities of the
group, which included a
Frenchman named Bruno
Iksil, were kept secret from
the bank’s government
regulator. According to a
subsequent explanation by
Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s
CEO, the purpose of the
SCP was to make “a little
money” when the overall
market was doing well—
and to make a lot more in
the event of a crash.
Such transactions were
cascading through the
global financial system in
those years, powered by
the bank-promoted boom
in subprime loans. Vastly
magnifying the scale of
operations was another
recently invented instrument: the credit default
swap. These enabled traders to take out
insurance, or “protection,” as they preferred to call it (labeling it “insurance”
would subject the deals to insurance
regulations), on bonds they didn’t
own—just like insuring someone else’s
house against fire. There was no limit
on the number of bets riding on a particular bond; a post-crash inquiry found
one that had nine separate CDS bets
against it. Thus, if a $600 million
GSAMP collapsed because its loans
were worthless, those on the wrong side
of the bets stood to lose multiples of that
sum: the single most important reason
why the subprime crash almost dragged
the entire economy down with it.
By 2007, the bets were going bad at
an ever-accelerating rate. In October,
Howie Hubler, a senior trader at Morgan Stanley, managed to lose more
than $9 billion on a credit default swap
bet—the single largest trading loss in
Wall Street history. Huge financial
institutions began to crumble. Bear
Stearns collapsed in March 2008. On
September 15 came the cataclysm of
the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. An
internal Federal Reserve email sent five
days later, and published here for the
first time, tersely conveys the prevailing
mood of official panic as Morgan Stanley, Timothy Geithner, and Goldman
Sachs attempted to circle the wagons:
FYI, MS called TFG late last nite and
indicated they can not open Monday.
MS advised GS of that and GS is now
panicked b/c feel that if MS does not
open then GS is toast.
Washington rushed to shore up the
collapsing financial system. AIG, the
giant insurance company that had
thoughtlessly taken the other side on a
huge proportion of the banks’ CDS
bets, was bailed out with $185 billion of
taxpayer money. By March 2009, the
Treasury and the Federal Reserve had
committed $12.8 trillion—almost as
much as the entire US gross national
product—to save the economy. Fearful
of public outrage over such generosity
to those who had fomented the disaster
in the first place, the Fed and the banks
struggled to keep the
numbers a secret.
Fortunately for the
bankers, they had protection from the top. In
March 2009, President
Obama reportedly assured
a roomful of bank CEOs
that his administration
was “the only thing”
standing between them
“and the pitchforks.” He
would neither allow them
to fail nor send any of
their top administrators
to jail for fraud (although
the banks would subsequently disgorge billions
in civil fines for their
fraudulent behavior).
Despite such welcome
news, the banks did face
the unwelcome prospect
of new rules and regulations likely to impinge
on cherished modes of
operation. They prepared
their defenses. By November 13, 2008, just a
month after being raised
from the dead by the government’s largesse, the
big ge st der ivatives
dealers—including JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Bank of
America—were already investing
$25 million in setting up the CDS
Dealers Consortium, a lobbying group
aimed at preserving their freedom to
trade credit default swaps without
irksome restrictions.
olcker’s rule represented a partial resurrection of the Glass–
Steagall Act, the Depressionera law that had separated commercial
banks from investment banks, effectively banning prop trading. (It was
repealed by a stroke of Bill Clinton’s
pen back in 1999.) As noted, the former Fed chairman’s idea found little
support in an administration predisposed, as Treasury Secretary Geithner
infamously put it, to “foam the runway” for the banks.
The Volcker Rule was even more
anathema to the banks themselves,
which, flush with bailout cash, were
once again generating profitable trades
and executive bonuses. At the end of
2009, Goldman handed employees
nearly $17 billion in pay and bonuses.
In London, the traders in JPMorgan’s
SCP unit generated $1 billion in revenue, thanks largely to a shrewd bet
that General Motors would go bankrupt. Bankers and their representatives
argued vehemently that their prop
trading had absolutely nothing to
do with the crash, despite the trillions in bailout money needed to
keep them afloat.
The Volcker Rule meanwhile
had to undergo a long and tortuous
gestation, beginning with its passage through Congress as part of
the financial reform legislation introduced by Senator Chris Dodd
and Representative Barney Frank. On
hand to observe the progress of the
legislation was Jeff Connaughton, formerly a high-powered lobbyist, who
had recently signed on as chief of staff
to the reform-minded senator Ted
Kaufman, a Democrat from Delaware.
In his instructive memoir The Payoff,
Connaughton describes how the
banking committee functioned:
Staffers gave lobbyists information
about bills being drafted or what one
senator had said to another. . . . The
lobbyists passed the information on
to their clients in the banking or insurance or accounting industry. . . .
Sometimes within an hour, the news
would be emailed to the entire
financial-services industry and all of
its lobbyists. With multiple leakers
from the banking committee keeping
K Street well informed, the banking
world had complete transparency into
bill drafting.
Among t he lobbyists’ prime
sources, according to Connaughton,
was Dodd himself, who spent hours
hashing out the bill with them behind closed doors. (“I remember
when I told Jeff that I’d just spent
forty-five minutes discussing the bill
with Dodd,” one lobbyist told me recently, laughing at the memory.
“Jeff was so upset!”)
As veterans of the committees
they now monitored, many of these
financial lobbyists had inside knowledge. Michael Paese, for example, was
the deputy staff director of the House
Financial Services Committee for
seven years until moving to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets
Association, a trade group, in September 2008. He left with committee
chairman Barney Frank’s blessing, so
Frank told me, after assuring him
that he was joining SIFMA in hopes
of converting the group to the benefits of regulation. When Paese then
joined Goldman Sachs in April 2009
as its chief lobbyist, Frank, furious
that his former aide would now be
working “for the people who were
likely to try to undermine the bill,”
banned him from contacting the
committee for two years.
The lobbyists saw little point in exercising their skills on Carl Levin, a
seasoned politician whose views on
the banks were well known. “They
knew my boss was probably not going
to be taking advice from Goldman
about the Volcker Rule,” Tyler Gellasch, Levin’s staffer on the issue at
the time, told me. “He was busy investigating them for fraud, and they
were smart enough to realize that.”
But the industry emissaries could
always find more pliable senators to
convey the message. Ironically,
Scott Brown, whose election had
prompted the White House to endorse Volcker’s initiative in the first
place, became “a bit of a poster
child” for such horse trading, Gellasch recalled. “He was perceived to
be one of the swing votes. The staffers basically used that as leverage:
‘We’re a swing vote on Dodd–Frank.
You’re going to give as many things
as we can ask for.’ ” Some Senate
staffers joked about setting up an
ATM machine for campaign contributions out in Senator Brown’s lobby. Among other concessions ext r acted by t he Ma s sachu set t s
senator was a loophole in the Volcker Rule allowing banks to own a
small stake in hedge funds after all.
(Coincidentally or not, the securities and investment industry was
Brown’s most generous contributor
during his single Senate term, donating more than $4.6 million,
while his legislative director, Nat
Hoopes, went on to run the Financial Services Forum, another wellendowed lobbying group.)
Thanks to such negotiations, the
rule acquired significant concessions
before Dodd–Frank was passed on
July 21, 2010. Connaughton,
whose boss’s proposal to break up
the big banks had gotten short
shrift from the administration
and Congress, thought little of
the final result. “Dodd and the
Treasury wanted a squishy bill,
and the Republicans were willing
to work with him to weaken it,”
he told me disgustedly. “Dodd–Frank
wasn’t really a law but a series of instructions to regulators to write rules.”
To start with the basics: What did
“proprietary trading” actually mean? If
you kept a supply of, for example,
foreign-currency swaps in stock, just
in case a customer ordered some, were
you engaging in prop trading? Such
issues could keep many lawyers well
remunerated for a long time.
The banks pressed to be allowed to
carry a much bigger inventory of any
given product—which Dennis Kelleher of Better Markets, a financial
watchdog group, described as “just a
disguised form of prop trading.” They
also saw a potential loophole in even
the most straightforward language.
“Normal people in the real world
would understand those things quite
easily,” Kelleher told me. “But when
you get together all the lawyers, lobbyists, traders, and bonus-salivating
bankers, it’s as if those words were being spoken in a foreign language, given the amount of questions and ambiguities that they can see in them.”
The regulators overseeing implementation of the Volcker Rule were
from five separate agencies. These included the Office of the Comptroller
of the Currency (OCC) and the
Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), obscure to the public but potent acronyms in the financial world. Though immediately
touted as a signal achievement by
Obama and the Democrats, the
Volcker Rule would be toothless unless and until these agencies spelled
out what it actually meant.
Unsurprisingly, the banks and
similarly interested parties launched
waves of lawyers and lobbyists at the
agencies to ensure that rules were
crafted to their liking. A painstaking academic study of the public record by Kimberly Krawiec of Duke
University revealed that the agencies were subjected to almost 1,400
meetings with those seeking to influence their deliberations, the vast
majority with representatives of the
financial industry.
Though the rule sprouted increasingly dense thickets of complexities,
the true objects of the lobbyists’ labors were often invisible to the untrained eye. An ambiguous word here,
an obscure footnote there, could be
worth billions down the road.
“What’s interesting,” Gellasch told
me, “is that the complexities were
added as a result of lobbying by the
firms that were going to be affected,
as a way to mitigate the impacts.”
Now, he said, those complexities are
being viewed as regulatory millstones
by those same firms, whose reactions
he summarized as “Oh, my God, this
is so burdensome.”
The tactics were subtle, even ingenious. For example, although the
original act applied only to American institutions, major banks, including JPMorgan and Morgan
Stanley, lobbied the Federal Reserve
to extend the rule to any financial
firm with any kind of stake, even a
single branch, anywhere in the
United States—the rationale being
that American firms would otherwise face a “competitive disadvantage” from their overseas counterparts. They then called on foreign
embassies in Washington to say that
their banks back home, now limited
by the rule to buying only US Treasuries, would con sequently be
barred from buying bonds issued by
their own governments. Predictably,
this generated a torrent of highlevel complaints to the US government from foreign capitals demanding that the rule be changed. (It
was, at least partially.) “The criticism of foreign governments on behalf of their banks is helping US
banks fight the rule,” the Stanford
finance professor Anat Admati told
Bloomberg News at the time. “It
also muddies the water, shifting the
debate away from the main issue,
which is reducing the risks banks
impose on the real economy.”
Was it in the interest of the banks
to make the regulations more complex? “Of course!” Volcker assured me.
“It’s endemic in the United States between the lawyers and bankers.
‘You’ve got a regulation? Let’s find a
way around it.’ Then the regulator
has to respond. ‘All right, we’ll make
a rule against that.’ If that’s the environment, you’re going to get detailed
regulations. It’s maximized in this
case, where you’ve got five different
agencies, all with a proprietary interest in their own authority.”
he Volcker Rule was hardly
the only component of Dodd–
Frank to be undermined by
semi-covert means. Over the past two
years, the law professor and former
regulator Michael Greenberger has
been investigating another such maneuver, and an especially artful one.
This was in connection with an effort
to regulate swaps contracts, including
credit default swaps—“the killer that
caused the meltdown,” in Greenberger’s words—by requiring that the
bulk of them be traded on public exchanges, with deals recorded in a database available to regulators. In the
run-up to the crisis, for example, no
one had understood that AIG was on
the hook for bets it could not possibly
pay. Had such information been public, the witless insurer’s rush to catastrophe might have been stopped.
The CFTC duly published a
“guidance” in July 2013 stating that
any foreign affiliate of an American
bank “guaranteed” by its corporate
parent (generally taken as a matter
of course, since no one would otherwise do business with a subsidiary)
was subject to the new regulations
on swaps trading. The agency’s
chair, Gary Gensler, was a former
Goldman banker whose enthusiasm
for cleaning up Wall Street had attracted the rancor of his erstwhile
peers. AIG, Gensler pointed out,
had “nearly brought down the US
economy” by running its trades
through a British subsidiary. With
his enthusiastic endorsement, the
rule was approved by a majority
vote of the commissioners. There
was just one dissent, from Scott
O’Malia, a former aide to Senator
Mitch McConnell.
Given it s releva nc e to t he
$700 trillion derivatives market,
the rule attracted intense scrutiny
from interested parties, especially
the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, the industry
overseer that issues the standard
contract for swap transactions.
Searching the CFTC guideline’s 84
pages of text and 660 footnotes for
crevices that could be expanded
into loopholes, ISDA found just
what they needed buried, whether
deliberately or not, in footnote 563.
Referring to the “guaranteed affiliate” requirements of the guidance,
the footnote stated:
Requirements should not apply if a
non-U.S. swap dealer or non-U.S. MSP
[the counterparty, or person on the
other side of the trade] relies on a written representation by a non-U.S. counterpart that its obligations under the
swap are not guaranteed with recourse
by a U.S. person.
There it was, cloaked in bureaucratese. All that was required to dodge
the regulation was to state that the
foreign subsidiary was “not guaranteed.” Just one month after the CFTC
issued its edict, ISDA quietly rewrote
its boilerplate swaps contract. According to Greenberger, the organization simply put “amended contract
language into the swaps agreement,
where you checked the box and said
t he s u b sid i a r y w a s now d eguaranteed.” On the basis of a single
sentence in a single footnote, a major
component of the promised reform of
the Wall Street casino was “shredded,” Greenberger said, “in a way no
one understands.” It was not until the
spring of 2014 that anyone at the
CFTC realized that a large fraction of
all swaps trades were now being run
through London or other overseas
trading centers.
In August, around the same time
that ISDA was amending its contract, Commissioner O’Malia, who
had resisted the reform, resigned
from the agency to become the
head of ISDA, with a salary of at
least $1.8 million a year. Meanwhile, very slowly, the CFTC (no
longer led by Gensler) creaked into
action. Eventually, the agency published a proposal for a rule that
would close the loophole. That was
in October 2016, one month before
Donald Trump was elected president. The proposed reform has not
been heard of since.
n April 2012, as regulators and
Wall Street haggled over the
swaps trading regulations, news
broke of a massive prop-trading
scandal. As initially reported by the
Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg,
JPMorgan was facing enormous losses
thanks to a series of trades in the
synthetic credit portfolio. The group
had earlier done well dealing in
ABX futures and other derivatives.
It had won recent favor at headquarters because of a correct bet the previous year that American Airlines
would go bankrupt, netting a
$400 million profit. The parent corporation had also funneled much of
a recent $100 billion inflow, entrusted by crash-panicked depositors to
the “safe” JPMorgan, to SCP for further investment.
But in the early months of 2012,
SCP trader Bruno Iksil’s CDS bets
cratered. So huge were his losses that
traders at other firms dubbed him
the London Whale. It appeared to
be a clear case of an irresponsible
trader gambling away enormous
sums—the projected loss ultimately
amounted to $6.2 billion of taxpayerinsured deposits—and exactly the
kind of action the Volcker Rule was
designed to prevent.
Dimon did not help matters by telling analysts that a multibillion-dollar
loss was a “tempest in a teacup.” In
any event, the bank claimed, this was
by no means a case of speculative
prop trading, which would be forbidden by the Volcker Rule; it was simply
a hedge, offsetting an investment risk
with an equivalent bet on the other
side. However, when pressed, bank
executives appeared at a loss to explain what they were hedging against.
To appease the critics, Iksil and
his colleagues in London were offered up in sacrifice, fired on the
grounds that they had fraudulently
concealed losses. US and British authorities prepared criminal indictments against some of them on the
same grounds. (The charges were
eventually dropped.)
Sensing that there was a lot
more to the story, Carl Levin asked
the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to conduct
a proper probe. Equipped with subpoena power to elicit the bank’s cooperation, the investigators grilled
executives and pored over thousands of documents. Their eventual
report was damning. It flatly asserted
that the bank’s Chief Investment
Office had
used bank deposits, including some that
were federally insured, to construct a
$157 billion portfolio of synthetic credit
derivatives, engaged in high risk, complex, short term trading strategies, and
disclosed the extent and high risk nature of the portfolio to its regulators
only after it attracted media attention.
Despite this, noted the report,
the bank’s management had insisted they were obeying the regulations. The entire debacle, in Michael Greenberger’s words, was the
“number one story showing the
danger of naked credit default
swaps” and the vital necessity of
the Volcker Rule.
hough generally perceived as
a case of a rogue trader risking gigantic sums of customers’ money, the JPMorgan meltdown
of 2012 was no such thing. Senate
investigators concluded that the entire strategy had been directed from
a high level, and that the traders,
though ejected from their jobs and
facing jail time, were not to blame.
As a former Senate investigator, who
asked not to be identified, confirmed
to me recently, “Evidence shows the
London traders advised selling the
derivatives at a loss, but were overruled and directed to keep trading.” 2
The investigators arrived at this
conclusion without having actually
talked to the traders, who had stayed
in Europe, well out of reach of US authorities. Iksil, the so-called Whale
(he hates the title), remained secluded
in his house in the French countryside about sixty miles from Paris—he
declines to say exactly where. He seldom talks to the press. Recently, however, Iksil discussed his story with me
over a long phone call, during which
he politely corrected, in excellent English and despite a heavy cold, my layman’s misapprehensions about the
technicalities of the credit markets.
Unsurprisingly, he agreed with the
Senate investigators’ conclusion that
he and his colleagues were not to
blame for the fiasco. “All the decisions,” he told me, “were made miles
away and far above my head.” In his
view, the bank was circulating “complete crap about my role.”
He had, he said, been pondering
the events over the past five years. He
concluded that the whole mess could
be traced to the fact that the bank’s
Chief Investment Office was required
to keep its funds in readily available
liquid investments. Instead, the CIO
parked its investments in highly illiquid swaps. In 2010, according to Iksil,
Dimon and other senior executives
had discussed this problem with the
OCC regulator, at a time when public
anger that not a single bank executive
had been charged in connection with
the crisis was cresting. As Iksil put it
to me, “People were saying, ‘No prop
trading. No illiquid stuff.’ ”
It would certainly have been possible, Iksil told me, to set aside a reserve
against potential losses on these CDS
investments, the latter amounting to
$40 or $50 billion. But that would
have wiped out two years’ worth of
earnings. Instead, the bank simply
plunged deeper into esoteric credit
trades in the expectation that such
hedges would lessen the risks associated with the portfolio. However, the
Asked to comment, JPMorgan referred
me to its in-house report on the affair,
which states that the “direct and principal
responsibility for the losses lies with the
traders who designed and implemented the
flawed strategy.”
market moved stubbornly against
JPMorgan’s bets, bringing huge projected losses and a PR disaster when
the story broke in the press. Under
cover of the furor, Dimon, who Iksil
insisted must have personally overseen the entire strategy, was able to
get rid of the remaining embarrassingly illiquid assets on the CIO balance sheet by folding them into the
company’s investment bank.
Given the outpouring of falsehoods
from the banking lobby concerning
the Volcker Rule, Iksil’s story seemed
plausible enough. SIFMA, for example, had stated that the rule was a “solution in search of a problem,” since
prop trading had had nothing to do
with the crisis. I quoted this to Volcker. “Didn’t AIG have something to do
with the crash?” he responded mildly.
“They did a little proprietary trading,
as I recall.” (He could have added
that the banks were on the other side
of AIG’s fatal prop trades.)
No matter. Tim Keehan, a senior
official at the American Bankers Association, unblushingly lamented to
me that the Volcker Rule had
brought about a “reduction in the
level of service that customers were
formerly used to receiving.” He insisted that the Volcker Rule “has
substantially impacted venture capital fund-raising.” He went on to echo
a common industry concern and decry the bewildering complexity of
the Volcker regulations, ignoring or
forgetting that many of the ambiguities had been inserted at the behest
of his colleagues. Finally, he bemoaned the lack of liquidity unleashed by Volcker’s rule.3
Dennis Kelleher had no patience
with such lines of argument when I
spoke to him. After pointing to a recent SEC study confirming that there
was no lack of necessary market liquidity, he continued heatedly: “There
was certainly massive liquidity before
To buttress his argument that the Volcker
Rule has reduced liquidity, Keehan pointed
to an academic paper issued under the auspices of the Fed’s Finance and Economics
Discussion Series, “The Volcker Rule and
Market-Making in Times of Stress.” The
paper has been much touted by the antiVolcker community. Yet the evidence cited by the authors appears to be confined
to a narrow subset of the corporate junkbond market, and not representative of
the bond market as a whole.
2008—of worthless securities that
crashed the global financial system
and almost caused the second Great
Depression. It is true that the trading
today is way below that, because we’re
no longer allowing them to trade in
worthless securities. That’s true!”
Among those protesting the
Trump Administration’s obvious eagerness to oblige Wall Street has
been Senator Merkley of Oregon. Yet
when I asked him whether he
thought the industry offensive would
succeed, his reply was despondent.
“I’m afraid it will,” he said.
Acting comptroller Noreika has
promised to issue suggested amendments to the Volcker Rule by the
spring, but there are grounds for suspecting that it is already becoming a
dead letter. Bank analyst Chris
Whalen, formerly of the Federal Reserve, told me that a resurgence in
credit trading by the banks indicates
to him that they’re already “cheating
more on Volcker.” He also asked why
Goldman was placing bets on the
Marcellus Shale with its own funds
to begin with, given the restrictions
laid down by the rule. “That’s a good
question,” he said. “But you can be
pretty sure that no regulator is going
to ask it as long as the administration is filled with Goldman Sachs executives and Gary Cohn works at
the White House.”
Writing Poetry
Edited by
Albrecht Koschorke and
Konstantin Kaminskij
Why do tyrants of all people often
have a poetic vein?
Where do terror and fiction meet?
The cultural history of totalitarian
regimes is unwrapped in these
case studies, studying the artistic
ambitions of Nero, Mussolini, Stalin,
Hitler, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung,
Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein,
Saparmyrat Nyyazow, and
Radovan Karadžić.
January Index Sources
1 Consumer Research Around Cannabis
(Orlando, Fla.); 2 Kantar Media (NYC); 3
National Institutes of Health (Bethesda,
Md.); 4,5 Shuai Xu, Northwestern University
(Evanston, Ill.); 6 Darren Mays, Georgetown
University (Washington); 7 Tarek Debs,
Hôpital l’Archet 2 (Nice, France); 8 Jean¸
Amadieu, Université Paris 1
Panthéon Sorbonne; 9 Dini von Mueffling
Communications (NYC); 10 Goldman Sachs
(NYC); 11,12 Lincoln Quillian, Northwestern
University; 13,14 Harvard T. H. Chan School
of Public Health (Boston); 15,16 Cato Institute
(Washington); 17,18 Harvard T. H. Chan
School of Public Health; 19,20 University of
Florida (Gainesville); 21 Medscape (NYC);
22,23 YouGov (Redwood City, Calif.); 24
Pew Research Center (Washington); 25,26
Cato Institute; 27 Gallup (Atlanta); 28
Harper’s research; 29 Texas Department of
Criminal Justice (Huntsville); 30 National
Lawyers Guild (NYC); 31 Sentencing Project
(Washington); 32–34 New York Public
Library; 35,36 Office of the Mayor of New
York City; 37 Service de Police de la Ville
de Montréal; 38,39 US Central Intelligence
Agency/Harper’s research.
“This book of brilliant authors
explores the everlasting relationship between politics and poetry
through the life of these modern
day 'shamans' of the world.”
Hamid Ismailov, author of The
Railway, The Dead Lake, and
The Devils' Dance
“It is a sobering and enlightening
book that needs to be read to better
understand these monsters.”
Daniel Chirot, author of Modern
Tyrants. The Power and Prevalence
of Evil in Our Age
George Plimpton
Mark Twain
Bernard DeVoto
Pat Jordan
Tom Wolfe
Lewis H. Lapham
Rich Cohen
Shirley Jackson
& Others
T-shirts • Books • Tote Bags
Order online at or call (212) 420-5754
What’s at stake when you marry for love?
By Mansi Choksi
n the night of November 27, 2016,
Dawinder Singh
dropped a bottle of sleeping
pills outside his neighbor’s
door. He had a soft, cheerful
face, a head of woolly curls,
and a tendency to laugh at
the wrong times. Everyone
in Kakheri, his village in the
northern Indian state of
Haryana, believed him to be
gone, perhaps abroad. But
here he was, a handkerchief
tied over his mouth as if he
were a bandit, fleeing to the
bus stop.
Inside the house, Neetu
Rani, the birdlike beauty
he’d grown up adoring, was
waiting for her parents to
finish their soap opera.
Neetu was trim and stylish,
and talked about Bollywood actors as though they were her
next of kin. When her mother and
father went to bed, she went outside
to retrieve the pills.
Two nights later, Dawinder returned
in a car with a couple of his cousins,
whom he’d recruited by making them
watch romantic movies. When they
reached Kakheri, they parked on an
empty road and waited. At one in the
morning, his phone rang. It was Neetu,
scolding him in whispers: “What kind
Mansi Choksi lives in Mumbai, India, and
Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
of sleeping pills are these?” Her parents
had finished bowls of laced beans and
rice but were still shuffling around the
house. Dawinder asked her to be patient.
After an hour, she called again, reporting that she had shaken her mother,
pretending to be scared of the dark, and
there had been no response. Dawinder
got out of the car and hurried to her
house. She had told him not to come
barefoot, but knowing that he would
anyway, earlier in the day she had
cleared the yard of branches and razorrimmed leaves from the babul tree.
A photograph of Sanjoy Sachdev, the chairman of the Love Commandos. Photographs from
New Delhi by Max Pinckers, from his series Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me
Thirsty © Max Pinckers
Dawinder helped her haul
her four suitcases over a low
wall, and after the last one,
she hoisted herself to the
other side. Then they ran:
through the narrow lane
where they first saw each
other, past the cowshed
where she used to hide to
take his calls, past their
school and her father’s firewood shop. Finally, they
reached the car.
There was a thick blanket
of fog in the air when the
cousin behind the wheel
began driving. In the back
seat, Dawinder slipped a
set of twenty-one bangles
around Neetu’s wrists: reds
and golds stacked between
whites and silvers. This
was her choora, the marker
of a new bride. If she wore
it for a year, Dawinder would be guaranteed a long life. He tied a mangalsutra,
a thread of small black beads, around her
neck, and painted the part in her hair
with vermilion. Neetu was now his wife,
he announced. She thought that their
love story was just like in the movies,
only without nice costumes.
As the car sped onto the highway,
Neetu began to grasp her new reality.
Outside the window, rice fields flew past.
She felt herself floating through space.
Suddenly her stomach churned, and she
realized that she needed to vomit. The
car screeched to a halt; she climbed out
to throw up. A few miles ahead, she
needed to stop again. And again.
Three hours and five episodes of
retching later, the cousins dropped the
couple at a bus stop in the town of
Rajpura, about seventy miles from
home. When the bus came, they found
seats by the window. Neetu rested her
head on Dawinder’s shoulder and described the agony of waiting for her
parents to drift off to sleep. “Who
knows when they will be able to eat or
rest again,” she said.
The sun was rising when the bus
rolled through a traffic jam outside
New Delhi. Dawinder saw a big, heaving city whose crowds could swallow
them up and provide the anonymity
they needed to survive. Neetu’s eyes
watered from the pollution. Dawinder called his aunt Kulwant, who he
suspected would be the only one
able to receive the news of his marriage without collapsing. She asked
to speak to Neetu. “Don’t betray him
now,” Kulwant said. Neetu promised
that she would not.
They hailed a rickshaw, which
bobbed in and out of potholes and
squirmed through waves of pedestrians. Neetu saw a storefront that displayed red, blue, and yellow bras; in
her village, she’d been able to buy
them only in white. They rode past
cheap hotels that offered rooms by the
hour, places where married men took
their mistresses. Dawinder clutched
her hand and told her to trust him.
The rickshaw stopped outside a
rusted gate. They looked up at a crumbling building covered in lime plaster,
scaffolding, and saris hung to dry.
Outside, men were smoking and staring. Dawinder had seen videos of this
place, but in person it looked nothing
like he had expected. It was too late
to turn back now—they had saved up
ten thousand rupees ($150) to reserve
a space. He took out his cell phone.
