Месечни архиви: October 2015

Pagodas in Quebec

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Kano Naizen: Southern Barbarians Come to Trade (detail), Japan, circa 1600

… and then return, some day,

Through the torn orange veils of an early evening

That will know our names only in a different

Pronunciation, and then, and only then,

Might the profit-taking of spring arrive…

—John Ashbery, “April Galleons”

A taste for Asian things is often associated with Commodore Matthew Perry’s “opening” of Japan in 1853-1854, and the subsequent vogue, among French Impressionist painters and American architects, for the beguiling asymmetries and exquisite workmanship of a half-imagined East. But a horizon-expanding exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a historic hub of international trade, shows that the prodigious appetite for Asian luxury goods—graceful porcelain jars, gilded folding screens, shimmering lacquered chests, colorful Indian bedspreads—began centuries earlier, in a Pacific pivot that long preceded Commodore Perry and President Barack Obama, and with startling aesthetic results. Spanning the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the show brings together nearly one hundred objects in every medium imaginable, including feathers and seashells, from four continents.

The Hispanic Society of America, New York/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Portable writing desk, Colombia, circa 1684

Beginning in 1565, bulging Spanish galleons and the even larger Portuguese carracks crisscrossed the world—from Manila to Acapulco, from Brazil to Lisbon, from Havana up to Boston—transforming, in the vertiginous process, both the global economy and local artistic practice. What began primarily as an exchange of American raw materials like silver and gold for Asian spices (especially pepper) and tea mushroomed into something much more significant, as exotic Asian handicrafts of all kinds captured the imagination of Western elites eager to show off their cosmopolitan reach, and inspired a countertrade of “Made in the Americas” knockoffs and creative variations. “So excessive is the love of Chinese architecture become,” joked an Englishman in the 1750s, “that at present the foxhunters would be sorry to break a leg in pursuing their sport over a gate that was not made in the Eastern fashion of little bits of wood standing in all directions.”

Before long, the holds of these floating cabinets of curiosities could barely contain all the luxury goods demanded by Mexican viceroys, Canadian missionaries, and New England merchants. Piles of crates were lashed to the decks while more crates were suspended from the sides, as shown in a painted folding screen depicting a fully loaded Portuguese ship off the coast of Japan, circa 1600.

Chinese made-for-export ceramics—a kind of world currency by the eighteenth century—were so popular in Brazil that there were roofs in the city of Cachoeira, in Salvador de Bahia, sheathed in blue-and-white porcelain, as though tiled with the very sky and clouds. The New England Puritan minister and poet Edward Taylor marveled at a piece of what came to be known simply as “china”: “We gaze thereat and wonder rise up will.” A native Mexican chief, named Tonati, put in an order for a set of Chinese dishes, the “vessel of choice” for consuming chocolate.

Dr. Miguel Vallebueno Collection, Durango/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Juan González: Saint Francis Xavier Embarking for Asia, 1703

The cargo on European ships wasn’t limited to such manufactured treasures; a human cargo of “chinos” (the generic word for Asians of all nationalities), whether skilled artisans or slaves, was squeezed in among the crates, and exchanged at markets in Mexico City along with the tableware, bringing new ideas—along with human blood and toil—to local industries.

The east-west trade in fragile and expensive luxury goods, with steep markups for transport and middlemen, created ideal conditions for what we would now call disruption, as cheaper, locally-made things imitated, or creatively riffed on, the “authentic” originals. The curators of the Boston show grope for words to describe the astonishing cultural handoffs that ensued: “hybridity” and “synthesis,” adoption and adaption. Meanwhile, the viewer, puzzled by so much fusion and confusion, is often left to wonder, “What exactly am I looking at?

David P. Kimball/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

John Singleton Copley: Nicholas Boylston, Boston, Massachusetts, circa 1769

Sometimes, the cultural mixing was a simple matter of showing off one’s cosmopolitan sophistication and mercantile reach. Receiving company at home, self-styled Boston “Brahmins” donned turbans and wrapped themselves in long, loose robes from India known as banyans. In John Singleton Copley’s portrait of around 1769, the foppish merchant Nicholas Boylston leans self-importantly on a pile of heavy account-books, presumably documenting his commercial transactions, while the ocean from which his riches derive shimmers pacifically behind a lifted curtain in the background.

But the cross-fertilization could run much deeper, as indigenous artists in the Americas discovered ingenious ways to compete with Asian prototypes. Quetzal birds replaced phoenixes in the tin-glazed majolica—much cheaper than the Chinese porcelain it resembled, and often just as visually arresting—manufactured in the bustling city of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. Lacquer-ware techniques developed by Native American artists centuries before European contact were applied to new objects for rich buyers. A sumptuous portable desk from around 1684, which looks vaguely Japanese but was actually made in Colombia, displays a coat of arms sheltering a basket of tropical fruit, flanked by native parrots.

Denman Waldo Ross Collection/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Bed cover (detail), Peru, late seventeenth to early eighteenth century

A bedcover woven in Peru around the end of the seventeenth century is a triple mash-up of motif, method, and material. This vigorous American hybrid replaces Chinese animals with alpacas and viscachas (“silky-furred rodents native to the high altitudes of the Andes”) and the phoenix with the local condor. Imported (and expensive) Chinese silk has been picked apart by local artisans and rewoven with an equal share of llama or alpaca fibers, using indigenous Andean weaving techniques. The red background—conveniently symbolizing good fortune in China as well as luxury in Peru—is made of cochineal, the brilliant dye harvested from cacti-devouring insects.

“Deeply acculturative” examples like these, belonging to no single cultural tradition, have languished in museum storage for decades, considered little more than fakes or cheap rip-offs. For this exhibition, such cultural impurity is an occasion for celebration rather than censure, as a precursor of our own interconnected world. Where else could one encounter the uniquely Mexican genre of enconchado (shell inlay) painting, in which, for example, the Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier, embarking for Asia—a motif borrowed from a Dutch print—dons a robe of actual mother-of-pearl overlaid with oil paint, with the frame decorated with bird-and-flower motifs borrowed from fine Japanese lacquer-ware?

Monastère des Ursulines de Québec/Patrick Altman, MNBAQ/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Altar covering made by Ursuline nuns (detail), Quebec City, circa 1700

What lingers in the memory, as a kind of afterglow of the exhibition, is the sheer creative energy, and frequent sly wit, of much that is on view. The artist who embroidered willowy Chinese maidens wandering near a New England redbrick house, on a curtain “possibly” made in Boston, must have found this fantasy landscape as outlandish as we do. And surely the Ursuline nuns in Quebec were in on the joke when they depicted, on a decorative altar covering, pagodas alongside Algonquin longhouses. And why exactly did the wily nuns adopt the particular colors they employed? Because it was well known, as a Jesuit missionary at the time remarked, that the Huron Indians always responded well to “a fine red and fine blue.”


“Made in the Americas: The New World Discovers Asia” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through February 15, 2016. The catalog of the exhibition, by Dennis Carr, is available from the museum.

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What Libraries Can (Still) Do

Deutsches Historiches Museum/Arne Psille/Art Resource

Heinrich Lukas Arnold: The Reading Room, circa 1840

Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journal conference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

I’m an optimist. I think the pessimists and the worriers—and this includes some librarians—are taking their eyes off the ball. The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them.

In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book, BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: “Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.” As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy.

The problem of libraries now—and it is a problem—involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes—via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon’s self-publishing factories—libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. “That model is already too hard to keep up,” Palfrey says. “A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.”

The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation’s digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year’s channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What’s an archivist to do?

There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. “Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces”—i.e. screens everywhere—says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, “Siri, what does ‘terminal velocity’ mean?” Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: “I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.”

Alas—all too predictably—in the time it took for Palfrey’s book to reach physical form, Siri has mastered terminal velocity. Wikipedia continues to evolve, the one great holdout from the commercial Internet, refusing to charge money or sell its users’ information, crowd-sourcing the expertise of a thousand reference librarians. It is an effective online realization of the vision of a network of stewards. Still, it is not and does not aspire to be a library.

People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them. Is this merely a nostalgic dream? Palfrey is technologically savvy and looking toward the future, and the fundamental point applies: “In a digital era, spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.” The library remains a sacred place for secular folk.

The toughest question for libraries may be what to do about e-books. Libraries want them, naturally—to have them and to lend them. If e-books are off limits, Palfrey says, “the essential role for libraries of providing free access to culture to those who cannot otherwise afford it is in peril.” Then again, a library that streams e-books risks rendering its brick-and-mortar space superfluous. And a library that could lend any e-book, without restriction, en masse, would be the perfect fatal competitor to bookstores and authors hoping to sell e-books for money. Something will have to give. Palfrey suggests that Congress could create “a compulsory license system to cover digital lending through libraries,” allowing for payment of fair royalties to the authors. Many countries, including most of Europe, have public lending right programs for this purpose.

Palfrey, now head of school at Phillips Academy, is a former Harvard law professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is also founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, and BiblioTech serves in part as a brief for that project. The DPLA has been described in The New York Review by Robert Darnton; it began in reaction to Google’s project to digitize all the world’s books on its own terms, for its own use. The DPLA is meant to be a free and public online library, combining the resources of the largest university archives with collections from regional libraries and museums—as Palfrey says, “a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects the whole world—in the digital age.”

