Месечни архиви: февруари 2016

Kicked Out in America!

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’
Magnum PhotosMilwaukee, Wisconsin, 2014; photograph by Mark Power from the series ‘Postcards from America’


Seeking distraction one winter afternoon, a Milwaukee boy takes to some old-fashioned mischief and hurls snowballs at passing cars. A driver gives chase and kicks in the door of the house where the boy lives with his mother and younger brother. The landlord puts the family out. Thus begins an odyssey that in Matthew Desmond’s gripping and important book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, exposes the harrowing world of the ten million or so low-income households that pay half or more of their income for rent and utilities, a long-overlooked population whose numbers have recently soared.

The mother, Arleen, finds a house she likes, and it consumes only 84 percent of her cash income. But the city condemns it. So she moves the teen, Jori, and his brother, Jafiris, to a place she calls “Crack Head City” and then to a duplex where the rent, $550 a month, requires 88 percent of her income. She falls behind and gets evicted two days before Christmas, but the new tenant lets her stay until she finds a place. Living with a stranger causes friction, and Arleen calls ninety landlords before finding a place, from which she is again evicted. The situation worsens. She and the boys double up with a neighbor who is turning tricks. They rent a place where they are robbed at gunpoint. When Arleen’s next apartment takes 96 percent of her welfare check, she can’t keep the lights on. Her worst fear comes to pass: child welfare takes the kids.

Evicted tells this and other disturbing stories in spellbinding detail in service of two main points. One is that growing numbers of low-income households pay crushing shares of their incomes for shelter—50 percent, 60 percent, 70 percent, and more—leaving inadequate sums for items as basic as medicine and food. Their numbers were rising for decades but soared to record levels during the Great Recession. The book’s second point is that the evictions aren’t just a consequence of poverty but also a cause. Evictions make kids change schools and cost adults their jobs. They undermine neighborhoods, force desperate families into worse housing, and leave lasting emotional scars. Yet they have been an afterthought, if that, in discussions of poverty.

Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, cites plenty of statistics but it’s his ethnographic gift that lends the work such force. He’s one of a rare academic breed: a poverty expert who engages with the poor. His portraits are vivid and unsettling. Crystal, who takes in Arleen, had parents on crack and got passed around to two dozen foster homes. She ends up homeless and prostituting herself, but never misses church. Pam has “a midwestern twang and a face cut from a high school yearbook photo.” But she is so desperate for housing that she tolerates a racist boyfriend who makes her biracial daughters chant “White power!” It’s not easy to show desperate people using drugs or selling sex and still convey their courage and dignity. Evicted pulls it off.

It is odd that the shortage of low-income housing gets little attention, even among experts on the left. Decent affordable shelter is a primal human need, and its disappearance is one of the most troubling results of growing inequality. Housing patterns shape more visible issues like schools, jobs, and crime. What’s more, the affordability crisis, though worst at the bottom, is creeping well into the lower middle class. Perhaps the democratizing of shelter poverty will broaden public concern.

A major point to keep in mind is that the US spends huge sums to subsidize housing for people who are well-off (through the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks) while most poor renters get nothing: only one of four low-income households that qualify for assistance gets it. Desmond’s solution—give all eligible households a voucher, creating a right to housing—has little active support, even from liberals. But a major study released last summer showed that vouchers, under the right circumstances, can dramatically improve children’s prospects of breaking out of poverty. Evicted doesn’t cinch the case for a universal voucher; it does capture the perversity of the status quo and invite alternate proposals.


Desmond launched his research in 2008, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, when he moved into a trailer park on Milwaukee’s south side, looking for people with eviction notices. The park was in the news because an alderman, incensed at crime and code violations, was threatening to have it closed. Raw sewage bubbled up beneath some of the trailers, and Desmond rarely had hot water despite identifying himself as a writer studying the park’s condition. The landlord, Tobin Charney, “a hard man with squinting eyes,” won a reprieve in part by having sympathetic tenants tell TV crews that closing the park would leave them homeless. Then he evicted some of them.

Desmond, who is white, moved across the residentially segregated city to the black ghetto on the near north side. His landlord, Sherrena Tarver (all the names are pseudonyms), was a hard-charging woman who once taught fourth grade. She was eager to show him “what landlords had to go through” and complained about “these low-quality people.” Desmond tracked eight families from both sides of town, and conducted two surveys, of 1,100 Milwaukee tenants and 250 people summoned to housing court. With visits to landlord meetings and rides with eviction crews, the book captures what could be called the Eviction Industrial Complex.

Part of the message is that evictions are much more common than previously thought. Desmond’s survey found that more than one in eight Milwaukee renters faced a forced move in the course of three years. That includes all involuntary moves, such as those resulting from building condemnations, and is roughly three times the comparable estimate found in census data. Desmond says that the official data undercount the large volume of informal evictions that occur outside of court.

The numbers sound extraordinary but not in light of the shelter burdens that low-income households carry. The government says that rent and utilities are affordable if they consume no more than 30 percent of a household’s income. Analyzing census data, Desmond finds that the majority of poor households pay over 50 percent of their income for shelter and more than a quarter pay over 70 percent. Among the tenants in housing court, a third spend at least 80 percent. Evicted’s families double up with strangers, sell food stamps, and pirate electricity but inevitably fall behind.

Evictions are brutal. Desmond watches as an armed deputy knocks and a mother pleads vainly for time. The mover says she can pay to store her possessions or have them left on the street. She can’t afford storage. “Curbside service, baby!” the mover tells the crew. Three children watch their mother pace. “Her face had that look,” Desmond writes. “The movers and the deputies knew it well. It was the look of someone realizing that her family would be homeless in a matter of hours.” One woman from the trailer park spent $1,000 on the storage bills but fell behind and lost her belongings anyway. About 70 percent of evicted tenants who opt for storage do. A week earlier, a man asked the deputy for a private moment, then shot himself in the head.

Evictions destabilize neighborhoods. The more people come and go, the less chance there is for cohesion. A case in point is the Hinkston family—Doreen, four kids, and three grandkids—who were neighborhood fixtures on a block where they lived for seven years. Doreen was a porch sitter who knew everyone and kept her eyes on the street. When an eviction notice forced them to move in a hurry, they quickly settled for a run-down house on a block where they knew no one and kept inside. “With Doreen’s eviction, Thirty-Second Street lost a steadying presence,” Desmond writes, “but Wright Street didn’t gain one.” Evictions often generate two moves—a rush that often ends in a hellhole and an effort to climb out of it.