“Hello, Love Commandos,” the
voice on the line said.
“We have come,” Dawinder said.
“We have been waiting for you.”
n Kakheri, the news of Neetu and
Dawinder’s disappearance broke
with the sunrise. Neetu’s father—
Gulzar Singh, known as Kala—
walked around the village, crazed.
With his wrestler’s physique and
pencil-thin mustache, Kala looked
like the villain from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic in which
each character is meant to embody a
trait that is supremely good or evil.
Sudesh Rani, Neetu’s mother, sat
in her kitchen, sobbing. Friends gathered to commiserate: a runaway
daughter was as good as dead. Women
in rural Haryana are required to cover their heads and fade into the
background in the presence of men;
young girls are expected to stay
home until they are transferred to a
husband through an arranged marriage. Neetu had disgraced her family
not only by eloping but by doing so
with the short, slow-witted son of a
neighbor. According to custom, men
and women of the same village are
considered to be siblings—the rule
serves to maintain a separation of
the sexes—which put Neetu and
Dawinder’s relationship under the
umbrella of incest. Worse, Dawinder
was a Sikh, from the Mehra caste of
palanquin bearers and boatsmen. His
father, Gurmej Singh, was a truck
driver turned farmer. Neetu was a
Hindu of the Panchal caste, a rank
of goldsmiths, stonemasons, and carpenters. Kala, a landlord with a firewood shop, was an important man in
the community.
Across the Indian countryside, romantic relationships can easily become ensnared by taboos. Sometimes,
the consequences are fatal. In 2007,
the bodies of Manoj and Babli, lovers
from the same village and the same
gohtra—believed to be descendants of
a common ancestor—were found in
gunnysacks dumped in a canal not far
from Kakheri. Babli’s family, which was
wealthier, had forced her to drink pesticide; they strangled Manoj to death.
With support from leaders in their
village, Babli’s parents saw the murders
as the only punishment commensurate
with their humiliation. This is a common view: according to the latest count
released to the public, 251 honor killings occurred in India in 2015.
Neetu and Dawinder’s match should
have been unthinkable. When they
met, in 2005, her family had just
moved up the street. She was nine, he
was twelve. After school, Dawinder
would play video games with Neetu’s
brother, Deepak, and Neetu would
play house with Dawinder’s sister, Jasbir. They all got along well for a few
years, until one afternoon, when
Deepak grabbed Dawinder’s neck during an argument. Kala, who was
known to have a short fuse, broke
them up and slapped Dawinder, who
can still recall the sharp pain of the
blow. The families stopped speaking. Besides, the children were entering their teens, and it was not
proper for girls and boys their age
to spend time together.
A year later, Dawinder noticed
Neetu looking at him on the walk
home from school. When he got to
his house, he made himself a cup of
tea and climbed onto a stool in his
parents’ room, curious whether he
could see her from the window. She
was out on her terrace, still watching
him from a distance. Feeling bold, he
raised his glass to her. She responded
by bursting into laughter.
Dawinder was sure that this girl was
trying to get him into trouble. But
every day after that, Neetu would dawdle on the way home so that the two
of them could talk. If no one else was
around, they would run into a shed on
their block so they could be close. On
Karva Chauth, the Hindu festival in
which married women fast until sundown for the safety of their husbands,
Neetu refrained from eating to show
Dawinder that she’d taken him as hers.
Within a year, the relationship was
discovered. One night after dinner,
assuming that her parents were asleep,
Neetu sneaked into Dawinder’s house.
The two had hardly a moment together before Sudesh thundered in and
dragged her out. She warned Dawinder
that if he wanted to live, he should leave
Kakheri immediately. Neetu wept all
night, begging her mother to believe
that she would never see him again.
Sudesh cried, too, stopping only to pummel Neetu’s back or pull her hair. Days
later, Neetu’s parents carted her off to
stay with relatives out of town, and the
following spring, they sent her to
boarding school.
Dawinder was dispatched to England.
His parents sold off their largest piece of
ancestral land to pay for his enrollment
at a university in London. Upon arriving, however, he found out that
they had been scammed; the university had been offering sham degrees
and was soon shut down by the government. He eventually got a job as
a stock boy at a supermarket run by
a Sikh family and was able to send a
portion of his salary home every
month. But after a year, he was arrested for selling liquor without a license
and deported for overstaying his visa. It
was too dangerous for him to return to
Kakheri, so he went to live with his aunt
Kulwant, in another village, and worked
at her son’s cell phone shop.
Dawinder and Neetu, who had
gone on to college, managed to stay
in touch. She begged her classmates
to let her receive his calls on their cell
phones, which they kept hidden behind toilet tanks. The two would discuss mundane subjects—who ate what
for lunch, gossip about her brother’s
failed love affairs—and assess the
profound obstacles facing their relationship. Finally, one evening in 2016,
Dawinder told Neetu that this had
gone on long enough: they needed to
get married. She was twenty and he
was twenty-three.
The night that Neetu and Dawinder eloped, his parents were in Ladwa, a town some fifty miles from
home, bringing a relative to the hospital. Shortly after their son’s departure was discovered, Gurmej—a
short, soft-spoken, fragile man—
received a call from a cousin asking
Pinky and Satchin (left) and Bhaskar and Pooja (right), recently
married couples at the Love Commandos shelter
to meet him outside the hospital. He
found ten men waiting there, wielding bamboo sticks. Kala was sitting
on the hood of his car, swaying his
head from side to side like a madman, threatening to kill everyone in
sight. The men threw Gurmej in the
car and drove off.
They brought him to the police
station near Kakheri and demanded
that the officer on duty compel
Gurmej to reveal where the children were hiding. The officer sat
them all down, served a round of
tea, and explained that he had already been informed about the couple by the Love Commandos, a shelter for people who wanted to marry
against the wishes of their families.
Neetu and Dawin der were legally
adults, who had taken each other as
husband and wife. The matter was
out of his hands.
hen Neetu and Dawinder
arrived at the Love Commandos shelter, a dog
named Romeo sniffed them for guns
and explosives. A young man led
them past a double gate and into a
three-bedroom apartment. There was
a minifridge and a wall shrine of assorted Hindu deities. He brought
them to one of the bedrooms, which
was cluttered with newspapers, ashtrays, and biscuits. An older man,
dressed in a tracksuit, was sitting in a
plastic lawn chair in front of a computer. This was Sanjoy Sachdev, the
organization’s chairman. He looked
unwashed and reeked of cigarettes,
but everything he uttered sounded to
Neetu and Dawinder like poetry. He
told them that even the Hindu deities
Shiva and Parvati had married
against caste tradition. Neetu and
Dawinder felt a rush of confidence.
The Love Commandos operated like
a family, Sachdev said, so couples were
to call him Baba, or grandfather. (He
was a youthful fifty-six.) There were
three other commandos, who lived in
the building next door and were to be
addressed as Papa. Each of them had his
particular responsibility: Harsh Malhotra, a former interior decorator and
local politician, coordinated rescue operations for couples in distress. Sonu
Rangi, a former volunteer for the
Hindu-nationalist Shiv Sena party, organized weddings. Govinda Chand, a
college student, paid bills and assisted
with other work. Sachdev oversaw the
registration of marriages.
Before starting the Love Commandos, Sachdev had tried to open a poultry farm, a sweetened-milk company,
and a factory for car parts; all those
businesses tanked. He worked briefly
as a consultant to Indian Railways,
entered and lost a local election, and
finally became a journalist. But he
sensed that he was meant for a larger
purpose. One Valentine’s Day, a colleague in the newsroom told him about
the Hindu-nationalist groups that
roamed parks and college campuses to
protest the Western corruption of Indian values. They beat up couples, cut
their hair, sprayed them with chili
powder, and pronounced them brother
and sister. Hearing of the victims suffering for their love, Sachdev thought,
“Who were these people to poke their
dirty nose in between?”
In 2010, when a court verdict on the
Manoj-Babli honor killing was making
national headlines, he got the idea to
create the Love Commandos. He
didn’t like the term “runaways,” so he
referred to his clients as “people leaving parental homes for the unification
of the love family.” He wanted them
A woman’s choora, the bracelets signifying that she is a new bride
to relish their freedom. “This country
is sitting on a volcano,” he said. “This
is a country of six hundred and fifty
million young people. Each young
person has a heart that is burning with
a flame called love.”
As it turned out, Sachdev had never
been in love himself—it was only his
work. “I didn’t have time to fall in
love,” he said, “because I was busy
solving other people’s problems.”
When he was twenty-eight, he had an
arranged marriage. His wife, whom he
described as a dutiful woman, now
lived in his hometown, thirty miles
from New Delhi, and took care of his
father. Sometimes Sachdev would go
to see her, but months might pass between visits; planning trips depended
on his mood. They had four children,
who were grown, and had given
him what he described as “an eternal feeling of love.”
Sachdev served Neetu and
Dawinder cups of tea and told them
the rules of the shelter: no sex, no
afternoon naps, and no contact
with the outside world. Couples
were required to surrender their cell
phones so that their location could
not be traced. They were also expected
to pay for their wedding ceremonies.
Neetu and Dawinder were so grateful
that, without being asked, they handed over Dawinder’s ATM card and told
Sachdev the PIN.
Sachdev thanked them and brought
them to their room. It had no windows, and the walls were chipping
with pistachio-green paint. On the
floor were three tattered mattresses—
they would sleep beside the two other
couples lodging there. Neetu was surprised; she had assumed that the
young man who had escorted them in,
and others she’d seen in the kitchen,
were domestic help.
Sachdev told them that they had ten
minutes to freshen up. Neetu changed
into a shalwar kameez, Dawinder threw
on a clean shirt. Rangi took them to a
nearby building, where, above shops
selling spare motorcycle parts and batteries, they stepped into an apartment
that had been converted into an Arya
Samaj temple. (Arya Samaj, a
nineteenth-century movement that supports caste system reform, facilitates intercaste marriage.) As a priest chanted
Vedic scriptures, Neetu and Dawinder
exchanged garlands and circled a holy
fire. A photograph was taken as evidence, and two witnesses, acquaintances of Rangi’s, signed a religious
marriage certificate. The last step was
to submit the certificate to the government marriage registrar to make their
wedding legally binding. Sachdev
would take care of that.
nder the authority of the state,
love marriages are permitted in
India; according to tradition,
they are forbidden. In villages across the
north, khap panchayats, councils of unelected wealthy elders, resolve local
disputes, issue diktats about daily life,
and enforce the caste system above the
rule of law. Each caste has its own khap
to represent its interests.
Following the Manoj-Babli honor
killing, a khap leader was convicted of
murder. But that ruling was soon overturned, and khaps have continued to
facilitate acts of violence, thanks in
part to the complicity of politicians
who rely on them for votes. “If you say,
‘I’m a Brahman,’ then even the poorest
of Brahmans will vote for you,” Ranjana Kumari, the director of the Centre for Social Research, a gender
equality group in New Delhi, told
me. While India is still debating how
much sway khaps should hold in modern society, khap leaders appear on television threatening anyone who crosses
them. If nontraditional marriages are
socially sanctioned, they argue, the
fabric of Indian culture will unravel.
In 2010, women’s rights activists
began lobbying for a law to criminalize honor killings, seeking to
penalize the full gamut of associated
offenses—harassment, intimidation, economic sanctions, social
boycotts—that can endanger couples, their families, and anyone harboring them. In their approach, the
activists sought to emulate India’s
laws against dowry and child mar-
riage, which identify the tradition at
the root of the crime.
On their advisement, Kirti Singh, a
Supreme Court lawyer in New Delhi,
drafted the Prevention of Crimes in
the Name of Honor and Tradition, a
bill that would hold accountable families
that act alone, or with khaps, to punish
people who enter love marriages. She
also sought to end collusion between
vengeful families and the police. “The
police don’t act for the couple,” Singh
told me. “Instead, they act for the girl’s
family. Because they themselves come,
I suppose, from a society and a way of
thinking that believes there shouldn’t
be choice marriages, particularly in
cases where it’s an intercaste marriage.” The bill stipulated that if a
couple tells a public servant that they
want to be together, the police cannot process a family’s complaint
against them. That would counter
a common tactic in which families
file false cases of kidnapping and
rape against the groom.
Singh delivered her draft legislation to the Law Commission of
India, an executive body tasked
with legal reform. Two years later,
however, the commission released its
own version of the bill, Prevention of
Interference with the Freedom of
Matrimonial Alliance. The revision
maintained that khap intervention in
marriage should be criminalized, but
it did not account for the roles of
families and police officials. For that
bill to become law, it would require
input from representatives of every
state and union territory, along with
approval by three national ministries,
before it could be presented to a
standing committee, which would
then consider it for parliamentary
debate. Yet today, five years later, the
proposed legislation has not been
cleared by the ministries. “This bill
will never be a priority for the government,” Ravi Kant, another Supreme Court lawyer, told me. “The
government doesn’t want to put its
hand somewhere it can get stuck.”
One afternoon, Jagmati Sangwan,
an activist with the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a feminist group, took me to a government
safe house for couples at an abandoned school in Rohtak, a town in
Haryana. Her organization had scored
a rare victory for runaways when it
“If I had to talk to someone for thirsuccessfully lobbied the Punjab and
ty minutes, I would go mad,” Sachdev
Haryana High Court to establish the
replied. “After two hours, I would be
safe houses, in 2010. But few people
inside a coffin.”
were coming, Sangwan told me, beNeetu and Dawinder had been in
cause they feared that police would
the shelter for several weeks, but Sachturn on them.
dev still had not taken their paperWhen I visited, four couples were
work to the registrar. Whenever they
asleep on the floor of a classroom.
asked, he assured them that he would
The walls had been carved with lovget to it as soon as he could. Someers’ names. Only runaways who have
times he would say there was too much
been granted protection by a legal
traffic or that he was feeling ill. In the
order are permitted to stay there; one
meantime, he would ask them for
pair told me that they had stolen gold
money to help cover the cost of his
from their parents to hire a lawyer to
hospitality. As days progressed, acpetition the court for their admission.
cording to Dawinder, they paid SachThe order comes with an expiration
dev fifty thousand rupees ($775) in
date, however, and after a couple
unidentified general fees. Neetu would
leaves the safe house, they are
likely to go on being harassed by
their families.
The Love Commandos, on the
other hand, advertises a one-time
fee that covers the cost of a wedGETTING US MARRIED, THEY WILL
ding ceremony and registration;
couples are invited to stay as long
as they need. Perhaps more important is Sachdev’s promise to protect
them even when it compromises his
remind him that marriage registration
safety. Armed men and disgraced relacost only a few thousand rupees; Sachtives routinely come knocking, he
dev would look hurt and say that he
said, and at least four khaps have issued
had treated them like his own chilbounties for his death. None have
dren, but now she was bringing money
made good on their promise, but he
between them.
and his colleagues have been beaten.
While they waited, Dawinder and
“Look, we are madmen,” he explained.
the other young men at the shelter
“We are not scared of dying.”
were expected to run errands for
Harsh Malhotra, the chief coordinan January 2017, I visited Neetu and
tor, a hulking man with a short temDawinder at the shelter. Neetu
per. Whenever he rang a bell, they
told me that all her dreams had
were to gather on the balcony to rebeen coming true: first, they got marceive instructions. He’d have them
ried in a big city; then, on New Year’s
go out to buy him a pack of cigaEve, they slow-danced. She sat on the
rettes and a bottle of whiskey, play
floor in Sachdev’s room and read from
cricket with his nephew, mop, sweep,
her diary, in which she noted the imor walk Romeo. The women stayed
portant events in her life—the first
inside to clean and cook.
time she and Dawinder kissed, the
Prospective donors, many of them
morning they showered together, the
from the West, routinely came to visit.
night they spoke on the phone for alThe biggest contributors were an onmost eight hours. Sachdev was sitting
line matchmaking service and Björn
nearby, drinking a glass of water and
Borg, a Swedish clothing company. In
trying to keep a straight face, but fihis pitch, Sachdev would describe his
nally he started laughing so hard that
lofty ideas about freedom and choice
he spat out of his mouth.
and ask the runaways to talk about
“What did you talk about for so
how he had saved their lives. He would
long?” he asked.
tell guests that he was protecting hun“I keep telling her, Baba, ‘How much
dreds of couples in a network of eight
will you talk?’ ” Dawinder said. His face
shelters across the country, but he
crumpled with embarrassment.
never divulged any details, saying that
would compromise their safety. Within a year, Sachdev would say, he
planned to expand the Love Commandos into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Recently, he’d started a campaign on a crowd-funding site to grow
his visibility online.
His associates had sold their apartments, cars, and gold for the cause,
Sachdev said. He had taken money
from his children’s salaries and his
father’s pension. He’d also solicited
donations from a marriage registrar:
“Whenever I see him, I pick his pocket,” he told me. Yet the Love Commandos was not registered as a charity, nor did it pay the taxes required
of a business; all donations went into
Sachdev and the other commandos’ private accounts. He told me
that donors never asked questions
about how their money would be
used, and that most contributions
were made in cash, which made
accounting for them difficult.
When I asked Sachdev for a
breakdown of his finances, he said
that his organization needed at
least ten lakh rupees ($15,000) every
month to keep the shelters running.
But the numbers he provided didn’t
add up. For the shelter in New Delhi,
he paid twenty-six thousand rupees
($400) in monthly rent. He also had
to cover the electricity, water, and
grocery bills for the fifteen or so
people who lived there at any given
time. He told me to multiply that by
eight for the secret shelters—but he
still refused to show me where they
were, or to introduce me to any couples who had stayed at them.
Sometimes marriages needed to be
registered in tatkal (“at short notice”), Sachdev went on, which required a government fee of another
ten thousand rupees ($150). There
were couples who could not afford
their own wedding ceremonies, so
that meant ghee, sandalwood, the
priest’s tip, garlands, and sweets.
Certain couples needed to be rescued, and that required cars, walkietalkies, and emergency funds. Photocopying and notarizing documents
cost money. And even though the
Love Commandos operated within
the law, Sachdev said, gifts had to be
sent during the festivals of Diwali
and Holi to “speed up” officials he
relied on for help. He told me that
bribes were paid “in friendship” and
added, “When you work for the right
cause, you realize that policemen
and crooks are also human.”
Ravi Kant, the Supreme Court lawyer, told me that he was suspicious. The
optics of defying caste and uniting lovers made a good business model, especially if it was aimed at liberal-minded
donors. “If a body is not registered, then
we can say that it is running illegally,”
he said. “This might be a case of someone getting a sense that by giving protection to couples you
can make money.”
After two months, they bickered over
small things, and grew anxious about
what was holding up their registration.
The Bareilly couple had been taken
care of right away, but those without
government connections seemed to be
stranded in limbo.
Afsana and Malkit, a couple with
whom Neetu and Dawinder had become
friends, eventually declared that they
were tired of Sachdev’s excuses, and left.
Soon, another pair took off, fuming.
Dawinder wanted to follow them out,
ne afternoon, Sachdev
coordinated a rescue
mission from his bed.
The daughter of a government
official in Bareilly, a town in the
northern state of Uttar Pradesh,
had been kidnapped by her
relatives while returning home
from work in New Delhi, where
she lived with her husband, who
was from a lower caste. Sachdev,
horizontal and smoking a cigarette, tweeted at the state’s chief
minister, and by the next morning, the couple was at the shelter. Immediately, he inspected
their papers, which included
a religious certificate but not
a court-issued license, and started their legal registration.
Later that day, Dawinder
shouted at Neetu for eating
sweets that the newcomers had
brought. She was so angry that she
removed her choora, throwing the
bangles to the ground. “Dav said that
he will drop me to my house tomorrow,” she wrote in her diary that night.
“I forgave him for the twenty-fifth
time. Now I have to stop keeping
count.” Moonlight poured into the
bedroom from the street through a
vent. Everyone appeared to be asleep,
but then Neetu noticed a couple rocking under a mountain of quilts. She
knew how elusive privacy was at the
shelter, but she could not keep herself
from laughing. Dawinder, rousing at
the sound of her voice, looked up, and
soon he sank his head into the pillow,
laughing, too.
The extended stay in such tight
quarters had been wearing on them.
“Before getting us married, they will
get us divorced.”
One day, Dawinder went downstairs to walk Romeo and made a
surreptitious call to the cousin who
had driven the getaway car. The
cousin told him that, back in
Kakheri, his parents’ lives had been
upended. They were shuttling from
one relative’s home to another, fearing violence from Neetu’s family.
Hearing this, Dawinder wanted to
leave the shelter that very afternoon.
Neetu agreed.
When they approached
Sachdev, he refused to provide
them with the log-in information they would need to book
an appointment for court registration. If they left, he said,
he would call Neetu’s family
and they would be killed. “But
we did not get scared,” Neetu
wrote in her diary.
At the door, the commandos
inspected their bags. Dawinder
asked for their cell phones—
there were three, which he’d
brought from his cousin’s shop.
Sachdev returned only two.
“Go, run,” he told them.
“You’re not getting this one.”
Neetu grabbed the last phone
from his hand and slammed
the door behind them.
but when he and Neetu discussed it, he
would cry, “We are poor, no one is listening to us, we are runaways. What will
we do?” He was afraid that Sachdev
might refuse to hand over their marriage
documents, as he had done to others.
Without valid IDs, registration might
never be possible, and they would risk
being separated. Dawinder wondered
whether they had left one oppressive
system for another.
By the end of January, they decided
that they’d waited long enough.
Whenever Sachdev stepped out of
his room, Dawinder secretly scanned
their paperwork as Neetu kept
watch. Sneaking around made them
both nervous, and they continued to
snap at each other. Dawinder would
tell Neetu of the Love Commandos,
Pooja and Rajnish, another recently married couple at the Love Commandos shelter
eetu and Dawinder
went to stay with Afsana and Malkit at
Malkit’s family’s apartment in
the city. By some miracle, their parents
had grown tired of the hostility and
decided to support their relationship.
A few days later, Dawinder’s parents
arrived. Gurmej had brought his savings in a plastic bag; he was now willing
to pay for his son’s marriage license. At
a lawyer’s office, he explained that they
were poor and desperate. After some
negotiation over her fee, she took them
to a temple, where Neetu and Dawinder were married yet again. They were
registered by the court that afternoon.
The lawyer took ten thousand rupees
($150), less than a fifth of the amount
that Neetu and Dawinder had paid the
Love Commandos.
In the evening, the family went to
a gurdwara, a Sikh temple, where
they would spend the night. Gurmej
carried Neetu’s bags. Sukhwinder
Kaur, Dawinder’s mother, doted on
her, kissing her palms and calling her
daughter. The next evening, Neetu
and Dawinder left for Aunt Kulwant’s; they figured that only harm
awaited them in Kakheri. Dawinder’s
parents went home, with the intention of selling their house. Someday,
they told one another, they would all
go far away and live together in peace.
A little more than a month later,
on March 20, Neetu and Dawinder
were sitting down for dinner when
the phone rang. His parents had returned home from visiting a relative
and found the place in ruins. The
doors had been busted open, the
jambool tree in the courtyard was
slashed, trunks full of clothes and
valuables were empty, and an entire
wall was missing. Neighbors gathered outside to survey the damage.
Gurmej sensed that something worse
was about to happen, so he jumped
on his motorcycle and rode to the
police station.
In the two hours he was gone,
Neetu’s family came back. Kala had
an axe, his brothers had knives and
bamboo sticks, Sudesh was carrying a
sickle, and Ruksana, Neetu’s younger
sister, wielded an iron rod. Sukhwinder hid in her son’s room, but Kala
and his brothers dragged her out by
her hair. They took her to the center
of town, where they kicked and beat
her until she vomited. Spectators
huddled around. “Kala told me, ‘We
will make you drink our piss,’ ” Sukhwinder recalled. Eventually she
passed out, her face in the dirt. Kala
and the family kept at it until someone in the crowd suggested that she
might already be dead.
Gurmej spent the next few weeks
trying to get the police to take action,
but it became clear to him that for a
poor man in India, justice was elusive,
especially if your son eloped with a
woman in violation of tradition. He
spent days in the waiting rooms of police stations, begging officials. His own
son had created this mess, they told
him. Only after he obtained a medical
report detailing Sukhwinder’s injuries
were charges filed. But a month passed,
and the police did nothing.
In April, Gurmej went to the High
Court of Punjab and Haryana, in
Chandigarh. He arrived at dawn, after taking three buses overnight, and
waited under a tree until the court
opened. For a fee, a stenographer
typed up his grievance letters to police officials and the chief minister;
Gurmej received no response. Kala
and his family continued to roam the
village freely. Gurmej and Sukhwinder, too afraid to return home, lived
out in a shed in their fields.
One afternoon, Dawinder and
Neetu joined his family to visit the
offices of Muhammad Akil, the
state chief of police in Haryana. In
the waiting room, Neetu rose to get
a drink of water, and she was summoned by the officer’s secretary.
The secretary told her that she had
read her petition. She asked Neetu
why she had eloped and ruined so
many lives. “Parents always have the
best interests of their children in
mind,” she told her. Neetu nodded,
holding back tears. She couldn’t
think of anything to say that would
convince this person that her
choices were justified.
The family expected to leave
with nothing; appealing to the police chief was a shot in the dark. If
low-ranking officers did not have
patience for them, why would Akil
bother? But to their surprise, he directed his officers to arrest Kala
and his brothers. Dawinder’s parents were given police escorts.
The next day, Gurmej headed into
town along with two policemen. On
his way, he passed Sudesh. She stared
him down and said that Kala would
be back for revenge: his family would
be killed even if they were hiding in
hell. Satish Kumar, one of the police
escorts, told me that he advised her to
shut up and leave. He did not arrest
her, because the warrant against her
family did not include women.
After two weeks, the policemen
assigned to accompany Dawinder’s
parents stopped coming to work.
Kala and his brothers were released
on bail. Gurmej couldn’t sell his
house—no one wanted to inherit
the site of a community feud.
ne morning in the spring,
Neetu was sitting on her bed,
in a pajama set, looking like
she had seen a ghost. She had awak-
ened from a nightmare in which she
saw herself at Dawinder’s feet, begging him not to leave her and return
to his parents. She kept telling him
that she would die without him, and
then he walked away.
It was only a dream. But living
with Kulwant, Neetu had become
miserable. In the absence of Dawinder’s mother, Kulwant had taken it
upon herself to make Neetu a good
daughter-in-law. She demanded to
be called Mummy and forbade Neetu to use a cell phone or step outside without her head covered. At
mealtimes, Neetu was required to
eat after the men. If Dawinder and
Neetu went up to talk after dinner,
Kulwant would press her ear against
their door to listen. A girl like Neetu could not be trusted, Kulwant
told me, since she had not been loyal to her own parents.
Not long after they’d moved in,
Neetu discovered that she was pregnant. The celebrations were eclipsed,
however, by fallout from the attack
on her mother-in-law. “Love = Destroy life of many people who belong
to you,” Dawinder texted me one
evening. Later, another message
came in: “What is the point of any
of this?”
Despite the joyous news, Dawinder seemed dour. If Neetu took too
long to bring him food, he would
scream. When Kulwant lashed out
at her for sleeping in, he stayed silent. One day, she stepped outside
in a sleeveless top, and he tore it in
a fit of rage, saying it was inappropriate. The romantic songs that
Neetu once adored now sounded
absurd; she asked him to play one
for her, and an argument erupted. “I
started crying in the room upstairs,”
she wrote in her diary. “I felt as if
there is no one in this world that is
mine.” The same man who only
months earlier had performed situps in a room full of people at the
shelter just to make her smile could
no longer understand her.
Dawinder was overwhelmed with
guilt. He got a job delivering mobile
minutes cards to shops around
town; when I accompanied him on
his route, he told me that he harbored doubts about what his relationship was worth. His parents
were still being tormented, and
Neetu was still unhappy. What
good had marriage brought?
During one of my visits, the family
gathered in the living room, and the
conversation veered to Neetu and
Dawinder, as if they were not present.
Kulwant’s husband said that eloping
had been too costly for Dawinder.
