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History for a Post-Fact America


American School/New York Public Library/Bridgeman ImagesThe flag that flew over Fort McHenry when American troops were under attack by the British, inspiring Francis Scott Key to compose the American National Anthem, 1814

What was America? The question is nearly as old as the republic itself. In 1789, the year George Washington began his first term, the South Carolina doctor and statesman David Ramsay set out to understand the new nation by looking to its short past. America’s histories at the time were local, stories of states or scattered tales of colonial lore; nations were tied together by bloodline, or religion, or ancestral soil. “The Americans knew but little of one another,” Ramsay wrote, delivering an accounting that both presented his contemporaries as a single people, despite their differences, and tossed aside the assumptions of what would be needed to hold them together. “When the war began, the Americans were a mass of husbandmen, merchants, mechanics and fishermen; but the necessities of the country gave a spring to the active powers of the inhabitants, and set them on thinking, speaking and acting in a line far beyond that to which they had been accustomed.” The Constitution had just been ratified at the time of Ramsay’s writing, the first system of national government submitted to its people for approval. “A vast expansion of the human mind speedily followed,” he wrote. It hashed out the nation as a set of principles. America was an idea. America was an argument.

The question has animated American history ever since. “For the last half century,” the historian and essayist Jill Lepore told an interviewer in 2011, academic historians have been trying “to write an integrated history of the United States, a history both black and white, a history that weaves together political history and social history, the history of presidents and the history of slavery.” Over the same period, a generation of Americans have had their imaginations narrowed, on one side by populist myths blind to the evidence of the past, and on the other by academic histories blind to the power of stories. Why, at a time when facts are more accessible than at any other point in human history, have they failed to provide us with a more broadly shared sense of objective truth?

Part of the reason, Lepore has surmised, is that too much historical writing—and perhaps too much nonfiction in general—proceeds without many of the qualities that readers recognize as essential to experience: “humor, and art, and passion, and love, and tenderness, and sex… and fear, and terror, and the sublime, and cruelty.” Things that she calls “organic to the period, and yet lost to us.” Lepore’s training as a historian, she’s said, tried to teach her that these things did not contain worthy explanations. In graduate school her interest in them “looked like a liability, and I took note.”

Around the time that the current president announced his candidacy, Lepore set to work on a history of the US, from 1492 to the present, which she has called the most ambitious single-volume American history written in generations. Ramsay’s question echoes widely, and with These Truths: A History of the United States, Lepore sets herself at the opposite end of the same historical project. What was America? During the time Lepore has been writing, some of the most tightly held assumptions about American history, and about the idea of America itself, have been revised or overturned. (Her response, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, to whether she thought he would still be in office when her book was published: “I don’t trust myself to know. Isn’t that the dilemma of our moment? We don’t know who to trust about how to know what we know.” She took a breath. “Right?”)

What do we keep, and what do we cast aside? Will this moment simply pass, or will it last forever? “There are large historical forces and structures; there are ideas; there are economic circumstances; there are theories of knowing, materiality, ideology, epistemology, economy. With these, you can analyze the past and understand it,” Lepore said. “Unfortunately, all I ever really wanted to do was figure people out.”

*

For Lepore, history is essentially a writing problem: how we know what we know (or think we do), how different forms and genres transmit different kinds of signals, what it might mean to encounter a gap between the evidence and the truth. Her work has confronted the tension between what a reader needs to know for a story to work and the limits of what can be known, and what makes the difference between a person and a character. When she wrote a historical novel, set in colonial Boston and employing the dialect of the time, her co-author called it “a different way of knowing and telling the past.” After publication, they began receiving etymology queries from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Lepore has called history “the anti-novel” and “the novel’s twin.” Both history and the novel took the forms we recognize today over roughly the same period, emerging as ways of making sense of the world during a time of great changes, and over the past two centuries or so they have followed parallel paths. Between them was often the boundary of the self: history happens out in the world, growing out of inquiries into its documents, registers, and other records, while novels present an experience of it.

Yet, for a long time, histories explained the world largely through the public lives of extraordinary men, leaving the private and the ordinary—and, of course, the lives of everyone else—to other modes of storytelling, when those stories were told at all. The social histories, women’s histories, cultural histories, labor histories, and microhistories of recent decades have found ways of thinking historically that more closely resemble a report on experience, even as, with their colliding perspectives, they’ve left large questions about what kind of “integrated” history—what kind of integrated country—could possibly follow.    

Lepore is the rare historian who writes with a caution that most major events proceed in their time as halting, confused, contingent, and ultimately reliant on an uncomfortable amount of chance, despite how their stories are later told. These Truths comes at a time when many readers will have a nagging sense of living through a historical moment themselves, whatever that means (the details somehow “organic to the period” yet still lost to us). It also arrives as the raw materials of history seem to be losing their hold. “The era of the fact,” Lepore wrote in The New Yorker two years ago, “is coming to an end.”

This is, on one level, an explanation of our current political moment, when facts are more omnipresent yet less enduring than at any time in living memory, and never seem to resolve a debate for long. Lepore sees this as more than a trend and, for deeper historical reasons, as more or less irreversible. One of its most conspicuous features, a closer attention to fact-checking and the tallying of public lies, can sometimes look less like a straightforward contribution to the accuracy of public discourse and more like part of a strange, complicated wish. (In a book with barely more pages than there are years in the period Lepore set out to cover, there are dozens of passages on the nature of evidence, and nearly two full pages on the history of fact-checking, itself a deeply American phenomenon.) Earlier this year, a study by the Duke University Reporters’ Lab found that, from 2014 to 2018, more than two fact-checking organizations had been founded per month. There are now at least 149. Are they a way of working out a broader anxiety about the nature of our political debates—we have too many facts, and still not enough—or a subconscious recognition that facts themselves have lost some of their power?

How do we know what we know? Understanding the world through stories is as old as human civilization, but building those stories from evidence, and building that evidence from facts, is a relatively recent development. The medieval world accepted proof in the form of trial by ordeal (such as by burning or drowning) or trial by combat: the idea being that if two parties to a dispute fought on an even field, God would ensure that the truth would win. There was no evidence or argument, not really—the outcome was the proof. In 1215, Church edict effectively abolished trial by ordeal, and the practice gradually came to be replaced by trial by jury. The judgment delivered by God became judgment delivered by man. The era of the fact had begun.

Before long, the other parts of society set on determining the truth began to answer their questions with evidence that could be witnessed or documented. A science arose that understood the natural world through experiments—observable, repeatable. History cast aside fabricated speech, romances, and legends. The change reoriented our relationship to the world so completely that, as the historian Barbara Shapiro has noted, by the end of the seventeenth century, members of the Anglican Church began to reach for facts to settle disputes about Bible stories. “There were divine ‘facts’ as well as human and natural ones,” she found. Fiction itself came to prioritize verisimilitude, leaving behind romance and epic for forms more familiar to nonfiction: travel accounts, news, and what Shapiro describes as “the pseudohistory and pseudobiography we call the novel.”

What Shapiro calls a “culture of fact” has been the dominant intellectual force of modernity, but it sits on top of the conventions it displaced. In that 2016 essay, Lepore recounts a charming story about a baseball bat that went missing when she was eight or nine years old, just before she discovered that a bully who lived down the street—suspiciously and all of a sudden—had one just like it, down to Lepore’s name written in pink nail polish on the barrel. He offered to fight her for it; she countered by challenging him to a bicycle race. “The law of evidence that reigns in the domain of childhood is essentially medieval,” she wrote. (In the end, Lepore didn’t fight or race, and headed to the library. The bully kept her bat.) But it’s not just childhood. Increasingly, this description also fits the law of evidence that reigns in campaign politics, at a time when politics can appear to be a permanent campaign: “An American Presidential debate,” Lepore continued, “has a lot more in common with trial by combat than with trial by jury.” During the 2016 debates, anywhere from two to eleven candidates talked past each other. How do you determine the winner? The outcome is the proof.


Bruce Davidson/Magnum PhotosPeople marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King, Jr., to fight for black suffrage, Selma, Alabama, 1965

For five years, I worked as both a book and magazine fact-checker and an essays editor for an oral-history book series, jobs that held conflicting ideas about where nonfiction narrative draws its power. Fact-checking trains writers to cut anything not based in evidence; oral history’s strength lies in its access to memory and belief, often not strictly “checkable,” and sometimes outright false, but capable of unveiling the biases and distortions of an official record. It can hold open the door to meaning-making and the texture of experience, illuminating, as the oral historian Alessandro Portelli has noted, “not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.” It comes together from the facts as far as they can be determined, but it is careful not to ask them for things they can’t provide.

In the late 1970s, Portelli traveled to the small, working-class city of Terni, Italy, to conduct interviews about the killing of a young steelworker that had taken place thirty years earlier, and found that residents and even witnesses misremembered major details, but that their memories were wrong in consistent ways. The worker, Luigi Trastulli, had been shot by police during an anti-NATO protest in 1949. Speaking with Portelli, some witnesses remembered a second policeman who considered shooting but lowered his gun; others saw the worker being shot not in the middle of a fracas, as the newspapers had reported, but against the factory wall (an image, Portelli notes, that came to them from the local traditions of political and religious iconography). Most oddly, many witnesses to Trastulli’s death placed it exactly four years later, in 1953, during riots that followed the staggered layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers from the factory at the heart of the town.

By the time of Portelli’s interviews, Italy was a quiet NATO member state, but the layoffs had cut a seam across the life of the town and, he found, across the lives of its residents. (Several of the workers spoke of the events in the present tense.) The inability to prosecute Trastulli’s killer was deeply shameful for the working class residents of Terni, Portelli writes, “whose self-esteem rests on a tradition of militancy and pride.” When the survival of their traditions conflicted with events, it was easier to change what had happened than their idea of who they were. “Errors, inventions, and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings,” Portelli writes. “Indeed, if oral sources had given us ‘accurate,’ ‘reliable,’ factual reconstructions of the death of Luigi Trastulli, we would know much less about it.” One thinks not just of postwar Italy.

A fact, at its base, is a kind of social contract. What Lepore means when she writes that its era is coming to an end—that American politics has descended into a dispute about what to believe, or that there have been noticeable changes in what counts as evidence—is that this contract is breaking down. This is less a writing problem than a political one. But it’s a category error to treat facts as the ends, rather than the means, of what we can know. Around the time Lepore and her co-author, the historian Jane Kamensky, published their novel, a reporter from the Boston Globe asked them if, after working without the constraints of the archives, free from worrying about what kinds of documents might be missing or whose lives had been lost to time, they’d found that literary fiction could be a truer representation of the past. “I don’t think fiction is more true than history,” Kamensky replied, “but I don’t think the novel is fake. I think it is differently true. It is like asking whether a poem is more true than a wall.”

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These Truths is an answer to Ramsay’s question that is both deeply familiar and radically foreign. It’s still easy to imagine that the earliest Americans made something out of nothing, and Atlantic explorers had crossed the sea to make their way in the wilderness. But at the time of Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Lepore notes, the Americas already contained more people than Europe. Three million Taíno lived on Hispaniola alone, as Columbus called the island where he first made landfall, believing he had found the edge of Asia and a trade route to the East. He wrote in his voyage diary of how easy it would be to enslave them, which Spain soon did to mine gold and grow sugar, and within fifty years, their population had dropped by more than 99.9 percent. It would require a different explorer, more than a decade later, to recognize Hispaniola as part of the “new world,” a place where no place was supposed to be. Shortly after that, a German cartographer added it to a world map and labeled it “America.” Before it was an idea, it was a piece of land.

We like to think of history as a record, but it’s a narrative. When Lepore writes that Columbus’s voyage “tied together continents,” she’s also able to demonstrate how, even where the surviving records must be sparse. In the century after Columbus landed, Europeans carried back nearly 200 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver, not including contraband, pulling it from mines in the west, loading it into the holds of their ships, and sailing it across the sea. As wealth moved east, plants and animals moved west. Without natural predators, the cattle brought by Europeans doubled their population every fifteen months, and within a few years, the eight pigs Columbus brought on his second voyage—alongside chickens, sheep, goats, horses, and a small forest of seeds and cuttings—had grown to thousands. From the Europeans’ inability and unwillingness to take in the natives’ languages, stories, and ways of life grew a far-reaching misrecognition: the idea of a people who actually existed in a “state of nature,” the thought experiment out of which, back home, the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were building ideas of modern government. “In the beginning,” Locke wrote, “all the world was America.”

The British established colonies relatively late, and did so not with the thought of seeding a new country but with an eye toward a more modest strategy closer to home. (One of Queen Elizabeth’s advisers titled his report on the England’s interests in the west “Discourse how Her Majesty may annoy the King of Spain.”) The British were also latecomers to the slave trade, but soon dominated it. From 1600 to 1800, for every two Europeans who had settled in British America, five Africans were brought there by force. One visitor to the coast of Carolina wrote that the area looked “more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.” By the time of the Declaration of Independence, where much of the common understanding of America traditionally begins, nearly two centuries of slave rebellions and Indian wars had already put into practice the ideas of freedom, liberty, tyranny, and revolution that its signatories would proclaim for themselves.

In early 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, at the Continental Congress, asking him to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” She reminded him that he and his colleagues had gathered in Philadelphia to build a government based on representation, and to leave another because it was not. “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could,” she wrote.

“I cannot but laugh,” he replied.

It would not be the only conflict between the founders’ actions and their principles. But rather than dismiss exchanges like this as a sign of hypocrisy or obvious bad faith, it may be wiser to understand them as the contradictions at the heart of America’s complicated origins. For better or worse, their insolvability has been the country’s political engine. In what Lepore calls “a colossal failure of political will” amid an act of extraordinary courage, the final draft of the Declaration left out an early passage counting slavery as one of the grievances perpetuated by England, a violation of “sacred rights of life and liberty.” Regardless, its ordainment of “these truths”—that all men are created equal, with certain inalienable rights to be secured via government by consent of the governed—was heard clearly enough that slave owners in Jamaica blamed the Americans for a slave rebellion that broke out a few weeks after the Declaration had been signed. (Serious attempts to end slavery at the Constitutional Convention and during the first session of Congress were also turned back. There were two American revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century, Lepore argues. Only one of them succeeded.)

Lepore’s work demonstrates that while America is a place, it is also an act of imagination. The great value of a project like These Truths is not just its placement of events in time, it’s also the light thrown across history’s absences and elisions. It tells us what happened as well as what most definitely did not; which problems were resolved, which were deferred, which are rephrased and repeated. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” invoked the Boston Tea Party; Ronald Reagan, in his 1964 endorsement of Barry Goldwater, warned voters not to abandon the founders. When David Walker published his appeal for abolitionism in the run-up to the Civil War, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a call for reform at Seneca Falls, they chose to do so by both remaking the Declaration of Independence for those it had excluded and by casting themselves as philosophical descendants of the men who signed it.

America was not so much a feat of invention as one of reinvention; the founders’ language of rights and equality has grown into the dominant American idiom, made and remade again. It stretches to the very edges of the political spectrum. When Donald Trump, then a candidate surging in the polls, sat for an interview with Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and provocateur, at the end of 2015, the political establishment responded with shock. Perhaps they should have reconsidered. “What you’re doing is epic,” Jones told Trump, one self-professed outsider to another. And then: “It’s George Washington level.”

Every generation “has to find a way to inherit the mantle of the American Revolution,” Lepore has argued, in this book and elsewhere. “We are a people that share an idea.” Could she be right? Either way, it’s a really good story.

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MLK: What We Lost


Hank Willis Thomas/Tracy MartinHank Willis Thomas: In a Non-Violent Movement, Unmerited Suffering Is Redemptive, from the installation Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around, 2016. The image appears in the book Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal, just published by Aperture and the Portland Art Museum, with an exhibition to follow next year. The original photograph is by Spider Martin, 1965.

