Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) was the first film I saw after I moved to Japan in 1987. A Zen-trained painter from San Francisco, who’d spent fifteen years around Kyoto mastering its classical arts and the graces they stand for, pushed a videotape into his creaking machine the day we met, my first week in the old capital, and urged me to sit still. He’d already spent all day showing me the sights of my new adopted home, and now he might have been sharing with me a guidebook to its heart. We sat for 143 minutes on the tatami mat in his crumbling old wooden house, paper screens around us, and the piercing melancholy of the central story, about a bureaucrat in a dead-end job suddenly realizing he is about to die of stomach cancer, carried me off into what seemed to be a distinctly Japanese sensibility. I’d been trained, after all, by devouring most of Kurosawa’s other films before I arrived, as he was the Japanese filmmaker most accessible to (and in) the West.
But when I watched the film again recently, after half a lifetime in Japan, I was taken aback at how very un-Japanese it seemed: in the broadness of its satire, in the zaniness of its switches from one genre to another, in the almost violent simplicity of its message and story. The end was more moving than ever, as it famously cuts to the old man, Watanabe, on a swing, waveringly singing “Life is Brief”; twenty-eight years with a Japanese wife helped me to recognize and feel the spirit and charm (as well as the unabashed appetite) of the hero’s young female colleague, who gives the film its moments of sunshine and fresh purpose. I was even able now to notice that, when she greets the central figure in the street with what is translated as “Station Chief,” she is in fact calling out, “Daddy!”
More than that, I could better appreciate with my own mounting years both the piquancy of the premise and the intricate structure that keeps us constantly off-guard, moved to contrast Watanabe’s actual son with the colleague who inherits his vision, or to understand how and why the film begins with its ending, in a sense, and continues long after what might seem its human climax. I could see how the hero does indeed enjoy a kind of rebirth as some girls around him sing “Happy Birthday!,” a mechanical rabbit, of all unlikely things, turning his gaze away from his own predicament and towards all that he can do for unmet children. I loved the way the filmmaker looks so unflinchingly at essential truths, brushing the trivial aside.
At the same time, I could see why so many Japanese write Kurosawa off as a “Western” director, a dismissal that had surprised me when first I arrived in Kyoto. The film offers an unapologetic attack on lives of quiet desperation of the kind that were coming out in the US at around the same time, in works such as The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Its concerns, for a work about an old man dying, are strangely social and public, the pathos of one man’s final days all but overshadowed, especially at the film’s end, by assaults on Japanese bureaucracy and conformity. The nuance, stillness, and sense of privacy one finds in a movie by Kurosawa’s great contemporary, and counterpoint, Yasujiro Ozu, are replaced by bold-type assertions; Ikiru reminds me how masculine and strident a filmmaker Kurosawa could be, head-on in his effects and unqualified in his declarations (whether it’s an antic depiction of “passing the buck” in the opening scenes or a whirligig journey through a kind of Fellini night-town that makes for some virtuoso passages in the middle). Classical Japanese art is often about putting on veils and masks so that what is not said or shown becomes the heart of the story; a central moment in Kurosawa’s film is a striptease, and much of the film seems to be about stripping away pretensions and platitudes to show the selfishness and hypocrisy that surround poor Watanabe.
Of course, at a remove of sixty-three years, one can also see how Kurosawa was catching something essential to the Japanese postwar predicament, as his culture began to waver between its Buddhist roots and a new, imported American optimism. Japan, then as now, was looking in two directions at once, as brassy Western fashions began to encircle its modest wooden houses. Two women of the night here burst into a ditty they’ve no doubt learned from visiting GIs—“I’m gonna give you a Christmas tree”—delivered in a kind of saucy English, while the more innocent girls who later belt out (in English once again) “Happy Birthday to You!” might be smuggling a foreign confidence and blitheness into a society more attuned to the bittersweet song at the center of Ikiru, “Life is Brief.” Impermanence, the fleetingness of things—mono no aware, as it’s called—still sit at the heart of Japan, even in the midst of its bright, fluorescent, 7-Eleven diversions. And at the core of the film lies a cynical upending of a truth that you might find in any Zen temple: “The best way to protect your position is by doing nothing at all.” Yet still, I watch Ikiru today and recognize the streets, the settings, and the surfaces of my acquired home more than I recognize its relatively intimate and recessive heart.
It’s a familiar trope, I’m sure, but to set Kurosawa next to Ozu is to be startled by their differences. Ozu’s films are often about characters who stoically accept their duty, even as everything in them cries out against it; Kurosawa’s, as here, are about raging, often quixotically, against the system and its accepted pieties. Ozu, you could say, catches the stifled sobs and brave smiles of Cordelia, where Kurosawa, whose Ran famously plays off King Lear, fastens on the rebellions of Goneril and Regan. Ozu’s concern is with the family, and how an intricate structure of social obligation is under stress as trains propel a new, foreign world into their midst; Kurosawa is much wider and wilder in his interests, unashamedly deploying an Olympian voice-over in Ikiru to declare, “This man has been dead for twenty years,” while scheming relatives announce, “I just hate Japanese houses. We need a modern home.” Ozu famously kept his camera still, at tatami level, in long takes designed to see what lay beneath the silences within a near-empty room; Kurosawa swivels it around to the raucous streets and offices of the unsubtle world.
As I say all this, though, I realize that it may be me, and not Kurosawa, who is truly failing to catch Japan. I recall how startled I was when I took my thirteen-year-old Japanese step-daughter to a Kyoto hospital—she had Hodgkin’s Disease, Stage 3—and was reminded that, even now, as in the movie, doctors in Japan try not to tell patients, or their families, that they have cancer. I look at moist-eyed Watanabe, shuffling around in his heavy coat, doomed to be misread by everyone he knows, and I see the salarymen around me in my neighborhood, whose positions as Section Chiefs of Public Affairs routinely ensure they have little time for private affairs. Visiting Fukushima after the nuclear disaster in 2011, I was reminded—as in Ikiru—that it was the recurring attempt to cover up the truth (and to save their own skins), on the part of both government and industry, that outraged everyday Japanese. And, as in Ikiru, both the outrage and the humanity are delivered most expressively by Japanese women, the same women who seem to be all bows and acquiescence when you see them serving tea.
Even more privately, I recall how, whenever I’m asked why I left my secure-seeming life in New York City to move to a small room on the backstreets of Kyoto, I say that I didn’t want to die feeling I’d never lived. Perhaps something in me was already moving toward Ikiru even then. I chose Japan as the place to move to in part because it seemed to be a quietly realistic society inclined to see life within a frame of death. (Not long ago, I heard the creator of the hugely successful TV series Breaking Bad confess to Terry Gross that his work had been inspired by watching Ikiru, even as he inverted its message—or converted it rather into an all-American story of crime.) In my two-room apartment in suburban Nara, I revisit every autumn, almost religiously, My Life Without Me, by Isabel Coixet, a rendingly unself-conscious movie about a twenty-three-year-old mother in Canada suddenly told she has little time to live. My wife knows the film by its title in Japan, Ten Things to Do Before I Die.
When I finish watching the film, I return to my stepdaughter’s desk in one corner of the apartment, lavishly appointed with stickers of Hello Kitty and pictures of Brad Pitt, and work on a novel about a monk who has been told he has only three months to go. In the street outside my window, I can see the men heading out in their suits before dawn to stand at the local bus stop to commute to faraway offices that can surely seem a death-in-life. From across the way, I hear the sound of children in the playground of the neighborhood junior high school, right next to a park. Another park down the road offers swings, which I see every day as I walk to play ping-pong with retired grandfathers exulting in the chance to spend time with the families they neglected during forty years in the office.
Ikiru, in short, may have looked a bit more broad and didactic than I remembered when I watched it again, a far cry from the subtlety and self-containment that are to me the graces of Japan. But somehow it still touches on a world that grows deeper within me every autumn, even as its themes and props encircle me. I met my old Zen painter friend not long ago—he’s moved back to California now—and all our talk was of turning leaves and aging parents, how to give our short lives a sense of purpose. Maybe that plangent sound of “Life is Brief”—and the sense of urgency and a need for service it awakens—has caught up with me in spite of everything?
As the concentration of wealth in America has grown, so has the scale of philanthropy. Today, that activity is one of the principal ways in which the superrich not only “give back” but also exert influence, yet it has not received the attention it deserves. As I have previously tried to show, digital technology offers journalists new ways to cover the world of money and power in America,1 and that’s especially true when it comes to philanthropy.
Over the last fifteen years, the number of foundations with a billion dollars or more in assets has doubled, to more than eighty. A significant portion of that money goes to such traditional causes as universities, museums, hospitals, and local charities. Needless to say, such munificence does much good. The philanthropic sector in the United States is far more dynamic than it is in, say, Europe, due in part to the tax deductions allowed under US law for charitable giving. Unlike in Europe, where cultural institutions depend largely on state support, here they rely mainly on private donors.
The tax write-offs for such contributions, however, mean that this giving is subsidized by US taxpayers. Every year, an estimated $40 billion is diverted from the public treasury through charitable donations. That makes accountability for them all the more pressing. So does the fact that many of today’s philanthropists are more activist than those in the past. A number are current or former hedge fund managers, private equity executives, and tech entrepreneurs who, having made their fortunes on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, are now seeking to apply their know-how to social problems. Rather than simply write checks for existing institutions, these “philanthrocapitalists,” as they are often called, aggressively seek to shape their operations.
When donors approach a nonprofit, “they’re more likely to say not ‘How can I help you?’ but ‘Here’s my agenda,’” Nicholas Lemann, the former dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, told me. Mainstream news organizations haven’t caught on to this new activism, he said, adding that most of them are into covering “the ‘giving pledge,’” by which the rich commit to giving away at least half their wealth in their lifetime. David Callahan, the founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a website that tracks this world, says that “philanthropy is having as much influence as campaign contributions, but campaign contributions get all the attention. The imbalance is stunning to me.”
Callahan, the author of Fortunes of Change: The Rise of the Liberal Rich and the Remaking of America (2010), created Inside Philanthropy in 2013 to help fill this gap. (The Chronicle of Philanthropy is another valuable resource.) The site offers a rich storehouse of information about the causes to which the wealthy give. An entry on Robert Mercer, for instance, notes that he is the co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies (a hedge fund) and a leading contributor to Super PACs, and that his family foundation backs a sprawling array of conservative institutions, including the Media Research Center, which scans the media for liberal bias; the George W. Bush Foundation, which supports the Bush library and museum; and the Heartland Institute, a leading promoter of climate-change denial. The Inside Philanthropy page on eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll notes that his foundation is a leading funder of social entrepreneurs, who seek to apply to social problems techniques borrowed from the business world.
As Callahan notes on Inside Philanthropy, social entrepreneurship—offering microfinance, setting up farmer cooperatives, creating programs for disadvantaged youth—has become a favorite cause of the wealthy, yet its effectiveness has gone largely unexamined. The site has also addressed such subjects as “Why Wall Streeters Love the Manhattan Institute” and “Which Washington Think Tank Do Billionaires Love the Most?” (the American Enterprise Institute).
Inside Philanthropy shows how digital technology can be used to track the new philanthropy. The information offered on the site is all the more impressive given its slender resources. Relying entirely on subscribers, Inside Philanthropy has a modest budget and a staff consisting largely of freelancers. That, unfortunately, limits the amount of digging it can do. The site does not generally undertake extended investigations into how donors have amassed their wealth, or the impact their philanthropy has had, or the sometimes hidden goals of their giving.
The importance of such questions can be seen in, for example, the work of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. According to its website, it concentrates on a handful of subjects, including education, criminal justice, “research integrity,” “evidence-based policy and innovation,” and “sustainable public finance.” On that last matter, the foundation says that it
works to promote fiscal sustainability and the effective oversight of public funds. We are funding efforts to help governments evaluate the impact of tax policies and design public pension systems that are affordable, sustainable, and secure.
All of which sounds quite laudable. A little probing, however, shows that John Arnold for years worked at Enron, trading in natural gas derivatives. In 2001, he reportedly helped earn the company three quarters of a billion dollars, for which he received an $8 million bonus. When Enron collapsed, Arnold set up a hedge fund in Houston that specialized in natural gas trading. Ten years later, he was worth about $3 billion. In 2012, he retired from the fund and set up his foundation. Since then, Arnold has led a campaign to cut public employees’ retirement benefits, making large contributions to politicians, Super PACs, ballot initiative efforts, and think tanks.
As part of that campaign, the Arnold Foundation gave $3.5 million to WNET, the public television station in New York, to support production of a two-year news series called The Pension Peril, to be shown on PBS. The foundation’s involvement was not explicitly disclosed. In a February 2014 article for Pando, an online magazine covering Silicon Valley, David Sirota revealed Arnold’s involvement and noted that the show (which had already begun airing) echoed many of the same pension-cutting themes that he was promoting in state legislatures. Amid growing protests, PBS decided to return the grant and suspend the series, citing internal rules that deem the existence of a clear connection between the interests of a proposed funder and the subject matter of a program unacceptable. Sirota’s article illustrates the type of scrutiny that a website on money, power, and influence could regularly provide.
On Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan noted that the Arnold/PBS case is hardly unique. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—a strong backer of the Affordable Care Act—gave NPR $5.6 million to report on health care between 2008 and 2011, and the Ford Foundation, which is committed to fighting economic inequality, gave $1 million to public radio’s Marketplace to report on that subject. “Nearly all funders have some kind of ideology and agenda,” Callahan observed. “And whatever media grantees say about their editorial independence, all nonprofits are wary of biting the hands that feed them.” He’s right. Keeping regular track of the growing efforts by foundations and philanthropists, both conservative and liberal, to shape the news would be one of the missions of a website devoted to covering America’s privileged class.2
After Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan announced their plan to donate nearly all of their Facebook stock to charitable causes, the initial laudatory coverage was followed by a series of stories that raised many important questions about their decision, including its implications for avoiding taxes, the large sums it would potentially cost the US government, and the huge amount of power it would place in the hands of two people. As John Cassidy observed in The New Yorker, “The more money billionaires give to their charitable foundations, which in most cases remain under their personal control, the more influence they will accumulate.” Such influence makes regular scrutiny of these kinds of investments all the more urgent.