“Everything is over,” he said.
“He is a good boy,” Kulwant replied. “He would never have done
this. But she would call and keep calling. She is the root of all our
problems—this girl.”
“Now that they are married, ask
them, what is their situation?” Kulwant’s husband asked. “Are they happy
now that everyone is destroyed?”
“I have seen how sad he is. He
goes in the room and cries and cries.
Her parents are fine. She has got
Inside the Love Commandos shelter
only joy from this—I just hope that
one day her father is run over.”
Neetu cleared her throat and
turned to me in disbelief. “They are
saying that they hope my father dies
in an accident,” she said.
The next day, Neetu slept until
noon, and in the hours that followed
she hardly moved. It may have been
pains from the pregnancy, or something else—she wasn’t sure. Dawinder
took the day off to care for her.
Downstairs, he read the newspaper:
anti-romeo squads accused of harassing couples. At each word, he
sighed. In recent weeks, vigilantes
had resurfaced across northern India,
barging into bedrooms to beat up lovers. “Look,” he said. “This is what
happens to people like us.”
Neetu finally got out of bed and
went to the kitchen. Dawinder fed
her a bowl of kheer, a rice pudding.
At the table, she put her head on his
shoulder, he put his arm around her,
and they called Sachdev. They had
been in touch with him since they
left the shelter, seeking help on
Sukhwinder’s case from his contacts
in the Haryana state police and the
government; each time, he had refused to assist without an advance in
his bank account. “Baba understands
only the language of money,” was
Dawinder’s judgment.
Yet they had become nostalgic
about the Love Commandos—about
their simplifying retreat from the aggression at home, and about the time
when their life together was still a happy possibility. The phone rang. “Have
any new couples come?” they wanted
to know. Neetu had taken to calling
their stay at the shelter a honeymoon. Q
The unlikely origins of
By Joshua Je
Donald Trump became president promising to build a “big and
beautiful wall” between the United States and Mexico. Now it
seems his plans have been forestalled: members of his own
party view the wall as a colossal waste of money (the most recent
estimate is $21 billion over three years), and people living near
the border are refusing to give up their land for a project they
see as harmful and inane. About a third of the two-thousandmile frontier between San Diego and Brownsville, Texas, already
has some sort of constructed boundary—often cement, corrugated metal, or steel mesh—and the desert terrain acts as a deterrent along the rest. But Trump’s proposal was always more rhetorical than real. Those who would “Make America Great
Again” by walling off Mexico want to believe that the border is
a natural and meaningful divide rather than the recent product
of human accident and endeavor.
The story of the border begins in 1846, when the United
States was in the grip of an expansionist fervor. President
James K. Polk, having just annexed Texas, launched a war
against the Republic of Mexico whose ostensible purpose was
securing the new state but whose true aim was making manifest America’s destiny “to overspread the continent.” Mexico,
which had won independence from Spain only two decades
earlier, was quickly outmatched. In February 1848, envoys of
the two nations convened in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a village
near Mexico City, to sign the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement. With US troops occupying the capital,
Mexico agreed to relinquish half its territory—what is now
California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico,
and Wyoming—in exchange for $15 million. As part of the
treaty, the envoys traced a new border across the continent’s arid
waist by connecting San Diego to El Paso through the junction
of the Colorado and Gila Rivers, in present-day Arizona. Each
country also appointed a boundary commission; the two were
jointly directed to map the border’s path through territory so
barren that the envoys agreed it could “never . . . be cultivated by
either party.”
For much of the 1850s, the most prominent figure on the US Boundary Commission was Major William
H. Emory, a mustachioed graduate of West Point. Emory was versed in the surveying techniques of his
day—he used zenith telescopes to determine location by the position of the stars—and he relished the
idea of expanding the United States. His Mexican counterpart was José Salazar Ilarregui, who was appointed to the commission just a few years after graduating from Mexico’s College of Mining. Whereas
Emory looked to the heavens, Salazar had mastered the surveyor’s craft of triangulation—measuring
distance by drawing triangles from fixed points across the land. Lending those skills to an endeavor that
would cost Mexico half its soil must have troubled him, but he was also a nationalist who wanted to ensure
that his country’s borders were clearly marked and defensible. Emory and Salazar were responsible for
turning the language of the treaty into a real dividing line, marked every so often with a marble obelisk
or a simple pile of stones.
the US-Mexico border
The American and Mexican boundary commissions were supposed to
conduct independent surveys, but the two teams frequently found it
advantageous to share the work. Determining the azimuth—a straight
line over the curving earth—was one thing on paper; it was quite another to track its course across peaks and deserts. Working from faulty
old maps, the teams were often forced to compromise about the border’s
route. For example, they discovered that “the town called Paso” (now
Ciudad Juárez) was dozens of miles from where the treaty said it should
be—a discrepancy so great it required a second treaty to resolve. Then
there was the challenge of the Rio Grande, whose snaking course made
up one section of the route. The surveyors, balancing precariously in
rowboats, had to lower weighted strings into the rushing current to find
the river’s deepest channel, where the border was meant to run. In 1851,
several members of the American team caught yellow fever in what is
now Big Bend National Park—then a terra incognita of canyons and
thorns. Another man drowned in the river. In the end, the Rio Grande’s
tendency to change its course, especially after heavy rains, guaranteed
that legal conflicts over the “true” border would continue for a century.
The expedition proceeded intermittently for six years. Emory’s men
continued to receive steady funding for gear and food from President
Millard Fillmore, who, like Zachary Taylor and Polk before him, was
well disposed toward the mission. Mexico’s team wasn’t so lucky. In 1853,
with the treasury empty and the government in chaos, the old war hero
Antonio López de Santa Anna was elected president and soon declared
himself dictator; Salazar was briefly tossed in a Chihuahua jail for
criticizing Santa Anna’s lack of support for the border commission. Once
released, Salazar was so determined to continue the survey that he borrowed money on his own credit. Emory helped by sending funds from
the United States. Jingoist or no, “Bold Emory” had come to admire the
young Mexican. When the teams completed their work in the field, in
1855, they bid each other fond farewells born, as one of the Mexican
team members put it, of “continued good will and mutual suffering in
the desert.”
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s most recent article for
Harper’s Magazine, “All Over the Map,” appeared in the September 2012 issue.
When Emory presented his findings to Congress in 1857, it was the
first time Americans saw the line that would become fixed in their
minds as “the southern border.” But in the 1890s, a new binational
survey team was tasked with replacing the old rock piles with more
lasting markers, and what they found was telling. The presence of the
border had already begun to transform this “barren” land into a busy
corridor. Outside the Arizona town of Nogales, an enterprising saloon
owner had turned a stone marker into part of his wall; his front door
opened on Mexico and his rear door faced the United States. The
legacy of the border, from its collaborative beginning, is as much one
of contact as of separation. Many twinned towns—from Calexico/
Mexicali to Brownsville/Matamoros—sprang from the desert because
the border gave them a reason for being. They are, like the vanished rock
piles, defiant monuments to interaction and exchange.
Map by William H. Emory, 1857. Courtesy the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Co N
nt o
on N rac
th o
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Saudi women push for the right to exercise
By Sarah Aziza
y body was draped
head to toe in
black, but I still
felt naked. I have spent
years living and working in
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, yet
now, for the first time, I was
alone on a secluded street
near the Red Sea, unescorted in public after sundown. Across the road, cab
drivers in loose white robes
squatted against a concrete
wall, smoking cigarettes
and eyeing me with open
interest. I set my face with
practiced indifference as I
glanced quickly up and
down the street. Then I
saw them: two dozen women power walking, their
limbs synchronized in the
grainy yellow glow from
the streetlights.
Out f ront wa s May
Aboulfaraj, a forty-year-old
fashion designer. In lieu of
the other women’s traditional black abayas, she
wore a custom jumpsuit made of lightweight purple cloth and decorated
with reflective tape and iron-on emoji
decals. As she waved to me, her
sleeves fanned out, creating the silhouette of a flying squirrel. The tip of
her ponytail danced beneath a green
bandanna—a sporty substitute for a
Sarah Aziza lives in New York City and the
Middle East.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
hijab. She greeted me with a brisk
kiss on the cheek. “You missed warmup! Yalla, let’s go.”
Aboulfaraj founded Bliss Run, a
women’s running club, with three
other women in 2016. Her collaborators, also in their forties or fifties,
were dressed in their own custom
jumpsuits. They welcomed me warmly. “Salaam, hi-hi habibti, love. How-
are-you? Are you fine? Yeah?
Amazing, alhamdulillah.”
The women kept up a playful mood, but the gathering
was an act of defiance.
In Saudi Arabia, where
women’s activities are restricted by a complex set of
laws and informal rules, the
sidewalk is the domain of
men. Women are mostly relegated to domestic, indoor
spaces, and when they do go
out in public, they wear
loose abayas that fully cover the body. Nearly all
women—including me—
cover their hair, and many
screen their faces with full
veils. Buildings that serve
both sexes, such as banks
and mosques, typically
maintain separate entrances, while restaurants partition men from women and
families. Offices sometimes
have separate rooms to accommodate a single female
employee. Many families
also adhere to the Islamic concept of
mahram, which stipulates that women
be escorted by a male chaperone while
in public.
Under Saudi law, women are dependent on a wali, a male guardian,
from birth to death. The wali, usually
a woman’s father, husband, brother, or
adult son, has the power to deny her
access to travel, medical care, and
marriage. Doctors, landlords, and potential employers often demand a
wali’s documented approval before
they will interact with a woman. In
the eyes of the Saudi state, women—
who could not vote in municipal elections until 2015 and whose testimony
in court is granted half the value of a
man’s—are minors.
While many women (and some men)
privately decry this system, resistance
is often dangerous. The Saudi government is known to punish women for
behavior that threatens arf, the traditional way of life: in 2016, police
arrested several women for attending
a mixed-gender party, and in July, a
woman was arrested after a Snapchat
video was posted of her walking in
public without an abaya. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue
and Prevention of Vice, an organization founded in the 1920s by the
first king of Saudi Arabia, has thousands of enforcers, called muttawa,
who patrol public spaces to ensure
adherence to strict religious rules.
The muttawa curtail ikhtilat, or the
“mixing” of genders, and crack
down on such transgressions as nail
polish, improperly positioned headscarves, and audible laughter. Officially, the CPVPV is supposed to defer
to the police, but the group has committed innumerable human rights
violations—including chasing, beating, a nd unlaw f ully detaining
women—and has proved impervious
to reform. In 2016, after a string of
incidents of abuse by CPVPV officers
were documented by human rights
groups and local media, the government attempted to limit the committee’s power, imploring its officers to act
more “kindly and gently.” But the
CPVPV continues to receive generous
government funding, and after a brief
quiet spell they resumed many of their
hard-line tactics.
The latitude granted to the
CPVPV is symptomatic of the ambiguity in Saudi law: the kingdom
has no formal constitution. Instead,
the monarchy cites the Koran and
the Sunnah—the traditions of
Prophet Mohammed—as its fundamental law. Many issues, including
civil rights, are left to the discretion
of the ulema, or Islamic scholars.
Historically, most of the ulema have
favored punitive interpretations of
Islam, steering the government toward authoritarian policies. Over
the years, activists calling for a formalized constitution have been subjected to imprisonment for their
“un-Islamic” ideas and disrespect of
the monarchy.
For decades, activists who lobbied
to lift the ban on women driving
faced similar punishments, and their
campaign became synonymous with
the supposed hopelessness of the feminist cause in the kingdom. But this
past September, King Salman bin
Abdulaziz Al Saud made a surprise
announcement: he would lift the ban
in June 2018. In the meantime, the
government would assemble a task
force to work out the specifics.
The news signaled an unprecedented commitment to progressive
change. Soon after, the king’s son
Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, a
thirty-two-year-old newcomer to the
political scene, vowed to return the
country to “moderate” Islam. In 2016,
he had announced a plan called Vision 2030, an ambitious economic
campaign touting an array of social
reforms. Although his priority is diversifying the economy—50 percent
of the country’s GDP currently depends on oil and gas—the crown
prince has said that he also aims to
increase women’s participation in the
workplace, foster national cultural
pride, and improve public health. To
address the latter, he established an
office for women and sports. Princess
Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, an entrepreneur and philanthropist with
no previous political experience, was
appointed its leader. Overnight she
became the highest-ranking woman
in government.
The existence of a government office, however, made little immediate
difference in the cultural perception
of women’s athletics—something I
felt keenly as the members of Bliss and
I approached the starting line for the
night’s run. A family sitting on the
ground sharing a thermos of tea stared;
the man, lounging barefoot in a white
thobe, leaned up on his elbow to get a
better look as his wife, a cross-legged
pyramid of black cloth, pivoted to
watch us pass. Aboulfaraj told me
that Bliss was inspired by her travels
abroad, where she saw women exercising outdoors freely. “I wished to see
the day that the same could happen
in Saudi,” she said, “that women
could go outside without any shame
or discomfort or strange looks.” But
when she’s recruiting members around
Jeddah, she said, most women initially find the idea of running in the
street unthinkable.
When it was time to begin the run,
Aboulfaraj turned to face the pack of
women, her soft voice suddenly
commanding. “Ladies!” she said.
“Get ready to push yourselves!
Trackers ready!” This was the cue for
us to take out our smartphones and
open an app that recorded speed
and distance. “And—let’s go!” The
runners tapped a green button on
their screens and a chorus of robotic
voices declared, “Starting workout.”
The group splintered quickly.
Aboulfaraj and her colleagues, nimble
in their custom jumpsuits, wove
through the crowd to assist the others.
The women in abayas struggled to
keep from tripping over the long
hems; Hala, a plump, middle-aged
housewife, avoided this by cinching
hers around her waist, revealing calves
sheathed in black leggings. My abaya
allowed me only short, shuffling
steps, but I nevertheless drifted toward the front. A layer of muggy heat
thickened between my skin and the
polyester folds. My headscarf kept
slipping down. I felt grateful that it
was February, and a modest, if humid,
72 degrees. Summer temperatures
can exceed 120.
We passed dusty date palms, patches of dry grass, and Arabic signposts
admonishing us remember allah and
there is no god but allah. A few
male joggers in shorts and T-shirts
passed in the opposite direction. One
tossed a suggestive comment our
way—“Will you come run with me?”—
but most of them averted their eyes.
Five minutes in, half of the women
slowed to a walk, and Aboulfaraj
stayed back to encourage them. I
caught up to Bodoor, a slender woman in her midthirties. She checked
the app repeatedly, murmuring her
pace to herself. When we reached an
intersection, Bodoor ran into the
street without breaking stride, holding out her palm to halt the bewildered drivers. At the row of orange
cones that marked the finish line, she
continued to jog in circles, glancing
at her phone. “Not even two kilometers,” she muttered with a selfdeprecating smile. The other runners,
however, approached the finish line
with pride. Some of the women’s first
runs had lasted just thirty seconds,
but after six months with Bliss, they
had built their endurance to eight or
nine minutes. As the rest of the group
trickled in, I heard a sound that I’d
never encountered on a Saudi street:
cheering female voices.
t was almost ten o’clock by the
time I returned home, to the
apartment of Umm Musa, a family
friend. She met me at the door dressed
in a loose robe and light-pink headscarf, her brow furrowed behind wideframed glasses. As I peeled off my
abaya, she began chiding me. “Ya bint!
Girl, what are you doing out all night?
Who drove you back?” Smiling, I explained Uber to her for a third time.
She shook her head. “Not safe!”
Umm Musa pulled me down the
hall and into a windowless, spongepainted sitting room. Her husband,
Mohammed, a stocky contractor with
a salt-and-pepper beard, dozed in
front of a muted television. Small tables heaped with dates and sugardusted cookies were within arm’s
reach of every seat. Umm Musa drew
up one of the tables, cleared away the
sweets, and set two plates of food in
front of me—I had missed both
lunch and dinner, so she’d saved me
some of each.
She resumed her interrogation.
When I explained that I’d been out
running with a group of Saudi
women, Umm Musa’s eyes widened.
“They’re doing what?” She frowned
as I described the jumpsuits, the
makeshift hijabs, the dim, secluded
route. I reminded Umm Musa that
she often complained about being
stuck at home—just the day before
she had expressed worry about her
weight. She placed a hand on her
ample belly and sighed. “Yes,” she
said. “I do need some movement in
my life.”
Umm Musa has never worked outside her home and, apart from grocery
trips twice a month with Mohammed,
seldom leaves her second-story apartment. Her life is organized around
Friday lunches, when any number of
her eight children and twenty-seven
grandchildren might crowd into the
apartment to feast. During the
week, she fills solitary hours chatting with family on Whats App,
watching soap operas, and preparing dinner. She naps too. And
snacks. In recent years she’s slowed
down considerably; her stiffening
joints and increasing weight leave
her reliant on a live-in housekeeper.
Still, Umm Musa tries to downplay
concerns about her health, joking
that she has dem khafeef—“light
blood,” or good humor.
Her doctor feels differently. Umm
Musa is five foot two, and her weight
f luctuates between 170 and 190
pounds, putting her somewhere between “overweight” and “obese.” She
is at risk for diabetes and osteoporosis,
and her blood pressure is well above
the healthy range.
Umm Musa’s case is alarmingly
typical: Saudi Arabia has seen a
surge in obesity and related illnesses
over the past few decades, and today
70 percent of the total population is
overweight. Yasmin al-Twaijri, an epidemiologist at King Faisal Specialist
Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh who is one of the nation’s
leading obesity researchers, attributes this trend to the usual changes that accompany modernization:
labor-saving technology, sedentary
daily routines, and an abundance of
cheap processed foods. (In Saudi
A r abia, McD onald’s deliver s.)
Among the middle and upper classes, the problem is compounded by
the country’s two-tiered economy,
in which most physical labor is
shunted onto migrant workers.
Though many Western countries
are also experiencing accelerating
obesity rates—Americans overall are
just as overweight as Saudis—the crisis in Saudi Arabia is uniquely determined by gender. According to alTwaijri, the usual causes of obesity
combined with the many restrictions
on women act as a “double whammy.”
A 2015 study found that 75 percent
of Saudi women do little to no physical activity, compared with 46 percent of men, and the rate of obesity
among women is about twice that of
men. “Saudi Arabia is really a special
case,” al-Twaijri told me. “Lack of exercise is literally killing women.”
Female sedentariness is a deliberate
result of policy. Vilifying women’s
physical activity has long been a pet
cause of hard-line conservatives. In
2012, when Saudi officials first permitted female athletes to take part in the
Olympic Games (in response to pressure from the international committee), detractors called the two who
competed “prostitutes of the Olympics,” citing the impropriety of traveling abroad and putting their bodies on
display. In 2014, Abdullah al-Dawood,
a conservative author with nearly one
hundred thousand Twitter followers,
warned that allowing girls to participate in fitness and sports was a product
of “Westernization” and would lead to
“infidelity and prostitution.” Sheikh
Abdullah al-Maneea, a member of the
Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, has said that allowing virgins to
exercise is dangerous, claiming that
activities like running and jumping
cause damage to the hymen.
As I finished my kebab with
Umm Musa, Mohammed roused
himself. “Women are always worried
about getting fat,” he said, chuckling. “Of course my wife is fat—she
doesn’t do anything!”
Umm Musa grinned and swatted
away his comment with a goldbangled arm. “I do more than you, ya
sheikh!” She reminded Mohammed
that he had grown heavier over the
years, too.
“Alhamdulillah, praise God,” he replied, thumping his belly in an unconscious imitation of his wife.
On occasion, Umm Musa would
suggest that they take a daily walk
at the edge of their neighborhood. “I
used to try to exercise, a little bit,” she
said. “But I don’t like the way men
looked at me, sometimes shouted at
me. And Mohammed doesn’t want to
walk with me.”
Mohammed sniffed. “It’s too hot,”
he said, reaching for the TV remote.
Umm Musa shrugged and pointed
at the platter of rice in front of me.
“Eat, ya bint.”
here are hundreds of men’s
gyms throughout Saudi Arabia, including international
chains such as Fitness Time and
Gold’s Gym, but the government
has for years refused to make permits available for gyms that serve
women. In the past decade, however,
an underground network of unlicensed fitness centers has appeared,
led by female athletes and trainers.
By 2016, there were about a hundred
of these illicit gyms in the kingdom,
ranging from multistory enterprises
officially registered as “retail shops”
to makeshift basement studios advertised only on social media or by
word of mouth.
One of the best-known figures in
the underground fitness scene is
Halah al-Hamrani, a forty-year-old
kickboxing instructor who started
her company, Fight Like a Girl
Boxing (Flag Boxing), out of her
parents’ pool house in 2003. Since
then, it has grown into a full-time
operation with a $60,000 studio, a
line of at hletic clot hing, a nd
20,000 Instagram followers. “For a
long time, the market for women’s
fitness here was really small,” she
told me. “It’s just the past three,
four years that things have started
to blow up.” Al-Hamrani is aware
that with a growing clientele comes
the risk of government scrutiny; for
other women’s gyms, that attention
has forced them to close.
I met al-Hamrani on a weekday
afternoon at her studio in Jeddah,
which she runs out of a groundf loor apartment that has tinted
windows and a camera-equipped
buzzer. She opened the door in bare
feet and cutoff sweatpants, her hair
swept up in a frizzy ponytail. I followed her to a large workout area
outfitted with imported CrossFit
rigs, ten punching bags, and half a
dozen benches. Mirrors covered every wall. A set of gymnastics rings
dangled from the ceiling.
“Sports have always been my lifeline,” al-Hamrani told me as she arranged free weights for that afternoon’s class. In school, she struggled
with ADHD, but exercise gave her
confidence and joy. As the child of
a n a f f luent bu si ne s s m a n, a lHamrani was able to enroll in private gymnastics, dance, and martial
arts lessons taught by expats in gated
compounds. Her experience was
unusual—physical education for girls
has been prohibited in the public
school system since the Ministry of
Education first expanded to include
female students in 1960. At eighteen,
al-Hamrani left to attend the University of California, San Diego, where
she joined the women’s rowing team.
Later, she began practicing CrossFit.
After graduation, when she returned
to Jeddah and struggled to find a job,
her mother suggested that she try
personal training. “It was the one
thing that I really loved, and she
thought maybe I could make a business of it,” al-Hamrani said. She
bought a few free weights and a
punching bag and started teaching
kickboxing to friends.
When she began coaching, alHamrani was struck by how many of
her clients lacked basic physical coordination and strength. Some struggled to do a single push-up. “Think
about it: for the first thirty, forty
years of their lives, they never moved
their bodies, so lots of them have no
muscle memory, no sense of balance.”
She now has about a hundred clients
and coaches several classes each day.
A drop-in session costs 250 riyals
($60), which she admits is expensive.
“I am in a bit of a bubble,” she told
me. “I mostly get the more educated,
wealthy Saudis. Those are also the
ones who are accepting of who I am,
as a woman athlete.”
The afternoon session I attended
was sold out, with ten students between the ages of seventeen and
forty-five. They arrived in private
cars and discarded their abayas in
lockers by the door, revealing pastel
leggings and pristine sneakers. AlHamrani clapped her hands. “Positions!” The women arranged themselves into two rows. The workout,
al-Hamrani explained, would rotate
through eight exercises that included
floor ladders, burpees, bear crawls,
and punching combos. With a remote, she set a digital timer on the
wall. “Three minutes on, one minute
For the next forty minutes, alHamrani monitored us carefully,
wielding a PVC pipe, scepterlike, to
correct breaches of form. “There,”
she said to me when I tried to skimp
on my lunges, tapping a spot farther
out on the floor. Sondos, a cheerful,
overweight consultant in her late
twenties, sprinted in a tight loop,
gasping for breath. But her reward
was sweet: at the end of the interval,
al-Hamrani gave a single nod and
said, “Yes.”
When the final timer rang, Sondos flopped onto a mat, laughing,
her long hair fanning across the
floor. She had started at FlagBoxing
eight months earlier in an effort to
lose weight, but the classes soon became a kind of therapy. Now she
came to al-Hamrani’s studio every
day. “I need the endorphins so bad,”
she told me. “I was really unhappy.
My life was just work, home, stress,
and I was gaining more and more
weight. Now I have an outlet, something to look forward to at the end of
the day.” She waited until her sweat
dried enough for her to pull on her
abaya, then headed toward the door.
“See you tomorrow!” she said. AlHamrani gave a mock salute.
After everyone left, al-Hamrani
pulled up a bench across from me.
Seated, her body remained in motion, the white sneakers she wore
during class tapping the rubber floor.
Interest in women’s fitness has become mainstream in the Middle East,
she said, and multinational companies have picked up on the new market. Last year, al-Hamrani was approached by Pepsi to be featured in
an ad alongside Amal Baatia, a Saudi
female CrossFit coach, and several
high-profile male athletes. Nike recently launched an athletic hijab.
Her business, she sensed, could expand dramatically—as long as she
could protect it from the hard-liners.
Al-Hamrani doesn’t identify as an
activist, but in a country where women’s bodies are routinely treated with
contempt, creating a space for women to exercise becomes an affirma-
tion of their right to physical health
and pleasure. “I’m proud of these
girls,” she said of her students.
“These women are tough, strong.
They have some real frustrations to
punch out.” She smacked a fist into
her open palm. “You know how it is,
for women here.”
ne afternoon, I flew to Riyadh
to meet Princess Reema, the
head of women’s and community sports for the General Sports Authority (GSA), at her home. Beyond a
long driveway, an expansive garden,
and clusters of luxury cars, the villa’s
white walls glowed pink in the fading
sunlight. Inside, a butler showed me to
an airy sitting room. Cupcake, the
princess’s cat, joined me, curling up
into my lap and covering my abaya
with tufts of orange fur.
After a moment I was shown into
Reema’s office. The princess, who is
forty-two, was wearing a business
skirt, a navy blouse, and black heels.
She stood over a table stacked with
papers, deep in discussion with a senior member of the Saudi Arabian
Olympic Committee. After he left
the room, she exhaled and flashed me
a smile. “Do you mind if I take off my
shoes and put on my slippers?” She
gestured to a pair of cream-colored,
woolly slip-ons next to her chair. “I’ve
been an adult all day, and I need to
put on my slippers before I cry.”
Even in slippers, Reema exuded
poise. She speaks English with an easy
fluency, polished by years of living in
the United States as the daughter of
the kingdom’s ambassador. Before
entering the government, she was
the head of the luxury department
store Harvey Nichols’s franchise in
Saudi Arabia, where she hired firsttime female workers and advocated
publicly to advance women seeking
careers. (Although a growing minority
of Saudi women have taken jobs outside the home, they account for only
about 20 percent of the workforce, despite making up more than half of the
nation’s university students.) Reema
caught the attention of senior officials
in 2015, when she led a breast cancer
awareness campaign that culminated
in a thirteen-thousand-woman rally in
Riyadh, setting a Guinness world record for the largest “human ribbon.”
At the time of Reema’s appointment to the GSA, none of the more
than 150 sports clubs and thiry-two
federations it oversaw included
women. In her first year, Reema managed to push an impressive number of
reforms through Saudi’s cumbersome
bureaucracy, including monetary incentives for clubs to admit women
and disabled athletes. Since then,
several federations, including those of
golf, fencing, and tennis, have added
female members.
Most notably, Reema persuaded
the ministry of education to start a
physical education program for girls.
PE has a long and fraught history in
Saudi politics; in the gendersegregated public school system,
which serves 85 percent of the country’s children, boys attend gym class
several times a week, yet girls have
been forbidden on religious grounds.
In 2015, Nora al-Fayaz, a former deputy minister of education, was fired in
what many saw as retribution for her
outspoken advocacy for girls’ gym
classes. Reema’s victory was unexpectedly smooth. The brief statement
the ministry released in July about
the new PE program did not specify
which activities would be deemed appropriate, however, and it remains to
be seen what forms these classes will
take. Considering the absence of fitness facilities in girls’ schools and the
lack of qualified female instructors, it
may take many years for the programs to be conducted at a standard
equivalent to boys’ PE.