“Well, they killed King.” The matter-of-fact statement hung in the air of the kitchen where a roomful of women—including my mother (I was the lone child)—had gathered on that April day in 1968 to learn to make hot tamales for sale at church fund-raisers. Our herald, the adult son of the kitchen’s owner, delivered the news after pushing through the swinging door from the living room where the men had settled to watch television while we worked. His face—downcast eyes, furrowed brow, pursed lips—showed the resignation of one who had long suspected this would happen—a painful but near-inevitable outcome.

They killed King.” Even as a third grader, I didn’t have to ask who “King” was, and I had a pretty good idea who “they” were, too. Martin Luther King Jr. was the leader of the black community—only recently calling itself “black”—though in my household Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X were more admired. “They” were whites who opposed any efforts—whether by King, Carmichael, or Malcolm—to advance the status of black people in the United States. I had integrated the school district in our predominately white East Texas town just a few years before, and spent time in first grade as the sole black person in a school full of whites. I felt I knew what some of this nameless “they” were capable of doing. Open cruelty was not uncommon in our world. More regularly, however, faux politeness and friendliness, mixed with an expectation of deference, masked whites’ smoldering hostility toward black people. That a person who sought to disrupt that world would draw actual fire, even though he denounced “eye for an eye” thinking and spoke of love conquering hate, should have surprised no one.

It might be hard for younger generations of Americans in 2018, fifty years after King’s assassination, to fathom just how controversial a figure he was during his career, and particularly around the time of his death. That is because King’s image has undergone a remarkable transformation in these five decades. He and the movement he helped to lead have been absorbed into a triumphant story of American exceptionalism, in which the actions of individual people matter less than the dynamism of the supposedly inexorable wave of human progress that swept the country forward from the Declaration of Independence to the civil rights movement. The strength of the opposition to civil rights for blacks, the antagonizing and discomfiting words King used, and the aggressively disruptive tactics he and his supporters employed have been pushed into the background.

King now fits so comfortably into the present-day popular understanding of American history that one might think that nearly all Americans had supported him enthusiastically from the very start, and that his murder was a tragic event unmoored from any wider opposition to his activities. His birthday is a national holiday. There are streets named for him in cities and towns throughout the nation. He has a monument in the nation’s capital. Figures like King, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks have now become “safe” in ways they never were when they were operating at the height of their powers. Stripped of their radicalism, they are welcomed as sources of inspiration in the curricula of almost every elementary school in the country.

King especially has become useful to both liberals and conservatives, who use language from his speeches and writings to support their irreconcilable views about the best direction the country should take on matters of race. Conservatives have exploited his call for judging people by the “content of their character,” rather than the “color of their skin,” to fight affirmative action, while liberals insist that King was speaking of a world to come that could only be brought into existence through the use of race-conscious measures for as long as they were needed. This seemingly universal desire to accept King has come at a cost. Making him all things to everyone fogs the clarity of his moral vision and severely undervalues the contributions he made to this country.

Recovering and, in some cases, discovering the real Martin Luther King is a theme that runs throughout a number of the books written to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Whether chronicling his days as a young seminarian, poring over his writings, or recounting the final period of his life, their authors insist that after all that has been written about the man, we have yet to take his true measure, notwithstanding Taylor Branch’s masterful trilogy, America in the King Years (1982–2006), which tells the story of the civil rights movement and King’s role in it. Criticism of the image of a benign King-who-suits-everyone is not new; a recalibration of his image has been underway for years now, prompted mainly by the belief that the radical nature of his views, especially his economic beliefs, has been minimized in an effort to create a King who can be accepted by Americans of any race or political persuasion. Despite the myriad books, articles, documentaries, and a feature film about his life, the authors of these commemorative volumes suggest that we do not know the real King. Doing justice to the man who gave his life for a cause we claim to honor, they insist, requires coming to a better understanding of who he actually was.

Three books—Michael K. Honey’s To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice, Joseph Rosenbloom’s Redemption: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last 31 Hours, and Jason Sokol’s The Heavens Might Crack: The Death and Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—focus mainly on the latter part of King’s life, to remind us that it was not only his challenge to segregation that made him a hated figure. His “Social Gospel critique of American capitalism” also incited forces of reaction, including the John Birch Society, White Citizens’ Councils, and J. Edgar Hoover, who all launched disinformation campaigns to discredit King and his movement.

Michael Honey’s very cogent book shows that King intended from the start of his public career to work to end racial discrimination and poverty for all Americans, a fight that would proceed in two phases. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, which killed de jure segregation, was the culmination of the “first phase.” That done, King started to speak even more openly and insistently about the “second phase,” which would be a “struggle for ‘economic equality,’” with unions as the linchpin of this effort. King, along with his aide Bayard Rustin, had long thought that there should be a “‘convergence’ between unions and the civil rights movement.” Everything was at stake for King here: if the second phase of his plan for social transformation was successful, “everyone could have a well-paying job or a basic level of income, along with decent levels of health care, education, and housing.”

He soon found, however, that “union racial politics remained contradictory and complicated.” The same racism that permeated American society also had a firm grip on the union movement. As had been true throughout American history, many poor and working-class whites had no interest in solidarity with blacks against white elites. To the Promised Land’s thorough treatment of King’s efforts to support black unionism and to forge an alliance between the black and the white working classes reveals the arduous effort that he put into this project, most heartbreakingly in his final years, when he drove himself to exhaustion. Honey writes:

What he lacked in grassroots cadre and organizational resources, King tried to make up for with his own superhuman efforts. In February [1968], he undertook a whirlwind of speaking and organizing, giving as many as five talks a day in a grueling schedule that might have destroyed most people. “The President of the Negroes,” as Coretta called him, traveled much as a candidate would in a presidential campaign, but spoke like a prophet who moved his audiences into spiritual realms of anger, inspiration, joy, and commitment. His preaching drew upon his own family’s history as slaves and poor people and upon themes he had developed in a social movement for over thirteen years.

King had already drawn connections between the civil rights movement and unionism at the beginning of his career, joining, in the words of the historian Thomas Jackson, “a vanguard of activists who were vigorously pushing a combined race-class agenda in the late fifties.” In a 1957 speech he voiced the hope that the union movement would spread, and that black and white union members would join together in opposition to the most predatory aspects of capitalism. King rejected communism, but even before he became an activist, he questioned the basic morality of the country’s economic system, writing in 1952 to his future wife, Coretta:

I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic…. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.

King realized that a truly successful effort to bring about economic justice would require an enormous reallocation of resources. By 1967, he was willing to speak openly about the country’s need to reassess its priorities. Why, he asked in a speech at Riverside Church in April of that year, should the United States spend money on an immoral and wasteful war in Vietnam when that money could be used to fight a real war on poverty at home? King knew that support for that social war was on the wane as critics portrayed it as a drain on the country’s resources. He countered by singling out the Vietnam conflict as not only a “demonic suction tube” siphoning money from needed social programs, but as evidence of a deep moral crisis in the United States. A country that put “profit motives and property rights” ahead of “people” was easy prey to “racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”

Honey effectively details how King’s decision to combine the call for racial solidarity to achieve an economic transformation in the United States with a critique of a war supposedly being waged to stop communism abroad made him the target of a host of sinister forces. He often received messages marking him for death. President Lyndon Johnson was beside himself at what he took to be King’s apostasy. This was probably not just about the substance of King’s words: the concern was also procedural, for King was violating a strongly held, and not so hidden, norm. It was fine for black preachers to do what they had done since the days of slavery: act as intermediaries for and champions of the black community on subjects said to touch directly on its purportedly narrow interests. King was testing boundaries on many fronts.

The two projects that galvanized King in his final year represent the apotheosis of his focus on economic justice: the Poor People’s Campaign and his support for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee—the latter would bring him to his fateful trip to that city in April 1968. With the Poor People’s Campaign, King hoped to reprise his triumphant 1963 March on Washington by leading thousands of poor people to the nation’s capital to demand a “radical redistribution of economic power.” The effort was fraught from the start, as his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had neither the funds nor the infrastructure to organize the huge event he envisioned. The task was not only physically draining, it was psychologically difficult. For as King crisscrossed the country to promote the effort, “the right-wing hate campaign against him escalated.” While in Miami to speak to a group of ministers, King remained in the conference hotel because the police could not ensure his safety.


Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosMartin Luther King Jr., Selma, Alabama, 1965

The plight of the garbage collectors of Memphis in the 1960s perfectly illustrated the connection between racial discrimination and economic injustice. The men worked in dangerous and difficult conditions, carrying garbage in tubs on their heads, often with maggots and liquids raining down. They had to bring their “own clothes [and] gloves,” had “no regular work breaks,” and were given fifteen minutes for lunch. They worked “from dawn till after dusk” with low wages and no overtime pay. The workers, most of whom were too poor to pay union dues, defied an injunction against public employee strikes and marched under banners saying “I Am a Man.” Their situation and their response to it moved King deeply, so much so that he decided to make Memphis the starting point of the Poor People’s Campaign march to Washington.

As nearly all the books under review make clear, the specter of an untimely death haunted King. Joseph Rosenbloom writes that he “tried to buffer his fear by developing a numb fatalism, a defense against the dread that someone might kill him at any moment.” He had survived an earlier attempt on his life in 1958, when a woman, suffering from mental illness, stabbed him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. In the years that followed, the threats were more clearly politically motivated. Rosenbloom presents a man propelled forward by a mission: “If dying violently was inevitable, he reckoned, he might as well resign himself to it. He girded himself mentally against the nerve-racking despair of constant panic.” Rosenbloom quotes Andrew Young, who was with King when he was killed: “He was philosophical about his death. He knew it would come, and he just decided…there was nothing to do about it.”

Sustained by his religious faith and spurred by his “growing impatience with capitalism and embrace of radical ideology in response to the urgent social and economic problems he perceived,” King pressed on. It is hard to imagine such conviction in the face of all the forces arrayed against him, and to think of just how young King was (in his thirties) as he contemplated the violent end of his life. The “redemption” of Rosenbloom’s title carries a religious tone, and refers to the author’s attempt to tie “together three strands that defined the last phase of [King’s] life” by focusing on his final thirty-one hours on earth. The first of those strands was nonviolence: in the month before he died, King had gone to Memphis twice to address rallies in support of striking garbage workers. The second rally had ended in a riot as police clashed with strikers. Even though matters were not in his control, the rioting did enormous damage to King’s reputation as a proponent of nonviolence. He hoped to return to the city to lead a peaceful march that would redeem nonviolence and show it to be a successful tactic.

Second, Rosenbloom posits, King sought the “redemption” of the American nation by making the country live up to the promise of “economic justice.” If it could be done for garbage workers, it could be done for all. Finally, in those last hours, King was “drawing deeply on his faith in the redemptive power of sacrifice for a noble cause, as he risked his life—a faith rooted in the biblical example of Jesus.”

Although King was greatly respected by many at the time of his death, there was a general sense that he had peaked—that his time as a leader of black America was coming to a close. In The Heavens Might Crack, Jason Sokol explores the differing reactions to what happened in Memphis on April 4, 1968: “News of King’s murder stopped people in their tracks and rendered them speechless, moved many to tears and others to celebration, drove some to violence and still others to political activism.” Significantly, Sokol writes, “white contempt for King knew no geographical bounds.” To an extent that might shock many today, large numbers of whites across the country were happy about what had happened.

But then things began to change. King’s martyrdom, along with John F. Kennedy’s and Robert F. Kennedy’s, altered the way people saw him. The three men, often pictured together on tapestries and in portraits that hung on the walls of many homes, became symbols of a tragic loss of possibilities. As the years wore on, Sokol writes, “King looked ever more appealing.” Yet King’s elevation to something like sainthood has obscured the truly herculean effort he put into what was called “the struggle.” The true nature of his labor has been lost.

Other than in his radical political activities, where would we find the real King? Patrick Parr’s The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age and the fascinating and instructive essays collected in Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry’s To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. attempt to answer this question by focusing on the inner King from his youth until his death. Parr’s King is the leader in the making: a nineteen-year-old, away from his native South, thrust into a world of whites to study theology and philosophy at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. Like many youths, he had “wild, wild dreams of what he would accomplish in society,” and he did show a flair for preaching.

Although Parr’s account, aided by the memories of people who knew King at Crozer, suggests that he was well respected and had leadership potential, there is nothing to indicate that he was necessarily headed for greatness. That should not surprise us. King was made by the times that gave him the chance to use what he had learned during his years at the seminary, both in the classroom and outside it, as he navigated life as a black man in a white environment. The chief value of Parr’s book is to remind us that King was once a questing student who learned new things, made mistakes, shot pool, had girlfriends, and laughed.

In To Shape a New World, Shelby and Terry direct us to his writings to find the real man, noting that “despite King’s having been memorialized so widely and quoted so frequently, serious study and criticism of his writings, speeches, and sermons remain remarkably marginal and underdeveloped within philosophy, political theory, and the history of political thought.” King was what the editors call a “public philosopher,” a type that most often goes unrecognized by “academic” philosophers (of which Shelby is one) who “write largely for each other and rely almost exclusively on a tiny canon of nonacademic political thinkers” like “Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill.” Race, the editors suggest, figures into the equation: “There is a high bar to acceptance into this elite company, and few black public philosophers (with the exception, perhaps, of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon) are widely regarded as having cleared it.” This “academic insularity and prejudice” has hampered rigorous study of King’s writings.

In addition, King’s great gifts as an orator allowed people to tap into the emotional power of an old-style preacher, whose cadences lifted audiences whether they were listening carefully to his words or not. According to Shelby and Terry, his “uncanny ability to turn a memorable and lyrical phrase, to conjure a vivid metaphor, to stir his listeners’ emotions, and to move people to action across a wide range of audiences” allowed for the deployment of an age-old racial categorization: blacks supposedly exist in the realm of emotion, whites in the realm of the intellect. To Shape a New World is a “collective effort to critically engage King’s writings” with the aim of rescuing him as a “systematic thinker,” not just a “masterful orator and inspiring leader.”

King published five books over the course of ten years, starting with Stride Toward Freedom in 1958, and he wrote and delivered thousands of speeches. In four thematic sections—“Traditions,” “Ideals,” “Justice,” and “Conscience”—the essayists in To Shape a New World, who include Danielle Allen, Martha Nussbaum, and Cornel West, use those writings to discover and analyze aspects of King’s thought that they believe will show him “to be an important and challenging thinker whose ideas remain relevant and have surprising implications for public political debate.”

In the book’s first essay, Robert Gooding-Williams puts two of King’s books, Stride Toward Freedom and Why We Can’t Wait, “the two major statements of King’s political thought belonging to…the ‘first phase’ of the ‘civil rights revolution,’” in conversation with the famous debate between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois about the correct plan of action for black advancement—often reductively described as the choice between accommodation with Jim Crow or militant assertion of black civil rights. Gooding-Williams sees King steering a middle course. While he rejected Du Bois’s early call for a “Talented Tenth” to lead the struggle for black rights, he embraced the idea of waging an open battle against white supremacy and, as Lawrie Balfour shows, he even supported the concept of reparations. King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait:

Few people consider the fact that, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was, during all those years, robbed of the wages of his toil…. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. The law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.

As for Washington, King decried the Wizard of Tuskeegee’s “apparent resignation” about the fate of black people but accepted his admonition to “let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.” King’s philosophy stressed the importance of “the moral good of self-respect,” as Gooding-Williams puts it, and rejected “hatred and violence” as incompatible with “the moral demands of dignity and personality.” Jonathan Walton’s afterword identifies dignity as the volume’s “overarching theme.” “Dignity,” in his words, “is the instrinsic value and moral worth of every individual,” and the defense of “human dignity” was at the core of King’s political thought.