The tensions bedeviling every public library apply to the DPLA as well. It is “free to all” and open source and therefore unable so far to include copyrighted material; and it has to be careful of competing with the myriad small institutions that are aggregating its resources. On the one hand the DPLA is a website, http://dp.la. On the other hand, as Palfrey explains, it must serve broadly as a platform, encouraging librarians to use their expertise to link regional and national collections and create timely exhibitions. The balance will not be easy to find. Websites like to attract visitors, the more the better, and so digital services lean toward centralization.

Librarians will have to embrace these contradictions, and so will all of us who cherish libraries. A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly. The masters of Internet commerce—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple—sometimes talk as though they’re building a new society, where knowledge is light-speed and fungible, but a marketplace is not a society.


John Palfrey’s BiblioTech is published by Basic Books.

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President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
—The Editors

obama_1-111915.jpg

Pete Souza/White House

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the airport in Des Moines after their conversation, just before he boarded Air Force One, September 2015

The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.

Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.

It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.

The President: A source of optimism—I took my girls to see Hamilton, this new musical on Broadway, which you should see. Because this wonderful young Latino playwright produced this play, musical, about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. And it’s all in rap and hip-hop. And it’s all played by young African-American and Latino actors.

And it sounds initially like it would not work at all. And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant. We haven’t seen a collection of that much smarts and chutzpah and character in any other nation in history, I think.

But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.

And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Robinson: Exactly. I believe very much in teaching history. I spend an enormous amount of time working with primary sources and various sources and so on. And I think that a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of shorthand that’s not representative of much of anything. I think that’s too bad.

The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?

Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.

The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?

Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?

The President: We’re going through a spasm of fear. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. This is not unique to the United States. You see the emergence of the far-right parties in Europe. I think that it’s a moment of great change, and the change happens fast. And there have been periods in our history where change happened fast like this, and people just are trying to find firm footing.

When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame. And the market system globally right now does create a situation where workers—ordinary people—have less control.

When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.

What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.

Robinson: If I could strike one word out of the American vocabulary, it would be “competition.” I think that that is the most bogus thing that has been entered into our [laughter]—

The President: Now, you’re talking to a guy who likes to play basketball and has been known to be a little competitive. But go ahead. [Laughter.]

Robinson: But what we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground.

obama_2-111915.jpg

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama presenting the National Humanities Medal to Marilynne Robinson at the White House, July 2013

The President: Right. Now, the argument would be, though, that that’s the reality that people are feeling because companies can go anywhere and—

Robinson: Exactly, but when I look at these other economies we’re supposed to be competing with, they’re fragile. They’re very fragile. And we’re seeing that now. So all the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. Look at, frankly, China. China has a vile ecology around its industrial centers. It’s running out of appropriate cheap labor. And it’s going into crisis. And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that’s relatively more advantageous. So what are we competing with? We run China into the ground, is that our great mission?

The President: Well, in fact, historically, the way we “competed” was we educated our kids better. We put more money into research. We believed in science and facts, as opposed to being driven by superstition. We welcomed talent from all around the world. We put in place a social safety net so people felt that they could take risks without—

Robinson: That’s crucial.

The President:—without being utterly destitute.

Robinson: And having good bankruptcy laws. We have very liberal bankruptcy laws. But you know, we generate fantastic ideas—ideas move as fast as capital does. We can have the most brilliant population in the world, and if the best ideas that we have are sent offshore, we’re still in the same position.

The President: Right. We made progress on all these fronts. Slowly but surely. Where I completely agree with you, Marilynne, is that we have everything we need to thrive. And it is interesting watching the current political season for me because I’m not on the ballot, so although obviously I still have a huge stake in the outcome as a citizen, in addition to soon being an ex-president—and there are times where I’m listening to folks make these wild claims about how terrible America is doing, and I want to just press the pause button here for a second and remind them that by almost every economic criterion we are hugely better off than we were just seven years ago; that we have done far better than almost every advanced country, and certainly every large advanced country on earth, in terms of growing the economy, driving down unemployment, managing our budgets.

And the only thing that right now is holding us back is Washington dysfunction. We could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports. You travel—it’s embarrassing when you go to other airports in other countries. Ours used to be the nicest ones.

Robinson: They were nice first, and then all [laughter]—

The President: Yes. Now they’re a little worn down. We got to keep them up.

The same is true with our education system. It is outstanding, but we’ve got—everybody else is caught up. We got to step it up.

So one of the reasons I’m here in Iowa is to talk about two years of college education—or two years of community college education for everybody, as free as high school was before. Research—we have fallen behind in basic research that created all these amazing technological wonders upon which our economic engine ran.

And finally, making sure that people get paid enough money that they can support a family. Because all the evidence in history shows that when workers get paid a reasonable salary, then they spend it, businesses do better, the economy does better, and our political system does better. I mean, what is true is that when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.

Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.

The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.

Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.

The President: That’s a good restlessness.

Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that—

The President: I want more stuff.

Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.

The President: Right.

Robinson: I was not competing with anyone else. Nobody knew what my project was. I didn’t know what it was. But what does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.

The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.

Probably the best example for me is the teaching profession, where I can’t tell you how many kids I meet—and I used to meet them in law school when I was teaching there—who had taught for two, three, four years, they loved teaching, and they thought it was just the most important thing. And you could tell that this was their calling, and at a certain point they couldn’t afford to raise a family on it and they got discouraged, and—

Robinson: Somebody was looking over their shoulder.

The President: Somebody was looking—or they’d get some comment from a classmate who had gone on to become an investment banker, they just eventually got discouraged and you didn’t have a society that supported what they were doing, despite the fact that—talk about a complicated, magnificent art. Teaching. Being able to transmit ideas to young minds.

And so I like your definition of what America and freedom should be. But it does require all of us to have different definitions. And you have systems—or it requires a broader set of definitions than we have right now. And that’s true for businesspeople, as well. I can’t tell you how many businesspeople I meet [for whom] their joy is in organizing things to create products and services, and to help people be useful in various ways. And because they’ve got quarterly reports to shareholders and if they’ve made a long-term investment that may pay off way down the line, or if they’re paying their employees more now because they think it’s going to help them retain high-quality employees, a lot of times they feel like they’re going to get punished in the stock market. And so they don’t do it, because the definition of being a successful business is narrowed to what your quarterly earnings reports are….

So my last question to Marilynne is, when you think about your books and you think about your faith and you think about your citizenship as an American, when do you feel most optimistic? What makes you think, you know what, this experiment is going to keep going, I feel encouraged?

Robinson: Well, you know, I mean, when I do book signings, for example, and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives, if there’s time [to] do that, how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.

And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.

The President: And I’ll try to make a better argument the next time.

Robinson: Exactly.

The President: I’ll try to persuade more people the next time.

Robinson: And I think in little groups, like my department at the university or something—people get together, talk something over, take a vote, and that’s it. And it’s a little microcosm of democracy. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

The President: Yes, but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.

Robinson: Absolutely.

The President: And that’s not just what our democracy depends on, but I think that’s what a good life depends on. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.

Robinson: I believe that.

—This is the second part of a two-part conversation.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/mOxbeeLNY5Q/

What Libraries Can (Still) Do

Deutsches Historiches Museum/Arne Psille/Art Resource

Heinrich Lukas Arnold: The Reading Room, circa 1840

Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journal conference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

So is the library, storehouse and lender of books, as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

I’m an optimist. I think the pessimists and the worriers—and this includes some librarians—are taking their eyes off the ball. The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them.

In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book, BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: “Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.” As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy.

The problem of libraries now—and it is a problem—involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes—via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon’s self-publishing factories—libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. “That model is already too hard to keep up,” Palfrey says. “A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.”

The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation’s digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year’s channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What’s an archivist to do?

There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. “Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces”—i.e. screens everywhere—says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, “Siri, what does ‘terminal velocity’ mean?” Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: “I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.”

Alas—all too predictably—in the time it took for Palfrey’s book to reach physical form, Siri has mastered terminal velocity. Wikipedia continues to evolve, the one great holdout from the commercial Internet, refusing to charge money or sell its users’ information, crowd-sourcing the expertise of a thousand reference librarians. It is an effective online realization of the vision of a network of stewards. Still, it is not and does not aspire to be a library.

People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them. Is this merely a nostalgic dream? Palfrey is technologically savvy and looking toward the future, and the fundamental point applies: “In a digital era, spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.” The library remains a sacred place for secular folk.

The toughest question for libraries may be what to do about e-books. Libraries want them, naturally—to have them and to lend them. If e-books are off limits, Palfrey says, “the essential role for libraries of providing free access to culture to those who cannot otherwise afford it is in peril.” Then again, a library that streams e-books risks rendering its brick-and-mortar space superfluous. And a library that could lend any e-book, without restriction, en masse, would be the perfect fatal competitor to bookstores and authors hoping to sell e-books for money. Something will have to give. Palfrey suggests that Congress could create “a compulsory license system to cover digital lending through libraries,” allowing for payment of fair royalties to the authors. Many countries, including most of Europe, have public lending right programs for this purpose.

