During a recent tranquil vacation in France, well beyond the reach of digital tyranny, I was disturbed by some articles in the national press concerning a proposed law intended to subject Internet communication to de-facto censorship by the state. A lifelong defender of civil liberties, I’m not alone in feeling dismay at the prospect of official regulation of the “hatred” expressed on social networks, and I hope that in France the Senate will curb the recklessness of the National Assembly, an overwhelming majority of whose members voted in favor of the proposition.
To begin with, the censoring of disagreeable or even repellent opinions is not consistent with the purported values of the land of Voltaire or with France’s cherished principle of freedom of expression. Moreover, the idea that a government bureaucrat could or should decide the legitimacy of this or that insult hurled by some lunatic from a virtual platform seems to me to be both dangerous for democracy and unquestionably impractical. The World Wide Web we know today is comparable to yesterday’s public square—people “talk” to one another online as if to a neighbor who lives across the street. No one but hard-core Stalinists would want the police to be listening in on every random conversation, constantly on the lookout for some nasty remark or falsehood that could provoke—according to Laetitia Avia, a member of the National Assembly—violence against innocent people.
Furthermore, France runs the risk of putting itself in a totally hypocritical position after the murder of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. How can you excoriate online “hate” and at the same time unreservedly defend the “right” to mock the prophet Muhammad in print? Obviously, for some devout Muslims, a caricature of the prophet is an expression of hatred, or worse. Laetitia Avia and her allies, however, see no contradiction in prosecuting “websites dedicated to the propagation of a hateful ideology, whether it be racist, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, homophobic, or sexist.”
“Hate is a feeling, not a legal concept,” an editorial in Le Figaro declared. Exactly. And the best way to combat poisonous and malevolent feelings is to espouse contrary feelings, based on both reason and tolerance. Nor would I leave to Emmanuel Macron and Mark Zuckerberg, both of them politicians first and foremost, the job of regulating anything that has to do with words or language. The thought of such a “collaboration” between government and financial power—announced after their May 10 meeting in the Élysée Palace—sends a genuine shiver down the spine.
Then again, I’m sensitive to the necessity of sheltering real innocents from the threats posed by a world increasingly hostile to innocence. Far from Paris and the great political debates, I came across an article in the regional French newspaper Var-Matin that reported the protest of five teenage girls against a group of “lovers of naturism.” Made uncomfortable in their favorite refuge—the Jean Blanc beach at Le Lavandou—by the sudden arrival of some twenty nudists, the girls, all of them Parisiennes, drew up and displayed cardboard signs demanding the withdrawal of the invaders: “Put those butts away!” “Think of the children!” “Go back for swimsuits!” One of the protesters, Louise, put her finger on the central issue regarding appropriate censorship: “I don’t have anything against naturism itself, it’s a choice I respect, but it’s a choice! And a choice that must not be imposed on others.”
It’s easy to make fun of the prudishness exhibited by Louise and her friends, as a “medical psychotherapist” quoted in the Var-Matin article did: “We have to take their gesture humorously, like a wink.” Except that the avalanche of violent and pornographic images in public spaces is no joke, and the conflict identified by Louise remains pertinent. Do minors really have “the choice” of avoiding the provocative and offensive images that inundate culture daily—on the Web, on television, on billboards? Don’t we have an obligation to protect the young and innocent from the psychologically harmful images that assault them incessantly? Is an image equivalent to a word or an idea—and does it deserve the same privileged status? On the one hand, I think it’s parents who, in the end, must assume the responsibility of protecting their children. I recall how fast I would turn off the practically pornographic Guess commercials that ran on Taxi TV in New York when they appeared before the eyes of my little daughters (sometimes I literally had to punch the screen). On the other hand, you can’t be everywhere; when my girls got older, I knew I wasn’t capable of covering up the hypersexualized images they were bound to encounter at bus stops as well as in the windows of Victoria’s Secret.
Of course, I’m not advocating the institution of censorship for works of public art that represent sexuality or violence, such as the foolish decision of the San Francisco school board to destroy a mural in a public high school because its depiction of a dead Native American and some slaves might shock students. Nevertheless, this fraught subject deserves the attention of French elected officials, among others, who would do better to concern themselves with protecting vulnerable children than with protecting idiotic adults who have nothing else to do but spend their time reading the dunderheaded asseverations of other idiots in the great digital void.
A physicist determined that some black holes can free an observer from strong cosmic censorship by erasing her past, thereby allowing her an infinitude of possible futures.
Chance that a citizen of Pakistan believes that Internet access free of government censorship is important
In the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine, now with subscribers and on newsstands, we published photographs, shot inside the Republic of Iran, under the byline Anonymous. Included were two pictures showing censored images from foreign magazines. Below are nineteen photos of images that were altered in different publications, whether by Iranian authorities or by magazine sellers hoping to stay out of trouble with the authorities. All photographs © the artist.
Percentage of these Americans who thought such [Censorship|censorship] was “a good idea”: 80
As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Americans will be taking measure of our government’s response to those events. To be sure, the American reaction included selflessness, dedication, and bravery, but it also included some harebrained and counterproductive steps. As John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot teach us, one of the strengths of a democracy is its ability to engage in candid self-assessment — “government by discussion” — in order to ascertain where those in power have made mistakes, and to correct their errors.
Mistakes are inevitable in government. What is essential is that they be identified, and that steps be taken to avoid their institutionalization or repetition. This process is impeded by the natural tendency of the powerful to try to limit critical discussion so that they may avoid embarrassment and the political costs that democracy exacts from leaders who have erred. But one of the fundamental distinctions between an authoritarian society and a genuine democracy is precisely that a democracy forces truth to the surface and weighs it as essential to the nation’s political dialogue.
The heavy hand of censorship has never been wielded more clumsily by the nation’s intelligence community than it is being wielded right now. Scott Shane of the New York Times brought a striking example to light on Friday, in a report on the CIA’s efforts to suppress a forthcoming book by former FBI agent Ali Soufan:
In what amounts to a fight over who gets to write the history of the Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath, the Central Intelligence Agency is demanding extensive cuts from the memoir of a former F.B.I. agent who spent years near the center of the battle against Al Qaeda.
The agent, Ali H. Soufan, argues in the book that the C.I.A. missed a chance to derail the 2001 plot by withholding from the F.B.I. information about two future 9/11 hijackers living in San Diego, according to several people who have read the manuscript. And he gives a detailed, firsthand account of the C.I.A.’s move toward brutal treatment in its interrogations, saying the harsh methods used on the agency’s first important captive, Abu Zubaydah, were unnecessary and counterproductive.
Nothing in Soufan’s argument is really new. The accusations concerning the two al Qaeda operatives in Southern California, for example, figure heavily in a documentary for which former Bush Administration counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke was interviewed. In an excerpt recently aired on a PBS affiliate in Colorado, Clarke reveals his suspicion that the CIA was attempting to recruit and turn the two operatives, and that the Agency suppressed information about its egregious error afterward. As Clarke notes, the affair escaped detection in the various probes undertaken after 9/11, including the 9/11 Commission report (.pdf). His comments track Lawrence Wright’s analysis in the award-winning book The Looming Tower. These potentially explosive revelations have so far drawn very little attention from major American broadcast and print media, but the publication of Soufan’s book could well inspire a second look. The CIA is attempting to avoid such embarrassment by expunging statements Soufan made in a Congressional hearing, and to obviate his acknowledgement — which appears many times in the public record — that he was involved in the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah.
The Agency’s efforts are part of a significantly larger campaign. Just weeks ago, former senior CIA operative Glenn Carle published an account of his time as the case officer for Haji Pacha Wazir, who had been accused of being “bin Laden’s banker.” Carle and his colleagues soon established that these accusations were baseless, but their recommendation that he be released went unheeded, and Pacha Wazir was subjected to abuse for seven years in the apparent interest of covering up a CIA mistake. Forty percent of Carle’s book was blacked out by CIA censors, including most of the information that would have identified his prisoner as Pacha Wazir.
Other accounts were similarly butchered, and some were suppressed entirely, including a devastating account of Operation Evil Airlift, the Cheney-approved Pakistani airlift from Kunduz in November 2001 that included hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
From the perspective of democratic dialogue, it’s essential that the United States investigate and understand what went wrong in such operations, especially if they may have undermined national security. But the increasingly thin pretexts for CIA censorship of agents’ books demonstrate that the Agency’s guiding concerns are protecting itself, playing interagency politics, and justifying its stratospheric budget.
The overreach implicit in its swipe at Ali Soufan points to the need for intervention from a higher level. In an executive order issued shortly after he became president, Barack Obama directed that national security classifications not be invoked to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency or administrative error,” nor to “prevent embarrassment.” But the CIA’s censorship rampage suggests that that is precisely what is taking place. The time has come for Obama to enforce his order, showing bureaucrats that there are negative consequences for censorship, and demonstrating that overclassification is an assault on the democratic underpinnings of our society.
The Gates Pentagon has decided to ban four journalists from covering the Guantánamo proceedings. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reports:
The Pentagon said they were expelling the reporters because they had revealed the name of a former U.S. interrogator whose name is under protective order — but is widely known. The four are Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald and three Canadian reporters, Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star, Paul Koring of the Globe & Mail, and Steven Edwards of Canwest. The papers can send other reporters to cover the prosecution of Omar Khadr, a Canadian picked [up] by American forces in Afghanistan when he was 15, the Pentagon said. He is now 23.
The U.S. interrogator at the center of the ban controversy was all but identified during a pre-trial hearing earlier in the week, when Khadr’s defense attorney asked a question about a detainee made to kiss the American’s boots. One of the banned reporters, the Toronto Star’s Shephard, has written a book on the Khadr case, “Guatanamo’s Child.” Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, director of Defense Press Operations, told the newspapers that their reporters had “violated established and agreed-upon ground rules governing reporting on Military Commissions proceedings at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.” “Specifically, your reporters published the name of a witness whose identity was protected in court,” Lapan said.
There is more to this than meets the eye, because the identity of the interrogator is already a matter of public knowledge, and more than these four publications have already disclosed the name. The interrogator gave an on-the-record interview to the Tortonto Star in 2008 and was court-martialed in September 2005, with press accounts giving his name and a specification of the charges against him. He appeared on camera in an Oscar-winning documentary in which he discussed the process of detainee abuse as it was practiced at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan. The notion that his name is a secret is therefore absurd. The order seems to be a pretext for blocking coverage of Guantánamo by critical media. The reporters banned by this order are those who have done the most in-depth coverage of the case of Omar Khadr, who was seized as a child by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and harshly abused—in the view of one of his own interrogators, tortured—during his custody.
Rosenberg is the single most diligent, consistent and experienced Guantanamo Bay reporter in the world, having carved out the Guantanamo beat steadily almost since the detention facility here opened in 2002 and traveled here more frequently than any other journalist. (I personally heard complaints about her from public affairs officers here five years ago — and those complaints amounted to whining about how dogged an investigator she was.) Koring and Edwards have also been invaluable resources about Khadr and Guantanamo to their colleagues these past two weeks.
The Pentagon public-affairs officers would prefer a different sort of reporting–one that regurgitates their own news feed, perhaps with a slight admixture of comments from defense counsel who are themselves subject to tight restrictions about what they can say to the media. Unfortunately, that is exactly what the bulk of major media covering the proceedings at Guantánamo produce.
Things are going very poorly for the Defense Department at Guantánamo. When the proceedings convened, it was learned that the Defense Department had prepared a new set of procedural rules, written entirely in secret without following standard procedures that envisage consultation with the bar. The initial hearings then had to be adjourned so that the prosecutors, defense counsel, and judge could read the new rules. Under international law standards that the Supreme Court ruled binding on the United States in Hamdan, the military commissions are only valid if they are a “regularly constituted court.” There is little doubt that proceedings in the American military-justice tradition, applying the rules normally used in courts martial, would have met this test. But the Guantánamo commissions have departed from those traditions at every turn, making clear that they are “irregular.” The embarrassing secret dealings surrounding the rules coupled with blatant retaliation against critical media serve to highlight their illegitimacy before the actual transactions of the court are even examined.
At this point the only way out for the Obama Administration is to arrange a plea bargain for Khadr. The case is now so thoroughly compromised that any other outcome will only be a further embarrassment.
Last summer, Philadelphia proclaimed July 15 a day in honor of Moroccan Americans. The mayor’s office held a flag-raising ceremony at city hall, where a municipal official, flanked by men in red fezzes, praised the contributions of immigrants to civic life. “We are the Moors!” chanted the small crowd, which, according to Morocco World News, did not include a single Moroccan. Rather, the honorees belonged to the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA), a religious movement established by the Jazz Age street-corner preacher Noble Drew Ali. Although they could be described as African-American Muslims, Moors self-identify as “Asiatic,” claiming that George Washington destroyed evidence of their Moroccan nationality. Their scripture, the Circle Seven Koran, does not include a single saying of the Prophet Mohammed. Yet, without Moorish Science, there might never have been a Muhammad Ali or Malcolm X.
In The Princess and the Prophet (Beacon Press, $29.95), Jacob S. Dorman explains how Moorish Science became the first Islamic mass movement in the United States. The story is, to put it lightly, a trip. Noble Drew Ali first won converts in mid-1920s Chicago, where he performed escape magic, wholesaled root powders, and cobbled together a holy book, mostly by plagiarizing Christian esoterica. Preaching an Orientalized gospel of racial uplift, he appealed to black Chicagoans tired of discrimination and anxious to distance themselves from the stereotyped masses of moonshine-swilling, pig’s-feet-eating Southerners of the Great Migration. The new religion’s trappings were exotic, but its doctrine was downright respectable: patriotism, sobriety, economic advancement, and the cardinal virtues of “love, truth, peace, freedom, and justice.”
Drew Ali’s success was deeply entwined with Prohibition-era Chicago’s fantastically corrupt Republican machine. Bankrolled by Samuel “Emperor” Insull, an electricity baron and Thomas Edison protégé who once considered hiring Al Capone for corporate security, the Republican network reached the Moors through Oscar Stanton DePriest, an alderman who later became the first black congressman from a Northern state. DePriest’s election-buying racket shared space with the Moorish Science Temple, whose members delivered votes for machine candidates. Drew Ali emerged as a power broker, and the MSTA prospered, attracting members from New Jersey to Arkansas and praise from Marcus Garvey—until Drew Ali ordered the murder of an ambitious temple rival in 1929. Shortly after a miraculous acquittal, he died at home of an unconfirmed illness. Moorish Science dwindled, though two former members, W. D. Fard and Elijah Muhammad, would later refashion its doctrines for the more militant Nation of Islam.
Dorman’s contribution to this story is the revelation of Drew Ali’s pre-Moorish identity. By means no less forensic than spotting a birthmark in an archival photo, he identifies Drew Ali as Walter Brister, a former cornetist and child star in a “pickaninny” band called the Woodland Wangdoodles. As a young adult, Brister toured as a “Hindoo” magician with Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show. He married a fellow troupe member, Eva Alexander, who rose to stardom as the country’s first black woman lion tamer under the alias Princess Sotanki. Their knowledge of Islam seems to have derived entirely from show business, and it may have been the tent-show circuit’s decline that inspired Brister to fake his own death in 1914. Alexander, who likely masterminded the stunt, would follow him into the MSTA. Prophethood was their second act.
Dorman, a sometimes digressive storyteller with a redeeming knack for keeping one amused and amazed, is a historian at the University of Nevada, Reno. His intent is not to discredit Moorish Science but to demonstrate the cultural ingenuity of early African-American Muslims, who wove such thin threads of “Mohammedan” fantasy into a source of spiritual sustenance and racial solidarity. The story of Drew Ali’s apotheosis may be vaudevillian, but his influence endures. Whether they know it or not, millions of African-American Muslims owe their faith, at least in part, to him.
Noble Drew Ali would have smiled to see Ornette Coleman, another shape-shifting maestro who traveled light-years from his Southern roots, share a stage with Morocco’s Master Musicians of Joujouka in 1973. Performing near a Sufi shrine in the Rif Mountains, the legendary free-jazz pioneer found Berber music to be a confirmation of the principle he would later call “harmolodics.” Rejecting the bebop elevation of chord progression, harmolodics made harmony, melody, and rhythm equal bases of improvisation, and demanded of practitioners unwavering collaborative “attunement.” In Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure (Reaktion Books, $22.50), Maria Golia offers a wide-ranging biography of the great saxophonist, writing less about the man himself than about the people, places, and musical tendencies that converged to make him the “patron saint of all things dissonant and defiant.”
The approach suits Coleman, who was soft-spoken despite his stubborn nonconformity, and unaffected by the larger-than-life egotism of contemporaries such as Charles Mingus or Miles Davis. We meet him as a vegetarian teenager growing up in Fort Worth, the foremost cow town of 1940s Texas, playing high school dances before moving on to rowdy R and B nightclub gigs that made him yearn for the intellectualism of bebop. In Los Angeles, he married the outspoken Black Arts Movement poet Jayne Cortez. Fellow musicians mocked his beard, experimentalism, and “hokey” white plastic saxophone. (They called him “Nature Boy.”) Contempt turned to jealousy with his move to New York and legendary November 1959 performance with Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and Don Cherry at the Five Spot, where the quartet earned “messianic praise,” Golia writes, for springing jazz from its “harmonic trap,” and demonstrating a level of coordination that verged on “witchery.” John Coltrane, four years Coleman’s senior, responded to the performance with the words, “Well, that must be the answer.”
Ultimately, Coleman would concern himself with much more than the shape of jazz to come. Noting his relatively few real disciples among saxophonists—Coltrane, by contrast, inspired legions of copycats—Golia focuses on Coleman’s ceaseless drive to transcend the disciplinary borders laid down by the jazz modernists. He seemed ready to play anything, anywhere, with anyone: Yoko Ono; street musicians in Ibadan, Nigeria; Lou Reed on his 2003 musical tribute to Edgar Allan Poe. In 1965, visiting London and banned from performing because of a union quota on foreign jazz musicians, he gamely switched genres, writing and performing a ten-part classical composition that “one-upped” John Cage, Golia writes, by incorporating improvised silence. Seven years later, he debuted his opus Skies of America, a stormy symphony for orchestra and quartet that fused free jazz with the “aural Americana” of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.
In the 1970s, Coleman’s New York apartment, known as Artists House, was central to the SoHo loft scene, functioning as a makeshift gallery, concert venue, arts residency, and impromptu schoolroom. Always generous with his time, Coleman offered music lessons to strangers, even once teaching a waitress after she served him lunch. Down in Fort Worth, Coleman was the inaugural performer at another avant-garde crucible: the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center, a monumental nightclub and “jazz-fueled Gesamtkunstwerk” constructed in 1983 by the black sheep of a prominent oil family. The oddball management of Buckminster Fuller–inspired “synergists” (Golia, who briefly met Coleman in the 1980s, was one of them) shared Coleman’s willingness to court ridicule in bridging creative realms. “His sentences are free form, his grammar sometimes country,” wrote one critic on the subject of Coleman’s musical theories. “But underneath there’s an amazingly unified vision of the world.”
Another country artist who forever changed his field was Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose cosmically expansive eye brought a newfound prestige to the depiction of rural tableaux. In his memoir Short Life in a Strange World (Harper, $32.50), the British writer Toby Ferris sets out to see all forty-two extant paintings by the Netherlandish master. Driven by the desire for self-knowledge, Ferris claims to have “very little interest” in biography: “It is not Bruegel’s completeness that I am interested in but my own.” The great Dutch artist of human plenitude and crowded villages—dozing farmworkers and ice-skating tykes; beggars, fools, fishmongers, and clandestinely shitting clodhoppers (see The Magpie on the Gallows)—finds a wry fellow traveler in Ferris, who elegantly sketches his own life into the corners of Bruegel’s landscapes.
“I suddenly saw that there was a great Bruegel Object out there, dismembered like the body of Osiris,” Ferris writes. “I set myself to reconstitute it.” He begins in 2012, a slow work year, as his employers at a video-game company prepare to abandon their impossibly realistic simulation of World War II. His father, a frustrated electrical engineer, has recently died, leaving behind an enormous diary containing only a single written line. His absence is the hub around which Ferris’s reflections turn. Browsing Bruegels at museums worldwide offers an escape from this midlife crisis, but also a synecdoche for it, as Ferris confronts human finitude in the wise company of Antwerp’s “painter of works and hours.”
Armed with a spreadsheet—which he uses to calculate the “total Bruegel” surface area in each collection—Ferris travels from San Diego to Budapest in search of something he’s too clever to explicitly define. He opens with Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a pastoral scene that relegates its classical namesake to a tiny splash in the background. Smudging the line between interpretation and introspection, Ferris uses Icarus to frame the story of a hang-gliding enthusiast he once watched plummet to earth, which leads, in turn, to his own uneasy flight through adulthood. This is applied art criticism; the point is to fall, personal baggage and all, straight into the pigment.
Ferris is a beautiful reader of Bruegel, and his book is more, not less, vivid for its idiosyncrasy. Chapters are organized chronologically, but also by loosely elaborated theme (“Fire,” “Crowd,” “Gallows”), each a Montaigne-style essay that tacks between travelogue, trivia, personal reflection, and evocative visual analysis. Contrasting Bruegel with the more anatomically minded Italians, Ferris praises the artist for understanding “the stumpy, ungracious human form immediately, at a single gulp of the eye”; elsewhere, he describes Bruegel’s thinly layered application of paint as “transcendental speculation leaved over filigree idea.” Contemplating Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs, a carnivalesque scene of illustrated maxims—an impatient soldier sits on coals; a reckless knight ties a bell to a cat—Ferris criticizes the modern taste for individualism, chiding that “we like to think we have left proverbs behind.” There’s a risk of high-minded solipsism in the genre of art-appreciation memoir, but Ferris is as down-to-earth as his subject. He even wonders if the book, in its aesthetic self-indulgence, exemplifies a proverb the Dutchman once painted. They who waste time in idle dreams are “pissing at the moon.”
Before he was a painter, Bruegel worked as a draftsman for the Antwerp printer Hieronymus Cock, one of those worldly publishers with a knack for dispatching young artists on meteoric careers. A similarly gifted figure was Edmond Charlot, the French-Algerian man of letters who shaped twentieth-century Mediterranean literature from his tiny bookshop in Algiers, Les Vraies Richesses. Charlot published Albert Camus, André Gide, Gertrude Stein, Jean Amrouche, Jules Roy, and Emmanuel Roblès; and throughout the Vichy regime he was the so-called Editor of Free France, offering fascism’s literary exiles a refuge in North Africa.
In the novel Our Riches (New Directions, $15.95), translated from the French by Chris Andrews, the Algerian writer Kaouther Adimi sketches a tender portrait of Charlot and his store. In the first chapter, set in 2017, Les Vraies Richesses, already in a much diminished state, closes for good. A hack journalist dashes off an elegy; the new landlord blithely announces plans for a beignet shop. Neither much notices Abdallah, the elderly live-in manager, who haunts his shuttered former workplace like a remaindered King Lear. He finds his fool in Ryad, the bibliophobic student hired to gut the store’s interior. “I empty the place, I repaint it, and I’m gone. No thinking required,” Ryad says. “You’ve come to a bookstore so you won’t have to think?” Abdallah replies.
Drawing on interviews and archival correspondence, Adimi interleaves the account of the store’s dismantling with imagined entries from Charlot’s diary. These begin at the time of his establishment of Les Vraies Richesses in 1935 and end with his departure for France in 1961, detailing his struggle to keep the store afloat amid poverty, censorship, civil unrest, and world war. (A chorus-like Algerian “we” narrates interstitial vignettes, detailing scenes such as the deaths of Algerian soldiers on Europe’s front lines and the outbreak of the revolution in 1954.) Events of the greatest historical significance register as tremors in a publisher’s precarious enterprise. World War II means printing on butcher paper and brewing foul-smelling ink from grape-seed oil and chimney soot. Liberation brings literary prizes and the expansion of Éditions Charlot to Paris, but also ruthless poaching from established presses, who conspire to choke off the pied-noir “hick” ’s supply of paper.
Among the books that get away—in the novel as in life—is Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. In 1937, Charlot had been the first to publish his fellow French Algerian, then a twenty-three-year-old playwright with the Workers’ Theater of Algiers. But in the midst of World War II, Charlot was so short on money and paper that he couldn’t accept the manuscript, which he encouraged the future Nobel laureate to sell to metropolitan rival Gaston Gallimard. It’s all too apt an emblem of the visionary publisher’s real fate: in later years, his press went bankrupt, he lost his eyesight, and far-right French-Algerian terrorists bombed his second bookstore, destroying his archives and leaving him penniless. Adimi includes this sad denouement, but refuses to make Charlot’s life a tragedy. Instead, she’s told a moving story of his efforts to push so many worthy writers toward posterity’s heights. Publishing can be a Sisyphean business. One must imagine the bookseller happy.
While in London before Christmas to promote my new book, I was invited to a secret screening of a sort of neo-samizdat: An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse in French), Roman Polanski’s new film, whose subject is the Dreyfus Affair. Although I may be making an exaggerated comparison to the literature published clandestinely in the Communist Bloc during the 1970s and ’80s, I’m doing so for genuine emotional reasons that aren’t exaggerated at all. In 1983, I traveled to Prague to meet some dissident writers who had been subjected to incarceration and political intimidation. For three days, I was followed in the streets and eavesdropped on more or less everywhere by the police. Right up to the moment when I boarded a plane for Zurich, I was afraid of being arrested, especially because my traveling companion and future wife was carrying, under her sweater, some carbon copies of writings forbidden by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
How was it possible that I could experience a similar fright in 2019, in the free West? Why am I obliged to conceal the identities of my British hosts and the location of the screening room, somewhere in England, where I tasted the forbidden fruit? Well, An Officer and a Spy is presently untouchable in the English-speaking world. Having confessed to the 1977 rape of a thirteen-year-old American girl—and, more recently, having denied the claims of a French photographer who has accused him of raping her in 1975—Polanski, a dual Polish-French citizen of Jewish descent, has been “canceled,” as the word is used in the vocabulary of Twitter and #MeToo. In spite of the film’s commercial and critical success in France (twelve César nominations, the French equivalent of our Academy Awards nominations), no distributor in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada dares to encourage its release, which would provoke demonstrations, a Twitter storm, or worse. As far as I know, no movie-theater owner or head of a non-profit film institute would want to risk his or her reputation or money by circumventing the established networks and showing the movie to the public.
As I watched An Officer and a Spy in my English hideout, I was immediately struck by the fundamental difference between the “seventh art” and literature. I know the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s long ordeal well, thanks in part to Robert Harris’s terrific novel of the same name on which the film is based. Beginning with its extraordinary opening scene—in full view of a contemptuous crowd, Dreyfus, in the courtyard of the École Militaire, is stripped of his epaulets and his rank, his gold braid and his buttons, and his sword is broken in two—the viewer understands that a talented director like Polanski, aided by his camera and his actors, is able to far outstrip what we scribblers have at our command.
Dreyfus’s fraudulent conviction for espionage, the pernicious anti-Semitism of the French government and its military leaders, who made a martyr of him, the courageous defense of Dreyfus by Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau—all that is vividly presented. Nevertheless, the film’s force lies in the investigation carried out by Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Picquart (Jean Dujardin gives a brilliant performance), who, despite his own anti-Semitism, risks his career and freedom in order to clear Dreyfus and uncover the identity of the real spy. This is a serious work, not a simplistic Hollywood movie with a happy ending; no one who sees it will leave the theater with a feeling of redemption. But as I watched the film, the irony of the current political situation in the English-Speaking world suddenly became apparent to me.
The historical Dreyfus, the Jewish scapegoat, was effectively erased, sent to Devil’s Island not only to be tortured but also to be deleted from the French national consciousness. Far from his family and his lawyer, Dreyfus moreover served as a distraction from the corruption at the heart of the French army’s general staff. Today we see the cinematic version of the Dreyfus Affair being “erased” in countries that have a great need to reacquaint themselves with the dire consequences of religious bigotry, groupthink, and censorship. We see, once again, a diversion from an essential debate that should be taking place, its subject the intellectual corruption and suffocating consequences of political correctness. The de facto interdiction—what other words could one use?—of An Officer and a Spy in Canada, still under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth II, the British sovereign, makes that supposedly tolerant and liberal country complicit with the cowardly heads of the Anglo-American film industry
I can imagine what the supporters of the #MeToo movement will say: “What we’re calling for is the punishment of the criminal Polanski, which has nothing to do with Dreyfus; we’re speaking in the name of millions of female victims who have never had a Zola to defend them; when a revolution’s going on, the guillotine can’t always distinguish between very guilty and not very innocent.” Of course, I condemn Polanski for what he did, and for having pusillanimously fled American justice. But what’s the statute of limitations? Why not boycott the plays and other writings of Oscar Wilde, who sexually abused underage boys? Harper’s Magazine published two essays written by a murderer, one while he was serving time in prison and the other afterward; nobody said a word about the author’s crime. Is it now the mob that decides what we’re going to read and see?
My dear Québecois readers, you who consider yourselves citizens of a nation reluctant to accept the diktats and received ideas of Anglo-Saxon culture, it’s beneath you to allow such a closing of the mind, such a blockade against words and images produced by someone whom “decent people” frown upon. Isn’t there a single filmmaker among you who will step up to defend the freedom of art and the right to watch a movie?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he would seek approval from Turkey’s parliament to send fighters to aid Libya’s Government of National Accord, which was established by the United Nations, in its fight against forces led by Khalifa Hifter, a warlord and former resident of Langley, Virginia.1 2 Turkey, which has outstanding contracts in Libya worth almost $18 billion, has already sent weapons and, reportedly, 300 Syrian soldiers to support the anti-Hifter forces, which include Islamist militias and Russian mercenaries.3 4 5 In Istanbul, hundreds demonstrated outside of the Russian consulate in protest of intensified attacks by Syrian and Russian forces, which have forced tens of thousands of civilians out of Idlib, caused traffic jams on the road to Turkey, and overwhelmed aid workers, and a Liberian cargo ship ran aground near an Ottoman fortress, closing the Bosporus Strait; no one was hurt.6 7 8 President Erdogan, who had unveiled prototypes of a line of domestically produced electric automobiles in Gebze, repeated that his plan for a $12.6 billion, 28-mile wide canal project which, among other environmental repercussions, would destroy a third of the city’s freshwater supply, would avoid future shipping accidents.9 10 A police officer in Herington, Kansas, resigned after it was revealed that he was the one who wrote “fucking pig” on a coffee he had purchased from McDonald’s.11
Police in Nagina, a city in western Uttar Pradesh, have been accused of torturing children as part of a larger clampdown on protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which actively discriminates against Muslims.12 13 “They coerced us to drink water and urinate—during which they’d thrash us,” said one 17-year-old who was detained for three days. Public gatherings across the state were banned by law enforcement following the interfaith demonstrations, and its government issued at least 230 notices for repayment of damages during the protests under threat of repossession of property, primarily to Muslim residents.14 15 At least 19 people have been killed in Uttar Pradesh, including an eight-year-old boy and a Muslim man who was smoking outside of his house, since the protests began.16 17 Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who has at least 140 nuclear warheads at his disposal, has condemned the destruction of property and other political parties for “telling lies and spreading misinformation.”18 19 Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who green-lit the development of one nuclear-powered submarine at the start of his term, removed disciplinary detention for military police and firefighters.20 21 Joe Biden, formerly the vice president of a country with at least 6,185 nuclear warheads, reasserted that he would not testify in the Senate impeachment hearings of Donald Trump; later that day, at a campaign stop in Fairfield, Iowa, Biden said that he “would obey any subpoena that was sent to me.”22 23
A candidate for Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party cosplayed as a character from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion at the Taiwan Grand Triumph concert, and a board of education member in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and his wife were arrested after the couple dressed up as a police officers and attempted to kidnap a man at gunpoint.24 25 The chocolate manufacturer Hershey’s announced that the company would retire its Kissmobile.26 “It has become increasingly difficult to safely maintain the Kissmobiles due to their aging condition and the increasing difficulty sourcing suitable replacement parts for these custom vehicles,” a spokesman said. A Massachusetts woman crashed her car into a Stop & Shop, and an investigation revealed that an Amazon executive was killed when she collided with a van that was delivering Amazon packages.27 28 President Trump, who jokingly accused Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau of cutting his cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York for a recent CBC rebroadcast of the 1992 film, accused Iran of backing an attack on the U.S. embassy that left one American contractor dead.29 30 The city of Sydney announced that, despite a total fire ban and temperatures ranging between 95 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit, its New Year’s Eve fireworks display would go on as planned.31 Police departments around the United States requested that guns not be fired at the stroke of midnight.32—Violet Lucca
The Great Kurultáj, an event held annually outside the town of Bugac, Hungary, is billed as both the “Tribal Assembly of the Hun-Turkic Nations” and “Europe’s Largest Equestrian Event.” When I arrived last August, I was fittingly greeted by a variety of riders on horseback: some dressed as Huns, others as Parthian cavalrymen, Scythian archers, Magyar warriors, csikós cowboys, and betyár bandits. In total there were representatives from twenty-seven “tribes,” all members of the “Hun-Turkic” fraternity. The festival’s entrance was marked by a sixty-foot-tall portrait of Attila himself, wielding an immense broadsword and standing in front of what was either a bonfire or a sky illuminated by the baleful glow of war. He sported a goatee in the style of Steven Seagal and, shorn of his war braids and helmet, might have been someone you could find in a Budapest cellar bar. A slight smirk suggested that great mirth and great violence together mingled in his soul.