Worse, evictions destabilize people. Jori, the snowball thrower, went to five different schools in seventh and eighth grades, “when he went at all.” He once missed seventeen consecutive days. The disruptions cause workers to get fired. Letters sent to wrong addresses cause people to miss appointments and lose public aid. Evictions mar the tenants’ records, making it harder to get housing assistance or rent private apartments. The effects are enduring, as measured by incidents like hunger or lost utilities. “The year after eviction, families experience 20 percent higher levels of material hardships than similar families who were not evicted,” Desmond writes. He continues:

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit…. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rates of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers.

Eviction isn’t just another hardship, Desmond argues, but a detour onto a much harder path—“a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.”

The landlords in Evicted hold all the cards. Technically, they can’t retaliate against tenants who complain of stopped-up toilets or broken windows. But they can evict anyone who fails to pay the rent, regardless of the housing conditions. The result is a kind of devil’s pact. “Tenants who fell behind either had to accept unpleasant, degrading, and sometimes dangerous housing conditions or be evicted,” Desmond writes. When cases go to court, tenants rarely win. About 70 percent of them don’t even appear. They can’t miss work or find child care or stomach the humiliation. The sound of eviction court is the call of a name, “a pause, and three loud thumps of the stamp.”

When one of Sherrena Tarver’s houses catches fire, a baby dies. There were supposed to be smoke detectors in the bedroom, but the firemen didn’t hear them. Sherrena fears she’s at risk. “I thought we had put some smoke detectors up there,” she says. “I can’t remember right now.” The baby’s mother, Kamala, is one of her former students. When the fire inspector calls the next day and tells Sherrena she’s off the hook, she has one question: Does she have to return Kamala’s rent?

The answer is no. And she doesn’t.

‘The Lynch Family, Room 17, the Wagner Hotel,’ a residential hotel in the Mission District of San Francisco, 1979; photograph by Jim Goldberg from the expanded edition of his 1985 book Rich and Poor, published in 2013 by Steidl
Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos‘The Lynch Family, Room 17, the Wagner Hotel,’ a residential hotel in the Mission District of San Francisco, 1979; photograph by Jim Goldberg from the expanded edition of his 1985 book Rich and Poor, published in 2013 by Steidl


The struggle to pay the rent may sound like a problem the poor have always faced. It’s not. Into the 1970s, low-income housing, though often squalid, generally didn’t squeeze budgets. The wind whipped through the tar-paper shacks, but the shacks were abundant and cheap. Demolition and gentrification claimed the cheap units, and sputtering incomes swelled the number of needy renters. In 1970, the US had nearly a million more affordable units than poor households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Two decades later, the situation had reversed: there were five million more poor households than affordable units. Housing was better but cost a lot more.

The severe recession that began in December 2007 delivered a double whammy. Foreclosures turned millions of homeowners into renters, which kept rents rising even as incomes fell. Between 2001 and 2014, real rents rose 7 percent, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, while renters’ incomes fell 9 percent. As a result, the number of households paying more than 30 percent of their income for shelter rose to a record 21.3 million—about one in six nationwide. And the number paying more than half their income rose even faster, to 11.4 million, from 7.5 million. Among them, 30 percent had a full-time worker.

For the poorest families, the chances of finding affordable shelter are virtually nil. But the squeeze is on higher up. Even among households earning between $30,000 and $45,000 a year—clerks, cooks, or low-level medical technicians, for example—nearly half pay more than the 30 percent the government says they can afford. Of them, 10 percent devote at least half their income to shelter. This may seem like a problem mostly confined to big cities. But places with cheaper housing generally pay lower wages, which offsets the benefits. High-cost New York City and low-cost McAllen, Texas, are two places the Harvard center identifies as especially hard to afford. To pay for what the federal government says a modest two-bedroom apartment should cost in a mid-priced state like Florida, a full-time worker has to earn $19.47 an hour. As the National Low Income Housing Coalition notes, that’s more than twice the minimum wage.

Belts can tighten only so far. A household with an income of $15,000 that pays 70 percent for shelter has about $12.50 a day left over for everything else—food, health care, clothing, furniture, transportation, and the like. Even if you assume that poor people underreport their income, as they generally do, something’s got to give. Often it’s food, since unlike rent, meals can be skipped without the sheriff being summoned. The Harvard center found that low-income households with severe rent burdens spent 38 percent less on food than similar households with affordable shelter, 55 percent less on health care, and 60 percent less on transportation.

Why are rents so high? Desmond points to exploitative landlords and their ability to “charge as much as they want.” But owners don’t charge what they want. They charge what the market will bear. The big problem is that it costs more to build even modest housing than millions of households can pay, whether the builder is greedy or not. That’s partly because restrictive zoning and overzealous building codes drive up the price. But it’s mostly because of the inherent cost of the basics: land, interest, materials, utilities. As a rule of thumb nationwide, even an efficient nonprofit developer can’t build an apartment affordable to a household making less than about $32,000 a year. That leaves out nearly a third of American households.

Housing aid helps fill the gap. If tenants are lucky enough to receive it, they pay 30 percent of their income for shelter, and the government pays the rest up to a modest local cap. But only a quarter of the households that are poor enough to qualify get it. The rest face long waits and many never get help. Desmond would expand the program so that everyone who qualifies gets it—making housing aid an entitlement instead of a lottery.

Leave aside the question of what this would cost. A more interesting question is how much would the needy benefit and in what way: would affordable housing simply make life more humane or would it lead to more upward mobility? Desmond argues the latter. “A universal voucher program would change the face of poverty in this country,” he writes.

Evictions would plummet and become rare occurrences. Homelessness would almost disappear. Families would immediately feel the income gains and be able to buy enough food, invest in themselves and their children through schooling or job training, and start modest savings.

Unfortunately, there’s room for doubt about this mobility thesis, even in the stories Desmond tells. Rent burdens compound his characters’ problems, but the issues run much deeper. A number are addicted to drugs. Others are mentally or physically impaired. Many failed to finish high school. One got pregnant at fourteen. It’s reasonable to hope that helping adults get a place to stay will at least help their children advance, but the evidence is thin.