In To Shape a New World, the philosopher Cornel West writes with great passion about what he sees as the failure of the first black president of the United States to carry forward King’s legacy. West had initially supported Barack Obama, but soon began to launch what he describes as “fierce criticisms” of the president. The longing for even a King-like figure is understandable, but the president of the United States, the head of a secular country of over 300 million people with varying views, interests, and aspirations, cannot reasonably be—and should not be—a prophetic leader guided by Christian theology, as King emphatically was. Danielle Allen makes the salient point that King’s writings blended “the theological and the philosophical,” as did his speeches. Christianity was central to King’s persona and his plans of action. His understanding of economic inequality and the best ways to deal with it grew out of his belief in the Gospels. “There are few things more sinful,” he said, “than economic injustice.” A person such as him could not reach the highest level of his calling within the confines of the American government.

Any figure aspiring today to take on King’s mantle would do so in a more culturally fragmented country, making it much less likely that he or she could command the national stage as the leader of black America. Still, there is no way to read these books without a profound sense of longing, as one muses about what might have been. Shelby and Terry may offer the best solution to the pain of thinking about King and our loss of him. Through modern technology, we can still hear and see him in recordings of his speeches and interviews, and we will continue to do that as we commemorate his birth and his death. But King’s philosophy, speaking to us through the written word, may turn out to constitute his most enduring legacy.

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Who Will Speak for the Democrats?

Nancy Pelosi believes she has one more great task left in her long career—saving American democracy. If, as expected, the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives on November 6, Pelosi may become the first Speaker to regain the position in more than six decades (the legendary Sam Rayburn did it in 1955). And at what a moment: Pelosi and the House Democrats believe—and a huge number of voters agree—that they are all that stands between the future of the republic and the broad-based assault on democratic values led by Donald Trump, one of the few people in Washington who’s demonized even more than Pelosi is.

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi; drawing by James Ferguson

Despite her promises to embrace a positive agenda from day one of the new Congress, Pelosi (who has said she might have retired had Hillary Clinton won in 2016) would sign off on a slew of investigations into the Trump administration and what she calls the “brazen corruption, cronyism and incompetence” of the GOP. Sources tell me that subpoenas would fly like ticker tape on issues as diverse as Trump’s long dealings with Russia; his tax returns; alleged money laundering by his family businesses (and whether he, by maintaining stakes in those businesses, is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause); and abuses by Cabinet secretaries of travel and office expenses, as well as other misused perks. “She’s out to make history,” a senior Democratic House aide told me.

Pelosi, seventy-eight, hopes to become America’s twenty-first-century savior without paying too much attention to the pesky progressive upstarts converging on her podium. She knows the so-called insurgents in the party despise her and deplore her longevity in office, which they think is corrupting (as are the tenures of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, age seventy-nine, and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, who’s in his late seventies as well). They also distrust the let’s-make-a-deal pragmatism of her three decades in the House.

The new Democratic progressives are an eclectic bunch of political neophytes, many of them women, African-Americans, and Latinas. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the twenty-eight-year-old Democratic Socialist, stunned the party in June by winning a primary against longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. But they appear united on one point: a new generation of Democrats is needed. They are tired of Pelosi’s temporizing over popular neosocialist programs like Medicare-for-all and free-college-for-all. (“It’s all on the table,” Pelosi has said more recently.) They are fed up with a party leadership that is forever making concessions on deficit reduction and that still gets much of its campaign funding from Wall Street and the health care industry.

Much of this anger is a holdover from the disastrous 2016 election, when, after vanquishing Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Hillary Clinton largely ignored his message and went straight for the center. Even so, Pelosi, who has led the Democrats for fifteen years, doesn’t seem too worried about her ability to control the potential blue wave. The indefatigable disciplinarian who lost not a single vote in her Democratic ranks on the two major GOP policy initiatives of Trump’s first year—repealing the Affordable Care Act and rewriting the tax code—thinks she can handle them.

But perhaps Pelosi should be careful what she wishes for. She and her allies in the Democratic establishment like to compare this midterm election to the one in 2006, which marked her first rise to the speakership and her successful stand against George W. Bush’s effort to privatize Social Security. But the scarier—and possibly more accurate—analogy for the Democrats is what happened to the Republicans in 2010. Like the GOP eight years ago, the Democrats are quite likely to win back the House thanks to a surge of anger against an unpopular first-term president. The darker side of that story, however, is that it ultimately led to the destruction of the GOP as we know it. Like the Republican establishment facing down the Tea Party after 2010, the Democrats may remain dangerously riven by ideological and generational conflict, as a powerful minority faction grows openly contemptuous of the party leadership, blocking it at every turn.

The progressives won’t dominate the caucus, but after a rollicking primary season it has become impossible to ignore them. Certainly Pelosi can no longer dismiss Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as merely “one district,” as she did in June—especially after Ayanna Pressley, running on the slogan “Change Can’t Wait,” defeated another well-entrenched incumbent, Michael Capuano, in September in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Primaries Project, an unprecedented number of self-identified progressive candidates ran this year, though establishment Democrats did better, winning 139 primary races, compared to 101 for progressives. Many progressives have little hope of winning in November because they’re running in moderate or conservative districts, so the size of the coming progressive “subcaucus”—as Ocasio-Cortez wishfully called it—is not clear. But things have changed so radically that one big-spending Bernie-ite, Randy Bryce, may be able in increasingly red Wisconsin to take the seat of retiring Speaker Paul Ryan, whose chief concern was to cut the budget. Pelosi, if she regains the speakership, could easily become the John Boehner of her era, endlessly frustrated by her inability to unite the party in the face of fierce dissent from what might now be called the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez/Pressley wing. The new progressives may become a kind of Tea Party of the left, though instead of seeking to tear down the government, they will try to dramatically expand it—beyond where the establishment wants to go.

If Democrats win the House (and the Senate, though that’s still considered a long shot), the best-case scenario for the party may be that, as Republicans did after 2010, they fall back on their common hatred for the man in the White House.

The temptation to do this will be enormous: according to Gary Jacobson, a scholar at the University of California at San Diego who has tracked electoral data going back to the 1940s, a sitting president has never been as central an issue in a midterm election as Trump is in 2018. Despite an unemployment rate that is near mid-twentieth-century lows and other good economic news, public outrage at Trump’s offensive policies and statements—the “Muslim ban,” the separation of families seeking asylum, his ceaseless barrage of insults aimed at women, African-Americans, and other minorities—has kept him at 50 percent-plus disapproval ratings, according to most major polls. To become a party that stands for little else than ousting a hated president is an enticing but perilous path—especially if you fail.

The Republican Party establishment lost its base after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, and one can trace a direct line from that reckoning to the rise of the incendiary populist outsider who cost the party its soul (or, at the very least, its platform) and has since become the GOP’s sole owner and proprietor. Or witness those sixteen hapless Trump rivals in the 2016 GOP primaries, several of whom (like Romney) tried and failed to square the demands of the base with the evidence of their more reasonable voting records (the exception being Ted Cruz, who came in second to Trump). It wasn’t until August, after Trump was nominated, that Republicans really knew—for good or ill—who or what they were voting for.

Win or lose on November 6, Pelosi will have a pack of progressives at her back—and so will the eventual Democratic presidential nominee in 2020. For the Democrats this reckoning is ultimately about whether their leadership can finally acknowledge that since the Reagan era they’ve too often been a party of counter-punchers. They’ve sought merely to temper free-market ideology without offering an alternative vision of their own. Judging from her 2017 memoir, What Happened, and various postmortems, Hillary Clinton still doesn’t seem to fully grasp—or at least admit—that the seeds of the (largely white) working-class distress that sank her campaign were planted during her husband’s presidency, with its embrace of Wall Street deregulation and GOP-driven deficit-cutting that left a pittance for job retraining and adjustment programs.

Barack Obama did little better. Perhaps the greatest irony of his “Yes, we can” presidency was that income inequality actually increased during his terms. Obama’s administration failed to send a single major Wall Street, real estate, or insurance executive to jail despite their complicity in the biggest securities fraud in history. Under pressure from the right, Obama too became a proud deficit cutter. And he submitted to his financial gurus, Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, when they argued that the moral hazard of bailing out millions of desperate underwater homeowners was far too risky, even as they shrugged off the moral hazard of bailing out big banks.

Is it any wonder that many Democrats no longer trusted their party when it fell into the hands of Hillary, the ultimate heir to this status quo? Or that Sanders, the wild-haired, Wall Street–bashing socialist who for most of his political career had spoken to empty rooms, suddenly became the darling of the base in 2016?

Win in November, and Democrats can probably paper over their differences for a while with a common effort to rid the country of an odious president. (Although Pelosi’s caution on impeachment—she forbade any mention of it during the primaries—could cost her more credibility with the base. And if she tries to cut any deal with Trump—for example, on infrastructure, which is one of her priorities—she’s certain to face further backlash.) Lose in November, and Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and the rest will find themselves instantly engulfed by a renewed insurgency that will cry, with some justification, that the nearly $100 million Pelosi raised for Democratic candidates in the campaign—much of it from corporations and wealthy Americans—only points to her own corruption and cronyism. Or as Sanders’s top policy adviser, Warren Gunnels, told me, “You can’t reform Wall Street by taking its money.”

It is a bitter irony for Pelosi that she is being cast both as the embodiment of the hated middle by her own Democratic base and as the demon of the left by GOP campaigns. And she’s plainly miffed that in the “Year of the Woman”—with more women than ever running for office, and in which Pelosi finally appeared on the cover of Time—she has gotten so little credit from women. (Her overall approval ratings have hovered around 30 percent.) Just as Hillary Clinton tried to win votes by noting that her candidacy was “historic” because she was a woman, Pelosi insists that she needs to run for Speaker so that a woman “has a seat at the table” in Trump’s mostly male Washington. In the #MeToo era, that should carry considerable weight, especially after the rancorous Senate hearings in October on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and his confirmation despite allegations of sexual assault.

But it probably won’t be enough. True, Pelosi is often underestimated. As the first female Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2011, she proved far more effective than most of the men who had preceded her. In August the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called her “the greatest speaker of modern times” for masterfully pushing through one major piece of legislation after another, among them the $840 billion stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank banking-reform bill, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Yet the progressives dismiss these achievements as just more incremental change. And Pelosi shares another unfortunate trait with Hillary: she tends to speak of progress in droning platitudes. Like Hillary, she knows how to govern, but not how to inspire voters.

Great Speakers of the House, of course, are not expected to inspire. They are expected to get things done. (Sam Rayburn, like Pelosi, preferred to work quietly behind the scenes.) But Pelosi doesn’t seem to fully realize the depth and rage of the Democratic revolution at hand: the base, yearning for youth, passion, gender equity, and, above all, somebody different, is fed up with status-quo Democrats. The base is disgusted by a centrist ideology that has long seemed out of date, judging from middle- and working-class anger over the brutally unequal society America has become under both Democratic and Republican administrations during the last four decades. And the base wants the party to start looking like America itself by bringing more minorities and women into power.

Electoral data suggest that the Democratic Party base is as divided and fired up as the GOP was eight years ago. According to an Axios analysis of Federal Election Commission data, “more Democratic congressional candidates have competed in the 2018 election cycle than either party attracted in any cycle since 1980,” and the last time either party come close to having as many congressional candidates was the Tea Party revolt of 2010.

“It’s very much like 2010,” Henry Olsen, a widely respected election analyst in Washington and author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (2017), told me. “And it definitely plays through to 2020 if for no other reason than that the Democratic insurgency will want to nominate one of its own. I don’t see how this stops. They want to run the party.” The new progressives also appear less willing to compromise than their predecessors. “I think it’s possible this is a different sort of left,” Olsen said—a rebellion that harks back to the bitter intraparty splits of 1968 and 1980. Or as Beto O’Rourke, the progressive who’s making a serious run at Ted Cruz’s Senate seat, told NPR this summer, “The only thing that you’re going to find in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.”

Some in Pelosi’s camp dismiss the 2010 analogy altogether—and in terms that sound ominously like Hillary’s fateful “deplorables” comment from 2016. “What you had in 2010 was a bunch of freaks show up here,” said the senior Democratic House aide.

Not only were they obsessed with Obama, they were also obsessed with tearing down government. That’s not what our candidates are interested in. So I don’t see it as the same at all. Yes, I’m hoping for a flip that size. We’ll see. I’m hoping it’s more like 2006.

History, of course, doesn’t repeat itself precisely. After 2010, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa desperately sought to get Obama impeached, calling him “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times,” but in the end Issa uncovered no wrongdoing. Today, an investigatory juggernaut appears to be coming at Trump, and the Democrats have Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York on their side. Moreover, it now looks as if the Tea Party was less an insurgency of small-government idealists than it was a backlash against minorities and immigrants (which is why Trump so successfully absorbed it into his own movement).

Elaine Kamarck, a former senior adviser to Al Gore and the lead author of the Brookings study, acknowledged that the new strength of progressives flows out of the unresolved conflicts of the 2016 primary campaign. But Kamarck argues that the party has already adjusted by moving left. “Everybody is for being tough on Wall Street, and there’s a consensus that the Obama administration screwed up by not being tougher,” she told me. “We are all for comprehensive immigration reform. I’m a moderate myself, and I’m for Medicare-for-all.” Kamarck insists that progressives and moderates are much closer in outlook than the Tea Party and the GOP leadership were, and as soon as the newcomers face the actual challenge of governing, they will drop some of their more extreme positions, like disbanding Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But that line sounds similar to what the GOP leadership argued after 2010, when Boehner’s team found itself surprised, again and again, by the Tea Party’s willingness to shut down the government. And until the Democratic Party establishment truly reckons with its policy failures—that it abandoned the middle class to globalization, technological change, underwater-mortgage hell, and systemic fraud by Wall Street—it won’t appease its progressive wing.

The Democrats may not achieve real peace until they nominate a fiery populist such as Elizabeth Warren or even Sanders. Despite his advanced age (seventy-seven), Sanders may be the most popular Democrat in the country (though he’s still technically an independent), and he’s the chief instigator of the leftward lurch that Pelosi would like to pretend isn’t happening. Sanders and Warren are also the only national candidates who have put out any substantive new ideas recently: for example Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill and Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act, which would force major corporations to consider the interests of the communities they operate in and give workers the right to elect 40 percent of their boards.

People in the Democratic establishment like to dismiss the party’s differences as mostly generational, but to politicians of Ocasio-Cortez’s generation, who came of age witnessing capitalism’s biggest failure since the 1930s, “democratic socialism” carries none of the baggage that it did for people who grew up during the cold war and its triumphalist aftermath, when it was thought that “democratic capitalism” was going to save the world. Gunnels, Sanders’s policy adviser, noted that even the Koch brothers published a poll in July showing that large majorities of Americans supported government-funded college and a government-run health care system. “What I find most exhilarating is that issues [Sanders] was talking about two or three years ago were considered fringe, radical ideas, and now they are smack dab in the mainstream of America,” Gunnels told me.

More to the point, many of the insurgent Democrats believe that the only way to take on Trump is on his own terms: with bold, radical ideas that rebuke the current ideologies of both parties. That is still anathema to most mainstream Democrats, who believe that a Sanders or Warren nomination in 2020 would be a catastrophe. They point to the exorbitant costs of progressive programs (though up against a Republican Party that no longer seems to care about deficits, that may be less of an issue). Whoever the nominee is, if he or she loses to Trump, the new Democrats will be in as much disarray as the GOP was after 2012, particularly if an impeachment effort against the president fails.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are terrified. Bill Pascrell is an eleven-term congressman from Paterson, New Jersey, a district that, like Michael Capuano’s Massachusetts district, is a mixture of black, white, Hispanic, Arab, and other working-class ethnic groups (the city’s current mayor, André Sayegh, is of Lebanese and Syrian descent). Paterson is beset with high crime and corruption (the previous mayor is in prison), and its unemployment rate is more than twice the national average. Pascrell, an eighty-one-year-old native (and a former mayor himself), acknowledged he was lucky enough to face a weak primary challenger. Though he’s virtually assured to win in November in his deep-blue district, he says he’s taking no chances, and he’s spending more time in the city than usual. “No one is going to be coronated this election,” Pascrell told me in September.