Palfrey, now head of school at Phillips Academy, is a former Harvard law professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is also founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, and BiblioTech serves in part as a brief for that project. The DPLA has been described in The New York Review by Robert Darnton; it began in reaction to Google’s project to digitize all the world’s books on its own terms, for its own use. The DPLA is meant to be a free and public online library, combining the resources of the largest university archives with collections from regional libraries and museums—as Palfrey says, “a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects the whole world—in the digital age.”

The tensions bedeviling every public library apply to the DPLA as well. It is “free to all” and open source and therefore unable so far to include copyrighted material; and it has to be careful of competing with the myriad small institutions that are aggregating its resources. On the one hand the DPLA is a website, http://dp.la. On the other hand, as Palfrey explains, it must serve broadly as a platform, encouraging librarians to use their expertise to link regional and national collections and create timely exhibitions. The balance will not be easy to find. Websites like to attract visitors, the more the better, and so digital services lean toward centralization.

Librarians will have to embrace these contradictions, and so will all of us who cherish libraries. A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly. The masters of Internet commerce—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple—sometimes talk as though they’re building a new society, where knowledge is light-speed and fungible, but a marketplace is not a society.


John Palfrey’s BiblioTech is published by Basic Books.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/QqHzUcwR5Gw/

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
—The Editors

obama_1-111915.jpg

Pete Souza/White House

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the airport in Des Moines after their conversation, just before he boarded Air Force One, September 2015

The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.

Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.

It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.

The President: A source of optimism—I took my girls to see Hamilton, this new musical on Broadway, which you should see. Because this wonderful young Latino playwright produced this play, musical, about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. And it’s all in rap and hip-hop. And it’s all played by young African-American and Latino actors.

And it sounds initially like it would not work at all. And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant. We haven’t seen a collection of that much smarts and chutzpah and character in any other nation in history, I think.

But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.

And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Robinson: Exactly. I believe very much in teaching history. I spend an enormous amount of time working with primary sources and various sources and so on. And I think that a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of shorthand that’s not representative of much of anything. I think that’s too bad.

The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?

Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.

The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?

Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?

The President: We’re going through a spasm of fear. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. This is not unique to the United States. You see the emergence of the far-right parties in Europe. I think that it’s a moment of great change, and the change happens fast. And there have been periods in our history where change happened fast like this, and people just are trying to find firm footing.

When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame. And the market system globally right now does create a situation where workers—ordinary people—have less control.

When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.

What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.

Robinson: If I could strike one word out of the American vocabulary, it would be “competition.” I think that that is the most bogus thing that has been entered into our [laughter]—

The President: Now, you’re talking to a guy who likes to play basketball and has been known to be a little competitive. But go ahead. [Laughter.]

Robinson: But what we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground.

obama_2-111915.jpg

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama presenting the National Humanities Medal to Marilynne Robinson at the White House, July 2013

The President: Right. Now, the argument would be, though, that that’s the reality that people are feeling because companies can go anywhere and—

Robinson: Exactly, but when I look at these other economies we’re supposed to be competing with, they’re fragile. They’re very fragile. And we’re seeing that now. So all the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. Look at, frankly, China. China has a vile ecology around its industrial centers. It’s running out of appropriate cheap labor. And it’s going into crisis. And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that’s relatively more advantageous. So what are we competing with? We run China into the ground, is that our great mission?

The President: Well, in fact, historically, the way we “competed” was we educated our kids better. We put more money into research. We believed in science and facts, as opposed to being driven by superstition. We welcomed talent from all around the world. We put in place a social safety net so people felt that they could take risks without—

Robinson: That’s crucial.

The President:—without being utterly destitute.

Robinson: And having good bankruptcy laws. We have very liberal bankruptcy laws. But you know, we generate fantastic ideas—ideas move as fast as capital does. We can have the most brilliant population in the world, and if the best ideas that we have are sent offshore, we’re still in the same position.

The President: Right. We made progress on all these fronts. Slowly but surely. Where I completely agree with you, Marilynne, is that we have everything we need to thrive. And it is interesting watching the current political season for me because I’m not on the ballot, so although obviously I still have a huge stake in the outcome as a citizen, in addition to soon being an ex-president—and there are times where I’m listening to folks make these wild claims about how terrible America is doing, and I want to just press the pause button here for a second and remind them that by almost every economic criterion we are hugely better off than we were just seven years ago; that we have done far better than almost every advanced country, and certainly every large advanced country on earth, in terms of growing the economy, driving down unemployment, managing our budgets.

And the only thing that right now is holding us back is Washington dysfunction. We could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports. You travel—it’s embarrassing when you go to other airports in other countries. Ours used to be the nicest ones.

Robinson: They were nice first, and then all [laughter]—

The President: Yes. Now they’re a little worn down. We got to keep them up.

The same is true with our education system. It is outstanding, but we’ve got—everybody else is caught up. We got to step it up.

So one of the reasons I’m here in Iowa is to talk about two years of college education—or two years of community college education for everybody, as free as high school was before. Research—we have fallen behind in basic research that created all these amazing technological wonders upon which our economic engine ran.

And finally, making sure that people get paid enough money that they can support a family. Because all the evidence in history shows that when workers get paid a reasonable salary, then they spend it, businesses do better, the economy does better, and our political system does better. I mean, what is true is that when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.

Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.

The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.

Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.

The President: That’s a good restlessness.

Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that—

The President: I want more stuff.

Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.

The President: Right.

Robinson: I was not competing with anyone else. Nobody knew what my project was. I didn’t know what it was. But what does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.

The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.

Probably the best example for me is the teaching profession, where I can’t tell you how many kids I meet—and I used to meet them in law school when I was teaching there—who had taught for two, three, four years, they loved teaching, and they thought it was just the most important thing. And you could tell that this was their calling, and at a certain point they couldn’t afford to raise a family on it and they got discouraged, and—

Robinson: Somebody was looking over their shoulder.

The President: Somebody was looking—or they’d get some comment from a classmate who had gone on to become an investment banker, they just eventually got discouraged and you didn’t have a society that supported what they were doing, despite the fact that—talk about a complicated, magnificent art. Teaching. Being able to transmit ideas to young minds.

And so I like your definition of what America and freedom should be. But it does require all of us to have different definitions. And you have systems—or it requires a broader set of definitions than we have right now. And that’s true for businesspeople, as well. I can’t tell you how many businesspeople I meet [for whom] their joy is in organizing things to create products and services, and to help people be useful in various ways. And because they’ve got quarterly reports to shareholders and if they’ve made a long-term investment that may pay off way down the line, or if they’re paying their employees more now because they think it’s going to help them retain high-quality employees, a lot of times they feel like they’re going to get punished in the stock market. And so they don’t do it, because the definition of being a successful business is narrowed to what your quarterly earnings reports are….

So my last question to Marilynne is, when you think about your books and you think about your faith and you think about your citizenship as an American, when do you feel most optimistic? What makes you think, you know what, this experiment is going to keep going, I feel encouraged?

Robinson: Well, you know, I mean, when I do book signings, for example, and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives, if there’s time [to] do that, how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.

And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.

The President: And I’ll try to make a better argument the next time.

Robinson: Exactly.

The President: I’ll try to persuade more people the next time.

Robinson: And I think in little groups, like my department at the university or something—people get together, talk something over, take a vote, and that’s it. And it’s a little microcosm of democracy. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

The President: Yes, but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.

Robinson: Absolutely.

The President: And that’s not just what our democracy depends on, but I think that’s what a good life depends on. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.

Robinson: I believe that.

—This is the second part of a two-part conversation.

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/mOxbeeLNY5Q/

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
—The Editors

obama_1-111915.jpg

Pete Souza/White House

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the airport in Des Moines after their conversation, just before he boarded Air Force One, September 2015

The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.

Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.

It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.

The President: A source of optimism—I took my girls to see Hamilton, this new musical on Broadway, which you should see. Because this wonderful young Latino playwright produced this play, musical, about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. And it’s all in rap and hip-hop. And it’s all played by young African-American and Latino actors.

And it sounds initially like it would not work at all. And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant. We haven’t seen a collection of that much smarts and chutzpah and character in any other nation in history, I think.

But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.

And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Robinson: Exactly. I believe very much in teaching history. I spend an enormous amount of time working with primary sources and various sources and so on. And I think that a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of shorthand that’s not representative of much of anything. I think that’s too bad.

The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?

Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.

The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?

Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?

The President: We’re going through a spasm of fear. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. This is not unique to the United States. You see the emergence of the far-right parties in Europe. I think that it’s a moment of great change, and the change happens fast. And there have been periods in our history where change happened fast like this, and people just are trying to find firm footing.

When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame. And the market system globally right now does create a situation where workers—ordinary people—have less control.

When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.

What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.

Robinson: If I could strike one word out of the American vocabulary, it would be “competition.” I think that that is the most bogus thing that has been entered into our [laughter]—

The President: Now, you’re talking to a guy who likes to play basketball and has been known to be a little competitive. But go ahead. [Laughter.]