A study last year by Brian A. Jacob of the University of Michigan, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, and Max Kapustin examined precisely that question. In 1997, the Chicago Housing Authority held a lottery; 18,000 households got vouchers and tens of thousands of virtually identical households did not. The study found that vouchers “had little if any impact on the education, crime, or health outcomes” of children. (Vouchers also reduced the amount their parents worked.) That still leaves a case for vouchers, but it’s a simpler case than promoting upward mobility: poor adults and their children should suffer less. There’s a floor beneath which no one should fall. A safety net that lets three quarters of the needy slip through simply isn’t a safety net.

At the same time, we may not yet know how much vouchers can achieve. Evicted seems to have been completed before a major study last August bolstered the case for improved mobility. It involved Moving to Opportunity, a famous housing experiment from the 1990s, which gave vouchers to several thousand families on the condition that they use them to move from high-poverty neighborhoods to areas less poor, presumably with more jobs and better schools. Hopes ran high, but for years the results were disappointing. The adults’ mental health and safety improved, but their earnings and employment didn’t, and their children fared no better in school. The teenage boys who moved had more delinquency problems than those who stayed behind.

The new study (by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz, all of Harvard) examined the long-term outcomes for younger kids, who had more time to benefit from the new neighborhood.1 On average, they were eight when they moved. By their twenties, they earned about a third more than those who stayed behind, and they were a third more likely to attend college. Over their lifetime, they stood to earn an additional $300,000. The girls’ chances of becoming single mothers fell by 26 percent.

These are huge gains by the standards of experimental programs—the social policy equivalent of a moonshot. The researchers don’t know why, especially since in the medium term the kids did no better in school. One theory for the gains generally is that better neighborhoods offer more second chances. But the crucial change was getting away from very poor neighborhoods.

If the results can be replicated, the issue becomes scale. It’s not clear how many poor people are willing to move to an unfamiliar place—about half of those offered the vouchers didn’t go—or how the new areas would react. In Baltimore, one of the five Moving to Opportunity sites, even a small-scale effort ignited a huge backlash. The potential for demagoguery is great, especially in a demagogic age. Then again, suburbs are more diverse now. Katz argues that the requisite amount of income-mixing would take America back to the patterns of the 1970s, a significant change but not wild-eyed social engineering. Even getting halfway there might dramatically improve millions of lives.


Poor people can be remarkably generous. The evicted in Evicted turn to half-strangers, and the strangers take them in. A neighbor houses Pam in the trailer park; Crystal shelters Arleen in the ghetto. When Crystal and a friend spy a boy eating table scraps at McDonald’s they pool coins to buy him a meal, even though they are homeless themselves.

In the 1970s, the anthropologist Carol Stack famously described the inner city as a giant favor bank. Poor women formed networks of real and fictive kin and dispensed aid—cigarettes, babysitting, a spare room—knowing they could later claim help in return. They formed their own safety net. Desmond argues that deepening destitution has made those networks harder to sustain. With family less willing or able to help, the destitute turn to strangers and a succession of “disposable ties.” They turn to each other and on each other.

When Arleen gets evicted before Christmas, she doesn’t even ask her siblings for help. They are too poor. An aunt could step in, but Arleen is saving that call for a worse emergency. So when the new tenant offers to let Arleen stay, Arleen hugs her and accepts before learning her name. Crystal has motives for keeping Arleen around. She needs furniture, and having just aged out of foster care she wants a mother figure.

Instant intimacy yields to screaming matches. During their first fight—after Arleen’s son Jori calls Crystal a “bitch”—Crystal, who speaks in tongues, says that the Holy Ghost has told her to relent and not put the family out. During the second fight Arleen comes unglued and resists Crystal’s efforts to calm her.

“You don’t know what it’s like to have your father molest you and your mother not care about it!” Arleen screams.

“Yes I do!” Crystal says. “I know exactly what that’s like ’cause my stepfather molested me when I was just a little girl, and that’s why they sent me to the foster care…. You’ve been molested? I’ve been molested too.”

The exchange ends with another hug, which becomes a prelude to another fight. When Arleen finally leaves, she tells Jori to grab the cheap adapter she bought for the gas line. This would disable the stove. Crystal becomes furious, and they go from confidantes to combatants with startling ferocity. “Stankin’ ass bitch!” Arleen screams. Crystal throws their stuff all over the yard, Jori smashes Crystal’s TV, and his little brother hits her with a shower rod. Crystal takes up with other strangers and the pattern repeats: “Make a friend, use a friend, lose a friend,” often violently.

Evicted doesn’t dwell on it, but the talk of molestation is revealing. No fewer than four characters disclose that they were victims of childhood sexual abuse. The issue doesn’t get much attention in discussions of chronic poverty. But in my own interviews with women on welfare, I’ve found that they mention it with dismaying frequency.2 Women who were raped or molested as children are more likely to suffer from depression, drug addiction, or domestic violence—all of which interfere with education and employment and drive up poverty rates. It is to Desmond’s credit that he highlights the trauma; it also shows that the problems he’s conveying go well beyond housing costs.

The children in Evicted have hellish lives. “Tell us about the time that Dad hit you with a bottle and blood was coming out of your head,” a six-year-old girl asks her mother. Even at four, one of the chronically homeless boys seems “finished with childhood.” He refuses to hold his mother’s hand or sing in preschool. When she faces possible jail time for committing armed robbery, she brings him to court with orders to be stoic “if they give Momma the punishment.” The mother cries over her fifteen-month sentence, but the boy “stared back stone-faced, strong, just like his momma had taught him.”

Desmond notes only in passing that Milwaukee, the city he concentrates on, has been widely celebrated for “ending welfare”—slashing the rolls with time limits and work requirements—a strategy that some officials would apply to the rest of the safety net. That he finds so much misery suggests the verdict of success needs revisiting.

One especially haunting moment involves Jori, Arleen’s fourteen-year-old, who is less a child than his mother’s would-be protector. “If Arleen needed to smile, Jori would steal for her,” Desmond writes. “If she was disrespected, he would fight for her.” But he can’t protect her, and she can’t protect him, which leaves them bottled up with anger. The one source of innocence in Jori’s life is a kitten, named Little, who pounces on shoelaces and slurps ramen noodles and makes him laugh. When Jori is evicted, he entrusts the kitten to a neighbor and returns to find him crushed by a car. There happens to be a mannequin lying around, and Jori kneels over it. “He hit the face with a closed fist. He kept hitting it. Soon he was grunting, and his punches flew faster and harder and louder.” Arlene, shaken, screams at him to stop.