Pascrell is an old friend and ally of Capuano’s, a fellow Italian-American, and he called his defeated colleague the morning after the Massachusetts primary election to offer condolences. I asked Pascrell how the reliably progressive Capuano, who had one of the most liberal voting records in Congress over ten terms, could lose so badly. Even Pressley, who is African-American, conceded in an August debate with Capuano that they would “vote the same way”; she said that the main difference between them was her “lived experience.”

One reason for the upset, Pascrell responded, is that voters just want something new, and in an America so viciously polarized by race, ethnicity, and gender, the new is often someone they can identify with along precisely those lines. “There’s something more important happening than your voting record,” Pascrell said.

It may be your age or your gender, or it could be ethnic. Some people where I come from say, “I’m not going to vote for anybody unless they’re Italian.” That’s good for me, but the challenge for all of us is: How do you take identity politics and make a stew out of it rather than isolating the potatoes from the meat? That’s not an easy thing to do anymore.

Pascrell noted that another old friend on the Hill, Joe Crowley, failed to do just that against Ocasio-Cortez in his Bronx-Queens district, which was once mostly white working-class but is now nearly 50 percent Hispanic.

Pascrell acknowledged that the coming progressive insurgency isn’t going away anytime soon. Thus he, like many establishment Democrats, has been careful not to endorse Pelosi as Speaker before the election. In July, responding to the large number of Democratic House members who had pledged not to vote for her, Pascrell organized a dinner along with Capuano and John Larson of Connecticut at which twenty representatives signed a letter urging that the Speaker vote be put off until December. Pelosi reluctantly agreed. Pascrell said, “I have the greatest respect for Nancy, but we’re not in any way, shape, or form ready for such a vote.” He added that he’s “not going to support her in the first vote in the caucus”—though he won’t say which alternative candidate he might back—but if there isn’t a persuasive contender he might support Pelosi in the open House vote in the second round. “If we’ve got to replace her with someone else, then my response is, ‘Tell me then, who is that?’”

Pelosi seems confident that she can overcome the resistance and, unlike Boehner and Ryan, keep her unruly party in line as she has done in the past. She is a more agile legislator than either Boehner or Ryan was. For most of her long career Pelosi has been cast by the right as a dangerous liberal from wackadoodle-lefty San Francisco. But in practice her progressivism has always been transactional, far more like the machine politics she learned from her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, who was the mayor of Baltimore and a congressman. Today’s Democratic insurgents won’t be as willing to accept the sorts of compromises Pelosi had to make to save Obamacare: throwing out single-payer as well as the public option, and even allowing language barring the allocation of federal funds to abortion.

Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, which supported Clinton in 2016, told me that whoever is nominated in 2020 will need to be not just ideologically correct, but the right sort of counterbully. “Donald Trump is the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the Democratic Party,” she said. “The issue is who can defeat him. Who can deal with negative campaigning, who can deal with negative assaults.”

Still, Tanden said, Democrats need to figure out how to upend Trump’s appeal. “My baseline issue is that bad answers will beat no answers,” she said, summing up the 2016 race. Clinton had few answers other than seven-point plans on her website, which most voters were unlikely to consult. Trump had loud and clear sound-bites for the working class—no matter how spurious. “I fundamentally believe the Democratic Party has not offered a real answer on how to create upward mobility for people who haven’t gone to college,” Tanden said. “We have to rethink the entire social contract for the twenty-first century.” Whether Pelosi becomes Speaker or not, that is the problem Democrats will be dealing with.

—October 10, 2018

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Abbott’s Absence

In response to:

Pictures of the Jazz Age from the May 10, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of Berenice Abbott: A Life in Photography [NYR, May 10], Regina Marler claims that Abbott does not appear in Man Ray’s autobiography, Self-Portrait (1963), and that the omission was, according to Abbott, “rather dirty,” even “bitchy.”

But on page 92, she does appear, and in a very positive light. He describes meeting a young sculptor in a New York café who agreed to model for him at a time when he was just beginning his interest in portrait photography. She also offered to teach him to dance:

And she did, very easily. There was nothing to it. I had a sense of rhythm, she said—that was all one needed. I was elated—all the arts that had seemed beyond me were now within my grasp; photography, dancing, everything was possible.

She kept her appointment and I made several studies of her head. Her name was Berenice Abbott.

To me this sounds neither dirty nor bitchy, but an acknowledgment of her key role in Ray’s artistic development.

Donovan Reynolds
Bear Lake, Michigan

Regina Marler replies:

I thank Donovan Reynolds for his correction. Both Abbott and I missed this lovely description of her early friendship with Man Ray, perhaps because both the first and second editions of Ray’s Self-Portrait (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963, and McMillan paperback, 1979) have no index. There may still be some emotional truth in Abbott’s error: she is described only as a sculptor and model, not as the acclaimed photographer she became, and their entire Paris experience together goes without mention. She is included as a relic of his New York days, and he misspells her last name as “Abbot,” although Mr. Reynolds silently corrects this in his letter. The third and most recent edition of Man Ray’s autobiography (Little, Brown, 1998) does have an index, to which I eagerly turned: but Berenice Abbott (or Abbot) does not appear.

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Walter Who?

In response to:

A Killer Con Man on the Loose from the May 8, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Please forgive the extreme delay of this letter in response to Nathaniel Rich’s review of Walter Kirn’s book about me [“A Killer Con Man on the Loose,” NYR, May 8, 2014]. To the whole business I can only say that I barely ever knew Mr. Kirn. He and I first met at LaGuardia Airport in 1997 and spoke for perhaps twenty minutes. The next day, we had drinks and dinner in New York City, lasting perhaps three hours. In the summer of 2000, he visited me in Cornish, New Hampshire, staying for either one or two nights, an event that made so scant an impression that I forget its exact duration. Over the next decade, I had only sporadic interaction with Mr. Kirn. He remained on my holiday greeting card list and he and I exchanged perhaps a dozen or so short Hello-style e-mail messages and telephone calls. All communication ceased in 2008. In 2013, he paid me an unannounced visit at Los Angeles County Jail. Not having seen him for thirteen years and not having heard from him for five years, I had forgotten all about him and I had to ask his name. In my lifetime, including the three forty-five-minute visits at the jail and his one visit at the court house, Mr. Kirn and I have spoken a grand total of perhaps fifteen hours at the very most. None of the discussions ever focused on matters of great importance. How he could turn this rather limited interaction into a full-length book about me remains utterly beyond my grasp. Not having read the book, nor having any particular wish to do so, I have no opinions as to its content. His reasons for wanting retroactively to insert himself so deeply into my life, calling himself a “close friend,” seem either purely commercially motivated or perhaps speak to a deeper pathology on which I do not have the expertise to comment.

C. Gerhartsreiter
(aka Clark Rockefeller)
San Quentin, California

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The Khashoggi Killing: America’s Part in a Saudi Horror


Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty ImagesA protest in front of the Saudi Consulate against the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Istanbul, Turkey, October 5, 2018

In the spring of 2012, I made an extended visit to Saudi Arabia to report on the effects of the Arab Spring there. The arch-conservative oil monarchy was pursuing a robust counter-revolution, but the uprisings had brought new energy to reformers across the region. I was curious to see how Saudis themselves saw their country’s future.

Among the many people I spoke with was Jamal Khashoggi, at the time an unusually well-connected journalist with an irrepressibly optimistic outlook. I also met the prominent reform cleric Salman al-Ouda, who had 14 million Twitter followers; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the pro-Western billionaire investor; Hatoon al-Fassi, a brilliant historian who viewed the liberated women of pre-Islamic Arabia as a model for change in her own society; Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a US-educated economics professor; Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Jeddah lawyer; and the young blogger Eman Fahad al-Nafjan.

Men and women, young and old, deeply religious and secular: they came from very different places in Saudi life. Some, like Khashoggi, were at the heart of the establishment; others saw themselves as true oppositionists. What nearly all of them shared was an interest in social and political reform—and the belief that the United States would support them in that end. It did not.

In the years since my visit, every one of them has been detained, put on trial, jailed, chased into exile, or worse. Al-Nafjan and al-Fassi have been arrested for defending women’s rights. Prince Alwaleed was among the Saudi businessmen forced to hand over huge sums of money to the government after being locked up for months at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh last winter. Al-Qahtani and al-Khair are serving long prison sentences; al-Ouda may face the death penalty. Until this month, none of their cases had aroused much concern from the US government.

How much has changed with what Turkish intelligence officials now describe as the ISIS-like torture and beheading of Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Amid an exceptional wave of outrage and fury, veteran US diplomats have declared a fundamental rupture in US–Saudi relations, lawmakers have called for punitive sanctions, and leading CEOs are boycotting the country. “Everything we did to Putin, I want to do to Saudi Arabia,” Senator Lindsey Graham said last week.

But the brazen killing did not occur in isolation. If it was the “game-changer” that many see, it was also the latest, most extreme manifestation of a repressive regime that has acted with virtual impunity while maintaining enviably close ties to Washington. The Saudis did what they did because they assumed they could get away with it.

Indeed, even as Washington has crowed about the crown prince’s big plans for his country, he has ruthlessly eroded the already limited space for criticism and dissent in the Kingdom. Not only dissidents but mainstream academics, princes, and even women who dare to talk about their rights have been subject to extreme repression—both inside and outside the country. In May, Loujain al-Hathloul, a twenty-eight-year-old Saudi advocate for women’s driving rights, was detained in Abu Dhabi, put on a plane, and rendered to Saudi Arabia, where she was jailed.

To many Western observers, the Khashoggi affair points to the anomalous nature of the current leaders in Riyadh and Washington. On one side is thirty-three-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS, the inexperienced and authoritarian hotspur who is now the overwhelming power-broker of the Saudi regime; on the other side is President Trump, a blustery real-estate mogul who admires strongmen, has few qualms about human rights, and has given MBS unalloyed support.

“Saudi Arabia’s growing assertiveness is driven in part by the political cover it receives from its special relationship with the current US administration,” Stratfor, the geopolitical intelligence forecasting group, reported after the Khashoggi killing.

The present leadership aside, there is nothing very new about the special relationship. The George W. Bush administration maintained close ties to Riyadh, despite the involvement of fifteen Saudis in the September 11 attacks and the pervasive influence of Saudi-funded Islamism on jihadist movements around the globe. The Obama administration was even more assiduous in courting the Saudis. According to a Congressional Research Service study, between 2010 and 2015 the US concluded a record $111 billion in arms deals with the Kingdom, notwithstanding a Saudi crackdown on peaceful protesters in neighboring Bahrain and a Saudi-backed military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected government.

And it was during the Obama years that MBS and his father, King Salman, ascended to power. Notably, the Obama administration did not flinch when MBS launched the disastrous Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen in March 2015, apparently without consulting the White House. Sustained by US arms sales, the brutal Saudi-led offensive has killed tens of thousands of civilians and pushed millions of children to the brink of starvation, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In August, UN investigators issued a report accusing the Saudis and other parties in the conflict of possible war crimes. Even as the UN findings were coming out, the Republican-led Senate rejected a measure to cut off US military support in next year’s defense appropriations bill.

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During my reporting in the Kingdom after the Arab Spring, I learned first hand what the unshakeable US–Saudi partnership meant for Saudi Arabia’s own citizens. At the time, the Obama administration had given support to popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and many Saudis I met hoped that their own, far more modest reform efforts would win support, too.

In Riyadh, Mohammad al-Qahtani, the economics professor, told me about the pioneering human rights organization he had co-founded and his efforts to document a series of little-noted protests that had taken place—and been speedily quashed—inside the Kingdom. When I asked if he feared arrest, he said not.

“My organization is well known. If they do anything, word will get out in the US and the international community and they will be embarrassed,” he said. A few weeks after I met him, he was charged with sedition; in March 2013, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.

In Jeddah, I met the young human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair, who, bridling at the lack of political space in the Kingdom, had imaginatively launched an informal weekly discussion group in his own home. Constantly harassed by the authorities, he was already banned from travel abroad. But he had recently published an article in The Washington Post about his efforts and he assumed the US State Department would intervene if he were detained. In 2014, he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.

At the time, Jamal Khashoggi did not face trouble with the authorities. On the contrary, he knew many Saudi officials and senior members of the royal family. But he, too, longed to see the monarchy embrace greater openness, and he was particularly excited about Al Arab, a private Arabic-language news channel he was planning in Bahrain with backing from Prince Alwaleed. As he described it, the station would aim to provide a quality alternative to Al Jazeera, offering hard-hitting Western-style news journalism and open debate. It would also draw on an innovative partnership with Bloomberg news.

When the station launched in February 2015, however, it was shut down almost immediately by the Bahraini government for airing the views of an opposition figure. The US government made no move to protest the silencing of this bold, Saudi-run liberal media venture.

Shortly after I met al-Qahtani and al-Khair, I asked President Obama’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James B. Smith, if the US could help men like them. He explained that human rights were not one of the pillars of the US–Saudi relationship. The ambassador was not being controversial. Since its legendary enshrining by President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz more than seventy years ago, the terms of the unlikely Washington–Riyadh alliance have been clear: in exchange for unfettered access to Saudi oil, the world’s leading advanced democracy would guarantee the security of the world’s most hidebound monarchy. Almost nothing else mattered.

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In earlier decades, however, Washington was not shy about using the alliance to promote liberalization. Through the mid-1960s, successive US administrations pushed the monarchy to make modernizing reforms, and in 1962, President Kennedy persuaded the Kingdom to abolish slavery. So active was the State Department in urging the Kingdom to open up politically that King Faisal asked then-US Ambassador Hermann Eilts, “Does the US want Saudi Arabia to become another Berkeley campus?”

All this came to an end with the specter of Arab nationalism and then the 1973 oil embargo. The US needed a reliable partner in Riyadh, regardless of its political coloration. And with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Saudis’ ultraconservative religious establishment became a convenient engine for the US-backed mujahideen.

Paradoxically, the Saudis proved equally indispensable in counterterrorism efforts after September 11, since it was on their soil that extremists like Osama bin Laden had germinated and the US needed Saudi cooperation to hunt them down. At the same time, the monarchy provided a formidable bulwark against Iran, as well as an almost bottomless market for the US defense industry. In return for all that, Washington was more than willing to look the other way when it came to human rights abuses and a political ice age inside the Kingdom.

At least since the Arab Spring, however, the extraordinary price of this Faustian bargain has been hard to ignore. “We’re an enabler of a system that encourages authoritarianism,” Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East adviser to several US administrations, told me. “And there are consequences to that.”

America’s failure to take a stand against the ruthless treatment of reformers like al-Qahtani and al-Khair has increasingly put us on the wrong side of history. Even aside from our moral standing in the world order, US support for Saudi adventures like the invasion of Bahrain or the campaign in Yemen have done nothing to serve American strategic interests. In his recent book Kings and Presidents: Saudi Arabia and the United States Since FDR, Riedel argues that Washington would do better to treat the Saudi monarchy like Russia and China in the late phases of Communism: engage on areas of common interest, but push back on reform and call them out for human rights abuses.

As the Khashoggi affair brings grimly into focus, though, the US has neglected the internal affairs of the Kingdom for so long that it may now be difficult to turn back the clock. “The Saudis are less concerned about US views than ever before,” the former US diplomat Gerald M. Feierstein told The New York Times last week. He added that it was not merely a matter of the Trump White House; the Kingdom no longer thinks it needs the approval of any US administration for its actions.