This past summer, Reema scored
her most significant victory. Perhaps
recognizing the gravity of its obesity
crisis—and the expense; all Saudi
citizens receive free health care—the
government launched an online
license-application system for gym
owners. Because of Reema’s lobbying
efforts, for the first time, licenses
would be made available to fitness facilities for women.
So far, thirty-two women’s gyms
have been approved. Leejam Sports
Company, the largest operator of
men’s gyms in the kingdom, plans
over the next six years to open about
a hundred facilities for women,
which they expect will attract hundreds of thousands of new members.
Reema predicts that “a cascade of
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new jobs” will be created as the athletics sector is expanded to include
women in sports medicine, sports
merchandising, and personal training. She also believes that the proliferation of gyms will lead to future
generations of elite female athletes.
“I’d like to see Saudi women actually competitive at the Olympic
Games one day,” she said. At the
2012 L ondon Ga me s, h av i n g
trained without institutional support, Saudi Arabia’s two female athletes performed dismally: Sarah Attar finished the 800-meter dash
dead last, and Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was eliminated from the judo competition in the
first round. Attar returned in 2016 to
compete in the marathon event, and
placed 132nd out of 133 runners.
While the licensing reform will
likely make exercise more accessible
overall, there are signs that it will
be used to increase government
monitoring of women’s activities.
The GSA’s guidelines make no
mention of gender-specific restrictions in gym services, but in Saudi
Arabia, ambiguities in legal texts often become openings for conservative interpretations. Religious authorities could push to have certain
activities—such as martial arts,
yoga, and dance—banned for women. At a wellness and fitness event
hosted by the GSA in honor of International Women’s Day, the yoga
and Zumba workshops were canceled at the last minute. Officials
cited a “technicality” in the group’s
permit application, but several
women involved told me they believe the decision was made on religious grounds.
When I asked Reema about potential constraints on women’s fitness centers, she was noncommittal. “We don’t need to create
endless rules,” she said. “I want to
create opportunities. The market
will decide what is right for each
community. For example, I would
never build an outdoor track for
women without building a wall
around it, because I know women
won’t come if they feel exposed.”
(This was the architectural solution for the basketball court of Jeddah United, one of the few private
club sports teams for women—the
court is surrounded by high concrete walls.)
Reema’s diplomatic approach to
pursuing individual freedoms for
women enables gradual cultural
change, but leaves the structure of
patriarchal control intact. I asked her
whether she considered herself a feminist. “No. I’m an active woman, not
an activist,” she quickly replied. “It’s a
good time to be a Saudi woman.” After a moment, she added, “I’m speaking first and foremost on the level of
sports and fitness. In this arena, doors
are opening very quickly for women.
And what I’m hoping is that that will
then have an impact on the doors
that aren’t open yet.”
Her unwillingness to publicly address the broader social conditions of
women is understandable, if unsatisfying. In Saudi Arabia, little is truly
decided in the public sphere—policy
reversals, as with the driving ban,
can occur overnight as a result of inscrutable machinations.* “I know
some Saudi women are cynical about
me, but we are trying to accomplish
real change,” she said. “I just hope
they can be patient.”
Later, I asked al-Twaijri what she
made of Reema’s efforts. Though her
intentions are admirable, she told me,
it would take more than a few reforms to reverse the damage done by
years of discrimination and sedentariness. “It’s great to have more
gyms. But there’s a huge population
of women who aren’t going to go
there. It’s not a habit for them to be
active, and for some it feels like an
uncomfortable space.” She continued, “We have to think of the entire
social ecosystem. We have to change
our cities and towns.”
Back at home, I wanted to know:
Would Umm Musa consider joining a
gym? She snorted into her tea. “I
don’t think that kind of thing is for
old, heavy women like me.”
A dramatic illustration of these backdoor
politics occurred in November, when Mohammad bin Salman was appointed by royal
decree to head an “anticorruption committee” that, hours after its creation, arrested
eleven princes and dozens of officials and
businessmen. The arrests, ostensibly a
cleanup campaign, raised speculations that
the prince and his father are working together to consolidate power.
n September, al-Hamrani sent me
a photo of a young girl dangling
upside down from a bungee cord,
her long braid skimming the floor.
Other pictures showed girls doing
cartwheels and swinging from monkey bars. They were participating in
a workshop as part of a soft opening
for al-Hamrani’s new gym. Designed
for kids aged three to sixteen, it will
specialize in parkour, gymnastics,
and a free-form choreography alHamrani calls animal movement.
One of the first members is her eightyear-old son, Talal, a parkour and
Muay Thai enthusiast. His dead
hang lasts a full minute, and leaves
his mother beaming.
When al-Hamrani learned of Reema’s push to license women’s gyms,
she was skeptical. Fearing her business would be subjected to increased
government scrutiny, she was in no
rush to apply for legal standing, even
at the risk of being fined.
Yet she is eager to keep expanding. “There is so much to be done
in fitness right now,” she said.
“This is the time to invest.” In October, al-Hamrani was invited to
present her gym to investors at a
Shark Tank–like event in Jeddah.
Ree ma attended, a nd t he t wo
spoke about al-Hamrani’s concerns.
With Reema’s assurance that her
gym operations would not be restricted, al-Hamrani decided to
pursue a license for FlagBoxing.
In another picture taken by alHamrani, a boy and girl who look
to be about six years old hang side
by side on the monkey bars, their
small hands in an even line. Classes at al-Hamrani’s new gym are
coed—virtually unheard of in Saudi Arabia, and technically unsanctioned. (The GSA does not license
g y m s or st udios for children.)
Mixed classes make better athletes,
she told me. They allow young boys
to relate to their female classmates,
but the classes benefit girls especially: “It will make them tougher.”
Growing up, al-Hamrani practiced
jujitsu in coed classes taught by an
expat couple, and sparring with
male opponent s, she believes,
taught her to be a stronger and
gutsier fighter. Her favorite part:
throwing the men.
How I learned the real meaning of dissent
By John R. MacArthur
fter nearly forty
years of engaging with political journalism—writing
investigative reports,
opinion columns, and
straight news, as well as
publishing other people’s work—I confess
that I’m discouraged.
Catastrophic events such
as Bill Clinton’s bombing
of Belgrade, purportedly
in the interest of humanitarian relief, and George
W. Bush’s invasion of
Iraq, which was predicated on lies, have reconfirmed my opinion that
storytelling in the service
of destructive ambition
can easily overwhelm
truth. More recently, as
the author of a book
about the social and economic damage
caused by NAFTA and free-trade propaganda, I’ve begun to think that the
greatest beneficiary of my attempts at
reporting fact and recording dissent
may be Donald Trump, champion of
the anti-fact, teller of the tallest tales,
liar to the core.
I still believe that history can be
revised as it’s happening—altered,
even—and that authentic information
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine and the author of four books,
including The Selling of “Free Trade.”
from legitimate sources contributes to
deeper understanding and to a greater
good; that every journalist’s attempt to
speak out against corrupt authority
brings us closer to the truth; that the
cause of freedom is best served by hard
fact and clear rhetoric. The first important historical and journalistic lesson
of my life was realizing—along with
hundreds of other hyperpoliticized reporters of my generation—that the
Vietnam War and the domino theory
that was its rationale were based on
false information and opaque analysis.
A confrontation between Soviet troops and protesters, Prague, 1968 © Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images
Nevertheless, I’ve increasingly come to doubt
my political and journalistic credo—my somewhat black-and-white
devotion to “reality.” I
mean no disrespect to
Harrison Salisbury, Mart ha Gell hor n, a nd
I. F. Stone, who remain
my heroes, but none of
their Vietnam reporting
made an impression on
me equal to the finest
fiction, poetry, or literary
essay. Graham Greene’s
novel The Quiet American, published in 1955,
endures as the most
compelling, most truthful argument against
American intervention
in Southeast Asia. To
get to the heart of the
matter (the title of another of his novels), Greene told stories from his imagination, and maybe the literary approach
to truth matters more to the heart than
any objective fact or principle can ever
mean to the brain. Maybe literature is
what really causes revolutions.
n September 1983, my future wife
and I boarded a night train in Paris bound for Prague, the capital of
what was then Communist Czechoslovakia. Back home, everyone was talking
about the human rights movement in
the Soviet bloc. By then, the idea that
some form of universal civil rights
should extend across national borders
was an old one, but enlisting the principle of human rights as a popular political tool against Soviet Communist
oppression was something new. With
the signing of the Helsinki Accords in
1975, the Russians had agreed, broadly
speaking, to respect human rights, and
Western anticommunists—many of
them liberals who had opposed the war
in Vietnam—were emboldened. If no
one really believed that the Russians
would embrace democracy, or even ease
up on control of their Eastern European
satellites within the Warsaw Pact, at
least Moscow could be formally monitored and challenged when it cracked
down on the civil liberties of specific people in specific countries.
When Helsinki Watch, a private,
New York–based group, was founded
in 1978, Americans finally had an
independent, nongovernmental vehicle for supporting Soviet bloc intellectuals who were fighting for free
speech and freedom of movement,
often suffering imprisonment and
worse for their audacity. Thus did the
Russian word samizdat become fashionable, at least in the Western media, to
describe the typewritten carbon copies,
sometimes bound into books, that
spread by hand the underground writing of notable dissident intellectuals
such as the Polish essayist Adam Michnik, the Russian physicist Andrei
Sakharov, and the Czech playwright
Václav Havel. Within the New York
intelligentsia, these men had become
celebrities, and from January 1977 on,
especially after the manifesto of Charter 77 was published in Prague by 242
Czech and Slovak intellectuals demanding freedom, it seemed that hardly a
week passed without my reading something by them, or about them, in The
New York Review of Books or the New
York Times. So when Renee and I
planned our trip, it seemed appropriate
that as the publisher of Harper’s Magazine, on my way to Switzerland to visit
my Paris-based brother, I should call on
some heroic dissident writers in Prague.
Political principle and sound publishing played a part in my decision—I
certainly hoped to get a piece of writing from Havel, or an interview, or at
least to demonstrate public solidarity
with the victims of Communist oppression. But I also harbored fantasies, fed
by John le Carré novels, of penetrating
the Iron Curtain and daring the authorities to act, well, authoritarian.
We had to travel overland, by train,
with the attendant tension one might
expect at the border crossing. Renee
was game, having already voyaged with
her adventurous parents all over the
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in
the 1960s. So we made our plans, even
booking a room at the Alcron, the
hotel in Prague where Renee’s family
had stayed in June 1968, in the midst
of the Prague Spring and not long before Soviet-led tanks crushed Alexander Dubcek’s
attempt at a peaceful
liberalization of Czechoslovak society.
As for the dissident writers, it
wasn’t difficult to get the State Department to set up a meeting, especially during the anticommunist Reagan Administration. The Cold War
had recently hardened in part because of the ascension, in 1982, of
Yuri Andropov to the Soviet premiership. When he was the Soviet ambassador to Hungary, Andropov had participated in the suppression of the
1956 anticommunist uprising there,
and while the head of the KGB in the
Sixties and Seventies he had taken a
tough line against political dissidents.
Moreover, he was deeply suspicious of
Reagan and NATO’s intentions, fearing a preemptive military or even nuclear strike. The air in those days was
filled with the American president’s
anti-Soviet bluster—“The march of
freedom and democracy . . . will leave
Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap
of history”—and Reagan was putting
big money behind his declarations,
notably in the form of the Strategic
Defense Initiative, better known as
Star Wars, and the planned deployment of Pershing II nuclear missiles in
Western Europe. It wasn’t the ideal
time to be playing liberal publisher
in the Eastern bloc. As Renee and I
departed Paris’s Gare de l’Est on the
night of Friday, September 16, I was
entirely ignorant of something very
dangerous brewing between the two
superpowers—the American war
game called Able Archer 83, which
some historians believe nearly led to
nuclear war.
In my visa application to the
Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington, I had lied that we wanted to visit
as tourists, but the Czechoslovak officials weren’t stupid. They informed
me that besides needing to speak with
me on the phone to get “information
concerning your magazine,” they
wanted ten dollars (Communist governments were always in need of hard
Western currency) to pay for the
cable costs of a further inquiry into
the matter, presumably with their
bosses back in Prague. My more
important communication had
been with the old United States
Information Agency, until 1999
the propaganda arm of the State
Department and the office that
could hook me up with glamorous
Czech and Slovak dissidents, especially Havel. It’s hard to believe that
the Czechoslovak security services
were unaware of my real intentions,
but we got our visas anyway, and
found ourselves in a sleeping compartment on an overnight train from
West to East, from bourgeois freedom
to police-state tyranny.
After passing through West Germany at night, we arrived at the
Czechoslovak frontier—in the predawn darkness, I recollect—where a
couple of armed policemen boarded
our train and knocked on our compartment door. When one of them
asked in broken English for my “papers,” he seemed briefly concerned
about my connection with a magazine, but my assurance that publisher
just meant “businessman” seemed to
mollify him. The romance of train
travel mixed with the slight fear of arrest or deportation made for a frisson
of excitement, and our journey had
hardly begun.
Upon check-in at the Alcron, as if
on cue, the smiling, obsequious desk
clerk informed us that we had no reservation there and that, in fact, we
were booked at the Hotel Jalta. That
can’t be, I argued. I was nervous, in part
because I assumed we would be targets
of bugging. No doubt the secret police
had selected the Jalta for their convenience more than for our comfort.
I protested to the clerk, insisting
that we wanted to stay at the Alcron
because it was a nicer hotel; I knew
the Jalta was a hideous example of
socialist architecture. Taken aback,
he expressed his consternation in
Czech to someone on the phone,
ten note on Saturday, the day of our
arrival, from William Kiehl, the counselor for press and cultural affairs at
the United States Embassy.
“It is important that I see you this
evening with regard to your program
in Prague on Sunday, the 18,” he
wrote. “Unfortunately, I was unable
to reach you at your Paris number to
tell you of an engagement planned for
the 18.” He didn’t mention names and
he asked me to call him at “any hour
then disappeared. When he returned,
he had relented. They had found a
room in the Alcron and we could
stay, though I thought that we should
watch what we said in room 412.
Renee and I tried to act like normal
tourists and not attract attention to
the main event—a meeting, we
hoped, with dissident writers in a yetto-be-determined location. We
strolled across the ghostly Charles
Bridge and examined the sculptures
along the railings, self-consciously
staring at our guidebook. We visited
the ancient Jewish cemetery, with its
overcrowded hodgepodge of tilted
gravestones. We wandered the streets
haphazardly. But there was no blending into the crowd, because there were
no crowds, just occasional German
tourists, as I recall, and we must have
stood out. It made us anxious, all the
more so since I’d received a handwrit-
this evening” to arrange a meeting
between us.
I don’t remember when I called
Kiehl, or from where, but I do remember wandering into a kind of nightclub, sparsely populated and shabby,
where tinny recorded pop music was
playing and bored-looking people sat
around little café tables, smoking foulsmelling cigarettes. To be sure, the
customers weren’t listening to the legendary Czech dissident rock band the
Plastic People of the Universe. Renee
and I didn’t stay long—I think we ate
some smoked meat and I drank a bottle of beer—but I looked at individual
faces to see if any were looking at us.
Nobody seemed to be, and I began to
feel that my fears of arrest, and even
of surveillance, were exaggerated.
Outside, we strolled down a dimly
illuminated street. And then Renee
saw a man she had noticed in the
“Charles Bridge, Study 1, Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1982” © Michael
Kenna. Courtesy the artist and Weston Gallery, Carmel, California
nightclub. He was walking at a steady
pace about forty feet ahead of us.
When we slowed down, he stopped at
a corner. When we picked up speed,
he started walking again. Yes, we
were being watched.
We met Kiehl in the lobby of the
Alcron, and he told us to come the
next evening to his apartment. The
writers evidently felt safe there and we’d
be able to socialize freely. If all went
well, we would meet two dissident stars,
Václav Havel and the lesserknown (at least in New York)
Ivan Klíma, and the playwright
Alexandr Kliment. So when
Renee and I arrived at Kiehl’s
spacious, old-world, fourth-floor
ˇ Míru 4,
apartment at Námestí
I was disappointed to learn that
Havel would not be coming,
having been detained not by
the government but by other
pressing matters.
Klíma, a novelist, and his
wife, Helena, a psychotherapist,
greeted us in English. Klíma
had courageously returned to
Czechoslovakia after the Soviet
invasion. He had been living in
London and could easily have
followed the example of Milan
Kundera and gone into permanent exile—the next year he
took a teaching post at the
University of Michigan and
had ample opportunity to stay
in the United States—but something
kept him loyal to Czechoslovakia, and
to his friends and family. Klíma and his
parents, who were Jewish, had miraculously survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp until it was liberated
by the Red Army in 1945. Klíma became a Communist Party member in
adulthood, so there was extra irony and
bravery in his dissent after Soviet
troops returned to Prague with objectives very different from the crushing
of fascism.
But the guest who caught my immediate attention was Ludvík Vaculík, and the image of his slightly ironic
and mournful expression, longish hair,
and thick gray mustache made a lasting impression on me. Vaculík, then
fifty-seven, was an originator of
Czech samizdat. Nearly a decade before the appearance of Charter 77, a
rather dull legalistic document,
Vacu lík had composed Two Thousand Words, a manifesto produced
in the full f lower of the Prague
Spring that, according to Jonathan
Bolton, a scholar of the period, “enraged the Soviets” because it urged
reforms and liberalization beyond
what Dubcek’s
government was already instituting. Vaculík’s manifesto was presciently sarcastic:
The summer holidays are approaching, a time when we are inclined to
let everything slip. But we can safely
say that our dear adversaries will not
give themselves a summer break; they
will rally everyone who is under any
obligation to them and are taking
steps, even now, to secure themselves
a quiet Christmas!
Official condemnation of Two
Thousand Words followed from the
Communist Party, and Czechoslovak
hard-liners joined with their Russian
comrades in denouncing the audacity
of Vaculík and the sixty-nine other
well-known signatories to the manifesto, who included writers, scientists,
and Olympic athletes.
Two Thousand Words appeared in
Prague newspapers on June 27, 1968,
Soviet tanks in Prague streets on August 20. As a twelve-year-old, I had
watched the news scroll across the bottom of our TV screen late at night in
Winnetka, Illinois. In those days,
Havel, the future president of the
Czech Republic, was “not yet a dissident,” according to Bolton, “but a
thirty-one-year-old playwright whose
absurdist dramas . . . were enjoying success at home and abroad.” Vaculík had
already become an established leader
of the intellectual opposition, and here
he was in Bill Kiehl’s living room talking about his life under Communist
tyranny. Whereas Havel had spent
considerable time in prison, Vaculík
had remained out of jail, though he
suffered long-term harassment and humiliation. In the 1970s, the secret police had tried to blackmail him into
emigrating or shutting down his dissident literary operations by threatening
to publish nude pictures of him and his
girlfriend. Vaculík refused to buckle,
and the police made good on their
threat, cruelly embarrassing their public enemy and his wife, Madla, as well
as the woman in the photo.
On that night in 1983, I gradually
became aware, however, that Vaculík
didn’t want to talk about politics.
And he wasn’t much interested in my
questions about the constrictions of
daily life in his country. He wanted to
talk about literature, and that’s what
we did. Given the near certainty that
Czechoslovak security was recording
us, if not actually listening in (Kiehl,
now retired, told me recently that the
apartment, which had been the residence of the Israeli chargé d’affaires
until the Czechoslovak government
I can’t remember who handed me
the first sheets of paper, but they
looked just as I had expected: flimsy,
pale-yellow carbon paper covered
with blurry type. This, it was explained, was the transcript of a forum of writers, most of them not
present that evening, who wanted to
talk about writing, not politics.
Many in their world were tired of being lionized as bold and courageous
freedom fighters.
Then Vaculík produced his own
sheets of carbon paper, three in total.
expelled him in 1967, had been “thoroughly bugged” before the American
government took it over), it’s remarkable that the atmosphere wasn’t more
strained. Knowledge of the eavesdropping might also explain why literature, rather than politics, was the
main topic of the evening. But I’m
not convinced that self-censorship
was at work. After all, I was the publisher of a well-known American literary magazine, and these were writers who wanted to be read. As the
evening and the drinking wore on,
we reached a point at which the writers wanted to say something jointly.
Would we take some samizdat out of
the country for them? Would we consider publishing it? Of course we
would, I said.
I recognized one word on the top of
the first page, fejeton, which I presumed meant “feuilleton.” But if it
was a feuilleton, then clearly it was no
political document, no outraged polemic that would get attention for
Harper’s Magazine.
Renee and I accepted the clandestine material and politely took our
leave. We would all meet again under better circumstances, we said. I
can’t remember what Vaculík said,
but I do remember his wistful, somewhat sad expression. Had I known
more about the plight of Czech and
Slovak writers, I might have quoted
out loud, for the benefit of the eavesdropping authorities, from an interview with Havel by Antoine Spire,
published in Le Monde in April
Photograph of Ludvík Vaculík (detail) © Josef Horazny/CTK/Alamy
1983, just a month after Havel was
released from prison:
I am not, never have been, nor do I
want to become a politician, a revolutionary, or a professional dissident. I
am a writer. I write what I want and
not what others want from me. If I get
involved in anything other than my
literary work, I do this simply because I
see there a natural human obligation
and civic duty which, when all is said
and done, flows directly from my position as a writer—that is, of a man who
is in the public eye and is thus duty
bound to speak up on certain subjects
in a louder voice than one who is not.
Not because this man is more important or more clever than others, but
simply, whether he likes it or not, because he is in a different position
which carries with it a different kind
of responsibility.
I had carried a copy of the interview with me to Prague, but I didn’t
have the presence of mind to quote
it then.
enee and I didn’t take any
chances with our samizdat—
she hid the texts under her
sweater in case our bags were too thoroughly searched. It was a smart precaution with a decidedly romantic angle:
smuggling dissident writing out from
behind the Iron Curtain had a certain
savor to it. At the Prague airport, the
search of our luggage was uneventful,
and nobody tried to search us physically. Of course, if they had, all they
would have found was a sort of antipolitical discussion about literature . . .
and a feuilleton.
At the gate, through the window
of the terminal, we saw that our
Czechoslovak Airlines flight to Zurich was surrounded on the tarmac by
uniformed officers carrying automatic
weapons. I had never seen such a
thing before and have not since. The
officers appeared to be limiting access
to the plane, in case anyone made a
break for it from the terminal, and
seemed quite prepared to shoot. Totalitarian rule was a serious business,
and I owed something to the writers
whose work Renee was carrying. We
boarded the plane the old-fashioned
way, descending to the tarmac, walking to the plane, and passing the government gunmen as we walked up
the boarding stairs toward freedom. I
didn’t feel calm until we had been in
the air for a few minutes.
Back in New York, I passed along
my samizdat to Michael Pollan, at the
time a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine. A translator, Suzanne Hruby,
was hired to work on the transcript
of the literary forum of Czech dissidents. But Pollan was doubtful that
the conversation among writers
would be compelling enough for the
editor whose department it would
have fallen into. “This looks very interesting,” he wrote to me in a memo.
“I’ll show it to Mark [Danner], as a
possible forum, but I suspect he’ll find
it too limited, and lacking in major
box office stars (Kundera, etc.).”
However, “I think it could work well
as a Reading.” But what about money?
We had only a partial translation and
a synopsis from Hruby, and translating the entire text would be expensive, he said. Would we have to pay
fees to others, presumably the participants and their foreign publishers?
To my discredit, I did not insist.
Of course we could have afforded
it—that is, if I had encouraged Pollan to spend the money. True,
Harper’s was at the time making its
long climb back to health after
nearly folding in 1980, but I apparently allowed that to be the excuse
to let the matter drop. As for Vaculík’s feuilleton, there’s no record that
we ever discussed it, even though
someone—the text I had in my files
all these years is unsigned—had evidently translated the whole piece for
me. Ignorant as I was of Vaculík’s
importance, and his courage, I was
probably still disappointed that
Havel, the box office draw, hadn’t
shown up at Kiehl’s apartment.
Reasonable people often disagree
sharply about the value of literary
texts and writers. At serious magazines such as Harper’s, these argu-
ments are part of our raison d’être.
The full transcript of the forum was
never returned to me—Hruby could
not find it thirty-three years later
when I inquired about it. All that
remains are the excerpts, unpublished
until now in English, that she initially prepared from “Reflections on
the State of Czech Literature,” including some trenchant remarks by Milan
Jungmann, once the editor of a prestigious literary magazine, who wound
up working as a window washer when
he ran afoul of the government:
It might seem that politics is allpermeating and that in Bohemia all human life and the most authentic expressions of human life are fascinated with
political power. But really that is only
the way it appears. Recently some
world-renowned Czech artists—Nobel
laureate poet J. Seifert, playwright
V. Havel, and novelist M. Kundera—
have frequently pointed out that they
are not professionally interested in politics. They do not consciously engage in
politics and they do not make an effort
to become at all involved in its “game.”
But it is the fate of this small country
that every person with integrity and his
own ideas about the world, who bases
his attitudes, actions, and creative work
on those moral commitments, must collide with politics in one way or another.
Every once in a while he will stumble in
its pitfalls. To a superficial observer,
therefore, it may seem that Czech underground literature is also fascinated
with politics and cannot rid itself of
politics. In reality . . . Czech literature is
concerned with trying to understand
man and the meaning of human life,
with defending his dignity against dehumanizing forces, and with protecting
him against everything that threatens
the nation’s moral health.
According to Hruby’s summary, the
four other participants—Klíma, the
novelists Karel Pecka and Jan Trefulka,
and the dramatist Milan Uhde—were
divided on the effects of being a dissident: “Literary life in both the official
and the unofficial ghetto has suffered,
according to Klíma,” she wrote:
Writers are excluded from entire avenues of social life and then cannot
communicate freely with their readers
and critics. However, Uhde argues
that he enjoys more creative freedom
now than when his plays were published. . . . He suggests that although
Czech writers cannot break through
the ghetto surrounding them they can
and must break through the ghetto
within themselves.
Uhde’s own words, translated by
Hruby, put it this way:
Official intervention has in effect created two ghettos. We live in one, and the
official writers live in the other, even
though they often are unaware of it.
There is no public exchange of views
in either ghetto.
Fair enough, and definitely worth
an extended conversation. Even in a
“free” society, cultural ghettos develop, with “official” and “unofficial”
writers and artists talking only to
their own kind. But what about my
journalistic ghetto, my overly politicized approach to life, my excessive
concern with celebrity and box office
appeal? And where was Ludvík Vaculík in all this? Why hadn’t we at
Harper’s published his feuilleton, or
even discussed it? At the time, I don’t
even remember reading the unsigned
translation that has been moldering
in a file folder all these years.
The reader may prefer to contemplate “On a Plane” without my commentary. Published here in English
for the first time, and translated
anew by Alex Zucker, it was written
the month of my visit to Prague and
first published in Czech in Obsah, a
samizdat journal founded by Vaculík
and others. Politics does appear, in
the allusion to the victims of Korean
Air Lines Flight 007. But Vaculík’s
voice drowns it out with humanity
and irony. I’m sorry I didn’t publish
the essay in 1983, and I regret that I
can’t discuss it with him, since he
died in 2015. Among other things, I
would have liked to talk to him
about what role the human factor
plays in politics and journalism, and
about the best path toward the truth,
which I mostly missed that night in
Cold War–era Prague, populated
though it was with freethinkers of
great warmth and intelligence. And
I would have thanked him for this
sentence from “On a Plane”: “I will
never know the truth anyway, and if
I were, accidentally, to stumble upon
it, wandering in the night, they
would kill me.”