In an afterword, Desmond explains that his own family lost his childhood home to foreclosure about the time he left for college. He says that researching the book “left me depressed for years.” But Evicted isn’t a depressing book. It is also a stirring reminder that the US accepts as ordinary a depth of poverty that is extraordinary and cruel. At its heart is a simple message: “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”

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The Fierce Courage of Nina Simone

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Nina Simone performing in the 1960s
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesNina Simone performing in the 1960s

In 1968, an interviewer for New York public television asked the singer and pianist Nina Simone what freedom meant to her. “It’s just a feeling,” she replied, seemingly flustered by the question. Then, suddenly, an answer occurred to her. “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

This exchange appears early in Liz Garbus’s remarkable documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, and it’s a startling moment, for if Simone, who died in 2003, conveyed anything on stage, it was fearlessness. Frustrated in her ambition to become a classical pianist, she smuggled Bach into the night club, combined his music with folk, blues, and jazz, and enforced recital hall rules: those who made any noise while she played could expect a cold stare or a tongue-lashing. Her repertoire was catholic—Gershwin, Ellington, Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan—but whatever she sang ended up sounding like a Nina Simone tune. She did not so much interpret songs as take possession of them.

Her most famous song, however, was one that she composed herself. “Mississippi Goddam” was written in 1963, the same year as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and provided a sharper expression of the mood among young civil rights activists. “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” Simone coyly announces, before working herself into a furious assault on white counsels of patience:

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying, “Go slow!”

The mere fact that Simone dared to say “Mississippi goddam” represented a revolution in black political oratory. As Dick Gregory recalls in Garbus’s film, “We all wanted to say it, but she said it.”

Simone’s courage was undeniable, but it was also a shield, even a mask, designed to protect her from hostile forces, real and imagined. White supremacy was not the only hellhound on her trail. She suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition that remained undiagnosed until the 1980s, when her demons had all but taken over and a Dutch fan saved her from near vagrancy. She had a weakness for tough men and hustlers: “A love affair with fire,” as her daughter Lisa Simone told Garbus. (Lisa Simone is an executive producer of the documentary.)

Simone was also deeply tormented about her desires for women. “I have to live with Nina, and that is very difficult,” she confessed in an interview. Just how difficult is the story of Alan Light’s biography, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which was “inspired” by Garbus’s film and based on the same archive of source material, including Simone’s diaries and letters. Light’s prose is often hackneyed, but he provides an even more probing account of Simone’s inner struggles than Garbus. Far from detracting from her civil rights heroism, it makes that achievement all the more astonishing.

Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of her parents’ eight children. Her father, John Divine, had lost his dry-cleaning business during the Depression, only to be idled altogether by intestinal obstruction. Her mother, Mary Kate, a traveling Methodist minister, supported the family as a maid. Mary Kate was an emotionally distant figure, but she recognized her daughter’s precocious musical talent, and by age six Eunice had become the regular church pianist in Tryon. At revival meetings she learned how to improvise, as well as how to put audiences into a trance.1

Performing on piano with the community choir in 1939, Eunice attracted a pair of white benefactors. One was her mother’s employer, Mrs. Miller, who offered to pay for classical piano lessons. The other was the woman who became her teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, the British wife of a Russian painter. Every Saturday she crossed the railway tracks to study Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms with “Miz Mazzy,” a kindly woman who, with her white hair and pale skin, struck her as “an alien.” The town took immense pride in its young prodigy, and established a fund to pay for her education. Music, she discovered, was power, but it was also a terrible “burden.” To most whites in Tryon she was an oddity—Mrs. Mazzanovich’s “little coloured girl”—while no one in her family “knew how isolated my music made me.”2 Her mother barely showed her any affection, yet expected her to become America’s first black classical pianist. At her first recital, when she was ten, her parents moved from their seats to make way for a white family who wanted a better view of her fingers. Eunice refused to perform until her parents could return to their seats. Some whites in the audience giggled. After that, “nothing was easy any more,” as she wrote in her 1991 memoir I Put a Spell on You.

Nobody had warned her that she might not be welcome in the very white world of classical music: racism, according to Simone, was the “great unspoken” in her home. After graduating from boarding school, she took classes at Juilliard for a year and a half, while preparing for the entrance exams at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where her parents had moved to support her career. It never occurred to her that she might not be accepted. Curtis’s rejection was a shocking blow not only to her ego, but to her sense of reality: “You feel the shame, humiliation and anger at being just another victim of prejudice and at the same time there’s the nagging worry that maybe…you’re just no good.” When her piano teacher in Philadelphia, Vladimir Sokoloff, heard her play jazz, he encouraged her to pursue it, but she shrugged off the suggestion, saying, “My first love is classical music.”3

Rejection by her first love led her to create a highly distinctive style. It was born at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City, where Eunice landed a gig in 1954. Terrified that her mother might find out she was playing the “devil’s music” in a nightclub, she took the stage name Nina Simone: “Nina” from “niña,” a term of endearment used by an ex-boyfriend; “Simone” from Simone Signoret. She played as much classical music as she could get away with, weaving Bachian counterpoint and Romantic chromaticism into popular tunes.4 But what began as an effort to nurse her wounds ended up providing “a pleasure…almost as deep as the pleasure I got from classical music.” Although she’d had no training as a singer, her husky contralto was unusually expressive, at once earthy and operatic, with an alluring tinge of androgyny.

Many of her first fans, according to Light, were gay. One of them was a waiter at the Midtown, Ted Axelrod, who introduced her to Billie Holiday’s version of “I Loves You, Porgy.” Her 1958 recording of that song for Bethlehem became her first hit. (She signed away her rights and only began to make money off her Bethlehem recordings in the 1990s, after filing a series of lawsuits.) Simone dropped the demeaning “s” from “loves,” and imbued the song with a plaintive majesty. Stanley Crouch told Liz Garbus that when he finally heard the original version of the song, he thought, “They need to throw that version away and go study her version.”5

In 1959, Simone moved to New York, leaving behind her husband Don Ross, a white beatnik. (The marriage soon folded.) She struck up close friendships with James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, LeRoi Jones, Miriam Makeba, and Lorraine Hansberry, who became her political mentor. Members of a black bohemian world that stretched from Harlem to the Village, they shared her interest in fusing modern art with black themes, and in African independence struggles; several among them were gay or bisexual.6 “She is strange,” Hughes wrote in his liner notes to one of her early recordings. “So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertolt Brecht.”