Robinson: But what we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground.

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama presenting the National Humanities Medal to Marilynne Robinson at the White House, July 2013

The President: Right. Now, the argument would be, though, that that’s the reality that people are feeling because companies can go anywhere and—

Robinson: Exactly, but when I look at these other economies we’re supposed to be competing with, they’re fragile. They’re very fragile. And we’re seeing that now. So all the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. Look at, frankly, China. China has a vile ecology around its industrial centers. It’s running out of appropriate cheap labor. And it’s going into crisis. And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that’s relatively more advantageous. So what are we competing with? We run China into the ground, is that our great mission?

The President: Well, in fact, historically, the way we “competed” was we educated our kids better. We put more money into research. We believed in science and facts, as opposed to being driven by superstition. We welcomed talent from all around the world. We put in place a social safety net so people felt that they could take risks without—

Robinson: That’s crucial.

The President:—without being utterly destitute.

Robinson: And having good bankruptcy laws. We have very liberal bankruptcy laws. But you know, we generate fantastic ideas—ideas move as fast as capital does. We can have the most brilliant population in the world, and if the best ideas that we have are sent offshore, we’re still in the same position.

The President: Right. We made progress on all these fronts. Slowly but surely. Where I completely agree with you, Marilynne, is that we have everything we need to thrive. And it is interesting watching the current political season for me because I’m not on the ballot, so although obviously I still have a huge stake in the outcome as a citizen, in addition to soon being an ex-president—and there are times where I’m listening to folks make these wild claims about how terrible America is doing, and I want to just press the pause button here for a second and remind them that by almost every economic criterion we are hugely better off than we were just seven years ago; that we have done far better than almost every advanced country, and certainly every large advanced country on earth, in terms of growing the economy, driving down unemployment, managing our budgets.

And the only thing that right now is holding us back is Washington dysfunction. We could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports. You travel—it’s embarrassing when you go to other airports in other countries. Ours used to be the nicest ones.

Robinson: They were nice first, and then all [laughter]—

The President: Yes. Now they’re a little worn down. We got to keep them up.

The same is true with our education system. It is outstanding, but we’ve got—everybody else is caught up. We got to step it up.

So one of the reasons I’m here in Iowa is to talk about two years of college education—or two years of community college education for everybody, as free as high school was before. Research—we have fallen behind in basic research that created all these amazing technological wonders upon which our economic engine ran.

And finally, making sure that people get paid enough money that they can support a family. Because all the evidence in history shows that when workers get paid a reasonable salary, then they spend it, businesses do better, the economy does better, and our political system does better. I mean, what is true is that when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.

Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.

The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.

Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.

The President: That’s a good restlessness.

Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that—

The President: I want more stuff.

Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.

The President: Right.

Robinson: I was not competing with anyone else. Nobody knew what my project was. I didn’t know what it was. But what does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.

The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.

Probably the best example for me is the teaching profession, where I can’t tell you how many kids I meet—and I used to meet them in law school when I was teaching there—who had taught for two, three, four years, they loved teaching, and they thought it was just the most important thing. And you could tell that this was their calling, and at a certain point they couldn’t afford to raise a family on it and they got discouraged, and—

Robinson: Somebody was looking over their shoulder.

The President: Somebody was looking—or they’d get some comment from a classmate who had gone on to become an investment banker, they just eventually got discouraged and you didn’t have a society that supported what they were doing, despite the fact that—talk about a complicated, magnificent art. Teaching. Being able to transmit ideas to young minds.

And so I like your definition of what America and freedom should be. But it does require all of us to have different definitions. And you have systems—or it requires a broader set of definitions than we have right now. And that’s true for businesspeople, as well. I can’t tell you how many businesspeople I meet [for whom] their joy is in organizing things to create products and services, and to help people be useful in various ways. And because they’ve got quarterly reports to shareholders and if they’ve made a long-term investment that may pay off way down the line, or if they’re paying their employees more now because they think it’s going to help them retain high-quality employees, a lot of times they feel like they’re going to get punished in the stock market. And so they don’t do it, because the definition of being a successful business is narrowed to what your quarterly earnings reports are….

So my last question to Marilynne is, when you think about your books and you think about your faith and you think about your citizenship as an American, when do you feel most optimistic? What makes you think, you know what, this experiment is going to keep going, I feel encouraged?

Robinson: Well, you know, I mean, when I do book signings, for example, and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives, if there’s time [to] do that, how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.

And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.

The President: And I’ll try to make a better argument the next time.

Robinson: Exactly.

The President: I’ll try to persuade more people the next time.

Robinson: And I think in little groups, like my department at the university or something—people get together, talk something over, take a vote, and that’s it. And it’s a little microcosm of democracy. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

The President: Yes, but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.

Robinson: Absolutely.

The President: And that’s not just what our democracy depends on, but I think that’s what a good life depends on. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.

Robinson: I believe that.

—This is the second part of a two-part conversation.

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Crackpot Gothic

Courtesy Metro Pictures, New York, and Simon Lee Gallery, London/Photo: Lotte Stekelenburg

Jim Shaw: The Jefferson Memorial, 2013

The term “outsider art” was coined in 1972 by the British art historian Roger Cardinal as a way to categorize work that might otherwise be described as naïve, fanatical, eccentric, autistic, or insane. The Los Angeles artist Jim Shaw is a connoisseur and collector of such things—he’s an esoteric populist who doesn’t only make art but, since he began exhibiting found “thrift store paintings” in 1991, has created his own tradition, an American vernacular surrealism that might be termed “crackpot gothic.”

“The End is Here,” which is the sixty-three-year-old artist’s first American retrospective, occupies three floors at the New Museum. The first floor is mainly devoted to Shaw’s paintings and drawings, which range from crude psychedelic mandalas and parodies of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to fastidious sketches of imaginary insects and distorted portraits of celebrities like Clint Eastwood.

The third floor features larger works—including muslin banners that, among other things, use the 1950s comic book character Plastic Man to suggest Picasso’s “Guernica,” and large free-standing pieces, full of discordant cartoon creatures and political caricatures, including a ski-nosed Richard Nixon, that have been fashioned from old wooden theatrical flats. As if to showcase the source of Shaw’s inspiration, and maybe aspiration, the middle floor shows samples from his extensive collection of anonymous, amateur paintings—many of which he found in thrift stores—as well as magazines devoted to UFOs and the Kennedy assassination, and all manner of millennial religious cult paraphernalia (pamphlets, handbills, and LP covers).

“The Hidden World,” as Shaw calls this collection, recently filled three floors of an appropriately dingy abandoned schoolhouse on rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris, where Shaw is greatly admired, perhaps for his exoticism. In addition to found objects, “The Hidden World” as installed at the New Museum incorporates some fetish objects Shaw fashioned for his own invented religion, O-ism, which, he claims, originated, like Mormonism, in mid-nineteenth century upstate New York. Its beliefs, according to Shaw, include “the notion of a female deity, of time going backwards, of spiritual transience, and a prohibition on figurative art”—although this prohibition, to judge from a video, does not extend to dancing chorines.

Shaw is often associated with the late Mike Kelley. Both men grew up in suburban Michigan, attended Cal Arts, and together with several other artists formed a post-punk noise band, Destroy All Monsters. Both were drawn to junk material, outlandish pop culture mash-ups and the geeky detritus of their 1960s adolescence. Kelley worked in many mediums, including video, performance, and installation, with a sprawling oeuvre that leaked autobiography; Shaw has a narrower focus and, at least as presented by the New Museum, which emphasizes his graphic works, is more oriented toward the production of art objects. Both artists cultivated punk attitudes, but where Kelley tended toward a bilious black humor, Shaw is more prankish.

Like the surrealist Max Ernst, Shaw eschews a single signature style in favor of an elaborate, somewhat hermetic personal mythology. (What prompted the artist to make a drawing based on ten grimacing images of the 1940s big band leader Kay Kyser?) While skewing outré, Shaw is essentially a collagist, as was Ernst, and his eclectic influences include not just DC comic books (a frequent subject) treated as mass-produced illuminated manuscripts and underground comix, but Salvador Dalí, Peter Saul, and Otto Dix, as well as Bruegel, Fra Angelico and the illustrations found in medical textbooks. Shaw’s affinities with surrealism are most apparent in his “Dream Objects,” many of which are covers for non-existent paperback books, as well as the baroquely sexual, often hilarious “Dream Drawings” that purport to document his nocturnal adventures.

Shaw can be nerdishly Talmudic—a comic strip account of Genesis with Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as Adam and Eve, drawn in the style of Mad magazine artist Mort Drucker—and, as demonstrated by a photorealist portrait posing as a cover from the fan magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland he is an excellent draughtsman. Some of the juxtapositions in his works are relatively simple—an editorial cartoon H-bomb merged with a vacuum cleaner or a little movie that combines the abstract eye of the old CBS logo with some trippy raga pop.