By Ludvík Vaculík
Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker
In the following essay, the Czech dissident
Ludvík Vaculík reflects on the downing of
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet
fighter jet on September 1, 1983; all 269
people aboard the plane died, casualties
of Soviet-American tensions. “On a
Plane” was originally published in the
samizdat journal Obsah (“Contents”),
which was founded by Vaculík and six
other Czech writers in 1981. It also appeared in the collection Spring Is Here:
Feuilletons 1981–87, published in Czech
by Mladá fronta in 1990. Vaculík’s novel
The Czech Dreambook, translated by
Gerald Turner, will be published this year
by Karolinum Press.
can’t get even a sentence down
on paper from the whirlwind of
thoughts in my mind. All I can
do is walk the floor, and my feet are
already hurting, so instead I go lie
down. I try to read but can’t follow
the lines in the order they are written, so I turn out the lights. Yet doing that is like switching on a device that arranges the unruly waves
into an image. A plane hangs suspended in space, bulky and inert.
Then, suddenly, the image begins to
twist and fall apart. It’s both comical and sinister at once. I can’t even
really quite grasp it in a single
screening, so I run it over and over,
like a naughty boy tormenting an
innocent animal, until I can tell
what happened. Who did it and
why? echoes the horrified question,
but I know. I can answer it with a
profile as old as the hills themselves:
it was a killer, by nature and nurture, by wish and command, and a
gleam of joy lit up his dreary life the
moment he heard the order for
which his father unwittingly fucked
him into being, and his offspring
will be programmed killers, too.
In the morning, however, I see it
can’t be true. The report will be re-
tracted, the deed must be undone.
The sun hangs in the sky, shining
brightly overhead, the night mist
melting away in the unspoiled air,
just a breeze swaying the leaves in the
garden and the pears lolling about
the dew-covered grass. Thank God, I
can write about pears! But the clean
sheet of paper left in the typewriter
from the night before disturbs me, as
if some of my tortured thoughts had
in fact managed to find their way
onto it. I tear it out, insert a new
sheet, and, imagining all 269 people
safe at home, I compose my first sentence about the end of summer as I
originally resolved. The sentence
doesn’t work, though. Even the blue
sky itself is losing its confidence. Yes,
it was summer. Then comes winter.
Then, with any luck, a new summer
again . . . but what of it? How and
where do I pry out the truth? Again
contemplating the blank sheet of
paper, I wonder how many things I
still need to close up, square away,
secure in place, before I set out to get
there. How should I say goodbye?
I pick up my heavy typewriter and
carry it down the steps, through the
garden, and into the summerhouse.
Inside, it smells of wood, a wreath of
garlic, a pick and a shovel, phenol
and pears. The typewriter sits firmly
on a little white wooden table
jammed into a corner between two
windows. Through the window in
front of me I see the fire pit, a circle
of rough stones filled with loose ash.
The window on my left gives onto a
hall of green, vaulted with the
branches of a walnut tree, a spotted
woodpecker hacking away at its
trunk. I roll in a new sheet of paper
that knows nothing, just looking
forward to whatever comes next.
Over the edge of the sheet I stare
thoughtfully out the window into
the ash. A fresh, healthy stump,
serving as a chopping block, stands
beside the fire pit. One axe hangs on
the wall by my elbow, another—a
heavy two-hander—leans against the
wall. There are plenty of fine manly
themes here in the summerhouse, and
all the necessary tools. I have pondered more than once, for example,
what kind of dispute, if any, would
bring a man to defend himself with an
axe nowadays. Two scythes hang between the windows. A small handsaw,
Stooping down, I pick up the axehead from Pavel Hrúz and go to the
toolshed. The first thing is to find a
piece of hardwood. I work at it for
about an hour, since, as usual, I run
into all sorts of complications. But
the entire time I feel more at ease
than I did writing about an airplane
somewhere far away, and safer, even
though the roof is just soft slate and
the walls aren’t that thick, either. As
I walk back to the summerhouse
a larger bow saw, a two-man crosscut
saw. All you need to build a house in
an out-of-the-way place where no government will come looking for you.
Where to find such a place? There’s
also an iron bed here, in case of writer’s
block. I have a third axe-head, given to
me by the Slovak writer Pavel Hrúz ten
years ago, but it hasn’t been mounted
yet. I hear the scrape of the walnut
branches on the roof, the woodpecker,
even the murmur of the water across
the weir, and a slight rattle coming
from the windowpane, held in place
mainly by cobwebs. I wait stiffly for the
roar of a plane to pass over the mountains and for the glass to settle back
into its webs.
with the long-handled axe, hearing
the pears fall and seeing the light
bob in the crests of the birch trees, I
feel downhearted again that I can’t
just send off three harmless pages of
acknowledgment and thanks for the
magnificence of the departing summer.
Dutifully I sit down to the typewriter. I appreciate the peace and quiet
and the fact that the floor is raised half
a meter above the ground. I deliberate
over the first sentence. As a rule I can’t
go on until I’m satisfied with that. Once
I have two satisfactory pages, a suitable
title comes to mind, which clarifies
what the whole piece is about. After
that, the third page is a pleasure. All
that remains is to rewrite the first two
Photograph © akg-images/Glasshouse Images
to fit better with the third. It’s a negative method of writing, actually: the
main part is what’s left out. Like a talented artist painting only the background around a figure so the figure
clearly stands out. On the other hand,
there are times when I know exactly
what I want to write, and start right off
with the title. But even that is no guarantee of quick success: here it is September, and all I have of my July feuilleton is the excellent title “Blacks in
Brumov”! Finishing it will
be hard, since, for God’s
sake, what can you add to
that? So I make up my mind
that, for August and September, I will stick a sheet of
paper in, look around at my
surroundings, and describe
what I see.
The paper is in the typewriter. I look around at my
surroundings and immediately remember what I so urgently wanted to do: I take
the shovel, walk outside,
scoop up the ash—the autumn dragon’s wind blowing
it into my face—and carry it
to the pit of rotten apples. I
take a beautiful walk around
the garden and see how many
pears have fallen since I began to write. I gather them up
and rinse the sticky juice off
my hands in the washtub. I
will never know the truth
anyway, and if I were, accidentally, to stumble upon it,
wandering in the night, they
would kill me. I go get a piece
of chicken wire and tie up the threemeter climbers on the “sympathy” rose.
The clear blue-gray sky confirms my
decision that the best thing for everyone is just to go about their daily routine. I need to write. I sit down in my
chair once again, as if for the very first
time. Free now of the weight of my
terrible nightmare, I place my hands
on the keyboard, determined not to
force the typewriter or my hands to do
anything they don’t want to. Summer
isn’t over yet, there are still a few nice
days left. Right off the bat, my fingers
type out a title, the one that stands on
the first of these pages.
Translation © Alex Zucker 2017
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MUNICH, 1938
By Robert Harris
he Regina Palast was an immense, monumental gray stone
cube of a hotel, built in 1908,
with Versailles-style reception rooms, a
Turkish bath in the basement, and
three hundred bedroom s a r ra nged
over seven floors, of
which the British
delegation had been
allotted twenty.
These ran along
the front of the hotel on the third
floor, with views
across the trees of
to the distant twin
Gothic spires of the
After the prime
minister and his
team had left for
the start of the
conference, Hugh
Legat spent the
next ten minutes
walking up and down the dimly lit
carpeted corridor in the company of
the hotel’s assistant manager. He
found it hard to hide his frustration. I
might as well have been a bloody hotelier, he thought. His first task, given
to him by Horace Wilson, was to allocate a room to each member of the
British party and then to make sure
the porters delivered the correct luggage to the right room.
Robert Harris’s novel Munich, from which
this story is excerpted, was published this
month by Knopf.
Illustration by Danijel Žeželj
“I’m sorry to be a bore,” Wilson
had said, “but I’m afraid I’m going to
have to ask you to stay in the hotel
for the duration of the conference.”
“The entire duration?”
“Yes. Someone needs to get an office set up and running, establish an
open line to London, make sure it’s
permanently manned. You’re the obvious choice.” The dismay must have
shown on Legat’s face, because Wilson went on smoothly: “I understand
it’s a disappointment for you not to be
at the main show . . . but it simply
can’t be helped. So sorry.”
For a moment Legat had considered
confiding in him why he was in Munich in the first place. But instinct
warned him that it might only make
Wilson even more determined to keep
him away from the German delegation.
Indeed, there was something about Sir
Horace Wilson’s manner—a vague
hard shape lurking beneath the oily
surface—that suggested to him that
the prime minister’s
chief adviser already had a shrewd
idea of what he had
come to do.
So all he said
was, “Of course, sir.
I’ll make a start
right away.”
The suite designated for the prime
minister included a
bedroom with a
four-poster bed and
a Louis XVI drawing room with gilt
chairs and French
windows that
opened onto a balcony. “It is the finest
room in the hotel,” the under‐manager
assured him. The next‐best rooms Legat
awarded to Wilson, Strang, Malkin,
Ashton-Gwatkin, and the two diplomats from the Berlin embassy, Henderson and Kirkpatrick.
The large double-aspect room in
the southeast corner had been set
aside as the delegation’s office. A tray
of open-faced sandwiches and some
bottles of mineral water had been
provided for lunch. It was here that
the two secretaries set up their
typewriters—two Imperials and a
Remington portable—and unpacked
their stationery. Legat put the PM’s red
boxes on the desk. An old-fashioned
telephone was the only means of communication. He asked the hotel operator to book an international call to
the switchboard of Number 10, then
hung up and paced around the room.
He sat and poured himself a glass of
water. It was warm and tasted vaguely
of sulfur. Almost immediately the
phone rang. He jumped up to answer
it: “Yes?” Over the voice of the hotel
operator informing him that he was
connected to London he could just
make out the exasperated tone of the
telephonist in Downing Street repeatedly asking what extension he required. He had to shout to make himself heard. It was another minute
before the principal private secretary
came on the line.
“Sir, it’s Legat. We’re in Munich.”
“Yes, I know. It’s running on the
newswires.” Cleverly’s voice was very
faint and hollow. There was a series of
faint clicks on the line. That would be
the Germans listening, thought Legat.
Cleverly said, “It sounds as though
you—” The robot‐voice was lost in a
crackle of static.
“I’m sorry, sir. Could you repeat
“I said, it sounds as though you
had quite a reception!”
“We certainly did, sir.”
“Where’s the PM?”
“He’s just left for the conference.
I’m at the hotel.”
“Good. I want you to stay there
and make sure this line stays open.”
“With respect, sir, I think I would
be more useful if I were actually in
the same building as the PM.”
“No, absolutely not. Do you hear
me? I want—” Another burst of static,
like gunfire. The line went dead.
“Hello? Hello?” Legat pressed the
lever on the cradle half a dozen times.
“Hello? Damn!” He hung up and
looked at the apparatus with hatred.
For the next two hours Legat made
repeated attempts to establish a line to
London. It proved impossible. Throughout all this, in the garden opposite the
hotel, the crowd kept growing. There
was a holiday atmosphere, the men in
leather shorts, the women in floral
dresses. Much beer was being drunk.
He found a tourist guide to the city
in the desk drawer. The hotel appeared to be only about half a mile
from the Führerbau—left along MaxJoseph-Straße and up to Karolinenplatz, over the roundabout. . . . Assuming he could find Paul von Hartmann
quickly enough, he could be there and
back in half an hour.
t the Führerbau, they waited.
Each delegation had been allotted its own area. The Germans and the Italians shared the
long open gallery that was next to
the Führer’s study; the British and
the French occupied the two reception rooms at the far end of the corridor that faced it. Paul von Hartmann positioned himself in an
armchair in the gallery that afforded
him a clear view between the pillars
across the wide, open space to where
the Allied officials sat in silence,
reading and smoking. Both delegations had left their doors open in
case they were needed. He could see
them moving around, casting hopeful, anxious glances toward the big
corner study where the Führer’s door
remained firmly shut.
Still Legat did not come.
One hour passed, and then another. From time to time, a Nazi
chieftain—Göring, Himmler, Hess—
wandered by with his attendants, occasionally stopping to exchange a few
words with the Germans. The boots
of the SS adjutants rang on the marble floor. Messages were whispered.
The atmosphere was that of a big,
hushed institution—a museum perhaps, or a library. Everyone watched
everyone else.
From time to time, Hartmann
reached inside his jacket and touched
the metal of the gun, warmed by the
heat of his body, then slid his hand
down the side of his shirt and felt the
outline of the envelope. Somehow he
would have to get it into the hands of
the British delegation, and sooner
rather than later—there was no point
in leaving it until a deal was agreed
on. Legat, it seemed, was out of the
picture: why, he did not know. But if
not Legat, who?
It would take him less than half a
minute to saunter over to the British
delegation’s room. Unfortunately, he
could do so only in full view of the
entire assembly. What possible excuse
could he contrive? His mind, tired
from two nights of little sleep, circled
endlessly around the problem without
finding a solution. Nevertheless, he
decided he would have to try.
At three o’clock he stood to stretch
his legs. He walked around the corner,
past the Führer’s office to the balustrade nearest the British delegation’s
room. He rested his hands on the cold
marble, leaned casually against it, and
looked down into the lobby. He risked
a surreptitious glance at the British.
Suddenly there was a noise behind
him. The door to Hitler’s study
opened and Chamberlain appeared.
He looked much grimmer than he
had a couple of hours earlier. After
him came Wilson, then Daladier and
Léger. Daladier, patting his pockets,
pulled out a cigarette case. At once,
the British and French delegations
streamed out from their respective
rooms to meet them. As they hurried
past him, Hartmann heard Chamberlain call out, “Come on, gentlemen, we’re leaving,” and the two
groups walked along the gallery to
the far staircase and began to descend. A minute later, Hitler and
Mussolini emerged and stalked off in
the same direction, with Ciano trailing behind. Hitler’s expression was
still one of irritation. He was gesticulating at Il Duce, muttering to
him angrily, his right hand making
sweeping gestures as if he wished to
consign the entire business to oblivion. The glorious possibility occurred
to Hartmann that perhaps the whole
thing had collapsed.
egat was at the desk in the Regina Palast office, sorting
through the contents of the
red boxes and putting aside the documents annotated by the prime minister requiring urgent action, when he
heard the crowd begin to cheer. He
got to his feet and looked down into
Maximiliansplatz. An open Mercedes
had drawn up outside the hotel.
Chamberlain was climbing out, accompanied by Wilson.
He locked the boxes and went out
into the corridor. At the far end the
elevator bell rang softly. The doors
opened and the prime minister
emerged with Wilson and one of his
Scotland Yard detectives.
“Good afternoon, Prime Minister.”
“Hello, Hugh.” His voice was
tired. In the weak electric light, he
looked almost spectral. “Where are
we based?”
“Your suite is here, sir.”
A s s o on a s he cro s s e d t he
threshold the prime minister disappeared into the bathroom. Wilson
went over to t he window a nd
looked down at the crowd. He, too,
seemed exhausted.
“How did it go, sir?”
“It was pretty bloody. Will you tell
the others to come in here? Everyone
needs to be briefed.”
Legat stationed himself in the corridor and diverted the arriving delegates into the room. Within two minutes it was full: Strang, Malkin,
Ashton-Gwatkin, and Lord Dunglass,
Prime Minister Chamberlain’s parliamentary private secretary, together
with Henderson and Kirkpatrick from
Berlin. Legat went in last. He closed
the door behind him, just as the prime
minister came out of his bedroom. He
had changed his collar and washed his
face. The hair behind his ears was still
damp. He looked altogether brighter.
“Gentlemen, please sit down.” He took
the large armchair facing the room
and waited while they all found seats.
“Horace, why don’t you put everyone
in the picture?”
“Thank you, Prime Minister.
Well, the whole thing was somewhat of a Mad Hatter’s tea party, as
you’ve probably gat hered.” He
pulled a small notebook from his inside pocket and flattened it out on
his knee. “We started with a speech
from Hitler, the gist of which was
(a) that Czechoslovakia is now a
threat to peace in Europe; (b) that a
quarter of a million refugees have
fled the Sudetenland into Germany
in the past few days; and (c) that
the whole situation is critical and
must be settled by Saturday—either
Britain and France and Italy will
have to guarantee that the Czechs
will start evacuating the disputed
territory on that day or he’ll march
in and take it. He kept looking at
his watch as if he were checking
when the twenty-four-hour pause on
mobilization would expire. Overall,
I must say my impression is that he’s
not bluffing, and either we sort this
thing out today or it’s war.”
He turned a page.
“Then Mussolini produced a draft
agreement in Italian, which the Germans have since had translated.” He
felt around in his other inside pocket
and pulled out a few typewritten
pages. “Translated into German, that
is. As far as we can gather, it’s more
or less what was proposed before.”
He threw it on the coffee table.
Strang said, “Will Hitler accept an
international commission to determine
which areas are to become German?”
“No, he says there’s no time for
that—there should be a plebiscite,
and each district can decide according to a simple majority.”
“And what happens to the minority?”
“They will have to evacuate by
October tenth. He also wants us to
guarantee that the Czechs won’t destroy any of their installations before
they leave.”
The prime minister said, “It’s the
word ‘guarantee’ I don’t like. How on
earth can we guarantee anything unless we know the Czechs will agree?”
“Then surely they need to be at
the conference?”
“Exactly the point I made. Unfortunately, this led to the usual vulgar
tirade against the Czechs. There
was a lot of this.” The prime minister smacked his fi st into his other
palm repeatedly.
Wilson consulted his notes. “To be
exact, he said that he had agreed to
postpone military action—but if
those who had urged him ‘to do so
were not prepared to take responsibility for Czechoslovakia’s compliance,’ he would have to reconsider.”
“Good God!”
Chamberlain said, “Nevertheless,
I stood my ground. It’s inconceivable
that we should guarantee Czech
compliance unless the Czechs themselves agree.”
Henderson said, “What was the
French position on bringing the
Czechs into the talks?”
“To begin with Daladier backed
me up, but then after about half an
hour he changed his tune. What exactly was it he said, Horace?”
Wilson read from his notebook. “If
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would cause difficulties, he was
ready to forgo this, as it was important that the question should be
settled speedily.”
“To which I countered that I wasn’t
insisting that the Czechs should actually take part in the discussions, but at
the very least they should be in the
next room, so that they could give us
the necessary assurances.”
Wilson said, “You were very firm,
Prime Minister.”
“Well, yes, I was. I had to be!
Daladier is utterly useless. He gives
the impression he’s loathing every
minute of being here and just wants
to sign an agreement and get home
to Paris as quickly as possible. Once
it became clear we weren’t going to
get anywhere—in fact, that there
was a risk the whole thing might
break up in acrimony—I proposed
we adjourn for an hour so that we
could consult with our respective
delegations about Mussolini’s draft.”
“And the Czechs?”
“Let’s wait and see. By the end
Hitler had a face like thunder. He’s
taken Mussolini and Himmler back
to his apartment for lunch—I can’t
say I envy Musso that particular social engagement!”
n the Führerbau, the German and
Italian officials had drifted back
toward the room where the buffet
lunch had been laid out. The two
groups didn’t mingle. The Germans
felt themselves superior to the Italians. The Italians thought the Germans vulgar. Over by the window, a
circle formed around State Secretary
Ernst von Weizsäcker and Dr. Schmidt,
the foreign ministry’s chief interpreter.
Hartmann collected a plate of food
and joined them. Weizsäcker was
showing the group a document typed
in German. He seemed very pleased
with himself. It took a moment for
Hartmann to grasp that this was
some kind of draft agreement, produced at the leaders’ meeting by
Mussolini. So the talks hadn’t broken down after all. He felt his earlier
good spirits evaporate. His dismay
must have shown on his face, because Sauer said, “There’s no need to
look quite so miserable about it,
Hartmann! At least we have the basis of an agreement.”
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“I’m not miserable, Herr Sturmbannführer, merely amazed that Dr.
Schmidt should have managed to
translate it so quickly.”
Schmidt laughed and rolled his
eyes at Hartmann’s naïveté. “My
dear Hartmann, I didn’t have to
translate a thing! That draft was
written last night in Berlin. Mussolini pretended it was his own work.”
Weizsäcker said, “Do you honestly
think we would have left something
so important to the Italians?”
The others joined in the laughter.
Across the room, a couple of the
Italians turned to look at them.
Weizsäcker became serious. He put
his finger to his lips. “I think we
should keep our voices down.”
egat spent the next hour in
the office, translating the
text of the Italians’ draft
agreement from German into English. It wasn’t very long—fewer
than a thousand words. As he finished each page he gave it to a secretary to type. At various points,
the members of the British delegation trooped into the office to read
over his shoulder.
1. The evacuation will begin on October 1st.
2. The United Kingdom, France and
Italy guarantee that the evacuation
of the territory shall be completed
by October 10th . . .
And so it went on, eight paragraphs
in all.
It was Malkin, the Foreign Office
lawyer, sitting in an armchair in the
corner, reading through the pages and
puffing on his pipe, who suggested that
“guarantee” be replaced with “agree”—a
clever stroke, seemingly trivial, that
completely altered the tenor of the
draft. Wilson took it along the corridor to show to the prime minister, who
was resting in his room. The word
came back that Chamberlain agreed.
It was Malkin also who pointed out
that the whole thrust of the document
implied that three powers—Britain,
France, and Italy—were making concessions to a fourth, Germany: a thrust
that gave what he called “an unfortunate impression.” He therefore wrote
out a preamble to the agreement in his
Chancery Lane copperplate:
Germany, the United Kingdom,
France and Italy, taking into consideration the agreement, which has
been already reached in principle for
the cession to Germany of the Sudeten German territory, have agreed on
the following terms and conditions
governing the said cession and the
measures consequent thereon, and by
this agreement they each hold themselves responsible for the steps necessary to secure its fulfillment.
The prime minister signaled his
agreement to that as well. Just after four
o’clock the document had been retyped,
and the delegation began moving downstairs to their cars. Chamberlain came
out from his bedroom into the drawing
room, looking tense, nervously smoothing his mustache with his thumb and
forefinger. Legat handed him the folder.
Wilson muttered, “Perhaps a better quotation from Shakespeare to have used at
Heston might have been, ‘Once more
unto the breach, dear friends.’ ” The
corners of the prime minister’s mouth
turned down slightly.
His detective said, “Are you ready
to go, sir?”
Chamberlain nodded and walked
out of the room. As Wilson turned
to follow him, Legat decided to make
one last appeal. “I really think I
would be more useful at the actual
conference, sir, rather than hanging
around here. There’s bound to be
further translating to be done.”
“Oh, no, no—the ambassador and
Kirkpatrick can handle that. You
man the fort here. Really, you’re doing a splendid job.” He patted Legat’s
arm. “You need to get onto Number
Ten straightaway and read them the
text of our revised draft. Ask them
to make sure it’s circulated to the
Foreign Office. Well—here goes.”
He hurried after the prime minister.
Legat returned to the office, picked up
the telephone, and once again booked a
call to London. This time, to his surprise, it went through.
or Hartmann, the existence of a
draft agreement changed everything. Clever minds would now
bend themselves to smoothing over
points of difference. Iron principles
would shimmer and then magically vanish. The most contentious issues of all,
on which no accord was possible, would
simply be ignored and left to subcommittees to deal with at a later date. He
knew how these things worked.
He edged away from the luncheon
party, replaced his plate on the buffet
table, and slipped out of the room. He
reckoned he might have only an hour,
or two at most. He needed to find some
secluded space. To his left were a couple
of closed doors and beyond them a gap
in the wall. He walked toward it: the
landing of a service staircase. He looked
over his shoulder. No one seemed to
have noticed his departure. He sidestepped quickly and began to descend.
He passed a chef in kitchen whites
climbing the stairs carrying a tray of
covered dishes. The man ignored him.
He continued on down, past the ground
floor, all the way to the basement.
The passage was wide, the walls
whitewashed, the floor smooth flagstones, like the cellar of a castle. It appeared to run the entire length of the
building. He could smell food cooking
nearby, could hear the metallic crashes
of a kitchen. He walked on firmly, in
the manner of a man who had every
right to be wherever he wished. He
passed a staircase and a guardroom,
opened a large metal door, and stepped
into the heat of the afternoon.
It was the car park at the back of
the building. A dozen black Mercedeses were drawn up in a line. A
couple of the drivers were smoking.
Faintly in the distance he heard
cheers and shouts of “Sieg heil!”
He turned around and went back
inside. An SS man appeared from
the guardroom. “What are you doing? Hurry up, man! Can’t you hear
the Führer is returning?”
Hatmann pushed past him and
started climbing the staircase. He trotted up the steps quickly. His heart felt
too full for his chest. He emerged more
or less exactly where he had been
standing when the first session of the
conference broke up. There was a
flurry of activity. Aides were moving
hastily into position, straightening
their jackets, smoothing down their
hair, looking along the corridor. Hitler
and Mussolini came into view, walking side by side. Behind them came
Himmler and Ciano. It was clear that
the luncheon interval had done nothing to improve Hitler’s mood. Mussolini stopped to talk to Attolico, but
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Hitler stamped on regardless, followed
by the German delegation.
At the entrance to his study he
halted and turned to look down the
length of the building. Hartmann, no
more than ten paces away, saw the irritation in his face. He began to rock
up and down on the balls of his feet.
From outside came a burst of even
louder applause, and shortly afterward
Chamberlain appeared at the top of
the far staircase, followed by Daladier.
They began to confer, standing together beside a pillar. Hitler watched
the two democratic leaders for a minute. Suddenly he wheeled around, located Ribbentrop, and gestured angrily at him to go and fetch them. He
disappeared into his study and Hartmann felt a rush of renewed optimism.
The professional diplomats might
imagine the deal was already done,
but nothing could be settled until Hitler willed it, and he still looked as
though he would like nothing more
than to send them all packing.
t must have been after five when
Legat finished dictating the final
clause to the stenographer in
Downing Street.
“ ‘The Czechoslovak Government
will, within a period of four weeks
from the date of this agreement, release from their military and police
forces any Sudeten Germans who
may wish to be released, and the
Czechoslovak Government will
within the same period release Sudeten German prisoners who are serving terms of imprisonment for political offence.’ Have you got all that?”
“Yes, sir.”
He tucked the receiver under his
chin and began gathering together
the pages of the draft. In the distance
he heard raised voices. The door had
been left half-open. There was some
kind of argument going on in the corridor. “Engländer!” a man was shouting in a thick accent. “Ich verlange,
mit einem Engländer zu sprechen!”
Legat went out into the corridor.
At the far end of the passage, near
the back of the hotel, a figure was
gesticulating, trying to push his way
past a group of four men in suits.
They kept moving to block his path.
“An Englishman! I demand to speak
to an Englishman!”
Legat walked toward them. “I am
English! Can I help?”
The man called out, “Thank God!
I am Dr. Hubert Masarik, chef de
cabinet of the foreign minister of
Czechoslovakia! These men are from
the Gestapo and they are holding me
and my colleague, the Czech minister in Berlin, Dr. Vojtek Mastny, imprisoned in this room!”
He was about forty, distinguishedlooking in a pale-gray suit with a
handkerchief in his breast pocket. His
long, high-domed head was flushed. At
some point his round tortoiseshell
spectacles had been knocked awry.
Legat said, “May I ask who is in
charge here?”
One of the Gestapo men swung
around. He was broad-faced with a
hard tight mouth and badly pitted
cheeks, as though he had suffered
smallpox in his youth. He looked
ready for a fight. “And who are you?”
“My name is Hugh Legat. I am
the private secretary to Prime Minister Chamberlain.”
The Gestapo officer’s attitude
changed at once. “There is no
question of imprisonment, Herr Legat. We have merely asked these
gentlemen to wait in their room for
their own security while the conference is in progress.”
“But we are supposed to be observers at this conference!” Masarik
adjusted his spectacles. “I appeal to
the representative of the British
government to allow us to do what
we were sent here to do.”
“May I?” Legat gestured to be allowed to pass. The three other Gestapo men looked to the officer. He
nodded. They stood aside. Legat
shook hands with Masarik. “I’m
very sorry about this. Where is
your colleague?”
He followed Masarik into the bedroom. A professorial figure in his sixties, still wearing his overcoat, was
seated on the edge of the bed, holding his hat between his knees. He
stood as Legat entered. He looked utterly dejected. “Mastny.” He held out
his hand.
Masarik said, “We landed from
Prague less than an hour ago and
were met by these people at the airport. We assumed we were being
taken directly to the conference.
Instead we have been forced to remain here. It is an outrage!”