As a number of the above examples suggest, much of today’s philanthropy is aimed at “intellectual capture”—at winning the public over to a particular ideology or viewpoint. In addition to foundations, the ultrarich are working through advocacy groups, research institutes, paid spokesmen, and—perhaps most significant of all—think tanks. These once-staid organizations have become pivotal battlegrounds in the war of ideas, and moneyed interests are increasingly trying to shape their research—a good subject for a new website. As The Washington Post reported in 2014, for instance, the Brookings Institution, long known for its “impeccable research,” has in recent years placed more and more emphasis on expansion and fund-raising, “giving scholars a bigger role in seeking money from donors and giving donors a voice in Brookings’s research agenda.” In one example, Brookings in November 2012 was visited by a lawyer representing Peter B. Lewis, the billionaire insurance executive who toward the end of his life embraced the cause of legalizing marijuana. Before the visit, the think tank had done little work on the issue, but soon after, the Post reported, it “emerged as a hub of research” supporting legalization, with prominent scholars offering at least twenty seminars, papers, or Op-Ed pieces. Before his death in 2013, Lewis donated $500,000 to Brookings, and two of the scholars involved said they knew he was their benefactor.
Think tanks are also being targeted by foreign governments eager to shape their research to reflect their national interests. As The New York Times reported in 2014, these contributions have “set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom,” with some scholars saying that they “have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.” Norway for example committed at least $24 million over four years to an array of Washington think tanks, transforming them “into a powerful but largely hidden arm of the Norway Foreign Affairs Ministry.”
As both these articles suggested, there’s a new ecosystem of lobbying in Washington, with traditional forms of arm-twisting complemented by multipronged campaigns that use surrogates to create the impression of broad support for a company’s or a government’s positions. Given the importance of these new forms of influence-peddling, the articles in the Post and Times cried out for continued follow-up.
The type of website I have in mind would provide it. In the process, it could compile a registry of corporate spokesmen, front groups, researchers for hire, and “astroturf” organizations—ostensibly independent groups that are created by industries and trade groups to advance their interests. Accessing this registry, readers would be able to learn that, for example, Broadband for America, which bills itself as a coalition of consumer advocates and content providers and which opposes net neutrality, is partly funded by the cable industry, and that Energy in Depth, which calls itself a “research, education and public outreach campaign,” is actually an arm of the petroleum industry.
It’s not just conservatives and corporations that are seeking intellectual capture. The Democracy Alliance was founded in 2005 by a group of liberals looking to counter the tide of corporate money into think tanks and advocacy groups. As Kenneth Vogel has reported in Politico, the alliance has compiled a roster of a hundred or so wealthy individuals committed to giving at least $200,000 annually to twenty-one endorsed institutions, among them the Center for American Progress, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Media Matters for America. Major donors include George Soros; Rob McKay, the heir to the Taco Bell fortune; Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager turned environmental activist; and Houston trial lawyers Amber and Steve Mostyn.
How much each donor gives and to what is not known, however, for the Democracy Alliance is highly secretive, with a website that seems opaque by design. This has fostered a belief on the right that the alliance is at the heart of a vast liberal conspiracy. Leaving aside such hyperbole, the organization seems ripe for examination by an online journalistic website about the superrich.
Such a site would also track the flow of money into universities—another front in the ideological contest that’s underway. The 2010 documentary Inside Job showed how some economic professors, including Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin, expressed views about the economy without revealing that they’d received income from interested parties. The film set off a vigorous debate at Columbia, which led its business school to adopt new guidelines requiring professors to disclose all outside activities that create possible conflicts of interest. But the influence of big money on campus extends far beyond disclosure forms, with banks, corporations, and entrepreneurs setting up chairs and institutes that apparently are intended to promote capitalism and free enterprise.
In 2009, for instance, the billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson gave New York University $20 million to create both an Alan Greenspan Chair in Economics and a John A. Paulson Professor of Finance and Alternative Investments. In 2010, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which is dedicated to reducing government spending and the national debt, gave a three-year $2.45 million grant to Columbia University’s Teachers College to develop a curriculum “about the fiscal challenges that face the nation,” to be distributed free to every high school in the country. The philanthropic arm of BB&T, a financial services company in North Carolina, has given millions to more than sixty colleges and universities to examine the “moral foundations of capitalism” and promote the works of Ayn Rand. What has been the impact of these donations? How much control, if any, do the donors have over what’s taught? The type of website I’m proposing would seek to answer such questions.
It would also try to show the growing influence of university boards of trustees. These are increasingly made up of corporate figures who, in addition to raising large sums for their institutions, are playing an ever-larger part in their management. A good example is New York University and the furor that erupted over its plan to expand its campus in Greenwich Village and beyond. Officially called NYU 2031, the document became known as the “Sexton Plan,” after the university’s president, John Sexton. Sexton bore much of the faculty’s ire over the plan and the undemocratic way in which they felt it was adopted—all of which received abundant press attention. Less heed was paid to the real center of power at NYU—its board. Of its more than sixty trustees, all but a few come from the worlds of finance, real estate, law, construction, and marketing.
Even within the board, one figure was dominant: Martin Lipton. A prominent corporate lawyer, Lipton served as the board’s chairman from 1998 until his retirement this past October. As Geraldine Fabrikant reported in a 2014 profile in the Times (which was buried deep inside a special education supplement), Lipton was the university’s “power broker,” running the board “with an iron hand,” as several board members told her. More than a decade earlier, he had handpicked Sexton to be president “without any systematic search process.”
More recently, Lipton was deeply involved in the university’s expansion plans. He also sat on the committee to select his own replacement as chair, and (as William Cohan recounted in the Times) played a crucial part in steering the board toward the candidate it eventually settled on—William Berkley, the billionaire chairman of an insurance holding company in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the chairman of a charter school company. To be fair, NYU during Lipton’s reign raised nearly $6 billion, and the man recently chosen as Sexton’s successor, Andrew Hamilton, is a respected Oxford don (and a renowned chemist). But the selection of Berkeley as Lipton’s replacement, together with the continued presence of so many moguls on NYU’s board, suggests that big money will continue to have an outsized influence at the school. Just what form might that influence take? A website devoted to chronicling the activities of the one percent would attempt to keep track of such situations across the country.
It would pay special attention to public universities. With state governments slashing allocations for higher education, public universities have tried to fill the gap through fund-raising campaigns, opening the way for wealthy donors and trustees to gain a greater say in their operations. The most highly publicized case came in 2012 at the University of Virginia, when Teresa Sullivan was suddenly forced out as president. As was widely reported, her ouster was engineered by Helen Dragas, the real estate developer who headed the university’s Board of Visitors and who acted in concert with a small group of board members. They gave only vague explanations for their decision, and as protests by students, faculty, and alumni mounted, the board reversed its decision and Sullivan continues to be president.
Similar but far less publicized clashes have occurred in Texas, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Oregon, and, most recently, North Carolina. There, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina, working with Republican legislators, pushed out Tom Ross, the popular president, and in October they announced his replacement: Margaret Spellings, who served as secretary of education under George W. Bush and, more recently, as the president of his library. Many students and faculty protested the decision as reflecting political considerations. A website on money and power would look into such cases and assess the various claims—part of a more general effort to chronicle the activities of the wealthy to reshape higher education in America.
Such a website, in reporting on philanthropists, would pay special attention to the sources of their wealth. Take David Rubenstein, for example. The cofounder and co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, the largest private equity firm in the world, Rubenstein is worth about $2.5 billion. In his giving, he specializes in what he calls “patriotic philanthropy.” He has given $9 million to promote panda procreation at the National Zoo, $7.5 million to help repair the Washington Monument, and $10 million for the restoration of Monticello. After purchasing a copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million, he loaned it to the National Archives. These donations have resulted in favorable stories about Rubenstein in both The New York Times and The Washington Post and a glowing segment on 60 Minutes, titled “All-American.”
His generosity is certainly admirable, but from a journalistic standpoint, it has had the effect of deflecting attention from the way he earns his money. The Carlyle Group is known for its secrecy and connections. Nicknamed the Ex-Presidents’ Club, it has had as board members both George Bushes, James Baker, and John Major. From 1992 to 2003, the chairman was Frank Carlucci, the former defense secretary and CIA deputy director, who opened doors for the company in Washington, especially in the defense and intelligence industries, where it acquired many businesses. Carlyle has since branched out into other fields, including telecommunications and media, and in 2014 it hired Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the FCC, to help spot investment opportunities. In short, Carlyle’s success is to a degree built on its insider connections. So, while Rubenstein’s good works get much attention, the complex workings of the Carlyle Group do not.
The whole subject of private equity has been woefully undercovered. Firms like Carlyle, Blackstone, and KKR have been the main force behind the flood of mergers and acquisitions of recent years. News accounts have focused far more on the market effects of these deals than on their implications for employment, the concentration of wealth, and community welfare. Back in 2012, such factors were closely analyzed in connection with Mitt Romney’s work at the private equity company Bain Capital, but since then interest in private equity has waned even as the field has boomed. Naked Capitalism, an influential financial blog, recently ran a long post about how private equity companies “are far more obviously connected to an undue concentration of wealth at the expense of workers and communities” than are CDOs (collaterized debt obligations) and the other finance instruments that once drew such attention. Though the top one percent of the one percent “consists disproportionately of private equity and hedge fund principals,” the blog ruefully lamented, few of its readers seem interested. The same could be said of the press. A website on the nation’s power elite would pay close attention to the reach and impact of both private equity and hedge funds.
Remarkably, the Wall Street institution that may be the most powerful of them all is also among the least known. BlackRock is the largest money management firm in the world. Its chairman, Laurence Fink, oversees more money (about $4.5 trillion) than Germany has GDP. Fink regularly takes calls from governments and businesses from around the world seeking his advice and, as Susanne Craig reported in the Times in 2012, the company has exerted “enormous influence as a behind-the-scenes adviser to troubled governments” in places like Greece and Ireland. When seeking to analyze the health of a bank, the US Treasury Department often turns to BlackRock, leading a senior bank executive to call it (in an article in Vanity Fair) “the Blackwater of finance, almost a shadow government.” Fink himself is worth more than $300 million and sits on the boards of many institutions, including NYU and the Museum of Modern Art. Nonetheless he and his company have managed to escape serious journalistic scrutiny. A website on money and power could provide it.
Wall Street is hardly the only powerful precinct in need of sharper reporting. Hollywood is another. Coverage of it tends to be thin, with a heavy emphasis on ticket sales, executive rivalries, celebrity interviews, and awards ceremonies. Back in 2005, Bernard Weinraub, in a confessional reflection on the fourteen years he spent covering Hollywood for the Times, described how eagerly journalists sought access to stars and executives and how easily they were “co-opted by the overtures of a Michael Ovitz or the charm of a Joe Roth.”
That’s no less true today. Zenia Mucha, the head of communications for Walt Disney and a top adviser to its chairman, Robert Iger, is known for her skill at cajoling and browbeating reporters. As one journalist who covers the industry told me about Disney, “Almost no one writes a bad word about them so as to have access to top officials.” (He was not, of course, referring to film reviews.) Given the vastness of Disney’s holdings—they include Walt Disney Studios, the Disney Channel, Disney Resorts, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, ABC TV and News, ESPN, A&E, and Lifetime—assessing Mucha’s alleged success at shaping the news about the company would itself seem a subject worth pursuing.
Silicon Valley is in need of similar probing. Current coverage of the tech world leans heavily toward products, start-ups, and personalities. A website on money and power would instead concentrate on its growing political might. Ten years ago, for example, Google had a one-person lobbying shop in Washington; today, it has more than one hundred lobbyists working out of an office roughly the size of the White House. In addition to such traditional lobbying, Google is financing research at universities and think tanks, investing in advocacy groups, and “funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects,” as Tom Hamburger and Matea Gold reported in 2014 in The Washington Post.
They described how in the spring of 2012 Google—facing possible legal action by the FTC over the dominance of its search engine—played a behind-the-scenes part in organizing a conference at George Mason University, to which it is a large contributor. It made sure that the program was heavily weighted with speakers sympathetic to Google and, according to the Post, it arranged for many FTC economists and lawyers to hear them. In the end, the commission decided against taking legal action. Just why could be a good subject for inquiry. Today, Google is working hard to protect its right to collect consumer data and to that end has sought the support of conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation. The type of string-pulling described by the Post goes on routinely and deserves more routine coverage.
Finally, there’s corporate America. Once, Fortune 500 companies were the bread and butter of business coverage. Since the 2008 financial collapse, however, the preoccupation with Wall Street has pushed these companies aside. As Jesse Eisinger of ProPublica observed to me in an e-mail, journalists
don’t adequately cover how corporations keep their wages down, treat their employees in general, fight unions, lobby for their corporate needs, arrive at decisions to pay their top executives, or dominate their markets. We don’t hear about the GM or VW scandals until after they break. (Once they do, we get good coverage, but that’s archeology, not detective work.) Where is the coverage of Boeing, 3M, Dupont, FedEx or CVS? Energy? Insurance? Trucking? Construction?
A website on money and power would try to fill this gap. The activities of unions could be examined as well.
The power of the megarich does not stop at America’s borders. As Chrystia Freeland writes in her 2012 book Plutocrats, “the rise of the 1 percent is a global phenomenon,” with the world bifurcating into the rich and the rest. A website on the power elite could offer links to its international members. A page on Mexico’s Carlos Slim, for instance, could point out that his fortune (estimated at more than $70 billion) is equal to about 6 percent of his country’s total annual GDP, helping to make it one of the most unequal societies in the world.
As a 2014 Oxfam briefing paper explained, most of Slim’s wealth derives from his having gained near- monopolistic control of Mexico’s telecommunications sector when it was privatized twenty years ago. Over the seventy years that Oxfam has spent fighting poverty around the world, the report stated, it has seen “first-hand how the wealthiest individuals and groups capture political institutions for their aggrandizement at the expense of the rest of society.” It’s impossible to understand Mexico’s many problems without taking into account Slim’s dominance, yet he rarely appears in reports about that country.
Earlier this year, Slim more than doubled the number of shares he owns in The New York Times Company (to nearly 17 percent), making him its largest individual shareholder (though the Sulzbergers retain control). It’s interesting to note that Slim rarely appears in the paper’s news pages. On the surface, this seems a glaring conflict of interest. Exploring the reality behind it would be an excellent subject for a website on the one percent.
From my research, I’ve come away impressed by the number of informative articles that have appeared on America’s superrich; I’ve cited quite a few of them. I’ve also come to appreciate how hard it can be to ferret out information about this group. I’ve had an especially hard time exploring the influence of big money on the museum and art world. The mega-rich have come to dominate both museum boards and the art market, and through them they have left a deep imprint on American culture, but in my reporting I kept running into roadblocks. Clearly, this is an area ripe for further inquiry.
