Former South African president, anti-apartheid leader, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nelson Mandela died in Johannesburg at the age of 95. “Our nation has lost a colossus, an epitome of humility, equality, justice, peace, and the hope of millions; here and abroad,” said the African National Congress. “He really was like a magician with a magic wand, turning us into this glorious, multi-colored, rainbow people,” said Desmond Tutu. “May we as Christians in this Afrikaans church surprise the world,” said Pastor Niekie Lamprecht of the Dutch Reformed Church in Pretoria, “by not responding with hate.” Mandela’s body was taken to the capital city of Pretoria — where Thembu tribal leaders will perform a ceremony called the Closing of the Eyes in order to commune with Mandela’s ancestors and ease his passage to the afterlife — en route to his childhood village of Qunu, where he will be interred. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Queen Elizabeth II, British prime minister David Cameron, the Dalai Lama, former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, singers Bono and Annie Lennox, talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, and model Naomi Campbell were planning to travel to South Africa for memorial services, while a spokesman for former president George H. W. Bush said that Bush was no longer able to travel long distances. “He’ll be with them,” said a spokesman, “in spirit.” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly noted that Mandela was a “great man” but a communist, and former senator Rick Santorum likened Mandela’s fight against injustice to Republican opposition to the Affordable Health Care Act. The Anti-Defamation League objected to Kanye West’s claim during a radio interview that president Obama was struggling because “black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people,” and Obama celebrated the end of Hanukkah at two separate White House receptions before lighting the National Christmas Tree. To honor the 150th anniversary of the painter Edvard Munch’s birth, the Norwegian embassy in Washington D.C. decorated a Christmas tree with 700 ornaments featuring the distorted face of the man depicted in the Scream paintings. “It symbolizes all the angst,” said Ambassador Kåre Aas, “in preparing for an excellent Christmas.”
France and the African Union announced plans to deploy several thousand additional troops in the Central African Republic, where clashes between Christians and Muslims killed nearly 400 people in the worst violence since the predominantly Muslim Seleka coalition overthrew the government in March. “They are slaughtering us,” said Appolinaire Donoboy, a Christian, “like chickens.” Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the country’s lower house of parliament and called early elections after more than 150 lawmakers from the Democrat Party resigned en masse to join street demonstrations, and protesters at antigovernment rallies in Kiev toppled and decapitated a statue of Vladimir Lenin, then took turns beating the headless torso. “It’s a revolution,” said opposition leader Oleh Tyahnybok, “of dignity.” North Korea deported Merrill Newman, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran with a heart condition who had been detained on suspicion of espionage for over a month, citing “his sincere repentance and advanced age and health condition.” “Obviously, that’s not my English,” said Merrill of a videotaped apology released by the country. Irish online bookmaker Paddy Power announced plans to sponsor retired NBA star Dennis Rodman’s upcoming trip to North Korea to train the country’s basketball team, which will play an exhibition game against former NBA players in January, and Delta cancelled a commercial flight from Gainesville, Florida, to Atlanta in order to make the plane available to the University of Florida men’s basketball team. “For some people,” said a passenger, “it was an important inconvenience.”
A North Dakota woman was discovered to have a glass meth pipe and a syringe hidden in her vagina, and a grand jury in Manhattan indicted a man for assault following an incident in which police fired on him while he was unarmed and wounded two bystanders. A motorist driving southbound to South Riding, Virginia, hit a deer that flew through the air and struck a jogger, and the City of Milwaukee revealed plans to enhance road salt by mixing it with cheese brine. “The only other type of de-icing that I’ve heard of was like beet juice,” said a newspaper deliveryman, “which seems real impractical.” Alzheimer’s Disease International predicted a worldwide epidemic of dementia. In North Grimston, a West Highland Terrier named Joey successfully mated with Zara, a Rottweiler twice his size, producing the world’s first known litter of “wotties,” and in Norfolk six black-tipped reef sharks, a bonnethead shark, a bowmouth guitar shark, six penguins, and a green sea turtle were evacuated from the Hunstanton Sea Life Sanctuary because of flooding. An escaped circus elephant named Mia wandered the suburbs of Rome for two hours before her capture during a moment of indecision at a traffic roundabout; a Daly City, California, man was charged with biting his parents after they told him he couldn’t see the family cat; and Matthew Tyler Webb and Audrey Mayo of LaFayette, Georgia, were reportedly dating after Webb, out hunting after consuming several drugs, mistook Mayo for a deer and shot her in the knee. “A caveman,” said Mayo’s sister, “used to bash a woman over the head with a club.”
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In the December 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, who spent seven years in South African prisons for his anti-apartheid activities, wrote an open letter to former South African president and Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, who died last week at age ninety-five. In the letter, published on the occasion of Mandela’s ninetieth birthday, Breytenbach recalled the promise of the democratic revolution Mandela heralded following the demise of South Africa’s apartheid system, and asked what had gone wrong since then, given Mandela’s still-formidable influence on their country.
“I must tell you this terrible thing, my old and revered leader,” Breytenbach writes, after raising several recent high-profile instances of violence and racism in the country. “If a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go.”
In his missive, Breytenbach unfolds his deep feelings for South Africa and for Mandela, and wonders, ultimately, how his friend views his legacy and his enduring influence:
I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us. I have no idea how the experiences you went through changed your intimate landscapes. Maybe you only thought of yourself as the instrument of a particular historical moment? What do you hear when all is quiet— the dancing feet of your warrior tribesmen on the green hills of Qunu so disfigured by soil erosion? The acclamation of the world?
Read Breyten Breytenbach’s “Mandela’s Smile”
A little more than a century ago, when Paul Krüger, the last president of the Transvaal died, a South African poet wrote: “Be quiet, people — a great man is passing by . . .” Krüger met his death in exile. His country, one of the two Boer Republics burnt and beaten to its knees by British imperialism after the second Anglo–Boer War, no longer existed. (Afrikaners refer to it as the Second Liberation War.)
Madiba is leaving us. As he enters the timelessness of exile, he leaves behind him a country that he had helped forge. But the country had deserted him a long time ago.
Madiba has gone. What remains now of our dreams of freedom, of the struggle for human dignity for all and particularly for the poor who had always been deprived of it? What is left of the new nation that was to arise through processes of a reconciliation of bloody histories to finally live together in peace and prosperity? What happened to our ethical imagination? Where did our revolution go?
But let us not forget that it is a human being taking leave. A boxer. A man who loved women. And children — certainly all children, but first of all his own, those he could neither defend nor accompany during his long years of absence in prison. Exile already! A fighter and a troublemaker. A lawyer. A strategist, for sure, but a man of principle. A charmer. A man with a sense of humour who could tell stories like no other. A humanist. A chief. A visionary. A king.
We need, first of all, to bow our heads and be silent. To be proud that we could be part of those who lived at a time when Nelson Rolihlahla (“he who shakes the branches”) Mandela still walked the earth. And to cry then, as he certainly would also have wept at what was done to the South Africa he had dreamt and for which he had sacrificed so much. To weep over the feeding frenzy of the small foxes, this sanctuary for mediocre thieves that his beloved Congress, the ANC had become. The saddest and most telling cry that was going up more and more was — luckily he was too old and weak to realize what his party had been turned into!
Of course, he had been a politician as well. He had tasted power, he allowed himself to be manipulated, he looked the other way when his comrades started indulging in an orgy of greed, he could be arrogant, he lied at times. But let time do the sorting out . . .
Let the cortège of crocodiles first have their way and their say. The professional weepers, the ‘people’, and the starlets. Let us try and maintain a privileged moment of decency and respect as we make as if we don’t notice the vultures tearing one another apart for the strips of moral authority still to be torn from the deceased one, for the money to be made from one man’s long life of struggle on behalf of all of us.
And let us spare a thought for this old warrior who made us believe, however briefly, that we are capable of living up to the good in us, and who finally now belongs to the epic and tragic trajectory of humankind. But first of all to the humblest ones, to those in their shacks and their holes and their prison camps who never knew him but who will murmur his name like a talisman against cruelty. As a word of inspiration. He honoured us.
Hamba kahle, Nkos’ . . .
Daniel Alarcón’s second novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, published in October by Riverhead Books, is a strange and compelling book, a hybrid of journalistic and novelistic techniques, and an interrogation and dramatization of the process of storytelling. The novel follows an unnamed narrator in an unnamed South American country as he excavates the story of a young actor, Nelson, and his travels with the radical theater troupe Diciembre. Beyond the many accolades he has received for his fiction, Alarcón is an accomplished journalist, and readers of Harper’s Magazine may recognize some features of the prison he describes in the novel (where it is known as the Collectors) from his last article for the magazine, “All Politics is Local.” I put six questions to him about the book.
1. At Night We Walk in Circles seems to have grown out of certain pieces of your past fiction and non-fiction work. When did you know you were going to write this novel, and what additional research did you do for it?
I wouldn’t say I did any additional research; in fact, I’ve never been very good at that. What I do instead is pursue the interests I’m passionate about, often for years, without worrying too much about what I’m going to do with this knowledge. In the course of writing this novel, I came to know the inside of Peru’s largest prison, Lurigancho, and know it fairly well, know it well enough to believe I could write about this place in fiction. But the novel itself was already underway by the time I wrote that piece. By the time, I went to Lima to report that story for Harper’s, I’d been working with Nelson and Francisco and many of the other characters for three or four years.
2. The country where the novel is set is never named, nor is the city in which Nelson lives. The narrator also deliberately withholds the name of his hometown, calling it only T——. “I was born there, after all,” he says, “and though I left when I was only three, I suppose this fact gives me some right to call it whatever I please.” What led you to leave the country unnamed, and what leads the narrator to do the same with T——?
There’s a difference, of course, with leaving a setting unnamed, and leaving it vague or thinly described. Place is very important in my work, and leaving the country or the city unnamed is a choice. It gives me a certain freedom: I can create the contours of the city, or the countryside, create the details I need, the ones that best suit the story. The narrator has his own reason, and they have to do with protecting his family from any possible retribution (their proximity to the home of one of the novel’s villains is a central coincidence in the book).
3. The majority of the primary characters in the book, and many of the secondary ones, are either professional or aspiring actors. Nelson seems particularly talented, able to draw on disparate personal desires and to inhabit them. What about actors interests you to such an extent?
Acting is a skill that interests me a great deal, in part because I’m so bad at it. Who are the people who can throw themselves into a story in this way? Who can approach a story from such an intuitive place? But Nelson came first — his character, his unique brand of wandering, wheel-spinning. The acting came from him. I found that this profession suited his personality, and so I fell into the world of the theater. If there was a part of the preparation for writing this novel that I most enjoyed, it was reading plays, trying to understand the form. With every play I read, I felt like I was getting to understand Nelson better.
4. In anticipation of the Spanish version of your first novel, War by Candlelight, you wrote about your worry that “My incomplete knowledge of the place [Peru] will be on display.” In At Night We Walk in Circles, the narrator tends to bring in testimonials from other characters to support his claims, whether factual or what one might call moral. Did the apprehension you’d expressed as a Peruvian novelist who has spent most of his life in the United States factor into the narrator’s cautious construction of Nelson’s story?
I hadn’t thought of it that way, no. In fact, I don’t have those same anxieties anymore. I feel comfortable writing from this in-between place, about this imagined version of Peru. I’m an outsider in Lima, but an outsider with a great deal of access, and that allows me to see the strangeness of the place, and find its beauty.
5. The novel takes place after what Nelson’s father calls their home country’s “anxious years” — after the violence and after Diciembre’s heady radicalism seems to have petered out. The frequent foreshadowing keeps us conscious of the fact that the narrator is recalling the details of a past he dug up years ago. Why was it important that this be a story of return, or of reflection?
I have to wonder if I’m even qualified to answer this question. I know very little about why, in this case. It happened that way. It felt natural to write this voice, from this particular point of view, from this distance. I took a trip back in 1999, through Ayacucho and Huancavelica, and have some of these same memories; if not the details, the tone, the echoes rang true to me. It was also, I’d guess, an act of bravado — foreshadowing was a way of raising the stakes for myself, hinting at a resolution to events which I did not yet know how to resolve. In part, this is simply a way of reminding yourself to follow through with what your text is promising to deliver.
6. People are constantly asking the narrator what he’s doing, why he’s so intent on uncovering Nelson’s story — to the point that they become exasperated with him. Even Nelson, in their final conversation, tells him “I can’t understand why you’re here.” The narrator never seems to have an answer. Are you sometimes asked these kinds of questions by people who don’t understand your curiosity as a novelist or a journalist? Do you have an answer?
I have friends in Lima who poke fun at my obsession with prisons. I respond by poking fun at their obsession with chefs or opera singers. Curiosity is not about logic. I could answer this question a different way — give you, say, all the correct reasons for why prisons are an important topic, how they serve as a inverse reflection of the society we say we want to be. But my interest is much more visceral than that. The first time I walked into Lurigancho, I wanted desperately to understand everything about it. I still do. That’s always the germ of every piece of journalism I write. Any time I’ve done a story without that almost inexplicable curiosity — a curiosity that borders on obsession — the resulting piece has been a disappointment.
On Black Friday, thousands of Walmart employees and union supporters staged protests to demand annual wages of at least $25,000 for the 825,000 workers who make less than that amount and supplement their incomes with an average of $1,000 annually in Medicaid and food stamps. “The protest is sad,” said a Southern California shopper, “because Walmart has good prices.” Police arrested a man dressed as Santa Claus outside an Ontario, California, Walmart; a shopper stabbed and pulled a gun on another shopper during a dispute over a parking space outside a Claypool Hill, Virginia, Walmart; police pepper-sprayed one shopper and ticketed another for spitting on a stranger’s child at a Garfield, New Jersey, Walmart; a police officer was hospitalized for injuries sustained while breaking up a fight outside a Rialto, California, Walmart; and a bomb threat led police to evacuate a White Plains, New York, Walmart. “Black Friday is the Super Bowl of retail,” said Walmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon. “We ran a play that only Walmart could deliver.” The prime minister of Latvia resigned after taking responsibility for the November 21 collapse of a Maxima supermarket in Riga, which killed 54 people, and Maxima’s head of operations for Latvia was fired. “May those who feel real responsibility resign,” he said. “I can look people in the eye.” Protesters in Gafsa, Tunisia, set fire to the regional headquarters of the country’s ruling Islamist party during a demonstration to demand economic investment in poor areas, and police in Cairo beat several women and stripped a photographer while ending a peaceful demonstration against military trials of civilians and a law banning gatherings of more than 10 people. Icelandic police shot and killed a civilian for the first time, then apologized for it.
In Thailand, protesters calling for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — whose brother was unseated by a 2006 military coup following accusations of corruption and abuse of power — threw fireworks at riot police and sought to enter Shinawatra’s residence by breaking barricades with garbage trucks. Former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban called on his supporters to besiege every government office in the country, many of which subsequently closed, and antigovernment “yellow shirts” engaged in shootouts with pro-government “red shirts” that left three people dead. “I will remain here,” said Shinawatra. “I may be a woman, but I have the courage to face all possible scenarios.” Silvio Berlusconi was expelled from the Italian Parliament over his conviction for tax fraud, prompting his 28-year-old girlfriend to appeal to Pope Francis on his behalf. “It was the right thing to do,” said a lawmaker who supported the expulsion. “Otherwise we would have had the law of the jungle.” Amazon released a promotional video for its experimental drone-delivery service that depicted an unmanned octocopter flying a yellow box containing a rollerblade-adjusting tool to a father and son. “It’s a symphony of people,” said CEO Jeff Bezos, “it’s a symphony of software, it’s a symphony of robots.” Four people were arrested for using a remote-controlled hexacopter to fly two pounds of tobacco to prisoners inside the yard at Calhoun State Prison in Georgia. The ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that an Albuquerque prison guard had used pepper spray on an inmate’s vagina, and a Swedish prisoner with a toothache escaped to visit the dentist, then returned to jail.
Croatia voted to ban gay marriage, and France began investigating Bob Dylan for inciting ethnic hatred against Croats in an interview he gave to Rolling Stone in 2012. “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that,” Dylan said. “Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.” The Republican National Committee commended Rosa Parks on Twitter for “ending racism,”; a white employee of a 99p store in Withim, England, accused his nonwhite employers of treating him like a slave; and a Plantation, Florida, police officer was arrested after he refused to remove his Guy Fawkes mask during an anti-Obamacare protest. It was revealed that the National Security Agency collected data on the pornography habits of six young Muslim men believed to be connected to terrorist groups, with the aim of harming their reputations. ProPublica reported that Karl Rove’s fundraising group, Crossroads GPS, violated the terms of its tax-exempt status by awarding grant money to right-wing political organizations. “That’s called bullshit,” said a former IRS official, “with a serving of horseshit on the side.” A Mormon bishop who attended a service in Utah disguised as a homeless man in order to teach his ward about compassion was asked by a congregant to leave, The Fast and the Furious star Paul Walker died in a car crash, and the mayor of Hampton, Florida, was arrested for buying and selling Oxycodone. “We will not tolerate illegal drug activity,” said the county sheriff. “This isn’t Toronto.”
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Smoke Painting #36, colored smoke and firework residue on paper, by Rosemarie Fiore, whose work was on view in October at Von Lintel Gallery, in New York City. Courtesy the artist and Von Lintel Gallery, New York City Smoke Painting #36, colored smoke and firework residue on paper, by Rosemarie Fiore, whose work was on view in October at Von Lintel Gallery, in New York City. Courtesy the artist and Von Lintel Gallery, New York City
When former president Bill Clinton nominated Barack Obama for a second term at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hall was packed to the rafters with party dignitaries. One was conspicuous by her absence: Hillary Clinton, away on diplomatic business in East Timor. “For decades,” she said by way of explanation, “secretaries of state have not attended political conventions because of the nonpartisan nature of our foreign policy.”
Politicians love being thought of as nonpartisan and above the murky fray. That must explain why so many of them want to be secretary of state, even though the office confers little power of patronage (its choicest appointments — ambassadorships — being sold off by the president to the highest bidder), a puny budget, and none of the authority that comes from the ability to kill people or make them rich.
Nevertheless, two people very definitely wanted to be secretary of state in the first Obama Administration: Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Both deny it, of course. But Democratic Party sources insist that Obama, locked in a bitter nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, offered both men the coveted post in hopes of gaining their support when he needed it.
Richardson, who had served the Clinton Administration as secretary of energy and ambassador to the United Nations, was campaigning largely on the strength of his foreign-policy experience. But as the Iowa caucuses approached, he lagged at around 8 percent in the polls — far behind Obama and Clinton, but with enough supporters to make him an object of desire for both campaigns.
The Clintons believed they were safe from a Richardson defection, because he had served in Bill Clinton’s Cabinet and furthermore indicated he would make no such alliance. What prize could Obama dangle to sever the ties of loyalty and friendship? The choice was clear. He reportedly contacted Richardson days before the Iowa vote and offered him the State Department — confidentially, it being considered unseemly to allot Cabinet positions before the election. Richardson accordingly directed his caucus delegates to support Obama, to the fury of the Clintons. “I guess energy secretary and U.N. ambassador weren’t enough for him,” raged Bill Clinton as Obama won a decisive victory in Iowa on January 3. (Richardson insists the story is “totally false,” a slander spread by Clinton loyalists.)
The battle moved on, and Hillary Clinton surged back in New Hampshire, meaning that Obama was now obliged to hook a bigger fish. Kerry, though defeated by George W. Bush in 2004, remained a powerful presence among the Democrats, not least because he controlled a lucrative donor list with 3 million email addresses. Obama already owed much to the senator, who had selected him to make what became a career-defining address at the 2004 convention. (A friend of mine, a delegate, bumped into Obama later that night while he and another delegate were strolling outside the hall. “That showed some charisma,” said my friend’s companion in congratulation. “Some charisma?” replied Obama, irked at the qualifier.)
Now Kerry delivered an equally important favor, endorsing Obama just days after his potentially terminal defeat in New Hampshire. Beforehand, he is reported to have elicited a firm promise that he would be appointed secretary of state in November. Kerry’s chief of staff, David Wade, insists that “nothing like that ever happened, whatsoever.” But again, Democratic Party sources argue that there was indeed a quid pro quo, with Obama contradicting his earlier pledge.
Richardson still thought the job was his. In late March, he publicly endorsed Obama, causing the Clinton loyalist James Carville to pronounce him a “Judas.” The press, meanwhile, remained unaware of Obama’s warring commitments. In August, Richardson coyly admitted to the Albuquerque Journal that while “not launching a campaign” for the job, he did have hopes of selection for State. Kerry, running for reelection to the Senate, could not express such ambitions, though others touted his candidacy for Foggy Bottom.
As we know, with the election satisfactorily concluded, Obama awarded the coveted position to the defeated Hillary — relief from four years of Clinton rancor being clearly worth breaking a promise or two. Richardson, after withdrawing his nomination for secretary of commerce, dropped out of politics. Kerry, reelected to the Senate, became chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
Former occupants of that chair had used it to make trouble, the best-known example being William Fulbright, who held regular, probing hearings on Vietnam between 1966 and 1971. The April 22, 1971, session had been notable for the dramatic testimony of a young war hero turned dissident, John Kerry, who thereby launched his political career.
By 1985, Kerry was himself a senator and a junior member of the same committee, where he oversaw commendable investigations into the links between covert operations in Central America and the narcotics trade, as well as (in partnership with John McCain) the POW/MIA racket. But when he took over the leadership post, in 2009, Kerry stopped rattling cages. There would be no Fulbright-style hearings on Afghanistan. The reason, said a close political colleague, was that Kerry “wants to be secretary of state.”
Four years later still, his time appeared to have come. Clinton was quitting the office in preparation, so all presumed, for a second run at the White House. But once again, it looked like politics would intervene.
To a considerable degree, the Obama national-security team in the first term had been an Irish affair — “three cold, hard Irishmen,” as one former State Department official recalled. This troika consisted of Tom Donilon, John Brennan (custodian of the drone-strike kill list), and Denis McDonough (who gradually took control of the National Security Council machinery). All three had earned Obama’s trust. Yet they had a potent rival in Susan Rice.
Rice had reportedly had her eye on the post of national-security adviser at the beginning of Obama’s first term, but had settled for U.N. ambassador, in which capacity she had been a forceful voice for active engagement in the Libyan civil war. Now it seemed possible that she would succeed in her bid for the security-adviser post — where she would present a major threat to the Irish junto. Donilon and McDonough (Brennan having gone to his reward as CIA director) floated a solution: Send her off to be secretary of state.
“Why not?” says a State Department official who observed these maneuvers. “All the power is in the White House anyway, and they would pick her staff — the assistant secretaries and so on. She’d be surrounded by their people and couldn’t make trouble.”
It was a reasonable scheme, but it fell apart after the jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. On television, Rice declared that the attack had been a spontaneous mob action — bringing down the wrath of Republicans, who accused her of engineering a cover-up and pledged to fight her confirmation for State. Obama gamely defended her, but Rice was soon forced to abandon her bid.
At long last, Obama fulfilled the promise he had made four years earlier and named Kerry to the post. Some suggested that the move had been impelled only by a prod from Kerry’s old friend John McCain, who expressed irritation that a senior senator was being treated with such scornful indifference.
After calling for “economic patriotism” during his confirmation hearing and hailing the “crippling sanctions” levied on Iran, Kerry was confirmed with enthusiastic bipartisan support. He now embarked on the final task of his career: constructing a legacy out of the unpromising materials of the Middle East peace process.