It was a perceptive remark, linking Simone to the Grove Press avant-garde. At the Village Gate, a club that had just opened in the basement of an old hotel on Bleecker Street, Simone proved that she was much more than a “supper club songstress,” or even than a jazz singer. (As she often noted, there was “more folk and blues than jazz in my playing.” Stanley Crouch points out that Simone refused to “submit to the force of the band,” as more conventional jazz singers do, because “she liked it to be about her.”) Her classical training was never far from the surface. She coaxed a long, slow, almost perversely gloomy variation out of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” making it sound like a Bach invention. By the time her voice enters, a low and distant moan rising over a flurry of sixteenth notes, Porter’s melody has been infused with an aching eroticism.

Eroticism and suffering lay at the heart of Simone’s work from the very start: she seemed to have one foot in the deep South and another in Weimar cabaret. Not surprisingly, she often found herself compared to Billie Holiday, but she dismissed Holiday as a “drug addict,” and preferred to be compared to Maria Callas. Still, she made an exception for “Strange Fruit,” the Lewis Allan song about lynching that Holiday had made her own, for the way it “tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people…. It really, really opens up the wound completely.”

Jazz critics were perplexed by Simone, whose voice lacked the range of Sarah Vaughan or the suppleness of Ella Fitzgerald. “I confess I have no idea what Miss Simone’s appeal is,” Martin Williams wrote. But audiences had no trouble discerning it. Simone cut deeper than her peers: she knew how to open the wound, to make pain audible and moving. So long as she felt adored, she was full of mischievous, salty banter in her mike breaks. But if she felt slighted, she could be explosive, even violent. Art D’Lugoff, the owner of the Village Gate, hired bodyguards to protect his customers.

In New York as in Atlantic City, Simone attracted a large gay following. (When Richard Pryor said “White people had Judy Garland, we had Nina,” he had little idea how much the two had in common, as queer icons.) She hung out at a lesbian bar called Trude Heller’s, and was romantically linked to a prostitute she had roomed with in Philadelphia. Her new boyfriend, Andrew Stroud, was so afraid that she had been “contaminated” by “gay associations” that he forced her to sever all her lesbian ties. A broad-shouldered, light-skinned Harlem detective sergeant, Stroud cut a fearsome profile. “He scared me to death,” Simone said. “It was like he just took over, and I’m glad of that.” At their engagement party at the Palladium Ballroom, a fan passed Simone a note. When they left the club, Stroud, who had been drinking white rum all evening, beat her up on the street. He then took her home in a cab, put a gun to her head, tied her to the bed, and raped her. They married soon after, in 1961, and nine months later she bore their only child, Lisa. Stroud quit the police force and became her manager.

As even Simone conceded long after their divorce, she did well by him, professionally. Under his management she enjoyed her greatest creative streak, recording a string of albums for Philips and RCA that earned her reputation as the “high priestess of soul.” He rented out Carnegie Hall for her, set her up in a thirteen-room house in Mount Vernon, and promised to make her a “rich black bitch.” But she resented him for making her work so hard and for failing to satisfy her sexually. She wrote in her diary of feeling “stuck between desire for both sexes,” and, as she confessed in a letter to Stroud, “I don’t think I’ll ever lose my fear of you.”

She was nearly as afraid of herself. “I’m looking at ‘3 Faces of Eve’—think it’s significant in a psychological study of myself,” she wrote in her diary. In another entry she described herself as “the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise,” and wondered why she hadn’t killed herself. According to Stroud, “she was just unhappy to be black, and what she termed ugly.” Yet the voice she assumed in public was the exact opposite, an affirmation of négritude that transformed self-loathing into defiant pride.

The turning point in her transformation was the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. She was hardly a stranger to civil rights politics: she had performed at civil rights benefits and traveled to Lagos with Baldwin and Hughes; the racial echoes of songs like “Brown Baby” were no secret to her admirers in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.7 But after the killing of four little girls in Birmingham, she headed to the garage and tried to make a home-made gun with her husband’s tools. “If I had had the choice,” she said, “I would have been a killer.”

At Stroud’s suggestion, she instead channeled her anger into music.8 The first fruit of what would be a harvest of protest songs was “Mississippi Goddam.” It appeared on her first album for Philips, In Concert, along with an apocalyptic version of “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera, in which Jenny is reimagined as a black maid who inflicts Old Testament justice on her tormentors. In Concert was released in 1964, the same year as LeRoi Jones’s incendiary one-act play, Dutchman. Like Jones, who would soon embrace black nationalism and rename himself Amiri Baraka, Simone scorned interracial hand-holding. What she wanted, as she cried in her epic 1965 version of the spiritual “Sinnerman,” was “power!”

Nina Simone performing at the Village Gate, late 1960s
Peter Rodis/NetflixNina Simone performing at the Village Gate, late 1960s

Like Baraka, Simone gave expression to a taboo emotion that, in a 1968 best-seller, two black American psychiatrists would define as “black rage.” Her songs were peopled with avenging black angels, most famously a woman named Peaches who, in her 1966 song “Four Women,” declares that she will “kill the first mother I see.” Seldom has anyone combined art and protest to such a sublime effect, in the classical sense of fusing beauty and terror. One of the reasons she loved the Black Panthers was that “they scare the hell out of white folks, too, and we certainly need that.” At the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival—where the Panthers, not the police, provided security—Simone asked her audience if they were “ready to smash white things” and, if necessary, to kill. Whether or not Simone was ready herself, she put on a brilliantly menacing performance.

By taking up the cause of civil rights in her music, Simone at last found, in her words, “a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence.” It was so important that she was willing to play music that, as a classically trained pianist, she had considered beneath her. “I’m not a blues singer, I’m a diva,” she insisted. But on her deliciously raw 1967 album Nina Simone Sings the Blues, she proved that she could be both. She wore her Afro in a queenly dome and cultivated a funkier sound, surrounding herself with African percussion and congas in concert.