The same is true of all the other sectors I’ve discussed. For all the good work they’ve done, news organization have barely begun to penetrate the structure of economic power and influence. That’s why I think a new, independent website on this world is urgently needed. Such an enterprise would cover the super-elite with unflagging single-mindedness. It would dig deep into the worlds of hedge funds, private equity, venture capital, and mergers and acquisitions, treating them not as arenas of Wall Street wheeling and dealing but as avenues of financial maneuvering that have significantly fed the economic imbalances in this country. It would devote sections to philanthropy, think tanks, lobbyists, advocacy groups, education, cultural institutions, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, corporations, and foreign tycoons and show the cross-cutting ties among them. The information gathered would be fed into a constantly updated database, allowing users to learn with a few keystrokes about hedge fund managers’ backing of charter schools, influence-seeking donations to Brookings and AEI, Google’s latest lobbying venture, and the promotion of Ayn Rand on campus.
The website could also feature bloggers able to expose the internal workings of Wall Street. It could dispatch video crews to exclusive enclaves like Greenwich, Connecticut, and Palm Beach, Florida, to show the opulent mansions and cloistered lifestyles of the super-haves. It could post analytical dispatches from such elite gatherings as the Boao Forum (Asia’s Davos), the Zeitgeist conference (a Google version of TED), Sun Valley (where media barons meet annually to make deals), and Bilderberg (the most secretive executive conclave in the world). It could hire a press critic to document cases of the media accommodating the rich and show what’s not being reported. It could even produce John Oliver–like send-ups of the many ways in which corporations use front men, researchers-for-hire, and fake grassroots groups to try to influence and mislead the public.
There remains the question of how to pay for all this. Given the sizable staff that such an enterprise would require and the limited potential for advertising, it’s doubtful it could ever turn a profit. That means relying on philanthropy. Is there perhaps a consortium of donors out there willing to fund an operation that would part the curtains on its own world?
—This is the second of two articles.
“Reimagining Journalism: The Story of the One Percent,” The New York Review, December 17, 2015. ↩
For an example of the type of analysis such a website could offer, see Alessandra Stanley, “The Tech Gods Giveth,” The New York Times, November 1, 2015, which raises questions about how much radical change Silicon Valley philanthropists truly support. ↩
Many emotions are entwined in the theater piece Brodsky/Baryshnikov, which had its premiere at the New Riga Theater in October and will open at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York in March. Its subject is Joseph Brodsky, who was born in Leningrad in 1940 and died in Brooklyn in 1996. Other Russians of Brodsky’s time—notably his great elders Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Boris Pasternak—were made to feel more keenly than he their government’s scorn for artists, but his case too is notorious. Soon after he began circulating verse in samizdat in his late teens, he came under the eye of the authorities. He was denounced in a Leningrad newspaper in 1963 as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” In 1964, he was tried for “social parasitism” and sentenced to five years’ hard labor.
He landed in the small village of Norenskaya, in the Arkhangelsk region of the Arctic. By day he chopped wood and hauled manure. By night he taught himself English, and read English and American poetry—above all, John Donne, Robert Frost, and his idol, W.H. Auden—in his hut. He later said that this was one of the happiest times of his life. Meanwhile, the transcript of his trial had been smuggled to the West, and his case became an international scandal. Embarrassed, the Brezhnev government released him after only a year and a half.
This did not mean that he was free, however. By then, because of the trial and because of poems of his that were being published in the West, he was a famous man. When literary dignitaries came to Russia, he was often the person they wanted to meet. But he could not get a poem published in the Soviet Union, not to speak of obtaining permission to attend literary conferences outside the Soviet Union. This is the sort of tragicomedy in which the USSR specialized. The authorities eventually tired of it, though, and one day, in June 1972, he was simply taken to the airport and put on a plane.
He did not know whether the plane was going east or west. It went west, to Vienna, and at the airport he was met by the American Slavist Carl Proffer, whom he knew, and whose small press, Ardis, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, would publish a number of his writings in Russian. Auden had a second home outside Vienna, and the day after Brodsky’s arrival Proffer rented a car and deposited Brodsky there, to what was apparently Auden’s surprise. Brodsky stayed for four weeks. Auden got him some money and called various people to say that he was coming.
Proffer arranged for him to be given a job as poet in residence at the University of Michigan, where he himself taught. In July 1972 Brodsky flew to the United States, where he would live until his death twenty-three years later. Almost always, he taught—after Michigan at other schools, above all, Mt. Holyoke, where he became a chaired professor. Over the years he received just about every important award a poet could want, culminating in the Nobel Prize in 1987.
Two years before Brodsky turned up on his doorstep, Auden had written a foreword to a collection of the Russian’s poems, translated by George Kline. Brodsky, Auden said, was
a traditionalist in the sense that he is interested in what most lyric poets in all ages have been interested in, that is, in personal encounters with nature, human artifacts, persons loved or revered, and in reflections upon the human condition, death, and the meaning of existence.
This seems rather soft-spoken, but it is accurate. Brodsky was not a modernist in the sense of embracing the absurd or expressing weariness. Quite the contrary. He pursued the “great themes,” energetically.
And because of what he saw as the gravity of his subject matter, he hated any looseness in a poem. He said that the poet Evgeny Rein, a friend of his, taught him:
if you really want your poem to work, the usage of adjectives should be minimal; but you should stuff it as much as you can with nouns—even the verbs should suffer. If you cast over a poem a certain magic veil that removes adjectives and verbs, when you remove the veil the paper still should be dark with nouns.
Dark with nouns: what a phrase! It reminds me of the frames that beekeepers use. When you pull one of the frames out of the box, it is thick with bees, clotted with them. The note of menace here is also true to Brodsky. In an interview for The Paris Review he told Sven Birkerts that one thing he loved about Robert Frost was his restraint, “that hidden, controlled terror.”
He too showed a hidden terror, and long before his trial the Soviet Union had given him cause. As a small child he nearly died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Because the family was Jewish, his father, a photographer, lost his job during Stalin’s onslaught against the Jews in the early 1950s; the family was supported, barely, by his mother’s clerical work. Partly to help out, Brodsky quit school at fifteen and took various low-level jobs, including, at one point, cutting and sewing bodies in a prison morgue. He fell in love with a painter, Marina Basmanova, but soon his friend and fellow poet Dmitri Bobyshev was also in love with Basmanova. That was when the denunciations began—a fact from which people have drawn conclusions about Bobyshev’s responsibility. Brodsky was twice detained in psychiatric hospitals. Then came the trial, the “internal exile” in Norenskaya, and, ultimately, the expulsion.
In his autobiographical essay “Less Than One,” first published in these pages, Brodsky records a memory from 1945, when he was five. He and his mother were in a train station, which was bedlam, because the war was just over and people were trying to get home:
My eye caught sight of an old, bald, crippled man with a wooden leg, who was trying to get into car after car, but each time was pushed away by the people who already were hanging on the footboards. The train started to move and the old man hopped along. At one point he managed to grab a handle of one of the cars, and then I saw a woman in the doorway lift a kettle and pour its boiling water straight on the old man’s bald crown.*
Another writer might well have expatiated on the pain of witnessing such a scene. Brodsky does not. For that modesty as well as his tremendous poetic powers he was cherished not just as an artist. He was a moral hero, to many people.
One was Alvis Hermanis (born in 1965), who is an important man in European theater. Hermanis started as a movie actor in his native Latvia. Now he is a director and works very widely across Europe, especially in German-speaking theater and in opera. (He just directed a Damnation de Faust at the Paris Opera. In 2018 he will stage Lohengrin at Bayreuth.) Since 1997 he has also been the head of the New Riga Theatre, a playhouse that opened, under that name, in 1902. In later years it was put to various uses by Nazis and Communists, but in 1992 it reopened as a repertory theater.
In the early 1990s, Hermanis was invited to perform in New York, and he stayed in the United States for two years. It was a difficult time for him. In his words, “I put my head in a washing machine.” He worked in New York for a year. Then he moved to San Diego, where he lived in a welfare hotel and communicated with no one. (“It was very cruel to my parents. For six months they did not know where I was.”) He spent every day, all day, in the San Diego Public Library, reading books that were forbidden in Latvia during Soviet times. This is when he encountered Brodsky’s poetry. He was overwhelmed by it. One day, at closing time, he could not bear to part with his Brodsky book, so he decided to steal it. “I did not know that they had put those little chips in the books. So when I tried to leave, many bells rang. I was so humiliated. I had to take this book out of my pants.”
Reading Brodsky, Hermanis says, is not just a mental but a physiological experience. “All those images have to do with physical sense, and it is physically painful, almost, to read him.” In this regard, he compares Brodsky to Chekhov, but he says that Brodsky is worse:
He is like a surgeon who is cutting with a knife your belly and looking straight in your eyes. He is killing you, and he is telling you. I had never before read a writer who has so no hope, who gives not the slightest chance. Whatever illusions you had, Brodsky makes you say goodbye to them. And so you achieve a sort of Buddhistic calm.
Hermanis conceived Brodsky/Baryshnikov as a tribute to Brodsky, but as the title indicates, he wrote it to be performed by only one man.
Mikhail Baryshnikov is a favorite son of Riga. Both his parents were Russian, but after the war the Soviet Union was faced with a drastic housing shortage, and the outlying territories were forced to take in many Russians, including Lieutenant Colonel Nikolay Petrovich Baryshnikov, who taught military topography, and his wife, Aleksandra Vasilievna. Mikhail Nikolayevich was born soon afterward, in 1948, and lived in Riga until, when he was in his early teens, his mother died (by suicide), his father remarried, and his ballet teacher—he had started lessons at age nine, at his mother’s behest—decided that he had progressed beyond the training that Latvia could give him. He needed to go to Leningrad, to the Kirov Ballet’s Vaganova Institute.
By the time Baryshnikov graduated from the Vaganova Institute and joined the Kirov in 1967, Brodsky had already returned from Norenskaya, and for the next seven years the two men lived in the same city. Baryshnikov knew Brodsky’s poetry, but the two men did not meet, and if they had, it wouldn’t have been good for Baryshnikov. Brodsky was a dangerous person to be seen with.
By this time, furthermore, Baryshnikov too was under suspicion, as a defection risk. In 1972, Brodsky was thrown out of Russia, and two years later Baryshnikov threw himself out. On tour in Toronto, he walked out of the stage door after a performance, signed some autographs, and then, instead of getting into the company bus, he turned and ran. A getaway car, arranged by friends, was waiting a few blocks away. He was now a Western artist.
In a long interview that he recently gave to the Latvian magazine Laiks, Baryshnikov recalled that he met Brodsky soon afterward, at a party at Mstislav Rostropovich’s house. “Joseph was sitting on a couch. He looked at me and said, ‘Mikhail, come sit down. There are things to talk about.’” Baryshnikov, though a celebrity, considered Brodsky a far greater celebrity. “My hands were shaking. The cigarette was going back and forth, like this,” he says, waving his hand like a windshield wiper. He sat down, and they talked for a long time. Thereafter they were friends for over twenty years, until Brodsky’s death. They spoke to each other every day.
In Brodsky, born eight years before him, Baryshnikov acquired a kind of older brother, and he needed one. Though a number of people were very kind to him, he did not, at this early point, have close friends in the United States, and he was slow in making them, because he had no time to study English. With Brodsky he could speak in Russian, and they had a city, a government—in some measure, a history—in common. “Over the years that we spent together, he really set me on my feet. I acquired a kind of certainty.” In addition to his lodgings in Ann Arbor, Brodsky eventually found an apartment in New York, on Morton Street in Greenwich Village. When he was in town, he and Baryshnikov would take walks along the nearby Hudson River.
Or we’d drink whiskey or we’d talk about girls or whatever—anything—and it was a real release for me. His house was so cozy. And there were always interesting people: Czesław Miłosz, Derek Walcott, Stephen Spender, Susan Sontag. He got me to read Russian classical literature that I hadn’t had time for when I was in Russia. I couldn’t yet talk to him very seriously about poetry, but I knew some poems by heart—Baratashvili, Mandelstam—and he would get me to recite them.
He was a stern judge. When he didn’t like something that I was doing, he’d say so. I remember, I did some sort of performance, a piece by Maurice Béjart, and there I’m dancing a solo of Hamlet in an empty café, and I recite “To be or not to be”
—this was Béjart’s Hamlet, to Purcell and Duke Ellington—
and then I throw down Yorick’s skull. Joseph saw this on TV, and when I saw him next he said to me, “We have to talk.” We went to a café and he said “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing this ballet because—what are you doing? It’s so vulgar.” He would say to me, “Be good.”
Baryshnikov was charmed by Brodsky’s vivacity, his capacity for fantasy and play, his readiness to love things. Brodsky loved water—he loved oceans, rivers. He adored Venice—he wrote a book on it, Watermark—and the Venetians made him an honorary citizen. He loved cats. (When he was young, he and his parents had a game where they would converse in a sort of cat-talk, meows in various registers.) He said that if he had to live another life he would like to be a cat in Venice, or even a rat. (He called Baryshnikov Mysh, or Mouse.) He cared about world events, and he hated to miss the evening news. He was a skirt-chaser, and women were crazy about him, too. (“He rarely left a party alone,” says Baryshnikov.) The prospect of his birthday thrilled him, and he would always stage a huge feast. “People came from faraway cities,” Baryshnikov recalls. “The place was packed. They partied all night long.” Baryshnikov, by contrast, was always rather embarrassed by his birthday. But Brodsky would bring him a book, with an inscription in it. In his interview with Laiks, Baryshnikov pulled one of the birthday books off his shelf and read the inscription:
Mysh is forty-three.
He has dumplings inside him.
His knee hurts.
There’s a fire burning in the hearth,
There’s smoke coming from the hearth.
And we’re siting here drunk.
“It rhymes,” Baryshnikov says.
As the lights go up on Brodsky/Baryshnikov we see a small glass house, nine feet by eighteen, with a front door and a back door, sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty stage. The house is in Art Nouveau style—it looks as if it had been made by the French Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard—but with certain odd features. Next to its front door, for example, is a dirty old fuse box that periodically spits out frightening sparks. Also, there is some sort of blackish moss creeping down the wooden strips that join the glass panels.
The music adds to the strangeness. There seems to be a sort of distant chorus, but sounding an unvarying note, plus, in the foreground, a noise of crickets. (This becomes more strange when you find out later that the distant chorus is also a recording of crickets, but very, very speeded up.) Both elements—the set design, by Kristīne Jurjāne, and the score, by Oļegs Novikovs and Gatis Builis—are elegant and sinister at the same time.