Thus did Kerry begin flying countless miles back and forth to Israel and its occupied territories. His initial goal was merely to promote talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. Before too many months had passed, however, locals began openly expressing derision at what they perceived as an empty exercise in political theater. Jeering at Kerry’s efforts, The Times of Israel invoked the old saw that insanity is repeating the same action again and again in hopes of obtaining a different result.
Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli peace activist, meanwhile mocked the very notion of negotiations “between an almighty occupying power and an almost totally powerless occupied people.” The “full might of the United States” may well be behind Kerry, he wrote in his weekly column last June, but then added a crucial question: “Or is it?” Clearly, only Obama himself could impose a peace, which he was (and is) unlikely to attempt on behalf of anyone’s legacy but his own.
Kerry, it seems, had fallen into the trap of believing in the existence of something called “foreign policy,” divorced from domestic political interests. There is no such thing.
Edwin O’Connor made exactly this point in his 1956 political novel, The Last Hurrah. “We’re under the disadvantage of having to evolve a foreign policy that meets local requirements,” explains Frank Skeffington, an old-fashioned machine boss running for reelection in an East Coast port city modeled on Boston. “When you come right down to it, there are only two points that really count.”
Skeffington held up two fingers. “One,” he said, ticking the first, “All Ireland must be free. Two,” he said, ticking the second, “Trieste belongs to Italy. They count. At the moment the first counts more than the second, but that’s only because the Italians were a little slow in getting to the boats.”
Pundits, of course, are fond of remarking that “all politics is local.” They imagine they are quoting the late House speaker Tip O’Neill, though the maxim was coined by a journalist in 1932. O’Neill himself once defeated G.O.P. opposition to a billion-dollar jobs bill by listing all the bridges and infrastructure in Republican leader Robert Michel’s home district that would benefit from the legislation. But the idea that international politics follows the same rules, whether in democracies or dictatorships, and that all so-called foreign policy is actually a reflection of domestic factors, is too heretical to entertain — especially when it threatens a vast and flourishing intellectual industry.
Every year, thousands of young men and women graduate from the many schools of international relations around the United States, duly certified in the theory and practice of foreign policy and therefore qualified for a career slaloming between government, think tanks, and academia. Though they will have pored over such seminal texts as Joseph Nye’s Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era and Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, none of them will have heard of Bernard H. Barnett, an attorney who died in Atlanta in 1987. That is a pity. If the study of Barnett’s career formed even a tiny segment of any of the hundreds of international-relations courses currently on offer, students might get an inkling of just how chimerical their discipline truly is.
Barney, as everybody called him, specialized in tax matters, especially those involving large corporations, with particular emphasis on the oil industry. From his original base in Louisville, Kentucky, where he took an ambitious young Republican named Mitch McConnell under his wing, Barnett’s practice eventually extended to nine cities, the most important being Washington and Miami.
Apart from his legal gifts and aptitude as a businessman, Barnett was that rare thing in mid-twentieth-century America: a Jewish Republican. Not surprisingly, Republican politicians cherished his friendship, especially at election time, and eagerly hearkened to his pleas on behalf of Israel.
Preferring to work “out of the limelight,” as his son Charles told me recently, Barnett lent his name and public support to just a few uncontroversial entities, such as the United Jewish Appeal. Far more crucially, according to a source who knew him well, he crafted the legal framework for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The former Minnesota senator Rudy Boschwitz affectionately describes Barnett, whom he first met through the wealthy industrialist Max Fisher, as “a giant.” “Max and Barney cut a very wide swath both in the halls of Congress and among a series of Republican presidents,” Boschwitz told me, as they lobbied “strongly and effectively for the state of Israel in its young, formative years.”
AIPAC’s clout derives in large part from its ingenious structure, which enables it to operate simultaneously as a tax-exempt educational foundation, a lobbying operation, the coordinator of apparently independent local political-action committees, and an unregistered foreign agent. By the end of the Carter Administration, AIPAC had become a mighty political force, capable of swaying and even supervising the U.S. government’s actions in the Middle East.
Barnett’s role in these developments was noted in high places, specifically by Richard V. Allen, Ronald Reagan’s first national-security adviser, who felt that Barnett’s skills could profitably be deployed elsewhere. Campaigning in Miami in 1980, Allen had observed the viscerally anticommunist Cuban exile community, at the time racked with feuds and discord, and realized what formidable allies they could be — especially when dealing with a recalcitrant Congress controlled by Democrats.
“I approached the Cubans,” Allen told me recently. “They were already Reagan supporters, but loosely organized. I suggested they organize themselves like AIPAC.”
To teach them just how to accomplish this, Allen recommended Barney Barnett. In no time at all, the Cuban American National Foundation was up and running, structured precisely along AIPAC lines, with separate research, funding, and lobbying operations, while local chapters around the country forged financially lubricated ties to individual members of Congress in both parties.
Allen’s brainchild more than fulfilled its promise, not only lending support to Reagan’s bellicose initiatives in Central America but also helping to ensure that Florida, carried by Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election, went overwhelmingly for Reagan in 1984. Barnett remained closely involved, housing CANF’s Washington operation in his law office at 1000 Thomas Jefferson Street, close to the Georgetown waterfront. “We were at one end,” recalls a lawyer who worked down the hall and was intimately familiar with the Barnett firm. “The Cubans were at the other, and there were a bunch of Israelis running in and out of a room in the middle with a high-security lock.”
Barnett’s passing was marked by brief and uninformative obituaries in the New York Times and the Palm Beach Post. (Jorge Mas Canosa, chairman of CANF, was one of the pallbearers at the funeral.) Yet the epitaph for this relative unknown could easily echo that of Christopher Wren, as inscribed on the great architect’s tombstone in the floor of St. Paul’s Cathedral: if you seek his memorial, look around you.
Thanks to Barnett’s ingeniously fashioned and highly efficient machine for distributing money to the campaign chests of legislators, no administration — and none but the most electorally suicidal of politicians — will dare defy AIPAC’s injunctions. Israelis themselves are awed by the lobby’s power. Uri Avnery vividly summed up the scene at AIPAC’s 2008 annual conference in a blog post:
All the three presidential hopefuls made speeches, trying to outdo each other in flattery. 300 Senators and Members of Congress crowded the hallways. Everybody who wants to be elected or reelected to any office, indeed everybody who has any political ambitions at all, came to see and be seen.
While the smaller and less affluent Cuban-American community never attempted to match AIPAC’s reach, they got what they needed: an ironclad veto on America’s relations with Fidel Castro and, no less important, a powerful role in the local and national politics of their adopted nation. Jorge Mas Canosa, for example, dominated Miami politics for nearly two decades. As one of his associates told the Miami Herald in 1992, “I can’t believe it. You sit there and watch him deal with [city] commissioners and he treats them like chauffeurs.” (This source also told the reporter that he would “be destroyed” if quoted by name.) Meanwhile, candidates for higher office in venues far from Florida, such as Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut and Robert Torricelli in New Jersey, eagerly solicited Mas Canosa’s endorsement. In return, they got a reliable partner proficient in trading votes and money (Torricelli alone collected $240,000) for power.
Needless to say, there is no mention of Barnett in those standard texts by Nye and Keohane, nor do AIPAC and CANF figure in the works of a towering eminence like the late Kenneth Waltz. Yet history clearly demonstrates that leaders — whether democrats or dictators — consistently keep their eye fixed on their own domestic political advantage, a fact ignored by professors and policy analysts, though sometimes acknowledged by politicians themselves.
Alexander Hamilton, for example, commented in Federalist No. 6 that innumerable wars originated “entirely in private passions; in the attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears of leading individuals in the communities of which they are members.” As a principal illustration of this important truth, he cited the case of Pericles, lauded as one of the greatest statesmen of classical Athens, who “in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the Samnians” before igniting the disastrous Peloponnesian War in order to extricate himself from political problems back home.
Alert to the realities of international politics, Hamilton would have had little trouble appreciating the story related to me a few years ago by a former senior British intelligence official, describing how Greece came to join the European Union. According to this account, the British prime minister James Callaghan was hoping to promote Greece’s application for membership in 1976 as a means of appeasing Labour’s left-wingers, who were urging that the Greeks’ recent ejection of their fascist military regime be rewarded. But the bureaucrats of the European Commission took a dim view of the application, on the entirely accurate grounds that Greece’s economy was too backward to be allowed into the club.
Callaghan was despondent. At that point, the head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, appeared at 10 Downing Street to recommend that the prime minister phone a certain senior French government official and make a direct appeal to have the EC’s verdict set aside. Callaghan made the call — and to his surprise received immediate and enthusiastic approval for the proposal.
With the United Kingdom and France thus united, resistance in Brussels collapsed and the Greek application moved ahead. Later, Callaghan asked Oldfield for an explanation.
“It may be,” replied the spy chief, “that a certain patriotic Greek lady has been denying the pleasures of her bed to a senior French official unless and until her country’s application is accepted.” The intelligence proved correct. The French official’s private passion was satisfied, Greece joined the European Union and traded its drachmas for euros, and was thus launched on the road to its present state of beggary.
The historian Walter Karp also made clear the absurdity of the proposition that foreign and domestic policy are somehow separate, that presidents in trouble at home nevertheless conduct their foreign policy without regard for these difficulties. In his most important work, The Politics of War (1979), Karp illustrated his thesis by examining America’s entry into World War I. At the time, President Woodrow Wilson made an artful attempt to persuade both contemporaries and future generations that he was leading the country into the European slaughter only with the greatest reluctance, and in the face of dire provocation. In fact, according to Karp’s interpretation, Wilson — an unsavory egomaniac who brought Jim Crow to its apogee by segregating federal offices — was intent on dragging America into the war from the start, motivated by both personal ambition and urgent domestic political exigencies.
The erstwhile Princeton University president had ridden to the White House in 1912 on a reform ticket. Indeed, 70 percent of the votes in that year’s election were cast for the two progressive candidates, in hopes of extirpating Wall Street’s control of capital. “The privileged interests, the ‘money trust,’ ” wrote Karp, “seemed about to receive their death blow.”
However, Wilson’s own political beliefs ran in quite the opposite direction. His public conversion to the cause of reform was of recent vintage, driven by the need to secure progressive Republican support, but he privately regarded the movement as an obnoxious outbreak of “ill-humors.” So, to fulfill the bare minimum of the electorate’s expectations, he put through Congress a limited program to restrain banking and big business.
Not everyone was deceived. Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin described the 1913 act establishing the Federal Reserve as a “big bankers’ bill,” while another progressive Republican lawmaker said Wilson’s measures against the trusts had “not enough teeth to masticate successfully milk toast.” Wilson realized that he had better find some way of diverting the popular mood for change before the people woke up to his true inclinations and voted him out of office. The solution, he confided to his friend and adviser Colonel Edward House, was to “impel” the nation to “great national triumphs” abroad.
The outbreak of the world war in 1914 presented Wilson with the perfect opportunity to jettison the populist agenda. He announced in November of that year that the reform era was at an end, his legislation having satisfactorily remedied all the people’s grievances. Meanwhile, though publicly professing neutrality in the conflict, he spared no effort in assisting the British, notably in their campaign, illegal under international law and ruinous to Germany’s civilian population, to blockade that country’s food supply. Karp states flatly that from “autumn 1914 onward, the diplomacy of the United States would be conducted by Wilson and House not in the interests of America, not by the venerable traditions of the Republic,” but only to secure for the messianic Wilson what his friend and flatterer House described as “the noblest part that has ever come to a son of man.”
The part Wilson and his adviser had in mind was that of supervising the postwar peace, reshaping the world into a vaguely conceived “association of nations.” But reaching that position required a prior, active role in the war itself, and Wilson’s problem was that the American people wanted no part of it. Former president Theodore Roosevelt, himself eager for America to join the carnage, ruefully admitted in 1915 that an estimated 98 percent of Americans saw no reason whatsoever why they should become involved.
Eventually it was left to the British to relieve the president of his predicament, handing over an intercepted message from the German foreign minister to the German ambassador in Mexico with instructions to propose an alliance with the Mexican government should the United States enter the war — the famous Zimmermann telegram. Its public release had the desired effect, generating a wave of war hysteria and xenophobia in the press, which was in turn encouraged by the financiers and munitions profiteers who now formed the president’s core constituency. Wilson got his war.
Following Germany’s defeat, Wilson embarked on phase two of his overall plan: to play that “noblest part.” But it all went wrong. Although the masses gave him an ecstatic greeting on his arrival in Europe to supervise the peace conference, the wily politicians at the head of the French and British governments were bent on advancing their own agendas. They proved notably uncooperative in framing Wilson’s pet scheme, the League of Nations, as he had envisioned it. Returning home to secure the necessary domestic endorsement for the league, he faced an angry and vengeful populace. Wilson, as Karp puts it, had “deceived and betrayed his countrymen, had falsely maneuvered them into war, had robbed them of their peace, their hopes, and the lives of 116,708 of their sons.” What sort of welcome did he expect?
In an acid summation near the end of his story, Karp notes:
[T]oday, American children are taught in our schools that Wilson was one of our greatest Presidents. That is proof in itself that the American Republic has never recovered from the blow he inflicted on it.
Dying at the hands of clumsy doctors in 1989, Karp was at least spared the rapturous applause that greeted the publication earlier this year of A. Scott Berg’s best-selling Wilson, whose heroic protagonist lived “to renew ideals.” Yet the illusion of a freestanding foreign policy, which Karp worked so hard to banish, remains stubbornly intact.
Some might cite the contrary example of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen, who wielded great power in the 1950s as heads of the State Department and the CIA, respectively, and who appear to have pursued a foreign policy of militant anticommunism devoid of domestic considerations. Yet they served at the pleasure of a master, President Eisenhower. So when Secretary Dulles urged an initiative contrary to Ike’s political requirements, such as dispatching American troops to Vietnam in 1954, the boss had no hesitation in peremptorily quashing the idea.
In a similar vein, foreign-policy treatises tend to dodge the role of oil corporations in directing U.S. policy in the Muslim Middle East, though accounts of the CIA’s 1953 Iranian coup can hardly ignore the fact. Those same treatises also tiptoe around figures such as Bruce Jackson, vice president for international operations at Lockheed in the 1990s, who successfully lobbied for the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, even at the expense of the United States breaking a solemn promise to the Russians.
President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 might also appear to have been purely a foreign-policy exercise. But the transcripts of Kennedy’s meetings during the crisis indicate clearly that his prime consideration was the domestic political impact of allowing the Soviets to base missiles so close to the United States.
On the other side of the crisis, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev appears to have authorized the missile deployment to patch over problems with his military, who were chafing both at a reduction in troop levels and at Khrushchev’s failure to deliver promised production of ICBMs. Meanwhile, Kennedy had famously told the CIA he didn’t want to know about Khrushchev’s problems with his generals. Such domestic spats struck him as an irrelevant distraction.
Yet in a fascinating book on Soviet foreign policy of the era, Public Policy in an Authoritarian State: Making Foreign Policy During the Brezhnev Years (1993), Richard Anderson proves that the opposite was true. Such weighty developments as changing relations with Eastern European satellite states, or arms-control talks with the West, often hinged on the domestic tug-of-war between the paramount leader Leonid Brezhnev and his rivals in the party hierarchy.
Obsessed with beating one another, Soviet officials consistently enacted foreign policies that damaged Soviet interests at home and abroad. Their American counterparts ignored what was going on in the Soviet Union because they were concentrating just as hard on their own electoral battles. They were caught flat-footed when the bickering in Moscow handed them victory in the Cold War, freeing Eastern Europe in 1989 and tearing apart the Soviet Union itself two years later.
People, Anderson told me, think political campaigning is all about winning votes. But that ignores the copious evidence of continual skirmishing between Brezhnev and his peers: “To exercise power, you have to have supporters, whether they vote or not. Foreign policy is a way of buying support.”
“It’s ridiculous to talk about U.S. foreign policy,” adds Joel McCleary, who has had ample opportunity to ponder the matter over recent decades as a former Democratic Party official and international financial and political consultant. “It’s a platonic form, without concrete substance. You could say there are U.S. foreign policies,” he continued. He cited his experience as an unofficial State Department envoy dispatched to Zimbabwe in 2002. “I was meant to be discussing a transition from Mugabe,” he told me. “But when I got there, I found the Pentagon was using him for renditions, and he wasn’t going anywhere.”
McCleary, who had been studying the social life of bees when I called him, suggested that the only time the term “foreign policy” might have any validity is when all the various elements of power in Washington decide to move in the same direction, “like a swarm. Tonkin Gulf was a swarm. Iraq in 2003 was a swarm. Of course,” he added, “swarms don’t always lead to good results.”
As he doggedly flew back and forth between the United States and Israel during the spring and summer of 2013, spending up to fourteen hours closeted with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and almost as much with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas), John Kerry was by no means part of a swarm. State Department officials fulminated that he was “running the place like his Senate office, with no connection to the rest of the building” — meaning that he was relying on a small coterie of advisers he had brought with him from Capitol Hill. Some noted that he seemed unaware of the ever greater importance of Asian powers.
“His view of Asia is thirty years out of date,” one former senior official told me. “He doesn’t realize how dynamic the region is. One thing the Israelis and Palestinians have in common is the fear that the Americans will turn all their attention to Asia. That’s why they tell Kerry, ‘We’re so close to an agreement,’ and he believes them!”
Kerry’s determination to make a personal impact regardless of political realities extended beyond his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. At one moment when he briefly turned his attention to Asia, for example, he considered cutting back the planned U.S. missile-defense program in the Pacific if China would help rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. He even hinted at a possible summit between the United States and Kim Jong Un.
Ignoring Obama’s manifest determination to avoid any entanglement in the Syrian civil war, Kerry also plowed ahead with efforts to persuade the Russians to cooperate in ejecting the Assad regime, implicitly criticizing the president for not having done more. “This is a very difficult process, which we come to late,” he observed stiffly at the beginning of June.
Needless to say, none of this went down well in the Oval Office. “There’s only room for one narcissist in this administration,” quipped a former White House official. “If Obama disliked Richard Holbrooke, he really dislikes John Kerry.”
Matters might have continued in this fashion, with Kerry jetting back and forth in futile isolation, had not a horrible tragedy in a Damascus suburb, vividly communicated by footage of dozens of dead and dying children, induced a seismic shift in the global political landscape. It was now politically impossible for Obama to ignore calls for some sort of military reaction, a course urged by both Kerry and Susan Rice, the habitual interventionist. It appeared that, once again, Washington was getting ready to swarm.
Yet Obama, ever the cautious politician, had no desire to leave a flank exposed to his Republican opposition by striking without their explicit endorsement, and so delayed the punitive attack on Syria pending congressional approval. Kerry eagerly joined the promotional effort, exhorting members of Congress not to ignore “our Munich moment” and comparing Syrian civilians to Jewish refugees being sent back to face Hitler’s gas chambers.
In his derisive post on Kerry’s peace-process odyssey, Uri Avnery recalled an earlier and equally fruitless initiative by a long-forgotten U.N. envoy named Gunnar Jarring, who had shuttled back and forth between Israel and Egypt to no avail. Then came the surprise Egyptian attack across the Suez in October 1973 — and, as Avnery put it, “the whole political world started to move.” Peace between the two countries ensued with remarkable speed, culminating in the Camp David Accords just five years later.
Obama’s attempt to get congressional approval for the Syria strike may have been a similarly world-moving moment. I refer not to the request itself but to the American public’s reaction. For years, our political leaders have taken for granted popular acquiescence in whatever drive-by shooting they have in mind, with “foreign policy” invoked as a handy rubber stamp. But that weekend in September, even as Kerry and Obama and Rice sought to whip Congress into line, the American people suddenly revealed that they, too, had a foreign policy. A wave of calls and emails swept over Capitol Hill, overwhelmingly denouncing the proposed attack. Even Barney Barnett’s legacy, in the form of a mass AIPAC lobbying effort, could not prevail against this tide.
Then John Kerry finally found his long-awaited moment, with an offhand answer to an unexpected and unprompted question about Assad’s options for avoiding a strike. As peace, not just with Syria but with Iran too, suddenly appeared an advantageous option, the secretary of state was swept along, growing tall in the theatrical role he had coveted for so long, though playing the part not as Talleyrand or Metternich, but as Chauncey Gardiner.
Much of the story of twentieth-century art can be told as a series of acts of vandalism. Cubist collage attacked the expectation that a painting should look like something in the world. “In my case,” Picasso said, “a picture is a sum of destructions.” Abstract painters criticized Cubism for not going far enough: “Cézanne broke the fruit dish,” Robert Delaunay reportedly said, “and we should not glue it together again, as the Cubists do.” Marcel Duchamp, not satisfied with assaulting painting from within, abandoned the medium after 1918, turning his attention to the presentation of ready-made objects as art, the most infamous of which was the urinal, entitled Fountain, he submitted to the American Society of Independent Artists under the pseudonym “R. Mutt” for its inaugural exhibition, in 1917. Whatever else Duchamp’s gesture was — a provocative way of blurring the boundary between art and mundane objects, a critique of the idea of authorship — it was also a metaphoric micturition on the history of creative expression. Another work of Duchamp’s, L.H.O.O.Q., consisted of a cheap postcard-size reproduction of the Mona Lisa, on which he drew a mustache and goatee. Pronounced aloud in French, the title sounds like Elle a chaud au cul, which translates colloquially to something along the lines of “She’s horny.” Duchamp’s focus was on degradation, setting the stage for the deskilled and frequently scatological experiments of a range of progeny, from Dubuffet to Warhol to the Andres Serrano Piss Christ that so pissed off Jesse Helms.
As a kid, when I first saw images of Jackson Pollock at work, I thought I was watching somebody vandalize a painting, not create one: the canvas was on the floor, paint was splattered and poured, and he was indifferent to the ash falling from his cigarette. Trash — nails, tacks, buttons — can be found encrusted in his paintings’ surfaces. In 1953, Rauschenberg erased a de Kooning drawing; now in the San Francisco MOMA, it’s widely considered a landmark of postwar art — ghostly traces in a gilded frame. In 1966, Gustav Metzger and others hosted the Destruction in Art Symposium in London, inviting a number of participants, especially those who worked by burning, cutting, tearing, and blowing up. Metzger, the author of the manifesto “Auto-Destructive Art,” conceived of such art as “an attack . . . on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit.” Some in the London press referred to it simply as “organized vandalism.” (Metzger’s subversions were the subject of a 2011 retrospective at the New Museum, in New York.) One notable antecedent of the conference was the work of Jean Tinguely, whose giant “méta-mécanique” Homage to New York beat itself to death in the MoMA sculpture garden on March 17, 1960. Autodestruction was also a theme and technique in Body Art, performances in which flesh was medium: Yoko Ono inviting an audience to cut away her clothing; Vito Acconci biting himself; Chris Burden being shot, or nailed to a car.
Examples could be multiplied easily, almost endlessly — this highly selective catalogue only takes us up to the Seventies; what’s clear is that modern art is inseparable from the destruction of modern art. Demolition, defacement, and debasement are not just fates artworks suffer at the hands of vandals; they’re often what those works are. It’s against this backdrop that vandals often claim to be artists — claim that they are moving the history of art forward by renovating received ideas or performing what artists and critics have come to call “institutional critique” — and that artists claim to be vandals, attacking the notion that art is property and ridiculing existing canons of taste. It’s precisely when vandals and artists are so difficult to tell apart that an act of vandalism can raise important and often uncomfortable questions about how we really define and value art.