According to Angela Davis, whom Simone visited in prison in 1971 bearing a red helium balloon that became a permanent fixture in her cell, Simone “announced, asserted and innovatively played the changes of the movement.” She was movement royalty: a neighbor of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, and a confidante of Stokely Carmichael, who married her friend Miriam Makeba. But the consolations of the movement couldn’t provide Simone with a refuge from her anguish. She envied activists who could “go back into their communities to live out the ideas they believed in. They belonged; I didn’t…. I was lonely in the movement like I had been lonely everywhere else.”

Being a woman in a movement dominated by men exacerbated her loneliness. In her music, Simone would devote herself increasingly to the experience of black women, nowhere more powerfully than in “Four Women,” which announced the birth of a distinctively black feminist sensibility. (Oddly, the song is ignored in Garbus’s film.) It is a ballad, little more than a languid vamp for piano and bass, softly accented by percussion, over which Simone recounts the ordeals of four black women of different skin tones: a Toni Morrison novel compressed into four stanzas. The pace is so stately as to be almost morose, until its shattering climax, which Simone likened to a “razor cut.”

For all her defiance, Simone began to unravel by the early 1970s. She remained haunted by the death of Lorraine Hansberry, in 1965, and the other two relationships that helped preserve her fragile grip on reality—the civil rights movement and her marriage—were crumbling. Stroud left her after their threesome with a woman who claimed to be an Ethiopian princess: “I was an eyewitness to the sexual preference…. I should’ve walked out before.” Simone hired a pair of hit men to kill him; he wasn’t home when they arrived, and the plot was called off. It Is Finished was the title of her last record for RCA, released in 1974; there would be only a few more—barely listenable—studio recordings. She led a nomadic life that took her to Barbados, then Liberia, and then Europe. America, she decided, was a “cancer” and she wanted no part of it. (She also owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes to the IRS.)

Simone’s remaining thirty years, largely in self-imposed exile—the story of “what happened” to Miss Simone—make for almost unbearable reading. She drifted in and out of mostly delusional relationships with unattainable men, including the prime minister of Barbados, and allowed herself to be swindled by others. She stripped naked on a dance floor in Liberia, an experience she celebrated in a song called “Liberian Calypso,” but according to her guitarist Al Schackman, “they couldn’t stand her in Africa.” She disowned her father when she overheard him telling her brother that he, not their mother, had supported the family, a lie that made her want to “kill him right there where he sat.” She became her daughter’s tormentor, calling her a “half-breed” because she’d inherited her father’s light complexion, and beating her so severely that she ran back into her father’s arms.

As her condition deteriorated, she began to imagine, as she wrote in her memoir, that “the whole world was ganging up on Nina Simone.” At a performance at the Village Gate in 1979, she broke into a hysterical rant against Jews; James Baldwin came to her rescue, sitting beside her at the piano and imploring her to sing.9 In the early 1980s she was put on Trifolon, a drug that impaired her motor skills, but she kept performing, and by the 1990s she was making $85,000 for a single concert and collecting royalties on her old hits. That allowed her to buy a house in the South of France and support a newly acquired cocaine habit. She hired a young gay man she’d met in a Los Angeles hospital to be her manager and bought him a Mercedes. He moved into a condo near her house and neglected her.

In her final interviews, Simone continued to speak of her extraordinary body of work as if it had all been a detour from the career she was denied in classical music. Two days before her death, the Curtis Institute of Music awarded her an honorary doctorate, correcting an error that proved to be among the school’s most important contributions to musical history. For if it had accepted Eunice Waymon, there may never have been a Nina Simone.

  1. 1

    “You ever been to revival meetings?” Simone asks her listeners in “Children Go Where I Send You,” from her 1961 live recording Nina at Village Gate. “I bet you don’t know what I’m talking about! Well, you in one right now!”  

  2. 2

    Simone would later draw on these feelings of alienation in “Mississippi Goddam”: “I don’t belong here/I don’t belong there/I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” 

  3. 3

    As Light notes, there had been a few black students at Curtis, including a woman in the piano department. Sokoloff, who would have been her teacher at Curtis, said she was “not a genius, but she had great talent,” and insisted she was rejected because there were better applicants. Simone, however, never doubted that she was rejected because of her race.  

  4. 4

    Her model at the time was probably Hazel Scott, a black pianist and singer who melded jazz cabaret and classical music. Simone never mentions Scott in her memoir, and neither does Light. But according to Nadine Cohodas in her well-researched if cranky biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon, 2010), the young Eunice Waymon worshiped Scott, a woman of sultry beauty and worldly sophistication. That the walls of her dormitory at Allen High, a boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina, were covered with photographs of Scott also suggests a school-girl crush. At Allen she was far from Edney, her boyfriend in Tryon, whom she would forever describe as her one true love. But she does not seem to have lacked for company: Light reports that Simone had several same-sex affairs there. 

  5. 5

    In Garbus’s film we see her perform “I Loves You, Porgy” at the Playboy Penthouse, seemingly the only black face in an all-white crowd, introduced by Hugh Hefner as a star who “came out of nowhere.”  

  6. 6

    Atallah Shabazz, one of Malcolm X’s daughters, remarks in Garbus’s film that Simone was not “at odds with the times, the times were at odds with her.” This was particularly true of her sexuality, which chafed against the “respectability” politics of the mainstream civil rights movement, with its emphasis on bourgeois family values, and against Black Power, with its vision of heroic black masculinity. 

  7. 7

    SNCC activists joked that the only time they forgot their nonviolent training was when someone stole their Simone records.  

  8. 8

    When she met Dr. King, she walked right up to him and said, “I’m not non-violent.” “That’s OK, sister, you don’t have to be,” he replied. For all her misgivings about nonviolence, she wrote a deeply moving elegy for King, and premiered it at a musical festival three days after his assassination: “Why? The King of Love Is Dead.” 

  9. 9

    Stanley Crouch, who reviewed the show in The Village Voice, worried that it would “feed the terrible backlash against black people that is again starting to form in this country.” 