A man, Baryshnikov, appears at the back door carrying a small suitcase. You can tell that he has never been here before and that, in the manner of a fairy tale, he doesn’t know whose place this is, or what it is. He walks into the house, comes out the front door, pulls out a cigarette, bites off the filter (Brodsky used to do that), pats himself down to locate a pack of matches, finds none, and unhappily replaces the cigarette in its box. He opens the suitcase and takes out an alarm clock, a couple of books, and a pint of Jameson (Brodsky’s drink of choice). He puts on his glasses, opens one of the books, and begins reading a Brodsky poem. The rest of the play’s text flows from there: forty-four Brodsky poems, mostly unabridged, not at all in chronological order. (The one that ends the play was written when he was seventeen.) The poems were all chosen and arranged by Hermanis. They are spoken in Russian, with supertitles scrolling up the cornice of the glass house. (In Riga, the supertitles were in Latvian; in New York, they will be in English.)
I asked Hermanis whether he hadn’t worried that his show would turn out to be static—a poetry reading. He said no.
I had a story in my mind, that the play would be about a meeting between two people who had been closest friends for twenty years, and then one died. The performance would be like a spiritist séance. Direct communication with the audience is not our goal. Audience is not necessary. Audience is able just to witness.
Baryshnikov designed all the more elaborate movements, and he gives us a lot to look at. He spins, he stands on the chair, he strikes classical poses, he checks his teeth, he drinks the Jameson, he takes his clothes off and puts them on. He is constantly moving in and out of the house and thus from a state of firm reality to a sort of watery, dreamlike image as we watch him through the glass. During the recitation of “The Butterfly,” he chases an invisible butterfly and then, wittily, turns into one. During a beautiful poem about a horse, he does a brief flamenco dance, his chest as high and proud as a horse’s. There is a crisis. In the course of the poem “Portrait of Tragedy” he undergoes a grotesque series of convulsions. He stabs his navel so hard—he is shirtless here—that you think he is really going to harm himself.
But the main drama is in the use of the language. Sometimes Baryshnikov reads the poems from one of the books; sometimes he whispers the words, sometimes he yells them, sometimes he just opens his mouth and lets them fall out. Usually he speaks them from memory. Unnervingly, sometimes Brodsky reads the poems, over the sound system. (At those times, an old reel-to-reel tape recorder turns on one of the benches.) But then sometimes Baryshnikov too reads the poems on tape, and you’re not always sure which of them is speaking. Brodsky chants his poems, as some poets do, and Baryshnikov too chants, and davens, as if reciting a Jewish liturgy. Hermanis told me that Baryshnikov did this without being directed to, and that it is natural to people reciting poetry. It is part of poetry’s shamanism, he says.
Great dancer that Baryshnikov is, he has always been a considerable actor as well, and the treatment of the language is the most impressive thing in the show even, probably, to those who are getting it from the supertitles. Many knowledgeable people say that Brodsky’s poetry loses a huge portion of its power when it is not in Russian. “How could anyone who had not read him in Russian understand him by his English poems?” asked Isaiah Berlin, speaking, I believe, both of the poems that Brodsky wrote in English (he tried) and of English translations from Russian, both by him and by expert translators, often working with his help. “It’s utterly incomprehensible. Because there is no sense that they were written by a great poet. But in Russian,…from the very beginning, as soon as it starts, you are in the presence of genius.” Brodsky himself seemed to admit the problem. He called himself “a Russian poet and an American citizen.” His friend Lev Loseff, who taught in the Russian department at Dartmouth for thirty years, said in his masterful book on the poet that Brodsky won the Nobel Prize not for his poems, but for his essays, most of which he wrote in English.
Alvis Hermanis says that he knows Brodsky’s work in translation and that “there is no way to compare it to what he did in the Russian language.” But this does not discourage Hermanis. Remember his statement that reading Brodsky’s poetry is a physiological experience. In Brodsky’s mind, he says, language “bubbles, it scratches, it never stops.” And the play aims to show that.
As much as I am interested in the sense of the poetry, I am interested in the sound—how it goes through the body, sensual, erotical, or like an electrocution. Misha was interested in that, too, and willing to show it. The play is a real striptease. Misha is brave, he is crazy.
For both men, this is no doubt related to what is said to have been Brodsky’s belief that poetry was not something contained in a language as much as it was, itself, a language, speaking truths found only there, and which you ignore at your peril. Indifference to poetry, he felt, underlay the Soviet Union’s political crimes. In the Paris Review interview, Brodsky told Birkerts that his main interest was “the nature of time…what time can do to a man.” By which he seems to have meant not just that time kills us; it may also efface any sign of our passing on this earth.
Of the poems that Hermanis collected for his play, the most moving, I think, is “Letter to a Wall,” written by Brodsky when he was leaving his job at the prison morgue. “Keep my shadow,” he says to the wall. “Keep my shadow. I don’t know why./Preserve my shadow. I cannot explain. I’m sorry./It is important now. Preserve my shadow.” Of course, a shadow is a thing that may vanish instantly, and the people passing this particular wall—criminals, madmen—would have been most unlikely to be memorialized. That is why he chose the wall. He was twenty-four, and his trial was coming up in four months. He was afraid of being extinguished.
In 1990, Brodsky got married, to Maria Sozzani, an Italian woman with some Russian ancestry as well. She was twenty-two years younger than he. They had a child, Anna, in 1993. But he was already in poor health. “It’s hard to walk the length of a building,” he wrote to a friend late in 1995. A month later, his wife went to his study in the morning and found him dead on the floor, of his fourth heart attack, at fifty-five. He was buried in Venice.
At the end of Brodsky/Baryshnikov Baryshnikov packs his things back into the suitcase and heads out the back door of the little glass house. But something strange has appeared right beyond the threshold: a big, bushy green fern. It wasn’t there when he arrived, or it wasn’t lit so that we could see it. The play has been about a dead man, or a man visiting a dead man. He should not, at the end, be faced with this robust greeting from Mother Nature. Maybe Hermanis is saying that Brodsky was right: that there is some truth-beyond-truth that poetry, and nothing else, confers. Maybe if, in Hermanis’s words, you let yourself be electrocuted by Brodsky, you don’t die. You start to live.
For information about the Joseph Brodsky Memorial Fellowship Fund, founded by Mikhail Baryshnikov with Brodsky’s family to honor the poet, please visit josephbrodsky.org.
Joseph Brodsky, “Less Than One,” The New York Review, September 27, 1979. ↩
For the painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet, genuine art was chaotic, unlearned, and driven by “instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” It was created by those who had no schooling in the arts. “There was more art and poetry in the talk of a young barber,” he wrote in 1945, “than among the specialists in art and poetry.” He believed the best examples were found in the work of the mentally ill, who, he argued, were unafraid of the “ecstasies of the mind,” which served as a private reserve for their work. Dubuffet spent decades collecting examples of this “savage art to which no one pays any attention,” which he called “art brut.” This work, nearly two hundred examples of which are now on view at the American Folk Art Museum, embodied for him a spontaneous and immediate way of making art, an untrained rawness. Art brut was a source of inspiration for his own work, which ranged from primitive-looking drawings scratched into impasto to a totemic figure composed only of two unmodified grapevine roots and a block of slag. But he also advocated tirelessly to spread art brut’s influence as a movement, from postwar France to New York and, in particular, to Chicago. Dubuffet’s greatest contribution to contemporary art, beyond his own work, may have been his validation of an art of instinct and his insistence on what he called an “infinitely diversified expansion” of art history.
Unlike his art brut practitioners, Dubuffet was well versed in cultural history. Born in Le Havre in 1901 into a family of wine merchants, he attended art school and studied the humanities. But academic influence, he felt, took him further from an intimacy with the common man. A stint in the family business and a marriage he described as being perfectly bourgeois did little to help. He read parts of the Austrian physician Hans Prinzhorn’s Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922), a book that had influenced Paul Klee and many other early-twentieth-century avant garde artists whose work was shown in the Nazis’ infamous degenerate art exhibition. The book had a pronounced effect on Dubuffet, as did, later on, the carved wooden sculptures of the French psychiatric patient Auguste Forestier, which spurred Dubuffet to seek out similar works that would eventually form the basis of his art brut collection.
In his quest for rawness and novelty in his own art, Dubuffet passed through many different styles or periods, a progression that the Museum of Modern Art’s recent survey, “Jean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground,” attempted to outline by drawing on nearly ninety works from its collection. In the 1940s, for instance, Dubuffet liberated himself from the unwanted influences of the academy in part by studying what he called the “thrilling folie-bergère” attitude of the Paris streets and the new metro, both of which offered a direct connection to the vigor and informality of daily life. His paintings and lithographs from the postwar years are a carnival of archaic-looking nude figures and crumbling, graffitied walls.
Dubuffet’s work also drew on cultures that, as he saw it, had developed apart from a Western fine-art tradition. Between 1947 and 1949, he made three trips to Algeria. There he found an appealing strangeness in the indecipherability of the language (despite having studied an Arabic dialect for three years) and in the shifting desert landscape, celebrating what he perceived (with a whiff of ethnocentrism) as being improvisatory and ephemeral. A drawing from 1948, taken from Dubuffet’s Algerian sketchbook, shows the outlines of some two dozen footprints overlapping one another and turned every which way—one footprint disappearing under the lines of another, both dissolving into meaningless, transient marks.
In 1947, Dubuffet introduced stones and sand into his paintings; later, soil, leaves, slag, citrus peels, and wood. For La Piste au désert, a painting from 1949, he used oil, putty, sand, and pebbles to create a pocked, earthy surface that replicates the look of a weathered artifact. Some thought his materials were silly. A headline in Life magazine in 1948 trumpeted, “Dead End Art: A Frenchman’s Mud-and-Rubble Paintings Reduce Modernism to a Joke.” But the notoriously belligerent critic Clement Greenberg, writing in 1949, declared Dubuffet to be “perhaps the one new painter of real importance to have appeared on the scene in Paris in the last decade.”
Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne, SwitzerlandAuguste Forestier: Untitled, circa 1935–1951
MoMA/Nina and Gordon Bunshaft FundJean Dubuffet: Wall with Inscriptions, 1945
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. Ralph F. ColinJean Dubuffet: Bird Perched on the Corner of the Wall, 1945
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. Ralph F. ColinJean Dubuffet: Profile of a Man’s Head in Front of a Wall, 1945
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. N. Richard Miller Fund; Mr. and Mrs. Alex L. Hillman Fund; Samuel Girard FundJean Dubuffet: The Magician, 1954
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. Donald H. PetersJean Dubuffet: Black Earth, 1955
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. Ralph F. Colin Fund/Philip JohnsonJean Dubuffet: Soil Ornamented with Vegetation, Dead Leaves, Pebbles, Diverse Debris, 1956
MoMA/Mr. and Mrs. Ralph F. ColinJean Dubuffet: Pavement of Skin, 1958
MoMA/Mrs. Sam A. Lewisohn FundJean Dubuffet: Beard of Uncertain Returns, 1959
MoMA/Mary Sisler BequestJean Dubuffet: Soul of the Underground, 1959
MoMA/Nina and Gordon Bunshaft BequestJean Dubuffet: Beard Wine, 1959
Dubuffet’s work, as art historian Aruna D’Souza has written, is conspicuous as a model for a new kind of art. It affirmed, in part, Abstract-Expressionism’s “vulgar” impulses: in 1947, Dubuffet was showing abstract figures incised into impastoed paint with the wrong end of a paint brush or with his fingers; at the same moment, Pollock was beginning to pour skeins of house paint across canvases that also included nails, tacks, coins, and cigarettes. (In comparing the two, Greenberg faulted Dubuffet for clinging to figuration while Pollock was able to eliminate explicit subject matter from his work.)
While making his own art, Dubuffet advocated on behalf of art brut in famously eloquent pamphlets, speeches, and manifestos. In 1951, he gave a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago called “Anticultural Positions,” which set out his antiformalist, expressive style and his dissatisfaction with Western conceptions of beauty. He rejected the notion that certain objects are more beautiful than others, advocating instead for the idea that “there is no ugly object nor ugly person in this world and that beauty does not exist anywhere, but that any object is able to become fascinating and illuminating.”
At roughly the same time as his Chicago speech, Dubuffet created a series of works that depicted perspectivally flattened tables whose amoeba-like surfaces are crammed with objects. “I am convinced that any table can be for each of us a landscape as inexhaustible as the whole Andes range,” he wrote. Evolving Portrait, a drawing from 1952, depicts a head and torso similarly suffused with a profusion of squiggly marks. His ink-on-paper landscapes from the same year are exploded versions of the same dense, chaotic marks.
By 1960, a thick network of lines fills the canvas in a drawing titled Epidermis, but the marks have become so massed and compact that the view might be microscopic or seen from a great distance. Dubuffet’s primitive impulse became thoroughly notional in Phenomena, a series comprising some three hundred lithographs that mimic the look of natural textures and surfaces. He then cut up these lithographs for use in his collages; they existed as a reserve of imagery much like that utilized by art brut’s practitioners.
Dubuffet was steadfast in his creative vision, and his art is remarkable for the variety with which he explored every aspect of its expression. It reached perhaps its best-known phase with L’Hourloupe, an idiom he discovered in the early 1960s while doodling at the telephone, in which black lines framed cells of unmixed vinyl paint, often red and blue. In later years he went on to create large scale outdoor sculptures and figures made from polystyrene and epoxy.
The trajectory of twentieth-century art history has long been a fairly tidy one, with artists of similar sensibilities herded into neat groups; those who fall beyond these bounds are too often left out of the story, sometimes “rehabilitated” only decades later. But art brut offers a ready example of looking beyond expected lines of investigation into what Dubuffet praised as “new values not yet perceived.”
In some circles, “redistribution” of wealth has become a dirty word, and recent efforts to make the tax system more progressive have run into serious political resistance, above all from Republicans. But whatever your political party, you are unlikely to approve of the illegal use of tax havens. As it turns out, a lot of wealthy people in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have been hiding money in foreign countries—above all, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Virgin Islands. As a result, they have been able to avoid paying taxes in their home countries. Until recently, however, officials have not known the magnitude of that problem.
But people are paying increasing attention to it. A vivid new documentary, The Price We Pay, connects tax havens, inequality, and insufficient regulation of financial transactions. The film makes a provocative argument that a new economic elite—wealthy managers and holders of capital—is now able to operate on a global scale, outside the constraints of any legal framework. In a particularly chilling moment, it shows one of the beneficiaries of the system cheerfully announcing on camera: “I don’t feel any remorse about not paying taxes. I think it’s a marvelous way in life.”