Others are more complex: The Seven Deadly Sins, a large triptych from 2013, appropriates a dozen or more icons (John Steuart Curry’s mad prophet John Brown, Delacroix’s revolutionary Liberty, David’s martyred Marat, Ad Reinhardt’s art comics, Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving dinner, the student screaming in response to the Kent State massacre) floating like decorative splotches of graffiti against the backdrop of a colonial house complete with white picket fence. Almost like Teflon, the banal backdrop and the incongruously pastel palette repel and minimize the grim imagery and cloud the artist’s apparent critique—if it is a critique.

Shaw’s show may be titled “The End is Here” but he appears to share our national optimism. Although his obsessive faux naïve work dares you to find it creepy, it is more often strangely cheerful, as well as enigmatic. How nice to see a swarm of gnat-sized Superman clones in pink capes fly through a giant keyhole. How comforting the image of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar, dressed in ill-fitting superhero garb and shackled to a golden nest egg, crawling across a suburban sky—perhaps the god of life insurance.

The New Museum

The third floor of “The End is Here” at The New Museum

About twenty-five years ago, the Museum of Modern Art put up a much-maligned show on modernism and popular culture called “High and Low.” “The End is Here” could have been called “Low and Lower”—the dense squiggle of the small intestine is a favorite Shaw motif. Greil Marcus found “the old, weird America” in the eerie country songs, blues, and balladry collected in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music; Shaw discovered his newer version in musty piles of second-hand magazines, televangelist sermonizing, and Salvation Army thrift stores. The inventiveness of the outsider effusions in Shaw’s collection of found paintings—the muscular Tinkerbell striking a pose in outer space, the Last Supper relocated to a fast food emporium, the still-life portraying a roll of purple toilet paper, the visualization of “night golfing” in Zimbabwe—stimulate Shaw’s own sophisticated and fanciful inside-out art.

The crazy thing is, as you work your way through this dense and mysterious show, the primitive self-expression that abounds in Shaw’s assemblage of amateur paintings and lunatic propaganda on the middle floor actually appears more tasteful and less challenging than the artist’s own work—almost as though these bizarre objects, examples of what Roger Cardinal called “an alternative mode of art,” were the academy against which Shaw established his own avant-garde.

Shaw may draw inspiration from the occult, the paranoid, the wacky, and the freakish, but his own work is unaccountably sunny, air-filled, uplifting and buoyant. His motto, taken from Keats, could be, “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.”


The End is Here” is on view at the New Museum through January 10, 2016.

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In the Syrian Deadlands

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Karam al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian man carrying his daughters across rubble after a barrel bomb attack on the rebel-held neighborhood of Kalasa in Aleppo, September 2015

Folk memories endure, mothers’ and grandmothers’ sagas trumping documents in neglected archives. What will Syria’s youth, when they are old, tell their children? All will have stories of cowering in their flimsy houses while bombs fell, of the deadening existence of refugee camps, or of escapes through treacherous seas and perilous highways to uncertain lives in strange lands. My maternal grandmother left Mount Lebanon, then part of Syria, as a child in the late nineteenth century during a confrontation between the Christians of her village and their Ottoman rulers. Although her father was killed a few months before she was born, she told me many times how he faced Turkish troops on horseback as if she had witnessed it. I don’t know what really happened; but her stories, including of a river that was so cold it could crack a watermelon in two, remain undeniable truths to her descendants.

Syrians today are enduring a brutal, unending ordeal that reenacts the drama of their ancestors during a prior war exactly one century ago that their families, novelists, and poets preserved for them. What we know as World War I was to Syrians Seferberlik, from the Arabic for “travel across the land,” when military conscription, forced labor battalions, machine-age weaponry, arbitrary punishment, pestilence, and famine undid in four years all that the Ottomans had achieved over the previous four centuries. The Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari saw that period as

four miserable years of tyranny symbolized by the military dictatorship of Ahmad Cemal [or Jemal] Pasha in Syria, seferberlik (forced conscription and exile), and the collective hanging of Arab patriots in Beirut’s Burj Square on August 15, 1916.

Turkey’s institutionalized sadism added to the woes of Syrians, who grew hungrier each year because of the Anglo-French blockade that kept out, as American and European Union sanctions do today, many of the basic staples needed for survival.

No part of what was then called Syria, which included today’s Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, avoided the cataclysm. An economics professor at Beirut’s Syrian Protestant College wrote, “You never saw a starving person, did you? May the Almighty preserve you from this sight!!!” Rafael de Nogales, a freebooting Venezuelan officer in the Ottoman army, recorded that

Aleppo kept on filling up with mendicant and pest-stricken deportees who died in the streets by the hundreds, and infected the rest of the population to such an extent that on some days the funeral carts were insufficient to carry the dead to the cemeteries.

The locust infestation of 1915 and hoarding by Beirut’s grain merchants aggravated a famine so severe that there were many tales of cannibalism. Hana Mina, a Syrian novelist born just after the war, wrote in his novel Fragments of Memory, “During the Safar Barrlik, mothers…became like cats and ate their children.” A half-million out of four million inhabitants in Greater Syria perished from starvation, disease, and violence.

The four and a half years since March 2011 are recreating the suffering of a century ago: malnutrition, starvation, epidemics, the exodus of most of the population to other parts of Syria or to foreign lands, the brutality of the combatants, the traumatization of children, and Great Power preference for victory over the inhabitants’ well-being. An anonymous Syrian poet, in words his twenty-first-century countrymen might echo, wrote:

The Drums of War are beating their sad rhythm

And the living people, wrapped in their shroud

Believing the war will not last a year….

Dear God, may this fifth year be the end of it.

That fifth year, 1918, was the end of it, but this century’s war is heading toward its sixth year with no prospect of a conclusion. Thousands of Russian military advisers are joining the fight on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad, as Iran and its Lebanese surrogate, Hezbollah, have from the beginning. The United States and its regional allies are increasing the flow of arms to the rebels. What was true in 2011 holds today: neither side has the power to defeat the other.

Returning to Damascus last month after a year’s absence, I discovered new dynamics. Last year, the regime seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The rebels had evacuated Homs, the first city they conquered. Jihadists had withdrawn from the Armenian village of Kessab near the Turkish border in the northwest, and Assad’s army was encroaching into the rebel-held Damascus suburbs. The rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) was causing the foreign supporters of the rebellion to recalibrate and consider making Assad an ally against the fanatics who threatened to export the war to the West itself. Popular complaints focused on electricity shortages, loss of wages, the hazards of sporadic rebel shelling, and the hardships of daily survival.

A year later, all has changed. The regime is in retreat. It lost Idlib province in the north. Jihadi forces backed by Turkey have surrounded the vital commercial entrepôt and cosmopolitan center of Aleppo. The jewel of the desert, the ancient Roman and Arab city of Palmyra, is in the hands of ISIS militants who tortured and beheaded an eighty-two-year-old antiquities scholar and are destroying one ancient monument after another. Young men are emigrating to avoid being drafted to fight for any side in what seems like an eternal and inconclusive war.

The few who remain are sons without brothers, who cannot be conscripted under Syrian law, which recognizes that the loss of an only son means the end of the family. As in World War I, this has led to a surfeit of women supporting their families by any means necessary. Inflation is around 40 percent. Estimates of territory held by regime opponents run from the United Nations’ 65 percent to the Jane’s report of 83 percent, while the UN estimates that anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of the population still within the country now live in areas held by the government. Migration from rebel-held areas into the capital has, as measured by the company that collects city waste, multiplied Damascus’s population five times, from about two million before the war to ten million today. Elizabeth Hoff, director of the World Health Organization in Syria, said, “Nine out of ten people in Damascus hospitals are not from Damascus. They come from Raqqa and elsewhere.” Raqqa is now held by ISIS.

Supporters of the original uprising of 2011 imagined a quick victory over the dictator along the lines of what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. A Syrian friend of mine, now living in exile, told me that the American ambassador, Robert Ford, just before he withdrew from Damascus in October 2011, tried to recruit him to take part in a government that he promised would shortly replace Assad’s. When the French ambassador to Syria, Eric Chevallier, left Damascus on March 6, 2012, barely one year into the war, he told friends that he would be back when a post-Assad government was installed “in two months.”

Since then, with Assad still in power, the death toll has climbed to at least 320,000. Out of a total population of 22 million before the war, more than four million Syrians have fled the country, and another 7.6 million are displaced within it. With Syria’s neighbors overwhelmed, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are now trying to seek refuge in Europe, causing one of the greatest challenges to the EU in its history. The government-in-waiting that Ford and other Western diplomats had hoped to install in Damascus has collapsed amid internal squabbling and a lack of committed fighters.

The only forces fighting with success against the Assad regime are Sunni Muslim holy warriors who are destroying all that was best in Syria: its mosaic of different sects and ethnic communities—including Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Yazidis, and Kurds, along with Alawites and Sunni Arabs—its heritage of ancient monuments, its ancient manuscripts and Sumerian tablets, its industrial and social infrastructure, and its tolerance of different social customs. “The worst thing is not the violence,” the Armenian Orthodox primate of Syria, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, told me. “It is this new hatred.”