On Sunday, October 7, 2012, a twenty-six-year-old Polish man named Vladimir Umanets walked into the Tate Modern and wrote vladimir umanets ’12 a potential piece of yellowism in the bottom right corner of Rothko’s 1958 Black on Maroon with a black paint pen. It was an act made to be googled, and googling it led to Umanets’s blog, which featured the so-called Yellowism manifesto, a work of Neo-Dadaist nonsense. Yellowism, the movement Umanets founded with his friend Marcin ?odyga, “is not art or anti-art”:
Examples of Yellowism can look like works of art but are not works of art. We believe that the context for works of art is already art. . . . Every piece of Yellowism is only about yellow and nothing more, therefore all pieces of Yellowism are identical in content — all manifestations of Yellowism have the same sense and meaning and express exactly the same. . . . Yellowism can be presented only in yellowistic chambers.
Umanets, who argued that he was working in the tradition of Duchamp, was resolute that his action was not vandalism, as he believed it increased the aesthetic and financial value of the Rothko:
With my signature this work will be much more valuable a work of art and also financially, because I changed the meaning. Someone who removes this signature will be an asshole.
The previous June, Uriel Landeros, a twenty-two-year-old artist from Houston, approached Picasso’s Woman in a Red Armchair in the city’s Menil Collection and spray-painted a stenciled image of a matador and bull along with the word conquista onto the canvas. Landeros described his act as one of social and political defiance: “It’s just a piece of cloth,” he said. “What matters most is the people who are suffering.” Another museumgoer filmed the attack on his cell phone; a guard appears just in time to insist that picture-taking is forbidden. Landeros’s paintings were later exhibited at a gallery in Houston, an event that received more outraged attention than his tagging the Picasso. The decision to treat the vandal as a “legitimate” artist was almost universally condemned.
Umanets’s and Landeros’s acts recall other destructive performances in museums. In 1993, at the Carré d’Art in Nîmes, an exhibition included a copy of Duchamp’s Fountain. On August 24, a sixty-three-year-old man named Pierre Pinoncelli urinated into the urinal, then hit it once with a small hammer before guards intervened. During the ensuing trial he explained that his “urinal happening” was intended to restore life to what had become a mere monument; as the critic Leland de la Durantaye explains, “When the prosecution accused him of ‘vandalism,’ he was indignant, claiming that, on the contrary, he had added value to the work.” While the other urinals in circulation were “faceless replicas,” this particular copy “now had a history and was thus immeasurably more valuable than before.” (Urinating on a Duchamp is a mini-tradition: Yuan Cai and Jian Jun Xi, two British-Chinese artists, pissed on Fountain in 2000 at the Tate. “As Duchamp said himself, it’s the artist’s choice. He chooses what is art. We just added to it,” Cai explained. Spray-painting a Picasso is also familiar: in 1974, Tony Shafrazi — then an artist, now a well-known art dealer — sprayed kill lies all on Guernica. “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life,” he said at the time.)
Pinoncelli had already had a busy career. Among other undertakings, he’d doused the French culture minister André Malraux with red paint; he’d robbed a bank at gunpoint but taken only ten francs; he’d cut off the tip of one of his fingers in a performance in Colombia in protest against the FARC. On January 4, 2006, Pinoncelli again vandalized a Duchamp. This time the happening was sans urine: he walked into the Centre Pompidou and hit another replica with a hammer, then more or less repeated his original arguments at trial. The courts required him to pay more than €200,000 in damages.
Few, if any, were willing to take Pinoncelli’s acts seriously as art. According to the art historian Dario Gamboni — the author of an excellent (and, interestingly, the only) book on modern art vandalism — when the French artist Benjamin Vautier (known simply as Ben) demanded that Art Press acknowledge the Nîmes attack as an artistic intervention, the editors replied:
[He] has done all that only for the Press and not for art, he would have done anything to be talked about, one cannot inscribe his name in the history of art while removing every meaning except that of whimpering for publicity.
(The translation from the French is Gamboni’s.)
Gamboni himself questions Pinoncelli’s claim to be an artist. “Pinoncelli,” he says, “could not give a convincing internal explanation of his resorting not only to ‘urine’ but to a hammer” and “showed a poor knowledge” of the history of Fountain. While conceding that Pinoncelli is not necessarily “deranged,” and that “the search for public acknowledgment” often motivates artists, Gamboni writes that “the importance of the attention-seeking element” in Pinoncelli’s act, “as well as its lack of coherence and relevance from an ‘artistic’ point of view, bring it exceptionally close to the ‘pathological’ cases ” of vandalism — cases like that of Laszlo Toth, who, believing himself to be the risen Christ, took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà in 1972.
How would showing that Pinoncelli’s gesture of what he termed “creative destruction” was inconsistent, incoherent, unsophisticated, or even a little deranged prove that it was merely vandalism and not art? If a critic were to review a show in a gallery and find it incoherent and attention-seeking, she might contend that the work was horrible — but she would almost certainly assume that it was horrible art. Charges of incoherence and irrelevance are often leveled at artists without that making them vandals. It is quite easy to argue that Umanets and Landeros and Pinoncelli are bad artists — derivative, sloppy, stupid. And it is easy to argue that they are merely destructive — but then performative destruction has a long and sanctioned history in the avant-garde. (And not just the destruction of one’s own work or an attack on an abstract idea. Recently, the British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman purchased, and then drew on, Goya prints, and this year Gaylen Gerber bought and painted over two ceramics by Lucio Fontana.) If we resort to claiming that what sets vandals apart is that they compromise valuable objects, that the originals aren’t their property, or that they violate the contract between the museum and the public, we run up against the fact that the rejection of beauty and resistance to the market have been rhetorical staples of avant-garde art for half a century or more.
The speed with which artists and critics and institutions categorize figures like Pinoncelli as vandals and not radical artists betrays an open secret in the world of contemporary art: nobody is supposed to take those vanguard ideas too seriously. Like some kind of village idiot, a vandal takes literally what we’re only supposed to pretend to believe: anything can be art, traditional media must give way to conceptual performance, and the moneyhungry art world must be subject to ruthless critique.
I should admit that I’ve often felt threatened by vandals. I have secretly envied their passion and commitment, perhaps particularly the “pathological” ones. For many of my generation who grew up under the dominance of Warhol’s cool, stylized stupidity, who grew up in an era Fredric Jameson said was characterized by the “waning of affect,” the intensity of the vandal’s response to an artwork can inspire a kind of anxiety, almost jealousy. Some vandals seem to suffer from something I’ve felt a little bad about not suffering from: Stendhal’s syndrome.
According to the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, Stendhal’s syndrome — also known as “hyperkulturemia” or “Florence syndrome” — is a psychosomatic condition in which museumgoers are overwhelmed by the presence of great art, resulting in a range of responses: breathlessness, panic, fainting, paranoia, disorientation. The condition is so named because of Stendhal’s account of his visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce:
I was already in a kind of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence and the proximity of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I saw it close-up — I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emotion where the heavenly sensations of the fine arts meet passionate feeling. As I emerged from Santa Croce, I had palpitations (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.
When I visited Florence last summer, the life went out of me only because of the tourists; I couldn’t see the art in the Uffizi for all the cameras. While Magherini does not link Stendhal’s syndrome to acts of vandalism, others have speculated that some attacks on artworks might result from such bouts of supersensitivity.
The question that serves as the title for Barnett Newman’s series of large canvases Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue was answered in a shockingly direct way by Josef Nikolaus Kleer on April 13, 1982. As Gamboni describes it, Kleer, a twenty-nine-year-old veterinary-medicine student, entered Berlin’s Nationalgalerie through a rear entrance while the museum was closed, made his way to the room where a Newman canvas was hung, picked up one of the plastic rails that were arranged on the ground to keep visitors from getting too close to the painting, and struck the canvas violently. He also punched it and kicked it and spat on it. According to Gamboni:
He then placed several documents on and around the damaged work: on its blue part, a slip of paper inscribed “Whoever does not yet understand it must pay for it! A small contribution to cleanness. Author: Josef Nikolaus Kleer. Price: on arrangement” and “Action artist”; on the ground in front of it, a copy of the last issue of the magazine Der Spiegel, with a caricature of the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher . . . ; in front of the red part, a copy of the “Red List,” an official catalogue of remedies published by the German pharmaceutical industry; in front of the yellow part, a yellow housekeeping book with a second slip of paper carrying the inscription “Title: Housekeeping book. A work of art of the commune of Tietzenweg, attic on the right. Not to be sold”; finally, lying somewhere on the ground, a red cheque-book. These items enabled the police to find the culprit quickly.
Kleer’s violence was motivated, he would maintain, not only by outrage that a work of art could cost so much but also by the intensely negative effect the canvas had on him. One significant inconsistency in Kleer’s account of his attack is that he said it was inspired at once by a sense of Newman’s fraudulence — Kleer believed himself “capable of making a comparable picture for a fraction of the acquisition price” — and by a sense of Newman’s tremendous power: standing before the work, Kleer reported having felt an overwhelming fear.
Newman was interested in the sublime, not the beautiful — and sublimity has always been associated with terror, with the sensation of being undone, a “fear of falling.” Kleer’s use of part of the plastic barrier as a weapon is almost an ironic homage to Newman, who for a show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1951 posted a note on the wall that read: “There is a tendency to look at large pictures from a distance. The large pictures in this exhibition are intended to be seen from a short distance.” Kleer refused all distance — “I touched it, so to speak.” (Newman’s canvases have been attacked several times since. Four years after Kleer battered Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV, a thirty-one-year-old man named Gerard Jan van Bladeren slashed Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum with a knife. Eleven years later, at the same museum, he slashed Newman’s Cathedra.)
Was Kleer so struck by the work that he had to strike back, just as, in 2007, a thirty-year-old woman, Rindy Sam, claimed to be so transported by a white panel of Cy Twombly’s triptych Phaedrus that she spontaneously kissed it, smearing it with red lipstick? (“There is also a madness,” Socrates says in his dialogue with Phaedrus, “which is a divine gift.”) This hyperkulturemia of certain aggressors can make the average art lover among us appear anemic. I suspect that most of us are more like Stendhal’s protagonist Fabrice, in The Charterhouse of Parma, than we are like Stendhal himself (assuming we believe the notoriously unreliable author’s account); Fabrice wanders around in confusion during the Battle of Waterloo, wondering, again and again, if he’s been in “a real battle,” if he is participating in history. I have often wandered around museums in a similar state, sidling up to various canvases, asking myself: Am I being sufficiently moved? Am I having a genuine experience of art? The vandal who cuts or kisses a canvas seems to have no doubt.
Or what if what I’m really admiring when I look at art is money? Everybody knows that art can be worth a tremendous amount of it — that the rich park their surplus cash in one artwork or another, that even artists interested in “dematerialization” usually produce souvenirs of their performances that can be sold by galleries. But we tend to deny prioritizing art’s economic value; we say we appreciate it for its beauty, for its conceptual power, whatever. These things are not always mutually exclusive, of course, and many people are explicit that art is a business (Warhol: “Good business is the best art”). But unlike most businesses, the art world typically asserts that art is first and foremost something other than a commodity.
There is a rationality to disavowing economic interest, in part because such disavowal leads to the accumulation of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “symbolic capital” — prestige, authority, an aura of purity and authenticity — which actually helps you sell your product. It’s perhaps easier to imagine denying that art is a commodity when talking about a Rembrandt or a Rothko than when talking about a Warhol print of a dollar sign or a Jeff Koons balloon dog. But I would argue that much, if by no means all, of contemporary art since Warhol assumes a posture of monetary disinterestedness, one based on criticism of the market itself. Walk through the galleries of New York’s Chelsea or Lower East Side and you will find works that claim to be a critique of capitalism or the commodification of art: recontextualized porn that attacks the capitalist spectacularization of sex, sculptures made of a devalued currency, and so on. Such art might be brilliant, or disturbing, or derivative and predictable; regardless, it is very much for sale.
Duchamp considered anything art so long as it was branded by the artist’s signature. (Indeed, Duchamp — in a gesture Umanets might have had in mind — once signed someone else’s mural at the Café des Artistes and then declared it one of his ready-mades; though destroyed, it’s sometimes listed among his works.) Scores of artists since have, like Metzger, seen their art as “an attack . . . on art dealers and collectors who manipulate modern art for profit.” But a profit can be made by selling attacks on profit because they earn dealers and collectors more symbolic capital, allow them to appear above the monetary. As long as the “attack” can be repackaged as salable, it’s art. “Vandalism” is the word assigned to those destructive acts that the art world can’t profit from. (The most startling aspect of Umanets’s naïveté is his failure to understand the difference in value between his signature and the signature of an art-world celebrity.) Vandalism speaks — or spits on, kisses, slashes — the open secret of economic interest.
This is why vandalism that increases dollar value isn’t vandalism. In 1964, Dorothy Podber — a self-described witch and performance artist who had worked at the Nonagon Gallery in Manhattan — visited Andy Warhol’s Factory. Podber asked whether she could “shoot” a stack of his Marilyn paintings. Warhol, apparently believing she meant to photograph the paintings, consented. Podber then removed a pistol and fired at the stack, damaging several canvases.
Podber doesn’t warrant mention as a vandal in Gamboni’s survey, or in the ever-expanding Wikipedia page on art vandalism (maybe I’ll add her), or in any of the compilations of acts of vandalism I’ve seen in the wake of Umanets. Surely she would have made these lists if Warhol had called the cops; instead, after politely asking Podber not to shoot his work again, he simply renamed the canvases: Orange Marilyn became Shot Orange Marilyn, Red Marilyn became Shot Red Marilyn, and so on. Because, and only because, Warhol underwrote the Shot Marilyns, vandalism never occurred. Warhol was the more powerful witch; he made Podber disappear. She gets credit neither as a vandal nor as an artist. In 1989, Shot Red Marilyn sold for $4 million, at that time a record for a Warhol at auction.
When Dinos Chapman was asked to explain how his defacing and displaying Goya’s Los Caprichos etchings was legitimate art, not vandalism, he said: “You can’t vandalize something by making it more expensive” (the Chapman brothers’ “revised and improved” versions of Los Caprichos were selling in 2005 at London’s White Cube gallery for $26,000 apiece). Remember that this was part of Umanets’s and Pinoncelli’s defense — that they were actually increasing the value of the works in question. They are vandals in part because they got the economics wrong in a way that makes the economics plain.
Following Umanets’s attack, there were, understandably, calls for silence: Don’t give the idiot the satisfaction of fame, which will just inspire more vandals; under no circumstances treat him like an artist. (Who knows how many acts of vandalism are never reported by museums? They have an interest in keeping lenders and insurers from thinking of works in their possession as vulnerable to attack.) The desire to strike the name of the vandal from the record has a long history. In 356 b.c., Herostratus burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus with the primary motivation of making himself famous. To prevent copycat acts of vandalism by those seeking immortality, the authorities not only executed the arsonist but, under pain of death, forbade the mention of his name. Needless to say, it didn’t work; Theopompus recorded the event in his Hellenics.
I have no interest in promoting a contemporary Herostratus, in making celebrities out of Umanets and similar figures. But if we ultimately believe a vandal is a vandal and not an artist because he devalues someone else’s property, then art-world radicalism doesn’t look very radical at all. If we believe it’s vandalism because it destroys a thing of beauty as opposed to creating more of it, then many vanguard artists who employ destruction need to be reclassified. The vandal haunts the artist, the art lover, and the art institution because he dramatically acts on what we say but do not mean.
It just so happens that the Tate Britain — a sister of the museum where Umanets attempted to reappropriate a Rothko — has an exhibition entitled Art Under Attack running through next month. It explores attacks on artworks from the Reformation to the present day; the Tate Britain’s director, Penelope Curtis, told the New York Times that the show seems to be making the art world nervous. I was disappointed to learn that the damaged (or by now hopefully restored) Rothko isn’t displayed, but the exhibition does include Metzger, Yoko Ono, and the Chapmans. It acknowledges some of the tenuousness and complexity of the distinction between art and vandalism; nevertheless, I suspect the exhibition is, in more than one sense, still guarded.
What would it mean to think beyond the economics of the art world, to move beyond both vandalism and the market it exposes? Is it possible to get outside the legacy of Duchamp — a legacy that has begotten, whatever Duchamp would have thought of them, Umanetses and Chapmans and Pinoncellis? In 2009, the Polish-born artist Elka Krajewska founded something she calls the Salvage Art Institute (SAI) in New York. The “institute” is basically Krajewska herself. She persuaded the AXA Art Insurance Corporation — one of the largest insurers of art in North America — to give her a sampling of their inventory of “total loss” art. When a work is damaged — in transit, in a fire or flood, in an act of vandalism — and an appraiser agrees with the owner of the work that it cannot be satisfactorily restored, or that the cost of restoration would exceed the value of the claim, the insurance company pays out the total value of the damaged work, which is then, legally speaking, worthless. I always assumed such artifacts were destroyed, but it turns out there are warehouses full of them; Krajewska visited one in Brooklyn. She now possesses more than forty objects that, as far as the art market is concerned, are no longer art.
The first public viewing of the SAI was held at the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery, part of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, last fall. Krajewska, collaborating with Mark Wasiuta, the school’s director of exhibitions, mounted the damaged paintings on movable dollies and also displayed the (heavily redacted) paperwork that detailed the processing of the claims. Some of the damaged works were easily recognizable, such as a small Jeff Koons balloon dog lying in shards on a silver tray. (At Krajewska’s exhibition, you can touch whatever you want; I admit I felt a frisson of transgression getting to handle the fractured sculpture, an icon I have wanted, in my more childish moments, to smash.)
The SAI explicitly positions itself as a kind of conceptual reversal of the Duchampian ready-made. Its mission statement reads:
SAI conceives the declaration that an object is No Longer Art as the symmetrical inversion of the subjective declaration that any object may be art. The signature of the adjuster meets and cancels the signature of the artist.
And Krajewska preempts the possibility of these objects’ being reappraised or resold:
SAI seeks to maintain the zero-value of No Longer Art and recognizes its right to remain independent and divorced from the demands of future marketability.
I had my own experience of something like hyperkulturemia, a feeling of vertigo, when I visited the SAI. What moved me most were not those works that were clearly severely damaged — that had suffered some kind of violence — but those that appeared to me identical to their former incarnation as economically valuable art. For example, to my perhaps unsophisticated eye, several photographs — works by Anne Morgenstern, Rodney Smith, and even Henri Cartier-Bresson — seemed perfectly intact, despite what the owners and appraisers had decided. As I spent a few minutes holding each of these photographs in turn, I remembered the following anecdote from a book by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben:
The Hasidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.
Several of the works in the SAI are just as they were, but a little different. We’re all familiar with material things that take on a kind of magical power as a result of a signature: that’s how branding functions in the gallery system and beyond, whether for Duchamp or Louis Vuitton. But it is incredibly rare to encounter the reversal of that process, to encounter an object freed from the market — freed without being shattered or spit on or torn. It was as if I could register as I held each of the photographs in my hands a subtle but momentous transfer of weight: the market’s soul had fled; it was art outside of capitalism. Each work had been redeemed, both in the sense that the fetish had been converted back into cash, the claim paid out, but also in the more messianic sense of being saved from something, saved for something. For me these objects — just as they were, but a little different — were ready-mades for or from a world to come, a future where there is some other system of value, in the art world and beyond, than the tyranny of price. That’s long been a dream of many artists and vandals alike.
I grew up under the watchful gaze of my dead grandmother lying in her coffin. Her funeral had been meticulously documented and a series of 4" × 6" black-and-white photographs had been printed, then framed, to hang in the living rooms of my uncle’s spacious house in Haiti and my parents’ crowded two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. My grandmother’s “shadow” followed me from even before I was born, right into my transition into a new life in New York City at age twelve. It followed me, that is, until the photographs were lost: one during a move in New York, the other during the Haiti earthquake of 2010.
There was no taboo associated with funerary photography in my family. In many cases, there were only two sets of pictures of my eldest relatives: one of them posing in a photo studio on their wedding day, the other taken on their way to be buried. Before the widespread accessibility of cameras, photographs like my grandmother’s, and even some of mine, were long deliberated over and saved for. They were never meant to be candid or casual. And they were costly, sometimes requiring the equivalent of a day’s salary per sitting. The photographer and the photographed knew that they were creating heirlooms, calling cards to generations yet unborn.
Nearly twenty years ago, after I published my first novel, a newspaper reporter asked me to send him some family photographs via messenger. I stupidly sent him an entire album filled with irreplaceable pictures, which, after pulling a few for his article, he promptly discarded. Many I never saw again, including several taken in Port-au-Prince photo studios between my fourth and twelfth birthdays, to send to my mother and father, who had moved to New York and left my brother and me in the care of my uncle and his wife. These photo sessions were the equivalent of birthday parties, which I never had, and the resulting pictures were my only keepsakes. When the reporter called, I was eager for the world to see these images that meant so much to me. They were created for private use, but they also seemed, in a way, public: after all, they were taken with distant people in mind, even if those people happened to be my parents. To me, those photographs had an unshakable permanence — they seemed too monumental to simply vanish. When I found out they were gone, I felt as if part of my life had been erased. Had my family’s photographs been lost in a fire or a flood, they might have been easier to mourn. That I had contributed to their disappearance was almost impossible to accept.
The same feeling of both fragility and indestructibility is evident throughout the three volumes in the African photography series published by the Walther Collection, which is based in Neu-Ulm, Germany, and New York City. “These are images that urban black working- and middle-class families had commissioned, requested, or tacitly sanctioned,” the South African photographer Santu Mofokeng writes in his essay “The Black Photo Album/Look at Me” in the series’ first volume, Events of the Self: Portraiture and Social Identity. “Dead relatives have left them behind, where they sometimes hang on obscure parlor walls in the townships.”
The photographs Mofokeng is writing about date from between 1890 and 1950. Some were taken in homes, others in studios. Black South Africans stand or sit, alone or as couples, many in large family groups, celebrating weddings or a baptism. A few of the men are wearing those days’ version of tennis whites — long trousers and long sleeves — while casually holding their rackets. Some of the women are wearing lace blouses and wide-brimmed church hats; others lean on their embroidered umbrellas or on one another.
When people walk into a photo studio wearing their best finery, they demand control over how they are perceived, and they are aided by various combinations of props (wall prints, radios, bicycles, or even a single flower) and camera tricks (which might make a subject appear as his own twin, or seemingly put him in the presence of angels and ghosts). I was particularly intrigued by the studio portraits of the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé, in which we see most of his subjects from the back. Many of the photographs show no face at all, just a man’s hat or a woman’s elaborate hairstyle. In others we get a fleeting glance of a face, tilted slightly over the shoulder, as in the image of a young man with his jacket tucked under his elbow as he approaches the white backdrop.
Portraiture, argues the Nigerian-American curator Okwui Enwezor, is
a game of theater and masquerade, premised on the artifice of self-construction. The figure in the image, more than being depicted and displayed, insists on being seen, to be looked at, and desired.
This yearning to be desired is most identifiable in the portraits that appear to have been meant for private use, such as many by the celebrated Malian portraitist Seydou Keïta. The desire not to be desired is here, too. In what looks like an engagement portrait gone wrong, a young woman seems more willing to hug Keïta’s radio than the young man who is trying to grasp her in his arms. Her defiant glare makes us feel like voyeurs.