Gabriel Zucman, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, has two goals in his new book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations: to specify the costs of tax havens, and to figure out how to reduce those costs. While much of his analysis is technical, he writes with moral passion, even outrage; he sees tax havens as a “scourge.” His figures are arresting. About 8 percent of the world’s wealth, or $7.6 trillion, is held in tax havens. In 2015, Switzerland alone held $2.3 trillion in foreign wealth. As a result of fraud from unreported foreign accounts, governments around the world lose about $200 billion in tax revenue each year. Most of this amount comes from the evasion of taxes on investment income, but a significant chunk comes from fraud on inheritances. In the United States, the annual tax loss is $35 billion; in Europe, it is $78 billion. In African nations, it is $14 billion.
The fractions of wealth held abroad are highly variable. In Europe, it is about 10 percent. In African and Latin countries, it is much higher—between 20 percent and 30 percent. In Russia, it is a whopping 52 percent. It follows that while tax havens hit wealthy nations hardest in absolute terms, they can have especially destructive effects on poorer or developing countries, because such a high percentage of their money is offshore. Zucman does not explain why this is so, but it is possible to speculate that one reason is rampant corruption within both the public and private sectors. The extraordinarily high figure for Russia might be best understood as involving money corruptly acquired or invested, which suggests an important point: all uses of tax havens are not the same. Sometimes government officials are the ones who are evading taxes, and they do not want to stop that evasion.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis, you might expect that there would be an international crackdown on the use of tax havens, and as we shall see, international attention is indeed growing. But the numbers demonstrate that no crackdown has occurred. In Luxembourg, offshore wealth actually increased from 2008 to 2012 (by 20 percent). In Switzerland, the increase has been comparable; foreign holdings are now close to an all-time high. Disturbingly, the new wealth is coming mostly from developing countries, which poses a serious problem in light of the severe strains on their limited budgets.
Zucman is the first economist to produce specific numbers of this kind, and to do so, he had to undertake some creative detective work. In order to identify hidden wealth, he focuses on “anomalies”—situations in which international balance sheets show, in aggregate, more liabilities than assets. To see the importance of that inquiry, Zucman asks readers to imagine that a citizen of the United Kingdom holds an American security—say, stock in Google—in a bank account in Switzerland. In the United States, statisticians estimating US wealth overall will record a liability, because a foreigner owns US equities. But in Switzerland, statisticians will see nothing, and for a good reason: Google stock held in Switzerland by a UK resident will be, for Switzerland, neither an asset nor a liability. In the UK too, nothing will be registered, but for a bad reason: the UK has no way of knowing that one of its citizens owns Google stock in Switzerland. From this example, we can see the anomaly: on the global level, liabilities will be recorded as exceeding assets.
Zucman puts it this way: “as far back as statistics go, there is a ‘hole’; if we look at the world balance sheet, more financial assets are recorded as liabilities than as assets, as if planet Earth were in part held by Mars.” For the purpose of producing an accounting of hidden wealth, that is actually helpful, because “money doesn’t evaporate randomly into the ether, but instead follows a precise pattern of tax evasion.” In 2015, for example, the nations of the world reported $2 trillion as mutual fund holdings in Luxembourg; this is the total of recorded liabilities. But Luxembourg’s own statisticians calculated that worldwide, $3.5 trillion in mutual fund holdings were kept in Luxembourg; that is the total of recorded assets. What happened to the missing $1.5 trillion? In global statistics, that amount had no owners. For Zucman’s purposes, the anomaly is a revealing one: the amount by which assets exceed liabilities is a measure of wealth hidden in offshore accounts.
Zucman acknowledges that his measure is only an estimate. He must rely heavily on just two nations, Switzerland and Luxembourg, since both provide useful statistics about assets and liabilities; most tax havens do not do so. To make up for the missing information, he enlists some indirect measures. The technical issues need not concern us here. What matters is that Zucman convincingly argues that his accounting is at least pretty close, and that the grand total has to be in the general vicinity of $7.6 trillion.
How might this problem be solved? Zucman points to several recent efforts. An illuminating failure comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which instituted, in 2009, what it saw as a promising “on-demand” system for exchanging relevant information about the nationality and holdings of investors. Under that system, any nation may request information about investors from foreign banks, but only if it can establish a well-founded suspicion that fraud has occurred. The problem is that in order to have a well-founded suspicion of fraud, nations need to have relevant information in the first place. Often they don’t. Even though the 2009 reform has been widely praised, it seems to have had little or no effect, and Zucman denounces it as a “masquerade.” Recall that since 2009, the use of tax havens has increased significantly.
Zucman is also unimpressed by the Savings Tax Directive, adopted with considerable fanfare by the European Union in 2005. That directive imposes a simple requirement. When, for example, citizens of the UK earn interest on French accounts, the French government must automatically inform tax officials in the UK. That sounds like a solution, but it runs into three problems. First, it excludes dividends altogether. Second, it has been successfully avoided by the creation of shell corporations and trusts, which make it hard to know who, exactly, owns what. Third, nations are not treated equally; for example, Luxembourg and Austria are not required to send information automatically.
Zucman much prefers the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which was signed into law by President Obama in 2010. Under FATCA, all foreign banks are required to identify any American citizens among their clients and to disclose to the Internal Revenue Service the amount of their holdings and any dividends and interest paid on them. What Zucman emphasizes, and especially admires, is the automatic nature of the act’s requirements. The IRS need not name names or show grounds for suspicion. Every year, foreign banks are required to comply. If they fail to do so, they face a severe sanction, in the form of a 30 percent withholding tax on gross income (including dividends and interest) from US sources. In Zucman’s account, the sanction appears to be working; foreign banks are meeting their obligations, and some initially skeptical nations (including China) are even praising the new law.
With this precedent in mind, Zucman unveils his principal proposal: an automatic, fully global register, so that every government in the world can know where money is kept, and who is trying to escape national taxes. Under his proposal, the register would record “who owns all the financial securities in circulation, stocks, bonds, and shares of mutual funds throughout the world.” If rich people in the United States or Germany are depositing their money into Swiss banks, the Swiss authorities would have to inform American and German officials of the deposits. Zucman emphasizes that all this should be done automatically, so as to make special inquiries or evidence of suspicion unnecessary.
With the register, tax authorities could tell, essentially immediately, if their citizens are using tax havens. Zucman notes that a global register of this kind could have other benefits, helping to combat the financing of terrorism, bribery, and money laundering; public and private corruption might be added to this list. He notes too (and here he will immediately lose some readers) that such a register could facilitate the imposition of a global wealth tax, of the sort proposed, very controversially, by Thomas Piketty.
To avoid the charge of utopianism, Zucman emphasizes that there is a clear international movement in the direction he favors. With respect to the approach taken in FATCA, some nations are already considering emulating the United States, and importantly, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Switzerland have said that they would agree to automatic sharing of bank information. But he acknowledges some serious obstacles to the current reform efforts. The first is that, with the exception of the United States, nations are not threatening to impose penalties. That is a major problem, because a polite “please” will not do the job, especially since foreign banks have so much to gain from continuing business as usual.
The second obstacle is financial opacity. Many offshore accounts remain hidden through trusts and shell corporations, which makes it difficult for anyone to link those accounts with their real owners, even when information is formally exchanged. Zucman emphasizes the need to promote financial “transparency” (a principal term for him) and to ensure verification. To this end, he calls for serious economic sanctions against tax havens (as in the US approach), potentially including customs tariffs against nations that help “defrauders evade their home countries’ laws.”
Zucman has a final concern: tax avoidance by multinational corporations. As he is aware, this is a quite different problem from tax evasion, because it is typically done without violating a national law. Under US law, for example, American companies have significant discretion to locate their operations where they please, and also to shift their profits to nations with lower tax rates. Even if this is lawful, Zucman thinks that it is a problem. As a result of tax avoidance, US firms are able to save $130 billion annually, contributing to a decline in the effective corporate tax rate from 30 percent in the late 1990s to about 20 percent today.
In response, he wants “a radical reform of corporate taxation.” He favors a kind of tax on global profits, one that starts with the worldwide profits of firms, and then apportions them to each country. If, for example, a multinational company earns $900 billion in global profits in 2016, a formula would be used to allocate that amount among the various nations in which it does business. Each nation would be free to apply its ordinary tax rate to the profits allocated by that formula. Zucman notes that in the United States, corporate taxes within states already operate a bit like this, with national profit calculations followed by an apportionment formula.
On this particular issue, Zucman’s approach seems naive; many tax specialists believe that the apportionment system works very poorly in the United States, and any kind of international formula would produce serious challenges of accounting (let alone politics). Nonetheless, Zucman has produced an important book, above all because of his effort to calculate the magnitude of the world’s hidden wealth. As he acknowledges, his estimates depend on a degree of guesswork, not least because of the absence of reliable worldwide statistics. Even so, he has used the most rigorous methods to date, and he makes a convincing argument that the global figure is unlikely to be much lower than his $7.6 trillion estimate. It might well be higher.
The result is a substantial loss of revenue worldwide, with unfortunate consequences for both public services and deficits. According to Zucman, the United States is losing $35 billion in annual taxes, and some estimates say that the real loss is as high as $100 billion.* If so, and if those who successfully evade taxes are mostly the wealthiest people, there is a serious problem. By way of comparison, the entire annual budget of the Department of State is in the vicinity of $50 billion.
At the same time, Zucman’s proposed solution raises an assortment of questions. Should nations really want a global institution to keep a register of everyone’s ownership of stocks, bonds, shares of mutual funds, and other financial securities? Might there be a risk to personal privacy? To be sure, Zucman does not want everyone’s holdings to be visible on the Internet. A global institution could be required to maintain privacy. But many people would undoubtedly fear that it would not respect that requirement, and that people with nefarious purposes might be able to get access to it. And who, exactly, would serve as that global institution? Zucman suggests the International Monetary Fund, which is probably the most natural candidate. The IMF has a great deal of credibility in many circles, but hardly in all. Should the IMF be given full access to people’s financial holdings?
These questions might well have answers. With respect to privacy, domestic banks are already required to make reports to the IRS, and the privacy concerns do not seem severe; perhaps the risks could be controlled at the global level as well. Nonetheless, an international effort to negotiate a global register might not be feasible. A less provocative suggestion, in the spirit of Zucman’s proposal, would be that other nations should move on their own toward adoption of the approach embodied in FATCA—by which banks must identify their clients and report their holdings—complete with stiff penalties for noncompliance.
In Europe, which is losing a lot of tax revenue, that approach could prove especially helpful. True, some developing countries might lack the leverage to enforce requirements of this kind, and because of domestic corruption, some nations would be reluctant to impose those requirements. To these problems, the best solution might be an international treaty to uncover hidden wealth, through which participants generalize the requirements of FATCA. That approach might have significant advantages over the global register that Zucman favors.
But there are counterarguments here as well. Zucman largely praises FATCA, but in the United States, the law has turned out to be highly controversial, and some people are loudly calling for its repeal or modification. One reason is expense. Foreign financial institutions are not at all happy with the considerable administrative burdens that it imposes. Another reason involves unintended adverse consequences. Because FATCA increases the costs of having American investors, it gives some foreign banks an incentive not to allow Americans to invest at all (or to charge them higher fees). The law is also a blunt instrument. A lot of law-abiding Americans, living abroad, use foreign financial institutions, and they do not need FATCA to ensure that they obey the law. The same is true of many Americans who choose, for one or another reason, to invest abroad.
But if we keep the size of Zucman’s estimates in mind, these concerns need not be taken as decisive. If the effect of FATCA is to produce major reductions in tax evasion, and to ensure that people pay what they owe, then it might well be worthwhile to incur the costs. Of course foreign banks do not like the law, not only because compliance can be burdensome, but also because it makes it much harder to provide tax havens. That is not exactly an argument against FATCA.
A strong virtue of Zucman’s book is that it puts a bright spotlight on an area in which significant reforms might appeal to people who otherwise disagree on a great deal. You might believe that the tax system should be made more progressive, or you might believe that it should be made less so. But whatever you think, you are unlikely to support a situation in which trillions of dollars are hardly taxed at all.
See Jane G. Gravelle, “Tax Havens: International Tax Avoidance and Evasion,” Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, January 15, 2015. ↩
It’s brave of Tate Britain to mount an exhibition called “Artist and Empire” when we are constantly mumbling apologies for Britain’s imperial past—for wars and slavery, exploitation and looting, religious and cultural oppression. Not that this show is a celebration. By its own account it is rather an attempt to show how artists have responded to the history and ethos of empire over the last five centuries, and to address its legacy “not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.” Ambitious, no doubt. But the presentation has an uncomfortable diffidence. I went on a drizzly December day with a clever, sassy friend, who immediately nudged me as we read the first labels, raising her eyebrow at the evasive historical detail, the fudging, politically correct phrase.
This raises the question of how much one can appreciate an individual work of art, or indeed a genre, when the context is so dominant. The first room, for example, is filled with maps, many showing the spread of pink across the globe. It begins with a vivid watercolor diagram of the siege of Enniskillen Castle in 1593, a part of the English campaign to capture the Ulster province of northern Ireland, the beginning of colonization—a land-grab near to home. It feels embarrassing to admire—as I couldn’t help doing—the clever sketches of little groups of musketeers and the beautifully drawn boats with their siege ladders on board, in the knowledge of the centuries of trouble that lay ahead.
Next to this hangs Henry Popple’s huge, ravishingly beautiful 1733 map of the East Coast of North America, from Newfoundland to below the Gulf of Mexico, showing the British colonies. The label tells us that the founding fathers kept this after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 even though it was now “redundant.” We were puzzled—how could such an intricate, careful map be redundant? The colors of possession had changed, but the creeks and inlets, the forests and mountains remained, regardless of politics. And of course they kept it, not only for its beauty but for its reminder of what they had won.
There is another side of imperialism here—a sense of wonder, as the eyes of Europe were opened to the myriad beauties of distant lands, evident in zoological and botanical paintings of new species: a tall, serene crane from India; colorful birds and fish from China; and a spectacular spotted pink fungus from south-east Asia named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the British governor of Java and founder of Singapore.
This is in stark contrast to the powerful issues of meaning and reception provoked by a room aptly named “Imperial Heroics,” where group after group of soldiers appear, braving violence and extremes. These include famous propagandist works: Benjamin West’s TheDeath of General James Wolfe; Elizabeth Butler’s The Remnants of an Army, showing the only survivor of the British army after the disastrous 1842 retreat from Kabul during the first Afghan war; Joseph Noel Paton’s tear-jerking women and children in the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” On one wall a solemn Victoria offers a Bible to a kneeling African prince as The Secret of England’s Greatness; opposite, in Edward Armitage’s Retribution, a huge, muscular Britannia rams a sword into an Indian tiger. These are appalling images in all senses. Yet artists made good money out of such paintings, a reminder of how art is driven by the market: in this case by Victorian manufacturers and provincial corporations rushing to show their pride in empire.