Even so, President Trump appears as keen to let MBS off the hook as the crown prince is to evade responsibility. Rolling out everything from a “rogue killers” theory to bizarre comparisons with Brett Kavanaugh, the president has made clear his desire to protect US arms deals and cordon off the Saudi leadership. Now that a New York Times report has definitively linked the Istanbul kill squad to MBS’s inner circle—amid ever more damning evidence of the crime itself—the gambit looks increasingly naked. But with the president’s Iran policy at stake, even an angry Congress may be reluctant to take more drastic steps against Riyadh. If that is the case, the barbaric assassination of Khashoggi may go down as a different kind of game-changer: not the end of the US–Saudi relationship, but the moment when it was exposed for what it really is.

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Bringing Poetry to the Cruel History of Comfort Women


US National ArchivesThree Korean “comfort women” captured by US troops during a mission in Burma, with members of the US army’s Myikyina Task Force, August 14, 1944

On August 14, Korea and Taiwan unveiled two statues commemorating the 80,000 to 200,000 “comfort women,” primarily from Korea, but also from Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asia, who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during World War II. The two statues marked South Korea’s first “Memorial Day for Japanese Forces’ Comfort Women Victims.”

“My hope is that this issue will not lead to a diplomatic dispute between South Korea and Japan,” South Korean president Moon Jae-in said in a commemoration speech, knowing that if history has anything to say about relations between the two nations, this may well be impossible. Japan and Korea have had a vexed relationship since Japan first established colonial rule in Korea in 1910, which ended after World War II, in 1945. While Koreans were officially considered the “Emperor’s children,” they were denied many civil rights, including voting for the Diet’s Lower House, unless they were permanent residents of Japan.

Since the bronze “Statue of Peace” was constructed in front of Seoul’s Japanese Embassy by Korean activists in 2011, other monuments have gone up in Busan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere—met with protests by those Japanese who feel that the statues overstep a 2015 deal, whereby the Japanese government apologized to Korean victims and set up a one billion yen fund to support them. Many believe this agreement finally, irrevocably resolved the issue.

The history of comfort women is complex, not least because in the years following the war, many of the women fell into obscurity. Former comfort women struggled to reintegrate into Korean society, suffering from psychological trauma, abuse, and infertility, and no victims spoke publicly until the Nineties. Records from wartime are limited to written documentation by the men who supervised the comfort women system. There are few official records chronicling how these women were drafted into labor; those that do exist have been vague enough that Japanese officials have been able to deny evidence of forced recruitment. This contentious history has continued to reemerge over the decades since World War II: with every monument that’s raised by still-grieving Koreans, the debate is reopened.

Former comfort women experienced acute shame when they returned home after the war. Kim Hak-sun, who in 1991 became the first woman to speak publicly about her experience, revealed protracted abuse she suffered from her husband. “I had to suffer the hurt and indignity of being debased by my own husband who, when drunk, would abuse me in front of our son by calling me a ‘dirty bitch’ who prostituted herself for soldiers,” she said. Korean women were often considered traitorous and dirty for sleeping with the enemy; those who returned home struggled to recover and reintegrate as they rejoined the families they had left behind or tried to start their own.

Into this fractious space comes a new poetry collection by Korean-born poet Emily Jungmin Yoon, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, which undertakes to speak to the stories of these women. By fluidly adopting the voices of those who experienced the comfort system (she draws directly from actual testimonies in a number of her poems), Yoon shares stories that were silenced for decades. Speaking as a comfort woman returned home after the war, she writes, “My room became unfit for children. / How could I put a child in a haunted place…Every door is closed. 70 years and no one knows. No one who knows / my past is alive. Girls at the comfort stations, we were all children then.” We see the isolation this woman feels—unable to have a child, housing a decades-long secret instead. Through her poetry, Yoon delicately melds past and present to demonstrate how history, especially that of cruelty, endures.

Yoon tells a larger story of violence against women through the perspective of the comfort women. A Cruelty addresses the diplomatic tensions between Korea and Japan, but without, seemingly, a distinct political agenda—Yoon hardly expresses animosity toward Japan throughout the collection, choosing instead to highlight violence as a human cruelty that transcends nations. The holes in the historical record’s documentation of comfort women pose both a challenge and an opportunity for her, as an artist, to engage with the subject.

Central to A Cruelty is the idea that history gnaws at us, perhaps even destroys us, if we don’t sufficiently attend to it. In the first poem, which is one of several titled “An Ordinary Misfortune,” Yoon writes, “This question by a Canadian girl, a friend: Why don’t you guys just get along? The guys: Japan and Korea. Meaning: move on. How do I answer that?” In a deft twist, Yoon takes the phrase as a cue: “Move on, move on, girls on the train. Destination: comfort stations.” In a few beats, we’ve been transported three-quarters of a century back, to girls being ferried en masse to brothels.

As Yoon explains in her author’s note, she asks questions in her poetry to gain a deeper understanding of her “immigrant, ESL [English as a second language], Korean, and womanly experiences, and the violent history of twentieth-century Korea” that extends far beyond the immediate history of the comfort women victims. She writes, “An experience that is not mine is still part of the society and world that I occupy.”

More than a diplomatic question, the comfort women system was and remains, to Yoon, an issue of cruelty, of violence perpetrated onto women by men—the type of gendered violence which is, according to anthropologist C. Sarah Soh, at the root of the issue.


Jean LachatEmily Jungmin Yoon, 2017

In her book, The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan, Soh argues that Korea’s deeply ingrained patriarchy and lack of educational and professional opportunities for women made the comfort women system possible. The gendered structural violence of Korean society, Soh writes, “pushed these Korean women away from home and into the grossly exploitative comfort system.” Local officials and police collaborated with occupiers to recruit girls; in 1941, the Japanese Kwantung Army asked the Government-General of Korea to procure 20,000 Koreans. The Government-General dutifully recruited local town heads to convince families to send their daughters to work in Japan. Yoon doesn’t shy away from assigning blame to Koreans, either. In “American Dream,” she writes: “last night a Korean man broke into your room / and raped me, with you calm in your repose / next to me.”

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In 1990, Director-General of Japan’s Employment Security Office, Shimizu Tadao, rejected a request by a Japanese Diet member for a government investigation of the comfort women system. Korean women responded with an open letter to the Japanese government with six demands, including that the Japanese government “admit the forced draft of Korean women as comfort women”; “that the survivors or their bereaved families be compensated”; and “that these facts be continuously related in historical education so that such misdeeds are not repeated.” Yoon has perhaps a similar goal in writing this history today. Addressing her reader in one particularly confrontational poem, “Autopsy,” she implores us not to forget, and even to assume a degree of culpability: “You holding me and whispering, Who did this to you? / sawing me into a shallow boat. / You did, you, did, you did, and you, and you, and you,” she answers.

Much of the debate over comfort women has revolved around whether they were forcibly recruited, as the above open letter asserts. In the decades since World War II, historians and researchers have identified three general methods of recruiting women. First, given the meager employment opportunities for women in their hometowns or villages, the prospect of paid work likely would have been appealing. Second, Japanese military forces would sometimes enlist local police or government to help recruit women, often by enticing them with the assurance of paid work (“Mother I decided to go / they promised a job as a military nurse in Japan,” Yoon writes in the voice of a comfort woman). Third, there was forcible kidnapping. “Madam X,” a young Chinese woman described in Australian economist George Hicks’s 1994 book The Comfort Women: Japan’s Brutal Regime of Enforced Prostitution in the Second World War, was violently raped by soldiers at her home in British Malaya, kidnapped, and taken to a bungalow in Jalan Ampang. Mun Ok Ju, eighteen, was offered a job by a local Korean man in her hometown. He said she’d be able to make money to send back home to her impoverished family. Told she would find work in a restaurant, she was diverted to a comfort station. During her time there, she was forced to hand over half her earnings to the man who had collected her from Korea.

Long before World War II, prostitution in Japan was already widespread, organized, and legal. From the pleasure quarters of cities like Kyoto and Tokyo to the much-glamorized practice of geisha entertainment, prostitution was a smooth-running, state-sanctioned operation. When Japan annexed Korea in 1910, it introduced a system of military police-controlled prostitution. This organized system called for official registration for all parties involved, as well as regular medical checks. Even before full annexation, a red light district was established, under Japanese influence, in Seoul to better regulate prostitution. As Hicks argues, it’s no surprise that the Japanese army was able to expand the system during wartime. According to Japanese traditional beliefs, Hicks writes, having sex before battle meant soldiers would be protected from injury, while lack of sex made men prone to error and accident. The comfort women system was justified as a necessary feature of Imperial Japan’s military strategy.

The first comfort stations operated by the Japanese army appeared in 1932 in Shanghai. After 223 reported rapes by Japanese soldiers, the governor of Nagasaki Prefecture sought an administrative solution to the problem and sent a group of Korean comfort women from the North Kyushu Korean community in Japan to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Regulations included hours of operation, fees, and the mandatory use of a condom. This arrangement laid the groundwork for the systemic forced prostitution that would occur during the war.

Life at wartime comfort stations involved near-imprisonment—women weren’t allowed to leave the brothel without a pass—meager rations and supplies, and weekly venereal disease inspections, as well as frequent sexual violence from soldiers. Though women were nominally paid for their services, payment was scant and inconsistent. In general, Japanese women were paid more than Koreans. According to Madam X, the “mama-san” took half the money the comfort women earned at their stations before paying them. Sometimes, they weren’t paid at all.

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Japan believes that its 2015 agreement, including monetary reparations to survivors and an apology from Japan’s prime minister, was enough to make amends for wartime transgressions. Both South Korea and Japan agreed to consider the deal a final resolution of the matter. Although the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination asserted this year that Japan’s efforts had not adequately consulted survivors, and that the 2015 deal “did not provide unequivocal responsibility for the human rights violations committed against these women,” Japanese officials have said that the 2015 deal had “finally and irreversibly” settled the issue.


Tao-Chuan Yeh/AFP/Getty ImagesThree former comfort women at a press conference, Taipei, August 13, 1992

Many Koreans disagree: in early September, former comfort women and members of an activist group announced they were planning month-long rallies outside Korean government buildings to publicize their rejection of the reparations and demand a further apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, including a wholehearted acceptance of wrongdoings perpetrated by the Japanese Army and government against Koreans. Many Japanese, particularly on the nationalist right, refuse to recognize efforts to commemorate comfort women. Government leaders have responded with indignation, defensiveness, and even violence when faced with peaceful protest. (Surveillance footage from September of this year appears to show Mitsuhiko Fujii, a member of a visiting Japanese delegation to Taiwan, deliberately kicking a comfort women statue just outside the Kuomintang party office in Tainan.)

Over the past few years, Abe has attempted, at many turns, to delegitimize the Kono Statement, the 1993 report issued by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono that found, after an official investigation, that the Japanese Imperial Army had indeed forced comfort women to work in army-run brothels during the war. Abe’s government denied in 2007 that there was any documentary evidence of forced recruitment, and declared the Kono statement was not commensurate with official policy.

This comes down to a debate over the reliability of witness testimony, and the problems caused by lack of documentation. In 1983, Yoshida Seiji, a former Japanese soldier, wrote a memoir detailing his wartime experience in which he admitted his participation in the kidnapping and forced labor of comfort women. A year before the Kono statement, historian Hata Ikuhiko discredited Yoshida’s writings, particularly his report of “hunting” women on Jeju Island. Hata spoke to men who had worked at the factory where Yoshida claimed to have hunted, and found that no women had been drafted as prostitutes.

In 2014, the Asahi Shimbun, a respected Japanese newspaper, acknowledged that stories it had reported two decades prior, based on Yoshida’s testimonies, were erroneous. Abe grasped this opportunity to call the forced sex claims “baseless” and “slanderous.” Then, in 2007, Abe signed an advertisement in a New Jersey newspaper that opposed the construction of a monument to comfort women in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a town with a significant Korean population, on the basis that comfort women were simply licensed prostitutes. In Japan, it has become almost treasonous to describe the history of comfort women as sexual slavery.

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According to a 2017 poll, 70 percent of Koreans believe the history of comfort women has remained unresolved, while 50 percent of Japanese respondents feel the issue remains unsettled despite the 2015 agreement. Moon’s administration has promised renewed efforts to commemorate these women, announcing plans for a dedicated museum and research center.

Fewer than thirty-five former comfort women remain alive today. While Abe seems keen to rewrite the past to paint Japan’s part in the war more favorably, Koreans also run the risk of making the surviving comfort women into props for a nationalistic cause. Some have argued that the peaceful bronze statues of clearly young girls paint Koreans as pure, innocent victims with no agency, which wasn’t necessarily the case. Widespread modernization under Japanese occupation may have had the effect, Soh argues, of exposing rural Korean women to new possibilities for freedom and independence.                                                                                                                      

Education expanded and modernized under Japanese rule, and girls and women were further integrated into an education system that had previously excluded them (Confucian mores discouraged women from leaving their houses to pursue learning). The Women’s Voluntary Service Corps was a major source of prostitution recruitment, cloaked as an educational opportunity. In 1938, Pae Chok-kan expressed excitement at leaving her village in Korea, wearing Western clothing, to work in a cotton factory, saying, “I felt like I’d shed my deep-mountain village boorishness.” She never made it to the factory, and was instead taken to a comfort station in China. Adopting the voice of a former comfort woman, Yoon writes, “I hoped one of the orders was for me to work at a factory.” Instead, she goes on to describe a sickly sight at the army barracks: “girls… injected / with so many drugs”; “nameless animals / exploded on top of us.” The Corps was designed for labor in war industries, but members frequently ended up serving as prostitutes instead. It was a particularly effective recruiter of poorer women with limited access to education.


US National ArchivesComfort women and prisoners of war with a Chinese soldier, September 3, 1944

While Abe refuses to acknowledge these women as sex slaves to protect national pride, Soh opposes the label for a different reason: she believes the characterization is reductive, and takes away from the women’s agency in confronting oppression and modernizing their lives. Still, it’s undeniable that Japan’s power facilitated the extent to which Korean women were drafted into service, and being a comfort woman was less a clear choice when the majority of the women who were enlisted were poor. Though we may not characterize each and every relation between a soldier and the prostitutes who serviced him as an act of sexual violence, the system effectively took women from one oppressed existence and placed them in another.

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Instead of approaching the material with the detached eye of a historian or anthropologist, Yoon’s A Cruelty uses empathy and poetry to dramatize the traumas the comfort women have suffered. In “Fear,” she writes, “I wanted to carve it out of me— / become a fjord flanked by historic cliffs. How else / could I write the years / I did not live.”

While the few novels that have been written about comfort women fail in many ways, according to Soh—through historical inaccuracy, or bad prose—Yoon makes no promise of providing a historically accurate work of art, though the testimonies she quotes directly do lend her credibility. Poetry allows Yoon to move fluidly between time periods, taking on different perspectives, traveling from World War II to the present day, from the perspective of a former comfort woman to that of a modern Western woman. She transcends the politics, refusing to engage in the diplomatic dispute, and powerfully addresses the human suffering that one group inflicted on another—that men, both Korean and Japanese, inflicted on women.

By writing in English, Yoon implicates those of us who may feel removed from this history, and informs a Western audience whose World War II education has likely focused nearly entirely on Europe. Yoon demonstrates how these stories cling to us as the years progress, though neither she nor her readers lived the experience of these women. She even goes so far as to point a finger directly at Americans, who have their own history of Korean occupation; in one poem, Yoon writes from the perspective of her grandmother: “We didn’t fear war. We feared the allies.”

Yoon makes it clear that her investment is with the women; her poetry is decidedly not anti-Japan, but ardently anti-violence. In the voice of a former comfort woman who struggles to reintegrate, she writes, “You’d think a former comfort woman would hate the Japanese. I don’t. I / hate men and I hate sex. I hate the sight of my son-in-law, who lives in this / house.” Yoon’s poetry is about the cruelty human beings enact on each other, whatever their ethnicity. It’s a recognition that history never leaves us. Both Korea and Japan might do well to abandon their routine of provocation and retaliation, and instead focus their attention on the women who were damaged for life.