Most prominently featured in this series is the work of South African photographers, artists, and documentarians. David Goldblatt’s apartheid-era photographs take center stage, but the volume Appropriated Landscapes also features work from Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and even the United States. And as the photographer Zanele Muholi’s intimate portraits of lesbian bodies, alone or intertwined, show, the landscape in question can be the human form.
Muholi considers herself a visual activist; her work depicting lesbians not as victims of hate crimes or so-called curative rapes, but as loving and loved, is part of a larger political project. In 2009, Lulu Xingwana, South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, walked out of a Johannesburg exhibition featuring Muholi’s photographs, calling them immoral and “against nation building.” Muholi’s house has been burglarized and hard drives full of her photographs stolen. In April 2013, after she won a Freedom of Expression Award from the Index on Censorship, her work was chosen for the Venice Biennale. In an interview at the time, speaking of what was lost in the theft, she told a South African journalist: “It’s not about the photos, it’s about the stories behind them.”
Appropriated Landscapes is likewise about more than the photographs. It’s about prisonlike workers’ dormitories or hostels, electric poles that look like crosses, skyscrapers framed like ribs, fog-draped mountains and beaches at high tide, cornfields and minefields, the evening exodus to the townships, or the Saturday-morning shopping trips, homesteads and homelessness, and burials in private cemeteries or mass graves.
Emblematic is the story of Luke Kgatitsoe, who was photographed in the South African village of Magopa by Goldblatt in 1986. Two years earlier, he and his several hundred neighbors had been forced onto trucks by police and transported 150 miles from their village to a new settlement. Their homes were bulldozed and their land reallocated to white farmers. Kgatitsoe and the others were allowed to return to clean the graves of their ancestors. Once there, they refused to move. They eventually won resettlement rights in the courts, but only part of the land was returned to them. Kgatitsoe was photographed, in Magopa, wearing an impeccable three-piece suit while sitting on a pile of broken stones, as the white farmers’ cattle roam in the distance. He has the look of a man dressed for his own funeral. His exasperated face is a geography unto itself, his body a human silhouette trying to reclaim part of the lost veld behind him. His portrait is another reminder of the constant battle to appropriate and reappropriate African landscapes, be they bodies or ground.
The third and most recent addition to the series, Distance and Desire, focuses on historical photography. This volume attempts to reframe ethnographic and anthropological images — postcards, cartes de visite, books, and photographic albums — by placing them alongside contemporary reconfigurations.
One of the most recognizable (and sexualized) images from late-nineteenth-century Southern Africa is that of the Hottentot woman. Though Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who was used as a freak-show attraction in Europe, is probably the most famous of the so-called Hottentot Venuses, there were many others whose likenesses were distributed throughout the world on postcards. Most of the photographs in this volume were in their time meant to be salacious, a type of colonial porn, with submissive-looking black bodies presented partly or fully naked. The focus is on archetypes (Native Policemen, Zulu Mothers) or actions (dressing hair, carrying children). Even the tribal dress is meant to be titillating, especially the courting and fighting garb; the Zulu warriors, for example, are choreographed to look more decorative than menacing. Some of the subjects resist through their postures or dour expressions. In these pictures, no one has a name — and even if they did, it would not be the one bestowed by their mothers or fathers. It might be something like Venus.
In her essay on these postcards, Christraud Geary, senior curator of African and Oceanic art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, notes that between 1898, when the first postcards emerged, and 1918, an estimated 200 to 300 billion postcards were printed worldwide, coinciding with the golden age of imperialism.
Which brings us to contemporary reconfiguration, which is one way to give voice to silenced and misrepresented subjects. In From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, a series of prints with text sandblasted on a covering layer of glass, the African-American photographer, video artist, and recent MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems uses color, often a bright red hue, to underscore monochrome ethnographic images whose overlaid text at times directly addresses the subjects:
you became a scientific profile
a negroid type
an anthropological debate
& a photographic subject
Weems is boldly calling out to the past almost as loudly as those men and women might have wanted to call out to the future.
But just as striking is the work of Samuel Fosso, a Cameroonian-born photographer who grew up in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war and now lives in the Central African Republic. He has made a series of self-portraits in which he poses as prototypical or iconic Africans and African Americans. Dressed as “the Liberated American Woman of the 1970s,” or as Haile Selassie or Nelson Mandela, he reconfigures what one curator in the volumes calls the “triangulation of the photographer, the sitter, and the viewer”: he makes himself all of them. Who, this series asks, is gazing in the end, and who is saying Look at me? No one, and all of us.
It was in 1988 that I moved to the bedraggled neighborhood of Hyde Park in order to study American history at the University of Chicago. I left the city ten years ago. And though I was raised in the suburbs of Kansas City and live today in the suburbs of Washington, it is Chicago that made me who I am.
During my time as a graduate student, a mildly famous memorandum, written by a classics professor in the 1960s, was passed from hand to hand. It bemoaned the sheer awfulness of life at the university, “located in an unpleasant city, in a nasty climate, a thousand miles from anywhere.” I remember being surprised to read this, and being similarly surprised every time somebody referred to Chicago’s brute ugliness. Looking back all these years later, however, I see that it was true.
Once you got away from the neighborhoods near Lake Michigan, the city was ugly. It was “unpleasant.” I’ll go further than that: it was a menacing landscape of litter and rust and concrete and dereliction and vacancy and apartment complexes that looked like they had been designed to crush their inhabitants’ souls. On the South Side, where I lived, the air often stank of whatever industrial operation was taking place down in Indiana. And after a day or so on the ground in Chicago, the snow would turn gray.
I loved the place. I loved the decay, the vacant lots, the dirty snow and the tawdry taverns and the wooden stairs, covered with peeling paint, that were attached to the back of virtually every three-flat in the city. Maybe love is always what happens when you take up residence in your first real metropolis. Kansas City, where I grew up, didn’t count; its urban character had been done in by decades of white flight and enervating sprawl. Chicago had bars, bands, bookstores. A great university. A real organic downtown, not a Potemkin business district propped up by a desperate chamber of commerce.
What Chicago didn’t have back then was any real presence in the nation’s visual media, aside from glimpses in gangster movies. The only parts of the city that penetrated the collective imagination were the prosperous and all-white North Shore suburbs, the setting for countless teen-angst movies of the 1980s. The rest of it was essentially terra incognita. I was aware, of course, that Chicago had once been a celebrated place. In the late nineteenth century, it had stacked wheat and butchered hogs and gone from hamlet to Midwestern colossus almost overnight. The residue of that mighty past persisted in the neighborhood where I lived: rotting monuments, formerly grand buildings, overgrown parks that had been laid out by illustrious names.
But in 1988, Chicago had yet to enter the postmodern world; hell, it hadn’t even gotten finished with de-industrialization yet. Here and there, steel mills still dotted the South Side. Freight trains clattered slowly over crumbling viaducts, the walkways underneath decorated with disintegrating social-realist murals. Enlightened New Economy sociologists of the future would have no difficulty diagnosing this condition: Chicago in those days had no brand.
Actually, there was one area in which Chicago had established a brand: that unauthorized form of advertising known as literature. I duly armed myself with a shelf of the classics, including Sister Carrie, The Pit, Studs Lonigan, Native Son, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Division Street: America.
Most of these books, as Thomas Geoghegan pointed out in an influential 1985 essay, were concerned with working-class people. And this was important for understanding the exact form of obsolescence that hovered over the city. The ruins that surrounded you on the South Side were the relics of a civilization that had built great things, that had made the world go. “Even the sublime in Chicago has a 1935-proletarian taint,” Geoghegan noted — and for me, this nailed it. Chicago was my Art Deco Rome, and as I rode the creaking Green Line trains or dropped off bags of heavy literary magazines in the dark caverns of the old main post office, I would imagine myself wandering around the Baths of Caracalla.
Geoghegan also argued that Chicago was “the last great American city not ruined by yuppies.” This sounds pretty outrageous, given Chicago’s current status as home to the largest concentration of hipsters outside Brooklyn. But it certainly felt true in the late Eighties.
What the city taught you then, and to some extent will teach you now, was a certain sort of harsh empiricism. It was a place that set your bullshit detector on hair trigger, permanently; it allowed you to see right through the fatuity of the moment. The healthiness of this is, I think, impossible to deny, especially when you look back over the long parade of delusions that have in the intervening years gripped the nation’s leadership class, eroding our politics, journalism, economy, and institutions of higher ed.
That class and their foolish ideas could all go straight to hell. That was my attitude in those days, and as I picked up my pencil and went off to the culture wars, I believed it was an attitude that Chicago itself, the last great beacon of bullshit-resistant probity, had encouraged in me.
Or so I told myself. In truth, the city of Chicago has been as big a sucker for bad, trendy ideas as any other place, privatizing highways and parking meters, encouraging gentrification, badgering the local teachers’ union, and so on. But let us put all that aside for the time being, and return to my romantic fog of more than two decades ago.
My friends and I moved into those stately, decrepit old buildings in which so many university students live — none of us could afford the modern, windowless pillboxes from the urban-renewal days. We built up a wall of punk-rock noise around ourselves, taking to the airwaves on the university’s radio station to play the obscure and abrasive and massively alienated “independent” music of that period, which we believed to be part of an important artistic awakening. (On certain days, I still feel that way.)
In 1992, a bunch of us moved into new quarters: half of a battered Queen Anne mansion in Kenwood, a neighborhood filled with battered mansions. Some considered it a risky location, and indeed on one occasion a burglar swiped my VCR, but the place also had the advantage of standing just a block away from the peculiar old storefront where we bought dreadful cheap beer by the gallon. With our thrift-shop furniture and our clothes purchased at the rummage sales of Winnetka and Lake Forest, we settled into that Schloss like the impoverished heirs to some once great fortune, and got busy.
We had already launched The Baffler, conceived as a campaign of mockery and derision against the modern corporate world. In its pages and elsewhere, we wrote about music, about politics, about strikes — particularly the big ones then unfolding at several industrial concerns in central Illinois. But the subject of almost obsessive interest for us in those days was the relationship between adversarial art movements and the broader commercial culture. It was, of course, a debate with a lot of history to it, but as we watched the national media circle hungrily around the subculture that we ourselves inhabited, it all seemed sharp and new and full of treachery.
It occurred to me, living in that great old house in Kenwood, that all the hostilities of the culture wars were a kind of fraud. Behind the endless TV battle of hip and square, the conflict between strict parent and pleasure-loving teen, the back-and-forth of slut-shaming and prude-shocking, lay the prerogatives of capitalism. Our many uprisings against Victorian moralism hadn’t challenged the money power in the least. These insurgencies not only missed the point — that the problem was capitalism, not conformity — but actually stoked the engines of fashion. To put it another way: my own generation’s dissent was being commodified right before my eyes, and all I could do was look on with distaste and desperation.
Well, we know how all that worked out. A few years after the discovery of “alternative” culture, Chicago became a kind of second Seattle. All the bands got major-label record deals, and a whirlwind of gentrification swept through certain neighborhoods on the North Side. And somewhere along the way, I lost interest in the whole phenomenon. Deriding the yuppies who colonized the trendy neighborhoods was just another way of missing the larger point. There were big forces at work in Chicago: the steel mills were almost gone, and soon the public-housing projects would come down as well. The entire city — the entire nation — was being reconceived along new lines. The poor were to be expelled, and room was to be made for swanky new corporate headquarters and an enlarged financial sector and a green zone wherein cosmopolitan citizens with cash and taste could safely play.
Walking the streets of Hyde Park on a cloudless day in late September, ten years after leaving for good, I am impressed by how serene and grown-up and even beautiful it appears, this place that was once the scene of such fiery intellectual argument. I notice, probably for the first time ever, the clinging ivy and gracious details of the Tudor-style town houses across the street from the apartment where I watched the Gulf War on CNN.
The university itself, which appeared so shabby when I walked its halls as a nervous graduate student, looks pretty good. In the old days, my friends and I used to dismiss its Gothic architecture as so much pretentious fantasy — the thing was built at the turn of the twentieth century, after all, not under the Plantagenets. But today, thanks to what appears to be an assiduous landscaping and power-washing campaign, the U of C fantasy looks healthy, even authentic.
The school is on a construction spree, financed largely by bond issues that have ballooned the institution’s debt load like that of any world-class corporation. They’ve built an enormous new Center for Biomedical Discovery and an arts facility in an eleven-story tower. They’re working on a new home for the economics department fashioned (appropriately enough) from an old theological seminary. And in the surrounding neighborhood, the bulldozers have been just as busy: there’s a new Hyatt, a brace of improbably upmarket stores, and signage announcing a new office-and-apartment complex, whose design suggests an homage to the UPC bar code.
It is tempting to lay at least some of this at the feet of the President of the United States. Ten years ago, Barack Obama was a state senator whom you could easily meet at Hyde Park house parties; today, the chair where he used to get his hair cut is preserved in a vitrine in the neighborhood barbershop. On 53rd Street, there is a monument marking the spot of his first kiss with Michelle, in 1989. And there’s no tonic for a neighborhood quite as potent as having a chunk of it patrolled by the Secret Service — as it happens, a chunk of South Greenwood Avenue a mere three blocks from where I once lived.
The vacant lot next door to President Obama’s house, a notorious bit of real estate once owned by the Illinois corruptionist Tony Rezko, is lined with concrete barriers and those fast-growing evergreens people use to screen out undesirable views. In fact, steel security fences seem to have gone up all over the neighborhood, and now surround the Queen Anne pile where my friends and I worked on The Baffler. Through the fencing and a row of those privacy trees, you can see that the house has been nicely restored. And although I keep expecting to hear the throbbing minor chords of Silkworm or the Laughing Hyenas issuing from within, everything is still.
Maybe that’s because, in the years since then, the world has been turned right side up: the house has been recalled to the life and the purpose for which it was created. It seems the present owner of the Schloss where my friends and I pantomimed the rich and plotted our adventures in criticism is a prominent figure in the wealth-management industry. He has taken up this vocation out of personal experience, having inherited a sizable share of the Carnation Company (evaporated milk, pet food, nondairy creamers) before it was sold to Nestlé in 1985. “We wealth owners owe it to ourselves to learn, to protect our own interests, and to hold our advisers accountable,” he has declared. He has also written a book called Wealth: Grow It, Protect It, Spend It, and Share It, which informs us that the author “teaches the Private Wealth Management program, exclusively for wealth owners, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.”
Reading over the foregoing, I feel certain that my former, Chicago-minded self would have chided the sentimentality of that penultimate paragraph. What if I had heard some familiar notes coming from within the mansion? How shocking would it be to discover that some wealth-management guru was also a fan of punk rock? Or that some indie rocker had gone into the wealth-management biz, building a career on that transition, constantly alluding to his or her bold, iconoclastic past? Nothing all that odd in either case, the old me would have insisted.
And he would have been right. “Rock ’n’ roll is the health of the state,” I wrote in one of my darker moods back then, riffing on a famous quote from my hero Randolph Bourne; what I meant was that the machinery of consumerism depended on the allure of nonconformity. Today, obviously, it’s gone much further than that. The Internet itself is one great tribute to the countercultural idea. And the logic extends into the world of luxury goods. Consider the matter of experimental gastronomy, a field in which Chicago is today more advanced than nearly all other American cities.
The city already had plenty of tony eateries back in the 1990s. There was Charlie Trotter’s, for example, and Chez Paul, a French restaurant that inspired some hilarious bits of nose-tweaking in both The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But the real gastronomic explosion took place after I moved away. The city’s perennially escalating restaurant war turned into a battle of foam and fried residue and gently farting bags of lavender vapor and a veritable Sanitary Canal of infusions and extrusions and emulsions and reductions.
By now, this has gone far beyond the familiar and played-out snobbery of regionalism. It is a competition between chemists constantly pushing their advanced knowledge, their esoteric tools, their pointless specialization. How did we ever get by without hibiscus spheres filled with tomato water, or crab in vinegar gel garnished with micro lemongrass, saffron threads, and eight grains of black lava salt? No less important is the doctrine of physical inaccessibility, which makes certain restaurants as selective as Ivy League colleges. There is a vogue for underground eateries, for pop-up meals prepared by a chef in a private apartment or an art space. Other establishments reportedly screen potential diners and invite only a chosen few to darken their epicurean doorsteps.
The one that really captured my imagination was a bar called The Aviary. You must email your request for a reservation and then be selected. I wasn’t, during the course of my last trip to Chicago, and so it was not my privilege to experience the bar’s ten-course cocktail tasting or appreciate the technical expertise of its ice chef. In an online video about The Aviary’s “ice program,” however, we learn what we need to know: that the ice itself may be made from distilled sorrel juice, molded in different ways, whittled by hand, or carved by chain saw. Ice-chipping is “a new art form,” we are told, and aspiring masters “will apprentice for years before they will ever make a cocktail, simply hand-carving ice.”
Needless to say, the gastrosphere exists to flatter and service the rich. It is also unremittingly hip. Avant-garde theater groups perform plays about microbrews. There is Baconfest, an annual event guided by a semi-ironic manifesto. And consider Lollapalooza, the legendary alt-rock festival that gave up touring and is now held every year in (of course) Chicago. Not too long ago, festival organizers recruited the celebrated Chicago restaurateur Graham Elliot Bowles to serve as “culinary director.” To feed the moshing masses, he put together offerings such as lobster corn dogs and truffle-Parmesan popcorn.
* Upscale caricatures of working-class food are fashionable in Chicago these days. The restaurant at the Four Seasons offers its own take on the haute dog, which, as the chef explains, “symbolizes what the new food movement’s all about, which is kind of a democratization of all food.” For the record, all the dishes I mention here were delicious.
But it was my meal last month at Longman & Eagle, a take on the old Chicago neighborhood tavern, that finally made me want to scream. I was sitting there, making my way through a winking parody of the Chicago-style hot dog: an assembly of sliced-up steak, “hot dog bun puree,” “housemade pickles,” a mustard-flavored wafer, and so on.* (Later I would have Old Style ice cream, Old Style being the quintessential blue-collar Chicago beer.) At some point, I noticed that the speakers were playing one of the favorite songs of my youth, “Brickfield Nights,” by the Boys, a fairly obscure punk band from the late 1970s. Next came a song by Wire, from their Pink Flag album. Then “Sonic Reducer,” by the Dead Boys, and “Remote Control,” by the Clash.
Every one of these songs hit home — this was the music I once thought would change the world. Now it was a sound track for the fussy morass of late capitalism. It was a signifier that assured you the neighborhood was safe, that you were in the green zone, among correctly educated people, enjoying real culinary luxury and not some cheap knockoff. That’s what the Clash was good for, in this corner of the U.S.A. circa 2013. The world was burning, but here we were having a happy riot of our own.
There is a microdebate in cyberland about whether the gastronomy thing is the heir to the indie-rock thing I once conceived to be so meaningful. Just about everyone who takes the time to comment on the idea (like the people at the Food Is the New Rock blog) agrees that it is. But it would be more accurate to say that it has inherited everything that was irritating about indie rock — the preciousness, the hero worship, the fruitless pursuit of the authentic. Worse: what were subdued notes of privilege and snobbery in the music are these days out in the open, the power chords that carry the whole thing along. We are talking, after all, about food for the rich — the only people who can afford those $200 VIP tickets to Baconfest.
We have come a long way from the city whose marginal humans were chronicled by Nelson Algren and Richard Wright. The new Chicago, this dynamic commercial hub, may ironically deconstruct the coarse food those authors’ beloved fuckups used to eat — but it moves further away from them every day. And beyond the perimeter of the nicer neighborhoods, things are not so dainty or digestible. Chicago now leads the nation in homicides; just before my last visit, the crime wave crested in a South Side park, where a gunman unloaded his semiautomatic rifle into a group of kids playing basketball, hitting thirteen of them. Similar acts were occurring almost daily.
And presiding over it all is Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the legendary political tough guy who makes his iron-willed, six-term predecessor, Richard M. Daley, resemble a cowering child. I want to like Emanuel. After all, he is possessed of “as much determination, will, and chutzpah as anyone alive,” writes the Chicago journalist Ben Joravsky, yet “he uses it all on wimpy policies that largely preserve the status quo.”
This is an understatement. Emanuel has had a hand in every betrayal of the Democratic Party’s working-class base since the Clinton years, from NAFTA to the Wall Street bailout to Obamacare. The goal of his brawling is never to preserve the status quo: it is to hustle the nation into a market-based, big-bank Arcadia that differs from the Republican utopia only in that it has bike lanes and gay marriage. Chicago, then, must be turned into what its mayor endlessly calls a “global city.” In pursuit of this fanciful designation, he has privatized and outsourced, closed traditional public schools and celebrated dubious charter undertakings, warred on unions, and subsidized private business. In Chicago’s strangely tidy streets, the rest of the nation can get a glimpse of the future: a city that works — for a few.
Women’s drinking in parks was associated with male-on-female intimate-partner violence, while men’s drinking quietly at home in the evening was associated with female-on-male violence. Among federally licensed gun retailers, 98.9 percent support handgun restrictions for people with a history of both mental illness and violence. Mildly psychopathic Swedish teenagers tend to mellow as they age, some children diagnosed as autistic may instead have 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, and recovering bilingual aphasics are confused by homophonous noncognate words. Dyslexic Bostonians read better on e-readers. The ability to read facial emotions is improved by reading literary fiction. American soldiers were growing too attached to their battlefield robots. “They would say they were angry when a robot became disabled because it is an important tool,” said a researcher who interviewed members of an explosive-ordnance team. “But then they would add ‘poor little guy,’ or they’d say they had a funeral for it.” Genetic diagnosticians located the mutation of a girl who feels no pain. Stoicism was blamed for masking from nurses the suffering of Ireland’s elderly. Scandinavians have outgrown gods.
White plague continued killing Caribbean coral reefs, Tanzania continued killing its albinos, and Minnesota improved its monitoring of massive moose mortality. “If the heart stops beating,” explained a state wildlife veterinarian, “it sends a text message to our phone that says, ‘I’m dead at x and y coordinates.’ ” The cockroaches of the Upper West Side were found to be genetically distinct, and New Yorkers were found to be likelier than residents of other cities to respond to a request to mail in dead cockroaches. The female ancestors of most Ashkenazim were Gentiles. Archaeologists discovered a priestly bathroom in Jerusalem and twenty skulls beneath the Bedlam cemetery, concluded that the Bosham Head is Trajan, suggested toad may have been roasted at Blick Mead, and could not say where Mesolithic hunter-gatherers got their domesticated pigs or whether the nipples of a 4,000-year-old mummy at Cashel bog were mutilated when he was decommissioned as king. Most cave paintings in France and Spain were made by women, at a time when male and female humans’ hand shapes were apparently more dimorphic. “Twenty thousand years ago,” said the study’s lead author, “men were men and women were women.”
When one of two experimental test subjects sees photos of maggots, then touches toy slime, and the other subject sees photos of puppies, then touches fake fur, their empathy for each other is impaired. Some American entomologists are arachnophobic. University of Chicago researchers noted that gestures intended to avert jinxes are not all equally effective. A bioengineered lacrimal gland was successfully shedding tears. Electric stimulation of the lateral prefrontal cortex makes Swiss divvy up money more evenly, and a belief in God makes young Swiss men less likely to take ecstasy. Empathetic children better understand the sarcasm of puppets. The brains of straight people release natural opioids in response to imaginary sexual rejection. Photographing your food makes eating it less enjoyable, people burdened by guilt overestimate their own body weight, and African elephants possess an intuitive understanding of human finger-pointing. The voices of new lovers on the telephone, stripped of words, sound vulnerable.