In a war that is now in its fifth year and has left little of pre-war Syrian society intact, everyone seems to be asking, in one form or another, how did we get here and where are we going? What is the reason for the savagery from all sides in what has become an apocalyptic struggle for dominance and survival? Why, back in 2011, did the regime shoot at demonstrators who were not shooting at the government, and why did the uprising come to depend on a contest by weapons, in which the regime would hold the upper hand?

The United States encouraged the opposition from the beginning. The Guardian reported on October 24, 2011:

The US vice-president, Joe Biden, last week triggered speculation by saying that the military model used in Libya—US air power in support of rebels on the ground backed by French and British special forces—could be used elsewhere.

It did not happen, although the CIA trained rebels in Jordan and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar provided arms, and Turkey opened its borders to jihadis from around the world to wreak havoc in Syria. However, Western predictions of the regime’s quick demise were soon shown to be false.

A consensus among the US, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel held that Assad’s strategic alliance with Iran was detrimental to all of their interests. These powers perceived an expansionist Iran using to its advantage indigenous Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon along with the Alawite minority in Syria, which has long been allied with the Shiites. They sought to eclipse the “Shiite Crescent” on the battlefields of Syria. Rather than eliminate Iranian influence in Syria, however, they have multiplied it. The Syrian military, once an independent secular force that looked to Iran and Hezbollah for men and weapons, now relies on Iran to determine strategy in a war of survival that, if the regime wins, will leave the Iranians in a stronger position than they were before the war.

Major military decisions come from the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the astute commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force, rather than from Syria’s discredited officer class. In Aleppo, residents speak of an Iranian officer called Jawal commanding Shiite militia forces from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon against the Sunni jihadists who have the city almost surrounded.

“Most people feel we are under Iranian occupation,” a Sunni businessman tells me, expressing a widespread perception in government-held areas. A Sunni shopkeeper in Damascus’s old city pointed to some bearded militiamen at a checkpoint near his front door and complained that Shiites from outside Syria were taking over his neighborhood. This disquiet is not restricted to the Sunnis. “I’m thinking of leaving,” a friend in Damascus told me. “I’m Alawite, and I’m secular, but I don’t like this Islamicization that came with Hezbollah.”

Syria-MAP-Glass-102215

Mike King

The growth of Iranian influence on the Syrian government pits two theocratic ideologies, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s wali al faqih, or “rule of (Islamic) jurists,” versus the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi fundamentalism of ISIS as well as the Turkish-backed, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra. This has led many Syrians who don’t subscribe to Sunni or Shiite fundamentalist ideology to welcome Russian military engagement. In recent weeks, Russia has pledged to continue military support for Assad’s forces. Many Syrians welcome this less to confront ISIS and its like-minded jihadi rivals than to offset the Iranians and their clients from Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazaras.

The West and its local allies are suffering the unintended consequences of their policies, as the Ottomans did when they declared war on the Allies in 1914. Turkey’s goals then were to take Egypt back from the British and expand its empire into the Turkish-speaking Muslim lands of the Russian Empire. To say that the Young Turk triumvirate guiding Sultan Mehmed V’s policies miscalculated is a historic understatement: rather than achieve either objective, they lost all of their empire outside Anatolia, disgraced themselves for all time by their genocide of the Armenian population, and suffered the indignity of Allied occupation of their capital, Istanbul.

Sultan Mehmed V proclaimed a jihad against the British that most Muslims ignored, just as calls for jihad since 2011 against the Alawite usurper, Bashar al-Assad, failed to rouse the Sunni masses of Syria’s main population centers, Damascus and Aleppo. Assad made his own error from the day when he allowed his security services to fire on unarmed demonstrators in the belief that, as in the past, fear would send them home. They did not go home. They went to war.

Elia Samman, a member of the recently legalized wing of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP) that seeks to unite all the states of Greater Syria, participated in the early demonstrations against the regime in 2011. Within a month of the first rallies in the southern desert town of Dera’a, he detected a significant change: “On 18 April, at the demonstrations in Homs, the biggest banner said, ‘No to Iran. No to Hezbollah. We need a Muslim leader who feels God.’”

“A Muslim leader who feels God” was code for a Sunni Muslim to replace Assad as leader of Syria, in which 70 percent of the population are Sunni. At the time, Iran and Hezbollah did not concern most dissidents, who regarded Assad’s alliances with the two Shiite powers as less important than their demands for genuine elections, multiparty democracy, a free press, an independent judiciary, and the end of elite corruption that was crippling the economy. Samman recalled:

A couple of months later, we observed weapons [being distributed] under the guise of “protecting the demonstrators.” When the violence became predominant, we told our members not to participate.

Within the year, the government’s use of force and the rise of armed groups in the opposition made public protest both impossible and irrelevant. Jihadists took over the rhetoric of the opposition, and democrats had no place on either side of the barricades. The population of Syria hemorrhaged to the four corners of the world.

Europe’s leaders, who had resisted wave after wave of Syrian refugees until a drowned Syrian Kurdish child’s photograph embarrassed them into action in early September, are again speaking of a diplomatic solution that requires the agreement of the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. There has been much shuttling by Syrian oppositionists, Syrian intelligence chiefs, Russian and American diplomats, and Saudi princes. What is happening recalls the so-called “peace process” that has failed to break the Israeli–Palestinian impasse for the past twenty years. A senior Syrian official, who asked me not to publish his name, said, “We are at the threshold of a joint American–Russian effort with the UN to get the Syrian government and opposition into a collective effort against terrorism.”

This is optimistic fantasy, given that the US will not coordinate any of its policies with the Assad regime in order to defeat ISIS. Moreover, neither the US nor Russia has budged from its initial position about Bashar al-Assad. The Russians insist he must stay, and the Americans demand that he go. Although they speak about negotiations, which ISIS gains in Syria and Iraq have made more urgent, they are not negotiating. Instead, they support the combatants’ efforts to kill one another and turn more Syrians into refugees. A prominent Syrian oppositionist in exile told me that he explained to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that, for the opposition to fight against “terrorism” along with the Syrian army, “you would have to restructure the army.” When I said that Assad would refuse to restructure the army, the oppositionist conceded, “Okay. That’s why the war would never end.”

Turkey, which probably has the most local influence in Syria, is using its professed war against ISIS as a smokescreen to attack Kurds, the most effective fighters to date against ISIS in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey itself. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has suddenly thrown his hand in with Assad against the same sort of fundamentalists he overthrew and is imprisoning at home. He and Assad now share what Assad called “a joint vision” on security issues. The Syria war is a free-for-all in which everyone pursues his own interests to the detriment of the Syrians themselves.

At the end of Seferberlik in 1918, Britain and France occupied Syria and partitioned it into the statelets that have failed their populations ever since. No one knows where this war is leading or what today’s children will pass on to the next generation. During the conflict of a century ago, the exiled poet Khalil Gibran watched from Boston, and wrote in “Dead Are My People”:

My people and your people, my Syrian

Brother, are dead…. What can be

Done for those who are dying? Our

Lamentations will not satisfy their

Hunger, and our tears will not quench

Their thirst; what can we do to save

Them from between the iron paws of

Hunger?

The United Nations’ latest “Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic” paints a depressing portrait of the population’s unimaginable torment at the hands of government and opposition forces alike. The regime drops barrel bombs in Aleppo, and the rebels respond with gas cannisters of explosives and shrapnel. ISIS rapes and brutalizes Yazidi women whom it has declared slaves to be bought and sold. The regime’s security services practice torture on an industrial scale. Both sides besiege villages, and both sides commit massacres. The UN report’s forty-four pages of horrific war crimes should be sufficient for the outside powers to budge and call a halt to this war. What are they waiting for?

—September 24, 2015


glass_2-102215.jpg

Magnum Photos

Saria Zilan, an eighteen-year-old Kurdish soldier in the Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, Serikani, Rojava, Syria, 2015; photograph by Newsha Tavakolian.

‘It’s been one year and four months since I joined YPJ,’ Zilan told Tavakolian. ‘When I saw [a woman I knew] on TV after ISIS beheaded her, I went to her burial ceremony the next day in Amuda. I saw [her] mother sobbing madly. Right there I swore to myself to avenge her death. I joined YPJ the day after.

‘In the past, women had various roles in the society, but all those roles were taken from them. We are here now to take back the role of women in society. I grew up in a country where I was not allowed to speak my mother tongue of Kurdish. I was not allowed to have a Kurdish name. If you were a pro-Kurdish activist, they’d arrest you and put you in jail. But since the Rojava revolution, we have been getting back our rights.
‘We were not allowed to speak our language before, and now ISIS wants to wipe us off completely from the earth. I fought ISIS in Serikani. I captured one of them and wanted to kill him, but my comrades did not let me do so. He kept staring at the ground and would not look at me, because he said it was forbidden by his religion to look at a woman.

‘I have changed a lot. My way of thinking about the world has changed since I joined YPJ. Maybe some people wonder why we’re doing this. But when they get to know us better, they will understand why.’

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A Charmer in the Trenches

The Shepard Trust/Punch Ltd.