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Why Assad and Russia Target the White Helmets


Beha el Halebi/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesA White Helmet member carrying a wounded girl after Russian airstrikes on Urum al-Kubra, a town west of Aleppo, Syria, November 6, 2016

Around 6:30 AM on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, before most children had left for school, Syrian Air Force Su-22 fighter jets launched missiles at the northern opposition-held town of Khan Shaykhun. Witnesses recalled a strange odor spreading after the missiles struck; people were choking and foaming at the mouth, and one resident later described how “they were suffocating while their lungs collapsed.” The airstrike contained a mixture of nerve agent–filled bombs and conventional munitions, according to James Le Mesurier, who founded the Syria Civil Defence (commonly known as the White Helmets). The White Helmets are Syrian first responders, and they are often the only rescue workers on the scene after airstrikes. Soon after the explosions in Khan Shaykhun, reports of a chemical strike were broadcast over local radio stations.

The casualties were taken to a nearby center run by the White Helmets, according to Le Mesurier. In this case, the White Helmets team didn’t know what type of agent had been used, so they began the standard protocol of washing down victims. While they did this, a number of the White Helmets were themselves exposed to the toxin (they survived). Victims were shuttled to medical centers in northern Idlib, and arrangements were made for them to receive medical attention in hospitals in Turkey.

Doctors in Turkey verified that some victims were suffering from symptoms of nerve-gas poisoning, including severe respiratory distress, vomiting, and intense stomach pain, said Le Mesurier. A few hours after the initial attack, conventional bombs hit a clinic where the wounded were being treated; by the end of the day, more than eighty people, many of them women and children, were dead. Hundreds had been injured.

In October 2017, the Joint Investigative Mechanism—a body created by the UN Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to research chemical weapons attacks in Syria—confirmed that sarin had been used in Khan Shaykhun and that the Syrian government was responsible. The investigators drew heavily on the testimony of the White Helmets and on biomedical, soil, and clothing samples that were provided to them by the White Helmets, Le Mesurier confirmed. These samples were consistent with others gathered after the gassing, including those obtained by hospitals in Turkey.

Almost immediately after the attack, the Syrian regime initiated a disinformation campaign backed by its patron, the Russian government. Both had earlier claimed that a 2013 chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, in which more than 1,400 people were killed, was perpetrated by the opposition—contrary to the conclusions of a UN investigation. They had also denied that atrocities such as the targeting of civilians and medical facilities were committed during the siege of Aleppo when regime jets bombed a US convoy. Aleppo fell to Syrian forces in December 2016. Now Syria and its Russian ally were set on denying what they called the “myth” that Khan Shaykhun had been gassed by government forces.

“The Syrian Army has not, did not, and will not use this kind of weapons,” Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in Damascus. In Moscow, Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov essentially blamed opposition fighters for gassing their own people. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began a propaganda campaign, largely relying on its agents and followers on Twitter to distribute falsehoods about the event. These included the claim that the chemical attacks were staged by the White Helmets using actors, as part of a Western conspiracy that was meant to provide cover both for the US airstrike on April 7 on the Shayrat air base and for a plot to bring down Assad by creating a pretext for military intervention.

The Russian and Syrian assessment of the attack was retweeted and hashtagged #SyriaHoax. According to the Syria Campaign, an international advocacy group that does not take money from governments, “Russia’s far-fetched claims were shared so widely, they became the number one trending topic on Twitter in the US.” A Syria Campaign study found that the Russian and Syrian propaganda reached many more people than did mainstream media coverage of the attack, which has also been the case at other points during the Syrian civil war; it also reported that “bots and trolls linked to Russia have reached an estimated 56 million people with tweets attacking Syria’s search and rescue organisation, the Syria Civil Defence—also known as the White Helmets—during ten key moments of 2016 and 2017,” including the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the nomination of the White Helmets for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 and 2017, the Aleppo offensive, and the 2016 murder of Jo Cox, a British member of Parliament who was a White Helmets supporter. It is a measure of the success of this disinformation effort that I am repeatedly asked by educated, well-informed people why Assad was accused of crimes that the opposition was carrying out. The de facto leader of the disinformation campaign is a blogger called Vanessa Beeley, who has been dubbed by The Guardian’s former Middle East editor as “the Syrian conflict’s goddess of propaganda.”

According to White Helmets’ founder Le Mesurier, the group, which first emerged in 2012 and now has about 3,000 members, has rescued some 115,000 people and lost more than 250 volunteers. One of the White Helmets’ most celebrated missions took place in 2014, when Khaled Omar Harrah, a former home decorator and father of two, pulled a ten-day-old baby out of the wreckage of a building after the infant had been buried for sixteen hours. (Harrah was killed in an airstrike in 2016.) A Netflix documentary about their work won the Academy Award in 2017, and Hollywood progressives have signed petitions in solidarity.

One strategy pro-Assad bloggers use to discredit the White Helmets is to argue that the group is funded by governments that, in the bloggers’ view, are intent on regime change in Syria. Part of the White Helmets’ funding comes from the British government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, which oversees various global projects such as building dams in Central Asia and preventing sexual violence during war. Le Mesurier confirmed that the total UK government funding of the White Helmets had been about £38.5 million ($51 million) over a five-year period to March 2018. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided about $33 million over a similar period. The Qatari Red Cross has made a donation of about $1 million to the White Helmets, and other funding comes from the German, Canadian, Danish, and Japanese governments. These funds support the group’s budget of approximately $30 million a year, much of which is spent on equipment such as ambulances, fire trucks, and heavy diggers to recover bodies from collapsed buildings, and stipends for individual White Helmet volunteers, which are $150 a month.

But the White Helmets’ financial backing is not the real reason why the pro-Assad camp is so bent on defaming them. Since 2015, the year the Russians began fighting in Syria, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets. Syria and Russia have claimed they were attacking only terrorists, yet the White Helmets have captured footage of dead and injured women and children under the rubble. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, as well as eyewitness accounts, Putin’s bombers have targeted civilians, schools, hospitals, and medical facilities in opposition-held areas, a clear violation of international law. “This, above all, is what the Russians hated,” Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council specializing in Russian disinformation, told me. “That the White Helmets are filming war crimes.”

*

Most of Assad’s Western apologists have a presence only on Twitter and obscure websites like 21st Century Wire (a website founded by a former editor of American conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Infowars), yet it would be foolish to disregard them. The work of this small group is also spread by a spectrum of far-left, anti-West conspiracy theorists; anti-Semites; supporters of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah; libertarians; and far-right groups. At their core are Beeley, the daughter of a British diplomat; a Canadian activist named Eva Bartlett; the Hezbollah-friendly commentator Sharmine Narwani; and Max Blumenthal, the son of the former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal.

As The Guardian recently reported, the Russian government uses Twitter accounts belonging to its embassies, as well as other accounts that have been linked to the Internet Research Agency, which oversees trolls and bots, to spread disinformation. The views of pro-Assad writers also filter into the mainstream through more respectable Assad-friendly American and British journalists such as Robert Fisk, Stephen Kinzer, and John Pilger (who oversees the Martha Gellhorn Reporting Prize, which was previously awarded to Julian Assange, and for which Beeley was a runner-up). In turn, their reports are echoed by public figures such as the British MP Emily Thornberry, Baroness Cox, and the Reverend Andrew Ashdown, an Anglican minister.

The damage the bloggers do is immense. They attack anyone with an account of events that contradicts their own, but their chief target is the White Helmets. The bloggers’ work is repeated on the state-owned Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik; some of it has even been cited by Russian ambassadors at the United Nations. The bloggers resist being linked to the Kremlin, and there is no evidence of financial transactions other than the standard fees paid by RT for television appearances. But the Russian version of its own military strikes is amplified by bloggers like Beeley and Bartlett, who promote RT reports that push the Kremlin’s false narrative about the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Beeley, a former consultant to a waste management company in the Middle East with no journalistic background, has only about 42,000 followers on Twitter, but she appears regularly on RT and Sputnik. Her posts are retweeted by the Ron Paul Institute, by members of the “alt-right,” and by what Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at the University of Stirling and an expert on the Russian disinformation campaign in Syria, calls “the Red–Brown alliance,” an unlikely coalition of far-left and far-right extremists.

Beeley first went to Syria in 2016 on a six-day trip to meet with Bashar al-Assad, an encounter she called “my proudest moment.” Shortly afterward, she flew to Moscow to meet with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, who is Putin’s point man on Syria, and Maria Zakharova, Putin’s director of information and press. Following that visit, she began attacking the White Helmets vehemently. In 2015, she had called for the first responders to be killed, even though “violence to life and person [against civilians and non-combatants], in particular murder of all kinds” is prohibited by the Geneva Convention. “White Helmets are not getting it,” she tweeted. “We know they are terrorists. Makes them a legit target.”

Beeley has admitted, in a private Facebook conversation with the blogger Scott Gaulke that was obtained by hackers and subsequently published, that even Assad does not deny torture. She wrote, “even Govt members dont [sic] deny it btw,” adding that she would never admit this publicly. The reasons for her dedication to Assad’s regime, are, like those of other bloggers and writers like her, unclear. (Apparently, she sees Assad not as a war criminal, but as a victim of Western imperialism.) They may be “useful idiots” propped up by Russia, but their undying support of Assad is based on the anti-Western views that Syria was in line for US-led regime change, like Iraq. The fact that the Iraq invasion occurred under President George W. Bush, while President Obama resolutely refused to intervene in Syria—a stance that drew sharp criticism after the Assad regime first used chemical weapons—does not figure into their arguments.

Perhaps the most significant evidence of Beeley’s influence is that in May 2017 the deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Petr Iliichev, submitted a paper titled “Information on the Work of the White Helmets in Syria” to the UN Security Council, trying to link the group to al-Qaeda. The document was based on a presentation Beeley had given earlier that year in London. In July 2017, Iliichev’s submission was rejected by eight countries on the Security Council, which affirmed its view that “Syria Civil Defense is an impartial, neutral group.”

Another pro-Assad blogger, the Canadian writer Eva Bartlett, spoke at the United Nations in December 2016, following a visit to Aleppo organized by the Assad regime after the fall of the city. Bartlett was introduced to witnesses who supported the Russian claims that the Assad alliance had been fighting Islamists, not bombing civilians. A video she made during her trip supported this narrative and was viewed at least 4 million times, which—for a writer not affiliated with an official news organization—is staggering. A version of it was promoted on the Russian state video site In the Now, with the caption: “Independent Canadian journo totally crushes MSM reporter on what’s actually going on in Syria.” Anna Nolan, the Syria Campaign’s former director, told me: “It was the most consumed piece of content around Aleppo, more so than any traditional media.” 

Meanwhile, most mainstream journalists have been refused visas to visit regime-held areas of Syria. At the start of the war, I was initially allowed into regime territory but was followed by minders from the Ministry of Information. In 2012, after I went undercover and reported a government-sponsored mass killing in the town of Daraya, which was later verified by Human Rights Watch and “characterized by the UN appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry as a ‘massacre,’” according to Amnesty International, my government visa was revoked and I was told I would be thrown in an “Assad prison” if I tried coming back. (Robert Fisk, who entered the town accompanied by government forces the day after I reported, denied any atrocities on their part, and continues to enjoy access to government-occupied Syria.) After Daraya, the only way for me—and most other mainstream reporters—to work was to cross into Syria via the Turkish border.

Another prominent pro-Assad figure is Max Blumenthal. In 2012, he resigned from his position as a reporter for the English-language website for the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper in Beirut, for which he had written frequently about the plight of Palestinian refugees. In an open letter, he opposed to the paper’s pro-Assad views and its featuring of content by Sharmine Narwani and a writer named Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, whose work he called “malevolent propaganda.” In September 2013, Blumenthal went to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan on assignment for The Nation. He strongly opposed US intervention against Assad, but he wrote on Twitter that “100% of dozens I spoke to in Zaatari today want US intervention in Syria.”

But then, in December 2015, as Russia was relentlessly bombing Syria, and doctors and civilians were being killed in Aleppo by barrel bombs, Blumenthal went to Moscow on a junket to celebrate RT’s tenth anniversary. We don’t know what happened during that visit, but afterward, Blumenthal’s views completely flipped. He has attacked not only the White Helmets but also Bana al-Abed, a nine-year-old girl who lived in rebel-held Aleppo and ran a Twitter account with her mother. The man who once wrote an essay called “The Right to Resist is Universal,” and attacked Narwani as an “Assad apologist,” now accuses anti-Assad Syrians of belonging to al-Qaeda and has claimed that the White Helmets were affiliated with the Islamist group.

The Australian reporter John Pilger echoes the views of Bartlett and Beeley in interviews. Pilger, who has a high profile in the UK because of his television documentaries criticizing US foreign policy, has a new platform on RT, which he uses to deny chemical weapons attacks such as the one at Khan Shaykhun. He, too, frequently attacks the White Helmets as Islamic extremists, and has cited Beeley’s writing as if it were authoritative journalism.

Unfortunately, the White Helmets have at times made mistakes that have been exploited by the group’s detractors. Under the organization’s charter, volunteers cannot carry arms, but several have been photographed with guns. (They were promptly fired.) Some volunteers have been photographed with black flags, which pro-Assad writers and social media users hold up as evidence of ties to jihadists, even though there are many groups in rebel-held Syria, not just al-Nusra or the Islamic State, that use black flags.

Perhaps most damaging was the participation of two members of the White Helmets in a viral video stunt called “The Mannequin Challenge,” in which people remain frozen like mannequins while someone films them. Without permission from supervisors, the two men posed in a staged shoot that made it seem as though they were next to an injured man; the Revolutionary Forces of Syria, the opposition media group that created the video, said its aim was to call attention to the situation in Syria. The video, filmed in November 2016, has been frequently cited by Assad supporters as proof that the White Helmets are a terrorist group, even though the video contains nothing about terrorism.

For those following events in Syria closely and witnessing Assad’s crimes, the spread of disinformation about chemical attacks is maddening. “So many self-declared progressives, who regularly point to war crimes committed by the US, Israel and the Saudi regime, deny or justify the torture, collective punishment and other atrocities committed by the Assad regime,” says Kristyan Benedict from Amnesty International, who regularly responds on Twitter to posts by Beeley, Bartlett, and others.

One measure of the regime’s enmity for the White Helmets is that Russian planes frequently launch secondary bombing raids known as “double tap” attacks in areas where they have earlier dropped bombs, in an attempt to kill members of the White Helmets as they try to rescue wounded Syrians—precisely the kind of attack that Beeley calls “legit.” “When we hear that noise, of the Russian planes coming back while we are on a site digging,” one White Helmets volunteer told me in 2015, “it is the most terrible sound in the world.” Another told me that being prevented from rescuing people suffocating under rubble “was worse than cruel, it was diabolical.”


Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty ImagesMedical staff at a hospital outside Damascus bearing placards condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, April 6, 2017

The Assad regime and the Russians are trying to neutralize the White Helmets because they are potential witnesses to war crimes. But the White Helmets are far from the only source of such testimony. When the day for justice eventually comes, there will be enormous stores of evidence captured on smartphones by civilians and witnesses. The Syrian Archive in Berlin has collected and preserved over two million “digital units”—mostly recordings, but also photos, Facebook posts, and tweets—made by witnesses documenting potential human rights violations, though they estimate the potential number of evidential materials to be far larger than what has been gathered thus far. In a villa on the grounds of the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva, a group mandated by the UN General Assembly in 2016 and known as the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) is cataloging thousands of hours of documentation and reams of paperwork, some of which one day, we must hope, will be cited as evidence in war crimes charges.

The Russian mission from the UN has condemned the IIIM, calling it illegal, and refuses to recognize it. Most likely, Syria will not request an inquiry from the International Criminal Court. But the IIIM is supported by powerful European countries and is led by a French prosecutor who has a long record of bringing to justice war criminals from Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. War criminals can be tried in other national jurisdictions, and the IIIM is already preparing cases against war crimes suspects from the Syrian conflict who are currently residing in France and Sweden.

UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour has been following the Syrian situation closely since 2012. The Syrian government hasn’t allowed a single person from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to enter the country since 2014, Gilmour told me. “We operate on the pretty infallible assumption that any government which refuses to let us in has something big to hide from us,” he said.

For Syrians like Kassem Eid, who narrowly escaped the 2013 attack in Ghouta, the general denial of Assad’s attacks in Khan Shaykhun was excruciating. Checking his Twitter account in the days that followed, Eid was sickened by how quickly the pro-Assad camp was able to persuade ordinary people of its version. “I don’t know what’s more disgusting, committing genocide, or denying it and twisting facts,” Eid said. “As a survivor of Assad chemical weapons, I feel devastated every time he gasses more civilians. But I feel even more heartbroken when I see the propaganda denying it—or even accusing the victims of gassing themselves.”

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Berlin, 1918–1919: Käthe Kollwitz, Witness to History


Culture Club/Getty ImagesRevolutionary soldiers and workers in Berlin, where the Spartacist leader Karl Liebknecht declared the German Socialist Republic in November 1918

On November 9, 1918, extra editions of newspapers flood the center of Berlin. One of them, from the socialist Vorwärts, falls into the hands of Käthe Kollwitz as she is strolling in the Tiergarten. “The Kaiser has abdicated!” says the banner headline. At this point, the sculptor and graphic artist—the daughter of a bricklayer from Königsbergis fifty-one years old and married to Dr. Karl Kollwitz. The two of them live in her home city, in the working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg. A round-faced woman with straight hair kept in a knot, she records her gloomy impressions in her diary.

As she reads the newspaper article, Kollwitz walks along the Siegesallee to the Brandenburg Gate, where thousands of people have gathered and are moving toward the neighboring Reichstag. The crowd is so thick that Kollwitz has no choice but to follow the flow. In front of the massive entrance to the Reichstag, which is crowned with the inscription “For the German people,” the crowd stops. A group of men can be seen on the balcony. “Scheidemann!” murmur those in front to those further back. Then thousands fall silent as the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann, now a minister without portfolio, begins to speak: “What is old and rotten has collapsed. Militarism is over!” He then makes a historic declaration: “We must ensure that the new German republic we will establish is equal to any threats. Long live the German republic!”

The cheering seems as though it will never end. When at last the masses do calm down, a soldier and a sailor speak from below the portal, followed by a young officer who tells the crowd, “Four years of war weren’t as bad as the struggle against prejudice and everything outdated.” The officer waves his cap and cries out: “Long live free Germany!”

Kollwitz lets herself be dragged along by the crowd to Unter den Linden boulevard, where red flags fly over the heads of demonstrators. Soldiers tear the cockades from their caps and throw them to the ground, laughing. “That’s the way it truly was,” Kollwitz writes in amazement. “You experience it, but you can’t really believe it.”

At that moment, her mind is filled with the image of her youngest son, Peter. He was just eighteen when he enthusiastically marched off to war in 1914. From the front, he sent letters full of heroic phrases that sounded as though they’d been copied from official military announcements. But then, a few weeks later, a black-rimmed envelope edged in black lay in her mailbox. It was as though a hole had opened in the ground and swallowed her. Today, on the founding day of the republic, Peter is again with her. “I think if he were alive, he would join in,” she writes. “He too would tear off his cockade. But he isn’t alive, and when I last saw him and he looked his best, he wore his cap with the cockade and his face was gleaming.”

Elsewhere in Berlin on that same day, a completely different new state is proclaimed. This time the speaker is the socialist Karl Liebknecht, and the setting is the Hohenzollerns’ Berlin Palace, “the very window where the Kaiser always spoke.” In contrast to Scheidemann, Liebknecht speaks of a radical socialist republic—not a “German” one. The two rival declarations reveal the dangerous tensions within the socialist movement, the schisms between the more moderate Social Democratic Party (SPD), the far more leftist Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), and the emerging revolutionary “Spartakusbund.”

The situation in the city is extremely precarious. Rifle shots regularly crack in the streets, machine-gun salvos rain down over squares, and even cannon fire can be heard. Over and over, crowds disperse in a panic only to regroup again, as if drawn together by magnets. The workers’ council formed by the revolution, it is said, is planning public executions to discourage looting.

On November 11, 1918, Käthe Kollwitz receives the “terrible news” of how the Compiègne negotiations have ended. That evening, as celebrations continue in Paris, New York and London, a “deathly silence” pervades the streets of Berlin. Fear begins to spread, and people stay home. Now and again, gunshots echo through the deserted streets.

*

In Berlin, rumors are going around that the former Kaiser Wilhelm has been murdered. Käthe Kollwitz hears them on November 12, 1918, as she is accompanying her friend Constance Harding-Krayl in her search for a job. At the post-revolutionary police directorate on Alexanderplatz, the two of them become acquainted with the bureaucratic labyrinth of the new regime, where no one knows anything, no one is accountable, and where everyone gets sent from one office to another without getting what they want.


Emil Otto Hoppe/ullstein bild via Getty ImagesKäthe Kollwitz, Germany, circa 1928; click to enlarge

When Kollwitz and her friend give up in frustration, a guard at the main entrance refuses to let them leave through the main entrance because they don’t have identity papers. They have to exit the building through a back door. Their description of the government offices evokes Heinrich Mann’s novel Man of Straw, which will appear for the first time in German in a couple of days. A Russian translation had been published as early as 1915.

The streetcar is completely packed as Kollwitz makes her way to her studio—these days, the train stations are jammed full of soldiers returning home. She’s heard that in the troop trains coming from the front, men have regularly been crushed to death. In the middle of the pushing and shoving on the streetcar, there’s an old woman with a crate containing a cat that meows softly. “The cat was spooked by gunshots and fled into my house,” the woman says. Now she, too, has had all she can take of gunshots and is fleeing to the countryside with the cat. The people around her laugh, amused.

Ever since the collapse of the old regime, Kollwitz has hoped that socialism would win the day, but now she is unable to ignore the realities of the situation. She thoroughly rejects how the communist Spartacus brigades are behaving and decides to keep her distance from them, in part because she realizes how resistant the general populace is to such a radically different social order. Employing violence in order to erect a socialist state against the will of the majority of Germans seems to her a contradiction in terms.

She tells herself to be patient, have faith in the democratic path of a constitutional convention, and hope that Germans will “gradually grow into socialism… although it’s somewhat disappointing when you think you can feel something and you’re told you’ll have to wait.” But will those “who can only stand to benefit if socialism is implemented” be prepared to wait? Or will they now try everything in their power to strike while the iron is hot?

The defeat of the army, the ignominious abdication of the Kaiser, and the end of the Reich have left a vacuum. In Germany and elsewhere, the forces of order that had previously held together governments and whole societies have weakened or collapsed completely. Revolutionary movements of various stripes are exploiting the new opportunities. Suddenly, it’s possible to call thousands of people to the streets or stand on a balcony and declare a new regime.

In Germany and elsewhere, many people wonder how it is possible to restore the stability of the old world while giving it a new foundation. The German Reich and several of the former member states of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are on the verge of chaos. The great challenge in this situation is how to create a new, broadly recognized central authority and place in its charge the bureaucratic workings of the state, as well as the police and the military.

On November 20, along with thousands of other Berliners, Käthe Kollwitz squeezes herself into the main hall of Potsdam station. The train she and her husband, Karl, are so anxiously awaiting is late. When it finally arrives and the homecoming soldiers pour out of the carriage doors, the platform is cordoned off. Kollwitz climbs up some steps and scans the gray faces of the returnees with a hammering heart. At last, she spots Hans in the crowd. He sees her, too, and waves. Mother and son soon fall into one another’s arms.

Back at home, Hans’s seat at the table is decorated with flowers, and there’s wine with the meal. They drink to his return, to “Germany’s life and future,” and raise a glass as well to the memory of his brother, Peter, whose seat will remain forever empty. It’s strange how little pain there is now in remembering Peter, Kollwitz thinks. She used to believe the wounds would never heal. But that’s no longer true.

Should they unfurl the German flag from their window to greet the homecoming soldiers? And if so, which one? Kollwitz discusses the matter intensely with her husband. Ultimately, they decide on the red-white-and-black banner of the German Reich, the “dear German flag.” But they add a red streamer symbolizing the republic and a pine bough wreath for all “the ones who will never return.” Kollwitz is not alone in these sentiments. Many of her friends have also lost children.

*

You can feel the “terrible divisions today,” Kollwitz notes in her diary. There are daily mass protests, demonstrations and violence in Berlin. Even those crippled in the war are putting their wounds on public display and taking their demands to the streets, chanting: “We don’t want pity—we want justice!” The social democratic movement is about to split, and the Allies have refused to enter into peace negotiations or even deliver food to Germany until a democratically elected government is in place.

In her heart, Kollwitz supports the communist groups without whom the war would not have ended or the Kaiser been driven from power. Like the radical leftists, she hopes the revolution will continue rather than settle for the status quo. But her head knows that Germany is on the verge of breaking apart. “They will have to put down [the Spartacists] to get themselves out of this chaos, and to an extent they’re right to do that,” Kollwitz writes. It hurts her to think like this and to oppose those who risked being mowed down by machine guns to fight against war and hunger.

Christmas Eve brings tear gas and machine-gun fire to central Berlin. People are killed and wounded in both the army and the “people’s navy division,” which has holed up in the stables of Berlin Palace and taken a prominent Social Democrat named Otto Wels hostage. In the final days of the year, the Communists quit the council of people’s deputies, officially completing the schism within the Social Democratic Party. On December 29, the streets around Unter den Linden are packed as the Spartacists and the moderate socialists stage simultaneous demonstrations. Kollwitz loses sight of Hans in the crowd. It’s all she can do to extract herself from the aggressive pushing and shoving of the crowds.

On New Year’s Eve, Kollwitz takes stock. At least her family is reunited, and all of her loved ones who were spared by the war are in good health. “But peace is still not at hand,” she frets. “The peace will no doubt be very bad. Yes—there’s no more war. But you could say that, in its stead, we now have civil war.”

*

In early January 1919, the artist watches with growing concern as the conflict between the various revolutionary factions escalates. “Here in Berlin, there are strikes wherever you look,” Kollwitz notes in her diary. “The electric lighting is gone. It’s said that the water supply will be cut off because workers at the water company are on strike. We’ve filled our bathtub to the brim.” As the city infrastructure breaks down and people can no longer obtain basic necessities, far-leftist groups go on the offensive. They are determined at any cost to prevent the formation of a social democratic republic, and wish instead to impose a socialist republic of soviet-style councils.

On January 5, an agitated Hans returns from a demonstration, at the end of which, he reports breathlessly, the editorial offices of the mainstream socialist magazine Vorwärts were occupied. Material intended to influence opinion at the national convention was taken into the street and set on fire. The editorial offices of other social democratic and centrist publications have evidently also fallen into the hands of the revolutionaries. “There are no newspapers left except Freiheit and Rote Fahne,” he says, naming two radical leftist publications.

The Social Democratic government has to use special flyers to communicate with the populace and call upon Berliners to stage counter-demonstrations. On January 6, Käthe and Karl Kollwitz join masses of people who take to the streets in defense of the infant republic. They lose track of each other in the crowd. When an exhausted Karl finally returns home, he brings a shocking bit of news: “The government has no weapons.” They’ve all been confiscated, he adds. Yet that night, they can hear cannon fire. Who is shooting, if the government has no weapons, Kollwitz asks herself. And where is Hans?

Her remaining son comes back home late at night, excited, tired but unharmed. Thinking out loud, he wonders whether he should join the government’s troops. Kollwitz asks him if he means “with a weapon,” and he answers, “Yes.” That night, Karl ventures out into the city once more and sees people battling for control of the police directorate.


Museum Associates/LACMA/Licensed by Art Resource, NY/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NYKäthe Kollwitz: The parents, 1922–1923

On January 11, news goes round that the offices of Vorwärts have been liberated. Kollwitz assumes that this is the work of government troops, but it soon becomes clear that other forces are at play. The government has freed Vorwärts with the help of the “Freikorps Potsdam,” an illegal militia of former frontline soldiers, who are using weapons they kept from the war—flame throwers, mortars, and machine guns—against the revolutionaries. That night, the police directorate is retaken.

Kollwitz is growing more tense: “I’m very downcast, even though I agreed that the Spartacists had to be put down. I have the uneasy feeling that it’s no coincidence these troops are being deployed and that the reactionaries are on the march. What’s more, the use of raw violence and the shooting of people who should be comrades are horrific.” In the days that follow, counterrevolutionary movements become increasingly visible. At an event at Zirkus Busch, the red-white-and-black Reich flag is unfurled, but without Kollwitz’s red streamer and pine boughs. Men sing “Hail to Thee in the Victory Wreath” and “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” Some 150 people will ultimately lose their lives in the Spartacus uprising.

On January 16, just as the waves of violence seem spent, there is further shocking news. The leaders of the newly founded German Communist Party, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, have been murdered. For Kollwitz, this is a “dastardly, outrageous” act. Could the government be behind it, she asks herself?

It is scant consolation that the elections for the national assembly, against which the Spartacus uprising was aimed, do indeed take place a few days later. Kollwitz is among those who cast their ballots on January 19. It’s the first time in her life she’s been allowed to vote—the republic has instituted universal women’s suffrage. “I was so looking forward to this day, and now that it’s here, I feel a new indecision and halfheartedness,” Kollwitz writes. “I voted for the majority socialists… In my heart I’m further to the left.”

*

Liebknecht and thirty-one others are buried on January 25. Kollwitz has been asked by his family to make sketches of the hero of the German Left and proceeds to the morgue early that morning. “He was lying in state amidst the other coffins,” Kollwitz writes. “Red flowers were laid around his forehead with its gunshot wound, his face was proud and his mouth was open slightly and twisted in pain. His expression was somewhat surprised.” Meanwhile, people have gathered for a massive funeral procession in the city, beginning in the working-class district of Friedrichshain. Masses of people, too many to count, walk behind the coffin. Kollwitz stays at home working on her sketches, but Karl and various friends tell her about the great number of people who turned out, the pushing and shoving even at the open grave, and Liebknecht’s widow, who got so upset she fainted. They also relate how Freikorps militias kept a tight watch over the march all along the route.

“How small-minded and wrong all these measures are,” she writes. “Berlin, or at least a major part of it, wants to bury its dead. That’s not a revolutionary matter. Even between battles there are hours of calm, in which the dead are laid to rest. It is ignoble and outrageous to have soldiers and paramilitaries harass Liebknecht’s followers all the way to his grave. It is also a sign of the government’s weakness that it has to condone such harassment.” Still, Kollwitz must have known that the moderate republic she, too, favored would have been toppled had the Freikorps not intervened. In this sense, she, too, is a co-signatory to the pact that the new German republic has concluded with the devil.

February 6, 1919, would have seen Käthe Kollwitz’s son Peter turn twenty-three. That date and the memories she associates with it appeared in her dreams the night before. Now, on the day itself, Kollwitz takes out some sketches she made during the war for lithographic prints. In one, the artist depicts herself as a mother protecting her children, Hans and Peter, by embracing them in her arms. It’s a simple, almost spare image. As Kollwitz works away, the violence continues in the city, and more fathers and sons die.

*

Käthe Kollwitz is happy for the harbingers of spring in May 1919, but she’s dismayed by the harbingers of peace. “The swallows are back again!” she writes. “Returning from an art academy meeting, I walked down Unter den Linden… Everything was wonderful. The sky was full of light, the foliage was still delicate, and everything looked as if transfigured. I felt again that Berlin was my home, the city I love… And now we’re threatened with such a terrible peace. The palace still hasn’t been repaired. The balcony from which the Kaiser always spoke is shot half to smithereens, and the entrance badly damaged. A symbol of crushed majesty.”