Inside, I watched a procession of riders—Azeris, Avars, Bashkirs, Chuvashes, Karakalpaks—take turns galloping around the amphitheater, a vast oval of trampled earth. Then, after each brother nation had been announced, the Battle of Pozsony began. Four hundred and fifty-four years after Attila’s death, in 907, a Frankish army came charging out of Bavaria into the heart of the nascent Hungarian kingdom. The Hungarians beat them with an old nomad trick: they fooled the Franks into thinking they were on the retreat, wheeled around at the last second to spring a trap on their unsuspecting foes, and showered them with arrows when they were too close to escape. The original bloodbath took place over the course of three days, but that day at the festival the Hungarian troops needed to wrap things up in thirty-five minutes.
From the start, the Franks, on foot and few in number, looked uneasy. Their swords and shields were distressingly flimsy, like toys. Prince Luitpold, their ostensible commander, didn’t seem to be around. When the Hungarians entered the field of battle on fleet-looking steeds, wearing far shinier helmets and brandishing what appeared to be actual swords, they made short work of the badly overmatched invaders. The crowd cheered—and with good reason. According to the Kurultáj’s website, the Battle of Pozsony is the subject of a generations-long cover-up, the battle “they” don’t want you to know about. Why, the site asks, is this most important military engagement not taught in schools? Why do students dwell instead on the routs at Merseburg and Lechfeld, which finally put an end to the Magyar menace hanging over Europe? (“Magyar” is the historical name by which Hungarians still refer to themselves.) Surely, it is all part of a socialist plot to make Hungarians feel like a guilty people, plagued by defeat, the post goes on, asked again and again by everyone from the Austrians to the Soviets to the European Union to “dare to be small.”
This is the key to the political message behind the Kurultáj: that the truth of the Hungarian past has been suppressed, obscuring the Hungarian people’s origins as a nomadic race of pagan warriors, born for conquest but forced into submission by treacherous neighbors, liberal ideologues, even Christianity itself. Given its nationalist orientation, it’s no surprise that the Kurultáj was established in close association with Jobbik, Hungary’s onetime ultra-nationalist political party. (It has since slightly tempered its message.) Today, the festival’s patron is Fidesz, the party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, which now occupies the rightmost spot on the political spectrum. Fidesz gives the event around a million euros a year, which is the reason admission is free and why, in the absolute middle of nowhere, it takes an hour of waiting in traffic to get in.
Fidesz’s sponsorship is also why László Kövér, the speaker of Parliament, was addressing festival attendees in the conference tent shortly after I arrived. He began by welcoming the “heirs and worshippers of Attila and Árpád’s people,” the latter name invoking the chieftain who formed Hungary’s first royal dynasty, and in a few short minutes laid out his own version of the conspiracy preventing Hungarians from knowing their true past. Once upon a time, he explained, the Huns broke their enemies with their ferocious mounted archers. Today, the enemies of the homeland employ a more insidious strategy: they attack the mind. They falsify history and sow confusion about people’s “gender, family, religious, and national identities” until they don’t know who they are or where they are from. But Kövér knows. Hungarians are “the westernmost Eastern people.” Their real roots are on the battlefield, on the steppes, with the nomads. With Attila the Hun.
Almost every country in Europe has a moment in its deep past that serves as its symbolic origin. These speculative beginnings are usually placed in the age of barbarians, where documentation is conveniently sparse. Along these lines, France has Clovis the Frank and “our ancestors the Gauls,” while the Germans celebrate Arminius, who beat back the Roman legions in the Teutoburg woods. Across the Atlantic, even the United States once flirted with the idea of Dark Age roots. Thomas Jefferson originally wanted to place Hengist and Horsa, the two ur-Saxons who launched the post-Roman conquest of Britain, on the Great Seal of the United States, arguing that they exemplified the “political principles and form of government we have assumed.”
The Hungarian version is only a little more extreme, although, as far as canonical history is concerned, Hungarian origins are already fairly spectacular. The early Hungarians appeared in ninth-century Europe as a collection of migrating tribes who raised hell across the continent for a century before settling down in the flatlands of the Carpathian Basin. As a result of their migration from points far to the east, Hungarians speak a language that is virtually unique in Europe. (Their closest linguistic relatives are a handful of tiny tribes living in central Russia, and they also share a distant link with the Finns.)
However, the mythology on display at the Kurultáj posits that Hungarians, rather than being the orphans of Europe, are members of a great interethnic brotherhood, whose heroes include everyone from Attila to Tamerlane to Genghis Khan and whose territory stretches all the way from Budapest to Manchuria. Huns are this brotherhood’s shared ancestors, as are Scythians, Parthians, and scores of other nomadic would-be world conquerors. Thanks to this shared inheritance, the thinking goes, one can find traces of Hungarian kinship and influence in Turkey, in Mongolia, in Azerbaijan, even in Japan. This is why representatives of all these peoples and more were gathered in a field outside Bugac—to celebrate their common heritage as horse lords from the grassy heart of Eurasia, received history be damned.
Traveling the width of Hungary for two weeks last August, from Szeged in the south to Esztergom in the north, I came to understand that the historical nationalism that’s taken hold in the country is a genuine political force. Moreover, it isn’t confined to a few select spectacles like the Kurultáj, but comprises an entire alternative culture of its own. It has its own convention circuit and faiths. It has its own literature, its own cartography, its own musical genres. It’s possible to live entirely within its orbit—to eat from nationalist plates, worship according to purportedly ancient nationalist rites, and send your children to nationalist summer camps, where they can sleep in ancestral yurts, drink fermented mare’s milk, and learn the art of shamanic drumming.
Confronted with parades of martial horsemen kitted out in battle armor, or murals of Hunnic steeds grinding centurions into a fine paste under their hooves, part of me instinctively recoils. I have deep roots in Eastern Europe. My parents are Polish, and I grew up partly in Warsaw. My ancestors were petty tradesmen, yeoman farmers, bookbinders, glaziers, suspenders-makers, some of them (but not all of them) Jews, the kind of people more apt to play the part of the trampled than the trampler.
And yet, I can’t claim to be entirely immune to the draw of this particular bit of mythmaking. My grandmother was Hungarian. And unlike the welter of Jews, Poles, Czechs, and Germans composing the rest of my ancestry, she was a noblewoman. Somewhere down the line, her family must have been soldiers ennobled for fighting the Turks: the family coat of arms was the severed head of a Turk impaled on a sword. One of my grandmother’s sisters owned a signet ring engraved with a similarly grisly decapitation scene.
For a kid growing up between small-town Pennsylvania and the somnolent Warsaw of the late 1980s, this was potent stuff to dream with. My entrée into world history was mostly stories of dudes hacking at each other with swords. Any era would do, but I preferred tales in which the barbarians won. My bookshelf was stuffed with titles such as The Goths,A History of the Ostrogoths, and Narses, Hammer of the Goths. Standing in front of the Yurt of Attila at the Kurultáj (“the world’s largest yurt”), I realized that I still understood the allure of this barbarian past, not least because the Huns are such an appealing canvas for a certain kind of fantasy of male identity and belonging. Historically, the Huns appear to have been less a tribe than a hodgepodge of soldiers of fortune, escaped slaves, and refugees rallying together around the promise of plunder. A series of disciplinarian leaders directed their more violent impulses toward a cause, but also provided a sense of shared parentage. Like so many modern authoritarians, Attila appealed to his people partly as a surrogate father. We know this with some certainty: in the language of his vassals, the Goths, his name meant “Daddy.”
The theory of Hungary’s Hunnic origins far predates Orbán or Kövér. Mention of it can be found in medieval chronicles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, only a few generations after the Magyars converted from paganism to Christianity. For the ecclesiastical propagandists who first proposed the idea, the Huns were an obvious choice of predecessor. The Magyars’ foes, after all, had likened their nomadic fighting style to the Huns, and they had both hailed from the Asian steppes. There was the etymological link, too: Hun and Hungarian (seemingly compelling proof but, sadly, pure coincidence). From there, it was an easy step to claim that the ruling dynasty descended not just from old King Árpád but from Attila himself.
From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, there was nothing unusual about concocting an elaborate, historically dubious pedigree for a ruling house or a people. Hungarians just had to do a little more public relations work than most, given prevailing theories that the Huns had been spawned by witches and demons mating on the shores of the Sea of Azov. Chroniclers and other royal propagandists worked hard to rehabilitate Attila by depicting him as a just, almost Christian king, someone who showed kindness to Pope Leo by not sacking Rome. Emended by humanists and apotheosized in Latin verse by eager Jesuits, this friendlier Attila persisted well into the Enlightenment and by the nineteenth century had become firmly entrenched within Hungarian national dogma.
Then came a deep blow to nationalist consciousness. Eighteenth-century linguists discovered that there was an ethnic group closely related to the Hungarians out there in the wider world. The Mansi, as they are now known, also spoke a language distantly akin to Finnish, but were far from horse-riding conquerors—they lived deep in the Siberian woods and subsisted mostly on fish. Bent on disproving these ignoble origins, adventurers set off across Central Asia in search of other, more martial, tribes of lost Hungarians. One claimed to have found millions of Hungarians living in the Caucasus. Another was so convinced of the Hungarian-Turkic connection that he learned Turkish and traveled disguised as a dervish across Central Asia to Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan. Sándor Csoma de K?rös, a polyglot Transylvanian, set out on a similar journey, making it all the way to Tibet.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the search for Hungary’s Hunnic past had gradually coalesced into a theory called Turanism. (The name ultimately derives from Old Persian, in which Turan meant something like “the land of darkness” and designated a fringe region of the Sassanid Empire inhabited by unruly nomads.) Part political movement and part religious revival, Turanism was big-tent nationalism in the style of pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism, born of Hungary’s nineteenth-century imperial ambitions. It held that the Hungarian people hailed from Asia, were related to Turks and other Central Asian peoples, and that their nomadic and pagan history should serve as the basis for Hungary’s cultural life and foreign policy, rather than being subordinate to the concerns of their nominal Austrian Hapsburg overlords.
After Austria-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, Turanism became an ideology of resentment, serving as inspiration to Hungarian fascist movements. It offered a way for Hungarians to become equal competitors in the racialized violence of the interwar years—in a world in which Nazis were proclaiming their historic mission as leader of the Aryan nations, it made sense for Hungary to cast a wide net in search of friends. In the Turanist imaginary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Japan were all possible allies whose support could be used to claw back the greatness (and territory) that had slipped away after Hungary’s defeat. Beginning with the postwar communist takeover of Hungary, however, Turanism was banned. Its leading journals ceased publication, its institutes were shuttered, and its scholars (such as they were) were silenced. Activists prominent in the movement’s glory days of the 1930s either left for exile or died in obscurity.
As Turanism was driven underground, its ideas took on new and fantastical forms. Émigré scholars and nativist autodidacts met secretly in rural museums and published samizdat treatises filled with runic letters and outlandish ethnological hypotheses. In these pamphlets, ancient Magyars mingle with and beget Parthians, Sumerians, Mayans, Basques, anyone, really, without a firmly established line of ancestry. Sometimes, the theories ranged even farther, to Atlantis and Asgard. Thor was deemed Hungarian, as were Jesus and King Arthur. One account posited that the first Magyars were extraterrestrials from a planet orbiting Sirius B.
To most, however, the fact that the Magyars initially appeared in the historical record on horseback suggested a more terrestrial ancestry. In 2006, a semiprofessional archaeologist named András Zsolt Bíró professed to have located the Hungarian homeland in Kazakhstan, a spot more in keeping with their putatively nomadic origins. Bíró made a perfect spokesman for Hun-Turkic matters. Deeply tanned in the manner of a career outdoorsman or an Adriatic club promoter, he had the physique of a judo instructor and a long, raven-black ponytail. To this day, he often makes media appearances in battle-ready lamellar armor.
The ancestors Bíró alleged to have found belonged to a group of Muslim nomads called—coincidence be damned—the Madjars, whose Y chromosomes, Bíró claimed, indicated a relation to contemporary Hungarians. (Critics say they do no such thing and that Madjar has nothing to do with Magyar, meaning simply “good Muslim.”) Undeterred by his detractors, Bíró returned to Hungary to share the nomadic heritage he had uncovered. The following year, he attended a tribal gathering of the Kazakh Madjars as the head of a Hungarian delegation consisting mainly of martial artists. There, the two peoples—Magyar and Madjar—signed a pact of brotherhood. The following year, Bíró founded the Hungarian Kurultáj, named after a Turkic word meaning “meeting of the tribes.”
That first event, staged without government sponsorship, featured mostly Hungarian and Kazakh folkloric groups. But as word spread, the event broadened its international reach, attracting groups from across Central Asia and a domestic audience in the tens of thousands. In the process, it evolved from a combination of outdoor banquet, yurt campground, and demonstration of equestrian skill into a multiday musical extravaganza, crowned by the signature spectacles of the Yurt of Attila, a climactic bonfire, and vast reenactments of the original Magyar conquest of the Hungarian homeland.
Strolling around the Kurultáj, I noted archery demonstrations (both mounted and on foot), armor-making workshops, bonfires, and vendors selling traditional crafts. In the food court, representatives from the Mongolian Embassy served dumplings, and, in the conference tent, archaeologists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey discussed the historical unity of Turkic peoples across the millennia. From the main stage, an Azeri folk band rendered mellifluous praise to Allah; they were followed by dancers from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and throat singers from several remote Russian republics. Inside the Yurt of Attila, artifacts from Hunnic tombs sat in cases next to reproductions of the characteristically oblong skulls of the Hunnic nobility. A mural depicted Attila’s army in action, savaging their Roman opponents with composite bows and what appeared to be battle wolves.
As for the other visitors, I found that some were simply curious. Some—especially the Turks, Azerbaijanis, and members of the Central Asian delegations—arrived with diplomatic support. One visitor, a shirtless Turkish traditional archer, celebrated with Instagram posts proclaiming the eternal union of the Turanian brotherhood “from the steppes of Kazakhstan to the mountains of Turkey, to the plains of Hungary.” (He self-identified on social media as a “researcher of Hun Turk history & culture & spirituality.”) Others had come because, as one festivalgoer put it, they “heard the call of the drums,” and were there for a taste of Hungary’s vanished historic glory. A large proportion of the merchandise for sale at the craft booths was aimed at this audience. Many products—plates, T-shirts, salad trays, handbags, and huge, Texas-style belt buckles—featured a map of Greater Hungary, the larger, pre–World War I territory whose restoration is the ultimate aim of the country’s irredentists. The same map, I noticed, was featured on decorative decals and bumper stickers, handed out for free by volunteers stationed next to the port-a-potties.
The day after the Kurultáj ended, I traveled to Ópusztaszer National Heritage Park, an open-air museum located about an hour south of Bugac, in another nondescript patch of countryside. According to legend, Ópusztaszer is the place where the Hungarian nation was born. Here, a thousand years ago, the seven Magyar tribal chieftains pledged fealty to one another, an act symbolized by the seven bus-length metal arrows plunged into the ground that greet park visitors. Within the gates, tourists are treated to a nationalist wonderland, complete with a collection of authentic rural architecture transported from Hungarian villages, a garden stocked with traditional Hungarian herbs, a horse corral, and a yurt field.
But the high point for any visitor—most of whom are schoolchildren or Hungarian retirees—is the Feszty Panorama. A massive painting from the close of the nineteenth century, it depicts the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. The war wagons of the chiefs stand on a high mountain pass, the lands of their conquest stretching before them. A defeated Slavic prince weeps in extremis. Hirsute barbarians herd nubile girls into a cart. A nomad queen stares malevolently from her throne, carried aloft by a herd of longhorn bulls. A shaman slits the throat of a white steed. Girls dance around a sacred flame. (Its white smoke, the guidebook explains, is a good omen.) The crowd at the park moves slowly along the panorama, savoring every detail as a mournful melody of flutes and drums issues from somewhere in the rafters.
In 2012, Viktor Orbán chose Ópusztaszer as the venue for a speech during which he unveiled a ten-meter-tall statue of the mythical Turul bird, which heralded the coming of the Magyars. The bird, Orbán explained, “is an archetype of the Hungarian people” that belongs to Hungarians’ “blood and motherland.” Once effectively banned under Communism for its associations with the prewar revisionist right, the Turul bird is now everywhere, from clothing brands to the logos of the Hungarian Army and the Military National Security Service. At least 250 Turul statues—many erected on orders from Fidesz—now dot the landscape of Hungary and its neighbors, the most visible markers of the degree to which medieval and pagan symbolism have now penetrated the political realm.
Since Orbán and Fidesz came to power for a second time, in 2010, Turanism has been made into something of an official ruling ideology, with little room for dissent. Fidesz maintains an absolute majority in parliament, which allows it to pass any law and pack the courts to suit its whims. Constitutional amendments, new laws, and forced retirements have given the party control of the highest courts, and electoral “reforms” make it nearly impossible to dislodge gerrymandered districts from Fidesz control. Punitive taxation has forced most independent media outlets to either close or allow themselves to be bought by the government. Foreign NGOs are being driven out of the country. Theater performances and museum exhibits are subject to censorship and increasingly present a vision of the nation’s past that is revanchist, anticommunist, and preoccupied with its medieval roots.
In recent years, Fidesz functionaries have fanned out across Turkey and Central Asia, bearing the Turanist message with them wherever they go. The secretary for culture, Géza Sz?cs, long active in fostering closer cultural contacts between Hungary and “Turanian” peoples in Central Asia and Siberia, visited Kazakhstan in 2010 for a security conference. “We should not wish to be secondary in Europe,” he told the crowd. “We should promote ourselves in Asia.” In 2013, the director of the National Institute of Oncology ordered a genetic study of a member of Hungary’s founding royal family, hoping to connect their line to the ancient Huns. (That official, Miklós Kásler, has since been appointed minister of human capacities—a cabinet position combining authority over education, sports, culture, and health care—and announced the formation of a scientific institute designed to find definitive proof of Hungarians’ supposed Eurasian origins.) László Kövér, the speaker of Parliament who spoke at the Kurultáj, makes frequent reference to Hungary’s historical connections to Attila and, in a September address to the Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries, which Hungary formally joined last year, expressed his pleasure at being accepted by “our Turkic brothers.”
Even more significant, however, has been the Turanist enthusiasm of Orbán himself. Throughout his political career, Orbán has proved to be a master of symbolic politics, especially as they pertain to the most emotionally resonant periods in Hungarian history. He has built a museum dedicated to the crimes of Communism and adjusted the statuary near the Parliament building by diminishing the prominence of left-leaning leaders. In 2011, armed with a parliamentary supermajority, Orbán pushed through a new constitution in which the Holy Crown, a jeweled diadem that once served as the coronation crown of Hungarian royalty, was officially declared to embody the “continuity of Hungary and the unity of the nation.” A year later, the government invited a Hungarian folk singer and her Tuvinian singer-shaman partner to perform a special “purification ceremony” on the crown, meant to endow it—and by extension the whole country—with positive energy. László Kürti, a professor of political science at the University of Miskolc, has written that this consecration, mixing as it did pagan and Christian symbolism in the very heart of the state, marked the beginning of “a new civil religion with neo-shamanism at its core.”
Under Orbán, Hungary has also pursued something like a Turanist foreign policy, seeking strategic partnerships with the governments of Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. At a meeting of Turkic-speaking states held in Kyrgyzstan last fall, the prime minister declared that “Hungarians consider themselves late descendants of Attila, of Hun-Turkic origin.” That same day, Zsolt Bíró, the Kurultáj founder and head of the Hungarian Turan Foundation, was on hand to lead Hungary’s delegation at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan. (The Hungarian team, whose specialty is mounted archery, won 12 medals—an impressive showing, though far behind Kyrgyzstan’s 103.)
Orbán’s turn to the East is, at least in part, pragmatic. He’s interested in gaining investments from countries with little or no interest in human rights, many of which, like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, are members of the pan-Turkic brotherhood. He also sees these family-run dictatorships as models for the kind of stable, dynastic rule he’s been building at home. But whether Orbán actually subscribes to Turanist dogma or just pays lip service to it is an open question. Over the course of his political career, he’s drifted from being a liberal anticommunist in the waning days of state socialism to an authoritarian populist-nationalist today. He knows how to present himself as a moderate Christian Democrat in the European Parliament and a fire-breathing populist at home. When he takes up Turanist talking points about Hungary as the westernmost Eurasian state in the brotherhood of Turkic peoples, it’s unclear whether he speaks from inner conviction or for tactical advantage.
Regardless, Orbán’s adoption of Turanist language and symbols has helped buttress the xenophobic jingoism that has become the hallmark of his reign. Orbán is smart enough to know that Hunnic hordes and pan-Turkic brotherhoods are useful ways of maintaining his hegemony through popular enthusiasm. And as he has looked to expand his populist appeal, the targets of his rhetoric have multiplied. While earlier they were largely internal and political, Orbán has shifted to fearmongering about refugees, the European Union, and George Soros. (Donald Trump, for his part, praised him at the White House in May for doing a “tremendous job.”)
Academia, where Orbán got his start as the leader of an underground student movement, is one of his favorite subjects. The day after I arrived in Hungary, the speaker of Parliament compared gender studies to Nazi eugenics, and the government announced that the subject would no longer be taught in state-funded universities. (Fidesz and its allies were waging a war against the Central European University, which Soros cofounded, that summer. A few months later, the administration announced that the school would be relocating to Vienna.) Gábor Klaniczay, a professor of medieval studies at the university, told me that Fidesz’s attack on gender studies and the revival of Turanism were of a piece: both promise a return to an imaginary, idealized past. “This type of right-wing populism wants to undo everything certain types of twentieth-century progressive thinking achieved,” he explained.
The Hunnic past—martial, autocratic, and patriarchal—stands in clear opposition to contemporary liberalism. As revived and promulgated by modern-day activists, this past is not so much a genuine template for society as an ideological counter-utopia, where men are men, women are women, and Hungary’s neighbors tremble before the approach of its warriors. It’s a stark vision, but also one that’s dangerously easy to get lost in. Like the fantasies of Tolkien or Game of Thrones, Turanism can be fun. Balázs Ablonczy, a professor at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University who wrote the leading history of Turanism and is critical of the movement, told me that his own son would have trouble resisting the spectacle of an event like the Kurultáj. In his scout troop, Ablonczy said, they’ve been learning to read Hungarian runes.
I first noticed these runes myself when I saw a few strange symbols tattooed on a policeman’s calf in Budapest. These, I discovered, were rovás, the curious, lenticular script of Old Hungarian. Few can read the characters, but they are increasingly the alphabetic calling card of the far right. Once I started looking for them, rovás were everywhere. They were used for street signs and public announcements in towns and villages governed by extreme wings of Fidesz. They were on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and stray bits of graffiti. They were above a museum toilet, on a book jacket, and on the packaging for a runic alphabet soup. I even saw a men’s magazine, a blond model kneeling provocatively on the cover, with its title and headlines rendered exclusively in runes.
Many Turanists and amateur historians believe that the rovás arrived in Hungary from Central Asia along with the Huns. More skeptical scholars think they are a Renaissance invention, the work of a forger bent on establishing the antiquity of Hungarian writing. Others maintain that they are peculiar to the Székelys, an ethnic group related to Hungarians who reside in Transylvania. The question of the true origins of the script, not unlike those of Hungarians themselves, has inspired stacks of antically footnoted monographs. It seems impossible to settle. But by now the rovás are part of the nationalist imaginary, the hieroglyphics of the ancient Turantan-Magyar race. They’re so pervasive, in fact, that even the political opposition has begun an effort to reclaim them for its own purposes. One day, wandering across Budapest, I saw a graffiti tag spray-painted in runic letters at the base of a bridge spanning the Danube. People were taking pictures of it, but no one could tell me what it said. Weeks later, after transliterating it into Latin letters and checking my dictionary, I got the secret message: “Orbán is a motherfucker.”
The rovás are a frequent sight around the capital, but certain events bring them out in even greater abundance. A week after broiling in the hot sun at Bugac in the center of the country, I took a train to Hungary’s northern border. Rovás were visible in practically every compartment, on backpack patches, bags, and especially on T-shirts, where they spelled out kárpátia, the name of the band most of us were traveling to see.
Kárpátia are leaders in the world of nemzeti, or nationalist, rock music. More of an ideological orientation than a proper genre, nemzeti music expresses an aggressive yearning for various forms of revived Hungarian greatness. Politically, the bands are creatures of the far right. Sonically, they run the gamut of white-guy rock. Nemzeti music has its own radio station, Holy Crown, as well as its own festival circuit, which culminates in the Magyar Sziget, held each summer outside Budapest. (The original festival, called simply Sziget, is held in Budapest, and attracts the stars of the mainstream global pop scene. Magyar Sziget caters to an almost exclusively Hungarian audience and was founded by a far-right politician who left Jobbik last year to form a new nationalist party called Our Homeland Movement.)
Some of the biggest acts in the nemzeti scene are Hungarica, Pannonia (the Latin name for Hungary), and Kárpátia themselves (named after the mountain chain Hungary lost to Slovakia after World War I). Others have names that translate to Romantic Violence, Wolves, and Scythia. None are exactly primed for export, although Hungarica has recently made inroads to the north, with an album of patriotic ballads sung in Polish.
Kárpátia, who have been banned from performing in most of Hungary’s neighboring countries, have written songs addressing almost every pressure point of nationalist Hungarian nostalgia. They have written odes to the Turul bird and the Holy Crown, paeans to the heroes who stood against Soviet tanks in 1956, and whole songs in Cuman, a medieval Turkic language eventually adopted by descendants of the Mongol horde. Their lyrics tend to oscillate between the lachrymose and megalomaniacal. “Székely Anthem” laments that “our bitter past has been a thousand years of misfortunes.” In “Hungarian Chant,” the bodies of dead Hungarians, dug up with the singer’s bare hands, stand watch on the borders of a restored nation stretching from “the snowy Carpathians to the crystal blue Adriatic.”
Most often, Kárpátia’s songs are about resisting—or lamenting—some foreign incursion. In the song “My Friend, Tell Me Where You Are,” the speaker imagines himself facing down mounted police in the streets of Budapest, wearing a shawl to keep out the tear gas. The enemies of the nation, he sings, “are ravishing my daughter, / My nation, my religion, / They are torturing me deep in the prison.” “Civitas Fortissima” (“The Bravest City”) is a celebration of Hungarian partisan fighters during World War I who found themselves “in between foreign countries’ claws.” And in “Highlands,” the mountain scenery of Slovakia prompts the singer to weep for his nation’s sufferings.
On their posters, the members of Kárpátia often pose in full medieval dress, but the night I went to see them, in a rugby field in the town of Esztergom, they looked liked an average bar band that happened to have a smoke machine. In between songs, their bald and goateed lead singer, János Petrás, who wrote the anthem for Jobbik’s short-lived paramilitary wing and was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit by the Fidesz government in 2013, accentuated his more aggressive lyrics with fist pumps and jabs. Between songs, he dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, speaking about the plight of Hungarians living in Slovakia and the more general threat posed by a global liberal order. At one point, he led the crowd in the “No, no, never” chant that has heralded opposition to the Treaty of Trianon, which, at the end of World War I, left Hungary with less than a third of its former territory. The audience erupted in cheers and waved assorted Hungarian flags, most of them variations harking back to the Middle Ages.
The mood at the show was at once festive and angry, typical of a gathering celebrating a shared grievance, but I saw none of the violence associated with other nemzeti acts. The fan base of Romantikus Er?szak, or Romantic Violence, for instance, is heavy on skinheads and soccer hooligans and has a reputation for brawling. (Within the nemzeti subculture, Romantic Violence may be the hardest act. Their front man, Balázs Sziva, has “Long Live the Homeland” tattooed on his neck and sings openly about freeing Hungary from the influence of capitalism and Jews.)
Kárpátia, always more popular—if now several years past their prime—are comparatively more family-friendly. Although there were concertgoers dressed as the nineteenth-century warrior bandits known as betyárs, and others wearing T-shirts telling the interwar president of Czechoslovakia to go fuck himself, there were also plenty of teens and small children. Grandmothers leaned against grandfathers, married couples shared sausages and beer, and toddlers struggled to stay awake in spite of the 140-decibel noise. At the end of the show, everyone headed into the night together by the murmuring Danube. Hours later, in the deserted, cobblestone streets, I saw a teenage fan, dressed all in black and still holding aloft his red-and-white-striped Árpád flag, pledging allegiance to the first dynasty of the conquering Magyars in the shadow of Esztergom’s churches and ice cream parlors.
Twelve hours later, I found myself back in Budapest in time for the eve of St. Stephen’s Day. Honoring Hungary’s first Christian king, St. Stephen’s Day functions as a sort of sacral Fourth of July. (Under Communism it was rebranded as the firmly secular “Festival of Bread.”) It’s the high point in the year for patriotic pomp—the day when Fidesz strives hardest to show off its role as custodian of the nation’s most precious treasures. In Kossuth Square, beneath the intricately carved stone corbels and pinnacles of the neo-Gothic Parliament building, I stood for hours in line with thousands for a chance to see King Stephen’s Holy Crown. While we waited in the nearly hundred-degree heat, a platoon of women in embroidered folk dress were ushered ahead of us for a special photo op with the jewels that would be aired on state news that evening. Elsewhere, King Stephen’s mummified right hand (it was found uncorrupted after his death and is regarded as a holy relic) was being readied to go on parade in its jeweled reliquary. Overhead, antique biplanes executed somersaults, trailing exhaust in the national colors of white, red, and green as jets disgorged paratroopers onto the city below.
At the Street of Hungarian Flavors celebration, across the Danube, artisan chefs showed off traditional foodstuffs from across the Hungarian state and the diaspora, still unredeemed, beyond its borders. The whole diversity of Magyar cooking was on display. Szatmár-style cabbage rolls and Karcag mutton stew bubbled over outdoor flames. A busó, a kind of demon clad in sheepskin with a prominent wooden phallus, stood guard over platefuls of bean soup from Mohács. A one-eyed man in an apron depicting a map of Greater Hungary served me a hefty portion of pasta cooked with pork belly and Szegedi peppers. Three old women worked together to serve me cornmeal porridge with sheep’s milk cheese.
That night, I joined tens of thousands of people on the banks of the Danube to watch the preparations for the night’s fireworks. Making my way through the crowds in search of a good vantage point, I saw a group of karaoke singers on a boat watching something projected on a big screen. It was István, a király (“Stephen, the King”), a 1983 rock opera about King Stephen and the pagan uncle who tried to kill him.
István, a király, a kind of Hungarian Jesus Christ Superstar, was a huge hit when it came out, as well as a sign of the thaw that presaged the end of Goulash Communism. It’s still a kitsch icon and surprisingly listenable, even for those without any Hungarian. (The music rocks much harder than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s.) The plot of the film is simple: the old king dies and his son, Stephen, struggles with the question of whether he should convert Hungary to Christianity, while his uncle, Koppány, leads a revolt to keep it pagan. Nominally, at least, Stephen is the hero, but he seems indecisive and weak. Koppány, who looks like a Hulk Hogan–era wrestler and spends the movie topless except for a leather sash, has all the charisma and all the most memorable songs. The enthusiasm of the karaoke singers peaked whenever he appeared onscreen.