The Gestapo officer was standing
in the doorway, listening. “As I
have explained, they are not allowed to participate in the conference. My orders are that they are to
wait in their hotel room until further instructions have been issued.”
“Therefore we are under arrest!”
“Not at all. You are free to return
to the air port and f ly back to
Prague whenever you wish.”
Legat said, “May I ask who issued
this order?”
The Gestapo officer stuck out his
chest. “I believe it comes from the
Führer himself.”
“An outrage!”
Mastny put his hand on his
younger colleague’s arm. “Calm yourself, Hubert. I am more used to life in
Germany than you are. There is no
point in shouting.” He turned to Legat. “You are the private secretary to
Mr. Chamberlain? Perhaps you might
speak to the prime minister on our
behalf, and see if this unfortunate
situation can be resolved?”
Legat looked at the two Czechs,
and then at the Gestapo man, who
was standing with his arms folded.
“Let me go and see what I can do.”
he crowd in the park opposite
the hotel was still large. They
watched Legat leave without
interest: yet another official in a suit;
a nobody. He walked quickly, his
head down.
Max‐Joseph‐Straße was quiet and
lined with cherry trees flanked in turn
by handsome apartment blocks of red
and white stone. There was a smoky
mellowness in the air. Pushing
through the autumn drifts in the
warm late-afternoon light reminded
him of Oxford. Two well-dressed elderly women exercised their dogs. A uniformed nanny pushed a pram. It was
only after he had been walking for
about five minutes—after he had
passed the obelisk in the center of the
roundabout and gone a little way toward Königsplatz—that he sensed that
at some point, without noticing, he
had crossed an invisible frontier into a
darker and less familiar world. What
he remembered as a park had become
a parade ground. In a pagan temple, a
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black‐uniformed soldier stood guard
before an eternal flame.
He could tell the Führerbau by the
crowd in the granite square in front of
it. The building itself was classical,
impersonal, of whitish stone: three stories, with a balcony in the middle of the
first where he could imagine Hitler
appearing at one of those vast quasireligious spectacles that filled the newsreels. He explained his official status to
a sentry and was allowed to pass. An
officer in an SS uniform inside the
lobby checked his name on a list.
“Where would I find the British
“On the first floor, Herr Legat, in
the reception room in the far corner.” The adjutant clicked his heels.
Legat climbed the wide redmarble staircase and turned right.
He passed an area of low tables and
a r mchairs a nd suddenly t here
ahead of him was Hartmann. It
took him a few seconds to be sure it
was actually him. He was standing,
holding a cup and saucer, talking to
a silver-haired man in a dark-blue
suit. His hair had been receding
when he was at Oxford but now he
was almost entirely bald. His handsome head was cocked as he listened to his companion. He looked
stooped, strained, weary. Yet for all
that, something of the old aura still
hung around him, even at a distance. He spotted Legat over the
other man’s shoulder, registered
him with a slight widening of his
violet eyes, and gave a barely perceptible shake of his head. Legat
walked on.
Through the open door he could
see Strang and Dunglass. The British party looked up as he walked
in. They had spread themselves
around the large room. Henderson
was reading a German newspaper.
Kirkpatrick had his legs stretched
out and his eyes closed. Malkin had
some papers on his lap. AshtonGwatkin appeared to be reading a
volume of Japanese poetry. Strang
said sharply, “Hugh? What are you
doing here? I thought you were supposed to stay at the hotel?”
“I was, sir, but something’s come up.
The Czech delegation have arrived at
the Regina Palast and they’re being
prevented from leaving their room.”
“Prevented how?”
“By the Gestapo. They want the
prime minister to intercede on
their behalf.”
There were groans from around
the room.
Henderson said, “I don’t see why
they should imagine the PM can do
anything about that.”
“Even so, it will be hard to make
an agreement without them.” Strang
sucked on the stem of his unlit pipe;
it cracked and whistled. “I think you’d
better go and soothe them, Frank.
You know them better than the rest
of us.”
Ashton-Gwatkin sighed and closed
his book. Legat noticed that Dunglass
was craning his neck to peer along
the corridor, in the manner of one of
those mystified‐looking birds he liked
to shoot.
Kirkpatrick saw it, too. “What is
it, Alec? Is something happening?”
“Yes,” said Dunglass. As usual he
drawled without seeming to move
his lips. “Hitler’s door is open.”
artmann thought that the
passage of six years had
barely changed Legat at all.
He might have been crossing the
quad at Balliol. There was the same
odd combination of age and youth:
the thick, dark, boyish hair flicked
back on his forehead and the pale
gravity of his expression; the lightness
of his movements—he had been a
runner at Oxford—encased in those
stiff old‐fashioned clothes. The sight of
him caused Hartmann to briefly lose
track of what Weizsäcker was saying.
He failed to notice Schmidt hurrying
toward them.
“Herr von Weizsäcker and Signor
Attolico—” Schmidt nodded to
the state secretary and beckoned to
the Italian ambassador—“excuse
me, gentlemen: the Führer would
like you to join the talks.”
The men sitting nearest them overheard. Heads turned. Weizsäcker nodded as if he had been expecting this.
“Does he want anyone else?”
“Only the British and French
“I’ll fetch them,” volunteered Hartmann. Without waiting for approval
he set off toward the two delegations.
He entered the French room first.
Offering the Best, the Only and the
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soft against skin. Magnetic front
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Use code #601025
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“Monsieur Francois‐
¸ Poncet?” The boulevardier’s face, with its old-fashioned
wax mustache, swung around to look
at him. “Forgive me, Your Excellency,
the leaders would like their ambassadors to join them.” Even before
was on his feet, Hart¸
mann was striding next door. “Sir Nevile, a request from the Führer’s study—
would you please be good enough to
join the heads of government?”
Strang said, “Only Sir Nevile?”
“Only Sir Nevile.”
“At last!” Henderson folded his
newspaper and placed it on the table. He stood and checked his buttonhole in the mirror.
Kirkpatrick said, “Good luck.”
“Thanks.” He sauntered out of the
“Does this mean there’s been a
“I fear I am only the messenger,
Mr. Strang.” Hartmann smiled and
bowed slightly. He glanced around.
“Are you comfortable in here? Is
there anything you need?”
“We’re fine, thank you, Herr—”
Strang paused.
“Herr Hartmann, of course, excuse
me.” Hartmann waited pointedly and
Strang found himself obliged to introduce his colleagues. “This is Lord
Dunglass, the prime minister’s parliamentary private secretary. Sir William
Malkin of the Foreign Office. Frank
Ashton‐Gwatkin, also of the Foreign
Office. Ivone Kirkpatrick from the
Berlin embassy I expect you know . . . ”
“Indeed, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Very
good to see you again.” Hartmann
went around the room shaking hands.
“And this is Hugh Legat, one of the
prime minister’s private secretaries.”
“Mr. Legat.”
“Herr Hartmann.”
Hartmann held on to Legat’s
hand a fraction longer than he had
the others’ and tugged it gently.
“Well, do let me know if I can be of
any assistance.”
Legat said, “I should get back to
the hotel.”
“And I suppose I should talk to
the poor old Czechos,” said Ashton‐
Gwatkin wearily, “assuming I can
find a telephone that works.”
The three men went out into the
corridor and walked toward Hitler’s
study. The door had already closed
again. Hartmann said, “Let us hope
some progress is being made.” He
stopped. “I shall look forward to
seeing you later. If you’ll excuse me,
gentlemen?” He inclined his head
graciously, turned to his left, and
began to descend the service stairs.
Legat continued on his way with
Ashton-Gwatkin for a few more paces,
then he, too, halted. “I’m sorry, I’ve
just remembered there’s something I
need to tell Strang.” The ploy seemed
so obvious it embarrassed him, but
Ashton-Gwatkin merely raised his
hand in farewell—“Later, dear boy”—
and carried on walking. Legat retraced his steps. Without a backward
glance he followed Hartmann down
the stairs.
He couldn’t see him but he could
hear the soles of his shoes ringing on
the steps. He expected him to stop
at the ground floor; instead the clatter of leather on stone continued for
another two f lights until Legat
found himself emerging into a basement passage just in time to catch a
gleam of daylight to his right and
the sound of a door slamming shut.
He preferred not to think of the
absurdity of the figure he must cut—
the Whitehall civil servant in his
dark suit and watch chain hurrying
along the subterranean service corridor of the Führer’s private palace.
Legat passed a guardroom—empty,
he was relieved to see—opened the
heavy steel door, and stepped out into
daylight and a courtyard full of black
Mercedeses. At the far end, Hartmann was waiting. He waved and
hurried toward him. But Hartmann
immediately set off again, turning
right and vanishing from view.
From then on Hartmann kept
about a hundred yards ahead. He led
Legat past the two Temples of Honor
with their motionless guards and
wavering flames, past another monumental white‐stone Nazi building
identical to the Führerbau, then out
of Königsplatz altogether and into a
wide street with big office blocks
festooned with swastikas. He glanced
over his shoulder. Nobody seemed to
be following him. Ahead was an ugly
modern building that looked like the
entrance to a railway station but
advertised itself as the Park Café.
Hartmann went inside. A minute
later, Legat did the same.
t was the end of the workday. The
bar was crowded, mostly with
workers from the nearby government offices to judge by the look of
them. There were a lot of brown Party
uniforms. He peered around for Hartmann through the clouds of cigarette
smoke and saw his bald head in the
corner. He was sitting at a table with
his back to the room but facing a mirror so that he could watch what was
happening. Legat slipped into the seat
opposite him. Hartmann’s wide mouth
split into his familiar vulpine grin.
“Well,” he said, “here we are again, my
friend,” and Legat remembered that for
Paul there was always amusement to
be had in any situation, even this one.
Then Hartmann added, more seriously, “Were you followed?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.
I’m not exactly used to this sort of
“Welcome to the new Germany,
my dear Hugh! You’ll find one has
to get used to it.”
The man at the next table was in
an SA uniform. He was reading Der
Stürmer. A vile caricature of a Jew
with the tentacles of an octopus
dominated the front page. Legat
hoped the noise from the bar was too
loud for them to be overheard.
He said quietly, “Is it safe here?”
“No. But safer than staying where
we were. We will order two beers.
We will pay for them and take them
out into the garden. We will continue to speak entirely in German.
We are two old friends, meeting after
a long interval, with a great deal to
catch up on—this much is true. Lies
are always best when mostly true.”
He signaled to the waiter. “Two
beers, please.”
“You haven’t changed much.”
“Ah!” Hartmann laughed. “If
only you knew!” He pulled out a
lighter and a pack of cigarettes, offered one, leaned over, and lit Legat’s first and then his own. They
sat back and smoked in silence for a
while. Occasionally Hartmann
looked at him and shook his head
as if he couldn’t believe it.
Legat said, “Won’t they be wondering where you are?”
Tarjei Vesaas
b o o k f i v e
Miltos Sachtouris
Antonio Moresco
Vulture in a Cage
Poems by Solomon Ibn Gabirol
Robert Musil
Elias Khoury
Posthumous Papers of
a Living Author
Gate of the Sun
Translated from Hebrew by Raymond P. Scheindlin
Translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
Translated from Italian by Richard Dixon
Translated from the German by Peter Wortsman
archipelago books
Magdalena Tulli
Dreams and Stones
The Exploded View
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Louis Couperus
Mahmoud Darwish
Why Did You
Leave the Horse Alone?
Karl Ove Knausgaard
My Struggle
Elias Khoury
The Exploded View
“One or two will no doubt be
looking for me.” He shrugged. “It
can’t be helped.”
Legat continued to look around
the bar. The unfamiliar tobacco
was strong. It burned the back of
his throat. He felt horribly exposed.
“Let’s hope they don’t finish the
talks before we get back.”
“I don’t think that’s likely, do you?
Even if there’s an agreement, they’re
sure to be some while yet, settling all
the details. And if there isn’t an agreement, then it’s war . . . ” Hartmann
flourished his cigarette. “And then you
and I and our little meeting will be
entirely irrelevant.” He regarded Legat
through the smoke. His large eyes were
more hooded than Legat remembered.
“I read that you had married.”
“Yes. And you?”
The waiter arrived with their
beers. He set t hem dow n a nd
moved off to serve another customer. Legat realized he had no German money. Hartmann put a handful of coins on the table. “Have
this on me—‘my round,’ as we used
to say.” He closed his eyes briefly.
“The Cock and Camel. The Crown
and Thistle. The Pheasant in St.
Giles. . . . How are they all? How is
everyone? How is Isaiah?”
“It’s all still there. Oxford is still
“Not for me, alas.” He looked
maudli n. “Well, I suppose we
should transact our business.”
The Brownshirt at the next table
had paid his bill and was rising to
go, leaving his newspaper on the
table. Hartmann said, “Excuse me,
comrade, but if you’ve finished with
your Stürmer, might I take it?”
“My pleasure.” The man handed
it over, nodded to them affably, and
“You see?” said Hartmann. “They’re
quite charming when you get to know
them. Bring your beer. We’ll go outside.” He stubbed out his cigarette.
There were metal tables on a gravel
surface beneath bare trees. The sun
had gone. It would soon be dusk. The
beer garden was as busy as the bar—
men in lederhosen, women in dirndls.
Hartmann led him over to a small
table beside a bed of lavender. Beyond
it was a botanical park. The neat paths
Dominique Fabre
The Waitress Was New
H a lld ó r L a xness
Wayward Heroes
Dance on the Volcano
Translated from the French by Kaiama L. Glover
Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Map Drawn by a Spy
Josep Maria de Sagarra
Private Li fe
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried
Translated from Catalan by Mary Ann Newman
Christine Angot
Ivailo Petrov
Translated from the French by Tess Lewis
Magdalena Tulli
Dreams and Stones
Poems by Abdellatif Laâbi
Magdalena Tulli
Nest in the Bones
Stories by Antonio Di Benedetto
The Novices of Sais
Héct o r A b ad
The Farm
With illustrations by Paul Klee
Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim
translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Translated from the German by Tess Lewis
Translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston
Note: * indicates an
outer ring: 1. pun; 25. *;
26. dopp(elg*)anger*.
second ring: 27. S-ain’t-ex-up-éry*;
30. two mngs.; 31. *.
third ring: 32. uni[t]-quest;
33. out-flan-[ma]king; 34. pun;
35. *; 36. a-maze.
fourth ring: 37. *; 38. reap-pearance*-s[ugar]; 39. mount-E-bankEries; 40. hidden.
fifth ring: 41. cinna-moned*; 42. pun.
inner ring: 43. steeple-chase.
radial clues: 1. pun; 2. hum-aniz*-E; 3. two definitions; 4. creep-sin; 5. *; 6. [da]d-I(cent)RA;
7. en-Cyclop[s]-edia(rev.); 8. e.g.-0-man-i[s]-a; 9. *; 10. geolog*-I-C; 11. hidden; 12. [l]otta-vino; 13. love
handles; 14. *; 15. strait(homophone)-jack-et; 16. cake-walk; 17. hide-Y(our-f)-ace; 18. rel(ease)e*; 19. *;
20. up-to-date; 21. homophone; 22. *; 23. UN-commercial; 24. ter(razz)o*.
and flower beds, the specimens of
trees, seemed familiar. Legat said,
“Haven’t we been here before?”
“Yes, we sat over there and had
an argument. You accused me of
being a Nazi at heart.”
“Did I? I’m sorry. Sometimes, to
an outsider, German nationalism
didn’t sound that much different
from Nazism.”
Har tma n n f licked his ha nd.
“Let’s not get into all that. There
isn’t time.” He pulled out a chair.
The steel legs scraped on the gravel.
They sat. Legat refused another cigarette. Hartmann lit one for himself.
“So. Let me go straight to the point
of it: I would like you to arrange for
me to meet with Chamberlain.”
Legat sighed. “They told me in
London that was what you wanted.
I’m sorry, Paul, it’s just not possible.”
“But you are his secretary. Secretaries arrange meetings.”
“I’m the most junior of his secretaries. I fetch and carry. He’d no
more listen to me than he would to
that waiter over there. And besides,
isn’t it rather too late for meetings?”
Hartmann shook his head. “Right
now, at this very moment, it is still
not too late. It will only be too late
after your prime minister has signed
this agreement.”
Legat cupped the beer glass in his
hands and bowed his head. He remembered this absurd stubbornness, this refusal to abandon a chain of reasoning
even when it had demonstrably started
from a false premise. They might have
been arguing in the taproom of the
Eagle and Child. “Paul, I promise you,
there’s nothing you can say to him that
he hasn’t considered already. If you’re
going to warn him that Hitler’s a bad
man—save your breath. He knows it.”
“Then why is he making this
deal with him?”
“For all the reasons of which you’re
aware. Because on this issue Germany
has a strong case, and the fact that it’s
being put by Hitler doesn’t make it any
weaker.” He remembered now why he
had accused Hartmann of being a Nazi:
his main objection to Hitler always
seemed to be snobbish—that he was a
vulgar Austrian corporal—rather than
ideological. “I must say you’ve changed
your tune! Weren’t you always going on
about the injustices of the Versailles
treaty? Appeasement is simply an attempt to redress those same wrongs.”
“Yes, and I stand by every word!”
Hartmann leaned across the table and
continued in an urgent whisper. “And
there is a part of me—yes, my dear
Hugh, I admit it—that rejoices that
you and the French have finally had
to come crawling on your hands and
knees to put it right. The trouble is,
you’ve left it too late! Overturning
Versailles—that’s nothing to Hitler
anymore. That’s just the prelude for
what is to come.”
“And this is what you want to
tell the prime minister?”
“Yes, and not just tell him—I want
to show him proof. I have it here.” He
patted his chest. “You look amused?”
“No, not amused—I just think
you’re naïve. If only things were
that simple!”
“They are simple. If Chamberlain refuses tonight to continue to
negotiate under duress, then Hitler
will invade Czechoslovakia tomorrow. And the moment he issues
that order, everything will change,
and we in the opposition, in the
army and elsewhere, will take care
of Hitler.”
Legat folded his arms and shook his
head. “It is at this point that I’m afraid
you lose me. You want my country to
go to war to prevent three million
Germans joining Germany, on the off
chance that you and your friends can
then get rid of Hitler? Well, I have to
say, from what I’ve seen today, he looks
pretty well entrenched to me.”
He stopped himself from going on,
although there was plenty more he
could have said. He could have asked
whether it was true that Hartmann
and his friends—as their emissaries in
London had made clear over the
summer—intended to hang on to
Austria and the Sudetenland even if
Hitler was deposed, and if it was also
true that their aim was to restore the
kaiser, in which case what should he
whisper to his father, lying in an ocean
of white stone crosses in a war cemetery in Flanders, the next time he
visited him? He felt a spasm of irritation. Let’s just sign the bloody agreement, get back on the plane, fly out of
here, and leave them to get on with it.
The electric lamps were coming
on—strings of pretty yellow Chinese
lanterns suspended between ornate
wrought-iron poles. They glowed in
the gathering dusk.
Hartmann said, “So you will not
help me?”
“If you’re asking me to arrange a
private meeting with the prime minister, then I have to say no—it is impossible. On the other hand, if
there’s some proof of Hitler’s ambitions that we ought to be aware of,
then yes, if you give it to me now, I’ll
undertake to make sure he sees it.”
“Before he signs any agreement
in Munich?”
Legat hesitated. “If there’s an opportunity, yes.”
“Will you give me your word that
you’ll try?”
artmann stared at Legat for
several seconds. Finally, he
picked up the Stürmer from
the table. It was a tabloid, easy to
hold in one hand. He shielded himself with it. With the other hand he
began unfastening the buttons of his
shirt. Legat twisted on the hard metal
chair and looked around the beer garden. Everyone seemed preoccupied
with their own amusement. But in
the undergrowth around them any
number of eyes could be watching.
Hartmann folded the paper and slid it
back across the table to Legat.
He said, “I should go now. You
stay and finish your beer. It would
be best if from now on we did not
acknowledge each other.”
“I understand.”
Hartmann stood. It was suddenly
important to Legat that things were not
left like this. He stood as well. “I do
appreciate—we all appreciate—the risks
that you and your colleagues are taking.
If things become dangerous and you
need to leave Germany, I can promise
you that you will be well looked after.”
“I am not a traitor. I will never leave
“I know. But the offer is there.”
They shook hands.
“Finish your drink, Hugh.”
Hartmann turned and walked across
the gravel toward the café, his tall figure
moving awkwardly among the tables
and chairs. There was a brief glow from
the interior as he opened the door, then
it closed and he was gone.
homeland. Returning to the Infinity
for the end of his hero’s journey, he
finally gets to see its spectacular interior by subletting a room on the thirtythird floor:
The city and all its glass—it was all
inside the apartment. Just standing in
that room would take a radical adjustment of one’s equilibrium. It was like
standing on the wing of a plane.
By Lidija Haas
lose your eyes and picture the
American dream. At the turn
of the millennium, Mokhtar
Alkhanshali, the scion of Yemeni immigrants, is growing up in a tiny onebedroom San Francisco apartment
sandwiched between two sex shops.
Outside, the streets are mean: sirens
shriek and so do residents, dealers deal
in the open 24/7; the day his family
moves in, Mokhtar sees a guy shitting
on the hood of a Mercedes. By his
early twenties he’s lucky to have a job
as a lobby ambassador (that’s doorman
to you) in a fancy tower block called
Infinity B, even though the “arrhythmic” rattle of gentrification beyond
the glass doors makes it hard to focus
on his second attempt to get through
Das Kapital. I’m guessing he doesn’t
finish it this time either, because what
comes next is the dreamy part, and to
appreciate it fully you need to be on
board with capitalism.
Against tremendous odds, Mokhtar
finds a way to export high-end coffee
out of Yemen. Soon a bunch
of farmers and workers
there are thriving as
never before—aside,
that is, from the
America n-made
bombs the Saudis
are raining down
on them and the
blockade that is
causing dire shortages of food and
medicine—and US
consumers are learning
something adorably nondrone-related about Mokhtar’s
Top: A military training area destroyed in air strikes conducted by the Saudi Arabian–led
coalition, Sanaa, Yemen, September 7, 2015 © Lorenzo Meloni/Magnum Photos. Bottom:
A photograph from the series Fingerprints of Drinkable Culture © William LeGoullon
Laughing and crying, with the writer
Dave Eggers by his side, Mokhtar literally watches his coffee-laden ship
come in.
The presence of Eggers—the author
of this book, THE MONK OF MOKHA
(Knopf, $28.95)—helps explain the
unlikely air of wry, wholesome sweetness that infuses Mokhtar’s adventures. A decade ago, Eggers began
producing this sort of heavily researched narrative non-fiction alongside his more traditional novels, and
he evidently takes seriously the line
between the two. Monk includes an
author’s note describing the hundreds
of hours of interviews he conducted
and his efforts to check Mokhtar’s
version of events against other people’s. And yet you couldn’t quite call
Eggers a realist. Such is his attraction
to all-American decency that his oeuvre has so far spawned not one but two
Tom Hanks vehicles. Even Zeitoun,
probably his best book to date, a taut
account of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and an indictment of US policy
during the Bush era, suffers from a
certain allergy to moral ambiguity.
(Though perhaps it’s fairer to call it
bad luck when one’s male
lead—a family man who
stayed behind during
the storm rescuing
neighbors in a canoe only to be
wrongfully arrested
as a terrorist—later
attacks his wife
with a tire iron.)
There was an uncomfortable dissonance between the
cheerful tone of Monk
and my own overriding feeling while reading it, which was a
“One helluva team of
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into for years.”
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dread akin to that I might feel on
seeing a child totter into oncoming
traffic. Or the kind you might feel were
I to announce at this juncture that I’ve
decided to head over to Yemen to start
a little import-export business. Granted,
I don’t speak Arabic, have no local
connections, and lack the persuasive
fast talk that Mokhtar picked up in
the Tenderloin, where “if you sounded
ignorant, you got taken.” But then
Mokhtar doesn’t always inspire the
reader’s confidence, either: like a cartoon innocent abroad, he’s the kind of
guy who will inadvertently drop a
loaded handgun into a bag of coffee
beans before mailing it to Ethiopia.
Initially ignorant of the ancient history of Yemeni coffee, he seems
wonder-struck to discover that coffee
grows out of the ground at all.
This zany naïveté must be intentional on Eggers’s part, and probably on Mokhtar’s too. Like the
preppy Rupert Bear clothing he adopted as a teenager to smooth his
way with the adults around him, it
ensures that even nervous readers
will embrace our impoverished
Muslim protagonist. Many pages of
cutesy high jinks go by before Eggers introduces anything too difficult or potentially threatening,
such as Mokhtar’s unspoken irritation at Infinity residents who brag
about their expensive china or
have “lewd sexual conversations”
in the lobby, and his sense that
having to leap smilingly to his feet
and open the door for every person
who enters, rather than simply
push the button by his desk, is “a
self-evident outrage and an assault
on his pride.”
Here is the business end of the
American dream. As well as giving
hope to immig ra nt families
crammed into one-bedrooms, it reassures those who have already
made (or inherited) it that their
doorman, waiter, or driver has no
reason to seethe with resentment:
he’s en route to the big time, if he
wants it enough. In other words,
this dream often relies on an impressive degree of bad faith, obliviousness, or both. The same applies
tenfold to America’s relationship
with the rest of the world, and it’s
almost as if Eggers wants to illus-
Distributed through Midpoint Trade Books
trate as much when he describes
Mokhtar heading for Yemen all
aglow about his startup. Naturally,
Mokhtar, as a Yemeni American,
has some awareness of the region’s
troubles and the United States’ role
in them. (He even joins a YemeniAmerican group invited to visit the
White House in 2011 after the
Arab Spring, though the awkward
“matter of the drone strikes was one
that the delegation couldn’t agree
on how to address,” so they leave
that out of their speech.) Given this
knowledge, and the State Department’s travel warnings, it’s remarkable how taken aback he seems
when his plan to roam around the
country in a caravan with two
Western coffee experts starts to
look less than viable.
Leaving Yemen with his beans in
2015 proves tricky after Saudi bombs
destroy the airport in Sanaa, amid
clashes between Houthi and government forces and attacks by Al Qaeda.
Luckily, though, he talks his way out
of a hostage situation, escapes on a
skiff across the Red Sea, and hightails it, in the nick of time, to a trade
conference in Seattle. Once we’re
safely back in the United States, it
takes some emotional acrobatics to
sympathize with Mokhtar’s troubles
running his fledgling business. Eggers
sees the problem: “The UN considered Yemen on the brink of famine.
No one was prioritizing the export of
coffee to international specialty
roasters. . . . It was difficult sometimes
to see all this as essential.” Still, he
explains, Mokhtar has to get that
coffee out of the country because
“there was a lot of money at stake.”
Mokhtar has investors now, and gosh
darn it, he can’t let them down!
My interpretation of Mokhtar as
a specifically American hero is evidently the intended one. US citizens like him “bravely embody this
nation’s reason for being, a place of
radical opportunity and ceaseless
welcome,” Eggers writes, before
closing his prologue with a rousing
call to arms about
a blended people united not by stasis
and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise
on a human scale, by the inherent
rightness of pressing forward, always
forward, driven by courage unfettered
and unyielding.
That’s some “authentic frontier gibberish” all right (to quote Blazing
Saddles), but I’m struck especially by
the phrase “irrational exuberance,”
more usually associated with housing
and tech bubbles whose sudden
burstings have disastrous consequences. Eggers seems to mean it in
a good way, but that isn’t how it
reads to me.
he NYU sociologist Patrick
Sharkey takes a darker view
of inner-city childhoods.
ton, $26.95) reexamines the evidence for the dramatic drop in violent crime in so many American
cities after the 1990s. He credits it in
part to concerted efforts by local organizations such as Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles
and Alianza Dominicana, in New
York, as well as to more troubling
factors, like aggressive policing.