Percentage change in the S&P 500 since its pre-crisis peak : +8
In the price of financial stocks : –44
Portion of wages paid in Manhattan that come from the financial-services industry : 1/3
Percentage by which New York City’s homeless-shelter population has increased under Mayor Michael Bloomberg : 65
Portion of the city’s shelter population who are children : 2/5
Percentage of black U.S. children under the age of five who live in poverty : 43
Portion of U.S. foster children who will experience homelessness by age twenty-six : 1/3
Percentage of Americans who think children are better off when their mothers stay at home rather than working : 51
When their fathers stay at home rather than working : 8
Median age of a U.S. woman giving birth for the first time : 25.7
Getting married for the first time : 26.5
Estimated amount spent globally on fertility drugs and devices this year : $4,054,984,000
Percentage of first-time fertility treatments that fail : 75
Portion of U.S. births from unintended pregnancies that are paid for by Medicaid : 2/3
Percentage change in the portion of uninsured young adults in Massachusetts since the state’s health-care reform : –67
Portion of U.S. college graduates who say their job does not require a college degree : 2/5
Percentage of 2012 U.S. law-school graduates not currently in full-time jobs requiring membership in the bar : 43
Portion of hyperlinks included in Supreme Court decisions that no longer work : 1/2
Minimum percentage of all federal background checks handled by the Office of Personnel Management : 90
Percentage of OPM employees who are private contractors : 76
Percentage of Pentagon background checks sampled by the GAO that were processed with insufficient information : 87
Percentage increase in “employee misconduct” at the TSA between 2010 and 2012 : 26
Cartons of cigarettes the ATF lost during a botched sting operation last year : 2,100,000
Estimated chances that a recent crack cocaine or methamphetamine user is not physically addicted to the drug : 4 in 5
Minimum number of retired California public servants receiving pensions of more than $100,000 a year : 21,874
Percentage of rentable property in San Diego County that registered-sex-offender parolees are prohibited from living on : 97
Portion of men in China who say they have raped a woman : 1/5
Percentage of those men who said they did it because they were bored or wanted to have fun : 57
Percentage of flights out of Beijing’s Capital International Airport that have left on time this year : 27
Portion of Tajikistan’s GDP that is composed of migrant remittances : 1/2
Kilowatt-hours of energy used each year by the average Ethiopian citizen : 52
By the average U.S. refrigerator : 454
Amount the Canadian Armed Forces spends each year on weight-loss surgery for obese soldiers : $220,000
Replacement cost of the munitions used by the U.S. military in the first nine days of its intervention in Libya : $259,200,000
Percentage change from 2002 to 2012 in the amount the United States spent on “security assistance” to other countries : +227
Percentage of U.S. Jews who believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people : 40
Percentage of white U.S. evangelicals who do : 82
Portion of U.S. Jews with Christmas trees in their homes : 1/3
Estimated profit an Illinois zoo has earned since 2008 by selling tree ornaments made of reindeer droppings : $50,000
December Index Sources
1,2 S&P Dow Jones Indices (N.Y.C.)
3 New York State Department of Labor (Albany)
4,5 Coalition for the Homeless (N.Y.C.)
6 Children’s Defense Fund (Washington)
7 Amy Dworsky, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago
8,9 Pew Research Center (Washington)
10,11 National Marriage Project, University of Virginia (Charlottesville)
12 Transparency Market Research (Pune, India)
13 International Committee Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Palo Alto, Calif.)
14 Guttmacher Institute (N.Y.C.)
15 The Urban Institute (Washington)
16 Gallup, Inc. (Washington)
17 National Association for Law Placement (Washington)
18 Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard Law School (Cambridge, Mass.)
19 U.S. Office of Personnel Management
20–22 U.S. Government Accountability Office
23 U.S. Department of Justice
24 Carl Hart, Columbia University (N.Y.C.)
25 Harper’s research
26 California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (Santa Barbara)
27,28 Partners for Prevention (Bangkok)
29 FlightStats (Portland, Ore.)
30,31 World Bank (Washington)
32 Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (Washington)
33 Canadian Forces Health Services (Ottawa)
34 Congressional Research Service (Washington)
35 Stimson Center (Washington)
36–38 Pew Research Center (Washington)
39 Miller Park Zoological Society (Bloomington, Ill.)
Chatham County, North Carolina, population 63,505, is in the geographic center of the state. We are 710 square miles, eighty-nine people per square mile. An improvised web of old roads has settled across the county, most of them named for a long-gone church that once sat at the road’s end, or for the family that once owned the land they now transect, or the store that once stood at the crossroads. Even the names of those places still standing can confuse an outsider. For example, on Saturdays you can drive down Reno Sharpe Store Road to go play your guitar at what’s known as Reno Sharpe’s Store, though it’s no longer a store, and Reno died a few years ago. You would only know this if you’d lived here awhile.
Out on Lorax Lane they manufacture and sell biodiesel, which explains the incongruous number of old Mercedes sedans clanking around. Many of the fields formerly planted with cotton now grow organic vegetables for the local market, or they’re filled with chicken barns and cell towers. Day by day the rest go back to pine forest. In the towns, the detritus of the storefronts’ many transformations — the drywall, the nails, the broken bits of concrete, the old newspapers — is everywhere crunching underfoot. The patron saint of our Catholic parish is St. Julia, a martyred Carthaginian slave.
At one end of the county, in the middle of the woods, there’s a small, lifeless circle of dirt twenty feet in diameter, called the Devil’s Tramping Ground going on 150 years, where Satan himself is said to pace at night. The whole county is a series of linked folktales: of a race of famously plentiful rabbits now nearly disappeared, of deadly freshwater mermaids found where the Haw and Deep Rivers meet to form the Cape Fear River, of the dribbling fonts of miraculous spring water named Faith and Love, and of the ghost dogs in the abandoned shafts of Ore Hill overlooking the springs below. Out on Russell Chapel Church Road, just past Elf Way, a woman has erected a sign in front of her trailer, its message written in foot-high black letters: get to no me befor you judge me.
Three unnavigable rivers split the county. They must have been mighty and cataractal when they cut down from the mountains some geologic ages ago, but the mountains are hills now, and the rivers are flat and full of old rock. The county now sits at 200 to 770 feet above sea level. This is the Piedmont, a waypoint for the traveler, the space between long-ago tide lines. It’s profoundly green in the summer, but not bright green. A washed-out green. Europeans arrived here in the 1740s, most of them Quakers and Poor Palatines. At that time the area was frontier, the hinterland, a virgin territory that could be conquered and civilized. The settlers were subsistence farmers and craftsmen, usually both at the same time. In Chatham County they became hard-core homesteaders.
The mountains were scoured, sifted, and carried off by erosion, exposing rich veins of clay that could be mined, collected, purified, turned, and fired. This region is famous for its pottery, mostly stoneware. Depending on the clay and the ingredients in the salt glazes, our pots become a deep gray, or the color of warm sand, or a veiny light green the color of a camellia leaf’s underside. Potters used to test clay out in the field by spitting on it, rolling it out like a worm, twirling it around a finger to see if it was plastic enough, biting it to see if there was any grit.
This clay has long contained the tombs of Alstons, Matthewses, Wrens, storekeepers and farriers, postmen, minders of the gins and mills. Soon we’ll be adding new names: Cuadros, Vincente, Santiago, Álvarez, Mejía, Estrada, the claim jumpers and infiltrators, the new colonizers, the squatters. They have rushed into this place: Hispanics now constitute 13 percent of the county’s population (8,228 of 63,505), up from 1.4 percent (564 of 38,979) in 1990. Most of them have come here for work in meatpacking, landscaping, and construction. The white population has grown steadily, but the black population is down to 13 percent, from 23 percent, in the same twenty-year period. A usurpation has taken place, a transfer among the powerless — a trend repeated throughout the old states of the Confederacy.
Esteban Almanza* came here a decade ago to be a chicken wrangler. In the mornings he walked into the barns atop years of hardpack chicken shit, among mobs of stuporous birds, to snatch them up six at a time and stuff them into cages stacked five high on a flatbed that, just before dawn, would whine and rattle through the towns and down the lanes until it hit the highway and pushed on toward the slaughterhouses just then beginning to throw off morning steam. The trucks sometimes overturned on the twisting back roads, and when this happened the wranglers came through to catch the survivors. Sometimes a chicken held out and was never caught, and for a time it would wander the woods, a strange, white, top-heavy creature.
* The names of the members of the Almanza family have been changed.
Father Pedro and I drove to the Almanzas’ trailer in a battered Honda shared by the three brothers of his friary. The trailer sat at the joint of two gravel streets overhung by viny oaks on a halo of dark and shiny compacted dirt. When it rained it appeared the trailer had broken its mooring to float on a bright orange lake. The trailer is a cousin to the old tenant shack, but unlike the shack, it has vestigial wheels tucked up under itself and could be moved if necessary.
After setting the parking brake, Father Pedro leaped from dry patch to dry patch, ordering me to stay away from the mud because my wife, he believed, would kill him if he sent me home soiled. “Hola!” he shouted through the trailer’s doorway — which, it being too hot for doors, was covered only by a lacy drape to bar flying insects. As I ducked through the drape, I smelled bleach, pine cleaner, and frying oil.
Esteban wore a white shirt and pressed jeans, his thick, dark hair combed back. He was fine-looking, with sharp cheekbones, a pointed chin, and a high forehead. An animated speaker, he stuttered, which Father Pedro tried to cover up in his interpreting. Esteban looked at the ceiling when he was thinking about what to say.
María, his wife, worked in the processing plant and, to supplement their income, baked bread. The bread of María Almanza was small, round, flaky, built atop a thin layer of something pink and sweet, dusted with sugar, gathered in old plastic bags and once a week hauled through the trailer park in a red wagon. María was quiet, thick-bodied, and bright-eyed. She wore a green cardigan and her long hair was drawn back tight from her face, which was wide and dimpled. María listened and watched me as her husband talked. Esteban moved like an acrobat. María could move quickly through the trailer without seeming to move at all.
The Almanzas lived in a chaos of maximized space — colorful mosaics of paper napkins, plastic utensils, plates, spices, toothpicks, sugar, pencils and pens and erasers, bottle caps and crayons, everything stacked neatly. At the stove María pushed up the sleeves of her cardigan and pulled out the bread. The sound of the one window air conditioner sometimes interrupted the silence during the lulls in our conversation. The Almanzas ran it only when Father Pedro came to visit or when María was baking.
That first day we sat in the kitchen on patio furniture donated by the church. Esteban and I passed serrano chilies back and forth, which María had lightly fried with her daughter Sara balanced on her hip. We talked about things in the way people talk when there’s a priest in the room. You never saw such a pious and happy group. Esteban spoke at length of his love for the church, and María about her great job cutting chickens on the line.
Esteban waved his hand at the bread. “Sit down, eat. Eat more.” He told me that when they came to North Carolina there was no bread like at home, and so they saw there was money to be made. He didn’t tell María to sell her bread, he said; she does this for herself, just like the other women in her family. “We have six children!” María turned the air-conditioning up a little, and for no particular reason we all looked out the window. On hot days in this territory, the rippling and heated air from the chicken barns gets lifted up and out by enormous fans, sometimes making the barns shimmer like mirages.
Esteban led me outside while Father Pedro stayed in the trailer eating corn tortillas. The cicadas whirred, starting out for the evening following thirteen years of sleep. Esteban poked at his car, a blue Chrysler sedan with an unpainted front left fender. He fiddled with the distributor cap and the solenoid but nothing got fixed, and after a while he gave up and leaned against the car. He gave a deep, satisfied sigh and crossed his arms. The sun had gone bright red just before disappearing behind the trees. The children of the neighborhood had quit the street. At a certain angle between the raised hood of the car and the corner of the trailer, it was impossible to see any other hooch or shack, or to hear the sound of any other human. Even the six Almanza children had gone quiet. It became dark. The streetlights don’t work, Esteban said. Actually, he pointed at the dead lamps and said: “No light.” Soon all I could see of Esteban was his white T-shirt.
Back in the trailer I took a quick photograph as I got ready to leave. In the background, the eldest girl, Paula, a very shy young lady, sat on a twin bed that doubled as a couch. She looked everywhere but at the camera — out the window, down at the carpet. María wrestled with her baby; the littlest brother, Daniel, scratched his armpit; Gabriel looked out of the frame at the other middle brother, Rafael. The photograph only hints at the presence of the eldest son, Arturo, off to the left, who I remember was cocking his head and squinting hard at me. Arturo then went out back, where he could be seen through one of the scratched and clouded windows beating an old metal patio chair with a piece of fence post. The chair vibrated, wang-wang-wang, and he scowled. “That one will be a priest,” said Esteban.
One day Father Pedro and I were drinking orangeade at the Almanzas’ when María returned from selling bread. The children scattered into the trailer park to find their friends. Just a few bags remained. María carried them heaped in her arms and put them down on the table.
Esteban kept eight mason jars of barbecue sauce of varying colors and consistencies on the shallow windowsill above the kitchen sink. These were his attempts to re-create the sauce he’d discovered washing dishes at a local barbecue joint. He thought I would be particularly interested in this, as it had been his observation that “Southern is barbecue.” He put the sauce on carnitas and beans. Southern style. He told me this was serious work, work that would be remembered someday by his children when they had their own sauces and their own places to make them.
María seemed less sure than Esteban of the essential benevolence of the universe, or of a country that would let Esteban go on making his sauces till his children were grown. I think she had a better understanding of the world’s dark traps and sudden reversals. Whatever happened was hardly ever a surprise to her.
María had been called Esperanza for years, which was the fake name in her employment file and on her identification card at the chicken plant. Esperanza had an exciting life. Esperanza was the one who had friends in the break room and on the line, where they stood shoulder to shoulder keeping one another warm.
She was expert in lots of things, including the removal of ribs from a chicken. Every day the chickens passed by her station, one every six to twelve seconds, impaled on stainless-steel cones, breasts facing the knives. Cut and twist, dump the ribs. María and the others wore hairnets and smocks. Their breath mingled as cold mist above them. She knew it was a terrible job, but she also made clear to me that she felt important doing it. She’d never seen so many machines in her life, she said. Some days the most efficient deboning line won a free lunch brought in from the Chinese place down the street, and she looked forward to that.
(At home there is no ceremony in María’s baking, never a dramatic display of her wares. She rolls up her sleeves, goes to the oven, and pulls the breads out, dumping them in a pile in front of Esteban. Esteban burns his fingers a little when he transfers them to the bags. When María needs a child to take a bag of bread out to load into the little wagon, she looks up at the ceiling and calls out. It’s only a minute before one of the children reports for duty. María presses food on me every time I see her. “Hola, here’s food,” shoving it into the pockets of my coat. Sometimes it’s just day-old tortillas, but they’re wrapped twice in tinfoil carefully crimped at the edges.
“This is how they made it back in Ostutla,” María says.
“Maybe someday we’ll go back there,” Esteban says. “Or maybe not. God’s will.”)
After showing me the barbecue sauces, Esteban sat at his normal spot at the circular table, feet up on the temporary storage shelves that served as their pantry and a drying rack for clothes. When he passed María he stroked the back of her neck with the tips of his fingers. In that place and at that moment — with a priest and all their children present, with every lilting word asserting the pieties of churchgoing and nose-down industriousness for themselves and their posterity — this frank and open tenderness surprised me. Much became clear then, especially the mystery of how they’d made that broken-down, tin-can trailer seem so large.
I told María she should sell her bread downtown, in Siler City. I decided this was good, sound business advice, thinking especially of the three or four blocks of old commercial buildings that would be nearly empty if not for the tiendas and nail salons and the Farmer’s Alliance, with its homemade honey, hoop cheese, and affordable dungarees. I thought maybe if she sold more bread and made more money that way, she wouldn’t have to risk being Esperanza.
She said: “I’m afraid.” Afraid? “Yes, I stay close to here.”
I asked whether she was afraid of the crowd of old men appearing at the storefront where they handed out canned goods once a week.
“No, no,” she said. “I know them.” Then what? “I don’t know.” There must be something. “It’s nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing. When I got home I received a phone call from Arturo. “Why are you doing this?” He said he was asking on behalf of his mother, but I didn’t believe him.
“It’s just what I do,” I said. I heard fear in his voice too, and I wanted to reassure him, but I didn’t know, really, if there was anything I could say.
For months I returned to the Almanzas’ trailer again and again. Sometimes, early in the morning, the chicken plant clanked and hissed, and the smell came through the cracks of the battened windows. There are rooms like this on old ships, paneled boxes with small windows and exposed plumbing, nature raging at the porthole.
“I had the devil in me,” Esteban told me during one visit. He’d been a bad sinner before getting saved, he wanted me to know. This revelation made Paula embarrassed, though she was pretending not to listen. She blushed and sat against the wall under an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“He says he had the devil in him,” Father Pedro said, in case I hadn’t caught it. “But I tell him the devil is in all of us.”
Esteban tells me about how he fought off the devil of drugs back in Ostutla, a monumental struggle he survived only by the grace of God.
“Also I found the drugs and told his mother,” María said. She was waving her hands over the bread to get it to cool.
“I did the worst things,” Esteban said. “I smoked marijuana.”
I began to count the number of images of the Virgin in the trailer. There were seven, up on the wall and on the table and above the sink. There might have been more in the bedroom down the hall.
Esteban sat by the oven helping María pack bread into plastic bags. They were down to one coil on the electric range, but the oven still worked fine. The trailer was intolerably hot, even with the air conditioner humming.
María and the boys began filling empty tomato cartons with bagged bread. Daniel munched on one; his mother waved her index finger at him admonishingly.
“We will be back in an hour,” María said, herding the boys out the door.
“Go with God,” Esteban said.
María pulled the little red wagon away from the front door and toward the gravel lane. Daniel kept trying to get in the back atop the piles of bread, but María shoved him off. I watched them through the window, which was clouded with dust. Finally everyone was settled, and they went off through the trailer park.
Esteban had seen many women peddle bread in Ostutla, but never María. Selling bread was for old women, Esteban said. But then, all women had seemed old to him when he was younger. I am old now myself, he said. He was thirty-five years old.
Esteban then told me the story of his becoming a man, and by becoming a man he meant becoming the sort of person willing to suffer indignities, sometimes for the greater good and sometimes merely because it fell to him with no explanation. He says he came to the United States and became a forgotten citizen of nowhere. He washed dishes and deboned chickens even as he imagined another life as a chef. When he had no work and María was away on a shift, he sometimes hiked to the chicken plant with Sara in his arms because the girl would not quit screaming and would take food only from her mother’s breast.
Esteban said there were two small roads that led to Ostutla, up in the highlands of Guerrero. The town is not on many maps. They walked everywhere on dusty paths. When it rained it rained too much and everything leaked except the houses of the old people whose sons sent money home. The sons could be anywhere — Costa Rica, Argentina, Nicaragua, America. Maybe China. When he was a boy Esteban thought he was not far from China, which of course was down the big hill and across the water. “How big is an ocean?” he asked me in explanation. “You don’t know.”
Ostutla was not for me, Esteban said. He must have been from somewhere else. Dirt did not stick to his shirts, he said. It was a mystery. The Church had been a mystery, too, at least to him. When he was young he learned to drink and smoke cigarettes. He did worse things, he said. In church everyone stood still and he could hardly stand it. He left María for a time after she discovered his marijuana and caused trouble with his mother. He found more marijuana, which he took to a little shed across town full of shovels and old Coca-Cola crates. He sat in the shed and smoked as much as he could until he thought he’d died. He had a vision of death, that it would be like sleeping, only your eyes would be open and you’d be forced to see everything forever and you wouldn’t be able to move. He stretched out on the floor and couldn’t get up. In that moment he couldn’t make his mouth go right, he couldn’t yell or talk, and he was very afraid. He told me he wouldn’t ever forget this. It’s his conversion vision, he said, though the full story of that conversion is more complicated. There had been much more struggle after that; the vision had been a kind of annunciation of what was to come.
This is the way of all visions, religious or not. Americans were the landless and ornery who pushed out from the coast, driving hogs before them, over the mountains (always a mountain), putting behind them their fellow citizens. And when they reached the big river, they crossed it and climbed into the next set of mountains. At every stop the pioneers shed some of their number, who lingered behind as instantiations of a human desire to put down roots, a desire not shared by those who went on. In this way a restless people bred themselves into travelers through frontiers where God appeared only in moments of clarifying strangeness.
The wayfarer is most happy when the world reveals itself in pieces, flashes, glimpses out a bus window and between the trees. The cascade retains its sublimity only so long as the observer remains unformed and on the move, the angle of observation unfixed. The traveler sees nothing unusual in the words of Daniel Boone: “Thus situated, many hundred miles from our families, in the howling wilderness, I believe few would have equally enjoyed the happiness we experienced.” In this desert the traveler sloughs off history like an old skin. But the traveler is a freak. We the settled turn ever back to the past, lost in the woods, pleading with the past, our founders, to preserve us from outsiders.
When Esteban had recovered from his bender and enshrined his vision in memory, he returned to María. He threw out the marijuana, and then the liquor, and then the cigarettes. They had their first three children, Arturo, Rafael, and Paula. The war between the paramilitaries and the narcotraficantes in Guerrero began to heat up, and Esteban had more visions of death.
Soon afterward they came to Chatham County. That was ten years ago.
Arturo never mentioned to me the subject of his call to holy orders. He appeared in every way a typical middle-school student: he wore chunky secondhand skater shoes and spiked his hair sometimes. Once, in a rare moment, he said he liked to fish, and sometimes fantasy novels spilled out of his book bag. I also learned, through a sheriff’s deputy I sometimes trusted, that Arturo enjoyed painting words and faces on the underside of the bridge half a mile away where the main drag crossed the railroad tracks. The huge concrete canvas wasn’t visible unless you bushwhacked through skunk weed and scrub pine down a steep incline, or hiked a mile or so up the railroad tracks from the center of town. Periodically the Department of Transportation would paint over the hieroglyphs, but it was never long before the intricate signs returned, offering clues as to who was still un gato, who could still kick your ass, and who was still in love with Lazy Smiley and his boy, Luny T. This didn’t seem part of the education of a priest, though it did seem a familiar American sort of education — that of the teenager declaring Here I am, I was here, I passed this way. Fewer than a hundred yards from the graffiti bridge lies the grave of Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show, who lived about a mile from where the Almanzas’ trailer now sits. On her headstone is carved: to live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die. Shortly before her death, surrounded by her many cats and her dense hedges, Ms. Bavier gave an interview: “It’s very difficult for an actress or an actor to create a role and be so identified that you as a person no longer exist.”
A child like Arturo knows that the best thing to do, for now, is to stay out of sight. The threat is everywhere — of separation, arrest, and deportation. So he leaves his work unsigned, he paints in the dark and carries his backpack with him everywhere. My arrival disrupts the equilibrium. He sees a threat. His parents don’t see it that way, they don’t feel the threat quite as personally as the son does. They want to prove that they can talk freely without fear. The son thinks this is naïve, and it makes him angry. They don’t understand this place as well as he does, and they don’t read the papers.
María was at work when the cops came for her. She was on the line, as usual. They tapped her on the shoulder and she stepped away from her workstation. The line closed up behind her. She didn’t know why they were taking her, or precisely who they were, but she had always known she could be taken by someone.