The musical enacts, in miniature, the drama posed for Hungary by Turanism: whether to embrace the West, and the future, or the East, and the past. One choice has the force of modernity behind it; the other has the best tunes. (The choice has played out in the personal lives of the duo that wrote István, a király as well. The lyricist is a secular, liberal Jew. The composer spends much of his time in the hills north of Budapest, looking for shamanic shrines, and maintains close ties to Fidesz and the far right. They haven’t worked together in twenty years.)
Historically, Stephen won. An opportunistic convert and ruthless killer, he saw that his country’s future lay with Europe, Christianity, and the stability that comes with fitting in with the neighborhood. Koppány stood for the old ways and the inherited gods of the nomadic past. For his efforts at maintaining paganism, Stephen had him executed and quartered, and sent chunks of his body to be hung from the realm’s four greatest fortresses. Now, a thousand years later, the pendulum has swung the other way. For a generation raised under Communism, aspirations for the West, for democracy, even for wealth, have started to feel stale. Why be a small cog in the European machine, the Turanists ask, when you can be part of a vast, primordial brotherhood of conquering warriors? Better to be part of the horde, to make the earth shake under the hooves of your horses. Better, they would say, to heed the call of the drums.
Discussed in this essay:
Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books. 1,088 pages. $27.95.
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff. Yale University Press. 424 pages. $32.50.
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler. New York Review Books. 904 pages. $24.95.
An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books. 160 pages. $14.95.
The Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors. In other words, a nightmare. Pamphleteers, autodidactic theoreticians, critics, publishers of small journals, hot-take artists, takedown artists, and failed poets who’d reinvented themselves as labor organizers—fractious and at constant war with one another, literary people through and through.
If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time. They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company.
When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the office from on high, he leverages this personal relationship and increases his authority within the organization. It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik hierarchy happened. We’ve all seen this person before. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over. But really, who better understands the day-to-day functioning of the organization, who better to be in charge?
Stalin was a consummate editor. He seemed to understand that the role was to sublimate ego in order to shape the world quietly in the background. Good editors know how to render themselves invisible. Stalin’s blue pencil, unlike that of other editors, glided across not just poetry chapbooks and literary journals but life itself. “Fool,” “bastard,” “scoundrel,” he wrote in the margins of Andrei Platonov’s 1931 novella, Profit, destroying Platonov’s career. “Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive,” he scrawled on a male nude drawing that reminded him of Karl Radek, an editor and strategist of the October Revolution whose death he had ordered years earlier. “You need to work, not masturbate,” he wrote on another. The combination of editorial influence with the power of life and death itself resulted in absurd, nearly unbelievable situations—such as when Stalin’s old friend and comrade Nikolai Bukharin wrote him from the prison cell Stalin had put him in, begging his inquisitor for a preface to what would be his last book. “I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear . . . this is completely apart from my personal fate . . . Have pity! Not on me, on the work!”
Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent. “Stalin has a very particular attitude toward me,” the great Soviet writer Vasily Grossman told his daughter. “He does not send me to the camps, but he never awards me prizes.” Several times anticipated to win the prestigious Stalin Prize for his celebrated novels—in one instance, having planned the victory party, à la Hillary at the Javits Center—at the last minute Grossman found his name mysteriously removed from the list each time.
Today Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. The kaleidoscopic thousand-page book, which follows the middle-class Shaposhnikov family through the Second World War, is an indictment of ideological zealotry and a stark account of the horrors of Stalinism. The narrative ranges from the Great Terror to the gulag, the German camps, and Stalin’s late anti-Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, slowly building the sense that, in their lack of humanity, the Soviet and Nazi regimes became mirror images of each other. “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?” Grossman asks at a pivotal moment. “The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.” The book was considered so dangerous that all known copies of the text were “arrested” and suppressed by the KGB in 1961, an experience that broke Grossman physically and spiritually. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” he said. After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in 1980, only appearing in Russia during the glasnost.
His tragic life story has since become a familiar parable: the brave arch-humanist defying seemingly limitless power. But two new books reveal Grossman as a more ambiguous figure. Robert Chandler, who first translated Life and Fate into English, has now, along with his wife, Elizabeth, brought us the forgotten prequel to that novel, Stalingrad. Where Life and Fate presents a disillusioned moral hellscape, Stalingrad is a work of hope and true belief in the long march of the Soviet project. Above all, it is a paean to the strength of the Soviet people as they mobilized to confront fascism. Long dismissed as phoned-in socialist realism, this major work, Chandler suggests, has been unjustly ignored because of stubborn Cold War thinking—an enduring prejudice that if a book actually managed to get published at the apogee of Stalin’s rule, it couldn’t be good.
Though it is far from perfect, Stalingrad is an accomplished historical war novel, focusing, like Life and Fate, on the Shaposhnikov family, and is similarly remarkable for its scope. It switches between dozens of perspectives throughout—a truncated list of characters in the book’s appendix runs to almost ten pages—yet still manages, as Chandler writes, to treat “with equal delicacy and respect . . . the experiences of a senior Red Army general, a newly recruited militiaman or a terrified housewife.” (Grossman “even devotes a surprising amount of space to the effects of the Battle of Stalingrad on the lives of dogs, cats, camels, rodents, birds, fish and insects in the surrounding steppe.”) It dredges up the ideological strata of antebellum communism, the pre-1917 world of European salons and cravats, and is laced with unsparing discourses on the depredations of fascism:
In Mein Kampf Hitler stated that equality benefits only the weak, that progress in the world of nature is achieved solely through the destructive force of natural selection, and that the only possible basis for human progress is racial selection, the dictatorship of race. He confused the concepts of violence and strength. He saw the vicious despair of impotence as a strength and failed to recognize the strength of free human labour. He saw the man sowing a vast wheat field as inferior to the thug who smashes him over the back of the head with a crowbar.
This is the philosophy of a loser who has fallen into despair, who is unable to achieve anything through labour but who is endowed with a strong mind, ferocious energy and a burning ambition.
Alongside Stalingrad, a new biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff, charts Grossman’s life as a journey from moral compromise to the truth of Life and Fate. (The chapter on Life and Fate is simply called, “The Novel.”) Both books make clear the extent to which Grossman was a product of the Soviet literary system—the troubles he experienced publishing his books and articles and the compromises and censorship he accepted in order for them to see the light of day. His anger and frustration, his desire to tell the truth of what he had seen grew slowly only from long participation within that system. At the height of the Great Terror, he could still write to the head of the N.K.V.D.: “All that I possess—my education, my success as a writer, the high privilege of sharing my thoughts and feelings with Soviet readers—I owe to the Soviet government.” It was only with Life and Fate that he gave up completely and wrote what he wanted, in spite of the consequences.
Born in 1905 to a middle-class Jewish family in Ukraine, Grossman spent his formative years working as an air-quality inspector in the brutal mines of the Donbass. His delicate health didn’t hold out long (and, as the village’s sole intellectual, he was very lonely), but he used the material to write his first novel, Glückauf.* The book was socialist realism, portraying the Donbass miners as the true proletarian heroes of Soviet life—but Grossman immediately encountered roadblocks to publication because of its unusually frank depiction of alcoholism and violence in the mining communities.
* A traditional German greeting among miners in the Ruhr Valley that roughly translates as “happy going-up.”
Like those of many young writers of his generation, Grossman’s career was made possible by the Maecenas of Soviet literature, Maxim Gorky. A fascinating and Janus-faced person of letters, Gorky took a particular interest in the fate of his writers, especially his Jewish writers. At the same time, his violent polemics against “wreckers” and his literary initiatives glorifying forced-labor projects provided cultural cover for Stalin’s atrocities. Struggling to find a publisher for Glückauf, Grossman appealed directly to Gorky, hoping to secure his blessing (he would employ the trick of appealing to the person at the top of the masthead for the rest of his life). “I wrote the truth,” he put it forthrightly in his letter to Gorky. “Perhaps, this is a bitter truth. But the truth can never be counter-revolutionary.” Gorky’s choleric response shows that the dilemma that would define Grossman’s life—the struggle between telling the truth and seeing his work published—was there from the very beginning:
It is not enough to say, “I wrote the truth.” The author should ask himself two questions: “First, which truth? And second, why?” We know there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates. . . . Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?
Working days at the Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory in Moscow, Grossman made Gorky’s recommended changes and cuts to his “long-suffering book” and was taken into the tastemaker’s fold.
Glückauf was a sensation. The writer Isaac Babel praised it, as did the Donbass miners depicted within. Grossman abandoned engineering in favor of literary work, which, in the Soviet Union, was the more lucrative career track. Doors opened for him. As one of Gorky’s writers, he was considered safe, and was able to push the line of what was possible in the system. In stories such as “In the Town of Berdichev,” and novels like Stepan Kolchugin, Grossman took on such taboo subjects as misogyny and pregnancy within the Bolshevik ranks, and he humanized outré political factions like the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks.
Meanwhile, the state that had made his writing career possible was also persecuting his friends and family. As the Great Terror began, Grossman’s cousin and booster Nadya was deported for her association with the Trotskyite writer Victor Serge. Grossman’s father, a former Menshevik, voluntarily exiled himself to a frozen yurt on the periphery of Kazakhstan to avoid the gulag. When Grossman’s own wife was jailed for her previous marriage to an “enemy of the people,” he acted quickly to adopt her children and secure her release. After Babel was shot for his association with the ousted N.K.V.D. head Nikolai Yezhov, Grossman lamented that so many of his literary peers were attracted to power, asking a friend, “What happened to his soul? Why did he celebrate New Year with the Yezhovs? Why do such unusual people—him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky—feel so drawn to the [N.K.V.D.]?”
After the German invasion in 1941, Grossman was recruited as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the official paper of the Red Army. He had none of the makings of a macho war reporter—he was overweight, depressed, nearsighted, and walked with a cane. He also suffered from agoraphobia, avoided crowds and public transport, and had never been on an airplane or shot a firearm. But his sensitivity, his insatiable curiosity about other people, and his fearlessness at the front distinguished him and resulted in some of the best war reporting ever written. His dispatches were full of portraits and histories of people and places he encountered, as well as philosophical musings, the raw material for Stalingrad and Life and Fate. Grossman wrote Stalingrad from his voluminous wartime notebooks.
Grossman stuck with the war from the beginning until the end, several times barely avoiding capture, and spent almost three months in the worst part of Stalingrad, the right bank of the Volga—it smelled like a “cross between a morgue and a blacksmith’s,” he wrote. He then joined the Red Army and it swept through the occupied territories of Ukraine and Belarus, including his largely Jewish hometown of Berdichev, where his disabled mother had been trapped with others unable to flee. His devastating essay on the Shoah in the occupied territories, “Ukraine Without Jews,” is all the more heartbreaking because it doesn’t mention his mother, who, like millions of others, had disappeared without a trace:
I travelled and walked this land from the northern Donets to the Dnieper, from Voroshilovgrad in the Donbass to Chernigov on the Desna; I have walked along the Dnieper and looked out at Kiev. And during all this time, I met one single Jew.
To get Stalingrad published, Grossman underwent a three-year editorial process so nightmarish that the book exists in twelve distinct versions. By the end, he was begging his editor-tormentors, “Give me any reply, as long as it’s final.” Seemingly anticipating problems from the beginning, he even kept a journal titled “Diary of the Journey of the Novel For a Just Cause Through Publishing Houses.” There was an official governmental push to have a “red” Tolstoy, and in taking on the task, Grossman had set a high bar for himself. War and Peace was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he designed Stalingrad according to its schematic. The novel, which would portray Stalin and Khrushchev, was expected to be pitch-perfect.
Stalingrad is a nineteenth-century novel updated for the twentieth century, and at times feels like a diorama. Like a post-rock record, the book has meandering, slow chapters, where Grossman noodles off in a corner, exploring, to no discernible end, some aspect of human nature during wartime. But it is also a time capsule of lives, documenting the ideological nuances and socioeconomic complexity of this lost world. It is a reminder that there were classes in Stalinist society. There were bourgeois city dwellers and poor farmers, Communists and non-Communists, reactionaries, Old Bolsheviks, internationalist Comintern officials; fur coats, pianos, subways, airplanes; careerism, backbiting, and ambition. It was a complex world—a recognizable world, which has largely been painted over by the gray, totalitarian 1984 vision of the Cold War. Grossman’s style and focus—in which his own voice is excised, and an omniscient, objective narration reigns—almost seems like a predecessor of Western magazine war reporting. There are world-historical set pieces with Hitler and Mussolini and the generals, but the bulk of the book follows the day-to-day experiences of ordinary people caught in events beyond their control.
One such character is Krymov, an honest and committed former Comintern agent who throws himself into the tumult of war, signing up as a political instructor on the Southwestern Front. As he prepares to leave fortified Moscow, the “scowling city,” he stops off in Red Square to hear Stalin speak.
In the murk Krymov was unable to make out his face. But his words were entirely clear. Towards the end of his speech, he wiped the snow from his face just as the rank-and-file soldiers had done, looked around the square and said, “Can anyone doubt that we can and must defeat the German invaders?”
Crisscrossing the front lines in Ukraine, Krymov is stunned by the disarray he finds in the Soviet defense. Generals and soldiers are poisoned by an attitude of retreatism. “The retreat had developed its customs and routines; it had become a way of life.” Rather than defending the territory, the Red Army has learned that it can continually fall back into the Soviet Union’s interior without real consequences:
Those who retreated brought the war with them, close on their heels. The vast spaces to the east were a dangerous lure. The limitlessness of the Russian steppes was treacherous; it seemed to offer the possibility of escape, but this was an illusion . . . The troops were bound to the war by a heavy chain, and no retreat could snap this chain; the further they retreated, the heavier the chain grew and the more tightly it bound them.
Krymov fantasizes about teaching his soldiers an object lesson, to show them “that no part can survive without the whole.” When he is handed the infamous “Not One Step Back!” order, in which Stalin made retreat punishable by death, he is awed to learn the man at the top shares his on-the-ground analysis. This seeming endorsement of Stalin’s strategy was not part of the compulsory edits foisted upon Grossman.
Gorky and his early advice to make “useful” art runs like a shadow through both Stalingrad and Life and Fate. In Stalingrad, the hard-line Communist Marusya scolds her younger sister, Zhenya, for painting pictures rather than making propaganda posters, using Gorky’s exact words: “There’s the truth of the reality that will defeat the past. It’s this second truth, the truth of the future, that I want to live by.” This ongoing conversation with Gorky continues in Life and Fate, when Krymov is being brutally beaten by the N.K.V.D. in order to extract a false confession. The investigator points to a portrait of Gorky above his desk: “ ‘What was it the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky once said?’ . . . ‘If an enemy won’t yield, he must be destroyed.’ ”
Stalin’s role in both books is that of the Old Testament God—distant, motivating the weakhearted, speaking the unspoken desires of the masses, doling out cruel and punishing fates. He is also the voice on the telephone ringing in the middle of the night saying, “I wish you success in your work,” imparting his pardon and blessing. The city of Stalingrad itself is also an important character, wedged up against the Kazakh steppes, a straight shot up to Moscow. From Stalingrad, there is nowhere else to run. One by one, all the characters realize this.
Reading the Chandlers’ “restored” version—which undoes much of the prior censorship—one finds it hard to understand what made Stalingrad so controversial. (The Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov called it “spittle in the face of the Russian people.”) The novel exudes Soviet triumphalism, glorifying the ordinary steelworkers, collective farmers, and Red Army soldiers that sacrificed themselves for the motherland.
According to Popoff, the main issue was the Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum—he was not the “right kind” of central character for a book of this magnitude. This was bureaucratic anti-Semitism at work. Grossman’s editors and gatekeepers were anxious to make the book “safe”—something he didn’t want. Some regarded him as an “exceptionally difficult author—obstinate and troublesome.”
Grossman’s editors flip-flopped, having him remove Shtrum, then allowing him back in, punting responsibility off to various agencies and institutes. The text was finally denounced to the Central Committee by a competing writer, and printing was halted. Grossman’s editors physically hid from him, falling into alcoholism. Grossman, in turn, wrote directly to Stalin that his book was trapped in editorial purgatory, but got no response. The submission was ill timed, coinciding with a campaign against “cosmopolitanism” and Jewish nationalism that led back to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which Grossman had been part of. He was told to remove Shtrum, but stood his ground. “Editing must have its limits,” Grossman wrote. “When twelve middle-aged men interfere in creative work, the resulting picture is bad.”
The book finally appeared in serialized form and sold well, but several months later, the “killer doctors” plot came to light—in which Jewish doctors were accused of plotting to poison Stalin. A denunciation campaign against Grossman and his book kicked off in the major papers, his editors calling the publication a “grave mistake” and demanding the advance back.
In this suffocating atmosphere, Grossman was asked to sign an open letter from prominent Jews calling for the execution of the killer doctors. He did so, perhaps thinking it might save his book, and immediately regretted it, drinking vodka in the street on his way home. Signing the symbolic letter did nothing to stop the slander campaign against him and his work. Former friends and editors kept their distance, and the phone stopped ringing. In Stalingrad, he hadn’t quite given up on the system, hadn’t resolved to stop making compromises. In Life and Fate, Shtrum is haunted by his decision to sign a similar letter, in order to save his career and social position.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Grossman still believed he could slip Life and Fate through the system. After all, Khrushchev’s thaw was underway—wasn’t there room for heretical thinking? When his friend Semyon Lipkin begged him not to send the manuscript out, telling him that he would be arrested, Grossman exploded: “I’m not a coward, like you, I will not be writing for my desk drawer.”
It didn’t go well. After sending the manuscript to an editor who had gone to bat for him in the past, Grossman was summoned to a struggle session disguised as an editorial meeting in which other writers were directed to have “an intense political conversation” with him. He declined to attend, but the message was loud and clear—the novel could be published, maybe, in 250 years. The KGB confiscated all known manuscripts from his house and various editorial offices on Valentine’s Day.
The novel was considered far more damaging than Doctor Zhivago. The author had watched the crucifixion of Boris Pasternak with great interest. The CIA promoted that book heavily as part of their Cold War cultural front, and there were fears that Grossman would send his own novel abroad.
But Grossman wasn’t interested in following Pasternak’s path of becoming a dissident writer—the cost, of losing the Soviet readers he cared about most, was too high. “He wanted political change to come from within,” Popoff writes. Instead, Grossman appealed directly to Khrushchev, begging him to release his novel. Khrushchev in turn handed him off to the head of Agitation and Propaganda, Mikhail Suslov, who met with him. In his notes from the meeting, Suslov seems vexed:
Your novel will serve only to benefit our enemies. . . . Why should we add your book to the nuclear bombs that our enemies are getting ready for us? . . . Why should we publish your book and launch a public discussion with you on whether people need Soviet power? . . .
I highly value [Stepan] Kolchugin,The People Immortal, and [For a Just Cause]. . . . I urge you to return to your former outlook, which you held at the time when you wrote these books . . .
“It would have been better if they killed me,” Grossman later told his daughter.
After Life and Fate was suppressed, the Soviet regime tried to keep Grossman busy (and quiet) by offering him a gig translating a long Armenian novel. Having written his own masterpiece, he was understandably insulted, but the trip to Armenia seems to have done him good. There, he wrote a wonderful travelogue, An Armenian Sketchbook, which contains some of the most personal and moving writing of his life.
The book opens with Grossman musing on a massive statue of Stalin overlooking the capital of Yerevan:
If a cosmonaut from a far-off planet were to see this bronze giant towering over the capital of Armenia, he would understand at once that it is a monument to a great and terrible ruler. . . . He is the expression of a power so vast that it can belong only to God.
When Grossman praises the statue to his Armenian companions, they become uncomfortable:
My companions would not concede that he had played even the slightest role in the construction of heavy industry, in the conduct of the war, in the creation of the Soviet state apparatus: Everything had been achieved regardless of him, in spite of him. Their lack of objectivity was so glaring that I felt an involuntary urge to stand up for Stalin. . . . Their hysterical worship of Stalin and their total and unconditional rejection of him sprang from the same soil.
Even after all he had been through, Grossman could still maintain a sense of ambivalence toward the person who ruined his life and had so many of his friends and family exiled or shot. “No, no, it was impossible not to give this figure his due—this instigator of countless inhuman crimes was also the leader, the merciless builder of a great and terrible state.”
The war was over, his career was over, and he no longer had to keep up a front. Though he had made so many sacrifices and compromises to become a part of the Soviet literary world, in the end he was unable to fully subordinate himself to it. But in exile, he had, in a roundabout way, gotten what he had always wanted: freedom to write what he pleased. Grossman could embrace any number of contradictions: loyal Soviet citizen and dissident, kulak and commissar, Stalin worshipper and Stalin hater, in-group and out.
But Grossman’s central preoccupation remained freedom, romanticizing what had been so frequently denied to him. Buried in An Armenian Sketchbook is probably one of the best, most deeply felt paragraphs on what it is to have to wake up every day in captivity, when one longs to be free, but is still trapped in the maw:
How mighty, how terrible, and how kind is the power of habit! People can get used to anything—the sea, the southern stars, love, a bunk in a prison, the barbed wire of the camps.
What an abyss lies between the first night of passion and a long, grinding argument about how best to bring up the children! How little there is in common between a first wonderful encounter with the sea and trudging along the shore in the stifling midday heat to buy something from the souvenir kiosk! How terrible the despair of a man who has just lost his freedom! And then there he is, lying on his bunk and yawning as he wonders what will be in today’s prison gruel: pearl barley or pickled cabbage? What creates this abyss is the power of habit. Dull as it seems, it is as powerful as dynamite; it can destroy anything. Passion, hatred, grief, pain—habit can destroy them all.
Discussed in this essay:
The Films of Abbas Kiarostami, a nationally touring retrospective. Janus Films.
In 1994, to celebrate their four-hundredth issue, the editors of the French film magazine Positif asked dozens of directors for short essays about the movies that shaped them. Abbas Kiarostami began by dodging the question. “For a long time now I haven’t been watching films,” he wrote. “I’ve lost the habit.” The film he chose was neither one of the Iranian New Wave milestones he’d elsewhere cited among his few influences—Sohrab Shahid-Saless’s A Simple Event (1974), Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973)—nor one of the Italian neorealist classics to which European critics often compared his own dense, tactile work. It was La Dolce Vita (1960). When he saw it at twenty-one, he remembered, he had lingered over “the spectacle of powerlessness and despair” in that acidic portrait of the Roman elite. What struck him was the way Fellini’s intellectuals and photographers seemed to burrow into their unhappiness, “spending their time in the most total passivity.” He considered it a cautionary tale. “I think the rest of us men,” he reflected (he took little note of the women at the center of the film), “don’t have the right either to live in that gloomy way or to have such a sinister view of the world.”
But he still seemed to have been marked by the movie’s vision of depleted people brought to a collective impasse. The films he made between 1970 and his death in 2016—nearly fifty stylistically varied shorts and features that glide nimbly between fiction and non-fiction—often turn on scenes of inertia, powerlessness, and inaction. He was drawn to traffic jams like the ones that at various points bother the vain, abusive husband in The Report (1977), the traffic cop we follow at buzzing close range for the entirety of Fellow Citizen (1983), and the filmmaker who tries to navigate rubble-covered mountain highways in And Life Goes On (1992). His characters keep losing energy—the young boy in The Traveler (1974) sleeps through the Tehran soccer game he’s spent the film scheming to see—and getting stuck. “How strange that my best story would take place on a dead end,” an overconfident reporter in Close-Up (1990) exclaims as he and his entourage drive up to the cul-de-sac where his prospective subjects live. Then he realizes he’s forgotten his tape recorder.
Kiarostami was ambivalent about inaction. He disapproved of it in theory—it was the “gloomy” way of living to which he didn’t have a right—and counted on his fierce work ethic to stave it off in practice. (In one of his seminars, he praised a former student who “made three films in two days.”) But it preoccupied him. In his movies, he could spend minutes at a time dwelling on inanimate objects buffeted by forces outside their control: the aerosol can a bored taxi driver kicks down a road in Close-Up; the bone that floats down a stream at the end of The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); or the log tossed by the tide in the first of the long shoreline nature shots that make up Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), one of his late experiments in nonnarrative film. His features moved with a kind of terse, unhurried poise, dispensing tonal changes and dramatic developments at a steady drip. Objects and people lurched, floated, ran, and drove through his impeccable compositions. But the camera tended to find the right spot—in the passenger’s seat of a car, atop a distant hillside, across a city street—and stay put.
By the mid-1990s, Kiarostami had become not only the best known among the numerous important Iranian directors of his generation but one of the most revered working filmmakers. He gave countless interviews, appeared in documentaries, taught workshops, and, in the non-fiction feature 10 on Ten (2004), drove around giving filmmaking lessons to a dashboard camera. For critics in the United States, Britain, and France, his films were welcome counterpoints to “the fundamentalist stereotype” that swirled around post-revolutionary Iran (as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out) or to “America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema” (as A. S. Hamrah has argued persuasively). His patient, contemplative style helped single him out as a successor to the auteurs who had shaped film culture in the second half of the twentieth century. It was often noted that Jean-Luc Godard had said that cinema “starts with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami,” or that after Satyajit Ray died, Akira Kurosawa “thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Kiarostami met those comparisons with modest demurrals. (When the two filmmakers met in Tokyo, he reportedly emphasized that “Kurosawa [was] far more famous.”) He had a way of refusing the parts his critics assigned him. In 1995, an interviewer asked him whether the “almost pointedly humanistic” strain in “the Iranian films we see in the U.S.” was a rebuke to “dogmatism and fanaticism” under the Islamic Republic. “I think that’s a fair conclusion to draw,” he said. “But it is yours. You can’t praise me and then ask me to endorse your praise.”
References to “humanism” saturate the writing Kiarostami inspired. It was as if that word had come to stand for his uncondescending curiosity about the lives of children or for the diligent attention he gave his characters as they tried to lose themselves in thought. But he was no less interested in the limits of human effort than in what it could do. His subjects kept finding that the constraints on their freedom were tighter than they’d hoped for and seeing their opportunities for contemplation shrink. The authorities who bullied them were at once almost generic types—the strict teacher, the unbending parent, the relentless suitor, the impassive judge—and mordant portraits of the sorts of figures on whom power settled in Kiarostami’s Iran. In Homework (1989), his documentary about an elementary school during the Iran–Iraq War, he interwove scenes of the students learning bellicose chants (“Saddam’s followers are doomed!”) with testimonies about the discipline their teachers and parents imposed on them.
For his characters, inaction was less often a symptom of “the decline of contemporary civilization”—as Kiarostami thought it had been for Fellini—than an intimate kind of resistance, a way of defying the restrictions on their movements and minds. His movies deepened as he seemed to realize that this sort of defiant passivity could, as a filmmaking practice, become the basis for a new way of organizing time and perception onscreen. If it protected his characters from having to bring their thoughts to a point it had a similar effect on the form of his movies, giving the camera permission to study its surroundings more indulgently, acclimating it to different timetables, widening its tolerance for inconclusiveness and disorder so that viewers would need to piece together “answers to [their] own questions.” The inertia that gave his characters a defense against power could at the same time enable a cinematic style that trained a more attentive, active audience.
Janus’s ambitious new traveling retrospective of Kiarostami’s films—including long-unavailable early work, and a number of new restorations from mk2 and the Criterion Collection—is a rare chance to watch that style evolve. Children are a constant presence. The young boys in First Graders (1984) and Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) dig in their heels against authority figures who issue pointless orders and brandish threats. In the first of the two thought experiments that make up Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (1979), a group of schoolboys sits through a weeklong suspension for refusing to tell on one of their disruptive classmates.
Some of the more acute pressures Kiarostami’s characters resisted came from getting filmed. The children in Homework answer questions from Kiarostami’s crew—Do their parents beat them? When do they get rewarded? What cartoons do they like?—between shots of the camera itself whirring at them with bullying intensity. They squirm under its stare. Twenty years later, he made a short film in which an Italian casting director asks a grinning young girl during her screen test if she’d be willing to cut off “practically all” her hair for the role. Her face falls, she shakes her head again and again, and Kiarostami cuts to a montage of other candidates making the same sad gesture of rejection. He called the movie No.
Muteness, refusal, and a kind of defiant isolation dominate his accounts of his early life. He was born in Tehran in 1940. “I remember silence at home,” he told the Guardian. In a set of autobiographical notes he called himself a “solitary, taciturn” child. “Between kindergarten and the sixth grade I didn’t talk to anybody,” he wrote. “Not a single word.”
Art was both a family business—his father was a painter—and a venue for self-communion. “When everyone was sleeping and I couldn’t,” he remembered, “I would slip out of bed, go out on the balcony to avoid making noise, and draw.” He failed his first entrance exam at Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and, once he got in, needed to find other jobs to support himself. He worked as a traffic cop and a surveyor for the roads department, painting during the day and directing cars by night. It took him thirteen years to graduate.
By that time he had left painting behind. He had been designing posters and book covers when, at twenty, he sent a local advertising firm a poem about “a certain type of bathroom water heater.” Three days later, he saw it on cable. He became a prolific director of TV commercials—he claimed to have made more than a hundred and fifty over the course of the 1960s—and in 1967 started designing film credit sequences, too. Two years later, a friend invited him to join the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon), an educational center supported by the shah’s wife that branched into film production just as the Iranian New Wave was taking shape.
In his earliest shorts and his first three features, lonely young boys scurried through spaces that threatened and dwarfed them: the narrow street guarded by an aggressive dog in Bread and Alley (1970), for instance, or the photography studio presided over by a stern, violent boss in The Experience (1973). They kept their heads down, planned little rebellions against their teachers and employers, and slipped away in search of forbidden entertainments: a moment to show off for an older girl, a soccer game, a magic act. The camera tended to hug them, picking up their glimmers of cocky self-assurance and their moments of abject fear. But from time to time it took a bird’s-eye view. In A Wedding Suit (1976), it hovers over the balcony of the second-story tailor’s shop where a browbeaten young apprentice hurries to cover up a theft into which his friends pressured him.
These films worried over surveillance and exposure. They came out during the shah’s last decade in power, when the secret police were rounding up and torturing Marxist and Islamic dissidents and opposition members were giving forced public confessions. As Hamid Naficy showed in his monumental A Social History of Iranian Cinema (2011–2012), the generation of filmmakers who emerged in these years—among them Shahid-Saless, Kimiavi, Dariush Mehrjui, and Parviz Sayyad—both depended on state institutions for sponsorship and found an encrypted cinematic language to subvert them. What Naficy calls “a dissident cinema” had to become a self-reflexive one, skeptical about the realities it claimed to show. Mehrjui, whose rural fable The Cow (1969) helped inaugurate this sensibility, studied philosophy at U.C.L.A. and, in 1987, translated Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension. “Art does not aim to overthrow or destroy reality,” he wrote in his introduction. “On the contrary, it negates and critiques it from affection, or in the words of Marcuse, from love for it.”
As early as the mid-1970s, Kiarostami seemed to have been impressed by a version of that thought. It was as if he had come to see the camera as an unstable source of authority, imposing a flimsy sense of order on the hectic bodies and landscapes it recorded. It relied on false promises like the one the young protagonist of The Traveler makes when he gets ahold of an old camera with no film in the chamber, lines up his classmates at recess, and pretends to take their portraits for a fee. For the late film theorist Gilberto Perez, it was precisely by emphasizing the camera’s place in “the reality [it] represented” that Kiarostami could capture grim facts such as the way the children in Homework “cower” under interrogation or brief moments of exhilaration like the prayer for “happiness and joy” a boy recites, at Kiarostami’s prompting, in that movie’s last scene.
The Islamic Revolution came during Kiarostami’s tenth year at Kanoon, when he was working on Case No. 1, Case No. 2. His biographer Alberto Elena reports that he had “to rethink the film to a great extent.” In the finished movie, a varied group of interview subjects—writers, educators, politicians, lawyers, filmmakers—comment from a screening room on two scenes of classroom punishment and defiance. Sadegh Khalkhali, a judge soon to become notorious for giving summary death sentences, thought it was “repulsive” to “want the students to betray one another.”