Sharkey often puts his readers in
quite a bind: he’ll note that some
tactic is “controversial” but that the
numbers suggest it worked—in
which case, wouldn’t we agree that
fewer deaths and assaults is a good
thing? It’s not just the Wall Street
swells now fearlessly walking their
dalmatians in Central Park at ten
o’clock (though he does give that example). While those who’ve lived for
many years in the D.C. neighborhood of Shaw may, he concedes, be
“justifiably concerned” about the
yuppie restaurants taking over, “two
decades ago the same residents of
Shaw were worried about being shot
while shopping for groceries.” Public
schools, he writes, are safer now.
Where levels of violent crime have
fallen the most, the class and racial
gaps in educational achievement appear to have narrowed. Life expectancy has increased for AfricanAmerican men, and though their
fear of assault by the police may be
unabated, at least their fear of one
another has eased.
One unnerving aspect of Sharkey’s book is its breezy, whateverworks attitude to the question of
how neighborhoods are “improved,”
and who pays for it. His understandably romantic view of community extends to its more corporatesponsored forms. There are the
business improvement districts patrolled by private security firms in
Los Angeles, which have reduced
crime such that the companies
funding them are, “in effect, using
their private resources to provide a
public good.” And there are “community quarterback” philanthropists like the Atlanta real estate tycoon Tom Cousins, who poured
cash into the East Lake neighborhood, as well as its ruined golf
course, and is now trying to scale
that experiment with some millionaire pals under the sinistersounding name of Purpose Built
Communities. “There was controversy along the way,” Sharkey admits of the East Lake project, “and
some of the original residents had
their lives uprooted against their
will.” Nonetheless, he continues,
“the central lesson . . . is not about
a white philanthropist, an exclusive
golf course, the demolition of public
housing, or the establishment of
charter schools.” (It’s-not-aboutthis-but-about-that is a bit of a
Sharkey tic.) The real lesson is that
sustained investment is the only
way to change anything, and Sharkey ends his book on the thought
that if, as seems likely, the federal
government doesn’t want to open
its coffers, private money may prove
the best hope for American cities.
Yet the awkward, contradictory
situation he describes, in which extreme poverty remains and inequality
increases but public space is much
safer for rich people and the businesses
they patronize—that’s not an accident; it’s called getting what you paid
for. The fact that the most disadvantaged (those who’ve managed to avoid
incarceration, that is) have also benefited from a less violent environment,
and have at times benefited more,
since things were so much worse for
them beforehand—that seems to me
the real unintended consequence.
There are obvious reasons why certain
Distributed by
Midpoint Trade Books
private entities might find it worth a
considerable outlay to, say, turn parts
of Los Angeles from a danger zone
into a tourist-friendly playground.
Having achieved that, it’s not clear
why they’d keep spending without
hope of further reward—or rather,
why they could be persuaded to do out
of goodwill what the government
won’t. Still, easy for me to say.
What’s strange is that Sharkey occasionally appears to share my other,
less fair prejudice against his book,
which has to do with a perhaps inevitable problem of form. Here and there
he expresses frustration at the limitations of social science, a wish to
“make the statistics on crime and
violence more human. Violent crime
is about bodies torn apart and disfigured, about mothers and friends crying
out, and about bloodstained city
streets.” Glancing wistfully in the direction of neuroscience, he soon finds
(or I did) that talk of glucocorticoids
and norepinephrine doesn’t help
much. Maybe, he seems to suggest at
one point, we should put his numbercrunching, bet-hedging book down
and watch the video of a teenage boy’s
murder instead. But Sharkey does now
and then hit on an arresting image.
Inspired by a study of “predator stress,”
he asks, “If rats perform worse when
they’re exposed to a nearby cat, what
happens to children if they are assessed just days after a homicide down
the street?” This is not a question that
needs answering, but it is, unfortunately, one that sticks in the mind.
ovelists have several advantages over social scientists—
especially in the study of
poverty, violence, fear, the longing
for escape—and in A STATE OF
FREEDOM (W. W. Norton, $25.95),
Neel Mukherjee exercises all of his to
the full. The book is in part an artful
homage to one of V. S. Naipaul’s most
surprising works, In a Free State.
Without announcing his experimental intent too loudly, Mukherjee rips
the meat of the novel (imagery, incident, social insight, feeling, mood)
from the bones (narrative and character development in the usual sense)
and feeds his readers only the richest
pieces. Where Eggers pastes a manic
grin over the increasingly evident
and brutal contradictions of Western
liberal centrism (and Sharkey apologetically shrugs that there is no alternative), Mukherjee looks straight at
the ugliest parts of an unequal society
and uses what he finds to construct
something beautiful.
The book is divided into five stylistically disparate parts—ranging from
an urbane first person to omniscient
narration to hurtling stream of
consciousness—that look in on tangentially connected lives. A man brings
his six-year-old back to India from the
United States for a visit that turns dark
and dreamlike, filled with disturbing
animal omens and other people’s poverty and abjection, at which he feels
“horror, shame, pity, embarrassment,
repulsion.” Returning from London to
stay with his parents in Mumbai, another man finds himself subtly tied in
knots about the servants: he judges his
well-to-do parents for their unenlightened views yet continually encounters
his own desire to enjoy the fruits of his
position even while disavowing it. Two
village girls are separated when one of
them must leave school to work as a
maid; the other takes up with a Maoist
guerrilla group.
While several characters live in
shacks or slums, a tall building not unlike Mokhtar’s Infinity tower makes
cameo appearances, a hotel “like a box
of stone and glass some giant bird
dropped on its flight.” Like the Infinity’s
doormen, the men who construct this
building never get to see what it looks
like inside. The contrast here is stark
and unforgiving, unleavened by the
fantastical meritocracy of Mokhtar’s
story, in which poverty never seems to
preclude finding someone to lend you
a few grand if you’ve got a good enough
idea. From its opening pages, Mukherjee’s narrative has an eerie, haunted
quality. The most comfortable lives
here are lived surrounded by disquieting, spectral presences. It’s an unaccustomed form of realism, one that
captures much of what Eggers and
Sharkey leave out.
Top: Saifee Jubilee Street, Kumbharwada, Mumbai, India, from
the monograph Metropolis, published by Hatje Cantz © Martin
Roemers/Panos. Bottom: Photograph © Marilyn Silverstone
Three novels of Egypt’s repressive present
By Yasmine Seale
Discussed in this essay:
Using Life, by Ahmed Naji. Translated by Benjamin Koerber. University of Texas
Press. 150 pages. $21.95.
Otared, by Mohammad Rabie. Translated by Robin Moger. Hoopoe Fiction.
352 pages. $17.95.
The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz. Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette. Melville House.
224 pages. $15.95.
was in a classroom in Turkey
recently, explaining the word
utopia. From u and topos: “noplace,” possibly a pun on eu-topos,
“good place.” See also: dystopia. That,
too, is a place that doesn’t exist, but—
“Oh,” someone interrupted, “it
My students were Syrian refugees,
and they were taking no lessons on
where the border lay between the real
and the unthinkable. They knew that
not all dystopias are fictional, that one
person’s nightmare is another’s dark
norm. For them, survivors of tyranny
and war, it was no great leap to imagine
a place in which, as the OED defines the
word, “everything is unpleasant or bad.”
Dystopian literature has its representative figures and their defining
specters—Orwell, rule by fear; Huxley,
rule by consumerism—and their descendants have opened up the genre to
a strangely thrilling variety of possible
hells. Hell tends to be another word for
“dehumanization,” and the key insight
of this recent flowering is that there are
as many ways to dehumanize as there
are humans to write them. Whatever
the threat in question—climate meltdown, runaway mutants, an all-knowing
state—these works are usually understood as cautionary tales. The alternate
worlds they present are supposed to
shock us into repairing this one. Their
implied tense is the future perfect: this
is what will have happened, they warn,
if we don’t pay attention. But they also
serve as reminders that for many, the
world is already a dystopia.
Yasmine Seale lives in Istanbul.
Three new novels from Egypt, where
the revolutionary hope of 2011 has
given way to a society in which things
are, by many accounts, worse than ever,
hold up a black mirror to the present.
“The future is now. And it stinks, I tell
you.” That’s Bassam Bahgat, the narrator of Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. He’s
writing twenty years after the Catastrophe, a series of violent natural events
that leave Cairo buried under a tsunami
of sand and result in the building of New
Cairo on its outskirts. (This is not very
far from reality—sandstorms blow
through Cairo every spring, and the
government is planning a new capital
in the desert; China has already pledged
$35 billion.) Dystopia is often linked to
natural disaster, but here the novelist’s
device seems to function less as a warning than as a coping mechanism for
somber times: if politics get you down,
lie back and think of Armageddon.
Nakba (“catastrophe”) and naksa (“setback”)—references to the Arab defeats
of 1948 and 1967—are now only shorthand for the Storm. By commandeering
the political obsessions of the old order,
this brave new world seems to have done
away with history itself.
Not that Bassam has much time for
regret. He’s suspicious of nostalgia,
which he sees as a form of amnesia:
For several years after the event, many
made desperate attempts to save what
they could. The Egyptian people were
joined in the perpetuation of this farce
by UNESCO and the people of the
world. “Humanity faces a catastrophe.”
“Our heritage is threatened with extinction.” To hell with all of it, really.
As if Cairo’s very existence were not a
Illustration by Ayman Al Zorkany from Using Life, by Ahmed Naji (detail)
© Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin
disaster in and of itself. As if abandoning it to such a sorry state long before
the naksa, and the devolution of its human residents into soulless beasts, were
not the real tragedy.
Behind this snub, we are given to
understand, lurks a complicated affection. Using Life is an old man’s letter to
his youth, a bittersweet portrait of
Cairo before it was destroyed. This
turns out to be a report
on what is for us the recent past, its details recalling the years around
2011. It was a time of
house parties and arguments and hash, of stifling bus rides and talking until morning before
melting into bed “like
honey.” Bassam and his
friends struggle to live
and love in a city where
a welter of slow-burning
crises conspire to eat
them alive. It’s not just
the raw displays of state
power; it’s also the smell
of waste, the traffic, the
harassment, the repression. Yet however much
he insists that Cairo was
a “miserable, hideous,
filthy . . . overcrowded,
impoverished, angry . . .
shitty, choleric, anemic
mess of a cit y,” his
memories cast it in a
prelapsarian glow. There
are moments of exquisite
feeling—a lover’s “softspoken thighs,” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieking
“like a hen laying its first
egg.” Bassam is both disenchanted (from reading
Foucault he learned that “there was no
longer any hope”) and full of passionate
intensity, just like a young man, or rather like a young man pretending to be an
old man remembering his youth. (Naji
is just past thirty.)
Things start to veer off course, and
the novel into outright fantasy, when
Bassam falls in with the Society of
Urbanists, a shadowy outfit with pharaonic ambitions in urban planning—
like the Freemasons, if they’d stuck to
masonry. Though global and tentacular, the group is centered in Cairo: its
members might meet at the base of the
pyramids, or naked in a Jacuzzi, or in a
plane circling the city. Our desultory
hero is recruited to make a film about
them in the style of “documentary
hyper realism” (“What cocksucking
Frenchman came up with such a lame
idea?”), and slowly teases out their philosophy, which involves a lot of esoteric knowledge, fierce secrecy, and the
which the Urbanists lost.
Now, under the leadership
of a ruthless, nationless
mind reader called Paprika, they want redress.
(Softcore descriptions of
every female character’s
figure are gratuitous—“her
breasts pressed against her
T-shirt like a pair of
lemons”—and in Paprika’s case somewhat undermine her mystique as
an evil shape-shifting
sprite.) Their mission is
the eradication of pain
through architecture.
Their powers are limitless, their logic neatly
hubristic: to end suffering, many must die. After
the disaster, they embark
on a project of radical social engineering whose
ripples extend well beyond Cairo:
eating of watery food. His recruiter,
Ihab Hassan (a real-life theorist of postmodernism, one of the novel’s many
in-jokes), lets him in on the secret. The
society’s members keep an archive of
the architectural truths they have discovered over the millennia, which are
transmitted “like phantom genetic material” among them. Some of this data
is published—James Joyce and the
brothers Grimm, and almost every visionary you can think of, were Urbanists in disguise—and some is kept at the
bottom of the sea. The society was responsible for the world’s first city, the
Suez Canal, the catacombs of Paris,
cheap postwar housing, and almost
everything else. Its members, we are
hardly surprised to discover, can be
traced back to Adam.
The design of modern Cairo, according to this pseudo-history, was the result
of a power struggle between the Urbanists and a coterie of European architects,
The whole world was now
more or less the same: no
room for rebellion, no space
for screaming. The forests
had been masterfully redesigned, and temperatures
kept carefully under control. . . . Peacocks were
placed under strict surveillance, as the number of endangered species increased with every
passing hour.
Once the utopians have had their
way with it, the unruly city comes to
seem a paradise lost. Ostensibly a
document of frustration with the old
world, the novel is also an attempt
to imagine how much more miserable things could be. Yes, it seems to
say, this life is unlivable, but how
would we feel if we lost it all?
As though in response to this question, soon after an excerpt from the
book was published in an Egyptian
magazine in 2014, a surreal chain of
events landed Naji in jail for “violating
public morality.” It’s hard not to read
Benjamin Koerber’s rollicking translation in light of Naji’s legal ordeal, which
began after a “concerned citizen” complained to the public prosecutor that a
scene involving cunnilingus had caused
him heart palpitations and psychological
Illustration by Ayman Al Zorkany from Using Life, by Ahmed Naji ©
Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin
harm. As Koerber explains in his introduction, Naji’s case marks the first time
in modern Egypt that an author has
been imprisoned for a work of fiction.
One of the ironies of the case is that the
offending chapter was also the novel’s
happiest, one in which simple
pleasures—morning sex, a walk in the
sun—become scraps of joy snatched
from the jaws of the city. Another is that
Naji, who has written critically and explicitly about the current regime in his
journalism, should have been undone by
a work that announces itself so clearly
as fiction; the prosecutor took the chapter to be a confession of its author’s indecent behavior. Naji was acquitted last
year; his case is pending retrial, but a
bootleg copy of his novel circulates online. The book is an experiment, wild
and weird, full of non sequiturs and
oddball imagery. (The text is interspersed with surreal comics by Ayman
Al Zorkany.) Perhaps it is subversive
precisely for its love of whimsy; in a
culture beset with political gloom, it
agitates for the freedom to be unserious.
f Naji’s dystopia has the lowstakes lightness of a dream, Mohammad Rabie’s Otared is an
unadulterated nightmare. The novel begins with a cannibal crime
scene of rare ghoulishness and gets
steadily grimmer. Our guide to this
underworld is Ahmed Otared, good
cop turned partisan. It’s 2025, and
East Cairo has been occupied for
two years by the armies of the
Knights of Malta, land pirates with
no territory of their own who speak
“Arabic like Tunisians, and English
in many different dialects.” The invasion was as swift and total as it
was unopposed; only a lionhearted
few still hold out. The bourgeois island of Zamalek has become the eye
of the resistance. From the top of a
tower in its midst, Otared, a matchless sniper, looks out over the divided city (the West remains free)
and trains his scope on the enemy,
cold-blooded behind his mask. “I
was an ancient Egyptian god with a
borrowed face, whose true features
no man could ever know. . . . A
Greek god, full of contempt for the
world that he’d created.”
Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of armed struggle, it does
not take long for the resistance to
overstep even the widest definition
of guerrilla warfare and devolve into
outright slaughter. What is remarkable about this shift is how slow we
are to notice it. Otared is a companionable narrator, and at first we cannot see the murderer for the fancy
prose style; one of the novel’s most
chilling moves is the ennoblement of
evil through formal beauty. Served
by Robin Moger’s exceptionally fine
translation, its mazelike structure
and sensitive flashes of description
are a lesson in the seductions of art.
(Here is our terminator describing a
line of blood: “It reminded me of an
ostrich’s tail feather, a column of
water rising from a fountain, the
glowing tracks of fireworks launched
across the sky.”) At regular intervals
Otared takes stock of those he has
killed, and these lists grow longer
every time, a paratactic mess of
names and bodies. Yet the slowly
gathering rhythm has the effect of an
ostinato, a musical pattern repeated
and amplified. Violence is so carefully and insistently woven into the
pattern of the novel that it cannot
be senseless; something else, we
come to suspect, must be at work.
And so it is. One of the longer roll
calls of the dead provides a hint that
Otared’s killing spree might not be
quite what it seems:
And I killed a southerner called Gowhar, dressed in a broad-sleeved robe. I
shot him in the neck with a single bullet, and he took to his heels, bleeding,
and I let him go because I knew he’d die
in a few minutes and that nobody
would be able to help him. . . . And I
looked for Samira al-Dahshuri. She’d be
walking beneath the overpass, I knew,
and I swept the area through my scope,
and when I saw her I fired without hesitation into her liver. It had been cirrhotic for years, and maybe she felt the
bullet ripping through it and killing
her. Maybe that is why she hunched
over and peered at the spot as she died.
What kind of a sniper is this, and why
is he blessed with a total, transcendent awareness of his victims’ lives?
Why, at the moment of their death,
does he describe them with something close to love?
Another clue lies in the novel’s
cyclical structure: some sections pan
back to 2011, and at its midpoint is
a single, very brief chapter set in the
year of the Hegira 455, or ad 1077.
It is a testament to Moger’s flair for
the varieties of English—and how
they might map onto the many registers of Arabic—that within a few
lines it is beautifully, mysteriously
apparent that we have been transported a thousand years back in
time. Here, a man attends a burial
and comes to a violent understanding (“Hope shall be set in your
hearts, and hope there is none, and
hope is your torment”), which foreshadows the novel’s final revelation.
It is not spoiling things too much to
say that this key, when it comes,
both clarifies the novel’s cruelty and
upends it, turning its sadists into
angels of mercy. A dystopia can also
be a world turned on its head.
Yet the realization that Otared’s
savagery is only a negative image of
the truth does not redeem it entirely.
Having sat through the horror
show—public suicide and stoning, a
miscarried fetus on a plate, homeless
girls raped by a homeless man—one
could be forgiven for not standing to
applaud its basic conceptual trick.
One part of the nightmare, however,
contains the seed of something
brighter. The chapters set in 2011 revolve around a man, Insal, who
adopts a little girl after her parents
disappear. The girl, Zahra, develops a
strange ailment that causes her eyes,
ears, and mouth to seal themselves
shut until she is nothing but a
smooth lump of flesh that has to be
fed through a tube, cut off from the
world of the senses. Eventually she is
reunited with an aunt who suffers
from the same affliction. That Zahra’s character should be one of the
few not only to survive the novel but
to experience a moment of connection comes as a poignant relief.
Zahra kept running her hand over her
aunt’s cheek. Slow, even passes, testing out her favored sense: touch. At
the nasal openings, she stopped, lifted
her head, and stuck the tips of her
first and middle fingers into the holes.
There was a momentary lull, then the
aunt released a sudden blast from her
nose and Zahra snatched her hand
away in feigned alarm. The aunt
rocked her head back, as did the girl,
then the two foreheads met once
more. They were laughing.
he drama of dystopia is that it
rarely succeeds completely;
these novels draw much of
their power from the resilience of the
human. In other words, embedded in
dystopia is the possibility of miniature
utopias, clearings of solidarity or autonomous thought. Basma Abdel
Aziz’s The Queue may be named after
a hallmark of authoritarian states (it
shares its title with Vladimir Sorokin’s
1983 Soviet saga), but its real subject is
the queuers and their stubborn fellow
feeling. We are in a parallel world of
Brechtian simplicity, where the highway is marked Public Road, scripture is
the Greater Book, and the only newspaper is the Truth. The Gate is both a
place—a door set in an octagonal
fortress—and the source of all authority; it came to power after a popular
uprising was crushed many years before. (The phrase “winds of change,”
often heard in 2011, marks out the revolt as a reference to that one.) No aspect of life falls outside its jurisdiction:
the Gate announces the arrival of
winter and decides who is entitled to
phone lines. Even window-shopping is
taxed. When a group rises up against
the reigning injustice, this, too, is brutally put down. As punishment for
these Disgraceful Events, the Gate
closes, and outside forms an everlengthening queue, which threatens
to replace society itself:
So many shopkeepers spent so long in
the queue that they couldn’t buy or sell
anything or supervise their employees,
and so they decided to get rid of their
merchandise. . . . No one knew when
rush hour was anymore; there were no
set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of
times, daily rumors determined when
employees headed home, and many
people had chosen to abandon their
work completely and camp out at the
Gate, hoping they might be able to
take care of their paperwork that had
been delayed there.
The novel is organized around a single medical file, that of Yehya Gad elRab Saeed, a man in his late thirties
with a bullet lodged in his body. This he
acquired during the Events, but when he
is taken to the government-run hospital
and sees people around him dying of
bullet wounds, he realizes that a gaslighting operation is under way:
The doctor asserted that the high mortality rate was due to the fact that these
rioters were simply too sensitive. Upon
hearing one another’s harsh words,
they’d succumbed automatically, their
hearts having stopped before the ambulances even arrived. Others had stumbled upon the grisly scene and were so
traumatized by it that they froze, and
then they collapsed, too, falling one after another like dominoes.
Another doctor is willing to help,
but nothing, not even surgery, can
be done without permission from
the Gate. So Yehya joins the queue
and its economy of frail hope. It is
a microcosm of Egyptian life: it
ought to be a utopia, or at least a
great leveling.
Thrown into cohabitation, people
pray together, work, sleep, roast sweet
potatoes, propose marriage. A conservative preacher is forced to reckon
with the opinionated young woman
standing next to him. But as the queue
grows, inertia creeps over the crowd.
Though they stand together, day after
day, fear keeps them suspicious and
strips them slowly “of everything, even
the sense that their previous lives had
been stolen from them.”
Another obstacle to Yehya’s operation is that his bullet does not officially
exist. It cannot be mentioned, let
alone removed, being evidence of the
state-led crackdown on the Events.
(Here too reality is catching up: the
2011 revolt has been expunged from
the history curriculum in Egyptian
schools.) Radiology wards are shut
down, their equipment confiscated; Xrays circulate like samizdat. As the
hospital becomes a battleground in the
war on truth, conversations in the
queue are mysteriously reflected in
people’s medical files, which seem to
be updated in real time. It turns out
that nothing of the queuers’ lives escapes the Gate, not even the hour of
their death.
Elisabeth Jaquette’s limpid translation achieves the spare, sterilized quality that medical prose and the communiqués of overbearing states have
in common. This economy of style is
integral to a world in which human
interactions have been painfully circumscribed and stripped of trust;
bleakness is related to bleach. This is a
study of totalitarian logic with the
plainness of a Kafka parable—and,
unlike Naji’s and Rabie’s novels, it
pulls off its unnerving effect without
resorting to the degradation of women’s bodies. (A scene of harassment on
the metro ends with the offender being beaten with a handbag and decamping in fright.) Nothing human is
alien to it; see how compassion has
sharpened, not softened, the prose:
With practiced care, Yehya slowly bent
his right knee, leaned his torso to the
right, too, and then lowered one side of
his skinny bottom onto the edge of the
wooden chair. He let the pain swell to
its full magnitude for a moment, until
he knew he could bear it without
groaning or crying out, and then slid
his whole rear end onto the roughedged wooden seat, stretching his left
leg out a bit.
A healthy man might take three words
to sit down; a man in pain takes
seventy-seven. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who treats torture victims in Cairo, knows how wounded bodies move.
Dystopia is the putrefaction of utopia; it is the promise of perfection
turned sour. After the uprising that is
now a distant memory, “the Gate and
its guardians had prevailed, and they
emerged stronger than before.” The
Queue was written before the military coup that put Abdel Fattah alSisi in power, but it has proved prophetic. Since 2013, cases of death by
torture have soared, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned without
charge. Many have disappeared. The
crackdown on noncompliance has led
to a war on writers; Egypt is now the
third-largest jailer of journalists on
earth. Last June, a few months after
his release from prison, Ahmed Naji
wrote in a blog post about the fate of
revolutionary art:
Day after day, things seem to be drifting
to their pre–January 25 status quo, with
some even believing that they are becoming worse. . . . Only a minuscule
number of attempts remain, trying to
continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing
scrutiny and censorship.
These novels are among them, and
they are reasons for hope.
The Armies of the Night fifty years on
By David Denby
Discussed in this essay:
Four Books of the 1960s: “An American Dream,” “Why Are We in Vietnam?,” “The
Armies of the Night,” and “Miami and the Siege of Chicago,” by Norman Mailer.
Library of America. 950 pages. $45.
n the fall of 1967, at the height of
the Vietnam War, 70,000 protesters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington. Some 50,000
then marched across the Memorial
Bridge to Arlington, Virginia, to “invest” the Pentagon—to surround it,
shame it, disdain it. When they arrived at the American fortress, they
saw that the building was being
guarded by a mass of government
forces. Norman Mailer, who was
among the demonstrators, noticed a
group of US Marshals, a collection of
mainly white Southern men:
David Denby is the author, most recently, of
Lit Up.
No excess of love ever seemed to
come off a poor white Southerner,
no fats, no riches, no sweets, just
the avidity for . . . wealth. But
there had been a sadness attached
to this in the old days, a sorrow; in
the pinch of their cheeks was the kind
of abnegation and loneliness which
spoke of what was tender and what
was lost forever. So they had their
dignity. Now the hollows in their
faces spoke of men who were rabid
and toothless, the tenderness had
turned corrosive, the abnegation had
been replaced by hate, dull hate,
cloud banks of hate, the hatred of failures who had not lost their greed.
Collective physiognomy is no doubt
unfair. Still, considered as poetic evocation, Mailer’s bitter lines may offer the
best description of a certain kind of
Trump voter ever written—and written
fifty years before the fact too. Who has
Left: Norman Mailer at the March on the Pentagon, October 21, 1967 © Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Right: Pentagon Peace Demonstration, Washington, D.C., October 1967 © Elliott Landy/Magnum Photos
not looked at the faces at the president’s
rallies and wondered how to describe
them? Before he’s done, Mailer tells us
a lot more about these Trump-votersbefore-Trump, some of it sympathetic,
some of it tragic.
The words appeared in this magazine, in the issue of March 1968, in an
enormous article (“On the Steps of the
Pentagon”) devoted to the events of
the previous fall. You might say the
protest was conceived as a kind of
metaphor, as an expression of moral
outrage rather than an actual attack,
and so, by its very nature, lent itself
to imaginative re-creation. Mailer’s
account appeared in book form in
1968, as The Armies of the Night, and
went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and
the National Book Award.
In recent years, Mailer has been
grievously out of fashion, but in February the Library of America is bringing
out a two-volume set of his work from
the Sixties, one volume devoted to
fiction, the other to essays and journalism, and Mailer may be due for
reappraisal and revival. Armies is a
grief-stricken and joyous work, a great
garrulous American book that comes
within hailing distance of Whitman’s
poetry and James Agee’s text for Let
Us Now Praise Famous Men. A New
Yorker with endless curiosity, Mailer
went to Washington, engaged with
many kinds of Americans, and got
himself arrested. He used this minor
adventure as a way of interrogating
both the moral destiny of the nation
and his own courage, producing the
best portrait we have of the mythic
and sensational side of the Sixties—its
earnest indignation, its wild humor, its
lyricism and fantasy. And Mailer perceived something new, a widening
divide: “The two halves of America
were not coming together, and when
they failed to touch, all of history
might be lost in the divide.” He anticipated the current contempt shooting across class, regional, and cultural
lines, and he made a brave effort to
understand it. After fifty years, his
work remains entirely contemporary.
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson and his
military advisers rapidly expanded
the size of the American forces in
Vietnam and began intensive bombing of the North. The United States
was waging technological war—
including the use of napalm, a fleshburning compound, and the defoliant Agent Orange—against Asian
peasants, and the opposition to it
grew fierce. Teach-ins became regular campus events; newsstands and
bookstores overflowed with broadsheets, “citizen white papers,” redundant psychedelic rags—a pre-internet
tumult of antiwar analysis and anger.
By the time of the march on the Pentagon, almost 450,000 Americans
were fighting in Vietnam, and the
opposition had moved from protest to
resistance—from “Hey, hey, LBJ, how
many kids did you kill today?” to
“Hell no, we won’t go,” combined
with scattered attempts to shut down
draft induction centers.