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The Scalia Myth

Judge Antonin Scalia, then serving on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia Circuit, Washington, D.C., July 28, 1986
Paul Hosefros/The New York Times/ReduxJudge Antonin Scalia in his office, shortly before his confirmation to the Supreme Court, Washington, D.C., July 28, 1986

Justice Antonin Scalia used to say, only partly in jest, that he preferred a “dead” to a “living” Constitution: for him, the whole purpose of any constitution worth having was to nail things down so they would last—to “curtail judicial caprice” by preventing judges, himself included, from manipulating the law to advance their own visions of good policy rather than faithfully doing the people’s bidding as expressed in binding rules. Yet Scalia managed to bring our Constitution to life more deeply than have many proponents of a “living” Constitution. His love of vigorous debate consistently pushed his colleagues and legal advocates to improve their interpretive craft, even if he didn’t care for the content of their interpretations; Justice Ginsburg evoked this quality in her touching tribute to Scalia, recalling a duet aria from Derrick Wang’s comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg in which the two justices sing “we are different, we are one.”

Scalia’s ability to bring the Constitution’s text, structure, and history to the very center of the nation’s conversation through elegant and colorful prose should never be confused with the idea that his “originalist” methods actually served the disciplining and constraining functions he attributed to them. Nor should we permit his captivating rhetoric to seduce us into accepting the judgments he claimed those methods required him to reach. I see him, with great respect, as a worthy adversary—but an adversary all the same—of the just and inclusive society that our Constitution and laws should be interpreted to advance rather than impede. Method is insufficient to determine, much less eclipse, outcome when the Court confronts the most significant and difficult questions that the Constitution and federal statutes leave open.

Because ours is a constitutional democracy and not a purely majoritarian system, I have never been convinced that constraining the judiciary is a constitutional end in itself—much less an end to be valued above all others. But even if it were, depicting Scalia’s interpretive methods as more rigorous than others—in the sense that they better restrict judges by rendering their substantive visions of justice and decency less relevant—is an exercise in self-delusion: even in Scalia’s own opinions, text, context, and history were often far less determinate than he liked to assert.

Consider last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding the extension of federal tax subsidies to everyone who needs financial assistance to purchase the insurance required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), rather than limiting such subsidies to those living in states that had set up their own insurance exchanges. The dueling interpretations of the same language in the ACA, by Chief Justice Roberts for the Court’s majority and by Justice Scalia for the dissent, both took the statute’s text seriously and dissected it meticulously. But only one—that of the majority—read the relevant text with an eye to making the law work as intended. Scalia’s dissent manifested an unseemly eagerness to give Congress a failing grade for its sloppy drafting (it referred to exchanges “established by the state” even when some of the exchanges were established by the federal government for the state). And it displayed an ungenerous willingness to penalize the citizens of the thirty-four states that, at the time of the decision, had accepted the federal government’s offer to set up their exchanges, making them suffer for how their state governments had responded. To blame the sheer perversity of Scalia’s approach to the ACA on a supposed obligation to follow the law’s text to the letter—or on an imagined duty to lift isolated statutory words (like “by the state” rather than “for the state”) out of their context—simply made no sense. 

The same inability to pin readers of legal texts down to a single conclusion, however problematic, and to wring from the process all room for disagreement and potentially subjective concern for fairness, haunts Justice Scalia’s ostensibly constraining methods of interpreting the Constitution. In the Supreme Court’s gun-rights decisions, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. City of Chicago, for example, both Justice Scalia, who wrote for the Heller majority (joined by the Chief Justice and by Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) and who concurred in McDonald, and Justice Stevens, who wrote dissents in both cases (joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer), sought to interpret the text and fathom the original meaning of the Second Amendment. But they reached opposite conclusions about the reach of the “right to bear arms.” Many historians find Justice Stevens’s account of the origin and history of this right, which noted how narrowly it was understood in 1791, more persuasive than Scalia’s, especially in light of the amendment’s preamble about the necessity of a “well-regulated Militia…to the security of a free State.”

The irony is that, in this pair of ostensible triumphs for Justice Scalia’s methods, the most persuasive argument in favor of the Court’s conclusions came not from the original language or understanding of the eighteenth-century provision in question, but from a much later, nineteenth-century effort to create protections for freed slaves. It was the Court’s reading of the text proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1791 through the prism of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, ratified in 1865 and 1868, respectively—and in light of those amendments’ more contemporary concern with securing the liberties and rights to self-defense of recently freed slaves—that provided the only solid support for the majority’s ultimate conclusion that a limited right to individual self-defense, subject to reasonable state and federal regulation, is now constitutionally protected through the Second Amendment. In other words, Heller and McDonald, far from demonstrating originalism, were actually examples of living constitutionalism, inasmuch as they used the future to shed light on the past rather than the other way around.

Similar questions arise concerning President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA)—the executive order now before the Court on whose legality most observers assume the justices are divided 4-4. The Constitution offers no direct guidance on how one should evaluate that executive order, which allows undocumented immigrants whose children are American citizens to seek permission to remain in the country and obtain temporary work permits and drivers licenses. The framers were conspicuously silent on whether presidents must exercise their indisputable enforcement discretion on a case-by-case basis—or whether they may instead make rules to bring order to congressionally-enacted immigration policies that cannot possibly be enforced fully without expending vast resources and adopting police-state tactics.

Justice Scalia’s famous insistence that “the rule of law is the law of rules,” and his almost as famous respect for presidential authority, should have led him to join a majority to uphold DAPA. But most knowledgeable observers predicted that he would have voted the other way. Why? Not because his interpretive methods required it, but because his instincts leaned against a law that granted any form of amnesty on a categorical basis to undocumented immigrants. Consider, as evidence, what happened when Arizona, through its infamous “show-me-your-papers” law, adopted the policy of detaining anyone suspected of being in the country unlawfully unless and until the federal executive either verified that the person was here legally or forcibly removed that person. In the 2012 Supreme Court decision invalidating that law, Arizona v. United States, Chief Justice Roberts joined Justice Kennedy in rejecting Justice Scalia’s angry insistence that the states be permitted to step in whenever they are dissatisfied with the executive’s way of exercising of federal deportation power. Scalia’s dissent reasoned that the states’ very decision to enter the Union presupposed a right to override the federal government on issues bearing on their sovereignty – an argument he evidently divined from his understanding of, well, the nature of things. What differentiated Scalia’s view from that of the Court’s majority—a view that Kennedy, in his opinion for the majority, wrote that he found frankly inhumane—wasn’t that the text, history, or structure of the Constitution actually mandated such a conclusion. Rather, Scalia’s reasoning seemed to arise from his palpable frustration with the Obama administration’s substantive approach to immigration.  