Under Ayatollah Khomeini, filmmaking was both a tool of state power and an object of severe suspicion. Naficy relates that Kiarostami and his colleagues in the New Wave were spared the worst of the industry’s brutal postrevolutionary “purification”—during which numerous film professionals were imprisoned, exiled, or executed—because of “their history of dissident moviemaking” under the shah, but nonetheless had to refute suspicions “of secularism, communism, or agnosticism.” They needed to be “rehabilitated.” The censors banned Case No. 1, Case No. 2; a decade later, according to Elena, they cut a sly scene from Homework in which that movie’s schoolboys garble a group prayer so badly that Kiarostami intervenes in a voiceover to say he’s dropped the sound “as a gesture of respect.”
During the first six years after the revolution, Kiarostami concentrated on documentaries. Many of them turned on scenes of order and discipline. Fellow Citizen and First Graders both follow harried officials—a traffic cop, an elementary school principal—who spend the movies fielding excuses, giving out rebukes, and exhausting themselves trying to regulate and manage the slippery movements of the people they’ve been assigned to control. The short Orderly or Disorderly (1981) contrasts anarchic scenes of kids mobbing a water fountain and piling onto a school bus with vignettes in which they go about the same business with brisk efficiency. Before long, it breaks down. The filmmakers keep having to redo the last example, an intersection at rush hour, when the traffic won’t cooperate. Perez argued that it was Kiarostami’s mischievous way of asking how a director could impose order “on unruly life.”
That question seemed to haunt Kiarostami after he returned to fictional feature filmmaking with Where Is the Friend’s House?, the vision of a schoolboy on the move that made his international reputation. He liked the thought that the camera could be a receptive, recumbent presence in a scene rather than a coercive or domineering one. Still, he knew what he was looking for, and one way or another he needed reality to furnish it. For a year before he shot Through the Olive Trees (1994), he kept meeting with that film’s nonprofessional lead actor, feeding him brief lines of dialogue and convincing him after the fact that the young man had come up with them himself. (“It’s like giving someone hair implants,” Kiarostami said. “You have to add just one or two strands at a time.”) In a 1998 conversation that appears in Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s invaluable, recently expanded monograph on his work, he used “a verse from the poet Rumi” to describe how he directed the people he filmed:
You are my polo ball,
Running before the stick of my command
I am always running after you,
Though it is I who make you move.
Filming these sorts of efforts to give “unruly life” a script became one of Kiarostami’s signature gestures. In 1989, he came across a report about an out-of-work bookbinder, Hossein Sabzian, who’d incorporated himself into the life of a middle-class Tehran family by convincing them that he was the revered filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. To make Close-Up, Kiarostami persuaded both the family and Sabzian to reenact the scam on camera, got permission to film the trial, and, according to the critic Godfrey Cheshire, wrote most of the defendant’s riveting speeches himself, “though he based them on things Sabzian had actually said.”
Those trial testimonies both multiplied the film’s layers of reenactment and seemed to pierce through them. At a certain point, Kiarostami admitted years later, the judge had already left for the day; the crew kept filming Sabzian on their own “for another nine hours.” In the footage they took, he enthuses over Makhmalbaf’s films because “they show the evil faces of those who play with the lives of others, the rich who pay no attention to the simple material needs of the poor.” Sabzian had been hoping to make a movie of his own, he told the reporter who interviewed him after his arrest. “I wanted to call it The Atrocity.”
The year Kiarostami finished Close-Up, an earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in the part of northern Iran where he had shot Where Is the Friend’s House? In And Life Goes On, he showed a fictionalized filmmaker (Farhad Kheradmand) driving with his son through that traumatized landscape, looking for the earlier film’s young stars. What seem like tender portraits of the people they meet—a woman who lost sixteen family members, a couple who married the day after the disaster—jostle against moments that belie the movie’s pretense to faithful reportage. One man offers to put them up, then admits that the house he’s been told to stop at isn’t really his. He lives in a tent “like the ones you saw by the road,” he mutters. “This film is a pack of lies.” The young couple isn’t a couple at all. In the movie’s sequel, Through the Olive Trees, yet another onscreen director figure (Mohammad-Ali Keshavarz) makes them run through their scene with Kheradmand again and again because Hossein, the young man, keeps mixing up how many family members his character lost in the earthquake with how many he lost himself.
The director characters slouch through these movies. The people they cast can’t be called to order; the roads they drive along dead-end or fill with rubble; they drift around with a kind of melancholy helplessness. In that respect, they became a template for the middle-aged men at the center of Kiarostami’s later films from the 1990s. The mysterious, suicidal loner in Taste of Cherry (1997), and the predatory journalist in The Wind Will Carry Us court conversation with strangers but keep a distance from the social spaces they pass through. What comfort these characters have comes from solitary communion with landscapes that strand even as they beguile and soothe: the clay the hero of Taste of Cherry watches a construction crew churn, or the green, rolling hills the survivors in Through the Olive Trees abandoned because, an old man explains, “help couldn’t reach them” when the earthquake came.
The driver in Taste of Cherry spends the film picking up passersby—a nervous Kurdish soldier on his way back to base, a reserved Afghan religion student, and an elderly Turkish taxidermist—and offering them a generous fee to bury his body in a remote roadside grave. They all resist his direction, either by running off or insisting on giving him advice. Off-camera, meanwhile, Kiarostami too was trying to master them. He sat in the driver’s seat as he filmed their reaction shots. “I actually made him believe I was planning to kill myself,” he told Rosenbaum about the actor who played the young soldier. “At another point, I placed a gun in the glove compartment and asked him to open it for a chocolate, when I wanted him to look afraid.”
These power plays produced a film that for its own part seemed strikingly averse to manipulation or force. Taste of Cherry was a tribute to powerlessness and its bitter consolations. It leaves its protagonist lying in the grave he’s dug for himself and watching the night sky cloud over with a gathering storm. The walls of earth enclose his face as flashes of lightning illuminate it. Then a cut takes us to his perspective, aligning the grave’s frame with that of the screen. His resignation makes him a filmmaker.
Kiarostami was drawn to the idea that a film could turn on observer figures who declined or failed to act on the world. Their powerlessness was the price they paid for their relative mobility—their freedom to orbit from town to town, come and go from schools or courtrooms, or drive from one scene of quiet despair to another. He claimed a similar persona for himself. In public he acted the part of the isolated spectator, translating everything he saw into framed compositions. “I wish I was born with rectangular bars attached to my pupils,” he told an interviewer. Since shortly after the revolution, he had been taking landscape photographs: majestic color images of mountains shadowed by clouds or covered in snow. None of the seventy-eight he collected in a 1999 book has any human subjects. The still pictures into which he digitally inserted moving animals, pluming smoke, and drifting snowflakes in 24 Frames (2017), a nonnarrative film his son Ahmad completed after his death, often position us behind windows or observation rails that add another layer of distance to the movie’s snow-globe animations.
The fabric of communal, collective life in his movies tends to be threadbare. Parents are threatening (Homework); husbands are tyrannical (The Report); friendships become excuses for characters to set out on adventures alone (Where Is the Friend’s House?). The warmest shared moments are often improvised encounters between people with few prior ties, of which Kiarostami gave a template in his first book of poetry: “A stranger / asks directions / from a newcomer, / also a stranger.”
Strangers respected each other’s aloneness, a mechanism for self-protection that elsewhere came under threat. Hossein, in Through the Olive Trees, spends that movie relentlessly urging his co-star Tahereh to marry him. Because he takes any gesture on her part as a sign of encouragement, she’s forced to play the sort of passive, inactive character other Kiarostami protagonists got to choose to become. “If you don’t dare say yes,” he tells her when she ignores him and tries to read a book, “just turn the page. That will be my reply.” She doesn’t turn it.
She was one of the first women of any prominence in a Kiarostami film since TheReport. In interviews he insisted that he wouldn’t make, for instance, a film “directly about a young woman” because the censorship codes forbade showing actresses unveiled. (This cannot quite be the full story; as the critic Tina Hassannia has noted, he had been “making films centered around young men for years before the Islamic Revolution.”) Female characters drifted along the margins of his movies and made fleeting appearances: washing laundry in a courtyard; passing an actor a prop; requesting a picture with a man whose face we can’t see. In 2008, the scholar Negar Mottahedeh suggested that populating these “minor scenes” with spectral, veiled female onlookers and passersby had been Kiarostami’s way of calling attention to the “disquieting absence of women” in major ones.
It was an absence he eventually claimed to regret. “Leaving women out of my films wasn’t a very intelligent decision,” he said in a 2002 interview. “Now I feel as if I’m getting into a boxing ring with one fist tied behind my back.” His three later narrative films—Ten (2002), Certified Copy (2010), and Like Someone in Love (2012)—all center on women who resist the encroachments of marriage on their range of mobility or their powers of observation. He shot these movies on digital video, a format he first used in 2001 to make a documentary in Uganda and thrilled over, he said in 10 on Ten with poker-faced hyperbole, because it seemed to show “truth from every angle.”
We spend Ten watching a divorced taxi driver ferry around her hectoring young son and strike up candid conversations with friends and fares from a fixed dashboard camera. It was as if shooting digitally had freed Kiarostami to lengthen his shots, simplify his intricate visual syntax, and catch people talking with a new frankness about politics, marriage, and sex. In his subsequent nonnarrative features, he started deepening the texture of his digital images, playing with extremes of light and shadow such as the ones in the long sequence of a stormy nocturnal lagoon that concludes Five Dedicated to Ozu, or with the play of light on faces like those of the moviegoers, all women, who fill Shirin (2008). The last two fictional movies he finished—he shot Certified Copy in Tuscany and Like Someone in Love in Tokyo—were as shimmering and elaborate as Ten had been unfussy. He crowded them with reflective surfaces, tucked frames inside frames, and put the camera behind windows or in front of car windshields to layer the movements of his actors under flowing patterns of buildings and sky.
These two late films depend on cases of mistaken identity. When Juliette Binoche’s French antiques dealer in Certified Copy gets taken for the wife of a British author she’s apparently just met, the two of them go with the story until they seem to become the couple they resembled. Akiko (Rin Takanashi), the young woman at the center of Like Someone in Love, does sex work to fund her college tuition and has to play along when her abusive and controlling boyfriend mistakes her latest client—a kindly, retired professor—for her grandfather. He asks the elderly man for permission to marry her and, like Hossein in Through the Olive Trees, won’t be dissuaded. He bullies her, hounds her, and, in the movie’s last scene, besieges the apartment in which she’s hidden.
Inaction becomes a shield against his threats. When her grandmother visits Tokyo for the day, Akiko ignores all her calls and voicemails. That night, in a cab to the professor’s apartment, she watches the city roll by, listens to her grandmother’s poignant messages, and asks her driver to pass by the station so she can glimpse the old woman waiting for the late train home. Then she falls asleep.
The cab encases her—Rosenbaum thought Kiarostami had captured how “cars constitute a kind of personal armor”—and frees her to sink into the part of a passive, gliding observer. Kiarostami loved shooting in moving vehicles, he told an interviewer after Taste of Cherry came out, because they were like benches “where two people could sit down next to one another and look at the same landscape” without feeling the need to wrench each other out of their respective solitudes or interrupt each other’s thoughts. They imposed little obligation, made few demands. “You can sit someone down in your car without needing to be or become their friend,” he went on. “And then, at some point, that person gets out and leaves.”
From an interview in the November 28, 2018, edition of Le Monde with Élisabeth Badinter, conducted by Jean Birnbaum. Badinter is a French public intellectual and historian whose three-part history of the Enlightenment, Les Passions intellectuelles, was republished as one volume by Éditions Robert Laffont in November. Translated from the French by John Cullen.
birnbaum: It’s been more than fifteen years since the first volume of your trilogy appeared. What is there in the current context that inspired you to reissue your work?
badinter: We have a need for rationality today. The philosophes of the eighteenth century, after all, were engaged in a battle of rationality versus superstition, and now, in a period when the irrational is taking up a vast amount of space in our social and intellectual lives, returning to that battle seems appropriate.
birnbaum: “The intellectuals had changed masters, but they were still slaves.” You wrote that sentence at the end of the third volume of your Passions, explaining that the clercs—the highly educated—were obeying the king less and less and opinion more and more. What do today’s intellectuals obey?
badinter: Social media! That’s what everyone’s afraid of. There are subjects one barely broaches, and then on tiptoe—#MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc. Social media have doubled the power of a public opinion that’s free to say anything it wants but is often lacking in nuance, ill-informed, and incredibly violent. In the eighteenth century, popular opinion, the so-called doxa, respected the learned, respected philosophers, and it was limited. It was nothing compared with what’s going on today; no one feels eager to get crushed under the insults of millions of people.
birnbaum: “It’s lonely, and I have such a great need for ‘community,’” François Mauriac wrote in a letter to Jacques Maritain. Aren’t intellectuals all the more intimidated by social media because they’re plagued, in their solitude, by a desire for “community”?
badinter: You have to distinguish between established intellectuals recognized by public opinion and the younger class of intellectuals. In the beginning, if you were Diderot, Rousseau, d’Alembert, and you had lunch together once a week at the Hôtel du Panier Fleuri, you formed a friendly community. But when the same people emerged into public consciousness, then the group broke up, because rivalries took over. And that’s when individuals become isolated and alone. I see this every-man-for-himself attitude today.
birnbaum: As the years have passed, things on Twitter have become a lot harsher, to the point where everyone seems to steer clear of an honest discussion and to desire enemies rather than opponents. Are we witnessing a “Twitterization” of the intellectual debate?
badinter: I don’t have the impression that relations among intellectuals have fundamentally changed in the past twenty years. You put a distance between yourself and other people, but you don’t treat them like enemies. Might it even be possible that intellectuals are going to rediscover a sense of community precisely because of the hostility they encounter on social media? If we’re the objects of general loathing, that could put a little life back into us! Intellectuals could regress six or seven centuries and return to the lives of the scholars who talked things over in convents and monasteries without any outside intervention. We’ll reflect, exchange ideas, hold colloquiums, have yelling matches, but there will be just us. So I remain comparatively optimistic: the intellectual life is a choice, a pleasure, a pain, but it’s also a need. Nothing will be able to put an end to it.
birnbaum: Correspondence has always had a fundamental place in intellectual life. What’s going to become of it in the digital age?
badinter: It’s a source of knowledge that’s lost today, because nobody writes letters anymore. The philosophers’ letters that I cite in my books could reach eight, fifteen, twenty pages, whatever it took to articulate an argument. If correspondence has been fundamental to intellectual life, it’s because, in general, private letters haven’t been subject to censorship, and you could express all your thoughts in them. In eighteenth-century correspondence, even very straitlaced people—a scientist like Réaumur, for example—always ended up letting themselves go, thereby clarifying some aspect of their personality. Regular correspondence provides deeper knowledge of the addressees and is the source of fruitful controversies. The correspondents aren’t anxious, and even if they’re sometimes wrong, they count on being able to speak freely. I don’t think it’s possible to speak freely on the internet. I don’t use email to carry on any correspondence worthy of the name. When I write a letter, I’m more confident. Aren’t you?
Discussed in this essay:
The Nocilla Trilogy: Nocilla Dream, Nocilla Experience, Nocilla Lab, by Agustín Fernández Mallo. Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 560 pages. $30.
The May 18, 2004, edition of the New York Times carried an article by Charlie LeDuff, under the headline middle gate journal; on loneliest road, a unique tree thrives. The article begins with a solitary man hitchhiking from San Francisco on the transcontinental US Route 50, which runs 260 miles through the Nevada desert, from Carson City to Ely, “a whorehouse at each end and not much company in between.” After a few paragraphs, LeDuff shifts his attention to a local curiosity: about halfway through the desert, near the tiny town of Middle Gate, a collection of cottonwood trees has put down roots despite the arid conditions, and passing travelers have covered one of them with thousands of shoes—“snorkeling flippers, tennis shoes, work boots, flip-flops, high heels, pumps, baby booties.” LeDuff speaks with locals who explain how the tradition of tossing footwear on the tree began two decades earlier and offer their own philosophical gloss on the phenomenon:
The shoes are like some kind of letter or photograph or stain, the locals explain, some proof that something happened here, that there are other souls traveling on the road of loneliness.
Soon after the article appeared, a Spanish physicist and poet, Agustín Fernández Mallo, transformed it into a short, strange novel called Nocilla Dream. As this title suggests, the book is less an adaptation of the article than an adaptation of the dream you might have if reading the article had been the last thing you did before turning off the lights. (Nocilla is a chocolate and hazelnut spread, the off-brand Spanish equivalent of Nutella, which gives its name to a punk song that Fernández Mallo happened to hear on the same day he read “Middle Gate Journal.”) Fernández Mallo’s book begins with a solitary hitchhiker from San Francisco on the “loneliest highway in North America,” and it ends with the same Shoe Tree origin story reported to LeDuff. Several locals quoted in the article appear as characters, with notable alterations. (A line from a bartender named Sherry is put almost verbatim in the mouth of a prostitute, also named Sherry.) Around this core, new story lines proliferate—a professional wall climber and his son drive Route 50 on their way to a competition; a woman in China conducts an online affair with the climber while her pedophile husband commits rape in front of reality TV cameras; an Argentinean staked out in a Las Vegas hotel room obsesses over Borges’s parable about a map as large as the territory it represents.
Nocilla Dream contains 113 chapters, many just a few lines, almost none longer than two pages. Some are short quotes from books on computer science, information theory, encryption, and cinematography. One chapter recounts another Times article from the period, about the stunt sport of “extreme ironing.” Several others examine the real-life phenomenon of micro-nations, in which radical libertarians and performance artists have declared sovereignty over various geographical and conceptual spaces. Knowingly fatuous philosophizing abounds: “The nomad makes a hearth around an idea,” begins a half-page chapter in which Michael Landon sits on the set of Highway to Heaven, reminiscing about Little House on the Prairie and contemplating mortality. Having faked his own death in Bolivia, Che Guevara travels to newly liberalized Vietnam, where he browses Che T-shirts before being unceremoniously run over by a motorcycle. There are, by my count, at least forty named characters introduced in the space of 175 pages. The whole thing is somewhat like the Shoe Tree—a network of branches, extending from a tenuously rooted foundation, onto which a confounding variety of crap has been tossed.
Soon after finishing Nocilla Dream, Fernández Mallo wrote a follow-up, Nocilla Experience. The second book carries over none of the plotlines from the first, but shares its form. This time there are 112 short chapters. A pair of young boys smuggle radioactive material from Ukraine to Kazakhstan by swallowing metal pills containing the isotopes and walking through underground pipelines. Every night they shit out the pills, wipe them down, and swallow them again. Immediately above them, in the Russian city of Ulan Erge—which sounds like a name out of Borges but is a real place—stands
a huge glass dome . . . intended to house all the things a person can imagine as long as the things a person imagines are related to Parchis, an adaptation of the Indian board game Pachisi, the ancestor of Ludo.
In Brooklyn Heights, reservations must be made months in advance for a restaurant that serves “furtive Polaroids of the customers taken through a hole in the kitchen wall, then fried in egg batter.” Julio Cortázar makes several appearances in which he attempts to explain the methods behind his groundbreaking novel Hopscotch, which offers readers ninety-nine “expendable” chapters that can be inserted between the book’s essential ones. Excerpts from real interviews conducted by the Spanish rock journalist Pablo Gil and variations on a single quote from Apocalypse Now make up between them about one tenth of the book. One chapter consists entirely of an excerpt from David Brooks’s review of a Malcolm Gladwell book, which is either the funniest or the stupidest literary gesture ever committed to paper.
The last volume in the trilogy, Nocilla Lab, is marginally more conventional than its predecessors. After a long first section that unfolds in a single sixty-page sentence, the drastically short chapters return, but they tell a single, relatively straightforward story. Given the autobiographical current of contemporary fiction, the first two volumes are notable for the complete absence of any authorial personality, but in Lab the project takes the seemingly inevitable self-referential turn, recounting in the first person the story of a Spanish writer named Agustín Fernández Mallo who is engaged in a vague but all-encompassing “project.”
Still, the events that transpire are too weird to qualify the work as autofiction. Early in the novel, the narrator buys a Portuguese translation of Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, in which a man who comes into a surprise inheritance abandons his life to drive back and forth across the United States, and Auster’s book becomes a kind of totem throughout the narrative. Though Fernández Mallo the character insists he has never read the author’s work before, Nocilla Lab feels very much like an existential road-trip novel in the Auster style. While on vacation in the Mediterranean, Fernández Mallo and his girlfriend find themselves at a prison that has been converted into a hotel. The proprietor stays in his room all day, surviving on government ecotourism subsidies rather than serving his guests. Gradually, Fernández Mallo takes over the role of running the hotel, only to discover that the proprietor, also named Agustín Fernández Mallo, is busy at work on the same grand project that the narrator has been neglecting. In the novel’s last pages, which devolve first into journal fragments and then into a comic strip, the narrator, no longer sure of his own identity, swims out to an oil rig, where he sits down for a coffee with Enrique Vila-Matas—a Spanish writer long famous for including real-life friends (Paul Auster among them) in his novels.
The Nocilla books were translated into English and released individually in the United Kingdom by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and they appear now in the United States in a tricked-out box set meant to signal “publishing event.” Like some other notable multivolume literary projects that have recently made their way to our shores—Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—they arrive with some extraliterary mystique in tow. In Ferrante’s case, this had to do with the author’s anonymity; in Knausgaard’s, something like the opposite. Here the legend concerns the project’s publication history.
“Nocilla Dream was the first Spanish book ever to go viral,” the trilogy’s translator, Thomas Bunstead, explains in his introduction. Put out by a small independent press, the book provoked an enormous reaction in Spain, becoming “the defining literary event of 2006.” A larger publisher promptly bought the next two books, which turned Fernández Mallo into “the most discussed Spanish author of the decade to follow.” When a group of young writers held a conference in 2007 to discuss “the conservatism they felt to be suffocating their national literature,” they were promptly dubbed the Nocilla Generation, a name that most of them seem to have embraced. (Fernández Mallo did not attend the conference.) Bunstead quotes one member of the cohort who calls Nocilla Dream “a shot to the heart of traditional novelistic representation” and another who says the book “radically changed my idea of what literature was.”
The most internationally prominent contemporary Spanish writers and, presumably, those against whom the Nocilla Generation is reacting, were born in the Fifties or early Sixties and came of age while Franco still had a firm grip on power. These writers—Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Javier Cercas—are deeply preoccupied with the historical catastrophes of twentieth-century Europe and Spain’s ambiguous role in them. They are all self-consciously literary and, while all impressive prose stylists, they tend toward ponderousness.1 Fernández Mallo was born in 1967, eight years before Franco’s death, and he came of age during the 1980s, which were, Bunstead writes, “a little like the sixties, seventies, and eighties in other Western countries all rolled into one.” He is, in his own way, self-consciously literary—the Nocilla project contains countless references to writers and artists—but he is allergic to the self-seriousness of his elders. He is not interested in working through the moral compromises made during the Franco years. In fact, he displays little interest in history or politics at all. Or, for that matter, in Spain: the Nocilla books spend far more time in the United States and Central Asia than in Europe. This thoroughly global view is one of the things that most clearly mark the books as contemporary.
1 The one exception to all this is Vila-Matas, which may be what earns him a place in Fernández Mallo’s book.
Still, American readers may be a bit surprised by the radical claims being made on the trilogy’s behalf. Most of its distinctive features—absurdism, fragmentation, the appropriation of other writers’ work, the collision of high and low culture, the inclusion of photographs and other non-literary media—have been staples of avant-garde literature for at least fifty years and in some cases more than a hundred. Author’s notes at the end of each volume explain that the trilogy “responds to the transfer of certain aspects of post-poetical poetics into the sphere of fiction.” When I read this, I thought of the opening of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives: “I have been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course . . . I’m not really sure what visceral realism is.” Fernández Mallo has written an as-yet-untranslated essay outlining exactly what he means by the term “post-poetical,” but since this essay did not appear until after the trilogy was completed, the Spanish-language readers who made the Nocilla project such a success presumably had no more idea what transfers might be at play than will the American readers arriving at the trilogy now.
Some critics have suggested that Fernández Mallo’s methods, particularly the way he structures his narratives as networks of thematic relationships rather than linear stories, are a way of grappling with digital media. It’s clear that online research played a large role in the books’ composition, and occasionally Fernández Mallo provides URLs for some of his sources,2 but he isn’t especially interested in life online as a subject. Most of his characters live resolutely analog existences, sitting in the sun outside Southwestern brothels or raising pigs in Azerbaijan. There are references to the internet, but fewer than you’d find in a contemporary work of conventional realism. The prevailing technologies are tape decks and Polaroids. The great high-culture touchstones of the trilogy are Borges and Cortázar, two Argentines who died in the 1980s and did their best work decades before that. The “low culture” counterparts in this high-low mix are punk and zine aesthetics that are themselves more than thirty years old. “Nocilla ¡Que Merindilla!,” the song that inspired the project’s title, was recorded in 1982. The Music of Chance was published in 1990.
2 All of the ones I tried were dead links.
As is often the case with certain kinds of experimental literature, the books often give off the vague hint that some kind of preconceived operating principle is at play, along with the stronger hint that knowing the details of that principle would not add all that much to the reading experience. The essential ingredient seems to be speed. The same author’s notes that identify the post-poetical transfer specify the time frames in which the volumes were written. Dream: “between June 11 and September 10, 2004”; Experience: “between December 2004 and March 2005”; Lab: “summer of 2005.”
This is an impressive pace, in its way, but these days the competition is fierce. Fernández Mallo’s work arrives in the United States as part of a procession of books that have foregrounded the velocity of their composition. Knausgaard’s three-thousand page My Struggle was written at a rate of up to twenty pages a day. His four follow-up books, the Seasons Quartet, were composed as a series of daily journal entries and published without revision. The Scottish writer Ali Smith is now three volumes into her own Seasonal Quartet, books that have been written in a matter of weeks and published almost immediately after their completion. The first of them, Autumn, is set in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and it was in bookstores just four months after the referendum took place. Olivia Laing’s Crudo was written in seven weeks, during which Laing gave her Twitter followers more or less daily updates on her progress. Where once it was a mark of high-art seriousness to work on a book for two decades, now the real cred comes from getting it done in two months.
Ever since Flaubert established the tireless quest for le mot juste as the signature feature of literary work, writers have rebelled against this conception of their art. Some have seen their task as psychic spelunking, deep exploratory work that can only be undermined by literary preciousness. The most prominent proponents of this school have probably been the Beats. Ginsburg’s “first thought, best thought,” Kerouac’s Benzedrine-fueled marathon typewriter sessions, and Burroughs’s automatic writing were all efforts to serve the reader a naked lunch of reality sandwiches. Others have argued that a writer’s real materials are not words, sentences, and the perfectly placed period, but other people, life, the world out there. In this view, fetishizing the tools of the trade is a sterile, even masturbatory, approach.
Knausgaard falls squarely in the former camp. Like the Beats, he is chasing dangerous emotional truths, and he fears that taking the time to polish his material may occasion a loss of nerve—self-censorship by way of revision. Both Smith and Laing are at least partly driven by the challenge of making the usually slow-footed form of the novel keep pace with contemporary life. In a world where we’re all obsessed by last night’s presidential tweets, it no longer feels tenable to set a novel in a vague present tense located at some point in the three- to five-year span between a novel’s conception and its publication.
None of this applies in Fernández Mallo’s case. There is a complete absence of psychologizing in the trilogy, even when the author appears as a character. The Fernández Mallo of this fiction is quite obviously a literary construct rather than a tortured human being working through difficult truths. No angry uncles will be suing him for Nestbeschmutzung. And despite their reliance on newspaper articles for inspiration, the books contain nothing that grounds them particularly in the second half of 2004 and the first half of 2005. One plotline in Experience concerns the son of an American soldier and an Iraqi civilian, living in Baghdad, but it might have taken place at almost any time over the past fifteen years.
So what is Fernández Mallo after? In his introduction, Bunstead astutely notes that Fernández Mallo’s overarching theme is the human effort to impose order on chaos. He has a particular fascination with projects, especially artistic projects, that seek to control nature. Thus his interest in micro-nations, cartography, artists who “go to a field, paint a white line across it, and call the work Sculpture.” A character in Dream flies a prop plane over Carson City, attempting to create a taxonomy of urban sprawl. The Polaroid-snapping chef in Experience hopes one day to “cook the horizon.” Fernández Mallo seems to find these efforts noble but ultimately pointless. The speed with which the hotel in Lab—which began as a prison, the ultimate symbol of modern efforts at social control—deteriorates in the absence of human oversight suggests the power of entropy to tear apart any human endeavor.
The suspicion that the center cannot hold is itself hardly new, of course. Nor is the sense that the artist’s task is, as Beckett put it, to find a form that accommodates the mess. What distinguishes Fernández Mallo from many artists who have worked over these themes is that he is on the side of the mess. Given his own experience with the joyful anarchy of post-Franco Spain, it is perhaps no wonder that Fernández Mallo takes a dim view of the imposition of order. But he doesn’t treat chaos as a grand social metaphor or a particular feature of our overmediated modern life. In keeping with his day job, he sees it instead as an enduring fact about physical reality. He wants to show us this fact—and speed is one way of doing that.
The strategy comes with a price. These books read as though they were written quickly. The prose is not bad, exactly—there are none of the outright barbarisms that appear throughout Knausgaard’s work—but it is strikingly flat. There is no notable shift in quality when we move from a passage written by Fernández Mallo to an academic text or the extemporaneous musings of Eddie Vedder. Presumably, this is intentional; Bunstead commends the “general neutrality of [Fernández Mallo’s] prose style,” which is an accurate if perhaps generous way of putting matters.
Fairly obvious errors are sprinkled throughout. The Brooklyn Bridge is referred to as the bridge “that connects Manhattan to the continent.” The hitchhiker on Route 50 has somehow managed to serve for some years in the Army while never before leaving San Francisco. (The hitchhiker in the article was a “military brat” who moved constantly.) These errors seem to be part of a wider aesthetic strategy. At one point, Fernández Mallo recounts an anecdote about Thelonious Monk, who reportedly walked offstage after one show, frustrated that he had “made all the wrong mistakes.” Live improvisation clearly holds more allure for Fernández Mallo than studio-session perfectionism. But erecting a theoretical justification for a novel’s weaknesses does not make them go away. The best writers can make their works feel like a grand improvisation while still maintaining complete control.
One member of the Nocilla Generation has compared Fernández Mallo’s method to “literary channel-hopping.” Though not intended as such, the remark strikes me as a poignant reminder of the dangers to the writer of trying to keep pace with technological change. It probably did not occur to many people at the time these books first appeared in Spain that within a decade channel hopping—in the sense of skipping around live TV, choosing between various synchronously broadcast programs, trying to avoid the commercials—would be consigned to the past.
But there is another problem with the metaphor. If a novel reproduces the experience of channel hopping, it can only be channel hopping of the very worst kind: the kind where someone else is working the remote. You read one page and then the next, the order decided by author, not reader. Even a book like Hopscotch encourages readers to skip around according to a plan devised by Cortázar himself. Though it might go to great lengths to represent nonlinearity, the novel is an ineluctably linear form. Efforts to give the reader real control—such as various experiments in hypertext, or B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which was published unbound, in a box—have had limited success.3
3 Even Johnson marked one chapter “First” and another “Last.” Only the middle was up to the reader.
This may explain why, almost thirty years after the World Wide Web was conceived, and roughly twenty since the internet became a defining feature of life in the developed world, some people are still waiting for the definitive “internet novel,” a book that doesn’t just integrate digital life into its story but truly captures the experience of living so much of our lives online. It’s not at all clear to me what such a novel would look like, how it would be possible, or whether its existence is even desirable.
So much of life online is not just chaotic but enervating and, increasingly, dull. There is a long-standing argument regarding how far mimetic art ought to go in representing the sometimes dispiriting realities of modern life. Would a book that hopes to honestly capture the strange combination of outrage and boredom, urgency and meaninglessness that defines online life need, in turn, to be outrageous and boring and urgent and meaningless? Fernández Mallo goes further than most in this direction. It’s true, I often thought while reading these books, the internet is like this: we jump from absurdity to absurdity, never staying anywhere long enough to feel too deeply about it; we have the gnawing suspicion that the whole thing could stand a good fact-checking; meanwhile, some guy is quoting David Brooks quoting Malcolm Gladwell, and we’re not entirely sure whether he’s trying to be funny or profound.