Esteban was at work when he found out. He remembered receiving a call and then going to collect the kids into a neighbor’s minivan, one of those jalopies so old the paint had been flayed from the front hood by wind and sand. He remembered speeding down to the courthouse. Like all undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, he’s forbidden to have a driver’s license, and so he prayed against being stopped. He called Father Pedro for help, and it was Father Pedro who found the bail bondsman and, later, the lawyer. But what he remembered above all was seeing María shackled hand and foot, and realizing at that very same moment that he had brought the children, who would now see their mother in chains. This was foolish. He should have left them at home. But with whom? There was no one he could trust who wasn’t working.
Esteban thought, “This is a test. We must accept it and thank God for it.”
Esteban thought they shouldn’t treat María as a criminal: all she’d done was to go to work that morning and cut chickens. She would never run. Where would she run? The children were convinced she’d be taken away forever that day, and so they cried. María seemed so small. For the first time in many years, at least since the marijuana incident, he began to imagine being without her.
María’s beauty would be familiar to anyone who’s seen Orozco’s Cortés y La Malinche, a mural in Mexico City’s Colegio de San Ildefonso. María looked very much like La Malinche, Cortés’s guide and lover, the original Indian mother. It isn’t the architecture of the face so much as its expression, like that of the tentative and contained nude woman in the weird, chaste grasp of a ghastly white Cortés, the woman who trusted too easily and failed her people.
In the front rows of the courtroom the fearful and the possessed had gathered. The domestic abusers with striped jail gear and shaved heads mouthed off at their girlfriends, who stood quietly across the room. There was an endless parade of drivers who were drinking, drivers without licenses, drivers who were drinking and driving without licenses, underage drinkers. Some of the men had been getting into shoot-outs over underage girls. Behind them sat those caught with drug paraphernalia, the check kiters, the shoplifters, and the graffiti artists. White, black, Latino, all of them awkward in the way of people who know they must be on their best behavior but whose knowledge of that behavior is somewhat theoretical. They pay a lot of attention to their hands. They stand up in front of a man who doesn’t speak their language, who speaks a legal language that’s nominally English but is hardly comprehensible. They’re all ready to tell their life stories, the hundred different reasons why what they did wasn’t so terrible, and how they’ve since been renewed and redeemed.
The judge never wants to hear their exquisitely rehearsed bullshit; he barely lets them open their mouths. No chance to tell the court how they really aren’t as awfully broken as they appear. When defendants go free they’re sometimes so shocked they seem reluctant to leave.
If there is an American Experiment, this is where it stands at the moment: with María in the dock, with chickens squabbling and tossing feathers from the trucks, with old Mercedes diesel sedans rumbling by at all hours, with men climbing cell towers to mount their shortwave repeaters in advance of the coming revolution and the end of the world, with reports of barren circles where the Devil paces when we’re not looking, with futsal and catfish-spotting and the old Arabian horses out in the paddock too feeble to ride, with fracking and picketing and pickling and chemotherapy, with a man at Father Pedro’s church dressed up in plastic centurion gear to place a crown of thorns on Jesus, who that year was from Tabasco and sold mobile phones in Siler City during the week.
The Almanza children, from eldest to youngest, have been transformed. The link to their parents’ past is mostly broken. They are now American, peripatetic and animated by longing. Their parents lecture them about materialism, but it was their parents who packed up and walked out of Ostutla. In doing this they ratified the American notion that happiness is just one more transformation distant, one more trip down the highway with the trunk packed. Esteban and María’s children will someday disappear into America, if they can stay.
The last time I went to talk with the Almanzas, I brought María a used stove that a friend of mine had wanted to toss out. María’s had finally broken for good, and Father Pedro had been calling around trying to find one. The old stove slid out easily, and the new one just barely fit. Esteban promised to return the favor. We rested afterward at the kitchen table.
María had bonded out two hours after her arrest, which meant Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t have time to investigate her residency status. She’d been charged with identity theft, a felony, but her attorney arranged a deal with prosecutors: in exchange for pleading guilty to possession of a fraudulent identification, a misdemeanor, and making restitution to the victim, prosecutors would dismiss the felony charge. If all went well, María would face only forty-five days of a suspended jail sentence and six months of probation. This was the best possible outcome for her, but in order to pay the $8,000 they owed for restitution and legal fees, only some of which they could borrow from Esteban’s uncle, María would have to go back to work — illegally — to help raise the rest.
María disappeared into the back room and returned, pulling a card out of a little beaded purse. She held it out to me, and I saw a new identification card bearing a new identity. This time, at least, it was entirely fictitious and bore no Social Security number, license number, or other traces of a legally recognized citizen. She’d learned that lesson. Later, her friends and family would describe her terror at being caught again and her fear of even leaving the trailer. But she had few options; failing to pay the restitution would mean another arrest and probably deportation.
“I didn’t understand, I didn’t know it was another lady’s number,” she said. She told me that she would quit working at the plant just as soon as they’d raised the money. “I will come home and take care of the babies and bake my breads,” she said to me. She watched my eyes when she said it, as if they would tell her whether this was true or not.
Esteban came in from the grill, wiping his hands on his trousers, and I asked, “Why don’t you all just leave?”
Father Pedro shook his head at me. María got up to stand by the stove with her back to us.
I said, “You can go. They’ll get you, you know that, right? They’ll take the money and they’ll still get you. They’ll have you up in court again, as many times as it takes.” This seemed obvious, not even worth mentioning under other circumstances. They should have been gone days before, should have left this place in their dust. Pack up and move, it’s the only way.
Esteban nodded, as if he’d heard this before and had even considered it. He folded his hands on the table in front of him, as if he were giving testimony. In Father Pedro’s translation he sounded almost oracular:
“I believe in this nation, and I want to be faithful, to the courts and to the bondsman. I have faith in this country and in God. And I say no! If I returned back to our country I would not have the opportunity to accept what God sends me. We must accept this and thank God for it. I always tell my children I am happy to be the father of six children, and that their mother is very proud. I say, ‘We love you.’ And we are always prepared to accept what God gives us. I say to our children, when they ask me what will happen to mami, that God will not divide a family, a mother from her children. If I cry every day, my family will cry also. We are not going to rob or steal. We are not going to cheat to get this money.”
And then Esteban did begin to cry. His face flushed. He had to stop talking for a moment. Father Pedro put his arm on his shoulder and squeezed. We sat silently. Esteban recovered and began speaking again. Because he was nervous, he stuttered a little.
“The reason why God is going to permit us to remain here, in this country, is because I believe and hope that one of my children will consecrate themselves to God. My family is joyful here. I won’t be swayed by any group, I won’t give in to materialism. We have been changed already. We are converted. It is the only change that matters, and it is forever. And that is why we are willing to stay, why we are not running, and why we are trying to pay back the money we owe. We have faith in God and are willing to accept anything.”
It would have been cruel for me to tell him what I thought, which was that hardly anyone cared how much he wanted to be an American, that this was beside the point, and that among some Americans his desire to join them would itself be considered evidence of the threat he posed. If he thought he could carve a holy paradise out of this wilderness, I would not be the one to tell him otherwise.
After that our conversation dwindled to nothing. We sat at the table pulling at the roasted chicken Arturo brought in. We chatted about this and that; I went over to set the digital clock on the stove. Finally I made to leave. Esteban pumped my hand, thanking me for the stove. “It’s nothing,” I said. It was really nothing.
María hugged me, and even Arturo gave my hand a shake. I think maybe he knew I wouldn’t be back.
“If I have to go to jail for what I have done,” María said as I was leaving, “if I have to go to jail for this wrong thing I did, I am willing.”
Some months later, I drove back to the trailer park. Someone had strung decorative lights over the Almanzas’ doorway. I was ashamed that I hadn’t been back for a proper visit, so I stayed in my car out of sight. Father Pedro had been assigned up north to a place where he could hear confession all day (“It is like being a vessel of God!”) and had been gone a couple of months.
The chicken plant had been closed down by its owner, a Ukrainian petrochemical kleptocrat and poultry tycoon, and I assumed the Almanzas were out of work. And so I suppose there were only two things I expected to find: either they had left for a new place or Esteban hadn’t been kidding about their devotion to this one.
I hope someday there will be Almanzas to watch when Reno Sharpe’s store collapses on itself in a heap of gray wood, laying down a new local geology of grease and fifty-year-old bottle caps. This county has been disintegrating and remaking itself in one form or another since before our recorded history.
From my hiding place I saw Esteban come out back, wearing the same shirt he always wore. He started working on his car. This time Arturo was with him, and he appeared to know what he was doing. Esteban handed him wrenches and rags, and they seemed to be talking very seriously, man to man. After a while they cleaned up and went inside, and when they pushed aside the drape I thought I saw María for just the slightest instant.
I waited so they wouldn’t hear the sound of my car, and then I pulled out with the headlights off. I noticed they were running the air-conditioning. It had been an unusually warm fall day, and I could hear the window units thrumming throughout the trailer park and all the way home.
Crimes Against Humanities
Thomas Frank’s insightful lamentation about the demise of the humanities in higher education [“Course Corrections,” Easy Chair, October] notes the mammoth cost of attending college in the United States today. He neglects, however, to mention one important culprit: the precipitous decline in public funding for students. In 1987, tuition accounted for only 23 percent of the revenue brought in by public institutions of higher learning. Today, as state and federal funding has failed to keep pace with rising costs, tuition accounts for 47 percent. Making all degrees more affordable would make one in the humanities more economically viable for graduates.
Donald J. McNutt
As an admirer of Thomas Frank’s writing, I was sorry to see his reading skills on such poor display. My comment about some elected officials having “a primitive and reductive view of what is essential” was hardly a cavalier dismissal of the employment prospects of graduates; my point was that these officials do a disservice to students by failing to recognize that the humanities prepare them extremely well for a wide range of jobs and careers. Frank’s claim that I am a staunch defender of “disciplinary walls” is also incorrect. I don’t believe that interdisciplinary studies will get very far without a grounding in the particular disciplines we’re trying to bring together, but I made this observation in connection with the larger point that “we have been too timid in our interdisciplinary associations.” To this end, we at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center have developed a series of courses that aim at strengthening the connections between the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and professional schools.
Director, Mahindra Humanities Center
As an adult adoptee who returned to his place of birth a decade ago, I believe that there are more political and economic motives for foreign adoption in the United States than Irina Aleksander allows for in her report on the Ranch for Kids in Montana [“Cold War Kids,” October]. American adoptive parents are not simply benevolent yet duped couples yearning to expand their families; they also have the tendency to act as agents of the country’s foreign-policy goals. Despite President Obama’s protestations, remnants of the Cold War still play a major role in the targeting of former Soviet republics as sources for adoptees.
The metaphor found late in the article — critically comparing an adopted child to a rambunctious puppy destined to be put down — was, for me, its most truthful trope. It is time for us to admit that foreign adoption is an alienating institution that destroys community and culture. Until we come up with a better system, it will be the children who suffer for the sins of their parents.
Daniel Ibn Zayd
The Fourth e-State
As John R. MacArthur makes clear in his Publisher’s Letter [October], the threats posed by the Internet to venerable periodicals like Harper’s Magazine are dismaying, but technology has also been a boon to talented writers who previously had few outlets for publication. After being rejected by a string of professional publishers, I was able to get my work out fairly cheaply thanks to digital innovations. The modern age may be a thorn in the side of fine magazines like yours, but it has created opportunities for many writers.
I respect MacArthur’s refusal to give away the articles in Harper’s for free, and I agree that the free-content model has been a key factor in the impoverishment of American journalism, which he so eloquently laments. However, a few pages later in the magazine, there is a short notice advertising the internship opportunities at Harper’s, the final line of which reads, “Both positions are unpaid.” Shouldn’t the decision to foster a sustainable journalistic model through paid subscriptions also include a willingness to pay for the labor that goes into it?
Alex J. Ponting
Location not given
Fleming awoke in the dark and his room felt loose, sloshing so badly he gripped the bed. From his window there was nothing but a hallway, and if he craned his neck, a blown lightbulb swung into view. The room pitched up and down and for a moment he thought he might be sick. The word “hallway” must have a nautical name. Why didn’t they supply a glossary for this cruise? Probably they had, in the welcome packet he’d failed to read. A glossary. A history of the boat, which would be referred to as a ship. Sunny biographies of the captain and crew, who had always dreamed of this life. Lobotomized histories of the islands they’d visit. Who else had sailed this way. Famous suckwads from the past, slicing through this very water on wooden longships.
A welcome packet, the literary genre most likely to succeed in the new millennium. Why not read about a community you don’t belong to, that doesn’t actually exist, a captain and crew who are, in reality, if that isn’t too much of a downer on your vacation, as indifferent to one another as any set of co-employees at an office or bank? Read doctored personal statements from underpaid crew members — because ocean life pays better than money! — who hate their lives but have been forced to buy into the mythology of working on a boat, separated now from loved ones and friends, growing lonelier by the second, even while they wait on you and follow your every order.
And yet, when Fleming thought about it, this welcome packet, fucked-up though it was, even though he hadn’t read it, most certainly had more readers than he did. More people, for sure, read this welcome packet than had ever read any of his books or stories. This welcome packet commanded a bigger audience than he ever would with his sober, sentimental inventions of domestic lives he’d never lived, if that wasn’t too flattering a description of the literary product he willed onto the page with less and less conviction every time he sat down. Maybe he’d actually learn something about writing if he read the welcome packet.
The room spun and he clutched the bed. It would be two straight weeks of this seesawing, punctuated by mind-raping workshop sessions in a conference room and the occasional blitz of tropical sun if he could stand it. He had planned to get in shape for this trip, just to medicate a minor quadrant of his self-loathing apparatus, but when that hadn’t happened, when instead he had fattened further, he went out and bought new T-shirts, one size larger than last year. He looked okay in them. Not really that bad. He would just make sure not to take one off in public. Even in private, actually, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame followed him indoors.
His wife and baby had stayed home, thank God, even though Erin had wanted to come with him, wanted to bring the baby, made a case that it would all be so fun for little Sylvie, even though little Sylvie had not shown an aptitude for fun, or, well, happiness in general. Don’t blame the baby, though! Don’t blame the baby, you monster! He wouldn’t, if he could help it. The baby would be blameless. Cute little thing.
Anyway, if he’d brought them, and paid for them, because their passage was not included in the deal, they’d be going home in the hole, financially. Don’t let’s go home in the hole, he’d sung, trying to be funny. Erin hadn’t laughed, because that wasn’t even a line from anything, and that wasn’t how jokes worked. She’d just looked at him beneath bangs of razor perfection, the whole of Erin so fatally sharp that he was silently criticized by her appearance, for more or less everything he’d ever done, even things from before he knew her, rebuked by the mere sight of her, and she didn’t have to say a word.
So he was alone, with nothing much to account for except, of course, the morning’s reading, the prep, and then the fucking horror of holding a class on this ship.
But he was so lucky! This was so great! How amazing to go on a cruise. His colleagues had stood around pretending to be jealous, and he’d held his ground pretending to deserve it, swallowing his dread. He’d had no choice in the matter. His student evaluations stank. Wouldn’t this trip be a chance to collect a batch of raves from his little cruisegoers, who would surely be more susceptible to joy, with all the sunbathing and cocktailing and theme dancing, and therefore more likely to pass on that happiness to him?
Or are the happy just more profoundly stingy with their mood, having finally arrived at bliss, clinging to all of it and in no way inclined to transfer such riches to the likes of him? Maybe so. But this time he had a strategy. Some old-fashioned hoo-ha from the school of please-don’t-hate-me. He would get his students to praise him by stroking their egos so hard — relentlessly stroking the shit out of every region of their egos, stroking them down sleek and smooth — that the students would curl up and mewl like stuffed animals with robotic voice boxes, purring and saying gaga and dada and yes, please, give me some more.
Up on deck nothing was happening. It was dark. The ocean, the sky, the ship. Sweet hell the silence was nice. Whatever waves had gripped them earlier were gone. Everything was still. Not even the waiters were awake. Something was doing in the kitchen, though. A light burned under the door. Powdered eggs were getting mixed in water by a big industrial paddle, maybe. Frozen planks of scored sausages, ridged like washboards, getting knifed into singles.
He sat by the pool, leaning against the railing because the deck chairs weren’t out yet. The boat felt much steadier now that he was outside. They’d left New York Harbor yesterday, so where were they now? He had no idea how fast they were going, or how you would begin to calculate whereabouts, and it didn’t really matter. It was, actually, pretty great to be surrounded by dark space and dark water and nothing real. A fairly delicious portion of wind pumping off the sea at the perfect temperature. He wanted to thank someone for that and say, Nice going. You nailed it. Perfect use of wind in this setting. Erin would, of course, really love it here, on her way to the islands, the occasional dirty coast threatening in the distance, but mostly just water. Hot, salty air in the afternoon, stinging her sunburn. She’d be out on the deck early — not this early — swimming laps before the kids took over the pool with their savage games. Even little Sylvie, if you could keep the fast-crawling gal on a leash so she wouldn’t splash overboard and disappear forever, even Sylvie, his daughter, wrapped in so much flotation she looked like a life raft, would very certainly, if he had only let her come, have had lots and lots and lots of fun on this boat.
He was supposed to have ten students but he only counted nine. Nine of them leaning forward on the conference table, staring at him, waiting. When he looked in his briefcase for the roster, the one document he actually needed, he couldn’t find it.
Probably it was in there. He had to pee. The room lacked a clock. His chair was no good, and somehow he was sitting at the seam between two crooked tables. Already he’d sweated through his T-shirt into the button-down he thought he should wear. Everyone waited. They weren’t dressed up. His glasses were smudged. The students wore bright shirts made of parachute material. Cruise clothes. Was this even the right class?
Fuck it. This would get worked out. He said hello and welcome, making the obligatory comment about how weird it was to be studying writing on a cruise ship, of all places, which no one laughed or smiled at or even acknowledged facially. Perhaps they didn’t know they were at sea. Was there a certain percentage of people at sea who lacked the knowledge that they were at sea?
Really, anyway, Fleming insisted to them, location shouldn’t matter, because this was serious work they were doing, and this was a serious class. If possible, they should, you know, forget about the outside world when they were in here and just focus on literature.
So, great. His first lesson to them was to ignore the outside world, which he had just said had nothing to do with real literature. Splendid advice for writers. And it would be fairly easy to follow inside this airless kill box.
They went around the room and said their names, along with some other data he’d requested — favorite books and writers, past classes taken — which they surrendered with quiet hostility, as if they were corpses who had been fed some rejuvenating pulp that allowed them to release a few more sentences before dying again. You brought me back to life for this? their bodies seemed to say.
The first story they considered was by Timothy, who had an amazing beard. This didn’t disguise the fact that he was no older than twenty-two. Even with a white beard, even with white hair, even with a cane and maybe pushing along an IV bag on a stand, this boy would look young. Yet somehow he had raised a beard of Bunyanesque density, and the sight of it reproached anything facial Fleming, maybe thirty years the boy’s senior, had ever attempted.
In Timothy’s story an old man sat on a bed and thought back on his life, which featured some activities he regretted, which he would now tell us about at great length. The end.
A woman named Shay started the critique. She shrugged, said she had trouble believing it, and then paused, failing to elaborate.
That did rather sum things up, Fleming thought. A brave piece of thinking. Maybe true of almost everything created ever: paintings, books, houses, bridges. None of them are finally believable, when you really think about it. But, well, there they are. Whole schools of philosophy had fought with that one. Looking at Shay and the confidence she projected, it was clear that belief was her holy grail and she probably rarely found it. She didn’t believe this, she didn’t believe that, it was all so unbelievable. Many years from now Shay would be dying somewhere nonspecific — Fleming’s imagination couldn’t piece together a good deathbed location — and she would declare that she just couldn’t believe it.
Did Shay want to suggest anything Timothy could do to make his story more believable? Fleming asked.
“No. I don’t believe in meddling with other people’s art. No way. And I don’t want anyone to meddle with mine.”
Well put, and good on you, he thought, but then what the fuck are you doing here?
He almost said, Okay, so what do other people think of that? The classic workshop whirlpool everyone might happily drown in for a while. Let’s all go down together! But he stopped himself, because that would be like asking, Who else believes that we have no purpose here whatsoever?
Fleming waited. It was about the only trick he had when he was in the gladiator pit. Ride out the silence. Stare the fuckers down. Someone else in the room was likely to find the pause unbearable before he did. And, sure enough, up stepped Timothy’s defender, Rory. Cheerful, permissive, simple, friendly, handsome, healthy, well-adjusted, insane: someone who could never be a writer.
Rory thought the story was great. So great! That man, on that bed. Wow. Rory could just see and feel him there. The whole thing was so real and he wouldn’t change a thing. This was perfect stuff. It almost could have been a movie! Rory smiled, and it was clear that no one had ever disagreed with him, ever. Or, more likely, people had disagreed with Rory but he wasn’t aware of it. The bliss it must be to be Rory.
So the poles had been set, approval and dismissal of Timothy’s story, and now it was Fleming’s duty to string critical latticework between them, ricocheting between praise and criticism until everyone had gotten their money’s worth. Later, Timothy could pick from this web of provocative suggestion as he got going with his revision.
Over the next hour, the workshop roles slowly emerged. There were the miniaturists, who wanted to look at a certain line on page five and wonder if maybe, just maybe, it shouldn’t be airlifted earlier, which might seismically alter the story and bring the whole thing scarily to life. Mightn’t it? There was the person who said that the story really began halfway down page two. Apparently these people were everywhere, even on boats. The your story starts here people. What about just saying that the story begins right after it ends, right here, on a page you haven’t written yet, and then sliding some new, clean paper over to the writer? There was a young woman named Britt who felt the story should be switched from first person to third. First person, to her, at least in this story, allowed confessional overtones that seemed to let too much self-pity creep in, which defeated a reader’s ability to care for this man. If he feels sorry for himself, she explained, it makes it harder for us to. Not bad, Britt, Fleming thought, keeping his face neutral. A strange dose of reason on the high seas. But her comment was ignored by one and all, and then there was the person who confessed that this story really wasn’t his thing so it wasn’t even fair for him to try to evaluate it. He’d better pass. He tried to pose this response as an apology, like saying he was sorry, he just didn’t read French, so what could he do? I’m sorry, man, your shit just isn’t my thing.
Ah, one of those guys. The one from last semester was named Sean. This one, the cruise version, was Carl. Exempted from value exchanges because of his immensely idiosyncratic place in this world. Not really his world, just a world he is grumpily visiting. That’s what Carl should have said: I’m sorry, I have to pass, I’m not actually a human being. Whatever Carl’s real thing was would be a closely guarded secret until he turned in his own story, and everyone — or so it usually went — once they saw it, would strain to detect the slightest difference between Carl’s writing and everything else they’d read.
Fleming jumped into the discussion and said that Timothy was brave to write about something so distant from his life, and for this he should be commended. This was powerful material: A man who will die soon, wondering what went wrong in his life. And he’s alone. His mistakes have left him alone. He’s done this to himself, it’s his fault, there’s no one else to blame, and yet we somehow, potentially, feel for him. It’s really tragic. Cheers, really, to Timothy, because this stuff is big. But could the story maybe, who knows, use a scene? Sometimes an actual scene carries feeling really well, at least if that’s the goal here? Possibly not. Possibly not. Expository narrative can be really, important pause, interesting. Can anyone think of examples of this?