As the history unfolds, we also see the desire not just to relish but literally to clothe oneself in conquest. A striking set of portraits shows British bigwigs garbed in what they regarded as “native dress.” Boy, how these men loved dressing up, putting on a turban or a Native American headdress. And while Marcus Gheeraerts’s ruthless Elizabethan soldier Captain Thomas Lee (1594) is bizarre in his bare-legged stance as an Irish soldier—he had fought in the Ireland campaigns—sometimes they seem to have understood what they were doing. A glowing Van Dyck of William Fielding, probably painted shortly after his return from travels in Persia and India (1631-1633), shows the portly, grey-haired earl wearing a pink, gold-striped kurta and pajamas in a composite British-Indian landscape and looking thoroughly at home.
But what did it mean to be “at home” in these colonized countries? In India in the eighteenth century, before evangelical missionaries and politicians began to demonize Hindu culture, there was considerable fraternization and inter-marriage. The German-born Johann Zoffany (1733-1810) was one of many artists who traveled to India to paint the nabobs, and his joyful, witty paintings catch the spirit perfectly. A century later, John Griffiths lived and taught in Bombay for many years, and his pupils, adopting Western styles, produced haunting portraits like Manchershaw Pithawalla’s The Houseboy (1898). By contrast, African artists looked quizzically at the British officials and missionaries, portrayed in vigorous, comical wooden statues wearing bowler hats, riding bicycles, smoking pipes.
Yet the atmosphere surrounding the work of all these artists is ambivalent, uneasy, shifty. And there are moments of real shock. I stood before the case containing the bronzes of royal heads by Edo artists, looted in the “Punitive Raid” on Benin City in southern Nigeria in 1897, and found myself saying out loud, “They should go back.” Many other Benin trophies were sold on the auction circuit, and it was a kind of confirmation to find, in the last room of all, plates from Tony Phillips’s 1984 etchings of these Benin bronzes making the same point. Yet Phillips also suggests—in a quote in the show’s excellent catalogue—how the great bronzes speak to us across the centuries, “even after the plunder, the dispersal, and the re-presentation in alien environments.”
While the curators have tried to show artists inspired by a mixing of traditions, the examples, on the whole, aren’t strong enough. The only major paintings to stand out are two great Sidney Nolan scenes retelling the story of Eliza Fraser’s life with the Butchulla people of what came to be known as Fraser Island off the east coast of Australia, and her “rescue” by a convict. These are canvases that challenge conventional notions of the “primitive,” bringing together the landscape, the history, and the power of aboriginal rock drawings. We have to wait until the final room to see how contemporary artists handle this complex legacy. And in this room, too, women artists come into their own.
The exhibition ends with works that throw the fraught heritage of empire back at us. One is a four-panel painting by Sonia Boyce, Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain so Great (1986). Remembering school history lessons and her “hollow feeling that all these English kings–and fewer queens” were absolutely remote from her life as an east-London girl of West Indian parentage, she adopted a Victorian format, echoing Rossetti’s The Beloved. Within a background of blood-red roses like a William Morris design are cross-shaped monochrome panels, like public memorials of grief: Cape Colony, India, and Australia. These are replaced in the final panel with a woman’s face from the Caribbean, a note of defiance, hope, and change. And hope glimmers too in the dazzling work by the Singh Twins, EnTWINed (2009). With their wit and imagination, the twins, who are British-born Sikhs and the children of migrants, have created a critique of Victorian paintings of emigration and conflict, combining the intricate designs of Mughal miniature art with a dry commentary on tradition and modern life. Everything is here, from soldiers and suffragettes, to football and skyscrapers and Bollywood films.
So—or so it seems—we are supposed to leave these artists of empire on a cheerful note. But as impressions settle, that unease remains. One or two critics have damned the show as static, stuffy, and academic, yet its boldness and ambiguity—reflecting the mix of pride and shame in our imperial past—is mesmerizing. “Artist and Empire” is not an exhibition to “enjoy,” but it is thought-provoking, humbling, and disconcerting. I’m glad I went.
“Artist and Empire” is showing at Tate Britain in London through April 10, 2016.
In a house in Rafah, at the southern edge of Gaza, I met Sheikh Omar Hams, fifty-one years old, a slender figure dressed in a simple white robe and seated on a mattress on the floor. Hams is director of the Ibn Baz Islamic Institute, based in Rafah, where it also runs a bakery and charity outlets. His mission, he says, is to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad and to give bread and other aid to the homeless and the poor.
Hams is a Salafist sheikh. “A Salaf means an original ancestor—one of those who lived close to the Prophet and observed his actions intimately, followed his ways and his words literally,” he explains. The sheikh teaches his students how to return to those ways, and they in turn spread the word. Unlike many Salafis, who abhor any rational argument about the literal meaning of the Koran, Hams is open to at least some debate. And though sometimes willing to support violent jihad, he accepts that violence is often not justified, preferring instead to secure a return to original Islam through the use of prayer, study, and preaching.
Pulling his legs underneath him, the sheikh prepares for questions on how the Prophet might have viewed the methods of Daesh (ISIS)—also Salafists—and on the battle to contain its influence across the world, most particularly here in Gaza.
Since 2007 Hamas has been the de facto government of Gaza, albeit under Israeli rule—a rule implemented nowadays by means of a military and naval blockade by air, land, and sea, which is described by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, as “a collective penalty against the people of Gaza.” Hamas is itself an Islamist resistance movement, with a resistance “army” called al-Qassem, but Hamas members are seen as infidels by ISIS since they place the nationalist battle for a Palestinian state before the campaign for a caliphate. Hamas’s willingness to negotiate with Israel and to agree to a cease-fire last summer was seen by ISIS as the latest demonstration of its collaboration. ISIS supporters inside Gaza have shown their opposition and tried to break the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel, thereby angering Hamas and risking heavy Israeli retaliation.
In recent months, Hamas has tried to crush groups of Salafi jihadists in Gaza, some of whom declare open support for ISIS and are in touch with its networks in Syria. As well as rounding them up Hamas has “persuaded” moderate Salafi sheikhs to help convince jihadists that their interpretation of Muhammad’s wishes is wrong. One of these sheikhs is Omar Hams.
If the sheikh had made such an agreement with Hamas, was he not, I asked, aligning himself with the infidel Hamas in ISIS’s eyes, thereby risking his own life? He took a deep breath. “Jihad is allowed under Islamic rules,” he replied. “When Muslims see a danger to their own land or their own families or themselves, it is allowed for them to defend themselves.”
Anticipating the next question, he continued: “On the question of Daesh. In the beginning when Daesh began as an Islamic military group it was fighting the US occupation in Iraq. We agreed with it, as it was an occupation. But after that they behaved in a…”—he paused—“confusing way.”
What did he mean? “They were too easy with the blood. We did not agree with that at all,” he said, which was why he had decided to help Hamas resist ISIS’s presence in Gaza.
Daesh supporters had to be corrected, Sheikh Omar went on. Theirs was not a “pure” interpretation of jihadism. Daesh was a creation of the West and was not therefore “pure inside.” It was created, in his view,
by the thousands of bombs dropped on the heads of Muslims, and by the rejection of democratically elected Muslim governments, such as that in Egypt, and by the support for the state that is oppressing us here in Gaza, and that is Israel. All of this has created feelings of pressure among our youth, leading them to think like Daesh, alienating an entire generation. However, we don’t agree with this thinking and have condemned it. But we should understand the motivations. The Koran urges mercy and peace.
I first went to Gaza in 1993, when I reported for the London Independent newspaper while Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House Lawn to seal the Oslo Accords, which envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state. At that time Gaza, along with the West Bank, was occupied with Israeli troops permanently on the ground as well as at the borders. Under the Oslo Accords, Israeli troops would withdraw totally from both territories, which would be joined by safe passages and transformed into a workable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. White doves with olive branches appeared on walls as soon as Arafat and Rabin shook hands.
The Oslo Accords foundered, sabotaged by extremists on both sides. More than a decade later, in 2005, Israel withdrew its occupying troops and its Jewish settlers from Gazan soil, but still controlled its borders and much else. As hopes of peace faded, Hamas won power in parliamentary elections in 2006 but Israel and the West refused to acknowledge the victory, calling Hamas a terrorist group. After internecine strife among the Palestinian leadership in 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza, which Israel placed under a strict blockade, splitting it off from the PLO-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Today 1.8 million Palestinians—including 1.2 million refugees—are crammed into Gaza, just twenty-five miles long and eight miles at its widest. When I returned a year ago to report on the aftermath of the 2014 summer war, it was ringed by walls and fences. Gunboats lay offshore. Drones hovered in the sky.
I first heard the name “Daesh” hours after arriving as I sat under a dripping tarpaulin in Beit Hanoun, a border village. A boy padded through the mud in socks. His father, whose house was one of more than 11,000 destroyed in the war according to UN figures, told me that a man “in Pakistani garb” had been seen near the city’s bombed-out sewage plant. But he didn’t seem concerned, nor did other Gazans I spoke to—all had other things to worry about, such as moving the rubble with their bare hands.
Gazans showed a remarkable resilience in the aftermath of the war, a kind of defiance. Perhaps it was surprise at finding that they had survived when 2,205, had died, including 521 children and 283 women. Raji Sourani, a Gazan lawyer, told me that Israel was to be taken to the International Criminal Court, not only in the hope of securing justice but also “to send a message to the people that we want the rule of law in Gaza, not Daesh.” When I returned over the next twelve months, some Gazans told me they still had such hopes; but as they faded support for Daesh grew.
By last month the threat had become so serious that the Salafist sheikh Omar Hams had come out of the shadows to appeal to the West to change its approach to the Muslim world. An agricultural engineer, Hams, who has never been outside Gaza except to study engineering in Sudan, works on Rafah’s chicken farms, monitoring water purity. But he is happiest with his Salafist students. He is an admirer of Osama bin Laden and passes on crude theories alleging that the US bombing created Daesh.
His central point, however, is incontestable. ISIS is taking root in Gaza among its disillusioned youth; he might not be able to persuade his own students “to maintain peaceful methods,” Omar Hams said. “We are dealing with individual souls. Anyone oppressed can do anything. That is why I issue a warning: to end the suffering of Palestinians, so that…we can influence our people. Otherwise there is no 100 percent guarantee of anything.”
In fact, hardly anyone believes that the suffering in Palestine will end anytime soon. But analysts and politicians have always assumed nevertheless that ISIS would never have strong appeal to Palestinians, who demand a country, not a caliphate. Most Sunni Muslims—about 90 percent of the world’s Muslim population, including Palestinians—reject the activist Salafi approach as too literal and sometimes violent in its methods. Conventional wisdom has it that there are separate strands of Salafism—“peaceful” and “jihadist.” But on the ground in Gaza definitions blur, alliances shift.
The seeds of ISIS in Gaza were sown back in the 1970s when small numbers of Gazans adopted Salafism. Some of them centered their activities on a small charity in Rafah called the Ibn Baz Institute, named after Abdullah Ibn Baz, who, until his death in 1999, was the Saudi kingdom’s highest religious authority. Ibn Baz was so stubbornly literal in his readings of the Koranic texts that he is even said to have insisted they meant the sun revolved around the earth.
By 1999 the Rafah institute named after him was almost defunct. Then in the early 2000s Salafism had a revival across the Muslim world, including Gaza, and in 2002 Omar Hams took over the failing Ibn Baz charity and turned it into a going concern. Today during bad times—war, for example—the charity can secure up to $4 million a year in donations, mostly from Saudi Arabia.
Also around 2002 Osama bin Laden was winning numerous new recruits to Gaza’s Salafist jihadi cause, including a young man named Sheikh Ismael Humaid, now a prominent Salafist leader in Gaza. Humaid, a tall man with a limp, the youngest of ten children, was born in Gaza’s seaside Shati Camp in 1975 and from the beach near his home he could see the lights of Ashdod, the thriving Israeli port where his grandparents lived before fleeing to Gaza in the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel.
Imprisoned several times in the late 1980s and early 1990s for burning buses that were bringing Jewish settlers to Gaza, Humaid dropped out of school, taking odd jobs. In 2002, during the second intifada, he converted to Salafism. “I felt I could be killed any minute. I took this as a sign to turn to God, so I would die a good man,” he said, then turned to me and in his barely audible voice suggested that I convert too as I’d find paradise. There was no hint of irony.
Humaid became an al-Qaeda supporter and named a son after Osama bin Laden. In 2005 he formed the first Salafi jihadist group in Gaza—Jaysh al-Umma. Other groups formed, including one set up by a Gazan clan leader and gangster-turned-Salafist jihadist, Mumtas Dughmush. Dughmush and his gang kidnapped Alan Johnston, a BBC reporter in Gaza, in 2006; Johnston was released after some four months. Humaid also joined the Hamas operation in 2006 to kidnap Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was released five years later in a prisoner exchange involving more than a thousand Palestinians. Another group—Jund Ansar Allah—was led by a fanatical cleric, Abdul Latif Moussa, who in 2009, during prayers at Rafah’s Ibn Taymiyyah Mosque, declared an Islamic emirate there. The choice of this mosque for the declaration had resonance: Ibn Taymiyyah was a fourteenth-century cleric, often regarded as the progenitor of jihad or militant Islam. Hamas’s al-Qassem brigades opened fire on the mosque, killing twenty-two Salafists and losing seven of their own men.
With war escalating in Syria, Ismael Humaid made his way to Egypt, probably through a tunnel under the border, and on to Syria, “to see what I could do to help fellow Muslims.” He did not want to tell me when he went and for how long or whom he met. He denies any contact with Daesh while there and says that Jaysh al-Umma does not support it. Several other Gazans also left for Syria the same way—up to fifty, some say. Many have not returned but those who did, I was told, were inspired to restart jihad. Some of the returnees openly switched allegiance to the ISIS caliphate, calculating that viewed from the rubble of postwar Gaza, the prospect of a caliphate might seem more realistic than a Palestinian state.
Soon after the 2014 war, Egypt’s military rulers closed the Rafah crossing and began flooding with saltwater Hamas tunnels not destroyed by Israeli bombs, in order to stop what Egypt claimed was a Hamas-inspired plot to send Gazan jihadists into North Sinai, giving support to the anti-Egyptian insurgency there. Nevertheless, communication with the “Google sheiks” abroad was fast and simple over social media. Jaysh al-Umma’s Facebook page soon burgeoned with followers, while Ismael Humaid’s personal Twitter following reached about seven thousand, mostly from inside Gaza.
The first ISIS-inspired military action in Gaza happened in October 2014, when an explosive device started a fire at the French cultural center in Gaza City. The French cultural center was attacked again in December 2014 causing extensive damage, and in January 2015, ISIS supporters held a rally outside the center, burned the Tricolor, and defaced the center with graffiti. The rally came twelve days after the attack on the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that had published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.