Of course I am being a little unfair here, to Fernández Mallo and the internet both. Life online is not all trivial or tedious, but the greatest things about the internet—the way it makes a seemingly limitless array of cultural resources available to us, for instance, or the way it connects people across great distances in real time—are the hardest things for a novel to depict. You can write about having access to all of this, but you cannot actually reproduce the experience of that access. At best, you can throw enough random things at the reader to suggest limitlessness. But even then, we are left with the “remote” problem: the wonderful and terrible thing about the internet is the feeling that we are the ones in control—that we’re doing it to ourselves. A novel, on the other hand, is the expression of a unified individual vision, one to which the reader willingly submits.
At some level, Fernández Mallo knows all this. The irony of his monument to disorder is that it’s at its best precisely when it is most coherent—in the first volume, when the image of the Shoe Tree provides a structure for all the motley parts, and in the third volume, when Fernández Mallo recounts a unified story that is pregnant with meaning. It is in these pages that we see a strange and original sensibility at work—one that combines a deep commitment to the possibilities of art with a gonzo spirit and a complete absence of pretention—and get the chance to spend some intimate time in its company. Such connections are what literature does best. It would be a shame if too many novelists gave them up for the aesthetics of velocity.
The rise of Jair Bolsonaro has been a slow, sulfurous arc, like a warning flare that Brazil’s three-decade democratic project stands on a crumbling foundation. During the past five years of political and economic chaos in Brazil, Bolsonaro slithered from the fringes of national politics to center stage, using social networks and religious media to rally the country’s “Bullets, Beef, and Bible” caucus of gun advocates, ranchers, and evangelicals around a promise that military discipline will return the country to order and progress. His racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, and fascist statements have entranced millions of voters who are desperate for change at any cost. Now, in the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory, Brazil waits to see whether he will turn back the clock to the bloodiest years of the military dictatorship, when university students and other dissidents across the country were shot, abducted, tortured, and disappeared.
The night before what was scheduled to be the final, pivotal debate between Bolsonaro and Workers’ Party opponent Fernando Haddad, twenty-nine-year-old Sarah, an emergency room doctor, and her girlfriend Lívia, a twenty-eight-year-old industrial engineer, were unwinding with beer and cigarettes outside a pub in Savassi, a trendy enclave of restaurants, bars, and cafés in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city in the country. Underneath her unbuttoned flannel, Sarah wore a Roger Waters T-shirt, purchased at his concert a few days earlier. For two weeks, Waters had been rousing stadium crowds on a nationwide tour by displaying anti-fascist messages and the anti-Bolsonaro slogan #EleNão (“not him”) on a giant screen onstage, and during his show in Belo Horizonte, the crowd booed the children’s choir accompanying Waters on “Another Brick in the Wall.”
“I was scared,” Sarah said. “We tried to yell above them. ‘No fascism here!’ But people were so angry. They were booing kids!”
Sarah showed me one of the fake images making the rounds on social media, a photo of baby bottles topped with penis-shaped binkies. According to the post, this was how Haddad, an academic and former mayor of São Paulo, indoctrinated the children of his city into homosexuality. This homophobic propaganda struck a chord in Minas Gerais, which is the bastion of the “traditional miner’s family,” a rigid, centuries-old Catholic archetype of conservative, heterosexual, nuclear domestic life.
The longtime couple no longer felt safe in their own neighborhood. Outside their shared apartment nearby, strangers accosted a passerby with homophobic slurs, saying he needed to get beat up to become a real man. “My own brother will barely speak to me,” she said. “I tell him, ‘I respect your opinion, I respect your point of view, but I just want you to be my brother,’ but he’s not listening.” She took a swig of beer and tried to laugh off the pain. “I’ve thought about leaving, but I’m not going anywhere. This is how we resist, right? Many people died before me for these rights. I have to stay here.”
She lit another cigarette, looked off into the street. “I can’t even count on my family to stand with me. What this election has taught me, is that for us gays, we’re the only ones we have.”
A Workers’ Party rally in Praça Sete de Setembro on October 25, 2018
The story of Belo Horizonte in the twenty-first century is emblematic of the rise and fall of Brazil’s middle class. In the year 2000, the over 2 million people who lived there had registered a little more than 600,000 vehicles; by 2018, the about 2.5 million people claimed more than 2 million vehicles. It was Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a hardscrabble former labor leader and co-founder of the Workers’ Party, who ushered his country into a new era of state capitalism and first-world consumerism. During his two-term presidency of 2003-2010, Lula’s populist, center-left policies lifted about twenty million Brazilians from poverty and brought water, light, and other basic infrastructure to some of the most remote corners of this enormous country. Buoyed by worldwide demand for commodities like oil, beef, and iron ore, Brazil dodged the worst of the 2009 global financial crisis. Lula and his Workers’ Party basked in the near-religious devotion of their followers during the boom, and both fell from grace when the boom went bust.
Frustrations first boiled over during the summer of the Confederations Cup in 2013, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets, at first to protest rising bus fares, then to protest corruption and mismanagement in every sector of their young democracy. Even in conservative Belo Horizonte, one hundred thousand people joined the largest demonstrations in Brazil’s last twenty years. Despite the massive offshore oil deposits discovered off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, public schools and hospitals around the country remained underfunded and overcrowded. Hundreds of millions of reais were spent building and renovating stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, while roads, sewer systems, and other critical infrastructure projects were neglected. During the group stage of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte, a hastily constructed overpass near the city stadium collapsed, killing two people and injuring twenty-three others.
Systemic corruption has been an open secret in Brazil since colonial times. As a popular saying here goes, “Rouba mas faz.” He steals, but he gets things done. A massive wave of capital had flooded Brazil during its decade of runaway investment, and when that wave receded, the elites on the beach were exposed: too much stealing, not enough getting stuff done. Beginning in 2014, a multibillion-dollar graft scandal engulfed the country’s most influential companies, state enterprises, businessmen, and politicians, including President Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla and Lula’s handpicked successor. In one of many wiretapped phone calls leaked to the press as evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the Workers’ Party, Lula told President Rousseff that he believed the corruption accusations served a more sinister purpose: “They are convinced that, with the press heading the investigation process, they can found the republic again.”
Lula’s pronouncement may prove true. After two years of partisan law-fare, President Rousseff was impeached for using budgetary sleight of hand to conceal deficits and fund social programs. Many on the left considered her ouster a legislative and judicial coup. During the impeachment proceedings that were broadcast live across the nation, Bolsonaro praised the military coup of 1964 and cast his vote in honor of the Armed Forces, singling out the colonel who had orchestrated the surveillance and torture of dissidents during Brazil’s regime, including Rousseff herself. “They lost in ’64, and they’re losing now in 2016,” he yelled over the din of his congressional colleagues. “In memory of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff … I vote yea!”
Two more years of political and economic dysfunction later, Bolsonaro was greeted at airports and rallies across Brazil like a rock-star savior, and former President Lula sat in a federal jail cell in Curitiba, serving a dubious twelve-year sentence on corruption charges. Days after Lula was jailed, Jair Bolsonaro took his campaign to the northern state of Roraima, where refugees from neighboring Venezuela were pouring across the border by the thousands. Bolsonaro circled the scene like a hawk, rallying against socialism and open borders.
“In every era, God lifts a man,” said the evangelical pastor who introduced him to a crowd of supporters. “Once, in the desert, he lifted Moses. Now, in these times, to lift Brazil, God is lifting Jair Bolsonaro!”
For a few months after his arrest, Lula stubbornly coordinated his campaign from prison while his case awaited appeal. From jail, he continued to poll higher than any other candidate in the race. The UN Human Rights Committee released a statement that he should be allowed to exercise his electoral rights until his appeal process was complete, but Brazil’s foreign ministry disregarded the ruling as not legally binding.
Bolsonaro crisscrossed Brazil to rally supporters with increasingly fanatical and violent proclamations. “We’re going to machine-gun down the petralhada,*” he shouted at a rally in the Amazon state of Acre, holding a camera tripod like an imaginary machine gun, a gesture that has become an act of solidarity among his acolytes. A few days later, while being carried on the shoulders of fans at a rally in southern Minas Gerais, Bolsonaro was knifed in the gut by a man who said he was acting on “orders from God.”
* A portmanteau of Workers’ Party and The Beagle Boys
Facing multiple surgeries, it was unlikely that Bolsonaro would return to the campaign trail, but he continued posting messages on social media from his hospital bed. Less than a month before the election, Lula formally withdrew from the ballot, and chose Fernando Haddad, his onetime Minister of Education, as his replacement. Haddad dutifully took to the streets, positioning himself as a loyal understudy, ready to carry the Workers’ Party torch, but Bolsonaro gained ground week after week, capturing 46 percent of the votes in a crowded thirteen-candidate first round of elections. Reveling in his comfortable lead and post-stabbing media attention, Bolsonaro refused to participate in any scheduled debates, relying instead on regular Facebook Live broadcasts from his home to millions of followers, who tuned in to see him and his guests cast aspersions on the left, a Brazilian flag duct-taped to the wall behind them.
Yet there are lingering questions about the outsized impact of Bolsonaro’s folksy, DIY campaign methods. The country’s largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, revealed that private firms spent millions of dollars buying WhatsApp message packages shortly before the first round of elections in a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation, a violation of Brazilian electoral law. Leftwing commentators have argued that there was no way the Bolsonaro campaign could have pulled off such a sophisticated scheme alone, and that the operation stinks of CIA psyops and the foreign meddling that assisted the 1964 military coup. Bolsonaro denied any involvement, threatening that once he was elected president, he would revoke any public advertising dollars earmarked for Folha de S.Paulo.
In the frenzied week leading up to Brazil’s presidential runoff election, federal police targeted seventeen public universities across the country on suspicion of forbidden political activities on campus. In operations that echoed the “Years of Lead,” authorities interrupted classes, interrogated professors and students, confiscated campaign materials and anti-fascist manifestos, seized teachers’-union hard drives and computers, and demanded the removal of banners like the one that hung over the Institute of Exact Sciences in Belo Horizonte: pela democracia #elenão. (“For democracy, not him.”) Bolsonaro’s position on the campus protests was unambiguous: “The university is no place for this.”
The Friday before the election, at the Museo e Bar do Clube da Esquina in the hilly, bohemian neighborhood of Santa Tereza, the café buzzed with talk of the university raids and Bolsonaro’s latest tirade. “These red outlaws will be banished from the fatherland!” he told supporters on Sunday, phoning in to a rally. “The fatherland is ours! It’s not for that brainwashed gang with the red flag. Petralhada, you’re all going to the edge of the beach,” he said, in what critics called an allusion to a naval base where dissidents were executed during the dictatorship. “It will be a cleansing like nobody has seen in the history of Brazil!”
The café is family-owned, a beer-soaked shrine to the Clube da Esquina movement of the 1970s, a multiracial musical collective that began when Afro-Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento met the Borges family, a crowded house of eleven brothers in the throes of having their minds blown by the Beatles. In the years to come, Milton and the Borges brothers countered the brutality of the dictatorship by singing songs of peace, fraternity and brotherhood in the face of censorship and threats. Tonight was a special family show: white-haired seventy-five-year-old Marilton Borges on the keys, and his scruffy forty-three-year-old son Rodrigo on guitar, carrying the torch of the Clube da Esquina school for a new generation.
Their harmonies washed over the room, allowing the audience to sing together—and to forget the chaos outside for a moment. Between sets, people whispered about election news and shared the rumors blowing up their phones. What was going on at the university? What did Bolsonaro mean about the edge of the beach? Who did he want disappeared into the waves?
“It’s important to position our work politically at this time,” Rodrigo said offstage. “What we’re seeing is a return to censorship. Journalists being accused of being liars. These aren’t just Brazilian themes, these are global themes. The artistic class has a responsibility to the resistance.”
His father saw parallels to the mood on the streets in ’64, but something more had gone haywire: “In ’64,” Marilton said, “it was the military against students, against the youth. Today, it’s not the young versus the military; it’s the right versus the left. Us versus them. The rich hate the poor. The poor hate the rich. We have to be very careful not to have a civil war in Brazil.”
The crowd called them up for two encores, as if nobody wanted to go home. Father and son harmonized, bathed in blue, pink, and purple light. The crowd sang along to lyrics that had been coded and censored during the dictatorship years:
When I would speak of those morbid things
When I would speak of those sordid men
When I would speak of this story
You didn’t listen
You don’t want to believe
But that’s so normal.
During the heaviest of the Years of Lead, when censors threatened to block the release of an entire album, Milton and his collaborators resolved to release their music without lyrics, only hymnal melodies. When the government condemned the mere tone of his voice as too “aggressive,” Milton boasted that the impact of his vocals was “como uma arma”— like a gun.
Fifty years later, during those wordless melodies, the audience improvised their own new lyrics: Ele Não … Ele Não, Ele Não, Ele Não.
The streets were eerily quiet on Election Day. Downtown, Paulo Camargos, a fifty-two-year-old real-estate investor with a large belly and a hearty laugh, stood outside the polling station, embracing friends and family as they passed. A proud supporter of Bolsonaro, he was untroubled by the candidate’s radical talk. “He’s not against homosexuality,” Paulo said. “He’s just against teaching it in school.” After a year with nearly sixty-four thousand homicides on record, the critical issue for him was public security—and the solution was gun rights. “For thirty years, we’ve had a completely disarmed population here. And look what’s happened!”
After sundown, fireworks popped off across the city. In the most consequential vote since the ratification of the Citizen’s Constitution in 1988, 42.1 million beleaguered Brazilians had abstained from the polls or cast blank ballots. Bolsonaro cornered the majority of those who bothered to choose a candidate, ending thirteen years of leftist Workers’ Party rule.
Bolsonaro supporters congregated in Praça Sete de Setembro in downtown Belo Horizonte, a square named after the date of Brazilian Independence, traditionally the epicenter of leftist street demonstrations in the city. Waving flags and wearing national soccer jerseys, fanatical voters shut down traffic until almost midnight. When cars resumed flowing, the mob took over the intersections during red lights, doing pushups, taking selfies with flags and pistol fingers, spraying imaginary machine guns into the sky. One man wearing an ustra lives T-shirt walked the streets with a grim smile on his face. The crowd cheered and saluted any sight of a military police vehicle or fire truck. These were their public servants.
Sócrates Antonino Ferraz, a forty-seven-year-old printmaker who voted for Bolsonaro, watched from the sidewalk with his arms folded across his chest, resigned to whatever came next. “I’ve voted in this country for thirty years, and none of those bastards have done anything for me,” he said. “I don’t know if he’s a fascist or not. All I know is that I believe in God first and foremost.”
As the party dissipated, scavengers wandered about with plastic bags to collect empty beer cans. A group of college kids, dressed and painted as zombies for Halloween, slumped on their chairs near a food truck. On social media, news circulated that Bolsonaro supporters had invaded the federal university and vandalized the college of liberal arts. From its official account, the university dismissed the news as fake. Students decided the proclamation of fake news was fake news, and claimed that the university was covering up the damage to quell a panic.
Bolsonaro supporters in Praça Sete de Setembro on October 28, 2018
The morning after the election, the right-wing media were elated by the possibility of social-security cuts and expansive gun rights, and Donald Trump’s praise of Bolsonaro on Twitter, complete with two exclamation points. From his residence in Rio de Janeiro, using a bodyboard as an impromptu lectern, the president-elect announced plans to collapse the Planning, Finance, and Industry Ministries into one Super Ministry, led by University of Chicago–trained economist and political neophyte Paulo Guedes. The Ministry of Environment, founded on the first day of the New Republic to guard the nation’s natural patrimony, would be merged with the Ministry of Agriculture. For the first time in the Democratic era, the Ministry of Defense would be headed by a general.
In the cafeteria of the college of liberal arts at the federal university, twenty-four-year-old literature student Íris Ladislau sat alone at a corner table, quietly reading the collected works of Russian poet Anna Akhmátova. “A lot of people are uninformed,” said Íris, a young woman of color. “They don’t understand the gravity of the situation. We have to find a way to organize, but I feel at risk. I don’t even walk alone anymore. I make sure my friends are with me.”
Across the cafeteria, twenty-four-year-old education major Aline Almeida, another young woman of color, sat alone on a break between classes, looking ready for a nap. Before saying whom she voted for, she glanced over her shoulder. “Bolsonaro,” she whispered, holding a finger to her lips as if it needed to be a secret. “I think his ideas are … interesting.” Almeida grew up in one of the outer regions of Belo Horizonte. “It’s very violent. Very unsafe. I’ve seen it in person. Robbings. Violence against women. People go to jail, but they get out in three days. I want somebody who takes the prison system seriously.”
For Almeida, the federal raids at the universities are nothing to be worried about. She likes her professors, but her fellow students make her feel like she can’t speak up. “There should be freedom of expression here, but I prefer to stay quiet,” she says. “It feels really lonely.”
“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”
At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”
One of the deepest ironies of our current situation is that the modes of communication that enable today’s authoritarians were first dreamed up to defeat them. The same technologies that were meant to level the political playing field have brought troll farms and Russian bots to corrupt our elections. The same platforms of self-expression that we thought would let us empathize with one another and build a more harmonious society have been co-opted by figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, for that matter, Donald Trump, to turn white supremacy into a topic of dinner-table conversation. And the same networked methods of organizing that so many thought would bring down malevolent states have not only failed to do so—think of the Arab Spring—but have instead empowered autocrats to more closely monitor protest and dissent.
If we’re going to resist the rise of despotism, we need to understand how this happened and why we didn’t see it coming. We especially need to grapple with the fact that today’s right wing has taken advantage of a decades-long liberal effort to decentralize our media. That effort began at the start of the Second World War, came down to us through the counterculture of the 1960s, and flourishes today in the high-tech hothouse of Silicon Valley. It is animated by a deep faith that when engineering replaces politics, the alienation of mass society and the threat of totalitarianism will melt away. As Trump fumes on Twitter, and Facebook posts are linked to genocide in Myanmar, we are beginning to see just how misplaced that faith has been. Even as they grant us the power to communicate with others around the globe, our social-media networks have spawned a new form of authoritarianism.
The political vision that brought us to this point emerged in the 1930s, as a response to fascism. In the years before the Second World War, Americans were mystified as to how Germany, one of the most sophisticated nations in Europe, had tumbled down the dark hole of National Socialism. Today we’d likely blame Hitler’s rise on the economic chaos and political infighting of the Weimar era. But at the time, many blamed mass media. When Hitler spoke to row upon row of Nazi soldiers at torch-lit rallies, the radio broadcast his voice into every German home. When he drove through adoring crowds, standing in his Volkswagen convertible, giving the Nazi salute, the newsreel cameras were there. In 1933, the New York Times described the predicament of the average German this way:
With coordinated newspaper headlines overpowering him, with radio voices beseeching him, with news reels and feature pictures arousing him, and with politicians and professors philosophizing for him, the individual German has been unable to salvage his identity and has been engulfed in a brown wave. . . . They are living in a Nazi dream and not in the reality of the world.
Toward the end of the decade, President Roosevelt began searching for ways to urge Americans to take a unified stand against fascism. Given the rise of right-wing fervor in the United States at the time, he had reason to worry. The racism and anti-Semitism that characterized Nazi Germany also characterized much of American life. By 1938, millions of Americans listened weekly as Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic demagogue, celebrated the rise of fascism and decried the existence of the Jews. Thousands of American fascists banded together in groups with names like the Silver Legion of America and the Crusader White Shirts. The Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, a 25,000-member pro-Nazi organization commonly known as the Bund, ran a summer camp on Long Island called Camp Siegfried, where young men marched in Nazi-style uniforms as their friends and families cheered. On February 20, 1939, the Bund brought more than 22,000 Americans to New York’s Madison Square Garden to welcome fascism to American shores. When they gathered, a huge banner hung over their heads: stop jewish domination of christian americans!
As the United States geared up for war, its leaders faced a quandary: they wanted to use media to unite Americans against their enemies, but many also feared that using mass media to do it would transform Americans into just the kind of authoritarians they were trying to defeat. Roosevelt’s cabinet sought advice from a group of intellectuals calling themselves the Committee for National Morale. The Committee had been founded in the summer of 1940 by a historian of Persian art named Arthur Upham Pope, who brought together a number of America’s leading thinkers, including the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, psychologists Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin, and journalists Edmond Taylor and Ladislas Farago. Over the next two years, they would advise the Roosevelt Administration; produce pamphlets, news articles, and books; and set the cornerstone of our contemporary faith in decentralized media.
The Committee began by defining national morale in terms of what they called the democratic personality. Members of the Committee joined many American intellectuals in subscribing to the views of the anthropologist Franz Boas, who believed that cultures shape the personalities of their members in predictable ways. Germans, they thought, tended toward rigidity and an affection for authority, hence Hitler’s famously bureaucratic Nazi regime was a natural extension of the German character. Americans were more open, individualistic, expressive, collaborative, and tolerant, and so more at home in loose coalitions. Whatever kind of propaganda medium the Committee promoted would need to preserve the individuality of American citizens. Allport summed up the Committee’s vision in a 1942 essay. “In a democracy,” he wrote, “every personality can be a citadel of resistance to tyranny. In the co-ordination of the intelligences and wills of one hundred million ‘whole’ men and women lies the formula for an invincible American morale.”
As the Committee sought to coordinate rather than dominate American minds, its members turned to a kind of media system that we might now call a platform: the museum. These days we’re not used to the idea of buildings as media systems. But the Committee thought about museums in the same way many think about virtual reality today—as immersive visual environments where we can increase our empathy for one another. Mead, who was a student of Boas and worked for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, pointed out that in a museum, people could walk among images and objects distributed across the walls and around the floor, choosing to pay attention to those that seemed most meaningful to them. They could hone their individual tastes, they could reason about their individual places in the world, and they could do it together.
In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put the Committee’s vision into practice with a widely heralded propaganda exhibition entitled Road to Victory. Most American art shows at the time featured images of more or less identical sizes hung in a row at eye level, but this one mounted images of all sizes overhead, at the viewer’s feet, and everywhere in between. A path wound through the forest of photographs. The pictures were carefully chosen to spark patriotic fervor, but judging from reviews, it was the manner of their display that captivated the show’s audience. As one critic put it, the show did not seek to “mold” its visitors’ beliefs, “for that word smacks of the Fascist concept of dominating men’s minds.” It simply invited Americans to walk down the road to war, individually unique, yet collectively united. Another reviewer wrote: “It is this inescapable sense of identity—the individual spectator identifying himself with the whole—that makes the event so moving.”
The first electronic computer would not be unveiled until 1946, and the internet was still decades away. Yet the Committee’s vision became central to how we think about computers today when several of its members began to collaborate with a mathematician named Norbert Wiener. In the first years of the war, Wiener and his MIT colleagues were trying to design a more accurate antiaircraft defense system. Antiaircraft gunners would only be able to shoot down enemy planes reliably if they could predict where the planes would be when the gunners’ shells reached the sky. At the time, there was no way to make that prediction with any certainty, since both gunner and pilot were capable of random movements. Wiener tried to solve this problem by imagining the gunner, the antiaircraft gun, the enemy pilot, and the enemy plane as elements in a single system whose behavior could be represented mathematically.
Wiener’s antiaircraft predictor never worked on the battlefield. But his insight that the behavior of both machines and human beings could be represented through computation became a founding principle of computer science. In 1946, it also became a founding principle of a new political vision. That year, Wiener and members of his scientific community traveled to New York to meet with a group of sociologists and psychologists, Mead and Bateson of the Committee for National Morale prominent among them. Together, the social and laboratory scientists began to outline a vision of a liberal world modeled and managed by computers, a vision that they would develop over the next seven years, and that would become one of the most influential intellectual movements of the twentieth century: cybernetics.
In 1950, Wiener published The Human Use of Human Beings, an enormously popular introduction to the new field that argued that modern society operated through a series of information exchanges, just like the antiaircraft predictor. Reporters and social scientists gathered data; intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians processed it; and, ultimately, the systems they controlled took action. When working properly, such a process would naturally tend toward equilibrium—that is, social order. And computers, Wiener argued, could help improve the flow of information by supplying decision-makers with better data faster. “Fascists, Strong Men in Business, and Government . . . prefer an organization in which all orders come from above, and none return,” wrote Wiener. The solution to totalitarianism, he argued, was to recognize the world as a system of leveled, distributed communication that could be modeled and managed by computers. The proper way to achieve the Committee’s vision and democratize society, his argument implied, was to take power away from politicians and put it in the hands of engineers.
Wiener’s writings fired the imaginations of an unlikely group of young Americans, members of the Sixties counterculture who would go on to have an outsized impact on the computer industry. Between 1965 and 1973, as many as 750,000 Americans left their apartments and suburban houses and created new collective communities. A few of these communes were religious, but most were secular gatherings of white, middle- and upper-middle-class young people seeking to leave mainstream America behind. In northern California, refugees from Haight-Ashbury migrated north, to the woods of Mendocino, and east, to the high plains of Colorado and the mountains of New Mexico. Some even set up shop in the hills around Stanford University, overlooking what we now call Silicon Valley.
Elsewhere I’ve called this generation of pilgrims the “New Communalists” to distinguish them from members of the New Left, with whom they often disagreed. Unlike the young dissidents who formed parties and wrote manifestos, the New Communalists hoped to do away with politics entirely. They wanted to organize their communities around a shared mind-set, a unified consciousness. Many agreed with Charles Reich when he wrote in his 1970 bestseller, The Greening of America, that industrial society offered “a robot life, in which man is deprived of his own being, and he becomes instead a mere role, occupation, or function.” According to Reich, the solution was to cultivate a new consciousness of one’s own desires and needs, of the connections between one’s body, one’s mind, and the natural world. Such a consciousness, he explained, could become the foundation of a new kind of society, one that would be nonhierarchical and collaborative.
Watching this migration take shape was Stewart Brand, a former multimedia artist and sometime member of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic wrecking crew, the Merry Pranksters. In 1968, Brand and his wife Lois drove their aging pickup truck to a string of communes to see what the new settlers needed in the way of tools. That fall, the Brands set up shop in Menlo Park, California, not far from where Facebook’s headquarters stand today, and began to publish a document that quickly became required reading across the counterculture: the Whole Earth Catalog. Despite its name, the Catalog did not actually sell anything. Instead, it collected recommendations for tools that might be useful to people headed back to the land. One of those tools was Norbert Wiener’s first book, Cybernetics. Another was an early and massive Hewlett-Packard calculator.
The New Communalists eschewed what Reich called the “machine world” of tanks and bombs and the industrial bureaucracies that produced them. The rule-bound hierarchies of the corporation and the state, they thought, alienated their members from their own feelings and turned them into the kind of buttoned-down apparatchiks who could launch a nuclear war. Even so, the New Communalists embraced small technologies that they hoped would help them live as independent citizens within the kind of universe that Wiener and the Committee had described, a universe in which all things were interlinked by information. The Catalog gave readers access to plans for Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes and guides to everything from cheap travel to boatbuilding. At a time when it could be difficult to find a commune if you didn’t know someone who lived on one, the Catalog also became a map of the commune world and its concerns. As the first nodes of the internet were being wired together, the Catalog became a paperbound search engine.
The future leaders of Silicon Valley took notice. Steve Jobs, who had spent some time on a commune called All One Farm, would later call the Catalog “one of the bibles of my generation. . . . It was sort of like Google in paperback form, thirty-five years before Google came along.” Alan Kay, whose designs for a graphical user interface would shape several generations of Apple computers, explained that he and his colleagues saw the Catalog as an information system in its own right. In that sense, he said, he “thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the internet was going to be.”
By the mid-1980s, computers were small enough to sit on desks, and individual users were able to type messages to one another in real time. Most of the communes had collapsed, but the computer industry in northern California was growing rapidly, and it welcomed former communards. Brand worked with Larry Brilliant, who would later help launch Google’s philanthropy division, Google.org, to design an online discussion system known as the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link or WELL. On the WELL, users dialed in to a server where they saw messages from other users in threaded conversations. Howard Rheingold, a journalist and early member, believed that the WELL was a melding of the minds, a kind of virtual community. “Personal computers and the PC industry,” he wrote later, “were created by young iconoclasts who had seen the LSD revolution fizzle, the political revolution fail. Computers for the people was the latest battle in the same campaign.”
By the end of the decade, when Reagan hailed the “David of the microchip,” many in Silicon Valley believed they had the tools to create the kind of person-centered democracy that the Committee had envisioned. They would achieve it through open conversation spaces like the WELL, engineered public spheres in which individuals gave voice to their experiences, gathered feedback from their peers, and changed their behavior accordingly. They shared Wiener’s faith in the power of information systems to liberate those who used them, and the Committee’s confidence that, given the chance to express themselves, individuals could create their own social order, without the need for top-down government control. If the mass-media era had brought us Hitler and Stalin, they believed, the internet would bring us back our individuality. Finally, we could do away with hierarchy, bureaucracy, and totalitarianism. Finally, we could just be ourselves, together.
Today, that sense of utopian mission persists throughout Silicon Valley. A month after Trump took office, Mark Zuckerberg laid out his social vision in a Facebook post entitled “Building Global Community.” Though only a few thousand words long, the document is every bit as ambitious as Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. Like Wiener, Zuckerberg envisions a world in which individuals, communities, and nations create an ideal social order through the constant exchange of information—that is, through staying “connected.” “Our greatest opportunities are now global—like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty, and accelerating science,” he wrote, sounding much like a representative of the Cold War–era State Department. “In times like these,” he continued, “the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.”
For Zuckerberg, as for much of the left today, the key to a more egalitarian society lies in the freeing of individual voices, the expression of different lived experiences, and the forming of social groups around shared identities. But Facebook has tried to enable this kind of society by creating privately owned, for-profit digital technologies. As Zuckerberg put it, echoing the goals of the Whole Earth Catalog fifty years before, “Our commitment is to continue improving our tools to give you the power to share your experience.” Engineers like Zuckerberg or, for that matter, Wiener, have little interest in party politics: if you want to change the world, you don’t lobby or vote; you build new technologies.
This view has proved enormously profitable across Silicon Valley. By justifying the belief that for-profit systems are the best way to improve public life, it has helped turn the expression of individual experience into raw material that can be mined, processed, and sold. The big social-media companies, which often began with a dream of making WELL-like virtual communities at scale, have now become radically commercialized and devoted to surveillance at every level. On the WELL, users listened to each other, trying to get a feel for what kinds of people they were and how they might work together. Now user data is optimized and retailed automatically, to advertisers and other media firms, in real time. Computers track conversations and extract patterns at light speed, rendering them profitable. In 2017, Facebook reported annual revenue of more than $40 billion.
Social media’s ability to simultaneously solicit and surveil communication has not only turned the dream of individualized, expressive democracy into a fountain of wealth. It has turned it into the foundation of a new kind of authoritarianism. Fascists used to be distinguished by their penchant for obedience, submission, and self-erasure, with the power of public emotional expression reserved for the dictator. That is why both Wiener and the Committee stressed the qualities of independence and self-awareness in the democratic personality. And it was against the background of fascism that, during and after the 1960s, Vietnam protestors, civil-rights activists, feminists, queer-rights activists, and other members of the myriad communities who drove the rise of identity politics asserted their individual, lived experience as the basis of their right to political power. If the essence of totalitarianism was collective self-effacement, the foundation of democracy would have to be the assertion of collective individuality.
Today, radio and television talk shows, podcasts, blogs, and, of course, social media are part of a new media ecosystem that has rendered the voicing of one’s experiences so easy and powerful as to turn it into an appealing tool for the right as well as the left. Figures such as Richard Spencer, for instance, have adopted the playful, confessional style of online influencers everywhere. Since Spencer coined the euphemistic term in 2008, the “alt-right” has come to shelter white nationalists, anti-Semites, radical misogynists, and neo-Nazis. What holds the movement together in the public eye is its savvy use of social media. Over the past two years, scholars at the Data & Society Research Institute, an independent think tank in New York, have been tracking the rise of the alt-right online. In a series of reports, they have revealed a world in which the kinds of men who chanted “Jews will not replace us!” in Charlottesville, Virginia, present themselves in the bright, first-person style of online makeup instructors. They aim to be read as whole people—witty, warm, and authentically themselves.