Of course they couldn’t, and he panicked, because suddenly he couldn’t, either, even though he’d once taught a whole class on the subject. But no one seemed to care. They didn’t want examples. The era of illustrating a point was long gone, which made teaching easier, if lonelier. Years ago Fleming would recommend other books, describing their plots, their styles, their techniques, why they were important, and no one would ever make a note, even to write down the name of the author or the book. They would just blink at him, waiting for his seizure to flare out. Later Fleming would learn that students viewed these endorsements not as the kind of deep resource sharing that universities were meant to enable but as digressions, beside the point. Stalling. And so instead he talked and talked and talked about Timothy’s story itself, devoting more language to it than it contained, a body of criticism already outweighing a work that would never be published, trying to praise Timothy without alienating his classmates, most of whom sensed that the story was muted and unreal, an exercise. It was like Timothy was trying to throw his voice, but he’d thrown it so far that no one could hear it. But Timothy couldn’t be shut down here, Fleming knew. He needed to be encouraged. Get the young man on his back, lift up his shirt, and rub that fucking belly. And yet at the same time Timothy’s classmates could not think their teacher was an idiot pushover who simply praised whatever he read, particularly guff like this, because then what was his praise worth if it ever actually came their way?
Fleming walked the little tightrope, tossing coins to each side of the line. If Timothy did not actually purr out loud, at least he seemed content. Fleming’s neutrality in the end must have only made him seem spineless. A politician of the classroom, pleasing precisely no one.
There was time at the end for Timothy to ask questions, and he just thanked everyone. He really appreciated it, nodding through that amazing beard, rubbing his hands together.
“No questions? That’s it?” Fleming asked.
“I mean, yeah,” said Timothy, sitting back, pleased. “I wrote that story in like two hours, so I’m surprised anyone liked it at all.”
Lunch was a buffet. Fleming loaded his plate with cold pasta, rolls, salad. What he wished was that he could take the food to his room. The walk would be long, the elevator ride conspicuous. He’d have to carry his plate through telescoping dining rooms, up carpeted stairs, then out across the sun-blasted pool deck and along the railing, where you had to practically tiptoe single file or else go overboard. By then his shame would be complete, his plate a mess. The package he was on didn’t include room service, which meant eating above decks, and that risked eating with students. Or being seen eating alone by students. He wasn’t sure which was worse.
They found him at the kiddie pool, on dessert. There was pretty good-looking pie here, so he’d gone with a piece of chocolate cream. The kiddie pool had a shaded canopy, so he could eat without getting reamed by the sun, which was on a tear today. Large men his own age with very different lives stood shin-deep in the pool holding barrel-size drinks, their shoulders boiling and blistering like the surface of a distant planet.
“Hey, Professor Fleming.” There were maybe five of them, hovering awkwardly.
“Hey, guys, sit.” He welcomed them as if this were his own little porch.
They pulled up chairs and sat and looked at him, waiting again. He couldn’t really eat chocolate pie under that kind of scrutiny. Jesus, he thought, did he have to just keep entertaining these monsters, even though class was over? This was break time, which meant he needed to replenish his stores of fraudulence for the next round. How could he summon his artillery of deceit without some pretty serious alone time? He needed a different body to wear around when he wasn’t in the workshop. Or, at the very least, a T-shirt that read: i’m off the clock, bitches!
“So what do you think of class?” one of them asked. This would be Franklin, the quiet, anemic one, with that kind of gerbil-clear skin. Franklin was a thin, pink person who was either a genius or, well, not one.
“I should ask you guys that, right?” Fleming tried to smile through a mouthful of chocolate.
He knew he shouldn’t do this, but he couldn’t help it. It was like asking Erin if she loved him, the conversational sugar he sought out like an addict. What was she going to say? It looked so desperate, so helpless. Maybe because it was. Class had hardly started and here he was groveling for student approval.
“Seriously,” he said. “Does class seem okay?”
They burst out laughing and looked at each other. A merry laughter, he supposed, but still. Already with the knowing looks! They’d hardly even met and here they were being conspiratorial at the fucking kiddie pool.
“We never know when you’re joking,” explained Helen, as if they had discussed this issue at some length. Maybe Helen was the spokesperson.
He smiled. He had yet to joke with them a single time that he could remember.
Here’s a clue, he should have said: I haven’t been genuinely funny in a very long time.
They were back at it in the afternoon. The story was a pastoral, with a nameless man walking through the landscape — the powerful, moody landscape — thinking. The writer, George, was older than the others. He had a large, sad face and he was bald. These men were everywhere. The cattle in our lives we hardly even see. Slowly they are herded into the dark shed to be killed. Fleming hoped he didn’t look like George, but he suspected he looked far worse. Older, sadder, balder, one of the cattle who’d gotten out alive, survived the bolt gun to the head. A little bit soft of brain, but holding his own. To look like George would be lucky, probably. If he went home looking like George maybe Erin would be intrigued. Maybe she’d smile and throw her arms around him, yelling, “Sylvie, your handsome father is home!” The force field around Erin would lift. Love would surge through the house, and people in the surrounding neighborhood would fall to the floor in spontaneous orgasm.
On the first page of his story George had written a note for the workshop:
Hey everyone! I can’t wait to meet all of you. Thanks so much in advance for reading my story. Your time means a lot to me. I’d love to hear what you all think.
“I don’t know,” said Franklin, cautiously. “It doesn’t seem like anything happens.”
“Can that be okay?” Fleming asked, eyeing the room for a taker. “Do things need to happen?”
Franklin blinked little gerbil crumbs from his eyes. He seemed to decide the question was not for him but for the group at large. He retreated in his chair, started to doodle. He must have been exhausted from that amazing opening comment.
Timothy jumped in. “It’s landscape porn.”
Everybody laughed, except George, who seemed bewildered. Was this a compliment?
“What’s landscape porn, Timothy?” Fleming asked.
“It’s just masturbatory images of mountains and lanes and creeks and desert and there’s no drama to any of it. It’s not a story.”
Said the young, bearded man who himself had not written a story.
“Like, what if I described a teacup for five pages? Would anyone care?”
More laughs. George was scribbling notes, as if this was the most helpful critique he’d ever had.
“Okay,” said Fleming, looking at George across the table, determined not to mention the nouveau roman, which by now had grown quite forgotten and old, and perhaps should be renamed the old novel, or the novel that recently died but that once mattered to a few people he knew, themselves also old. “But maybe instead of diagnosing what it is and isn’t, let’s try to talk about the experience of reading it, and maybe see if that discussion might be of use to George.”
This the class didn’t much want to do, and Fleming carried the weight of the thing. Frankly it was George’s fault. He had written some passable description, and he’d made the whole thing pretty moody, but, it was true, nothing happened. Could this, Fleming ventured, be the descriptive intermission in a story that hasn’t been written yet? Perhaps we are only looking at the thigh of the beast. We can say nice thigh, but beyond that we are in the dark. His metaphor was out of hand, running amok. Maybe they hadn’t noticed.
Britt alone picked up on Fleming’s desperation, while George transcribed the discussion ever more furiously, and she tried to help, reminding everyone of the inherent drama of landscapes and how charged they could be, how story resides in the land — had she really just said that? — and our best stories come from our relationship to nature.
“That’s your opinion,” snapped Shay, suddenly bothered.
Britt didn’t flinch. “Right,” she agreed cheerfully. “Am I meant to be representing someone else’s opinion?”
“Do what you want,” said Shay, apparently not sure whether Britt’s response was an insult.
Carl made a cat sound, clawing the air, hissing.
“Oh, shit,” said Rory, and he suddenly seemed at a loss with no friends around to high-five.
George raised his hand, usually taboo for the writer, who was not allowed to speak during a critique of his work, but Fleming seized on it. Saved by the sad sack.
“Yes, George, how can we help you?”
“This is all really incredible. Thank you, everyone. I really appreciate it.”
So this was George’s shtick, thought Fleming. He was a professional thanker.
“I guess,” said George, “I just have one question for you all, given the remarks.”
“If this was set in a city, instead of out West,” asked George hopefully, “do people think that would make it better?”
Britt followed Fleming out after class. He wanted to stand in the sunshine, look at the sea, and maybe let the salty air purge him of the useless things he’d said.
They were at the railing and the boat was really hauling ass. Behind them a terrific whooping arose from the pool, where kids had lined up at the slide and were zooming down the bright chute into the water. How amazing if he could get an hour alone with that pool, guarded from all spectators, streaking down the slide, exploding against the water, only to pull himself back up the ladder to do it again.
“Why’d you start with two men today?” asked Britt.
“What do you mean?” Dear God what did she mean?
“The class is half women and you could have discussed one of each today, a man and a woman. Wouldn’t that have been more fair?”
He had no answer. He’d given no thought to this.
“It’ll balance out,” he said lamely, trying not to look at her.
Britt struck a puzzled look, falsely naïve. “It just seems to indicate clear bias on your part, to let two men go first, and I don’t see how that won’t disrupt the whole balance of the class going forward, if the women collectively feel that you do not think highly of their work. So much so that you’ve delayed its discussion in favor of the work of two men who hardly seem — in my opinion — talented enough to have gone first. I just wanted to pick your brain about that.”
Very crafty, little Britt. Let’s solve the problem of your bias together, you old, sexless fossil. I care about you and want to help. Now just drink this poison and lie back while I scissor free your expired genitalia.
Britt had pale hair, wore no make-up, and seemed so at ease with him it was disturbing, like one of those precocious children who is friends only with adults. Even Erin adopted a more formal tone than this, seemed a stranger to him sometimes when they spoke. He liked Britt. Clearly, though, the feeling wasn’t mutual.
“Look,” he tried to explain, though he had no explanation. “Going first, as you call it, is no big deal. Certainly it’s not a privilege. I’d say it sucks to go first, actually, because no one knows each other, we have no rapport, and we’re not at our best, critically, yet. We haven’t vibed as a group. People who go first are at a disadvantage, actually.”
This sort of sounded half believable to him as he said it.
Britt took this in, winching her eyebrows as she formulated her rebuttal. He braced himself.
“So today, if I’m hearing you correctly, you were punishing Timothy and George by making them go first? You deliberately put them at a disadvantage? Perhaps I misread your bias. Maybe it’s men you have a problem with. I will say reverse discrimination is no less worrisome. It is, arguably, more hidden, more sinister.”
“Sinister?” He sighed, starting to protest, but Britt bent over, laughing.
“Oh my God, I totally had you!” she shrieked. “You totally believed me! I wish you could see your face!”
Fleming had seen his own face enough times, for this life and for the next one.
Britt threw herself into him, spasming with laughter, claiming she really had him going.
“What?” he said quietly, trying to push her from his body, even though the contact felt good. “Which part was a joke?”
Britt grabbed his arm, tugging rather hard on him while she recovered from her fit of laughter. “You are hilarious,” she said. “Oh my God, you are so funny!”
She kept crashing into him as if she couldn’t stand on her own. Was he meant to hold her up? People would be watching them.
“You thought I was one of those insane feminists,” she gasped. “You actually thought that!”
“Why wouldn’t I?” he snapped. “Not insane. Maybe it was a reasonable point. Am I not supposed to believe what you say?”
Just then Helen found them, walking up with a sly smile on her face.
“Hey, you two,” she said. “What are you up to?”
You two? You two? He took a step back from Britt, but she threw an arm around him and told Helen it was nothing, a silly joke, and they were just hanging out watching the ocean go by. Wasn’t the ocean amazing?
Helen looked out at the water, frowned, and carefully agreed that it was. It seemed she was really on the fence about it. This ocean, she told them, reminded her of a story, in fact, a very long story, slowly told, that got hung up in a complicated preamble about the first time she had told the story and who was there and why it had been a hard story to tell. Apparently it still was.
He begged off, saying he needed to go work, which wasn’t true. He had no intention of doing any work on this boat, but maybe there was something good on TV. Or something bad on TV. Or maybe the wall in his room was doing some interesting shit that he could stare at while he held his balls. Anyway it was clear that if he wanted to escape his students — yes, yes, he wanted to — about the only place he could do that was in his room. As he left the pool area he heard Britt shouting his name. She caught up, breathless, beaming at him. It was just that she was curious what room he was in, on what level, because such-and-such was her room number, on the such-and-such level, you know, just in case, and was he going to be around at the bar later?
Fleming told Erin about it over the phone. This was the best way to defuse all prospects. Confess before it happens, then it won’t happen.
“It was so awkward. And on the first day! Right on the deck where everyone could see us.”
“What am I supposed to say?” asked Erin, sounding tired. “That it’s cool a student is attracted to you? Good for you?”
“No, of course not. I just think it’s funny. I mean, me. She can’t really be attracted to me.”
Erin let that one go, because apparently she agreed.
“Okay,” she said, in the classic way she ended her phone calls. As in, Okay, I’ve had enough, this is over.
“Well, I miss you,” said Fleming. The phone was sweaty against his head. He wanted out of this conversation, too. But it seemed dimly important for them to exchange intimacy, however rotely.
He broke. “You can’t say one nice thing?”
“I can say many nice things.”
“All right, well, I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry.”
“How can you apologize if you don’t know what you did?”
Here we go.
“I’m not sure how, Erin. But I apologize, I really do. I want things to be better between us.”
“We’ll talk when you get back.”
“Let’s talk now.”
“I really, really, really, really can’t.”
Really? He wanted to say. But he couldn’t honestly blame her, because he didn’t want to talk, either.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Fleming said. “I hope you feel better.”
Fleming was asleep when someone knocked on his door. He tried to ignore it. What time was it anyway? The knocking persisted. It was a quiet, polite knock, which he found amusing, because there was nothing polite about being woken up in your cabin. Ever since he’d boarded this ship he’d been systematically chased into a corner as he searched for privacy. Now they’d found his corner too.
The knocking continued. The knock of someone who knew he was in here. The knock of someone who wasn’t going away. The knock, no doubt, of a crazy if highly attractive person named Britt. He hadn’t told Britt his room number, but it wouldn’t have been hard to figure out. Maybe when she saw him in his big-and-tall sleep shirt, with the ring of puffy hair sticking up from where his sleep mask was, maybe then her resolve to seduce a corpse would, as they say, wane.
It wasn’t Britt. At the door stood one of the ship people, a young man in a strange white suit holding a clipboard. The purser, perhaps.
“Mr. Fleming?” he asked.
“Okay, good,” and he checked off something on his pad. “Is there anyone else in there with you?”
Peering in, snooping, the little perv.
“No,” said Fleming, hesitating. Why did he feel nervous if it was true? Oh, because maybe it wasn’t? Because maybe Fleming had been up to some evening blood sport without knowing it, partitioning his overdeveloped psyche in order to, uh, tolerate the unbearable moral strain of his secret passions: abduction, captivity, taking his pleasures from people wearing hoods. How amazing if it were true. How dull that it wasn’t. Fleming was fully, finally alone. If he had a secret life it was a complete secret.
“Do you want to come in and search?” Fleming offered. Come on into my cabin, smell my sleep.
The man looked at Fleming with alarm. “No, no, that’s fine, thank you.”
Fleming had just behaved like a suspect when there obviously hadn’t been a crime. Maybe he wanted to get arrested. Maybe that was the only way off this boat. Ship.
As the purser walked off Fleming asked what this was about. You don’t just knock on someone’s door in the middle of the night without explaining yourself.
“Just a head count,” the man said.
“A head count.”
“A head count. Don’t worry. We’ve counted you. You’re here. We’ve got you.”
At breakfast the students were buzzing. Someone had, they speculated, gone overboard. The ship’s crew had been to all their cabins. They were trying to figure out who was missing. Perhaps, Fleming thought, this was the only good thing about the Midwest. You couldn’t go overboard. Except for the lakes. There were the lakes. The virtues of the Midwest shrank back to zero again.
Franklin was chiding Carl, who sat there grinning, looking otherwise like sheer hell, as if he hadn’t slept at all. Come to think of it, Carl had on the same outfit as yesterday.
“I saw you at the bar all covered in sex,” teased Franklin. “How many heads did they count in your cabin, you little faggot?”
Carl nodded proudly, gave a lazy thumbs-up.
Fleming must have looked pale, because Franklin grabbed his arm.
“I can call him that because he’s not one, and I am.”
Sort of like if I called you a writer, Fleming thought. Oh, except that wasn’t fair. Be nice to these people, he reminded himself. And he knew that his assessment of others had never borne out over the years, with the least likely of his students always, always, enjoying the most success. In fact, he had better be nicer to Franklin.
Class went okay. Britt’s story was disappointingly good. Talented writers can also be sexy little nut jobs who play mind games on boats. Her story described the seven or eight houses the narrator had lived in from birth until her death as an old woman. The writing was cold and beautiful, executed with severe control, and Britt leaped through the years of her narrator’s life, changing continents, changing marriages, until the narrator was alone again, inside a house not that different from the one in which she was born, thousands of miles away. It was effortless, formally original, and Fleming was a little bit jealous.
Rory didn’t really get it. “I guess,” he said, uncomfortable, as if he had never said an unkind thing to anyone in the world, “it might have been more interesting if it was the same character who lived in these houses, rather than so many different people of all different ages in all of these different places. I couldn’t keep track of them, and I wasn’t sure what held them all together.”
Shay cracked up.
“What?” said Rory, blushing.
“Nothing,” said Shay, drunk on schadenfreude. “That’s just awesome.”
“It’s the same narrator,” sneered Carl, who still looked debauched and exhausted from whatever he’d done last night. Not too tired to trounce the dumb blond man across the table, apparently.
Fleming felt that this called for a vote. “Did anyone else think there were many different narrators throughout the story?”
No one else raised a hand.
At lunch, arranging his papers, Fleming found the class roster. There were indeed supposed to be ten students in his class. The missing student’s name was C. L. Levy. He emailed the university office from the ship’s public computer terminal, which was embedded in a wall of naval ornaments, as if long ago pirates had stood here and checked their Facebook pages, yelling to the next pirate in line to wait his fucking turn.
A reply popped into his inbox a few minutes later, saying that all ten students were paid in full. No one had canceled at the last minute. No one had written in for a refund.
That was a lot of money to be paid in full, only to not board the ship, or to board the ship and not attend class. In the afternoon session he asked his students if anyone knew of this C. L. Levy, but none of them did. “Man or woman?” asked Helen thoughtfully, as if that might determine her answer. He didn’t know. “Alive or dead?” she asked. And that he didn’t know either.
After dinner Fleming went to the front desk to see if C. L. Levy was on board. Of course they couldn’t give out that information.
“Isn’t there a passenger manifest?”
Yes, there was a passenger manifest, but it wasn’t for passengers.
Back in his cabin, Fleming told Erin about it on the phone. The missing student, the possibility that someone had gone overboard last night, and the ensuing head count that woke him up.
“Huh,” she said.
“I guess. I mean it’s not really that weird. It’s normal for them to do a head count. Is that what you said was weird? Or was something else weird?”
Dear Jesus what was going on between them?
He took on the overly patient tone she hated. Explained it all. Offered a short course on the uncanny for his wife. Theories and origins of strangeness. And then, when he was done, Erin had been proved right, again without speaking. None of it seemed weird. When you put it that way. He tried another approach.
“I feel concerned, that’s all.”
This surprised Erin. Had he never expressed concern before? “I don’t know why you’re telling me. If you were really worried wouldn’t you have done something about it, instead of calling me?”
“Okay, I won’t talk about this to you anymore, I promise.”
“Oh, you’re going to pout now?”
“Gosh, Erin, I still haven’t stopped pouting from last time. But I have more pouting in store after this pouting is finished. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when the new pouting starts.”
She hung up.
Britt was waiting for him in the hallway, waving a black glove.
The little stalker had found his room.
“How come you’re not writing?” he asked, as if he’d run into her in public somewhere. Some cheerful patter, instead of screaming his head off in fright.
“How come you’re not, Professor?”
Did Fleming have this to look forward to every time he came and went?
“What’s going on with the glove?” he asked.
Britt gave him a weird smile. There was food in her teeth. He didn’t know her well enough to mention it. “This, sir, is a brand-new glove. I just took it from its package.” Britt flopped the glove against her face — a gesture of, what, self-harm? — then added, blushing, almost too quiet to hear: “No one’s penis has been in it yet.”
Fleming studied the glove, leaned in and pretended to sniff it. “That you know of,” he said, in his scientific voice.
Britt laughed. “You are funny. We’ve been debating this. I’ve had to defend you. They all think you’re so serious. But you’re not! You’re not serious at all. You, my friend, are catching on.”
She swished the glove at his face and he leaned away from it.
“I am catching on, Britt. You might try that glove on someone else. Go all throughout the longship, trying it on all of the young oarsmen.”
“But I don’t want to go all throughout the longship. I have traveled far, good sir. I am home now. I have found the owner of the glove.”
She baby-pouted up at him.
“No thank you, Britt.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing!”
“I know,” he said, walking off.
What Fleming was missing was a home and family and self that had never quite come to be, which was maybe why he was on a boat now with strangers, pitying himself. How could you miss something that hadn’t happened? There was a certain feeling at home with Erin and Sylvie that sometimes, rarely, despite the prickly ways they fought, swept through them, for reasons he could not understand, little gusts of unexamined happiness when he and Erin smiled at each other for no reason and when they stretched out on the rug and played blocks with Sylvie and when Sylvie would roll over and suddenly yell “Pants!” kicking her naked legs in the air. A serious call for pants from his young daughter that made them laugh so hard. That’s what he missed, but it stood alone. Had it really even happened that way? And if something like it happened again, who knows, Fleming or Erin or both of them would react differently, would look away from each other, embarrassed that they’d suddenly been caught living while poor Sylvie shrieked with joy under the cold gaze of her functionally dead parents.
From the house phone outside the restaurant Fleming dialed the ship’s operator and asked to be connected to the room of C. L. Levy.
“I have no such passenger,” said the operator.
“As of when?” asked Fleming.
“Did you ever have a passenger by that name?”
“You mean ever on the ship? That’s not really something I can look up.”
“I mean up until yesterday. Was there a C. L. Levy yesterday and now there is not one today?”
“But we haven’t put into port yet. No one has left the ship.”
Fleming paused. “It does stretch the imagination,” he admitted. He pictured C. L. Levy, just a shapeless shadow in his imagination, standing on the ship’s railing, tilting out of sight. They say you can’t hear the splash. He bet to hell you could hear the splash. Something that awful could never be silent.
“Sir, I apologize, I’m not sure I can help you.”
“Thank you,” said Fleming. “I understand.”