E.H. Shepard, 1917; the caption reads, “The Newcomer. ‘My village, I think.’ The One in Possession. ‘Sorry, old thing. I took it half an hour ago’” (click to enlarge)

I had lazily pigeonholed E.H. Shepard as the genius who drew Winnie-the-Pooh, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo, his images as enduring as A.A. Milne’s text, and who also gave us the unforgettable Ratty and Mole and Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Here he draws with deft pencil strokes and minimal background, and a cartoonist’s eye for short-hand shape; silhouettes of these figures would be instantly recognizable. But the genius lies in his evocation of movement: Pooh’s rotund clumsiness, Eeyore’s saggy body and roping head, Tigger’s unstoppable bounce, Kanga’s panic as baby Roo disappears. This is the Shepard we know best.

Yet in an intriguing exhibition at the House of Illustration, the brilliant new public gallery behind King’s Cross station in London—the first place in England to give real space to this underrated art—Shepard’s work does not show Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood, or Ratty’s slow-flowing Thames. Instead he is sketching amid the mud and gunfire of the World War I trenches—“that dreadful countryside,” as Shepard called it, made vividly immediate in his depiction of shells exploding like puffs of cotton wool against grey mist and broken trees.

But how do these worlds fit together, that of the tender illustrator of children’s books, and the officer with his sketchbook in the trenches?

Imperial War Museums/The Shepard Trust/Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

E.H. Shepard: Gun in Action, September 1917

Ernest Howard Shepard was already drawing with passion as a child, fascinated by two subjects, soldiers and the theater—both of which would mingle, oddly, in his wartime work. Born in 1879, he grew up in a privileged, artistic London household: his father was an architect and his mother Jessie, who died when he was ten, was the daughter of a well known watercolorist, William Lee. At sixteen, when Shepard was studying at Heatherley’s Art School—and gained the lifetime nickname “Kipper”—he won a five-year studentship at the Royal Academy School. Here he met his wife, another talented artist, Florence Chaplin, who turns up in this exhibition in smiling student photos and in a trio of comic sketches from their tender, almost daily, wartime letters, modeling her new underwear, a teasing, sexy reminder of life away from bullets and shells.

Illustration, like teaching, is often a way for art students to add to their income, and even while he scooped up RA scholarships and prizes, Shepard was sending work to magazines. He drew sweet, conventional scenes for classics like Tom Brown’s School Days, and one of the most disconcerting moments here is when these fresh-faced, well-brushed children turn up in a cartoon, enthusiastically sweeping ash out of the fireplace onto a bunch of toys, which are all wearing gas-masks, shrieking “Gas attack! Gas attack!” He understood the violence as well as charm of a child’s imagination, and the distorted impact of war.

The Shepard Trust/Punch Ltd.

E.H. Shepard, 1916

Most of all in his prewar days, Shepard longed to join the elite group of cartoonists in Punch, of which Florence’s grandfather had been one of the founders. He had just managed this, with graphic social cartoons, when war broke out. In 1915 he joined up, soon to serve as an artillery officer with the 105th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery. He was there with his troops on the Somme, at the battles of Arras and at Passchendaele, and later, in the last days of the war, in the fierce, snowbound fighting in the Italian Alps. Everywhere, he took his sketchbook.

Shepard made topographical drawings for army intelligence, sent work home to family and friends, and continued to draw his cartoons, mostly for Punch. At the outbreak of war, Owen Seaman, the magazine’s editor, had been convinced that Punch would go under, as this was no time for jokes. On the contrary, friends told him, “your work is just starting,” and humor would be needed more than ever. This proved true, not least because the secret War Propaganda Bureau enrolled him in the task of raising morale by showing the indomitable spirit of the British people and forces. But when Seaman asked for cartoons on subjects other than the war, Shepard replied that “it was almost impossible to think of anything else.” In the spring of 1917, at Arras, Shepard took over from his commanding officer and was awarded the Military Cross, its citation reading, “His courage and coolness were conspicuous.”

Imperial War Museums/The Shepard Trust/Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

E.H. Shepard: Barastre. Crucifix Used as German OP, March 1917

For months, his life, like all those on the front, was surrounded by slaughter. His sketchbook was full of pictures of crammed dugouts and rough shelters. He drew the chaotic rubble of no-man’s land, the plight of the wounded, and the tall roadside crucifix used as a lookout post by the Germans. At Passchendaele, in September 1917, in rapid, urgent sketches, he showed his own gunners ramming in shells—one of these great howitzers would explode a few weeks later, killing four men. In these sketches, not intended for publication, he simply drew what he saw, his pencil lines quicker, more delicate than his prewar work, his art extending and expanding in sensibility.

One great heartbreak was the death of his elder brother, to whom he was very close: on his map of Albert, a vital point in the battle of the Somme, he marked the coordinates of his brother’s grave. Nothing of the horror appeared in his letters home, although after Passchendaele, when his promised leave was cancelled and he was sent to the Italian Front in November 1917, he said he could “cry and cry.” Outwardly, however, Shepard was a cheery soul. In 1917 he told Seaman he was too busy for Punch work, but the cartoons that he did send showed he could find humor anywhere. Much of this is of the “stiff upper lip” kind, employing clichés of fat, thuggish Huns (he isn’t very good at drawing villains) and of toffish British officers and yokel-type Tommies. In a typical example, a staff officer points to a ribbon pinned on as a soldier’s battle honors:

Staff Officer (inspecting scratch collection G.S. Men). ‘Ah, my man—ribbon eh?
Don’t seem to remember the colours. What campaign is that?’

G.S. Man (proudly). ‘First prize, ploughin’ match at Yeovil, Zur’.

It’s uncomfortable to smile at the class-based jokes, typical of the period. But one can see how much Shepard’s men would have liked his high spirits: they thought him lucky, clustering round him, sure he would never be hit. In Italy, where his unit fought in the deep snow of the Asiago plateau, the gunners were aided, as they had always been, by his drawings of enemy positions. When an armistice was signed, Shepard stayed on until 1919 to cope with captured artillery. We can feel his exhaustion and his compassion in sketches of captured troops and of refugees on the road.

The Shepard Trust/Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

E.H. Shepard, 1918-1919; the caption reads, “Close of the Italian Season. Grand ‘Peace Ballet’ Finale”

But there’s still plenty of humor in Venti Quatro, the soldiers’ magazine he edited, satirizing the gung-ho coverage of the British press, so far from the bitter reality. His wit is not verbal, but visual—a quality hard to define—seen here in affectionate caricatures of fellow officers and in the wonderful, rhythmic dance of beak-nosed, moustachioed officers in swirling tutus in Close of the Italian Season. Grand “Peace Ballet” finale.

The Shepard Trust/Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

E.H. Shepard: sketch for Now We Are Six

He was still relatively unknown, but back home, as part of the editorial board at the famous “Punch table,” he sat next to the publisher E.V. Lucas, who persuaded A. A. Milne to use him to draw the pictures for When We Were Very Young. The three Pooh books followed, from 1926 to 1928, and, among other commissions, The Wind in the Willows in 1931. He continued to work for Punch until the 1950s, drawing cartoons—this time from the Home Front—during World War II, and kept up his work as a book illustrator until his last years, although rather regretting that popular interest in Pooh, “that silly old bear,” swamped recognition of his other work. He died in 1976, aged at ninety-six.

Shepard’s peacetime drawings, with their pure mastery of line, have a distinctive sweetness—not a rigorous art-critical term, but true. And in the drawings of animate toys and talkative animals, there is a shrewd observation of quirky human nature that bears witness to Shepard’s own endearing character, and to the deep understanding that he gained by sketching the terror and the comradeship of war.


“E.H. Shepard: An Illustrator’s War” is on view at the House of Illustration in London through January 24, 2016

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The Big Bush Question

David Levine

George W. Bush

Poor Jeb. Or I should say, Poor Jeb! (I’m not given to exclamation points, but Jeb! is so magnetic.) It’s unfathomable how he thought that he could run for the Republican nomination without having to wrestle with his brother’s record as president.

Soon enough, he was so entangled in the question of whether he would have gone into Iraq, knowing what we know now, that it took him four tries to come up with the currently politically acceptable answer: No. But while the war in Iraq is widely accepted to have been a disastrous mistake, another crucial event during the George W. Bush administration has long been considered unfit for political discussion: President Bush’s conduct, in the face of numerous warnings of a major terrorist plot, in the months leading up to September 11, 2001.

The general consensus seems to have been that the 9/11 attacks were so horrible, so tragic, that to even suggest that the president at the time might bear any responsibility for not taking enough action to try to prevent them is to play “politics,” and to upset the public. And so we had a bipartisan commission examine the event and write a report; we built memorials at the spots where the Twin Towers had come down and the Pentagon was attacked; and that was to be that. And then along came Donald Trump, to whom “political correctness” is a relic of an antiquated, stuffy, political system he’s determined to overwhelm. In an interview on October 16, he violated the longstanding taboo by saying, “When you talk about George Bush—I mean, say what you want, the World Trade Center came down during his time.”

Trump’s comments set up a back and forth between him and Jeb Bush—who, as Trump undoubtedly anticipated, can’t let a blow against him by the frontrunner go by without response—but the real point is that with a simple declaration by Trump, there it was: the subject of George W. Bush’s handling of the warnings about the 9/11 attacks was out there.