Rebecca Lewis, a Data & Society researcher who is now a PhD student at Stanford, has studied sixty-five such right-wing influencers on YouTube. Most are masters of microcelebrity. They brand themselves with care, spark attention-getting controversy wherever possible, link to one another’s websites, appear on one another’s YouTube shows, and optimize their video feeds for search engines. Despite their intellectual differences, Lewis points out that they have been able to create the impression that they are a unified political force. Their chummy, millennial-friendly style, she argues, goes a long way toward suggesting that really, you know, anti-Semitism and violent, racist riots are the kind of thing that thinking young people everywhere ought to embrace.
Alt-right figures have consciously modeled their online behavior after the political logic of the 1960s counterculture, and particularly its New Communalist wing. In a 2016 interview with The Atlantic, Spencer could have been channeling an entire generation of commune-builders when he said, “We are really trying to change the world, and we are going to do that by changing consciousness, and by changing how people see the world, and how they see themselves.” The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, put the project less benignly in a leaked style guide: “One should study the ways that Jews conquered our culture in the 1960s. . . . They created a subculture by infesting certain elements of the existing culture. That is what we aim to do.”
The identity-based movements of the left have been extraordinarily effective at changing American culture, and the alt-right clearly hopes to copy their success. By claiming the mantle of rebellion, the alt-right can take to the streets in protest as if anticolonialism in the classroom were a new Vietnam War. They can argue that their ability to spew hate is in fact a civil right, and that their movement is simply a new version of the Free Speech Movement of 1964. On YouTube, they can tell stories of their own conversion to conservatism in an idiom pioneered by gay activists: the coming-out story. Lewis notes that the conservative activist Candace Owens rose to YouTube fame after she posted a humorous video on her channel, Red Pill Black, that revealed her political beliefs to her parents. Owens titled it, “Mom, Dad?. . . I’m a Conservative.” When friends and families find their new politics reprehensible, the converts need not engage. Their storytelling style alone implies that racism and nationalism are in fact just as natural and true as a person’s sexuality.
Pundits on the left are fond of reminding us of how Trump storms and fulminates, the White House itself unable to contain his petulance and rage. Those same pundits then marvel that around 40 percent of the American people still think he is doing a good job. What they fail to understand is that Trump has mastered the politics of authenticity for a new media age. What mainstream analysts see as psychological weakness, Trump’s fans see as the man just being himself. What’s more, his anger, his rants, and his furious narcissism act out the feelings of people who believe they have been dispossessed by immigrants, women, and people of color. Trump is not only true to his own emotions. He is the personification of his supporters’ grievances. He is to his political base what Hitler was to many Germans, or Mussolini to Italians—the living embodiment of the nation.
Here, the identity-centered liberalism that has dominated so much of public life since the Second World War has come full circle. Its victories have been many, from civil rights to legalized abortion and gay marriage, and they have dramatically changed American life for the better. But in the form of people like Trump and Spencer, the performance of individualism—the revelation of the whole person in the context of public debate that was meant for so long to be a bulwark against totalitarianism—has also allowed today’s authoritarians to claim a new legitimacy. Fifty years ago, the New Left marched on the Pentagon, hoping to undermine the military-industrial complex behind the Vietnam War. Today, Trump attacks the FBI and the Justice Department, hoping to undermine a fantastical Minotaur called “the deep state.” Fifty years ago, the counterculture hoped to bring about a world in which individuals could be more authentically themselves, and in which the hierarchies of organizations and states would disappear. Today, those hierarchical institutions are all that stand between us and a cult of personality.
If the communes of the 1960s teach us anything, they teach us that a community that replaces laws and institutions with a cacophony of individual voices courts bigotry and collapse. Without explicit, democratically adopted rules for distributing resources, the communes allowed unspoken cultural norms to govern their lives. Women were frequently relegated to the most traditional of gender roles; informal racial segregation was common; and charismatic leaders—almost always men—took charge. Even the most well-intentioned communes began to replicate the racial and sexual dynamics that dominated mainstream America. Lois Brand recalled that on the communes they visited, men would do “important stuff” like framing up domes, while she and the other women would put small amounts of bleach in the water to keep residents from getting sick.
For all their sophistication, the algorithms that drive Facebook cannot prevent the recrudescence of the racism and sexism that plagued the communes. On the contrary, social-media platforms have helped bring them to life at a global scale. And now those systems are deeply entrenched. Social-media technologies have spawned enormous corporations that make money by mapping and mining the social world. Like the extraction industries of previous centuries, they are highly motivated to expand their territories and bend local elites to their will. Without substantial pressure, they have little incentive to serve a public beyond their shareholders. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter are coming to dominate our public sphere to the same degree that Standard Oil once dominated the petroleum industry. They too should be subject to antitrust laws. We have every right to apply the same standards to social-media companies that we have applied to other extraction industries. We cannot allow them to pollute the lands they mine, or to injure their workers, nearby residents, or those who use their products.
As Columbia law professor Tim Wu has argued, social-media companies are enabling a new form of censorship by allowing human and robotic users to flood the inboxes of their enemies in an effort to keep them quiet, and there are little-used provisions of the First Amendment that could radically slow these processes. We also have alternatives to traditional private or stockholder ownership of our social media. We can already see some of the possibilities in sharing practices developed within the computer industry, such as open-source code and “copyleft” rights management. An international community of scholars and technologists has looked for some time at creating cooperatively owned online platforms. As Nathan Schneider, a professor at the University of Colorado and one of the movement’s leaders, has pointed out, member-owned cooperatives generate 11 percent of the electricity sold in America. If social media are equally important to our lives, he asks, why shouldn’t we take a hand in owning and managing them?
That question is a good one, but it doesn’t quite capture the historical specifics of our situation. The new authoritarianism represented by Spencer and Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place—a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance. Since the Second World War, critics have challenged the legitimacy of our civic institutions simply on the grounds that they were bureaucratic and slow to change. Yet organizations such as hospitals demonstrate the value of these features. They remind us that a democracy must do more than allow its citizens to speak. It must help them live. Above all, it must work to distribute our wealth more equably and to ensure that every member of society has both independence and security. This is work that requires intense negotiation among groups with conflicting material interests, and, often, deep-seated cultural differences. It requires the existence of institutions that can preserve and enforce the results of those negotiations over time. And it requires that those institutions be obliged to serve the public before tending to their own profits.
Today’s social media will never be able to do the difficult, embodied work of democracy. Computer-supported interconnection is simply no substitute for face-to-face negotiation, long-term collaboration, and the hard work of living together. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have taught us that social media can be a powerful force for liberating us from the fiction that all is well just as it is. But the attention these activists have brought to their causes will mean little if the changes they call for are not enshrined in explicit, enforceable laws. Even though the American state can be inefficient, unfair, corrupt, and discriminatory, the logic of representation that underlies it remains the most effective engine we have for ensuring the equable distribution of our collective wealth.
Over time, as new media have saturated our public lives, and as the children of the 1960s have grown into the elites of today, we have learned that if we want a place on the political stage, we need to make our interior lives outwardly visible. We need to say who we are. We need to confess. When Richard Spencer calls himself a member of a victimized minority, or when Donald Trump bares his anger on Twitter, they are using the same tactics once deployed by the protesters of the 1960s or, for that matter, by participants in the #MeToo movement today. To make this observation is not to say that their causes are in any way equivalent—far from it. But whether they are lying like Trump or revealing long-buried truths like the members of #MeToo, those who would claim power in the public sphere today must speak in a deeply personal idiom. They must display the authentic individuality that members of the Committee for National Morale once thought could be the only bulwark against totalitarianism, abroad and at home.
Speaking our truths has always been necessary, but it will never be sufficient to sustain our democracy. It’s time to let go of the fantasy that engineers can do our politics for us, and that all we need to do to change the world is to voice our desires in the public forums they build. For much of the twentieth century, Americans on both the left and right believed that the organs of the state were the enemy and that bureaucracy was totalitarian by definition. Our challenge now is to reinvigorate the institutions they rejected and do the long, hard work of turning the truths of our experience into legislation.
In the fall of 1969, I was a freelance journalist working out of a small, cheap office I had rented on the eighth floor of the National Press Building in downtown Washington. A few doors down was a young Ralph Nader, also a loner, whose exposé of the safety failures in American automobiles had changed the industry. There was nothing in those days quite like a quick lunch at the downstairs coffee shop with Ralph. Once, he grabbed a spoonful of my tuna-fish salad, flattened it out on a plate, and pointed out small pieces of paper and even tinier pieces of mouse shit in it. He was marvelous, if a bit hard to digest.
The tip came on Wednesday, October 22. The caller was Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer new to town who had worked on the McCarthy campaign and had been writing critically about the Vietnam War for the Village Voice. There was a story he wanted me to know about. The Army, he told me, was in the process of court-martialing a GI at Fort Benning, in Georgia, for the killing of seventy-five civilians in South Vietnam. Cowan did not have to spell out why such a story, if true, was important, but he refused to discuss the source for his information.
Having covered the Pentagon for the Associated Press, I knew there was a gap between what the men running the war said and what was going on. The lying seemed at times to be out of control, and there were reasons to believe the war was, too. Even those who supported the war in Vietnam were troubled by the reliance on body counts in assessing progress; it was clear that many of those claimed to be enemy soldiers killed in combat were civilians who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just were there, living where their ancestors had lived for generations.
A question I’ve been asked again and again by others, and have asked myself, is why I pursued Cowan’s tip. There was not much to go on. I did not know Cowan. I had not been to South Vietnam. There had been no public mention, not a hint, of a massacre on the scale cited by Cowan. The answer came from my days in the Pentagon pressroom, where such a rumor would be dismissed by all, so I believed, without a second thought. My colleagues had scoffed at Harrison Salisbury’s firsthand account of systematic American bombing in North Vietnam, which had been published in the New York Times in late 1966. A few had gone further, actively working with Robert McNamara and Cyrus Vance to undercut Salisbury’s dispatches. I chased Cowan’s vague tip because I was convinced they would not.
If Cowan was right, it was the US Army itself that had filed the murder charges. If so, there would have to be some official report somewhere in the military system. Finding it was worth a few days of my time.
I had renewed my Pentagon press credentials because I was writing a book about military spending for Random House, a project that required access to the building. My first step was to review all the recent courts-martial that had been initiated worldwide by the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, the Army’s lawyers. I hurriedly did so, and found no case hinting of mass murder. I went through the same process with criminal investigations that had been made public by the military. Once again, no luck. If Cowan was right, the prosecution he knew about was taking place in secrecy. I felt stymied and went back to collecting data for my book.
1 I learned later that Charles Black, an experienced military-affairs reporter who had gone to Vietnam five times for the Columbus Enquirer, the local daily that covered Fort Benning, had discovered significant details of the case against Calley, but chose not to publish anything until the Army went public with its findings.
What happened next was, in a sense, a one-in-a-million bank shot. First, during a chance encounter at the Pentagon, I got the alleged killer’s name: Calley. Then I spent many hours poring over newspapers on microfilm until I found a three-paragraph clip from the New York Times that had been published six weeks earlier. The report quoted an information officer at Fort Benning to the effect that a twenty-six-year-old infantry officer named William L. Calley Jr. had been charged with murder “in the deaths of an unspecified number of civilians in Vietnam.” The incident took place in March 1968, and nobody in my profession had asked any questions at the time, because no reporter knew what I now did about the enormity of the case.1
I owed my next step to my days as an AP reporter. I had become especially friendly with a senior aide on the House Armed Services Committee, then headed by L. Mendel Rivers, a Democrat from South Carolina with a locked-in seat. Rivers was an outspoken supporter of all things military, including the war in Vietnam, and I was confident that the Pentagon would have given him a private briefing about the mass murders in South Vietnam, if indeed they had taken place.
I managed to have a cup of coffee with my friend on Rivers’s staff. Officials with top-secret clearances were, of course, bored to death by reporters seeking to pry such information from them. So instead of beginning our chat with a question, I simply told my friend everything I knew about Calley and the charges against him. His response was not to deny the story but to warn me off it.
“It’s just a mess,” he said. “The kid was just crazy. I hear he took a machine gun and shot them all himself. Don’t write about this one. It would just be doing nobody any good.”
I understood my friend’s concern as a senior aide to the very conservative Rivers, but I was not about to stop my reporting. On the other hand, the story, as I was piecing it together, still did not make sense. One young officer did all the killing?
Clearly, I had to find Calley’s lawyer. In desperation, I turned once again to Geoffrey Cowan. It was a cry for help, a shot in the dark. Two days later, Cowan called with a name: Latimer. Nothing more. I did not waste time wondering what else Cowan could tell me, or where he was getting his information.
I found a lawyer named Latimer in the Washington telephone book. He knew nothing about a murder case involving the Vietnam War but thought I might want to get in touch with a George Latimer, a World War II combat veteran who later served as a judge on the US Court of Military Appeals and was now practicing law.
Latimer, I learned, had joined a Salt Lake City law firm, and I got him on the phone. I told him I knew he was representing Calley and added, with some honesty, that I had a hunch his client was being railroaded. (I did not add that I thought he was a criminal.) Latimer, speaking very deliberately, as he always did, acknowledged that yes, Calley was his client and it was a miscarriage of justice. Touchdown! I told the judge I was flying to the West Coast soon and asked whether he would mind if I arranged a stopover in Salt Lake City. We settled on a date later in October, and I spent half a day in the Pentagon library reading a number of his decisions.
I took an early flight and arrived at Latimer’s modest office by ten o’clock on a weekday morning. I guessed the judge, who was an elder in the Mormon Church, to be in his late fifties. It was clear at first glance that he was not a man full of irony and whimsy. I masked my acute anxiety by telling Latimer that I had reviewed a number of his appellate decisions, and asked him to explain why he did what he did in certain instances. He did so. It was an extreme example of the Hersh Rule: never begin an interview by asking core questions.
We got to the case at hand, and Latimer told me that he could not discuss specifics. He did say that the Army had offered his client a plea bargain—one that involved jail time—and he had told them, “Never.” The message was clear: Latimer believed his client was a fall guy for the mistakes, if any, of more senior officers during an intense firefight.
At this point, for reasons I still do not understand, I told Latimer that I understood Calley was being accused of killing 150 civilians during the Army assault on My Lai. The only number I had actually heard cited, however vaguely, was seventy-five. But the Army officer and the congressional aide with whom I had discussed the case spoke of wild shootings and insanity, and I also knew from my readings of other antiwar reportage that the senseless killing of hundreds was commonplace in American attacks on rural villages in South Vietnam.
That fictional number got to Latimer. Visibly angered, he went to a file cabinet, snatched a folder, pulled a few pages from it, walked back to his desk—I was seated across from him—and flung the pages in front of me. It was an Army charge sheet accusing First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. of the premeditated murder of 109 “Oriental” human beings. Even in my moment of exultation, it was stunning to see the number Calley was accused of murdering and the description of the dead as “Orientals.” Did the Army mean to suggest that one “Oriental” life was somehow worth less than that of a white American? It was an ugly adjective.
Latimer quickly turned the charge sheet around and pulled it closer to him. I have very little memory of what happened next in our chat, because I spent that time—twenty minutes or so—pretending to take notes as we talked. What I was really doing was reading the charge sheet upside down, albeit very slowly, and copying it word for word.
At some point Latimer broke off the interview and refused to say where Calley was or to help me get to him. I was pretty sure the judge sensed he’d gone too far with me, and I did not dare ask him for a copy of the charge sheet for fear that he would instruct me that I could not use what I had seen. At the door, I thanked him for spending the morning with me and said I assumed that Calley was still at Fort Benning awaiting a court-martial, and that I was going to hunt him down.
Fort Benning, like many Army bases in the United States, was an open facility, and I had no trouble driving onto the main post. I was stunned by its size. The base is nearly the size of New York City, some 285 square miles, with an airfield, a series of widely separated training areas where live ammunition was being fired, and scores of residential areas, known today as family villages. There were a hell of a lot of places to hide Calley, as the Army apparently had chosen to do. I was undaunted; tracking down people who did not want to be found was vital to what I did for a living, and I was good at it.
He was being held on a murder charge, and I assumed that meant he was being kept under wraps at one of the many stockades that were scattered around Fort Benning. I got a good map of the base and began driving. The routine was the same at each prison: I parked my rental car in the spot reserved for the senior officer in charge, which was invariably empty, walked into the prison in my suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, and said to the corporal or sergeant on duty, in a brassy voice, “I’m looking for Bill Calley. Bring him out right away.”
There was no Bill Calley anywhere. It took hours and more than a hundred miles to navigate just a few of the stockades scattered around the base, and I was beginning to feel the pressure of time. It was just past noon by the time I returned to the main post.
I found a pay phone and a base telephone directory in a PX cafeteria and began calling every club I could find: swimming, tennis, hunting, fishing, hiking. No member by the name of Calley. None of the gas stations I reached on the base serviced a car owned by Calley. After a frustrating few hours, I still had no clue as to his whereabouts, nor did I know if he was still at Benning. I was hungry, running out of daylight, and more than a little anxious. I decided to take a short walk and a huge risk by stopping by the main office of the JAG Corps, whose lawyers would be prosecuting the case against Calley.
It was long after lunch hour, but the office was empty except for a lone sergeant. He could not have been more friendly as I introduced myself as a journalist from Washington and said I needed some help. His smile disappeared when I said I was looking for William Calley. He asked me to wait a moment. I asked why. He said he was under orders that if anyone asked about Calley, he was to call the colonel right away. That was enough for me. I told the sergeant not to worry about it and began walking away. The sergeant got frantic and said I could not leave. With that I ran out of the office and down the street, going harder with each stride. I did not want a colonel kicking me off the base. The sergeant chased after me for a few dozen yards and then stopped. It was a scene out of a Marx brothers movie.
I had a hamburger and a Coke at a PX and wondered, as I chewed, what the hell to do next. Then I remembered that Latimer had told me that Calley, then still on active duty in Vietnam, had been ordered to fly back to Benning in the summer. I recalled from my AP days that the military produced updated telephone books every few months. I dialed the operator and requested the supervisor on duty, and when she got on the phone, I asked her to check the last batch of new listings in the prior telephone book for a Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr. The lieutenant, when he returned from overseas, had yet to be prosecuted, and he would have been parked somewhere on the base—and duly listed as a late entry in the telephone book.
After a moment or so, the supervisor returned, told me she’d found my man, and then quickly rattled off a phone number and an address before hanging up. I did not understand a thing she said, between my jumpiness and her thick Southern accent, and wasted precious time reconnecting with her. When I did, she spelled out, letter by letter, Calley’s assignment at the base.
He was attached to an engineering unit located in one of Fort Benning’s satellite training camps. The building was only a few miles from the main post, but it took me nearly an hour, driving through a maze of streets, to find the goddamned place. It was the living quarters for trainees and consisted of two three-story barracks linked by a one-story headquarters office. It was midafternoon, a few hours before the workday would end, and I had a premonition that I would find my quarry stashed somewhere inside.
After a few moments of scuffling about, I found a back door into the nearest barracks and walked through row after row of double bunk beds on the first floor, all empty and all neatly made up. I raced through the upper two floors, peering into each bed in the hope of finding my man. Nothing. I crossed to the second barracks, avoiding the officer in charge by scrambling past the door of his office. The eureka moment, or so I thought, came on the second floor, in the form of a young man, in uniform, with tousled blond hair, dead asleep in a top bunk.
I raised a leg, kicked the side of the bunk, and said, “Wake up, Calley.” The soldier, not yet twenty years old, yawned and said, “What the hell, man?” I do not remember what the name tag on his blouse said, but it was now clear that I did not have Calley. I sat down in disappointment on a bed facing the GI, and a question popped out: “What the fuck are you doing sleeping in the middle of the day?”
It was an absurd story. He had been scheduled to be released months earlier from active duty, but the Army had lost his papers and he was still waiting for them. He was from a farming family in Ottumwa, Iowa, and it was harvest season, and his dad and others were doing his share of the work. Meanwhile, he was getting in a lot of sleep. I asked the sad sack whether he had been assigned anything to do during the day. “I sort the mail,” he said. For everyone? Yes. Did he ever get mail for someone named Calley? “You mean that guy that killed all those people?” Yes, that guy.
The farmer-to-be told me that he had never met Calley but had been ordered to collect the lieutenant’s mail and deliver it every so often to his pal Smitty, the mail clerk at battalion headquarters. The unhappy GI then led me to Smitty, who in turn offered to show me Calley’s 201 file: the personnel folder that the military keeps for both enlisted men and officers.
Trying to stay cool, I opened the folder, and the first page that I encountered was the same charge sheet I had seen days earlier in George Latimer’s office. There was more: an address, in nearby Columbus, Georgia, where Calley was living. I took the time to carefully copy the charge sheet, making sure I got every phrase right, and returned the file to Smitty. He was glad to help, he said—fuck the Army. Then he left, and I headed for Calley’s new home.
It was nearly five o’clock by the time I got to Calley’s condo in what seemed to be a new housing development. A car pulled into the driveway ahead of me, and three young second lieutenants dressed in camouflage fatigues climbed out. I parked behind them, got out of the car, and explained that I was a journalist in search of Bill Calley. Didn’t he live here? Not anymore, I was told.
They invited me in for a drink and explained that they were June graduates from West Point, finishing up combat training before heading off to Vietnam as infantry platoon leaders. They were polite, articulate, and very likable.
We had another bourbon or two. Calley, I learned, stopped by occasionally to get his mail. Of course they knew where he was living now, but they volunteered nothing—until one finally broke ranks as I was leaving. Calley, he told me, had been tucked away in the senior quarters for field-grade officers, including colonels and generals on temporary assignment to Benning. I was stunned: A suspected mass murderer hidden away in quarters for the Army’s most elite? I never would have looked there. It would have been like finding Calley in a neonatal intensive care unit.
I drove off to the complex of two-story buildings with a large parking lot. I began knocking on doors, calling out as I did, “Bill? Bill Calley?” Over the next few hours, I got through two of the three buildings, with no luck and much exhaustion. I’d gotten up at five o’clock that morning in Washington and had little to eat and more than I needed to drink. It was time to check into a motel, get an hour or two of sleep, and start knocking on doors again.
It was dark as I walked across the nearly empty parking lot. I noticed two guys working underneath a car a few hundred feet away with the aid of a floodlight. I vividly remember thinking to myself: let it go, you’ve done enough for today. But I didn’t. As I got close to the car, I apologized for bothering the two guys but said I was looking for Bill Calley. One of the men, perhaps in his late forties, crawled out and asked what I wanted with him. I explained that I was a journalist from Washington and that Calley was in a lot of trouble, and the man invited me to wait for him at his place.
His place turned out to be on the first floor of one of the units, and Calley lived above him. I was warned that it might be hours before Calley showed up; he had gone motorboating at a lake miles away. Yes, said my new friend, a senior warrant officer who flew helicopters in heavy combat, he knew Calley was in a lot of trouble.
Drinks were offered as we waited; the US Army clearly was running on bourbon. He understood where I was coming from, he said, and acknowledged, sadly, that Vietnam was a murderous, unwinnable war that was taxing his love for the military. Calley was worried, the pilot said, as he should be. His story of a firefight would not hold up. I liked the pilot and admired his honesty, but after an hour or so of pretending to sip a drink, I was done. I had to get some sleep. I said goodbye—I can still see the mosquitoes buzzing around a naked bulb outside his door—and began walking to my car.
“Hersh!” the pilot yelled. “Come back! Rusty is here.”
It was Calley. We shook hands. I told him who I was and that I was there to get his side of the story. He said, as if my tracking him down had been a piece of cake, that yes, his lawyer had told him to expect a visit from me.
We went upstairs. I had another drink—this time a beer—and we began to talk. I had wanted to hate him, to see him as a child-killing monster, but instead I found a frightened young man, short and so pale that the bluish veins on his neck and shoulders were visible. His initial account was impossible to believe, full of heroic one-on-one warfare with bullets, grenades, and artillery shells exchanged with the evil commies.
Sometime after three in the morning, Calley took me to a PX, where he bought a bottle of bourbon and some wine. The next stop was an all-night store on the base, where he purchased a steak. Then we picked up his girlfriend, who was a nurse on night duty at the main hospital at the base. She was enraged at Calley upon learning that he was introducing her to a journalist, but she drove back to his apartment with us and made dinner. There was more drinking, and as daylight broke, Calley was talking about going bowling.
The nurse had fled by then, and I had compiled a notebook full of quotes, many of them full of danger for him: his account of the assault at My Lai had become more and more riddled with contradictions. As I got up to leave, Calley insisted that I have a brief phone conversation with his captain, Ernest Medina, who had been in charge of the assault at My Lai.
Medina, who would be found not guilty of premeditated murder, involuntary manslaughter, and assault after a court-martial two years later, picked up the telephone after a ring or two. He also was at Fort Benning, presumably going through the same process as Calley, who was sharing the phone with me. Calley explained that he had been talking to me about My Lai, and he asked Medina to confirm that anything that took place was done under his direct orders. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Medina said, and then he hung up. Calley looked stricken. At that moment, he finally grasped what I am sure he had already suspected: he was going to be the fall guy for the murders at My Lai.
I’d been a reporter for a decade by the fall of 1969 and somehow had figured out that the best way to tell a story, no matter how significant or complicated, was to get the hell out of the way and just tell it. My first My Lai dispatch thus began:
Lt. William L. Calley, Jr., 26, is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname of “Rusty.” The Army says he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians during a search-and-destroy mission in March 1968 in a Viet Cong stronghold known as “Pinkville.”
I wrote the story to the best of my ability and then telephoned an editor friend at Life and said it was all theirs, if the weekly moved quickly. The editor called back within a few hours and said no. He had pushed for it, he said, but there was little enthusiasm for such a story on the part of senior management. I had also been in touch earlier with Look, and now called the editor there and filled him in on the Calley interview. He, too, passed.
I was devastated, and frightened by the extent of self-censorship I was encountering in my profession. I feared I would have no choice but to take the My Lai story to a newspaper and run the risk of having editors turn over my information to their reporting staff: in other words, of being treated like a tipster.
I had stayed in touch with the famed Washington muckraker I. F. Stone through my recent travails, and he responded to my desperation by assuring me that Bob Silvers, the editor of The New York Review of Books, would publish the piece immediately. I called Silvers and he had me dictate the story to someone there. When he and I talked, Silvers told me how excited he was about the story. He had only one significant editing request. Would I add a paragraph up high in the piece to explain the meaning of the massacre, putting it in the context of a brutal, unwinnable war?
I was familiar with editors wanting to put their fingerprints on a good story, and laughed him off, saying there was no need to spell out for readers the political importance of the case against Calley. Surely the facts spoke for themselves. Silvers insisted. I refused. He said he would not run the story without adding the words he wanted me to write. I said goodbye, and that was that.
I was adamant because I knew from my years of being immersed in the war, and in the racism and fear that drove it, that the mass murder of civilians was far more common than most people suspected—and that it was very seldom prosecuted. We now had a case where the Army itself was drawing a line and saying, in essence, that there were some actions that could not be overlooked. There was no way I would let even one paragraph that smacked of antiwar dicta pollute the straightforward report of a mass murder I had written, even if it was to be published in a magazine that was conspicuously against the war.
The flap with Silvers, someone who was on my side, proved to me that I wasn’t going to get the My Lai story published the way I wanted, not unless I somehow put it out there myself. I called up my friend David Obst, who ran the Washington-based Dispatch News Service, an antiwar agency formed just a year earlier. I told him that he could have the goddamned story and that he’d better not screw it up. I also told him that Dispatch News Service was going to copyright the My Lai story and take full responsibility for publishing it. The newspapers who chose to print what we wrote would pay a fixed fee for doing so, and we settled on a hundred bucks per paper, regardless of circulation. I somehow had faith that Obst, a twenty-three-year-old who was able to talk himself in and out of trouble with great charm and pizzazz, would pull it off.
In its own way, what Obst accomplished was as unlikely as my running down Calley at Fort Benning. In his 1998 memoir Too Good to Be Forgotten, he recalled how he went about selling the story, starting early in the morning on November 12, 1969:
I got a copy of a book called The Literary Marketplace, which listed the names and phone numbers of all of the newspapers in America. I opened to A and began calling. It wasn’t until I got to the Cs that I got a hit. The Hartford Current [sic] in Connecticut said they were interested and requested a copy of the story.
My only effort to sell the story on that same day ended in something of a fiasco. I was a good friend of Larry Stern, a star reporter on the national staff of the Washington Post, and he invited me to meet with Ben Bradlee, the paper’s magnetic executive editor. I showed up there just after noon with Michael Nussbaum, my lawyer and also an old friend, and we met in the tiny office of Phil Foisie, the foreign editor. Four or five editors and reporters gathered around as I distributed copies of the Calley story. There was quiet as all began to read. It was broken by the effervescent Bradlee, who literally tossed the pages he was reading at Foisie and said, “Goddamn it! I’ve got hundreds of reporters working for me and this has to come from the outside. Publish it. It smells right.”
Despite Bradlee’s drama-queen performance, the Post totally rewrote my story, adding denials from the Pentagon and other caveats. At least they put the article on the front page. The early edition hit the street well before midnight. It was an ignoble beginning, made worse when Peter Braestrup, who had been assigned to rewrite my Calley story, woke me up a few hours before dawn to tell me that I was a lying son of a bitch: no single soldier could be responsible for the murder of 109 civilians. It was just impossible, he insisted.
I thought Braestrup was drunk, but he may not have been. In any case, I had a lot of trouble going back to sleep. As he reminded me, I had reported a mass murder without having seen a shred of video or photographic evidence.
I would soon learn that the My Lai story made a lot of people irrational. My telephone at home remained listed, as it still is, and for months after the story broke I got calls from angry officers and enlisted men, usually drunk, telling me what they were going to do to my private parts. Braestrup’s was far and away the most stressful case, especially when I learned of his expertise. He was a former Marine officer who had been seriously wounded in the Korean War, and was soon to be the Saigon bureau chief for the Post. I had obviously anticipated pushback from many in the government and the military, but Braestrup alerted me to the possibility that my fellow reporters would be equally resentful.
Obst and I had no idea whether the fifty or so newspaper editors around the country who bought the story would actually choose to publish it until the middle of the next afternoon, when out-of-town papers arrived at the newsstand in the National Press Building. Obst, it turned out, had created a miracle: dozens of major newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, the Philadelphia Bulletin, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, prominently displayed the Calley story; a few even made it the banner headline. The New York Times did not buy the story, but the New York Post did, and gave it dominant play.
2 As it happened, a former soldier and aspiring journalist named Ronald Ridenhour had already encountered precisely this sort of resistance to the My Lai story. Serving with a reconnaissance unit in 1968, he had not been a witness to the massacre but had overflown the burned-out village a few weeks afterward, and, horrified by the desolation, quietly began collecting details of the atrocity from members of Calley’s platoon. When his tour of duty ended in November, Ridenhour compiled a 2,000-word account of the massacre and sent it to several dozen officials in Washington. Most of the recipients, who included President Richard Nixon, some twenty members of Congress, and high-ranking officers in the Department of the Army, claimed that the memo had never shown up. The magazines and newspapers that Ridenhour approached with his account were similarly skeptical—only one of them even bothered to respond. But it was Ridenhour’s memo that finally impelled the Army to open its investigation, which makes him the real hero of this story. I saw a reference to him in a brief article right after I published the first of my My Lai dispatches and immediately flew out to California, where he was a student at Claremont Men’s College. We talked for five hours, and he gave me the names and addresses of other witnesses, as well as stray bits of documentation that proved invaluable. Ridenhour did eventually become a journalist, winning a George Polk Award in 1987 for his investigation of a tax scandal in New Orleans, his hometown. He died, much too young, of a heart attack in 1998.