Mailer nearly missed the show. As
a writer, he had had an extraordinary
beginning (with the war novel The
Naked and the Dead, from 1948). His
fiction thereafter was less successful;
he struggled with voices, modes, strategies, writing non-fiction, appearing
on television, running for office, making movies. The critical heavyweights
worried over him and, by 1967, he
himself wondered if his career was in
decline. Affable and attentive in most
personal encounters, in public he
drank heavily and then become maniacally bellicose, especially if other
big-deal writers were around. When
an old friend, the writer and activist
Mitchell Goodman, invited him to
come to the march, he was no better
than cranky. Another protest—what
was the point? He wasn’t much attracted to virtue; he was attracted to
power, which he had celebrated in
“Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” a stunning article in Esquire
about John F. Kennedy and the 1960
Democratic National Convention. No
one since H. L. Mencken had written
about American politics with such
brio and malice, or evoked in such
juicy detail the bodies and faces, the
clothes and manners of the people
who gathered around a political
event—the kind of data, Mailer believed, that was far more significant
than political rhetoric, which, at best,
would be American bland.
In the end Mailer did go to Washington, and when he got home, he realized
he had a story to tell. Scott Meredith,
his agent, and Willie Morris, the editor
of Harper’s Magazine, negotiated the
then-munificent fee of ten thousand
dollars. Mailer retreated to his house in
Provincetown, Massachusetts. He
worked thirteen or fourteen hours a day;
he didn’t drink. Morris, in his memoir
New York Days (1993), recounts that as
the deadline was approaching, he and
executive editor Midge Decter flew up
to the Cape and discovered the pages of
an immense manuscript, written in
pencil, with many interpolations. Some
of it had yet to be typed. Swallowing
hard, Morris cleared out the March issue and published the text—ninety
thousand words—in its entirety. At the
time, it was the longest article ever to
appear in an American magazine.
as it fiction, journalism,
history, a mix of the three?
Mailer certainly uses the
resources of fiction—conjuring atmosphere, testy exchanges, interior
thoughts, the play of bodies and temperaments. But his intention was not
to write fiction; his intention was to
re-create actual events, using his eyes,
his gut, his desires, his apprehension
of the mood, moment by moment. He
wanted to shame journalism as much
as the Pentagon. To that end, he violated many conventions of the trade,
including the canons of that proud
Sixties invention, the New Journalism. Truman Capote removed himself
from the narrative of In Cold Blood
(1966); Tom Wolfe kept his white-
suited observer out of the jumpy pieces
he assembled for The Kandy-Kolored
Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965).
But Mailer made himself the center
of the story, no doubt a terrible precedent for journalists, and terrible intellectual manners in general, but in
his hands a strategic and expressive
move. As he explains,
Mailer is a figure of monumental disproportions and so serves willy-nilly
as the bridge—as many will say the
pons asinorum—into the crazy house,
the crazy mansion, of that historic
moment when a mass of the
citizenry—not much more than a
mob—marched on a bastion which
symbolized the military might of the
Republic, marching not to capture it
but to wound it symbolically. . . . It is
fitting that any ambiguous comic hero
of such a history should be not only
off very much to the side of the history, but that he should be an egotist of
the most startling misproportions,
outrageously and often unhappily selfassertive, yet in command of a detachment classic in severity (for he
was a novelist and so in need of studying every last lineament of the fine,
the noble, the frantic, and the foolish
in others and in himself).
He needed to escape the clumsiness
of repeating “I saw” and “I thought”
without excising anything he saw or
thought, so he created a character
called Mailer, who was both a recording angel and a performing devil, behaving well, behaving badly, yet always
taking in everything around him. This
“Mailer” has a complicated mind
formed by history, politics, and love of
country. He calls himself a “Left Conservative,” by which he means that “he
tried to think in the style of Marx in
order to attain certain values suggested
by Edmund Burke.” In practice, he
hated the Vietnam War yet was a patriot given to many traditional loyalties.
He echoed Whitman in believing
America could become a special place
that allowed men and women to realize
themselves as never before. At the same
time, he allied himself (consciously or
not) with such dour left analysts as
Theodor Adorno and C. Wright Mills
in disliking the mass society that
America had actually become.
His mind was also formed by
abundant physical needs. He was
forty-four years old, married, with
three ex-wives and six children. He
had a belly, he needed food and
drink. He wanted to get quickly released from jail so he could get back
to New York and attend a party that
“had every promise of being wicked,
tasty, and rich.” As he says, he was
no better than a comic hero, and
maybe not even that, maybe he was
just a fool. In early middle age, for all
his accomplishments and fame, he
was jangled, out of tune with himself. Like Henry David Thoreau, who
was jailed for refusing to pay the
Massachusetts poll tax in the 1840s
as a protest against slavery and the
Mexican War, Mailer needed to flout
authority in order to understand—
and demonstrate—who he was. He
wasn’t sure he wouldn’t run away
when faced with armed soldiers.
At first, the fool acted out. Arriving
in Washington, he behaved rudely at a
party given by liberal academics; he
drank too much, and carried a mug of
bourbon into the Ambassador Theater,
where some of the young protesters had
gathered for a kind of pre-march pep
talk. Onstage, he made an excruciating
speech, in which he admitted that a few
minutes earlier he had pissed on the
floor of a darkened men’s room. In a
tortured redneck accent, heard, or misheard, twenty years earlier from Texans
in his platoon in the Pacific, he announced himself as “Lyndon Johnson’s
little old dwarf ego,” which means, I
suppose, that he recognized in himself
bad impulses and self-aggrandizing
wishes similar in kind to but lesser in
degree than the president’s.
It seems a woefully embarrassing
way to begin an epic narrative, even a
mock-epic narrative. But then consider the shame-ridden episodes in
great confessional works—St. Augustine stealing pears and enjoying the
sin itself, not the fruit; Rousseau stealing a trinket and then throwing suspicion onto a chambermaid. The author rides down to the bottom of his
soul, airing misdeeds, humiliations,
and malevolent thoughts. In that
place, he might find inspiration and
strength to rise. “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others,”
Emerson wrote. “We permit all things
to ourselves, and that which we call
sin in others, is experiment for us.”
This experiment may lead to what
every writer wants: authority. If he can
tell us the worst about himself, we
might trust him to tell us everything.
For Mailer, the body shaped thought,
and what began in drunkenness and
piss will end in history, philosophy,
and moral speculation.
he United States was waging a
war fueled by theological anticommunism, throwing its
vast technological resources and the
bodies of its young men into what was
essentially a Vietnamese civil conflict. Of course, the official rhetoric
insisted that we were containing
Chinese expansionism in Southeast
Asia, preventing dominoes (Laos,
Cambodia, and others) from falling
to the Reds. America could not be
seen as losing to Communists, even
in a tiny, backward country. But if our
leaders had read history, they might
have discovered that Vietnam had
long been wary of China, and, in the
end, history played an ironic game
with American ignorance: after we
left, the Vietnamese, all by themselves, repelled the Chinese in a
short, brutal war in 1979. Communism triumphant? No one could have
foreseen this in 1967, but what was
eventually to break out in Asia was
not Communism but capitalism.
How, Mailer wanted to know, was a
genocidal war against peasants morally possible? How could it be accepted
by so many Americans? He was obsessed with concentrated and possibly
corrupt power—the Mafia, the CIA,
the FBI, the media networks. But corruption of a more pervasive sort, he
thought, was built into American modernity, and it was spilling out in extreme militarism and moral apathy.
The evil lay in the encompassing role
of technology and corporate domination, the repetitive exercise of control
through “banks of coded knowledge.”
(This was well before big data and the
sanctification of tech.) There was a
bland authoritarianism built into postwar life. As other evidence of malaise,
he looked to architecture—the postwar prisons, airports, and schools,
which resembled one another in their
depressing mediocrity. He was exasperated by the pleasant nullity, the
tyranny of niceness, wrought by consumerism, Fifties and Sixties sitcoms,
and advertising; he hated the food
preserved in chemicals, the plastic
displacing wood and stone, any kind
of rooted and sturdy material. Americans were relinquishing will, creativity, and soul to efficiency, standardization, and bureaucratic administration,
a native form of totalitarianism.
In these animadversions, the “Left
Conservative” may have been moved
by a vision of organic life in some
pastoral nineteenth-century America
that existed only in fantasy. When
Mailer evokes, as he does, a sane, rural
life before television and strip malls,
I’m not sure what positive elements in
that life he’s thinking of—or whether
he would have actually wanted to live
there. Still, he makes a game effort at
describing moral stupidity—the incomprehension and delusion that prevented so many Americans from seeing what we were doing in Southeast
Asia. Moral stupidity was produced by
fear (the Commies are taking over), by
demeaning enemies, by alienation
from any notion of the common good,
by hyperorganization and economies
of scale that reduced choice and selfhood. The country, Mailer says, separated in its daily routines from meaning and accountability, had slipped
into waking madness and lost its
moral grounding.
ould there be redemption of
some sort in the march? Or at
least the beginning of a new
The day after LBJ’s dwarf ego appeared at the Ambassador Theater,
Mailer, seriously hungover but not
chastened, tagged along as hundreds
of young men turned in their draft
cards at the Department of Justice.
Mailer had been unresponsive to student protest, and contemptuous of
the Old Left with its “sound-asbrickwork logic of the next step”—an
echo of his brief youthful fling, in the
Forties, with Trotskyite factions wrestling over actions never taken. He
thought that all of them—Old Left,
liberal academics, earnest students—
were much too adept at losing. But
the young men turning in their draft
cards—that was something else. As
an Army vet and a celebrated war
novelist, he was both dismayed and
impressed. The young men were
risk-takers, they had rejected safety
and compromise. (Of course, he is
talking only of the educated American young; he was yet to encounter
the working class.)
But Mailer’s newfound respect for
militant and spontaneous youth left
him uneasily altered in his attitude
toward himself.
A deep modesty was on its way to
him, he could feel himself becoming
more and more of a modest man as he
stood there in the cold with his
hangover, and he hated this because
modesty was an old family relative,
he had been born to a modest family,
had been a modest boy, a modest
young man, and he hated that, he
loved the pride and the arrogance and
the confidence and the egocentricity
he had acquired over the years.
The march itself offered the possibility of risk. As Mailer, side by side
with the poet Robert Lowell, the essayist Dwight Macdonald, and the
linguist Noam Chomsky (imagine a
political protest led by writers) walked
across the Memorial Bridge, he felt a
nervous exhilaration: the novelist was
stimulated to create a precise delineation of forces and terrain, as if he were
describing the battle at Antietam. He
even evokes the Union dead, subject
of Lowell’s famous poem. The symbolic attack, for Mailer, suddenly appeared in a line with the most stirring
moments in American history.
Mailer’s army had many kinds of
troops, not just sobersided liberal professionals, academics, and students.
Veteran ban-the-bomb groups were
there; the American Nazis (they are
always with us) showed up, as well as
American partisans of the Vietnamese
National Liberation Front (i.e., the
Vietcong), carrying blue-and-gold
Communist flags. In the Pentagon
parking lot, hippies in junk-Hindu regalia joined a New York rock group
called the Fugs in an exorcism of the
Pentagon, an attempt, that is, to encircle the building, levitate it three
hundred feet in the air, and chase away
its bad spirits. “Out, demons, out!” the
crowd cried. The mood turned euphoric. Young women, standing before
frightened and bewildered military police, opened their blouses, inserted
flowers in the soldiers’ gun barrels, and
said, “Join us.”
Some of these goings-on may now
seem little more than giddy, but in
1967 despair created new forms of
moral logic. The general feeling in
the antiwar movement was that the
government was behaving senselessly
and that rational argument against
the war had failed. The protesters in
Washington wanted to dissolve the
claims of authority right in authority’s lap. Burning draft cards was one
kind of response to slaughter; carnival and satire were another. Guerrilla theater, karmic invocation, hallucinatory or erotic celebration—all
were good, as long as they were antimilitary in spirit. In ecstatic catalogues worthy of Whitman, Mailer
described the foolishness as an American awakening. The party of youth
liberated itself from mass-market pop
by making a pop culture of its own.
The politicized hippies were “gotten
up like Arab sheiks, or in Park Avenue doormen’s greatcoats.” Among
the guises there were
soldiers in Foreign Legion uniforms,
and tropical bush jackets, San Quentin and Chino, California striped
shirt and pants, British copies of
Eisenhower jackets, hippies dressed
like Turkish shepherds and Roman
senators, gurus, and samurai in dirty
smocks. They were close to being assembled from all the intersections between history and the comic books,
between legend and television, the
biblical archetypes and the movies.
The earnest adults, the hippies, and
the serious politicized youth, some of
them members of Students for a Democratic Society, assembled and faced
the government forces. Many of them
wanted to be arrested, a few may even
have wanted to be beaten. Their idea
was to delegitimize “the system” by
forcing it to behave violently: they
could better combat injustice, as Thoreau would have said, by experiencing
it in their own person, or perhaps, in
some complex Christian transfer of
guilt—the emotions are mysterious—
by taking the sins of violence onto
themselves. The protesters went limp,
and many were clubbed anyway. The
women, Mailer observes, were beaten
the worst—that sexual taunting of
young soldiers and military police did
not go unpunished. More than six
hundred protesters were arrested. Only
a tiny group—no more than twentyfive—actually made it into the halls of
the Pentagon, where they were subdued and taken away.
Eager to be arrested himself, Mailer startled the military police by
abruptly rushing forward, a bourgeois
projectile alarmingly in motion:
Dark pinstripe suit, his vest, the maroon and blue regimental tie, the part
in his hair, the barrel chest, the early
paunch. He must have looked like a
banker himself, a banker gone ape!
horeau, who did not look like a
banker, also challenged the
state and was arrested. Both
men spent a night in jail, and wrote up
their experiences with the proud assumption that a personal record of acts
and convictions might stir the nation.
Yet no odder couple could be imagined.
The author of “Civil Disobedience”
lived in Concord, Massachusetts, at the
intellectual heart of the baby republic;
Mailer, in the frenzied media and financial capital of the global superpower. One was disciplined, selfdenying to the point of austerity, the
other a Falstaffian mass of appetite and
semi-larcenous impulse.
“Simplify, simplify.” So goes Thoreau’s famous cry from Walden. Well,
yes, simplifying one’s life, and in
particular avoiding marriage and
parenthood, makes it easier to conceive and sustain dissident moral
passions. To his credit, Thoreau admits, in “Civil Disobedience,” that
withholding tax payments might
cause the state to seize one’s property. But he provides a ready solution
to this difficulty: “You must hire or
squat somewhere, and raise but a
small crop, and eat that soon”—an
unattractive proposal that makes
some of us wonder whether Thoreau could have been much inconvenienced by his night in a bare cell.
By contrast, Mailer in jail admits
that he misses the downy comforts
of the Hay-Adams Hotel. Thoreau’s
question in Walden is “What is necessary to life?” The answer—food,
clothes, shelter—would, I imagine,
satisfy many of us less than Mailer’s
list of necessaries, which, if he had
been asked, would have included
women, children, houses, friends,
enemies, literature, money, religious
Back to School
and mystical thought. Thoreau’s
writing is definitive and terse and
sometimes wrathfully witty; Mailer’s is exploratory, expansive, funny,
and spontaneous. We know that a
consistent, well-ordered man, defined in good measure by the
strength of his denials, could never
have written anything as universally observant and as wide-ranging in
its sympathies as Armies.
The cultural divide in America,
as Mailer portrays it, is no simple
matter—certainly not a clear-cut
case of righteously hip (antiwar)
and compliantly square (pro-war).
As we have heard, Mailer was depressed by the uniformed men
guarding the Pentagon. But this
judgment gets qualified in extraordinary ways. Mailer develops the conf rontation bet ween protesting,
middle-class students and workingclass soldiers and the marshals with
great psychological acuity.
It is the urban middle class in America
who always feel most uprooted, most
alienated from America itself, and so
instinctively most critical of America,
for neither do they work with their
hands nor wield real power, so it is never their lathe nor their sixty acres, and
certainly never is it their command
which is accepted because they are simply American and there, no, the urban
middle class was the last to arrive at respectable status and it has been the
most overprotected (for its dollars are
the great nourishing mother of all consumer goods) yet the most spiritually
undefended since even the concept of a
crisis in identity seems most exclusively
their own. The sons and daughters of
that urban middle class, forever alienated in childhood from all the good simple funky nitty-gritty American joys of
the working class like winning a truly
dangerous fist fight at the age of eight
or getting sex before fourteen, dead
drunk by sixteen, whipped half to
death by your father, making it in rumbles with a proud street gang, living at
war with the educational system,
knowing how to snicker at the employer from one side of the mouth, riding a
bike with no hands, entering the Golden Gloves, doing a hitch in the Navy,
or a stretch in the stockade, and with it
all, their sense of élan, of morale, for
buddies are the manna of the working
class: there is a God-given cynical indifference to school, morality, and job.
The working class is loyal to friends,
not ideas. No wonder the Army bothered them not a bit.
This is magnificent and heartrending in equal measure, because of
course, as Mailer must have known,
the youthful joys will almost certainly
dissipate; the bold habits of indifference to school, morality, and job will
likely lead to income stasis, to bitter
resentment, even to early death—
the marshals and soldiers he describes could be some of those boys
grown older.
In the end, Mailer comes down on
the side of the young antiauthoritarians, especially the brave kids,
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who had chosen most freely, out of the
incomprehensible mysteries of moral
choice, to make an attack and then
hold a testament before the most authoritative embodiment of the principle that America was right.
Some of the kids stayed the night in
front of the Pentagon—well after the
main body of protesters had left or
been carted away—and were badly
beaten in the morning. The courage
of the young was itself, for Mailer, a
sign of national awakening.
Re-creating his own, far less brave
adventure—a night in the slammer—
Mailer writes sympathetically of his
institution-bound jailers, including the
turnkeys, the hacks, the lawyers and
government functionaries. And he accepts, for himself, the modesty that he
hated. “The sum of what he had done
that he considered good outweighed the
dull sum of his omissions these same four
days.” He must have known by then that
for him the only possible heroism lay in
writing well about all of it. The tumultuous text ends quietly, almost in the tones
of a requiem mass, with supplication and
with prayer for the country.
espite Mailer’s exaltations,
the March on the Pentagon,
and many marches and protests like it, did not stop the war,
which continued for another eight
years, producing around 38,000 more
American deaths (58,000 in all) and
killing as many as 3 million Vietnamese. The violence and incoherence of the conflict chewed up lives
and nearly caused the country to fall
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apart. In 1968, the year that Armies
was published, Martin Luther King
Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the Democratic convention in Chicago was torn apart
by protesters and police brutality.
Lyndon Johnson thought the protesters were part of an international
Communist conspiracy. Richard
Nixon won the election in the fall
and implied that they were traitors.
In 1967, in front of the Pentagon,
the middle-class children repeatedly
taunted the soldiers, and now, after
fifty years of economic and cultural
change, the situation of mutual ignorance and scorn has only grown
worse: the middle-class, collegeeducated boys (and now girls, too),
have become “symbolic analysts”
working for Mailer’s loathed corporation. And the working-class adults,
many of them, feel abandoned—
made to feel like losers as old-line
industrial and small-farm life diminishes in status a nd power.
Those Trump voters took revenge
in November 2016.
Mailer was enraged by the blandness cloaking an immoral war—the
neutrally phrased official lies and hypocrisy of the Pentagon and the State
Department, the national public concern for propriety and order while
children were burning in Vietnam.
Well, Donald Trump and his supporters aren’t bland, and if hypocrisy is
the tribute that vice pays to virtue,
they cannot be accused of hypocrisy.
Lying, ridicule, false accusations, and
intimidation are now gleefully out in
the open and celebrated as attacks on
“political correctness”—celebrated as
a form of truth-telling. The widespread belief in official lies that outraged Mailer has been replaced by a
corrosive, three-dimensional cynicism in which almost nothing is believed, with our mock president as
the Lord of Confusion presiding over
a right-wing counterculture. Vice
now pays tribute to vice—while
those who oppose Trump struggle to
sustain their sense of reality. Moral
stupidity takes some of the same
forms—fear (of Muslims), dislike of
the other (Mexican immigrants),
and an even greater alienation from
any notion of the common good. But
it takes a new form, too—a detestation of people with ethical standards,
and the desire to pull them down
into a common run of vulgarity and
Mailer is missed: LBJ’s dwarf alter
ego would now be Trump’s alter ego.
In Mailer’s fantasies, he was always
running for president himself. He
knew about egotism, and both gloried in it and was shamed by it; he
knew this man (knew him internally), and he would have repelled his
nature, and the virulence of his supporters, with a loving comprehension
and poetic eloquence that no one is
now capable of. And he would have
cheered any brave signs of revolt.
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January 2017, could be the antiwar
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By Richard E. Maltby Jr.
he six unclued across entries are related. Each of the seven columns with a square
below it contains an answer that is one letter too long for the space provided. Solvers
must determine which letter is extraneous,
remove it, and enter it in the square below
the column. These letters will unlock how
the unclued entries are related.
The entries remaining after the deletions are all real words. In order to keep
their identity a mystery, all numbers in parentheses refer to the spaces in the diagram (i.e., to the length of the altered
words, not of the original longer answers).
Clue answers include three proper
nouns and one foreign word. One of the
entries after deletion is a proper noun.
42A, 6D, and 28D are uncommon. As always, mental repunctuation of a clue is the
key to its solution. The solution to last
month’s puzzle appears on page 79.
1. (See instructions) (4)
4. Tattoo maker bagged a drink (5,4)
11. “I see, I see,” said leftist leaders, describing downfallen
hanger-on (6)
12. (See instructions) (4)
13. Team in large numbers takes a knee (4)
14. One responsible for TV appearance who gets a pass? (8)
15. Firm poke from one never found in a compromising
position (8)
17. Nelson who didn’t go with the flow? (4)
19. (See instructions) (6)
20. Number of Romans clapped in iron? It might be high (4)
22. One preparing eggs brought back déjà vu all over
again! (7)
23. (See instructions) (6)
25. A school period that’s tough (3)
27. Lounge lizard’s capital: fifty-fifty chances to show up in
(OMG) Jewish joke (8)
31. So, to become retro, there’s coverage of Dick Van Dyke in 28.
Mary Poppins (4)
32. A just neighbor (4)
36. Exist back in time (3)
37. Someone distributing what you get in bars? (5)
38. (See instructions) (8)
39. Can’t be: a Lulu stopped halfway? Sadly, can’t be played (9)
40. (See instructions) (6)
41. Scene I staged with kinfolk (6)
42. Muses, perhaps—need an option? (6)
Poll: beside a siesta, most like pie (7)
Horrifying filth? Frug dances (8)
Vast cocaine network (7)
Moved across the sky like missiles? (7)
“Is Los Angeles superior to North Dakota?” Regina writes
from St. Kitts, perhaps (7)
Cutters in some lines (4)
Inflorescence in which I challenge you to a marathon! (6)
Mask elements not according to Hoyle (see Hoyle) (8)
Little Virginia, they say, shows spirit more than once (6)
Motivated Republican, wrapped in a sign of peace (4)
Army leader of fictional spies raised cows found here (6)
Staff that gives you respect! (7)
Cooking routine put a little volume in a turnover (9)
Acrobats eliminating crazy flips for swimmer (4)
Spells “computer,” keeping private (5)
O’Hare Airport understands Latin god! (4)
Taxing in the extreme sets off limits at any time (7)
Witchcraft is an honor in England, and it feels so good! (5)
Rewrite your degree in an African language (6)
Good Humor in Spain—more than one, thanks to
Quixote (6)
Mobile home out of toilet paper? Yell for it! (5)
Violently eaten, consumed by hydrogen gas? Quite the
opposite! (5)
French city set up to support newspaper’s lead article (5)
Famous person who wrote a line just before a buzzer (5)
Poem needs rewriting? Eat your heart out (4)
Contest Rules: Send completed diagram with name and address to “Combination Lock,” Harper’s Magazine, 666 Broadway, New York, N.Y.
10012. If you already subscribe to Harper’s, please include a copy of your latest mailing label. Entries must be received by January 12. The sender
of the first correct solution opened at random will receive a one-year subscription to Harper’s Magazine (limit one winner per household per year).
The winner’s name will be printed in the March issue. The winner of the November puzzle, “Triplets,” is John Gregory, Natick, Mass.
sychopathy may be an evolutionary complement to
altruism in that it allows one group member to sacrifice
another for the greater good. People who feel they are
disadvantaged are likelier to support populism and to
exhibit national narcissism. Narcissism among US college students was found to have declined between the
1990s and the 2010s. The returns of hedge fund managers who exhibit psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism are 1 percent lower than their peers’. In Italy,
for every 1 percent increase in the number of unmarried female immigrants, an additional 5 percent of
marriages fail. Heterosexual bromances may threaten
straight marriage. Nearly half of American young
adults act conspicuously heterosexual to counteract
perceived doubts about their being straight. Scientists
suggested that mass whole-genome sequencing may reveal humans who were created by parthenogenesis.
Breastfeeding increases maternal attachment later in
childhood, even when maternal neuroticism is controlled for. The placenta is not a superfood.
esearchers investigated Taiwanese nurses’ taboo
against eating pineapple, and the Jolly Fat hypothesis
was found to hold true among middle-aged Korean
women. Psychological, plant, and noetic scientists
claimed that seeds hydrated with commercially bottled
water on which Buddhist monks had focused their intentions became more sensitive to blue light. Chanel
scientists concluded that a woman whose lips contrast
with her face will appear younger. Men who were allowed unlimited time to sniff odor samples from women’s left armpits did not find the smells more or less attractive in correlation with their HLA genes.
Neuroscientists reported success in stabilizing the
heads of women being stimulated to orgasm by their
partners while in MRI scanners. Dr. Knut Drewing ex-
plained why unseen holes feel larger when probed with
a tongue than with a finger. Chinese-Canadian children trained to differentiate black people’s faces exhibit
less racial bias. German researchers hypothesized that
psychogenic autobiographical amnesia protects subjects by “offering the mechanism to exit a life situation
which appears to them unmanageable or adverse.” Descriptions of children being sexually abused elicit lower
moral-outrage activation in the brains of pedophiles.
Autistic boys are likelier than non-autistic boys to enjoy Schoenberg and Albinoni. Modern life may
be withering the hippocampus.
new city of gloomy octopuses was discovered off
the coast of Australia, and octopuses were walking
out of the sea and dying in Wales. Captive orcas’
teeth are poorly cared for and are often ground down
when the whales chew steel and concrete out of boredom and anxiety. Corals eat plastic not because it
looks like prey but because it is delicious. Pumping
the stomachs of hundreds of live and alert Southern
alligators revealed a diet rich in sharks. Woods Hole
biologists using unmanned hexacopters analyzed the
microbiome of humpback whale blow. Swedish farmers worried that wild boar, who have become increasingly radioactive since Chernobyl, will stop being
hunted by humans and become too populous. Anthrax was suspected in a massive hippo die-off in Namibia. Rescued circus lions were being poached in
South Africa. All but two of the chicks in a colony of
36,000 Adélie penguins at Dumont d’Urville died.
Entomologists warned of an “ecological Armageddon”
after summer populations of flying insects were found
to have fallen by more than 80 percent in the past
quarter century. Humans are killing all the oldest fish
in the sea.
“Composition No. 3,” a photograph by Jane Fulton Alt. © The artist
This collection of
essays from the
archives of Harper’s
Magazine features
such celebrated writers
as M.F.K. Fisher,
Upton Sinclair, Ford
Madox Ford, Tanya
Gold, Wendell Berry,
David Foster Wallace,
and Michael Pollan.
“This satisfying spread of essays, while an excellent tasting menu of the many-faceted
relations between Americans and their foodstuffs, serves as a clear journal of ways in which
we have done our eating right, and of course, how we have burnt the toast to a crisp.”
— Nick Offerman, actor, Parks and Recreation
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