Jeb Bush had already left himself open to this charge by saying that his brother had “kept us safe.” Now he has insisted on this as his response to Trump. But the two men were talking about different periods of time. As Jeb Bush said later, “We were attacked, my brother kept us safe.” That’s true enough in Jeb’s framing of the issue as what happened after the attacks—and if one’s concept of safe means fighting two terrible wars whose effects continue to play out in the Middle East; continual reports of terrorist plots and panicked responses to them; invasive searches at airports; and greatly expanded surveillance.

But that’s not the heart of the matter. The heretofore hushed-up public policy question that Trump stumbled into is: Did George W. Bush do what he could have to try to disrupt the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001? It’s not simply a question of whether he could have stopped the devastation—that’s unknowable. But did he do all he could given the various warnings that al-Qaeda was planning a major attack somewhere on US territory, most likely New York or Washington? The unpleasant, almost unbearable conclusion—one that was not to be discussed within the political realm—is that in the face of numerous warnings of an impending attack, Bush did nothing.

Osama bin Laden was already a wanted man when the Bush administration took office. The Clinton administration had identified him as the prime suspect in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, and it took a few steps to capture or kill him that came to naught. Outgoing Clinton officials warned the incoming administration about al-Qaeda, but the repeated and more specific warnings by Richard Clarke, who stayed on from one administration to the next as the chief terrorism adviser, were ignored. In a White House meeting on July 5, 2001, Clarke said, “Something really spectacular is going to happen here, and it’s going to happen soon.” By this time top Bush officials regarded Clarke as a pain, who kept going on about terrorist plots against the US.

But Clarke wasn’t the only senior official sounding an alarm. On July 10, CIA Director George Tenet, having just received a briefing from a deputy that “literally made my hair stand on end,” phoned National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice to ask for a special meeting at the White House. “I can recall no other time in my seven years as DCI that I sought such an urgent meeting at the White House,” Tenet later wrote in his book, At the Center of the Storm. Tenet and aides laid out for Rice what they described as irrefutable evidence that, as the lead briefer put it at that meeting, “’There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months” and that the attack would be “spectacular.” Tenet believed that the US was going to get hit, and soon. But the intelligence authorities, including covert action, that the CIA officials told Rice they needed, and had been asking for since March, weren’t granted until September 17.

Then came the now-famous August 6 Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) intelligence memorandum to the president, headlined, “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US.” Bush was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on what was to be one of the longest summer vacations any president has taken; none of his senior aides was present for the briefing. Rice later described this PDB as “very vague” and “ very non-specific” and “mostly historical.” It was only after a great struggle that the 9/11 commission got it declassified and the truth was learned. In its final report, the commission noted that this was the thirty-sixth Presidential Daily Brief so far that year related to al-Qaeda and bin Laden though the first one that specifically warned of an attack on the US itself.

While the title of the memo has become somewhat familiar, less known are its contents, including the following: “Clandestine, foreign government, and media reports indicate bin Laden since 1997 has wanted to conduct terrorist attacks in the US. Bin Laden implied in U.S. television interviews in 1997 and 1998 that his followers would follow the example of World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and ‘bring the fighting to America.’” And: “FBI information since that time indicates patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.” Having received this alarming warning the president did nothing.

As August went on, Tenet was so agitated by the chatter he was picking up and Bush’s lack of attention to the matter that he arranged for another CIA briefing of the president later in August, with Bush still at his ranch, to try to get his attention to what Tenet believed was an impending danger. According to Ron Suskind, in the introduction to his book The One Percent Doctrine, when the CIA agents finished their briefing of the president in Crawford, the president said, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.” And that was the end of it.

What might a president do upon receiving notice that the world’s number one terrorist was “determined to strike in US”? The most obvious thing was to direct Rice or Vice President Cheney to convene a special meeting of the heads of any agencies that might have information about possible terror threats, and order them shake their agencies down to the roots to find out what they had that might involve such a plot, then put the information together. As it happened they had quite a bit: the administration had already been notified about some Arabs seeking flying lessons at a flight school in Arizona; what was so noticeable about them was that they unpeeled large amounts of cash for the lessons, which they limited to just wanting to know how to fly the plane in cruise mode, not learn how to take off and land. In July, an FBI agent stationed in Phoenix wrote to headquarters warning of the “possibility of a coordinated effort by Usama bin Laden” to send students to the United States to attend civil aviation schools.

Then there was Zacarias Moussaoui, sometimes referred to later as the twentieth hijacker, who had aroused suspicion by paying cash for lessons at a flight school in Minnesota, also just wanting to know how to fly a 747 at cruising altitude, not how to take off or land. Moussaoui wasn’t as careful as the others and his questions to his instructors seemed strange: he wanted to know, for example, about flight routes around New York. In August 2001, a manager from the flight school called the FBI. Moussaoui was arrested on August 16 on immigration charges and questioned by FBI agents, but, despite repeated requests, the FBI agents were unable to obtain a FISA warrant to search Moussaoui’s laptop before September 11. An August 23 FBI report to Tenet and other CIA officials was headed, “Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly.” Tenet said later that he didn’t talk about this report with the FBI or the White House because he thought it an FBI matter. French intelligence had been following Moussaoui, a French citizen, for some time and had a thick file on him—but somehow, according to the FBI, useful information didn’t get to that agency’s officials in time.

Had the president ordered a root and branch search of information government agencies had on potential strikes by al-Qaeda in the US, what was known about Moussaoui and the Arizona flight school would have been of great interest. Perhaps they’d have also unearthed an intelligence memo written in 1998 that said, “we also learned that the agencies had uncovered a message between al Qaeda operatives in the United States, dated December 1998, that read, ‘Plans to hijack U.S. aircraft proceeding well. Two individuals have successfully evaded checkpoints in dry run at NY airport.’” Or maybe another memo would have been found that said, “CIA and the FBI are investigating a call to our embassy in the UAE in May saying that a group of bin Laden supporters was in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.”

The bipartisan 9/11 Commission, established in November 2002, after Bush gave way to congressional demands that there be a high-level investigation into what had happened, with the commission members appointed by Bush and by Congress—this was after the administration made it clear that it wouldn’t cooperate with a congressional investigation into 9/11—went no further than bipartisan commissions can be expected to go, but further than most of the journalism at the time suggested. Bipartisan commissions are a longstanding device for making sure that the findings aren’t too disturbing to the principal figures or the public. The responsibility of the 9/11 Commission—made up of prominent Democrats and Republicans and co-chaired by two highly admired figures, former Indiana congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Lee Hamilton, and former governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean—was to investigate the background of the matter and make recommendations.

When the commission finally succeeded in its demand that Bush testify before it, the arrangement was that only two commission members could be present at a White House meeting where the president was to be questioned for only one hour, without being put under oath and with no notes taken, and with Vice President Cheney present. In fact, the administration fought the commission at nearly every turn. Hamilton and Kean later wrote that they felt that the commission had been “set up to fail”—it had been rushed, its funding was insufficient and it didn’t have adequate administration cooperation. They said that in fact the commission had considered seeking criminal charges against officials who had obstructed or lied to it.

On the surface, the commission report’s dramatic narrative appeared to hold no high-level officials accountable for not doing more to ward off the attacks. Read closely, it was a damning indictment of Bush and Cheney (for his behavior on September 11, when he took charge while the president flew about the country and, without consulting him beforehand, ordered the shooting down of hijacked planes). The commission was particularly harsh on the administration for being so confused and disorganized on the day of the attacks, with the president’s entourage more concerned with the statement he would make than with his taking charge. The commission’s report blamed various agencies that failed to share the information they had, or were at a loss for how to react on the day of the attacks.

The commission avoided assigning individual blame in order to get a unanimous report, and it deliberately avoided saying whether the attacks could have been prevented, though it was apparent that some commissioners believed this to be the case, and the evidence gathered in the report strongly suggested as much. In television interviews earlier that year , both Hamilton and Kean indicated they thought the attacks could have been stopped; but the reaction from the administration was so ferocious that they subsequently backed off from these comments. The commissioners knew that if they stated in the report that the administration could have prevented the attacks—an assertion that could never be proved—the Bush White House and its allies, including in the media, would unleash such a blowback against them that it could discredit all of their work. But the report, amassing all the evidence and warnings the administration had received, made it clear that there was a strong possibility that the attacks might have been prevented. The commissioners who believed this thought the facts would speak for themselves. It presented a picture of an administration not much engaged with the subject of terrorism and unresponsive to clear warnings.

Reading the report closely and talking to commission members made it clear to me that the report was intended to stop just short of blaming Bush for his inaction—though some commissioners would have gone further. The commissioners didn’t want to provide the nation a divided opinion. They also didn’t want to upset the public too much. Thus for what might have been considered admirable motives, the devastating conclusions that should have been drawn from the available facts have remained buried and the country had essentially moved on—until Trump reopened the question.

What is arguable about the events of 9/11 is whether they could have been stopped; what isn’t arguable is that George W. Bush didn’t try. Though Jeb Bush set out to run for president with the line, “I am my own man,” he has discovered that being George W’s brother is quite a burden.

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