The major television networks did nothing with the story, in part because the Pentagon shrewdly refused to make any comment. And there was widespread skepticism elsewhere in the media about my report, with many newspapers—including the Washington Post—noting the hardships US soldiers were undergoing in fighting a guerrilla war against enemy troops who posed as farmers during the day. The subliminal message was clear: American soldiers were often in a position where they had to shoot first or become victims. Who was I to make such a harsh judgment about the war?2
Within weeks I wrote a follow-up piece, which Obst sold to scores of papers in America and abroad. (The New York Times declined once again.) I kept on going. By now I knew there was yet another story that, so I thought, would end any resistance to the obvious truth of My Lai. I had spoken to other members of Calley’s platoon, and they told me about a soldier named Paul Meadlo, a farm kid from somewhere in Indiana, who had mechanically fired clip after clip of bullets, on Calley’s orders, into groups of women and children who had been rounded up amid the massacre.
I traced Meadlo’s family to the tiny village of New Goshen, about eighty-five miles west of Indianapolis, and pulled up in front of the ramshackle farm at midday. Paul’s mother, Myrtle, in her fifties but looking much older, came out to greet me. When I explained my mission, she pointed to a second, smaller frame house on the property.
I knocked on the door and Meadlo waved me inside. The day after the My Lai massacre, he had stepped on a land mine, which blew off his right foot. I began the conversation by asking him to show me his stump. He took off his boot and prosthetic device and talked openly and with animation about the treatment he had received in the field, in Vietnam, and the long recuperation he went through at an Army hospital in Japan. We then turned to the day of the massacre. Meadlo told the story to me in great detail, and with little emotion, especially given the events he was recounting: Calley first ordered him to guard the survivors of the initial carnage, who had been gathered in a ditch, and then told him to kill them all. There were other soldiers present, but Meadlo did the bulk of the job, firing four or five seventeen-bullet clips into the ditch until it grew silent.
I called Obst late in the afternoon and told him to let editors know we had done it again and now had a front-page story for the world: a firsthand account of the massacre, on the record, from a shooter. Paul Meadlo’s confessional did change America, as I hoped it would. Before his account was published in papers around the world, he was taped for CBS television as well, and his appearance was broadcast on November 24: the same day that the Pentagon formally announced that Calley would be court-martialed for the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians.
The harrowing Meadlo story ended the debate about what had happened at My Lai, and it also spawned a wave of Sunday feature stories by journalists about massacres they had witnessed in Vietnam. The one that troubled me the most was filed by an experienced AP correspondent, who described how a few Marines had gone on a rampage in 1965 and killed a cluster of civilians who had taken refuge in a cave. My first angry thought: Why hadn’t such stories been published at the time? But I soon took a more charitable tack: My controversial pieces had been written in an office far from Vietnam, and in a climate at least slightly more welcoming to antiwar sentiment. Publishing such an on-the-scene account in 1965 would have been seen by many as disloyalty, and it would have been vigorously (if shakily) debunked, with prominent newspapers leading the pack.
As for me, I continued to race around America well into December, tracking down My Lai participants and witnesses. I produced five articles in all on the massacre and its aftermath for Dispatch News Service. But I have yet to sort out the ethical complexities of what I was writing about, and perhaps I never will. In a letter I sent to Bob Loomis, who was then my editor at Random House, I wrote:
Both the killer and the killed are victims in Vietnam; the peasant who is shot down for no reason and the GI who is taught, or comes to believe, that a Vietnamese life somehow has less meaning than his wife’s, or his sister’s, or his mother’s.
I believed those words then, and still do, but it was a hard-earned belief. One GI who shot himself in the foot to get the hell out of My Lai told me of the special savagery some of his colleagues—or was it himself?—had shown toward young children. One GI used his bayonet repeatedly on a little boy, at one point tossing the child, perhaps still alive, in the air and spearing him as if he were a papier-mâché piñata. I had a two-year-old son at home, and there were times, after talking to my wife and then my child on the telephone, when I would suddenly burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably. For them? For the victims of American slaughter? For me, because of what I was learning?
My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, my second book, was published in June 1970. Its publication, to the dismay of many at Random House, was overshadowed by Harper’s Magazine, which published a 30,000-word excerpt of my book, on a different grade of paper from the rest of the magazine, in its May issue, which appeared weeks before the book was available in stores. My shock was tempered by the fact that there were literally lines of buyers outside drugstores and bookstores on the morning the magazine was released. This coup by Willie Morris, the magazine’s editor, certainly put a dent in Random House’s sales, but his instinct about the importance of the story was a boon for the antiwar movement.
The My Lai story undoubtedly hastened America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. On a more personal note, it won me a Pulitzer Prize, some measure of fame, and enough money to make a down payment on a small house in Washington. To this day, however, I feel a certain moral uneasiness about Calley’s role as a fall guy when so many others were equally culpable. Did his conviction somehow let other guilty parties—and even ourselves—off the hook? That was certainly the fear I expressed to Loomis in that letter. It has never entirely gone away:
Calley is really no more at fault than anyone else there: he shouldn’t have been an officer, he shouldn’t have been sent to fight a war he could not comprehend, he shouldn’t have known the body count as the only standard of success, and he shouldn’t be on trial any more than the higher-ranking officers who did nothing about the slaughter afterwards, thus inducing that many more killings. Perhaps there is even less reason to try Calley than the top brass at the Pentagon, or maybe an American president or two, or three. Perhaps you and me should be on trial for not doing more to stop the war.
Before he died, my father reminded me that when I was four and he asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a writer. Of course, what I meant by “writer” then was a writer of Superman comics. In part I was infatuated with the practically invulnerable Man of Steel, his blue eyes and his spit curl. I wanted both to be him and to marry him—to be his Robin, so to speak. But more importantly, I wanted to write his story, the adventures of the man who fought for truth, justice, and the American Way—if only I could figure out what the fuck the American Way was.
How could I tell the story with such glaring holes in my knowledge? I was terribly bothered that I did not know what the American Way was, and became even more so when I began to wonder whether there was such a thing as the Lebanese Way and whether I would recognize it. My parents were Lebanese, but I was born in Jordan, raised in Kuwait. Could my way be Kuwaiti and not Lebanese? Since most of my classmates were Palestinians, I had a Ramallah accent. Did that mean I’d lost my way?
I wanted to tell stories that belonged to me. Superman would be my friend, his world mine. In a single bound, he would leap the tallest buildings, basically my house and my cousins’ across the street. My Superman would be more powerful than a locomotive, stronger than my father’s red Rambler. I wished to share my story with the world, and it did not occur to me at that age to ask whether the world had any interest.
Who gets to tell stories? Let me answer this quickly: for the most part—and the exceptions are relatively recent—the writers who are allowed to talk are those who prop up the dominant culture, who reflect it with a gilded mirror. But wait: writers have been critical of the dominant culture for quite a while, you may say. Look at James Baldwin, look at Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, fine, but criticism of the culture is not necessarily a threat to it. When the story is truly threatening, the writer is marginalized, either deemed a “political” writer or put in a box to be safely celebrated as some sort of “minority” writer. In his day Baldwin was considered more a black writer than a writer, and so he still is. If he is inching his way into the canon, it is because the culture has shifted. Overt racism is a bad thing now, so a liberal American can read Another Country and think, sure, there were a few bad apples back then, but this is not about me or how I live. It is easier now to tell ourselves that Baldwin is not talking about us, that he is criticizing people we no longer are.
When I bring this up in conversation, people stop me in my tracks because, you know, Conrad, Heart of Darkness and all that. Didn’t he criticize empire?
He didn’t. A story about a bickering couple does not threaten the institution of marriage. Heart of Darkness might disapprove of colonialism, but it’s not an attack on empire itself. The book deals in strict dualities and reinforces the superiority of Western culture and ideas. Africa, its jungle, is what blackens Kurtz’s heart, and just in case you start to feel uncomfortable because you find yourself identifying with him, the supposed bad apple—the Lynndie England of nineteenth-century Europe—Marlow, the novel’s cordon sanitaire, is there to make you feel better. If that’s not enough, it’s actually some other shadowy narrator telling you what he heard when listening to Marlow’s story, so you, imperial citizen, are at least two steps removed from the apple and its African rot. No need for you to feel yourself in jeopardy. Your world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other, is just simply horrid.
In Chinua Achebe’s 1977 essay on Heart of Darkness, he accuses Conrad of “thoroughgoing” racism and adds:
That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.
In other words, Conrad not only shares the dominant point of view but makes it stronger. He might prick it with a pin every now and then, but he is by no means threatening the culture. In fact, he is glorifying it. Achebe uses a phrase that I will return to: Conrad is a purveyor of comforting myths.
Where I disagree with Achebe is that, because of the racism in Heart of Darkness, he refuses to consider it a masterwork. Like all books, Conrad’s novel is limited by his vision, his biases, his worldview. There is no writer with limitless vision, no writer whose worldview is shared by everyone. The problem is not that people read Heart of Darkness as a masterpiece—it is one—it’s that few read books unsanctioned by empire, and even if you wanted to, there aren’t that many available. Today’s imperial censorship is usually masked as the publisher’s bottom line. “This won’t sell” is the widest moat in the castle’s defenses.
Heart of Darkness echoes everywhere today. Take the American war novels about Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. They are often considered critical of war, hence you might think of them as dangerous to the institution of war. But most of them deal with the suffering of the American soldiers, the Marines who were forced to massacre a village, the pilots who dropped barrel bombs and came home suffering from PTSD. If anything, this is helpful to the cannibalistic war machine. Such war novels make us feel bad and at the same time allow us to see ourselves as the good guys. We are not all terrible, for we suffer, too.
In one of the most gorgeous passages at the end of Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes at length the suffering of a mass murderer’s widow, though he glossed over that of the murderer’s victims. Conrad did not create the original mold for this kind of writing—from Homer to Shakespeare to Kipling, everyone has done it—but he became the standard because he was so good. We invade your countries, destroy your economies, demolish your infrastructures, murder hundreds of thousands of your citizens, and a decade or so later we write beautifully restrained novels about how killing you made us cry.
Among the many writers who have responded to Heart of Darkness, my favorite is Tayeb Salih in Season of Migration to the North. This short novel, published in Arabic in 1966 (the first English translation came out in 1969), refers to a number of classic works of Western literature—Othello, The Tempest—but primarily it engages with Conrad. Where Conrad wrote of colonialism as a misadventure that forced enlightened man to encounter his opposite in the heart of darkness that is Africa, Salih, who is Sudanese, calls the entire enterprise of empire a “deadly disease” that began “a thousand years ago,” a contagion that began with the earliest contact, the Crusades. Conrad’s Kurtz is mirrored in Salih’s Mustapha Saeed, who leaves his small Sudanese village and moves to his heart of darkness, London. Once enmeshed in the city’s web, Saeed decides he will “liberate Africa with his penis.” Like Kurtz’s time in Africa, Saeed’s stay in London results in a trail of dead bodies—his lovers who commit suicide, the wife he murders.
Salih’s novel simultaneously emphasizes and breaks down the dualities between self and other, between white and black. Saeed is shown as both the other and the double of the unnamed narrator, a man from the same village. The line demarcating the dualities is not clear-cut. Compared with Heart of Darkness, Season of Migration to the North is a study in subtlety. Whereas the denizens of Conrad’s Africa are “just limbs or rolling eyes” who grunt and snort or are cannibals who want to “eat ’im,” Salih’s Africans think, act, and speak—an amazing concept. And Salih is more generous than Conrad: he allows the denizens of his heart of darkness to be human as well. Even these imperial interlopers are allowed to talk, if only to act on ridiculously sexist and racist sentiments, as with a woman who says to Saeed, “Ravish me, you African demon. Burn me in the fire of your temple, you black god. Let me twist and turn in your wild and impassioned rites.” (There are prejudices and there are prejudices, of course, and suffering under someone else’s does not inoculate you from subjecting others to your own. In Salih’s book, in other words, sexism “is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.”)
The gravitas in Salih’s novel is in the return home. Conrad’s Kurtz dies, Marlow returns to England a tad traumatized. In Season of Migration, both Saeed and the narrator return to Sudan after a stint in London, and they find that they no longer fit where they belong. The narrator says:
By the standards of the European industrial world, we are poor peasants, but when I embrace my grandfather I experience a sense of richness as though I am a note in the heartbeats of the very universe.
Neither man can be that note any longer; neither can recover the experience of being part of the village. They are caught in countercurrents.
The novel ends with the narrator in the river, not the Thames or the Congo but the Nile, struggling to stay afloat:
Turning to left and right, I found I was halfway between north and south. I was unable to continue, unable to return.?.?.?. Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!”
Think “The horror! The horror!”
Colonialism dislocates you in your own home.
I don’t have to tell you that Tayeb Salih is not widely read in our dominant culture; or, to put it in the terms I’m using, he isn’t allowed to talk here. He isn’t a purveyor of our comforting myths. He is, however, read among Arabs, at least among the intelligentsia. The book was published to great acclaim and is now recognized as one of the masterpieces of Arabic literature. So: Is Salih the purveyor of comforting myths in that world? His novel might not subscribe to the American Way or the Colonialist Way, but does it subscribe to the Arab or the African Way? One has to wonder if it fits into a dominant Arab culture that blames all its ills on colonialism.
The question is important for me, so let me take it a little further: even though Salih wrote the book in Arabic, he was still a Western-educated man who spent most of his life in London. To the Sudanese, he may be closer than an Englishman, but he isn’t exactly one of them, and of course few actual Englishmen would consider him one of their own. He is seen by both sides as the other. Even though his work might sound foreign to most Western readers, his foreignness is the tip of the iceberg, that humongous iceberg of the other. Or, if there is such a thing as an otherness scale, then Salih falls at a point along this scale, but not at the far end, and maybe a lot closer than you think.
No matter how bleak things look these days, what with Trump and other racists yelling on the airwaves and committing overt acts of violence, we are living in a time of greater inclusivity than any other. More people are being allowed into the dominant culture, more people are being allowed to talk, maybe not all at the same volume, and there are still not enough voices, but things are quite a bit better than when Salih and Baldwin wrote their novels, and that is reflected in our literature. Every year, novels by women, African Americans, Latinos, queers, by all kinds of “others,” are released alongside the white-male-authored books. We have novels by Somalis, Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, Peruvians, Nepalis, you name it.
World literature is now a genre. And as you might have guessed, I have a problem with this.
Let’s take an example: Which Chinese writer gets to talk? Amy Tan was born and raised in California and still lives there, so at times she’s a Chinese-American writer. Yiyun Li lives in the United States and received her graduate education here, but she was born in China; she’s definitely classified as a Chinese writer. They both write in English. Ma Jian lives in London but writes in Chinese. Mo Yan is Chinese, lives in China. He has been accused by the West of not being sufficiently anti-government, which basically means he does not get to speak for the Chinese. Liu Xiaobo was born and raised and jailed in China, but he was a critic and academic, and who reads that?
It might be fun to play Who Is More Chinese, but that’s not the point here. This isn’t about good or bad. I love the work of all the writers I mentioned above. What I’m interested in is who gets to talk. Arguably, Tan and Li are the only “Chinese” who are allowed to talk, who are allowed to tell the story in the United States. There might be one or two others. This is still very limiting, not just in terms of how few are permitted to speak but how the writers are perceived. We’re adding another modifier, creating another box—black writer, queer writer, and now the world-literature writer.
On the back cover of one of my novels I am called “one of world literature’s most celebrated voices.” (I have a voice, I get to talk, though I often have the impression that I’m supposed to do it sotto voce.) If we look at the impressive list of writers who are part of this world-literature thing, we see Tan and Li, Aleksandar Hemon representing Bosnia, Junot Díaz representing the Dominican Republic, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole representing Nigeria, Hisham Matar for Libya, Daniel Alarcón for Peru, Salman Rushdie for India or is it Pakistan, oh, what the hell, let’s give him the entire subcontinent. I get Lebanon.
The thing is that we are all Westerners, if not exclusively American. We have all been indoctrinated with a Western education. We can cite Shakespeare with the best of them.
A number of years ago I was a juror for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, an award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and the magazine World Literature Today. Since this is an international prize, the jury is always composed of international writers. There were jurors representing Lebanon, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Palestine, South Africa, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Italy. Only the Italian actually lived in Italy. The rest of us were primarily Americans, living in the United States, almost all associated with American universities. The Mexican was a Texan, the Egyptian a New Yorker; the Nepali taught at Ohio State. Every interview I did as a juror included questions about peace in the Middle East and whether we can achieve it in my lifetime, what it is like in Beirut, and whether I found the trip to Oklahoma tiring. Norman is a four-hour flight from San Francisco. (And while we’re talking about universities: MFA programs are a kind of indoctrination, too. Certain stories, certain types of stories and certain ways of telling stories, are made more valid than others, and this can be dangerous. From the Congo to the Punjab, if you go to Iowa, you will be learning the Iowa Way. You risk becoming a purveyor of comforting myths.)
This is not a discussion of authenticity. I’m not sure I believe in the concept, particularly in literature. Think of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, a fully imagined novel with four “other” characters set in “other” locations. Nabokov did not have to be a pedophile to write Lolita. After all, art and artifice are related. What I’m talking about, in my roundabout way, is representation—how those of us who fall outside the dominant culture are allowed to speak as the other, and more importantly, for the other.
This is not to say that we were not, or are not, “world literature.” We might be different from what passes for regular American lit, or as I like to call it, common literature. What I’m saying is that there is more other, scarier other, translated other, untranslatable other, the utterly strange other, the other who can’t stand you. Those of us allowed to speak are the tip of the iceberg. We are the cute other.
I use the term jokingly, but also deliberately. All of us on that world-literature list are basically safe, domesticated, just exotic enough to make our readers feel that they are liberal, not parochial or biased. That is, we are purveyors of comforting myths for a small segment of the dominant culture that would like to see itself as open-minded. I don’t mean that as an insult—I love to be read; we all do—but we are serving a purpose that we might not be thinking much about.
In a New York Times review, one of my novels was called a “bridge to the Arab soul.” I find this phrase discomfiting, mostly because of the words “Arab” and “soul.” Is the Arab soul like the American Way? Do Arabs have just one soul, and if so, can someone please tell me how to find it? “Bridge” I understood. You see, my novel was seen not as American but as representing the Arab world. My novel is a bridge to this world of otherness. I get to talk because I am the bridge. No one on the other side of the bridge gets to. And truly, who would want to cross that bridge and touch the heart of darkness, be soiled by that dark other?
We get to talk because we are seen as the nice tour guides. We can hold the hands of readers of the empire as we travel a short distance onto the bridge and get a glimpse of what’s across it, maybe even wave at the poor sods on the other side. We make readers feel good about themselves for delving into our books because they believe they are open-minded about the other. We are purveyors of comforting myths.
Now, again, I want to be read. I love holding hands. If there is such a bridge, I’d love to take readers for a stroll along it. I doubt any writer feels differently. What I want is to allow other writers to talk, all kinds of writers, or should I say, more others, more-other others.
The problem today is that this culture we live in is lovely and insidious, able, unlike any that has come before it, to integrate criticism of itself and turn it around faster than Klee’s Angelus Novus can blink. The culture co-opts others, co-opts their culture, makes us cute and cuddly and lovable, but we never integrate fully.
Every group needs to have an other. I don’t know how a society can exist without classifying another as the other. The question for the writers who are getting to talk is where we stand. Inside, outside, in the middle? For so-called world-literature writers, it’s a troubling question.
You might think this is diversity, but it seems more like homogenization. Sometimes, not always, when I read a novel presented or marketed as “foreign,” I feel that I’m reading that common thing, a generic novel hidden behind an alluring facade, a comfortable and familiar book with a sprinkling of exoticness. The names of foods are italicized. Instead of visiting Beijing, I end up at its airport with the same bright Prada and Starbucks stores, maybe one dumpling stand in the corner.
And sometimes even that little stand is troublesome. When I wrote a novel about a reclusive woman who bucks society’s rules by having a rich inner life filled with books and art, I was surprised by how many readers identified with her, and more so that many considered her a tragic figure because she lived in a country that had no respect for women. You know: we live in an exceptional country, it’s only over there where they ostracize women who refuse to conform. (Our world might not be perfect, but that other world, that world of the other is just simply horrid.)
How to get out of this cycle? I don’t know. I’m a writer; answers are not my forte. Complaining certainly is. Moreover, as I said above, I’m a writer with a limited view. Like many writers, when I begin a novel, almost all I worry about is making the damn thing work. I move from one sentence to the next, from one section to another, wondering how and whether everything will fit. I try, however, to write in opposition; by that I mean that whenever a consensus is reached about what constitutes good writing, I instinctively wish to oppose it. When I started writing my first novel, a friend suggested I read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which allegedly explained the principles of good writing. I hated it, not because it was bad advice but because it felt so limiting. Writers are supposed to show, not tell? I wrote a novel where the protagonist does nothing but tell. A short story should lead to an epiphany? Who needs that? When I’m told I should write a certain way, I bristle. I even attempt to write in opposition to the most recent book I finished. If my previous novel was expansive, I begin to write microscopically; if quiet, I write loudly. It is my nature. I don’t know whether this childish rebelliousness helps keep my work “foreign.” Most days, I doubt it. I write a book thinking it is subversive, that it might not be a comforting myth, and if it gets read, if I’m lucky, the dominant culture co-opts it like Goya’s Saturn devouring his son.
I might think of myself as living in opposition to empire, or I might insist that I write differently from everyone else, but I recognize that I believe this to make myself feel better. Whenever I read reviews of my work, I notice that I am still the tour guide. “Look at those cute Arabs. See, not all of them are bad. And the homosexuals are nice, too.” Which is to say that opposing the dominant culture is like trying to whittle down a mountain by rubbing it with a silk scarf. Yet a writer must. I may not be able to move mountains like Superman, but I have lovely scarves.
In 2006, when the internet was younger and seemed to hold untapped artistic possibilities, I was asked to write a serial novel for Slate. The subject of the “book” was up to me, so I chose themes that seemed appropriate to the new medium: high-tech surveillance, cultural fragmentation, selfhood eroded by scrutiny. I imagined people reading my dark tale surreptitiously at their office computers and feeling almost as hunted as the characters, who were a mix of anarchists and federal agents, omniscient spies and hapless nobodies. I titled the novel The Unbinding and filled it with experimental devices—specifically, scores of hyperlinks—meant to hasten a Great Leap Forward for fiction. One of the hyperlinks took you to a video of a metal band from Scandinavia playing a sped-up, scary-sounding cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” How I thought it might help the story I no longer recall. I may have stuck it in just because I could.
The Unbinding was, needless to say, a flop. Few people ever found it on the web, and fewer still bought the printed version that followed (in which the hyperlinks appeared in bold but were functionally moot). Not surprising: it was borderline incoherent. When I started the book, I had a notion that I would use current events to shape the plot. It was a clever idea but not a good one. Fashioning a tale without an ending, a tale that swerved as the headlines changed yet retained its inner logic, was a stunt I simply couldn’t manage. I wrote it in installments, week by week, laying down a railroad track to nowhere. I should have called the project “The Unhinging,” since writing it nearly sent me around the bend.
To console myself for my failure I concluded that the internet and the novel were natural enemies. “Choose your own adventure” stories were not the future of literature. The author should be a dictator, a tyrant who treated the reader as his willing slave, not as a cocreator. And high-tech flourishes should be avoided. Novels weren’t meant to link to Neil Diamond songs or, say, refer to real plane crashes on the day they happen. Novels were closed structures, their boundaries fixed, not data-driven, dynamic feedback loops. Until quite recently, these were my beliefs, and no new works emerged to challenge my thinking.
Then, late last year, while knocking around on the internet one night, I came across a long series of posts originally published on 4chan, an anonymous message board. They described a sinister global power struggle only dimly visible to ordinary citizens. On one side of the fight, the posts explained, was a depraved elite, bound by unholy oaths and rituals, secretly sowing chaos and strife to create a pretext for their rule. On the other side was the public, we the people, brave and decent but easily deceived, not least because the news was largely scripted by the power brokers and their collaborators in the press. And yet there was hope, I read, because the shadow directorate had blundered. Aligned during the election with Hillary Clinton and unable to believe that she could lose, least of all to an outsider, it had underestimated Donald Trump—as well as the patriotism of the US military, which had recruited him for a last-ditch battle against the psychopathic deep-state spooks. The writer of the 4chan posts, who signed these missives “Q,” invited readers to join this battle. He—she? it?—promised to pass on orders from a commander and intelligence gathered by a network of spies.
I was hooked.
Known to its fan base as QAnon, the tale first appeared last year, around Halloween. Q’s literary brilliance wasn’t obvious at first. His obsessions were unoriginal, his style conventional, even dull. He suggested that Washington was being purged of globalist evildoers, starting with Clinton, who was awaiting arrest, supposedly, but allowed to roam free for reasons that weren’t clear. Soon a whole roster of villains had emerged, from John McCain to John Podesta to former president Obama, all of whom were set to be destroyed by something called the Storm, an allusion to a remark by President Trump last fall about “the calm before the storm.” Clinton’s friend and supporter Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, a member by marriage of the banking family abhorred by anti-Semites everywhere, came in for special abuse from Q and Co.—which may have contributed to her decision to delete her Twitter app. Along with George Soros, numerous other bigwigs, the FBI, the CIA, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (by whom the readers of Q feel persecuted), these figures composed a group called the Cabal. The goal of the Cabal was dominion over all the earth. Its initiates tended to be pedophiles (or pedophilia apologists), the better to keep them blackmailed and in line, and its esoteric symbols were everywhere; the mainstream media served as its propaganda arm. Oh, and don’t forget the pope.
As I read further, the tradition in which Q was working became clearer. Q’s plot of plots is a retread, for the most part, of Cold War–era John Birch Society notions found in books such as None Dare Call It Conspiracy. These Bircher ideas were borrowings, in turn, from the works of a Georgetown University history professor by the name of Carroll Quigley. Said to be an important influence on Bill Clinton, Quigley was a legitimate scholar of twentieth-century Anglo-American politics. His 1966 book Tragedy and Hope, which concerned the power held by certain elites over social and military planning in the West, is not itself a paranoid creation, but parts of it have been twisted and reconfigured to support wild theories of all kinds. Does Q stand for Quigley? It’s possible, though there are other possibilities (such as the Department of Energy’s “Q” security clearance). The literature of right-wing political fear has a canon and a pantheon, and Q, whoever he is, seems deeply versed in it.
While introducing his cast of fiends, Q also assembled a basic story line. Justice was finally coming for the Cabal, whose evil deeds were “mind blowing,” Q wrote, and could never be “fully exposed” lest they touch off riots and revolts. But just in case this promised “Great Awakening” caused panic in the streets, the National Guard and the Marine Corps were ready to step in. So were panels of military judges, in whose courts the treasonous cabalists would be tried and convicted, then sent to Guantánamo. In the manner of doomsayers since time began, Q hinted that Judgment Day was imminent and seemed unabashed when it kept on not arriving. Q knew full well that making one’s followers wait for a definitive, cathartic outcome is a cult leader’s best trick—for the same reason that it’s a novelist’s best trick. Suspense is an irritation that’s also a pleasure, so there’s a sensual payoff from these delays. And the more time a devotee invests in pursuing closure and satisfaction, the deeper her need to trust the person in charge. It’s why Trump may be in no hurry to build his wall, or to finish it if he starts. It’s why he announced a military parade that won’t take place until next fall.
As the posts piled up and Q’s plot thickened, his writing style changed. It went from discursive to interrogative, from concise and direct to gnomic and suggestive. This was the breakthrough, the hook, the innovation, and what convinced me Q was a master, not just a prankster or a kook. He’d discovered a principle of online storytelling that had eluded me all those years ago but now seemed obvious: The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read, it wants to write. It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them. It doesn’t want to sit and be amused, it wants to be sent on a mission. It wants to do.
From November on, as his following on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms grew, Q turned his readers into spies and soldiers by issuing coded orders and predictions that required great effort to interpret and tended to remain ambiguous even after lengthy contemplation. The messages often consisted of stacked one-liners that looked like imagist poems. They radiated mystery and portent. Take this example from March 3:
Who controls the narrative?
WHO wrote the singular censorship algorithm?
WHO deployed the algorithm?
WHO instructed them to deploy the algorithm?
SAME embed across multiple platforms.
Why is the timing relevant?
Where is @Snowden?
Why did ES leave G?
To initiates, this set of clues (Q’s audience calls these “crumbs” and strives to “bake” them into “bread,” meaning plain English) alludes to an elaborate range of incidents related to Trump’s war on the Cabal and to the Cabal’s war—doomed to fail—on us, the innocents. “ES,” for instance, is Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, whose resignation had been linked in previous posts to covert dealings with North Korea, in Q mythology a CIA puppet state and a center of trafficking in drugs and sex slaves. The insidious censorship algorithm is the work of Edward Snowden, who isn’t a whistle-blower but a double or triple agent of murky allegiances who works with Twitter’s Dorsey in some obscure capacity to keep the citizenry blind and muzzled.
Preposterous, huh? Well, the Q people don’t think so. Indeed, they feel we’ll soon come over to their side, once we understand the true relationship between Q’s crumbs and the subsequent news events that the crumbs predicted. The North Korean peace talks, for example, which some students of Q saw coming last winter. Or the scandalous revelations about Facebook’s illicit peddling of users’ data. “Do you believe in coincidences?” asks Q repeatedly, and the answer he obviously wants is no. That’s why his minions labor to make connections between such disparate phenomena as the flight paths of jumbo jets and the alleged escape plans of A-list fugitives. “Expand your thinking,” Q exhorts his legions, particularly when they falter in their cryptography or lag in their online detective work. He’s the author as case officer, tasking slow-witted readers with enigmas whose solutions he already knows but insists that they discover on their own.
And his posts aren’t all nonsense. Some are quite uncanny in the way they anticipate the headlines. On March 9, he told his troops to watch for “liquidity events” in the stock charts of social media companies. Days later, Facebook fell into disgrace and suffered a sizable market sell-off. Then there are the intriguing correlations between the posts and the president’s Twitter outbursts, which Q would have us think are synchronized with split-second precision. The proofs he offers involve comparing time stamps, and mathematically minded Qbots swear by them. That they’re willing to fuss with such puzzles is a testament to the compulsive power of Q’s methods. By leaving more blanks in his stories than he fills in, he activates the portion of the mind that sees faces in clouds and hears melodies in white noise.
Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base. The trick, he says, is to fashion a mental filter that will make Trump’s losses look like victories, his missteps like chess moves, his caprices like plans. After all, if most news is fake, as Trump insists, the real news must be hidden out of sight. Q claims to offer glimpses of it, along with warnings about what would happen if we beheld it all at once. To wake in an instant to the Luciferian horrors of the Cabal’s perverted machinations would be like rushing forth from Plato’s cave—blinding, debilitating, maybe deadly. Instead, Q leads us gently toward the light, a patient guide, like Virgil was to Dante.
One night this spring, in northwest Arkansas, Matthew and I stayed up past midnight interpreting several recent posts from Q that trembled on the verge of clarity, seeming to offer highly privileged insights into a crisis rumored to be forthcoming. I sat on the couch. He paced. We thought out loud, competing to crack the message and setting different values for different variables. We argued our cases as the night slid by; we raved away in an ecstasy of guesswork. Q was being good to us. Q was delivering everything we craved.
Q is part fabulist, part fortune-teller, holding up a computer-screen-shaped mirror to our golden age of fraudulence. He composes in inklings, hunches, and wild guesses, aware that our hunger for order grows more acute the longer it goes unsatisfied. Q calls the vista he’s gradually revealing the map, and he knows how badly his people crave it, which is why he doesn’t disclose in one fell swoop Trump’s strategy for national salvation. A hope fulfilled is also a hope exhausted. Tension and foreboding, on the other hand, are thrills that keep on thrilling, for fear can never be fully put to rest. Even if his followers’ dreams come true and the Clintons, Podestas, Schmidts, and Dorseys are hustled off in chains to distant gulags, and even if Kim Jong-un is released from the CIA contract that requires him to play a nuclear madman to keep the world off balance so America’s spymasters can rule it, one can never be sure the Cabal won’t rise again. And it will, of course, since that’s what archfiends do: rise from the dead.
The novel is the same way. It dies and dies so it can live and live. The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write.