Gazans told me that they looked on in astonishment, while Hamas took little action. “At first Hamas didn’t seem to think it was the real deal,” said the head of a Western aid group, who didn’t wish to be named. “We thought maybe Hamas was allowing these guys to do this in a way to show the world—if you don’t deal with us, you’ll get them.”
Not long after, arrests of Salafists began, and in response mortars were fired at an al-Qassem brigade headquarters in Khan Younis. The Salafists were gaining confidence, demanding that Hamas release its prisoners. Then a new group sprang up claiming allegiance to ISIS and fired off a rocket that landed, without causing injury, near the Israeli port of Ashdod.
In the House of Wisdom—a Hamas think tank—Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas moderate, was assigned to consider a response. A well-traveled and affable intellectual, Yousef advised the use of persuasion rather than brute force. Salafist prisoners were visited by a committee of approved theologians who tried to “correct” the Salafists’ misreading of the Prophet’s message on jihad and “reeducated” them. He seemed to be playing down the problem of Salafists, probably for fear of fanning the flame or giving the outside world the impression that Hamas had lost control. For one thing, some of those behind the attacks were former al-Qassem fighters, hence their military skills. Angry about Hamas’s insistence on maintaining the cease-fire and other signs of moderation, they had quit al-Qassem and signed up with the jihadist groups.
Nevertheless, as Yousef pointed out, many new recruits to Salafism were disaffected youth. Hamas had interviewed the families of those who had left for Syria or died there—he could not say how they traveled or how many they were. Yousef had been to funerals—“family events”—of those who’d died in Syria “to look at the faces of relatives and better understand,” he said. “These young people have nothing—no glamour, no hope. Nothing.”
There was certainly no glamour among the bombed out communities of Shujayiya, a suburb of Gaza City, where street after street was obliterated in the 2014 war, and where—a year later—not a single house had been rebuilt. In the summer heat, youths disentangled rods from piles of twisted rubble. It was not hard to believe that ISIS had been successfully recruiting in the community.
A twelve-year-old boy, Abdullah, described how he had lost his grandfather, father, and seven brothers and sisters when a bomb hit their house; their pictures were pasted on the wall above him. The sheikhs at the mosque were supporting him, his mother explained, and had waived school fees.
A twenty-year-old sat staring at his cell phone as his father, often in tears, recounted how he lost a son and daughter as well as his brother and his family—ten in all—when a single bomb hit their house. I asked the son what work he did. “Nothing,” he said. He used to play some baseball but not anymore.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNRWA) and other aid groups as well as local Palestinian NGOs are only too well aware of the urgency of rebuilding Gaza and Gazan lives. If Western donors didn’t find the means to patch up houses and patch up wounds, they said, the jihadist groups would.
Across a wasteland a boy moved through the dusk in a motorized wheelchair. He was paralyzed from the waist down, shot in the back by an Israeli sniper. His wheelchair had been bought by the Salafists at the Ibn Baz Institute, run by Sheikh Omar Hams.
Gaza was “boiling”—a term used widely to describe the rising pressure produced when crossings aren’t open for weeks on end. My fixer, Jehad Saftawi, was “boiling” as he stood high on the blasted masonry of what was briefly Gaza’s airport: “Look at our new airport and it’s already demolished, we’re already destroyed.” He should have been on a flight three weeks ago from Cairo to the US, having been offered an internship as a journalist, but the crossings were all closed and now, he felt, he would never be able to go. Every young Gazan suddenly seemed to be trying to get out somehow. There was talk of escapes—through the razor wire, and by boat.
Nor was it bodies and buildings alone that were being patched up. Hasan Zeyadeh, a child psychologist, told me that the trauma of war, occupation, and encirclement by Israeli forces had been passed from one generation of Gazan children to the next; but this generation, which had grown up after the collapse of the Oslo peace accords, during three Hamas–Israeli wars, was suffering far more than any other:
They have a feeling of helplessness. They can’t trust anyone to help—not the politicians, not their own parents who couldn’t even protect them in the wars or stop the destruction of their homes. And they see in the foreign media that everyone here in Gaza—themselves included—is lumped together as terrorists. We have no answer for them. This creates a sense of helplessness. In these circumstances the young may regress to more primitive levels.
The video posted online by the ISIS media wing in Aleppo on June 30, 2015, and directed at Hamas was certainly primitive. Posing with AK-47 rifles, three ISIS fighters denounced Hamas for dealing with secularist entities. “The point of jihad is not to liberate land, but to fight for and implement the law of God.” They went on: “We will uproot the state of the Jews and you [Hamas] and Fatah [the PLO faction]…and you will be overrun by our creeping multitudes.”
The video caused shock. The Hamas crackdown on ISIS became intense. Hamas sources said as many as a hundred—some say many more—were rounded up in the weeks that followed, and this time for more than “reeducation.” There were reports of torture in the Hamas jails. Tension was evident across Gaza as al-Qassem set up checkpoints, men with beards were stopped, and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts were closed, presumably by the Israelis, who monitor and control all communication traffic into and out of Gaza as part of the blockade.
In July came a response: bombs blew up three vehicles belonging to Hamas and to Islamic Jihad, a smaller Islamic faction. More arrests ensued. Gazans were unsure if Hamas could exert control. By this autumn the tension appeared to have eased again. At the al-Qassem police headquarters in Rafah on November 14, the morning after the Paris massacres linked to ISIS, commanders insisted that the jihadists were crushed. “They have no martyrs,” said an officer with a bullet face and full beard, his torso bulging under a gray hoodie. On a wall above him live pictures from Paris and reports of the hunt for attackers were flashing across the screen.
“They don’t have a real organization as such,” the officer said. “Groups come and go. But they send someone to do a specific job and he coordinates it fast with a number of people. Then he’ll be sacrificed as ‘fire paper’ and someone else will be hired.”
Al-Qassem, he said, had profiles of the culprits. “The typical jihadist recruits had disturbed childhoods and often sexual problems,” the commander theorized, adding that money was a major factor drawing Gazans to ISIS. “Those in Syria often send pictures back home showing large banknotes to lure others out.”
Yet the more he talked, the more worrying the situation appeared. His explanation that the extremists had suffered from disturbed childhoods was particularly unconvincing, for it would apply to practically every young person in Gaza today. But he also made it clear that al-Qassem could not possibly keep track of all these small, fast-moving groups. Rocket firings, he said, were provoked by events outside. “If the Israelis burn some kid in the West Bank and some Salafi guys here get angry and want to fire a rocket, we can’t stop it,” he admitted, referring to the murder of a Palestinian baby named Ali Dawabsheh in an arson attack by settlers near Nablus. Most important, perhaps, was a question he did not talk about: How could he contain support for ISIS among extremists in Hamas’s own ranks? At one point the commander seemed to yearn for a more brutal approach. If al-Qassem had not killed off most of the Jund Ansar Allah group in 2007 at the Taymiyyah Mosque, “we’d be like Syria here today.”
At the end of 2015 the future for Gaza is dark, though how much darker it may yet become will depend on whether ISIS continues to win support there. Nobody knows if the present crackdown by Hamas will succeed. A year ago no one was predicting that followers of ISIS would emerge at all. When they did, Hamas itself was surprised. So were the people of Gaza. If ISIS were to gain strength, the desperate line for visas and exit permits could turn into a mass stampede toward closed gates. The nightmare of being locked inside Gaza with the ISIS monster is worse than all other nightmares the Gazans have faced—even the last war.
Moreover, if Hamas fails to crush the Gaza jihadists, ISIS would have a foothold in the Holy Land, posing new and unpredictable dangers, not only for Gazans themselves, but for Israel, the region, and for the West’s wider war on the Islamic State. In such a sequence, Israel will be expected to find the “solution” and will almost certainly bombard Gaza yet again and with perhaps greater ferocity.
Still, the mood in Gaza could quickly change. The long-negotiated Oslo peace accords seemed to blow up out of nowhere. On the morning of the handshake back in 1994 there was no certainty that Gaza would cheer. Hamas opposed the deal and as the day dawned the air was thick with the smoke of burning tires. But in the few seconds it took for Arafat and Rabin to shake hands the green flags of Hamas receded into a hopeful sea of red, black, white, and green—flags of the PLO and of Palestine. There is a risk today that the green flags of Hamas—the new “moderates”—could yet be engulfed in the black flags of ISIS.
If the stifling Israeli controls were lifted now the atmosphere could change fast. If there was tangible hope of a serious new attempt at peace, Gazans might find ways to win over discouraged extremists. At a conference in New York sponsored by the Israeli journal Haaretz, Robert Malley, the White House official assigned to organize opposition to ISIS, said that a resolution to the Israel–Palestine conflict “would be a major contribution to stemming the rise of extremism” in Gaza and elsewhere. The Western nations, paralyzed by the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, could do worse than open talks with Omar Hams, the radical Salafist sheikh who opposes the violence of ISIS; he is clearly willing to debate and modernize to some degree, and has risked his life to come out of the shadows to explain how things look from a Muslim perspective and warn of what might come next.
Before we talked, the sheikh told me that the only Westerner he had met is a Brazilian Catholic priest based in Gaza who came to see him recently, worried that the Salafists were banning Christmas. “I assured him we had simply advised Muslims not to celebrate Christmas. The priest and I got along very well. We had a good lunch.”
Omar Hams is certainly a courageous man. According to the al-Qassem police, ISIS in Syria has recently condemned both the Ibn Baz Institute and Hams himself as collaborators for dealing with Hamas. When I asked him if he feared speaking out against ISIS, he said that he didn’t believe anyone in the world was “completely safe” and added that there were certainly dangers to speaking publicly. If Daesh “finds Sheikh Omar is putting obstacles in their way,” he said, “they can find ways to get rid of him.”
In 2003 I wrote in my The New Ruthless Economy that one of the great imponderables of the twenty-first century was how long it would take for the deteriorating economic circumstances of most Americans to become a dominant political issue. It has taken over ten years but it is now happening, and its most dramatic manifestation to date is the rise of Bernie Sanders. While many political commentators seem to have concluded that Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, polls taken as recently as the third week of December show Sanders to be ahead by more than ten points in New Hampshire and within single-figure striking distance of her in Iowa, the other early primary state.
Though he continues to receive far less attention in the national media than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, Sanders is posing a powerful challenge not only to the Democratic establishment aligned with Hillary Clinton, but also the school of thought that assumes that the Democrats need an establishment candidate like Clinton to run a viable campaign for president. Why this should be happening right now is a mystery for historians to unravel. It could be the delayed effect of the Great Recession of 2007-2008, or of economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez’s unmasking of the vast concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent and the 0.1 percent of Americans, or just the cumulative effect of years of disappointment for many American workers.
Such mass progressive awakenings have happened before. I remember taking part in antiwar demonstrations on the East and West coasts in the Fall and Winter of 1967–1968. I noticed that significant numbers of solid middle-class citizens were joining in, sometimes with strollers, children, and dogs in tow. I felt at the time that this was the writing on the wall for Lyndon Johnson, as indeed it turned out to be. We may yet see such a shift away from Hillary Clinton, despite her strong performance in the recent debates and her recent recovery in the polls.
If it happens, it will owe in large part to Sanders’s unusual, if not unique, political identity. Consider the mix of political labels being attached to him, some by Sanders himself: liberal, left-liberal, progressive, pragmatist, radical, independent, socialist, and democratic socialist. Sanders’s straight talk about the growing inequalities of income and wealth in America has been much written about, notably in a long profile of him in TheNew Yorker in October. But most of this writing has been of the campaign trail genre, and has not gotten very far in sorting out the strands of radicalism that have come together in Sanders’s run for the presidency and that have attracted large numbers of Americans dissatisfied with their deteriorating economic circumstances and with the politics that has helped create them.
Sanders is unusual because he brings together three kinds of radicalism, each with very different roots. First is Sanders’s commitment to bringing the progressive ideas of Scandinavian social democracy to the United States, including free and universal health care, free higher education at state colleges and universities, mandatory maternity and sick leave benefits, and higher taxes on higher incomes. In American political history you have to go back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society or even to the early New Deal to find anything comparable.
The second strand of Sanders’s radicalism is his excoriating account of contemporary American capitalism, and with this he neither looks nor sounds like a consensus-minded Scandinavian social democrat. Here Sanders is willing to name and denounce the new economic royalists—what he calls collectively the “billionaire class”—in a way that Hillary Clinton, who has relied heavily on their financial backing, has not. These include the leading Wall Street banks and their lobbyists; the energy, health care, pharmaceutical, and defense industries; and the actual billionaires deploying their wealth on behalf of the far right, foremost among them the Koch brothers, the Walton family of Walmart, and the real estate tycoon Sheldon Adelson.
From these great concentrations of wealth and power, Sanders argues, derive multiple injustices: the corrupting of electoral and legislative politics with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling; the steady erosion of the American middle class, which has suffered stagnating income and declining benefits, even as corporations return to profitability and enjoy historically low interest rates; and the emergence of an American workplace where most employees are putting in longer hours, earning less, and suffering from less job security than ever before.
Sanders can support these claims with substantial bodies of empirical data and research. There are the monthly figures put out by the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which show a steady decline in real hourly and weekly earnings of most working Americans since the 1970s. There is the work of the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez documenting a growing and overwhelming concentration of income and wealth in the US in the hands of the top 1 percent—and especially the top 0.1 percent—of taxpayers. There is also the research of Jacob Hacker of Yale, showing how the disposable income of middle-income Americans has been further eroded by health care and pension costs dumped on them by their corporate employers, what Hacker calls the Great Risk Shift.
But the challenge for Sanders is not the arguments themselves, which are widely acknowledged (Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century was a runaway bestseller last year). The challenge is how to organize those who have suffered in the harsh new economy into a viable political force. In the 1930s and the succeeding decades many of those facing hardship could benefit from the support and solidarity of big labor unions and the Democrats’ big-city political machines. In our own times these networks are largely gone. Those being laid off, downsized, reengineered, or outsourced today are, in comparison with their grandparents and great-grandparents, far more likely to find themselves isolated and alone, especially those from middle-income families, who may be facing a drastic and very visible loss of class identity.
It is here that the third and perhaps least understood strand of Sanders’s radicalism comes into play: his ability to organize a previously unrecognized constituency—one that embraces the shrinking middle class, both white- and blue-collar, the working and non-working poor, as well as young, first-time voters with large student-loan debts. One thing that comes over strongly in interviews of those attending Sanders rallies is their sense that they are no longer alone, that they’re joining with thousands who are in much the same predicament as they are, and that together they can change things for the better.