The news from Versailles brings fresh unrest to Berlin, just as the city is beginning to settle back into its everyday routine. In May, masses of people are once again on the move on the streets of the city center. Public opinion is anything but unanimous. There are demonstrations for and against accepting the Allies’ terms of peace, and in a situation this divided and emotionally charged, confrontations are inevitable.

Kollwitz doesn’t take part in any of the public demonstrations. She’s too busy trying to capture the experience of the time in her art: loss, death, sadness, and starvation are her subjects. But she finds it incredibly difficult to work. She used to be able to concentrate for hours, becoming engrossed in her creations. Now she feels nervous and worried, and her works seem inadequate even before she has finished them.

On June 29, 1919, the newspapers announce that the new government has signed the peace treaty. How Kollwitz once longed for this day, and how bitter it now appears. “I thought about this day so often,” she writes. “Flags hanging from all the windows. I considered long and hard what kind of flag I would put out and concluded that it should be a white flag with big red letters spelling out: peace. Garlands and flowers were to dangle from its shaft and tip. I thought that it would be a peace of reconciliation, and that the day on which it was proclaimed would be a day of ‘sobbing recognition’ among people crying tears of joy that peace had arrived.” Kollwitz does, in fact, feel like crying, but not from joy.

Still, what option does she have other than to carry on? Her husband has to care for increasing numbers of patients, many of whom suffer more from general privation than from any specific illness. Kollwitz herself has commissions. Life must continue. She begins to clear out her dead son’s room, so that her mother, who’s suffering from dementia, can move in. “This is such sorrowful work,” she sighs. In a red cabinet, she finds Peter’s painting kit, his sketchbooks and examples of his keen mind, liveliness and talent. “His room was sacred,” Kollwitz writes. Now it will become profane.


Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty ImagesDestitute citizens in Berlin, 1919

In 1933, Käthe Kollwitz watches as the Nazis, who will later classify her art, too, as “decadent,” assume power. In 1940, her beloved husband Karl dies. A committed pacifist, Kollwitz suffers through World War II, but doesn’t live to see another peace. Having been bombed out of her apartment, she moves to the town of Moritzburg, near Dresden, where she dies on April 22, 1945, a few days before Nazi Germany’s capitulation.


This essay is adapted from The World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age, published by Macmillan.

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Matters of Tolerance


Abner Dean/New York Review Comics‘I have great power of selection’; cartoon by Abner Dean from What Am I Doing Here? (1947), republished in 2016 by New York Review Comics

Scientists and engineers recognize an elusive but profound difference between precision and accuracy. The two qualities often go hand in hand, of course, but precision involves an ideal of meticulousness and consistency, while accuracy implies real-world truth. When a sharpshooter fires at a target, if the bullets strike close together—clustered, rather than spread out—that is precise shooting. But the shots are only accurate if they hit the bull’s eye. A clock is precise when it marks the seconds exactly and unvaryingly but may still be inaccurate if it shows the wrong time. Perversely, we sometimes value precision at the expense of accuracy.

Simon Winchester, whose The Perfectionists ventures a history of this abstract concept, offers another way of looking at the distinction: a Rolls-Royce automobile, the 1984 Camargue model. In the course of a story filled with wonderful machines of every type, Winchester reveals himself to be something of a Rolls-Royce fanboy, but he declares this one to have been an ugly behemoth:

While the engineers had lovingly made yet another model of a car that enjoyed great precision in every aspect of its manufacture, those who had commissioned and designed and marketed and sold it had no feel for the accuracy of their decisions.

Winchester is a longtime journalist turned author, a meticulous researcher and catholic thinker who has written superb books about The Oxford English Dictionary, the Krakatoa eruption, the birth of modern geology, and (separately) the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Compared with topics like those, precision may seem an odd choice. What does it mean to write a history of so abstract a concept? Where does it even begin?

First Winchester needs to convince us that precision is a thing. It is, he tells us, a component of machines, and for that matter “an essential component of the modern world,…invisible, hidden in plain sight.” Besides being a component, it is a “phenomenon” that has transformed human society. We take it for granted, like the air we breathe, though we are suckers for precision snow tires and precision beard trimmers and we aspire to precision medicine and precision tattoo removal. It is “an essential aspect of modernity that makes the modern possible,” Winchester writes:

Precision is an integral, unchallenged, and seemingly essential component of our modern social, mercantile, scientific, mechanical, and intellectual landscapes. It pervades our lives entirely, comprehensively, wholly.

Which of the sciences are the most precise? Biology is messy, a science of divergence and variation, of creatures in all shapes and sizes. “Astronomical precision” is an oxymoron, astronomy being full of approximations and guesses piled atop one another—although the instruments of astronomy are tools of increasing and, lately, astounding precision. Mathematical precision trumps astronomical precision; mathematics is precise by definition. Winchester is not exploring the world of abstractions, though, but the real world, where people make things. His father was a precision engineer who turned metal into the most perfect machinery possible. Wood is nice but imprecise. The story of precision begins with metal.

And the story begins, according to Winchester, at a specific place and time: North Wales, “on a cool May day in 1776.” The Age of Steam was getting underway. So was the Industrial Revolution—almost but not quite the same thing. In Scotland, James Watt was designing a new engine to pump water by means of the power of steam. In England, John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson was improving the manufacture of cannons, which were prone to exploding, with notorious consequences for the sailors manning the gun decks of the navy’s ships. Rather than casting cannons as hollow tubes, Wilkinson invented a machine that took solid blocks of iron and bored cylindrical holes into them: straight and precise, one after another, each cannon identical to the last. His boring machine, which he patented, made him a rich man.

Watt, meanwhile, had patented his steam engine, a giant machine, tall as a house, at its heart a four-foot-wide cylinder in which blasts of steam forced a piston up and down. His first engines were hugely powerful and yet frustratingly inefficient. They leaked. Steam gushed everywhere. Winchester, a master of detail, lists the ways the inventor tried to plug the gaps between cylinder and piston: rubber, linseed oil–soaked leather, paste of soaked paper and flour, corkboard shims, and half-dried horse dung—until finally John Wilkinson came along. He wanted a Watt engine to power one of his bellows. He saw the problem and had the solution ready-made. He could bore steam-engine cylinders from solid iron just as he had naval cannons, and on a larger scale. He made a massive boring tool of ultrahard iron and, with huge iron rods and iron sleighs and chains and blocks and “searing heat and grinding din,” achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which as Watt later wrote “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”

By “an old shilling” he meant a tenth of an inch, which is a reminder that measurement itself—the science and the terminology—was in its infancy. An engineer today would say a tolerance of 0.1 inches.

James Watt’s fame eclipses Iron-Mad Wilkinson’s, but it is Wilkinson’s precision that enabled Watt’s steam engine to power pumps and mills and factories all over England, igniting the Industrial Revolution. As much as the machinery itself, the discovery of tolerance is crucial to this story. The tolerance is the clearance between, in this case, cylinder and piston. It is a specification on which an engineer (and a customer) can rely. It is the foundational concept for the world of increasing precision. When machine parts could be made to a tolerance of one tenth of an inch, soon finer tolerances would be possible: a hundredth of an inch, a thousandth, a ten-thousandth, and less.

Watt’s invention was a machine. Wilkinson’s was a machine tool: a machine for making machines and their parts. More and better machines followed, some so basic that we barely think of them as machines: toilets, locks, pulley blocks for sailing ships, muskets. The history of machinery has been written before, of course, as has the history of industrialization. These can be histories of science or economics. By focusing instead on the arrow of increasing precision, Winchester is, in effect, walking us around a familiar object to expose an unfamiliar perspective.

Can precision really be a creation of the industrial world? The word comes from Latin by way of middle French, but first it meant “cutting off” or “trimming.” The sense of exactitude comes later. It seems incredible that the ancients lacked this concept, so pervasive in modern thinking, but they measured time with sundials and sandglasses, and they counted space with hands and feet, and the “stone” has survived into modern Britain as a measure of weight.

Any assessment of ancient technology has to include, however, a single extraordinary discovery—an archaeological oddball the size of a toaster, named the “Antikythera mechanism,” after the island near Crete where Greek sponge divers recovered it in 1900 from a shipwreck 150 feet deep. Archaeologists were astonished to find, inside a shell of wood and bronze dated to the first or second century BC, a complex clockwork machine comprising at least thirty bronze dials and gears with intricate meshing teeth. In the annals of archaeology, it’s a complete outlier. It displays a mechanical complexity otherwise unknown in the ancient world and not matched again until fourteenth-century Europe. To call it “clockwork” is an anachronism: clocks came much later. Yet the gears seem to have been made—by hand—to a tolerance of a few tenths of a millimeter.

After a century of investigation and speculation, scientists have settled on the view that the Antikythera mechanism was an analog computer, intended to demonstrate astronomical cycles. Dials seem to represent the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. It might have been able to predict eclipses of the moon. Where planetary motion is concerned, however, it seems to have been highly flawed. The engineering is better than the underlying astronomy. As Winchester notes, the Antikythera mechanism represents a device that is amazingly precise, yet not very accurate.

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools—as opposed to mere machines—lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few,” Winchester writes. “It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision—precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”

Perhaps the canonical machine tool—surely the oldest—is the lathe, a turning device for cutting and shaping table legs, gun barrels, and screws. Wooden lathes date back to ancient China and Egypt. However, metal lathes, enormous and powerful, turning out metal machine parts, did not come into their own until the end of the eighteenth century. You can explain that in terms of available energy: water wheels and steam engines. Or you can explain it as Winchester does, in terms of precision. The British inventor Henry Maudslay made the first successful screw-cutting lathe in 1800, and to Winchester the crucial part of his invention is a device known as a slide rest: the device that holds the cutting tools and adjusts their position as delicately as possible, with the help of gears. Maudslay’s lathe, described by one historian as “the mother tool of the industrial age,” achieved a tolerance of one ten-thousandth of an inch. Metal screws and other pieces could be turned out by the hundreds and then the thousands, every one exactly the same.

Because they were replicable, they were interchangeable. Because they were interchangeable, they made possible a world of mass production and the warehousing and distribution of component parts. A French gunsmith, Honoré Blanc, is credited with showing in 1785 that flintlocks for muskets could be made with interchangeable parts. Before an audience, he disassembled twenty-five flintlocks into twenty-five frizzle springs, twenty-five face plates, twenty-five bridles, and twenty-five pans, randomly shuffled the pieces, and then rebuilt “out of this confusion of components” twenty-five new locks. Particularly impressed was the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, who posted by packet ship a letter explaining the new method for the benefit of Congress:

It consists in the making every part of them so exactly alike that what belongs to any one, may be used for every other musket in the magazine…. I put several together myself taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand, and they fitted in the most perfect manner. The advantages of this, when arms need repair, are evident.

As it was, when a musket broke down in the field, a soldier needed to find a blacksmith.

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,” says Winchester, “shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.” Before long, Blanchard’s lathe was making standardized gun stocks at the Springfield Armory and then at its successor, the Harpers Ferry Armory, which began turning out muskets and rifles by the thousands on machines powered by water turbines at the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. “These were the first truly mechanically produced production-line objects made anywhere,” Winchester writes. “They were machine-made in their entirety, ‘lock, stock, and barrel.’” It is perhaps no surprise that the military played from the first, and continues to play, a leading and deadly part in the development of precision-based technologies and methods.

The same methods that enabled mass production of guns led to sewing machines, combine harvesters, and bicycles. By the time of the American Civil War, precision engineers in England had learned to machine metal to a tolerance of a millionth of an inch. High-velocity rifles followed, and precision timepieces. A new century, a few more orders of magnitude, and then automobiles. On one side of the Atlantic, Winchester admires the Silver Ghost of Henry Royce and Charles Rolls, “the nonpareil, the exemplar of all that is right about engineering accomplished to the very highest of standards, and with the highest level of precision.” On the other side, though, Henry Ford was advertising his Model A—“made of few parts, and every part does something”—followed by the Models B, C, F, K, N, and, finally, T, the Tin Lizzie. During the same period that the Rolls-Royce factory turned out almost eight thousand Silver Ghosts, Ford made more than 16 million of his motorcars.

His true invention, of course, was the assembly line. And though his car was by comparison crude and cheap and unreliable, it was Ford, not Rolls and Royce, who demanded the utmost precision. The assembly line depended on replication, a flow of parts reliably the same, perfectly interchangeable. Removed from the equation: the need for human craftsmanship.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Luddites, named after a possibly mythical weaver called Ned Ludd, smashed stocking frames—knitting machines—that imitated the motions of human weavers and, with increasing efficiency, put them out of work. The Luddites were victims of precision, and they weren’t the last. At the Portsmouth dockyards, Henry Maudslay’s machines replaced a hundred skilled artisans. There, as Winchester notes, precision “seemed to benefit those with power; it was a troubling puzzlement to those without.” Automation replaced artistry. Interchangeable parts—copies, by definition—drained work of craftsmanship. In effect they turned artisans into machines themselves. The French were more inclined to resist this trend than the British, but the march of progress was inexorable. “By superseding labour the country is depopulated and filled with machines,” wrote the mathematician and engineer Charles Dupin, and The Economist retorted in 1852:

The reverse is the fact. England is not depopulated, and it is by using and employing more and more machinery, that her people are nourished and increase in numbers as well as in wealth. They borrow the powers of nature and obtain food in abundance, while the French can scarcely live, and the Irish are starved.

How can engineers resist the ever finer, ever more exact, ever more perfect technologies that come from pushing the bounds of mechanical possibility? A modern jet engine is a colossus of mass and power, weighing eight tons and delivering five times that in thrust, but its essential quality is precision: for its blades to spin thousands of times per minute, free of vibration, amid a roaring blaze of jet fuel and compressed air, requires microscopic tolerances beyond the limits of human skill. Automation and robotics are no longer optional. “Precision engineering,” says Winchester, “does now appear to have reached some kind of limit, where the presence of humans, once essential to maintaining the attainment of the precise, can on occasion be more of a drawback than a boon.”

Metal gives way to glass: the eight-foot primary mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope is polished to a smoothness of less than a millionth of an inch. Yet the mission began disastrously in 1990: a minute flaw in a laser measuring device, a deviation one fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair, initially caused a catastrophic defect called spherical aberration that prevented the mirror from focusing precisely and required a repair mission three years later.

Glass gives way to silicon: the smoothing and layering and etching of integrated circuits has taken precision to submicroscopic levels. The transistors on modern chips are invisible, smaller than the smallest bacteria, and approaching the dimensions of atoms. The superlatives of precision start to outrun the power of even Winchester’s prose: “edge-of-the-seat, leading-edge, bleeding-edge ultrasubmicroscopic precision.” Precision applies to time as well as space. The atomic clocks that synchronize the world’s networks—and enable navigation by GPS—keep time in perfect nanoseconds.

But when does perfectionism become pathology? Maybe precision is a thing we have come to fetishize. Collectors of Leica cameras and Swiss watches, audiophiles in search of the perfect gold-plated speaker cable, devotees of titanium pocket knives and pens—at some point the hunger for ever-increasing precision resembles a cult. Winchester sees this. His paean to perfectionism finally throws itself into reverse and rediscovers the virtues of imprecision. He suggests a need for balance and looks to Japan, a country that worships precision but also continues to revere the patient craftsmanship of hand tools and natural materials. Japan gives us the term wabi-sabi, the acceptance of imperfection, asymmetry, and incompleteness.

“Humankind,” says Winchester,

obsessed and impressed today with the perceived worth of the finely finished edge and the perfectly spherical bearing and by degrees of flatness that are not known outside the world of the engineer, would perhaps do well similarly to learn to accept the equal significance, the equal weight, of the natural order.

As we approach what must be physical limits on precision—engineers can contemplate the Planck length, where quantum uncertainty overtakes classical measurement—we may recognize psychological limits, too.

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