But he didn’t, and he wouldn’t, and he couldn’t. The encounter joined too many others in the bottomless gunnysack he lugged around for situations that didn’t, maybe never would, make sense. He’d become a bit of a collector, but was the material worth anything? Everything unbelievable in his whole life that had nevertheless still happened. It would need to be probed for secrets. Out on deck it wasn’t dark enough to hide. His students would be roaming the ship, drinking, waiting in whatever counted for bushes so they could jump out at him when he walked by. The stars were close tonight. Not just exquisite pricks of light leaking through a tear in the fabric of some other world, to quote a writer he loved. These stars seemed to have fallen lower. They looked shapeless and dirty. Cast-outs, perhaps, from the world of finer stars that knew enough to keep their distance. Or maybe the ship was climbing, lurching straight up out of the water like a slow rocket. He could close his eyes, feel the air rushing down on him, and believe that. Why was that so easy to believe, and it wasn’t true, yet what was true was so finally impossible and unconvincing? The stars — close and dirty and shapeless and false, the sort a child might draw, and what did children even know — were not credible. The sky, the whole night, and all his conversations. These things did not fucking ring true anymore, they needed work. What happened to him needed to be revised until he could find it believable. Or he needed to be revised. Fleming. He needed to change himself so what was real did not seem so alien and wrong. Do you do that with tools, with your hands, with a bag over your head? Do you do that by standing on the ship’s railing at night? Fleming would tuck himself over behind the pool, behind the games floor, where the umbrellas were rolled up, stacked, and chained. It was a kind of bed. It wasn’t so bad. The dark night was a kind of room, and it would do better than where he was. This was just the place to miss out on the next head count, should it come. No one would find him here, at least until morning. They could never check off his name. Maybe that was what was called for, for the next head count to go around, for the ship and its rooms to be searched for its living, viable people — its human beings! — and to be finally, once and for all, counted out.
In late August, I traveled with colleagues from the Roosevelt Institute in New York to New Orleans, where we had invited a panel of community organizers to join us in discussing youth unemployment. The problem affects every major U.S. city — American teens and young adults have never, since record-keeping began, done worse in the job market than in the past decade — but it is worse in New Orleans than almost anywhere else. The organizers spoke to us of what they called Opportunity Youth, a group defined as those under the age of twenty-four who are neither in school nor working. Opportunity Youth are disproportionately minority men. Many have been incarcerated or suffer from poor health. Some have caregiving responsibilities that overwhelm them. In New Orleans, 23 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds are out of school and unemployed; the national number — 17 percent — isn’t much better. Researchers estimate that there are 6.7 million young people nationwide who fit the bill.
“It’s criminal,” the economist Andrew Sum told me recently. “No one in Washington is defending them.” Sum is the director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies and is the nation’s leading expert on youth employment. Lately he’s been particularly interested in unemployment among teens. In the past decade, the percentage of teens working summer jobs has fallen nearly to post–World War II lows. The all-time peak, of 58 percent, was in 1978; that figure experienced only minor fluctuations throughout the Eighties and Nineties, and in 2000 it stood at a healthy 52 percent. It is now down to 30 percent. For young people of color the numbers are worse — about one in five for black teens and one in four for Hispanic teens. The farther down a teen’s parents are on the income ladder, the lower this employment rate.
Sum and I are about the same age, and we reminisced about how determined American policymakers once were to ensure that teens could find summer employment. A lot of this determination had to do with fears of social unrest stirred up by the racial violence of the Sixties and, several decades later, the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. One of the federal government’s responses was to create hundreds of thousands of summer jobs for teenagers at parks, construction sites, and nonprofits. But these programs mostly ended in the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, after a decade of falling crime.
Although it is disheartening in itself that the threat of violence seems to be the sole effective political weapon the youth have, the major concern when they can’t get jobs is not street riots — it’s unproductive lives. Research shows clearly that your odds of staying in school and later getting a good job improve greatly if you have a job as a student. And youth joblessness has repercussions for the broader economy too, with effects rippling through the workforce as teens get older. The employment prospects for those between the ages of twenty and twenty-four have fallen more than for any other age group besides teens. In 2000, 72 percent of those young adults had steady employment; today, only 61 percent do. And when they are able to find work, their jobs don’t pay well: inflation-adjusted wages for men aged sixteen to twenty-four were about 30 percent lower in 2010 than in 1973. Among young women, wages dropped 11 percent in that time.
The economy is simply not producing enough jobs. Between 1992 and 2000, 18 million people joined the workforce. Between 2000 and 2010, only 2.2 million were able to join. With far fewer jobs available, those with more experience get picked first, while those entering the workforce for the first time get picked last. The recession has exacerbated this trend, as older workers delay retirement in hopes of rebuilding the savings lost in the downturn. Those aged fifty-five and older are the only group whose labor-force participation has actually increased in recent decades. They are taking the part-time jobs kids used to get as store clerks and cashiers. They require less training than their younger counterparts. Those who are working to supplement savings or Social Security payments are especially willing to accept low wages. Meanwhile, recent college graduates are left to take the jobs that once went to high school graduates and even dropouts. Two in five say their jobs do not require a degree.
What happens when a nation fails its youth? That question is now being asked around the world. This summer, Pope Francis called youth unemployment one of the two gravest global problems (the other being the loneliness of the elderly). Youth unemployment averages 23 percent throughout Europe, which is currently in the throes of a serious recession.
At least European nations are openly discussing the issue and suggesting ways to address it. The European Union plans to expand its youth-employment initiatives, setting aside roughly $8 billion over the next seven years to finance work programs in regions where youth unemployment is high. Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, the continent’s staunchest champion of fiscal austerity, supports the effort. Under the Youth Guarantee, EU member states have committed to making sure that anyone under twenty-five who leaves school or becomes unemployed will “receive a high-quality offer of a job, an apprenticeship or a traineeship” within four months. No one is putting forward equivalent plans in the United States, where the employment programs that do exist are being cut back.
Since austerity hawks in Washington seem determined to hamper our recovery before it starts to generate real employment gains, we need to find other ways to improve the lot of young workers. A high proportion of these Americans, more than in any other demographic, are not sufficiently prepared to work. After World War II, the United States graduated a higher proportion of teenagers from high school than any other nation in the world. As of 2011, it ranked eighteenth out of twenty-four wealthy nations. More than a million students drop out every year, at a time when educational credentials have become more important than ever in the job market. “Even to work in the fast-food industry, you often need a GED,” Jerome Jupiter of the Youth Empowerment Project told us in New Orleans.
There are now many programs in New Orleans aimed at Opportunity Youth, but the needs of these young people are complex. Local organizers are trying to keep kids in high school while enabling them to work as well. Education matters most, but the school system alone cannot overcome the profound effects of poverty, parental unemployment, drug abuse, and racism. The organizers in New Orleans devote a lot of attention to their kids, which makes these programs extremely labor-intensive.
“The scope and depth of it is paralyzing,” says Cherie LaCour-Duckworth, of the Urban League of New Orleans. “We need to address the root causes as to why youth and young adults are having a difficult time finding employment, not just the sociological results.”
One promising factor is the attitude of these young people. According to a 2011 survey by Civic Enterprises, 85 percent of Opportunity Youth recognize the importance of education and a good job to living the life they want, and more than three quarters say that achieving these goals is their personal responsibility. “What makes me hopeful is the kids themselves; they really want to get an education, get a job, and contribute to society,” says Amy Barad, who directs the Reconnecting Opportunity Youth Initiative at Tulane University. The Civic Enterprises survey finds that most believe they will eventually achieve their goals.
And there are programs across the country that work. Through Project U-Turn, the city of Philadelphia has raised its high school graduation rate from 52 percent in 2006 to 64 percent last year. In Cincinnati, a nonprofit called Strive has obtained striking results in preparing children for kindergarten, improving high school graduation rates, and raising fourth graders’ reading and math scores. Results in Boston and Chicago have been less dramatic but still encouraging.
An expansion of these programs could bring vast improvements. If the employment-to-population ratio were the same today as it was in 2000, there would be nearly 3.6 million more teens with summer jobs and 2.4 million more young adults with full-time work. Yet the federal government has essentially turned its back on the young. In 1993, Bill Clinton signed a bill creating AmeriCorps, a domestic program modeled on the Peace Corps, which enrolls eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in intensive community-service work in exchange for stipends, health-care coverage, and job training. Since 2005, efforts to expand the program have gone nowhere. Another notable federal program, YouthBuild, provides young people jobs constructing affordable housing while they complete a GED or earn a high school diploma, but its $80 million of federal funding is now being cut back under congressional sequestration.
Any wide-ranging solutions will require the broad collaboration of government at all levels with nonprofit organizations, universities, and businesses. The programs that exist require more support. Initiatives like AmeriCorps could be expanded, and perhaps linked to college-debt forgiveness. The best bet for funding in these times of public and private budgetary cutbacks may be tax credits for companies who hire teens and first-year college graduates.
But no one in Washington says a word about the youth-employment crisis, Sum told me. Our failure to address the problem, he explained, will lead to long-term difficulties for the economy. Without good work prospects, young people will pay less in taxes over the years and depend more on Medicaid, food stamps, and other social assistance; the prison population will continue to grow. Academic researchers have put hard numbers on what each Opportunity Youth is costing America. A report published in 2012 put the lifetime figure at more than a million dollars in lost tax revenues and increased social costs. With an estimated 6.7 million Opportunity Youth in America right now, the total lost wealth will be well into the trillions of dollars. And this, of course, does not account for less quantifiable impacts. The disconnection of youth from jobs and school has led to declines in the marriage rate, household formation, and home ownership — to unhappy and unstructured lives. This is an American tragedy, and its dimensions are growing.
By Malcolm Cowley, from a December 20, 1984, letter to Peter Braestrup, editor of Wilson Quarterly. Best known for his literary criticism, Cowley died in 1989. The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987, edited by Hans Bak, will be published next month by Harvard University Press.
Dear Mr. Braestrup:
Five years ago I published a little book, The View from 80, that was widely read by my coevals. Several of them said, “We’re waiting for you to write a sequel, The View from 90.” I can’t do that yet — perhaps I can never do it — but I might offer some observations from the intervening vantage point of eighty-six. How does it feel to enter the second half of one’s ninth decade?
Sometimes it feels terrible. The aged man has to learn new methods of doing everything, as if he were starting over in early childhood. How to get into bed and out again — how to stand — how to walk (yes, even to crawl) — how to sit in what chair — each of these becomes a new problem. Here are some items of advice from my recent experience.
The first item is to have a companion. A wife is best in every way and a daughter comes next, but any woman in the house is better than none, if she can cook and make beds. I am thinking here about the household of an old man. Women seem able to live indefinitely with no companions (except too often the bottle), but men are more fragile. It is a distressing trait of widowers that they die off rapidly, to the immense disappointment of lonely widows in the neighborhood.
A second item of advice is to consult a physical therapist, who will usually be a woman. She won’t make you strong again, but at least she will retard the process of muscular deterioration.
Item three is always to make a mental survey of any strange room you may occupy. Keep a light burning all night in the bathroom. That is the room where most falls occur, and falls are the greatest hazard of the aged. I have noted that shower stalls and bathtubs never have enough handgrips within easy reach, especially if the bather is bending over to wash his feet.
Here are some other items for those willing to become as children and undertake the process of relearning:
—How to get into bed and out of it. If the bed is high, sit on the edge of it and swing both legs under the covers. If it is a low couch, lean on it with both arms and bring one knee forward as far as it will go; then swing the other leg over it. When both legs are parallel, collapse on the pillow. Getting out of bed is psychologically more difficult, since bed is such a comfortable spot, but be sure to place both feet firmly on the floor. Bend forward from the hips and grasp anything — a chair, a doorknob — that will help you to stand erect.
—How to stand. Keep your feet apart to preserve your balance. Lean against something — the wall, the back of a chair — if you feel in danger of losing it.
—How to get dressed. For a man of uncertain balance, pulling on his pants is the greatest problem. That can’t be done in the middle of a room without danger of falling. Stand next to a wall, or better still in the angle formed by a wall and a bureau, so that you can steady yourself with an elbow while standing precariously on one leg. For putting on shoes, a long-handled shoehorn is almost essential.
—How to negotiate stairs. Grasp the railing firmly and take one step at a time. If there is no railing, have your bed moved downstairs.
—How to sit. The problem here is choosing a seat from which it will be easy to rise. Stoutly made hard-bottomed chairs are the safest. Deep, comfortable, overstuffed chairs or sofas may become prison cells for the aged person, but still he can escape from them if they have at least one strong arm. Grasping the arm he inches forward, then pushes himself to his feet, taking a sideward step to keep his balance.
—How to walk. This is the crowning achievement for a person with weak legs, besides being the best form of exercise. Have your feet wide apart, raise each of them in turn to avoid stumbling (don’t shuffle), and move forward in a sort of duck waddle; it isn’t pretty, but it is safer. Avoid sudden steps and be slow in changing direction. Always have a cane in your hand even when you aren’t using it. Pause often. If you are on a traveled road, walk on the extreme left to face approaching traffic. Wear a white scarf and let it hang down in back so that drivers can’t fail to see you.
All these are bothersome instructions and doubtless you will invent still others. There is a reward for following the instructions, which is that you will survive longer as an independent person. Each new day in this endlessly fascinating world will be a miracle granted by grace from above, but also partly achieved by your own efforts.
From 2012 and 2013 blotters of the police department in Unalaska, Alaska, a town of 4,400 in the Aleutian Islands.
Caller requested assistance with a man who was threatening to commit suicide. The man told police that our island is worse than Alcatraz, and is a trap from which nobody ever leaves. He also expressed a great deal of disillusionment with organizational politics at his place of employ.
Man struck by falling case of frozen fish
Woman reported being able to see a man across the channel, beating things in the snow and then throwing them in the water. Officers found a disgruntled man who claimed to have been throwing his hat at a threatening fox.
Injured eagle wandering about a residential area
Seal stuck on a piece of ice
Man wished to report that he had been spanked by the assistant cook of the vessel on which he was employed. The captain, when told, laughed at the man, who returned to work only to be spanked a second time.
Deadliest Catch star urinating in puddle
Inebriated man darted in front of a patrol car while waving and performing a jig, then sprinted away.
Drunken sailor found wandering about on a dock
Small avalanche on Ballyhoo Road
By Jesse Ball, from his novel Silence Once Begun, out next month from Pantheon. Ball is the author of several books of fiction and poetry, including, most recently, The Curfew.
Interviewer’s note: I was woken up by knocking at the door of the house where I was staying. I went downstairs and there she was. She apologized for the sudden visit, but said she felt there was something that must be cleared up.
mrs. oda: I will tell you a story about Jiro. I will explain why he cannot be trusted, not really at all. He used to have a game where he would pretend that he was a lord and he would have his toys come before him and present him with cases to decide. He thought this was a very amusing game. I do not remember him ever playing it with anyone else, just alone. He would do different voices for the different toys. They did not need to be figures in order to bring a petition. His favorite spoon, for instance, often came. First in line, second in line, third in line — they would all argue and jostle, trying to be the first to speak to Jiro, and he would sit on a little stage he had made and argue with them or tell them what was what. Well, it would be like this: Jiro would say, Who is this and what have they to say? And the little wooden box would be there in front of the spoon, which was in front of the cloth bird, and they would all be shouting and saying things and Jiro would hold up his hand for silence. Then there would be some quiet and he would say they would all be taken and killed if they couldn’t speak in turn. Then the box would say — I don’t know what it would say exactly, this was something that went on all the time, hundreds of times. Possibly the box had something it was always asking for and never getting, I don’t know. But it might say, I don’t like the spot where I am put at night. Often other things get placed on my head and it’s uncomfortable, and Jiro would say, Don’t open your mouth again or I will have you killed, and he would send the box away. Then it was the spoon’s turn. He would say that, would say the same thing every time. No matter what was said to him, he would say that, Don’t open your mouth again or I will have you killed. I doubt he even remembers it. This was long ago, even before he went to school.
interviewer: But why do you say that he can’t be trusted? I’m sorry, I don’t see . . .
mrs. oda: That he thinks everyone should receive the same treatment, regardless of what they did or what they say? Or that it doesn’t matter what anyone does — it all ends up the same? Maybe he has changed some things about himself, but a boy is a boy. He is still the same one he was. Don’t tell him I told you this. Or do. I guess I don’t know.
[She rooted around in her bag and brought out an old soupspoon.]
This is it, I thought I would bring it to show you. For some reason, he would always have this spoon go on and on. It was like the spoon was trying the most to persuade him. But it never did. I would be sitting in the next room and listening as he would play this game. I would listen to the whole game. Every time I listened from beginning to end. The things he would have them say, you couldn’t believe. But this spoon was always the one with the most elaborate excuses, the most long-winded speeches. Always it was the same, though. Don’t open your mouth again, or I will have you killed. I really pitied the spoon, so I still have it.
interviewer: It is a keepsake, from Jiro’s childhood. That’s a good thing to have, and a good reason to have it.
mrs. oda: Oh no, I don’t think of it that way. I rescued it from him. I don’t think he cared about the spoon at all.
By Dorthe Nors, from Karate Chop, a short-story collection to be published in February by Graywolf in collaboration with A Public Space. Nors is the author of several works of fiction. Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken.
It’s a year now since Allan moved out, and we had no children, though both of us were able. He once told me I was like the castles he used to build out of straw bales when he was a boy. Inside the castle was a den in which to eat cookies and drink fruit juice while listening to the rumble of the combine in the next field. That’s what being with me was like, Allan said. Another time he said I reminded him of a doghouse his father had. As a boy, he used to sit inside the doghouse with the German wirehaired pointer. It was cozy, and sometimes he would think of what it would be like if a girl suddenly crawled in to be with him. That was me, and he meant it nicely.
Allan worked for Vestas and traveled to wind farms abroad as a consultant and service technician. When he came home he found it hard to explain to me what he had seen and done. He would speak of great landscapes, bigger than anything a person could imagine, and I would nod, which annoyed him. For Christmas one year I bought him a digital camera so he could email me photos when he was traveling. That way we could better share his experiences, I thought. I still have pictures on my computer of Allan in front of various foreign attractions. One of the pictures I don’t know what to do with shows Allan next to a wind turbine that’s still laid out on the ground. Behind him is a vista of pine trees and rocks fading away into what looks like infinity. The picture is from Dolly Sods, West Virginia, and when he got back he was quiet.
I don’t know how long he brooded, but one evening after we had eaten he said it was okay if I kept the house, but he needed to move out. There was nothing wrong with me, he said, he just felt like he was in a vacuum. He took two suitcases and filled them with clothes. He took the dog too, and said he would drive over to his parents’. I realized he didn’t mean for it to be a break but something final, and yet I still went outside with him and waved as he backed out of the driveway. I particularly remember the front door when I turned to go back inside. The light from the lamp shining on the wall cladding and door handle. That sort of thing.
In the days after he moved out I didn’t know what to do with myself. When my mother called, I didn’t mention he was gone and answered her questions about the things we were doing. In order not to go into what had happened, I let her do most of the talking while I looked out the window at the hedge. It won’t grow, and I’ve planted bulbs along its length to make up for it, but there’s no joy from bulbs in November.
I spent time waiting for the reaction, only it didn’t come, and time passed best when I sat at the computer. Finding information about places like Dolly Sods is easy on the Internet, and I could see how vast and beautiful and desolate it was. In Dolly Sods, there are places where no one has even been yet. Distances and depths of that magnitude are amazing, and I imagined how Allan had stood there with his hand on the wind turbine. I didn’t cry. Not even when I finally told my mother and father. I explained to them it was for the best, and I made it sound like I’d been involved in the decision.
My mother was disappointed, though she found it commendable that I’d taken it so well. It was true. My colleagues said so, too, they praised me for dealing with it so well. Allan was also impressed, and we soon found a friendly tone, especially when he phoned. We could even laugh, and I could hear his voice relax at the other end. About three months after he moved out, he called one evening and said he was being sent to Turkey. He was going to install new turbines on a plateau there. How exciting, I said. And he said: Yes, I’m looking forward to it. There was a silence, and then he said he was very happy and grateful to me for taking it all so well.
Afterward, I sat in the kitchen. I looked at the bulletin board and the magnets on the refrigerator. I brewed coffee and watched the water as it ran through. I sat down at the counter again. When I drank the coffee, I felt something go wrong inside me. It was as if it tasted too big, and the same with the soda, the licorice, the maple syrup, and the Greek yogurt I ate later on. I was agitated, restless, and the only thing that helped was to chew on something. But it was never sufficient. Every time I ate something I would have to put something else in my mouth. I couldn’t stop, and the night didn’t help. I walked through the house thinking of grapes, and I’ve never been the kind of person who could eat whatever I wanted. At two in the morning I thought fresh air might do the trick. I stood out back and looked out over the landscape. I could see the stream winding through the meadow. There was frost in the grass, and then I began to cry.
It came from way down, from a place I didn’t think I had, and it hurt, too. To make it keep on hurting, I imagined I ate up all the grass, all the cows, all the birds. I pictured myself stuffing the meadow, the stream, its banks and soil into my mouth. I forced all kinds of things into my stomach: church steeples, castles made of straw bales, silos. The grove on the other side of the stream, and the military training area behind the barracks. Eventually all that was left was me and the tuft of grass on which I balanced. That, and a great NM72C wind turbine I refused to devour. And since you can’t eat yourself, I went home.
The next morning was Sunday and I drove over to my parents’. I had bread rolls and pastries with me, and the carrier bag full of magazines I’d borrowed from my mother. She could tell by looking at me that I hadn’t slept well, but she didn’t delve. We talked about my sister’s husband and their kids instead. We talked about my brother’s wife, because no one gets on with her. And we talked about Allan too, because he wasn’t like that at all. They liked Allan, and it all would have turned out differently if we’d ever had kids. I said he was going to Turkey to work for a while. My mother said she didn’t understand why he always had to be on the move. I nodded, and my father found an ad in the paper he wanted me to see.
When I was sixteen, I told my mother I wasn’t sure I wanted to have children when I was old enough. There were other things in life than kids, I said. My mother ought to know, because my aunt once said Mom cried when she found out she was going to have me. But she has a habit of forgetting things that don’t suit her, and she’d been pleased when I came home and said I’d met Allan.
It’s always been hard to find gifts for my mother, but when someone gives her something she never has the heart to throw it away. The attic is full of old newspapers, worn-out clothes in trash bags, furniture, cheap novels, souvenirs, knitting, and potted plants taken in for the winter. When I was a child, I was certain that if there was ever any danger I would hide in the attic. Nothing could get to me there. I would take the rugs down from the beams to make a den. I would have freezer bags of soft cookies. Fruit juice in water bottles with screw caps that smelled of mold. From below would be the sound of the transistor radio that kept losing its frequency and had to be retuned all the time, and I would see myself running bare-legged through the paddock, not caring about stepping in the cowpats, not caring about touching the wire at the end and getting an electric shock, but running all the way down to the stream and leaping across, and I could feel it still as we sat there and drank our coffee: the feeling of taking flight.
“There are other men,” Mom said all of a sudden, and smiled at me over her pastry.
“I suppose,” I said, and then Dad handed me the coffeepot.
My head was empty as I drove home and I felt like crying again. I tried to set myself off by thinking of various things, but couldn’t. I even thought of Dolly Sods in West Virginia, and the wind turbine that was yet to be erected. It didn’t help, and Dolly Sods simply made me put my foot down even harder on the gas pedal. Dolly Sods is mostly a wilderness from which vast amounts of water run into the Mississippi River, which flows through the middle of the United States and divides it in two. That’s what I thought to myself as I drove through the hills. Dolly Sods is huge, and not many years ago no one lived there at all. The people who lived on its edge were scared. For them, it was an ominous place, full of wild animals and deep abysses. There were stories of hunters venturing too far into Dolly Sods and never being seen again. When I got home I sat in the car. I thought about going away. I could still do what I wanted. I didn’t need to ask permission of anyone. I could go to the United States and rent a car as simple as that. I could drive straight to Dolly Sods and park the car on its perimeter. I could put my camera on the hood and photograph myself there, in walking boots, a white T-shirt, and sunglasses, looking just like other people in photos.
© 2012 Harper’s Magazine.