Personal and Otherwise — March 19, 2013, 1:29 pm

Mr. Shorris Is Dreaming

Earl Shorris and The Art of Freedom

Earl Shorris was always in my classroom. He was there when my freshmen bristled at memorizing lines from The Aeneid. There, too, when a sophomore started crying after I refused to change a C-plus I’d given his essay about The Iliad. He had toiled the whole night on it, and thought his effort should have been better rewarded. Earl and I disagreed with him. Earl also showed up when I was unsure whether Martial’s puerile epigrams — “A bent huge nose, a monstrous cock to match” — ought to replace a day of plodding through the dependent clause. My students loved the dirty little poems, of course, just as Earl said they would.

Earl Shorris in Buenos Aires. Source:

Earl Shorris in Buenos Aires. Source:

I should say that I never met Shorris, a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine who passed away last June. But to endeavor to teach the touchstones of the Western canon, as I did, in a Brooklyn neighborhood we darkly deemed Baghdad, was to carry out the mission of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, his ambitious program of classical instruction for the poor. If you thought Homer belonged in Harlem as much as he did at Harvard, then you were fighting Earl’s war.

The Art of Freedom, Shorris’s final book, is the story of how he came to create the Clemente Course, which since its founding in 1995 has helped college professors instruct the poor in “literature, art history, moral philosophy, and American history.” The course — administered for the past thirteen years by Bard College in New York City — has always paid for students’ child care and transportation. It asks only that they show up and care. Today, those students are caring about Plato in eighteen cities across the United States and a number of locations around the world.

Shorris described how he came to found the course in a 1997 Harper’s article titled “On the Uses of a Liberal Education.” He had been visiting the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for women in upstate New York, when he met a particularly reflective inmate named Viniece Walker. Shorris asked Walker how she thought someone could avoid poverty — and, implicitly, sad fates like her own. She answered with a plainspoken certainty that only her own private depredations could have instilled: “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.” For the most consequential act of his life, Shorris would do exactly that.

The common archetype is of a reformer full in his youth of resplendent visions that lose luster with time, so that in his senescence he grows bitter, convinced that progress is an illusion. Shorris was a rejoinder to that trope. Born in Chicago and raised in New Mexico, he enrolled at the age of thirteen in the University of Chicago, where college president Robert Maynard Hutchins, in love with the Great Books, was preaching that “the best education for the best is the best education for us all.” From there, Shorris headed to Mexico, where he became (among other ventures) a bullfighter. Later yet, he went to work in advertising, climbing the ranks at N. W. Ayer & Sons. The image of the stocky Shorris mingling with the Don Drapers of the day seems to me incongruous, as it may have to him. Indeed, books like The Oppressed Middle: Politics of Middle Management (1981) and A Nation of Salesmen: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture (1994) show an exasperation with the late-stage capitalism whose servant Shorris had somehow become.

Viniece Walker changed all that, turning Shorris from a critic of American culture to a champion of those whom that culture had largely discarded. If that seems a little grandiose, that is nevertheless how Shorris saw his mission — to spread dignity “outward from the classroom.” The course he designed was for the most part traditional, starting with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and covering, among others, Aristotle, Dante and Kant in a total of 110 hours of instruction, conducted for two hours twice weekly across 10 months. Much of the instruction was to be carried out using the Socratic method, meaning that students would be questioned intensely on their assumptions — not only about what they read, but how they lived. Such questioning was intended to allow students a reflective refuge from what Shorris called “the surround of force,” which “bound [the poor] to a busy and fruitless life of reaction.”

“The Art of Freedom” traces how this fledgling experiment, funded by the Roberto Clemente Foundation (which is how it got its name), became an international program of rigorous acculturation, one that earned Shorris the National Humanities Medal in 2000.  The book shows Shorris proselytizing endlessly for the values of the humanities, traversing the globe like the apostle Paul, as eager to spread his message in Darfur as in Utah. He saw himself as doing not God’s work, but that of Petrarch, the fourteenth-century scholar who studied the ancients in order “to learn what kind of soul, what strength of character, [one] might attain for himself.”

I think it is fair to say that you read Shorris — well, I read Shorris — not for the depth of his thought, but the intensity of his convictions. Never in The Art of Freedom does he deviate from his belief in what the humanities can and must do for the nation’s poor. As he plans a course for the refugees of Darfur, one of his fellow organizers muses, “Mr. Shorris is dreaming . . . he is not serious.” Not so, it turns out. Though Shorris himself never travelled to the Sudanese refugee camps, he closely monitored the progress of those students, heartened by the prospect of “faculty [who] were willing to risk teaching J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ in a country run by a dictator who would soon be indicted by the International Criminal Court.”

Shorris wasn’t blind to what it meant for an urbane American to travel the world, telling people about the supremacy of Western civilization. Certainly, he was more attuned to cultural difference than another product of Chicago, Saul Bellow, who wondered with unseemly condescension at the end of his career, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” When Shorris asked such questions, he actually sought the answer, aware as he was that “beauty answered to many names.” Struggling with how to bridge the divide between Western culture and the aboriginal traditions of the Arctic, for example, he concludes that the Yupiit concept of yua is “a version of [Kant’s] categorical imperative.” 

Lately, education reform has become an especially gruesome business, with stakeholders — to borrow a dreary term from the world of policy — waging pitched battles over teacher evaluations, standardized tests, how much salt our kids should have in their lunches, whether they should learn Spanish or Mandarin. The advocates of charter schools have their own slick documentaries, as do, inevitably, the teachers’ unions. Shorris had no interest in this autocratic morass. In his book, he calls the crusading duo of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and his longtime schools chancellor, Joel Klein, “a catastrophe,” while more broadly blasting the “hustlers and helpers” who have ruined public education by trying so earnestly to fix it.

The Art of Freedom ends on an inspiring note, with Shorris, in the last stages of his fight with lymphoma, starting his first Clemente Course for a high school, in a Chicago neighborhood sapped by the social cancers Shorris had dedicated his life to combating. There were signs at once disheartening and inspiring. But inspiration rarely comes as easily as Hollywood might want us to believe. Shorris’s work was the work of generations upon generations. Buffeted by waves of cynicism, we must, as Whitman once said, “keep encouraged.” Earl would have wanted it that way.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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