Sanders’s success in bringing these people together comes from his grounding, as a student at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, in the grass-roots politics of Saul Alinsky (1909–1972), the founder of modern American community organizing. Alinsky’s crucial insight was that people at the bottom of the system could fight for local political and economic power by forming alliances with sympathetic community groups sharing many of their interests. From the late 1930s through the 1960s, Alinsky focused on the black ghettoes and white working-class districts of Chicago, Rochester, Buffalo, Oakland, and many other cities. His greatest success—and one of the best examples of his methods at work—was his 1939 campaign to unionize the Armour Company’s Back of the Yards meat packing plant in Chicago.
In the late 1930s, working conditions at the Armour plant still evoked the world of Upton Sinclair: an immigrant workforce toiled long hours for poverty wages, in unsanitary and unsafe conditions. With Chicago run by a corrupt political machine, Alinsky took the lead in mobilizing every constituency he could in the local community against Armour—including the churches and especially the Catholic Church, labor unions, neighborhood groups, athletic clubs, and small businesses.
He brought in John L. Lewis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to advise him, and after a huge mass demonstration in July 1939, Armour agreed to recognize the union. In a 1999 PBS documentary, Ed Chambers, who was Alinsky’s successor as Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, described the tactics that had proven so successful—and that would be repeated in many of Alinsky’s postwar campaigns: “All change comes about as a result of pressure or threats. But you can’t get social change or social justice without confronting it. Because if you are a ‘have not,’ ‘the haves’ never give you anything that’s real.”
Alinksy is no longer a reference point in contemporary American politics, although his work and influence features in the CVs of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In a 2007 New Republic profile, Ryan Lizza describes the young Obama’s training as an Alinskian community organizer in 1980s Chicago, though Lizza noted that Obama as a presidential candidate-in-the-making was already distancing himself from this past, omitting all mention of Alinsky in his campaign biography, The Audacity of Hope. For her part, Clinton titled her 1969 BA thesis at Wellesley College “There is Only the Fight…”: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model, something she has not cared to mention in recent campaigning.
But it is Sanders who has gone on to put Alinskian methods into practice as both a politician in Vermont and a candidate for president. In a November interview with NPR, Sanders described how his work as a community organizer as a student at the University of Chicago “did a lot to influence the politics I now have.” In fact, Sanders was chair of CORE’s (Congress on Racial Equality) social action committee at the university at a time when the organization, advised by Alinsky, was leading the campaign against segregation in Chicago schools and housing. CORE and its student supporters were fighting the university itself, which upheld segregation through a policy of purchasing vacant homes in its neighborhood to prevent them from being purchased by African Americans. In 1962, Sanders organized a sit-in at the president’s office to protest the university housing policies; the following year, he was arrested while demonstrating against segregation in the Chicago schools.
Two decades later, Sanders’s remarkable campaign for Mayor of Burlington, Vermont as an independent was another illuminating case history of successful Alinskian campaigning at the grassroots, adapted from its Chicago origins to the more tranquil setting of Vermont. Sanders followed Alinsky’s cardinal rule of taking on the city’s dominant business interests and their allies in City Hall with a program that was, for Burlington, radical and progressive: curbing real estate development at the city center and providing ample public space there, especially on the waterfront of Lake Champlain; building affordable housing; keeping out the mega-retailers and creating neighborhood associations as participants in city planning decisions. To achieve this Sanders put together an all-embracing, Alinskian coalition of women’s groups, unions, neighborhood activists, environmentalists, even the police patrolman’s association, all of whom saw him as someone who could deliver on his pledge to make Burlington a more affordable and civilized place to live.
There are big differences between Burlington, with a population of 42,000, and the United States, with a population of nearly 320 million. Alinsky himself never tried to reproduce his approach on a national scale. But in Alinsky’s time there were no social media, whose potential Sanders, like the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, has deftly exploited. And unlike the president, Sanders has also used social media to rally people behind a truly radical message. Not only has he formed alliances with sympathetic community groups like labor unions, environmental organizations, immigrant advocacy groups, and public sector workers; he has also been able to rely on these groups’ own considerable presence on social media to reach voters.
These efforts may be less attention-getting than Trump’s, but they have proven highly effective in building a strong base of supporters. The Sanders campaign has now drawn more than 2.2 million individual donors in 2015, surpassing even Obama’s record for the number of donations to a presidential candidate in a single year. In the third quarter, he raised four times as much money as Clinton from donors contributing $200 or less.
The columnist Mark Shields has pointed out on PBS’s Newshour that it was no mean feat for Sanders to attract an audience of 27,500 in Los Angeles in August, a city where, in Shields’s words, the typical campaign event is a party at Steven Spielberg’s house hosted by George Clooney. This was an event at which Sanders said, to thunderous applause,
There is something profoundly wrong when one family, the owners of Walmart, own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people. This is an economy which is rigged, which is designed to benefit the people on top, and we are going to create an economy which works for all people.
Sanders has significant weaknesses. His poll numbers have been much lower in the south, where he is far less known. They show Hillary Clinton enjoying strong support among African Americans, who favor her over Sanders by 5–1 or more. But it is surely patronizing to African-Americans to portray them as locked in an unending embrace with the Clintons, impervious to Hillary Clinton’s reliance on big corporate donors, her weaknesses as a candidate, which are still considerable, and the shifting winds of the campaign as it unfolds. Until now, Sanders has largely avoided direct criticism of Clinton. The big question is whether he will extend his critique of the billionaire class and their corrupting political power to what I’ll call the Clinton system. That system will be the subject of a second article.
A handsome book just arrived on my desk. War Is Beautiful the title declares. Surely not! Then I see the subtitle: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict.” Ah, irony. An asterisk takes me to some tiny print at the bottom left of the cover: “(in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times).” And who is the author? David Shields, the man who gave us Reality Hunger and many other thoughtful provocations. In fact, I now recall that a couple of years ago Shields, with whom I occasionally exchange an email opinion or two, and who was then on the lookout for a publisher, ran this project past me and although at the time I saw neither the book’s title or its actual photographic contents, I endorsed his introductory essay with the quote: “Absolutely right, to the point and guaranteed to stir things up.”
Basically, as Shields had promised, the book offers sixty-four very glossy war photos taken from the front page of TheNew York Times and arranged thematically: Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietà, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love, Death. The earliest picture is dated January 2002, from Afghanistan, the latest October 2013, from Pakistan. The accusation is that the newspaper does everything to make war glamorous and even, in some way, reassuring: “a chaotic world is ultimately under control,” Shields observes. In an afterword, art critic David Hickey shows how consciously the photos reproduce well-known pictorial and painterly tropes:
There is a Magdalene in white clothing nodding onto the edge of the frame as she would in a Guido Reni. There is a Rodin of two kneeling marines in a flat field. There are warriors protecting children that echo Imperial Rome, where war was an everyday fact, as the Times would seem to wish it now.
It’s hard to deny, as you leaf through these photos, that they do indeed very deliberately aestheticize their subjects, and hence anaesthetize the viewer; these are glamour pictures to be admired, rather than documentary images that give immediacy to violence and horror. “Connecticut-living-room trash,” is how Hickey sums it up. In short, we are a long, long way from the more sober black-and-white images that chronicled the Vietnam War in the same paper.
All the same, an objection comes to mind: that this transformation of violence into beauty is hardly the reserve of TheNew York Times. In this regard, consider Luc Sante’s fascinating article on the New York police photos of crime scenes taken in the early years of the twentieth century. These are stark images whose purpose was to provide legal evidence; nevertheless, there is a strong aesthetic element. “Not every one is a masterpiece,” Sante observes, “but all display patient craftsmanship in their framing and lighting, making them seem lapidary, even definitive. Every picture is a tableau, complete unto itself.” Except in very rare cases, it seems photographers and artists instinctively compose images in order to make the experience of looking at them dramatic, impressive, and above all, bearable.
And this has been going on for hundreds of years. Take the ugly subject of beheading. We have all expressed our shock over the Islamic State’s habit of posting YouTube videos of their warriors decapitating hostages. Sometimes it has seemed that we are more shocked by the existence and availability of the videos—the mere fact that they tempt us to become witnesses to such violence—than by the act itself. Yet of course our “civilization” has a long history of depicting beheading. There is hardly a major art gallery in Europe or the United States without a Judith and Holofernes. From Caravaggio to Klimt painters have enjoyed the drama of the beautiful woman hacking off the soldier’s head. Salome and John the Baptist are another popular pair, the Baptist’s head always decorously framed by the (usually silver) plate on which it is presented to the pretty dancer. In another Biblical episode the courageous young David has no qualms about hacking off Goliath’s head, and Donatello delights in showing a cute boy naked with the dead ogre’s beard under his foot. Of course, this is “art,” not documentary, but it creates a habit of viewing violence in a certain way.
Nor is literature any less capable of turning such scenes into “beauty.” “The program of the photos,” Shields observes of the images he has collected together, “is the same as that of the Iliad: the preservation of power.” How can one not be brought up sharp by that claim? If we stop reading the Times in protest at this glamorizing of war, do we stop reading the Iliad? Beowulf? War and Peace? Primo Levi complained that a great deal of Holocaust literature was guilty of making the suffering more palatable by sanctifying the victims. Aestheticizing horror can be a subtle process.
Then how are we to distinguish between images that are rendered with the worst intention—“the preservation of power,” assuming we are agreed that that is not a legitimate aim—and those that are supposedly being used to expose this intention for the hypocrisy it is? Arguably, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon had this element of protest, but in the end it too produced some glamorous images of extreme violence. Likewise the many Vietnam War movies. Even Shields’s book, as I am sure he is aware, invites ambiguous responses. The cover includes a score of quotes besides my own. “Fantastic, engrossing, and gruesome,” says Davis Schneiderman on the back cover of the book. “I love it.” “A work of perilous ambiguity,” Andrei Codrescu observes more soberly. For of course as soon as we have metabolized the criticism leveled at TheNew YorkTimes, we do indeed settle down to enjoy these extraordinary photographs, which the publisher has been careful to present in as lavish a form as possible.
At which point the question arises: Can we ever get away from this transformation that makes a beauty of the beast?
Let’s go back to Homer, since Shields has mentioned him. In the Odyssey, when Helen and Menelaus are back in Greece, Telemachus visits them. All they want to talk about is Troy, the war; in the end Troy is the great focal point of their lives. But it’s too painful. Menelaus will have to remember Helen’s betrayal, Helen her dead lovers, Telemachus his dead friends and missing father, whom he assumes is dead. The truth is too ugly to be comfortable with.
Helen gets up, goes into another room, finds a drug she was given in Egypt and slips it into the wine. It’s a drug, Homer says, “that would allow you to recount your brother’s death with a smile on your face.” And so it is. She and her husband and Telemachus have a wonderful evening going over all the unbearable violence of Troy—the drug has made it noble, glamorous—and then fall serenely asleep. Needless to say, that drug is literary form: rhyme, rhythm, art.
The Inferno does the same with hell.
The many people and their ghastly wounds did so intoxicate my eyes that I was moved to linger there and weep.
Dante complains. But his guide, Virgil, insists he keep moving fast: “Let your talk be brief.…We must not linger here.” To stop and really look would be to risk being overwhelmed by suffering; the rapid movement of the terza rima with its ever-reassuring rhymes takes the sting out it all. One can see why Dante’s guide had to be a poet; only art can take you through hell, by making it beautiful. Endless descriptions of punishment and disfigured, mutilated bodies become weirdly attractive. Centuries later, Beckett, a Dante fan to the end, understood the game perfectly and his novel Watt offers a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the Dantesque method:
Personally of course I regret everything. Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure from beginning to end.
Life’s awfulness is rigidly organized into a nursery-rhyme pattern of chiming opposites. One hardly notices the suffering at all. Such is art, Beckett suggests.
One could list any number of writers who set out to write protests over the horrors of war and ended up glorifying it in their way. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is emblematic: a stupid communications error in the Crimean War had led six hundred cavalrymen to charge a line of cannons. The carnage was inevitable. Everyone was appalled. But Tennyson’s poem transforms it into beauty:
Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volley’d & thunder’d; Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred.
You might argue that Tennyson still lived in a time that wanted to believe in heroes, willing to acknowledge the bravery of the men despite the stupidity of the sacrifice. But what about the World War I poets? Take Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, — The shrill, dementedchoirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
It’s true this reads like a serious protest; all the same I do not think today’s warmongers would have much quarrel with a poem in which the soldiers’ suffering has been so monumentally cast in poetic diction of the “hasty orisons,” “wailing shells,” and “sad shires” variety.
The truth is that the more apocalyptic modern warfare becomes, the more the opportunity for glamour presents itself. Curzio Malaparte, reporting on the German campaign in northern and Eastern Europe during World War II, saw this very clearly. Beyond any desire for manipulation, he suggests in his masterpiece Kaputt, the very intensity of war, the emotions it arouses and the acts of cruelty and self-sacrifice it prompts, make it impossible for us not to find art in it; if only because so much of our past art has depicted scenes inspired by similar emotions:
I looked at the sky, at the fiery tracks of the tracer bullets streaking the black glass of the night; they looked like coral necklaces hanging on invisible feminine necks… A Jewish Chagall sky.
The raucous voice, the neighing, the occasional sharp rifle shots…seemed also to have been engraved by Dürer on the clear cold air of that autumn morning.
At one point Malaparte describes how Russian cavalry horses flee an artillery barrage by plunging into a Finnish lake on the very night it freezes over for winter. The horses are all trapped, frozen, so that the “lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an ax. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice … The scene might have been painted by Bosch.”
Is there any way out of this? Is there any way at all to represent war, even to ourselves, that would be free of this aestheticizing process? I’m not sure there is. Guernica is a beautiful painting. It has its wild glamour. But the painting is now more famous than the bombing it depicts and deplores, perhaps because it allows us to feel that being sophisticated and pacifist is one and the same. Which is gratifying. But there is no evidence it stopped any bombs.
Perhaps, beyond our immediate anger with the Times for its crass glamorizing of conflict we need to go further and ask ourselves about the deep purpose of all representation of violence and war. Doesn’t it shift our attention from the object itself to the form in which the object has been given to us, inviting a safe savoring of dangerous emotions, with the result that the whole ugly reality can continue exactly as it always has, thanks, at least in part, to the consolatory beauty with which it is evoked?
Leafing back and forth through Shields’s book, considering how right Hickey is when he speaks of the allusions to celebrated paintings, one cannot help wondering whether art in general is not, as artists and art lovers would have it, part of the solution, but deeply complicit with the problem.
David Shield’s War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, is published by Powerhouse Books.