US president Donald Trump wrote in a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that a scheduled summit between the two parties “will not take place,” and then said that the planned date for that summit “hasn’t changed.” Kim said he’d consider dismantling his country’s nuclear arsenal at a meeting with South Korean president Moon Jae-in that was held at a “truce village” located in the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Ireland repealed a constitutional amendment that banned abortion, and in Scotland, it was announced that an employment tribunal hearing would be held for a woman who was gagged and taped to a chair for speaking up about bullying and harassment at her job eight years ago. Former movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused by over 80 people of sexual harassment, assault, or rape, was arrested in New York and released on $1 million bail with an electronic ankle monitor; and eight women accused the actor Morgan Freeman of inappropriate behavior and harassment. Emails were released showing that Environmental Protection Agency officials coordinated with a group that denies climate change, and it was reported that the Rio Grande is drying up.
Two men entered Bombay Bhel restaurant in Mississauga, Ontario, and set off a homemade bomb, injuring 15 people. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation went into effect, setting legal restrictions on how companies can gather data; an Amazon Echo device mistakenly recorded one couple’s private conversation and sent it to one of the husband’s employees; and it was reported that Amazon sold police departments facial recognition technology called Rekognition. A study found that black defendants receive longer sentences from Republican-appointed judges than from judges chosen by Democrats, Milwaukee police released a video in which NBA player Sterling Brown was arrested and tased by officers over a parking violation, NFL owners approved a policy stating that players can be fined for kneeling during the national anthem, and it was reported that US representative Tom Garrett used his aides as personal servants, ordering them to pick up groceries and the poop of his dog, Sophie. “Jefferson did bad things, but he had good ideas,” said Garrett, referring to the country’s third president, who was a slaveholder.
In Italy, the populist prime minister–designate was given a mandate to form a government, and then failed to do so. Wyoming approved the first grizzly bear hunt in 44 years, and in Bloomfield, Connecticut, a town council member ordered a $49 Heart Attack Burger during budget talks. A report from the Federal Reserve showed that 29 percent of Americans would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 bill. Egypt’s high court banned YouTube for a month, and in China a social networking app that claimed to help users “find the ultimate generous Sugar Daddy” was removed from the platform WeChat. The fourth man to walk on the moon died, a study found that climate change will make rice less nutritious, and Hormel recalled 228,614 pounds of Spam and Luncheon Loaf after consumers bit into metal objects.
A two-year meta-analysis by the Rand Corporation found that the quality of gun-violence research in the United States is very low. Germans who played Grand Theft Auto V for two months exhibited normal levels of empathy when watching a woman accidentally cut herself while slicing cucumbers. Dutch researchers found that guns, but not knives, allow robbers to achieve dominance through “aggrandizing posturing and forward movements.” Between 1972 and 2016, Americans became more tolerant of free speech by people whose values oppose theirs or who possess fringe views, with extreme liberals being the most tolerant. Racial, religious, and ideological identity are stronger components of Republican partisanship than of Democratic partisanship. Family support and sensitivity to neural reward responses insulated Americans from the depressing effect of Trump’s election. Liberals have more emotionally expressive faces. Major facial recognition software makes mistakes at least forty-three times as often with dark-skinned women as with light-skinned men. Good-looking people are likelier to believe in a just world. Plastic surgeons warned that people misled by wide-angle distortion in selfies were seeking nose jobs.
Physicists attempted to predict the point at which tipping will be abandoned. Male macaques acquire a preference for Acura and Adidas logos if those are shown paired, respectively, with the face of a dominant male or the genitals of a female; they will not form a preference for Pizza Hut paired with a submissive male. Adult male pedophiles, unlike non-pedophiles, exhibit higher levels of nurturing activity in the brain for baby animals than for adult animals. A yellow cardinal was spotted in the town of Alabaster, a white cardinal was spotted in Knoxville, and an invasive spotted lantern fly was observed in Wilmington. Most Anna’s hummingbirds have mites living in their tail feathers. As many as seven yellow-billed oxpeckers will sleep upside down in a giraffe’s armpit. Brazilian zoologists described eleven kinds of bats’ penises. The Australian fire beetle uses its heat sensors to avoid burning its feet. Skeletonizing leaf beetles hide by creating bite marks that look like skeletonizing leaf beetles. Purple sea urchins eat granite more slowly than mudstone or sandstone. Lost memories were discovered in sea slugs. Woodpeckers may be giving themselves brain damage after all.
Caribbean hurricanes appear to suppress the snapping of snapping shrimp but encourage the choral singing of fish. The right whales of the North Atlantic, in their most recent breeding season, failed to produce a single calf. A supercolony of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered on the Danger Islands. Scientists laser-inscribed a graphene Athenian owl on numerous foods and declared a new age of edible electronics. A lack of genetic diversity threatens a chickpea collapse. A lost city of the Purépecha that contained 40,000 buildings was discovered in central Mexico. Astronomers argued that it would be less expensive for aliens to destroy our civilization by broadcasting malicious code—which could include an artificial intelligence who would seduce humankind with its knowledge and promises—than by sending battleships. The researchers suggested that signals received by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence might therefore be quarantined instead of being distributed, as they are currently, to volunteer computers, many of which have recently had their spare processing capacity reassigned from SETI tasks to mining cryptocurrency. Scientists at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center were arrested after they reportedly connected the facility’s supercomputer to the internet in an attempt to mine bitcoin. A physicist determined that some black holes can free an observer from strong cosmic censorship by erasing her past, thereby allowing her an infinitude of possible futures. French gynecologists examining a ten-year-old girl found a wineglass from a dollhouse hiding near her cervix.
Hope Hicks, a 29-year-old former model who is among the highest-paid White House staffers, announced her resignation from her role as communications director a day after she stated, in a more-than-eight-hour testimony to a House committee investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, that she sometimes told “white lies” while working for Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, who reportedly made 2,436 false or misleading claims since he took office. “She is strategic, poised, and wise beyond her years,” said chief of staff John Kelly of Hicks, who was once featured on the cover of a young-adult novel about wealthy children who time travel.
The government of Russia, which for four days in February bombarded Syria’s Eastern Ghouta at least 20 times a day, announced a daily “humanitarian pause” of five hours to allow the area’s 400,000 civilians to escape. In China, after facing criticism for proposing a change to the constitution that would allow President Xi Jinping to remain in power indefinitely, the Communist Party banned citizens from searching for the terms “my emperor,” “lifelong,” “shameless,” and “I don’t agree”; for the letter n, which it reportedly feared people would use to represent the number of terms with the equation n > 2; and for images of Winnie the Pooh, to whom Xi has been likened. “Maybe we’ll give that a shot,” said Trump.
A survey put out by Trump’s reelection campaign asked whether English should be made the official language of the United States, South Korea banned English language classes for its first- and second-grade students in an attempt to “minimize negative effects of early English education practices,” and the Nigerian government began offering families $41 a year to keep their daughters in school. In India, an MRI machine at a Mumbai hospital killed a 32-year-old man who walked into the room carrying an oxygen cylinder that activated the machine’s magnetic field. Almost all passengers aboard a United Airlines flight to Washington, DC, threw up when the plane was hit by severe turbulence due to strong winds. Researchers claimed that up to 60 percent of prisoners have suffered head injuries, and a study found a positive association between disgust of body odor and a person’s support for authoritarianism. It was confirmed that the moon would get its own mobile phone network next year.
The stench first hit me on US 80, just past the catfish feed mill and the processing plant next door. It was late March in Uniontown, Alabama, a whistle-stop thirty miles west of Selma, but even on that mild day last year the odor was inescapable. What began as the smell of manure ripened into the fetor of something dead and mildewed as I drove through the heart of town — an eerily quiet strip of brick storefronts, many of them abandoned. In Uniontown, I would come to learn, the smell functioned the way the weather does in most places. Its vicissitudes were a regular topic of idle conversation, and the local citizenry studied its moods.
The precise source of the smell isn’t clear, but some Uniontown residents point to Arrowhead Landfill, which occupies about a thousand acres of woodland just southeast of town. For eighteen months starting in July 2009, railcars rumbled into the landfill on a daily basis, carting more than 4 million tons of coal ash — a byproduct of coal burning that contains arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals — from eastern Tennessee, some 300 miles away. (A disaster at a power plant there had spilled the ash into a nearby watershed.) Although regulators and the landfill’s owners assured them otherwise, Uniontown residents grew alarmed at the prospect of fugitive ash choking their air and chemicals leaching into their creeks.
Some also detected a racial dynamic at play. The power plant was in Roane County, Tennessee, which is more than ninety percent white. The same percentage of Uniontown’s 2,400 residents is black. And it didn’t help that despite all the empty acreage available within the site, Arrowhead’s operators chose to truck the coal ash two miles from the rail depot and deposit it on the southern edge of the landfill. Trailer homes line the two country roads that cradle the disposal site. Their occupants for the most part are black.
For Esther Calhoun, who has lived in Uniontown for most of her life, the decision had personal consequences. Her family — black sharecroppers — had lived in the area around the landfill when she was a child, and she still had friends there. From the moment the coal ash began arriving, they complained of noxious fumes and trouble breathing. They stopped spending time outdoors. Rats invaded the trailer of an elderly woman. “They could have started piling garbage and coal ash anywhere on the landfill site, but they chose the closest place to people’s homes,” Calhoun said.
She had been watching Uniontown putrefy for two decades. An attempted upgrade to the overwhelmed sewage system had left human waste and industrial effluent slopping into creeks and pooling in brown, fetid ponds on the grazing pastures she had known as a child. The cheese plant got a permit to dispose of its whey by dispersing it onto unused farmland just a short distance from the high school. The town smelled “hoggish,” and Calhoun had an idea why “everything that’s no good comes down here”: because “we’re black, and we’re poor, and we’re not educated.”
In 2010, Calhoun decided to take action. That year, she joined Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, a community group composed chiefly of local retirees. Its primary mission was to oppose the storage of coal ash at Arrowhead, which was bought out of bankruptcy that same year by Green Group Holdings, a national waste-management company. For years, Black Belt Citizens engaged in a fierce but civil dispute with Green Group. Eventually, however, the company’s patience with its activist rivals grew thin. In April 2016, it filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against Calhoun and three others affiliated with Black Belt Citizens in federal court in Mobile.
The story of Green Group and Black Belt Citizens is growing ever more common as social media transforms traditional forums of speech. The internet has made it possible for activists to reach a mass audience — even a global one — at zero cost. At the same time, their targets have turned to the courts to impose a cost on that activism. It’s not cheap, after all, to defend even a frivolous lawsuit.
But there is a second element to the story, a more unsettling and pernicious one — a shift in how speech values are prioritized in the United States. The Supreme Court’s First Amendment docket, once dominated by cases litigating the speech rights of individuals — flag burners and pamphleteers — is now rife with cases concerned with the speech rights of corporations, cases that put corporate entities on par with, and often elevate them above, their human counterparts. Meanwhile, the country has witnessed a broader retreat from the long-standing aversion to restricting free expression, both on campuses and in statehouses where legislators have worked to criminalize anti-corporate speech. As the norms that once checked litigious companies erode, activist groups like Black Belt Citizens are at increasing risk of being snuffed out.
In the late Seventies, an Environmental Defense Fund attorney named Rock Pring began to notice something unusual. With alarming frequency, corporate polluters were suing environmentalists who had spoken out or filed lawsuits against them. A few years later, Pring, by then a law professor at the University of Denver, set out with a sociologist colleague named Penelope Canan to study the phenomenon. In a 1988 paper, they came up with a name for these cases: “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” SLAPPs target people or organizations that have spoken out on matters of public concern. Their operational logic is grounded in resource asymmetry — wealthy, often corporate plaintiffs pursuing defendants of modest means, frequently activists. Instead of engaging with their less moneyed critics, the plaintiffs resort to the legal system to intimidate and silence them.
Because they target speech, SLAPPs often take the form of defamation lawsuits. The modern tort of defamation — false speech that harms another person’s reputation — has its roots in historical efforts by the powerful to insulate themselves from the destabilizing influence of bad PR. In 1275, a formative British defamation statute forbade anyone to “be so hardy to tell or publish any false news or tales whereby discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the king and his people, or the great men of the realm.” No fake news, in other words, that hurts the king’s ratings.
In the United States, the First Amendment stripped the tort of this dissent-crushing rationale. To prevent the powerful from stifling public debate, the Supreme Court has over the years placed significant hurdles in the way of government officials and public figures who hope to win defamation suits. For example, it’s not enough to show that a statement is untrue. A public figure has to prove that the defendant made the statement with “actual malice” — that the defendant lied or had a very good reason to doubt the statement’s truth. Government officials and public figures, the reasoning goes, neither need nor deserve the same legal protections as private citizens.
But that conception of the First Amendment is of recent vintage. Despite its apparent absolutism — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” — the First Amendment’s speech clause was little more than a bookend to the Bill of Rights until the twentieth century. Judges and legal scholars began to hazard that the amendment might actually mean something only after witnessing the imprisonment of antiwar dissenters and the censorship of media channels by the government’s propaganda machine during World War I.
In 1964, the expanding speech protections of the First Amendment reached the law of defamation, putting new legal obstacles in the path of anyone who would sue for libel or slander. L. B. Sullivan, a public safety commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, had filed a lawsuit claiming that an advertisement a group of pastors and civil rights activists had placed in the New York Times was defamatory. The ad denounced police treatment of blacks in Montgomery and solicited money to defend Martin Luther King Jr. against spurious state perjury charges. Although the ad contained factual inaccuracies, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants in New York Times v. Sullivan. “Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate,” Justice William Brennan wrote. “It must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they need . . . to survive.”
It didn’t take long for a convenient work-around to emerge. To succeed, SLAPPs don’t need to have much legal merit, and as a rule they don’t. “SLAPPs are losers in the courthouse but winners in the real world,” Pring told me. By capitalizing on the uncertainty and the cost — in time, energy, and money — of the litigation process itself, Pring and Canan observed in their 1996 book SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out, the suits “encourage the active to return to the vast ranks of uninvolved and apathetic Americans.”
The wave of SLAPPs that Pring had detected in the late 1970s and early 1980s was part of a conservative backlash against the radical activism of the two previous decades. A coal mining company in 1980 sued a West Virginia environmentalist — described in the New York Times as a “blue-denimed vegetarian” — for $200,000 after he reported its illegal pollution to the EPA. The following year, the Shell Oil Company sued a California attorney for alerting regulators to lab results showing that pipes it manufactured contained a known carcinogen. In 1982, a nuclear power company in Maine filed a $4.5 million defamation lawsuit against a group that had campaigned for a statewide moratorium on the industry.
This tactic faced resistance in the 1990s as legal reforms at the state level made it harder and more expensive for plaintiffs to litigate SLAPPs. Particularly effective was the enactment of so-called anti-SLAPP laws. These statutes end lawsuits fairly quickly by making it easier for courts to dismiss them, and can sometimes force plaintiffs to pay defendants’ legal fees.
But lately SLAPPs have made a comeback. Although there is no precise way to count them — lawyers don’t typically announce that they’re filing “strategic lawsuits against public participation” — examples abound. Business owners have targeted the writers of critical online reviews with abandon. Public figures displeased with negative press have been unusually quick to drag journalists into court. Politicians have taken to suing opponents over attack ads. In 2010, the for-profit Trump University sued Tarla Makaeff, a former student who had filed a class action fraud suit against the school, over what it called defamatory criticism in letters to government agencies and posts on a consumer website. Makaeff prevailed after years of litigation but decided to withdraw from the class action, which was settled this spring. The president, of course, is a prodigious practitioner of SLAPP tactics. When he professes a desire to “open up libel laws,” what he means is that he wants to make it easier to litigate SLAPPs.
In reaction to this renaissance, no fewer than six states have enacted or strengthened anti-SLAPP laws since 2014, bringing the total number of states with anti-SLAPP legislation on the books to thirty-two. But free-speech advocates still face significant opposition from critics who argue that such statutes impede a plaintiff’s constitutional right to access the court system. Several state courts have come to agree in recent years, striking down anti-SLAPP laws. At the same time, a series of opinions by influential federal judges has brought into question whether defendants can rely on state anti-SLAPP laws in federal courts.
The new generation of SLAPPs poses a particularly grave threat to community activism. SLAPPs today imperil this key democratic institution at a precarious moment for other mechanisms of government and corporate accountability at the state and local levels. The question is whether community activists will join the likes of small newspapers and, for the foreseeable future, federal regulators — another tapering channel of local oversight — or retain their vitality as what one federal court recently called “the lifeblood of a self-governing people’s liberty.” What happened in Uniontown is a window onto one possibility.
Uniontown has a ghostly feeling to it. Porches collapse, bungalows burn down, storefronts get boarded up — and the ruins stay that way, to be consumed by brush and vines. When Calhoun, who is fifty-five, showed me around, what I got was a tour of the desolate and the defunct. “This used to be a shoe factory. That used to be a candy store. This used to be a cotton gin. This used to be a steel mill. Now it’s nothing. That used to be the Greyhound station. Who would want to come to Uniontown? This place is dead.” As if to belabor the point, the current mayor and his immediate predecessor both own funeral homes.
What Uniontown used to be, and no longer is, serves as a constant reminder of the neglect and poor decision-making that motivates Black Belt Citizens. The group’s core membership includes Calhoun along with Ben Eaton and Sally McGee — retired teachers who are, respectively, the group’s vice president and its secretary-treasurer. Two of its earliest members were the sibling duo everybody calls the Sisters. Mary Schaeffer and Ellis Long were outliers in the otherwise largely black group: white Uniontown natives in their seventies, with gray bobs and a penchant for floral blouses. Their family home dates to the 1840s, and for a time, the Sisters operated the crumbling cotton gin Calhoun had shown me.
Over time, Black Belt Citizens evolved to embrace the full range of Uniontown residents’ complaints: from possible sources of the smell that permeates the town — like the sewage system and the cheese plant — to waste in government spending, and even police misconduct. Its methods are archetypal of local, burr-under-the-saddle activism. There are strongly worded letters and complaints lodged with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM). There are meetings and handwritten-poster demonstrations. There are social media posts aimed at attracting wider attention to Uniontown’s plight. There’s the near-religious attendance of government hearings, which Eaton conspicuously videotapes. (“Right in their faces,” as Long put it.)
Calhoun and the other members of Black Belt Citizens have two basic objections to the landfill. First, they fear, over Green Group’s fervent denials, that heavy metals from the coal ash are leaching into runoff, contaminating area creeks and poisoning local flora and fauna. As she was showing me around, Calhoun called my attention to a stream across the road from the landfill. In 2013, an environmental science professor at Samford University, near Birmingham, had tested water samples and detected slightly elevated levels of arsenic. A further assessment in 2016 found normal levels of arsenic but high conductivity values, possibly indicative of pollutants. (Green Group and ADEM dismissed both results as inconclusive and inconsistent with their analyses.)
Second is the allegation of racial injustice. A 2016 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights censured federal regulators for ignoring the inequity of off-loading the coal ash on Uniontown, and an EPA civil rights investigation into ADEM’s decision to grant the landfill its permit remains open. Then there was the African-American cemetery next door, decades old and no longer in active use. In early 2015, community members began reporting to Black Belt Citizens that landfill workers had disturbed grave markers — small stone crosses and coffin-length concrete slabs clustered amid a stand of cedar and white oak. Green Group denied the accusations, but Black Belt Citizens didn’t believe them. Calhoun was particularly incensed. She often came to the cemetery to visit the graves of her great-grandparents and a brother who had died at the age of two. “It makes you feel like, Oh, my great-grandparents might have been slaves way back in the day,” she said. “So you still own them?”
In the years before Green Group filed its defamation lawsuit, the company had met Black Belt Citizens’ objections with meetings and an exchange of views rather than litigation. The activists dealt principally with a Tuscaloosa attorney named Mike Smith, who had long done legal work for the landfill and took a leading role in engaging with disgruntled community members. Black Belt Citizens and Smith developed the kind of uneasy relationship common between small-town activists and their adversaries. The way Black Belt Citizens saw things, the meetings were heavy on self-serving explanations and light on efforts to address their concerns. Smith, in their view, was overly fixated on legal and regulatory compliance and a need for documentary proof. Still, the overall approach was one of conversation and debate — even if it wasn’t always exactly amiable.
As time went on, however, grievances festered, and the group came to see Smith as a kind of con man, changing his story whenever it suited his interests. “Mike Smith is a snake in the grass,” Calhoun told me. “He’ll say one thing and do another.” In the fall of 2015, the relationship soured further still. For one thing, the dispute over the cemetery was coming to a head. But another development seemed to bother Smith even more. Although the Black Belt Citizens Facebook page at the time had fewer than a thousand followers, its reach had started to grow, thanks in part to posts shared widely by state and national environmental organizations. A representative example:
The living around here can’t rest because of the toxic material from the coal ash leaking into creeks and contaminating the environment, and the deceased can’t rest because of desecration of their resting place.
Black Belt Citizens began to attract attention from major media outlets — the Guardian, NBC News — as well as from the Alabama chapter of the NAACP and a federal civil rights commission.
SLAPPs have adapted to combat the kind of online dissent practiced by Black Belt Citizens. In the early 2000s, companies sued chat-room critics and message-board detractors. Lately, they have turned their attention to commenters on consumer review websites. At a congressional hearing in 2016, a lawyer for Yelp named Aaron Schur testified that his company had “observed an increase in the number of businesses using SLAPPs to silence their critics,” with plaintiffs including “petsitters, flooring companies, and dentists.”
Social media, however, has been the real game changer. As Pring put it to me, “A statement in front of a government commission — that gets forgotten the next day. A simple letter to the editor — that ends up under the canary cage the next day.” But now, footage of the testimony is preserved indefinitely on YouTube, and the letter circulates globally on Facebook and Twitter.
As media attention to Black Belt Citizens was starting to swell, Smith sent the group the first of several demand letters. Green Group insisted that Black Belt Citizens retract and repudiate a series of posts on its website and Facebook page. These statements were false, the letters claimed, and constituted defamation. To Black Belt Citizens, the timing of it all seemed suspect. A crucial deadline loomed — the application for a five-year renewal of Green Group’s primary landfill permit would be due in the spring. “He wanted to try to see what he could do to shut us up,” Mary Schaeffer told me. “He knew this was all going to come around when it came to the permit renewal.” In an effort to be accommodating, the group removed some of the posts, despite Calhoun’s dissent. But it wasn’t enough.
On March 30, 2016, Smith sent the group an ultimatum. To avoid a lawsuit that could potentially bankrupt them, the Black Belt Citizens leadership would have to swear, in a court-enforceable document, that they would never again oppose the landfill and would promote its interests when asked. They would have to surrender their smartphones and other electronic devices to Green Group for a forensic audit. They would have to hand over financial records. They would have to withdraw a federal civil rights complaint. They would have to submit to questioning — under oath — about their association with other activists. To Calhoun, the message was unmistakable: Black Belt Citizens had done enough talking.
A week later, Green Group and a subsidiary filed the $30 million defamation lawsuit against Calhoun, Eaton, and the Sisters. The very same day, Green Group applied to renew its landfill permit.
Fortunately for Black Belt Citizens, a national environmental organization that they had worked with approached the American Civil Liberties Union, which agreed to take on the case pro bono. “Not every time somebody gets sued are they going to get lucky enough to get an eight-person legal team from the ACLU,” said Lee Rowland, who led the defense. But even with free counsel, the litigation process was draining. The effort it took for the group to deal with its lawyers, Rowland told me, was “a zero sum of emotional energy that they weren’t using to engage in their communities.” Group meetings grew less frequent. Attendance waned. “We kind of felt like we were at a standstill with the subject of the landfill,” Schaeffer said.
Rowland and her team had filed a motion in June to dismiss Green Group’s case, calling it a “classic example” of a SLAPP. By then, the lawsuit had taken on a taboo quality in Uniontown. Residents “were so afraid that they didn’t want to use the word ‘lawsuit’ — not out loud,” Eaton said. If they spoke of the case at all, they did so only in whispers and coded language — “it” or “the thirty million dollars” — he told me, as if speaking about it directly might get them sued too.
In October, after three and a half months, a magistrate judge in Mobile recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed. Most of Black Belt Citizens’ statements “were protected by the First Amendment as opinion and/or rhetorical hyperbole concerning a matter of public interest,” she wrote. As to the few statements the judge deemed factual, she ruled that Green Group was a public figure in the eyes of the law, and it needed to do more than claim that the statements were false. A plaintiff like Green Group would have to allege actual malice — that the members of Black Belt Citizens had knowingly lied, or had at least very seriously doubted the truth of their statements. That, the judge wrote, Green Group had not done.
In federal court, a magistrate judge’s recommendation takes effect only if a district judge adopts it, and while the parties waited for the district judge to make her decision, Green Group suddenly offered to settle. Members of Black Belt Citizens thought they had an idea why. The permit renewal application remained pending before ADEM, the state environmental regulator. “Until this thing was settled, it didn’t look like, to me, that the permit was going to get renewed,” Long, one of the Sisters, told me.
After months of negotiation, the parties settled in February of last year. On its face, the settlement was a coup for Calhoun, Eaton, and the Sisters. But it didn’t feel that way. On the one hand, they paid nothing, and Green Group was required to comply with Obama-era EPA regulations for coal ash disposal at Arrowhead, even if the Trump Administration loosens them as it has proposed. Three days after the judge approved the settlement, however, ADEM renewed the landfill permit for another five years.
I met Mike Smith one morning in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly in the center of Uniontown. Smith, who had driven down from his home in Tuscaloosa, is a large-featured man with a mop of gray hair, the congenial manner of well-to-do Southerners, and a backslapping fraternity chumminess. He had been eager to give me a tour of Arrowhead and prove to me that it wasn’t an environmental disaster zone at all.
It was a cool day, and away from the waste disposal site, which unsurprisingly smelled like garbage, the property — a wooded expanse of loblolly pine, river ash, and sweet gum — possessed a pastoral tranquility. Smith’s selective attention to detail, as we drove around in his black SUV, had the choreographed feel of a sales pitch. From atop the coal ash hill, he showed me the cattle his brother-in-law kept on an adjacent pasture. He made a point, knowing I had come from New York, of telling me that parts of the old Yankee Stadium were supposedly buried in the landfill. He explained that Green Group had invested in improvements to respond to community concerns — building infrastructure to reduce rainwater flowing across County Road 1 and laying a new roadway to eliminate the truck traffic that had bothered immediate neighbors. (“It’s not the best place to start a landfill, right by the road,” Smith conceded. The decision had been made under the previous owners. “That’s what happens when you have an investment banker build a landfill.”)
Despite his hucksterism, Smith evinced a genuine concern for the Uniontown community and the landfill’s place in it. He met with community members often and had made a sincere effort to give back to Uniontown, spearheading Green Group’s donation of school supplies and support of a summer festival. I was surprised, given all I had heard about him, to find that I liked him.
In the landfill’s office trailer, the grind and thrum of heavy machinery outside muffling his languid central-Alabama drawl, Smith explained the rationale behind Green Group’s decision to file the $30 million lawsuit. In the summer and fall of 2015, he had noticed an especially hostile turn in the rhetoric coming from Black Belt Citizens. He was bothered, in particular, by their claims that coal ash was contaminating area waterways and that Green Group’s workers had “desecrated” the cemetery, which he felt carried unfair racial implications.
As we talked, it struck me that Smith saw Black Belt Citizens as essentially indistinguishable from a corporate opponent. He spoke of the legal definition of “desecration” and lingered over the finer points of regulatory compliance — he is fond of pointing to Arrowhead’s perfect compliance record — and he expected everybody else to operate at that level, too. It didn’t matter to him that Calhoun, Eaton, and the Sisters expressed themselves in the heated manner of the outraged activist. “If you’re going to make that sort of statement, you ought to know whether that fact is true or not,” he said. “You don’t just say that because you’re mad.” He talked about the March 30 ultimatum as if it were the opening salvo of a corporate legal battle. “Why not?” he said. “Why not ask for everything you would want to get and take out things” during negotiations?
1 Smith told me that the idea to settle was also unrelated to the permit. Rather, the idea had come from Green Group’s new president, David Green, who took the helm in August 2016. Green told me he felt the lawsuit was “not consistent with the philosophy” of the company. An ADEM spokesperson disputed that the timing of the permit renewal was related to the settlement.
Facebook was the ultimate catalyst for the lawsuit, Smith acknowledged. Black Belt Citizens’ posts were starting to circulate widely enough that industry players were taking notice, and Green Group officials wanted to stem the tide of bad press. The permit renewal application, Smith said, had nothing to do with the lawsuit.1 He suspected that shadowy third parties with outside agendas — he spoke about them as if they were latter-day carpetbaggers — were behind the posts. Some of the more outlandish demands in the ultimatum, such as forensic audits and information about contact with other environmental activists, were meant to ferret out those third parties, he told me. In essence, the thing that really bothered Smith was the prospect of Black Belt Citizens achieving the goal of community activism: alerting the wider world to its local plight.
What is alarming about the shift in speech values that Smith’s thinking represents isn’t that it will enable evil CEOs and their soulless corporate attorneys to enact some nefarious agenda. Smith isn’t a villain who set out to sidestep the First Amendment. I don’t think he believed he was filing a SLAPP — a quality he shares with most SLAPP plaintiffs. “They’ll say, ‘We never intended to do that. We just wanted to set the record straight,’ ” Pring told me. The trouble is that this kind of reasoning normalizes behavior that suppresses individual speech. Instead of filing suit, Green Group — a national corporation with operations from North Dakota to Guam — could have leveraged its superior financial position to challenge the truth of Black Belt Citizens’ Facebook posts. The company could have taken out advertisements touting the perfect regulatory compliance record Smith is fond of celebrating. It could have engaged in its own social media campaign to counter Black Belt Citizens’. Instead, it sent a message. The members of Black Belt Citizens had to be careful about what they said; speech that Green Group considered false or out of line would come at a steep price.
No matter how frivolous, lawsuits are menacing things — the hyperbolic sums, the uncertain byways of the law, the Delphic pronouncements of black-robed judges — and they have a tendency to haunt the people subjected to them, like trauma or an inauspicious omen. One evening, during a conversation with Eaton, McGee, and the Sisters, Calhoun said, unprompted, “I think we should all go see a psychiatrist.” At first she laughed, but when I prodded her to explain, wariness crept into her voice. “Fighting against all this stuff . . . ”
The lawsuit was a month and a half behind them, and it had ended in the group’s favor. Still, the process had taken its toll, and for the members of Black Belt Citizens, it was hard to discern a victory. “I’m glad it’s over,” Eaton said. “But at the same time, they used that to intimidate us, to hold us off for the timing of having their permit renewed. That was the whole plan: keep you busy doing one thing while we’re doing something else.”
The next evening, my last night in Uniontown, I attended a city council meeting. City hall looked as if it hadn’t seen a renovation since the 1970s: threadbare wall-to-wall carpeting, fake wood paneling, yellowing photographs of figures from Uniontown’s political past. Eaton arrived late. He looked exhausted, almost pained, as he walked stiffly to a seat in the front row and began videotaping. A few years earlier, in an effort to alleviate pressure on Uniontown’s swamped sewage system, a contractor had constructed a $4.8 million spray field, on which sprinklers disperse wastewater to be absorbed by the soil. ADEM had since declared it to be unusable because of the area’s unusually dense geology. Now the same contractor was proposing to install a wetland, yet another multimillion-dollar, percolation-dependent wastewater treatment system. Black Belt Citizens had helped arrange for two experts to discuss less expensive and more effective alternatives. The council members listened quietly as they discussed the town’s options. After a few perfunctory questions, the council voted without debate to “explore” the contractor’s wetland proposal.
After the meeting was over, Eaton, the Sisters, and several other members of Black Belt Citizens lingered, chatting beneath the hum of the fluorescent lights. Sally McGee gave me a fatigued look. “Same old — how it always is,” she said, her voice sagging.
Amid all the talk, I hadn’t noticed Calhoun leave. I found her outside a few minutes later, sitting on a low brick wall in front of city hall. She looked defeated in a way I hadn’t seen before. She had never intended to carry this weight for her town. “All I wanted is just to live my everyday life,” she’d told me at one point. “I don’t like fighting or doing all this different stuff. But somebody’s got to do it.” The lawsuit had only added to her burden. It was palpable in that moment, her shoulders bowed, her hands folded in her lap, her gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance as the purple dusk gathered around her.