To say that Justice Scalia’s methods gave him as much wiggle room as his more liberal counterparts to come out either way in particular cases isn’t to accuse him of anything nefarious. It does, however, undermine his claim that, unlike the supposedly more manipulable techniques followed by all of his colleagues other than Justice Thomas, his own methods tied him down to conclusions that he may have disliked but simply could not avoid. This absolute adherence to method over any concern with consequences was something Scalia suggested in criminal justice cases in which he reached results that were more pro-defendant than those of his more conservative colleagues; in those cases, he gave broader effect than many of his colleagues to each criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights to trial by jury and to an opportunity to confront and cross-examine his accusers. Scalia’s indifference to consequences was also something he would announce triumphantly in recalling, whenever challenged to prove that he wasn’t just voting his preferences, how much he hated having to rule in favor of the scruffy flag-burners whose free speech rights he joined a narrow majority in upholding in 1989.

Yet it was the issue of free speech and its intersection with principles of equality that, in Citizens United and related cases, perhaps most called into question the claim of Justice Scalia and his devotees that they were unwavering in their fidelity to “originalist” methods. The deepest question posed by those cases was whether to understand freedom of speech as an essentially absolute, abstract barrier to all federal or state restrictions on the resources and energies devoted to political expression of whatever origin, or instead in a way that takes account of the potential for money and corporate power to distort and corrupt democracy and to undermine the ideals embodied in the core principle of one person/one vote. But that question was not one on which the text or history of the First Amendment or the Fourteenth could provide meaningful guidance, much less supply unambiguous answers, however much the justices in the Citizens United majority insisted otherwise. As I have written at length elsewhere, a great deal can be said both for and against the First Amendment perspective championed by Justice Scalia and promoted with particular vigor by Justice Kennedy, but the question cannot be settled by relying on text and history to the exclusion of political and moral theory.

Nor were Scalia’s declared methods of any help in resolving the question of whether to treat race-specific “affirmative action” as no less constitutionally suspect than the deliberate subordination or segregation of minorities—a question the Court has faced in nearly every case in which minority race has been used by public institutions for purposes of integration and inclusion, from K-12 through the university level. Notwithstanding Justice Scalia’s occasional—and factually inaccurate—claim that the text of the Equal Protection Clause or the Due Process Clause expressly forbids all racial classifications by government, the Constitution in truth says nothing at all about race in either provision. To the contrary, Scalia’s claim that the Fourteenth Amendment as a whole sets its face against all government reliance on an individual’s race or ancestry is belied by the actual history of the amendment and the assumptions both of those who drafted it and of those who voted to ratify it. The amendment was proposed by the very same Congress that created the famous Freedmen’s Bureau expressly to benefit not only the freed slaves but those descended from them. In leading the Court’s opposition to all racial distinctions by government, even when narrowly tailored not as blunt quotas but as one of many attributes to be considered in assessing individuals in a good-faith effort to achieve the advantages of diversity, Scalia ultimately relied on what he identified as a general “American principle” that people should not be classified “on the basis of the color of their skin.” But what then are we to make of Justice Scalia’s idea, which he voiced angrily in dissenting opinions in cases concerning sexual autonomy and gay rights, that reliance on such sweeping principles is but an excuse for judges to impose their own policy preferences undemocratically?

The indeterminacy of Scalia’s methods, as well as the fact that Scalia himself sometimes abandoned their use in cases where they could have cut against the outcome he sensed was right, should particularly remind those responsible for nominating and confirming his successor that brilliant, personally decent, and ethically respectable judges on any side of a complex and controversial issue can quote scripture to their own purposes and, in the rare instances where scripture has nothing to offer, will craft other ways to tip the scales in favor of the results that simply feel right to them. Justice Scalia drew selectively both on his own favored methods and on those of others, often showing a Swiss-cheese-like respect for precedent (following where the logic of precedent led—except when he thought it unwise to do so) to cast real votes on decisions that had real, sometimes enormous, and occasionally tragic human consequences. His successor will likewise have to draw on a broad variety of interpretive tools and will, likewise, in the most significant and controversial cases, ultimately rely—whether expressly or otherwise—on a personal understanding of the values and vision that the Constitution is best understood to embody. 

The selection of a justice to serve for life on the nation’s highest court is far too consequential to be treated either as an abstract referendum on legal methodology or as a game to be played for partisan advantage. For literally the first time in American history, the party in control of the Senate is demanding that the president violate his constitutional duty to nominate someone to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. In the process, the Senate is effectively disabling itself from performing its own constitutional duty, its “Advice and Consent” function, thereby undermining the framers’ brilliant design of a government whose separate parts were to check but never prevent one another from performing their assigned missions. The national debate over who should be the next president might in any event include attention to the kind of justice the people want to see fill the currently vacant seat, but that debate will inevitably be far more generalized and lacking in substance if it cannot center around what is revealed by a particular nominee’s background and in that nominee’s responses to probing questions asked in a Senate hearing.

Nothing could more dramatically demonstrate how momentous the choice of a successor to this justice is to the country, and how especially shameful and hypocritical is the Senate’s refusal even to consider anyone nominated by the incumbent president. The pretense behind this unprecedented maneuver is that only the president whom the nation elects this November to succeed President Obama can legitimately reflect the people’s will. Never mind that President Obama was elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012 and still has nearly a year to serve. The claim is that filling the currently vacant seat in ordinary course would unduly politicize the selection process and the Court itself. That is transparently absurd. Whichever president nominates someone to the seat occupied by Justice Scalia, the selection that is made, and the Senate’s vote to confirm or reject that nominee, will reflect a politically legitimate choice about one kind of future rather than another with respect to the powers, responsibilities, and limits of the levels and branches of government and the values government will be permitted, forbidden, or on occasion compelled to preserve. Justice Scalia’s successor will wield enormous influence on the Court’s decisions in years to come on the broadest imaginable range of matters vital to us all: access to court and avoidance of arbitration in civil cases, meaningful access to adequate legal representation in criminal cases, presidential war powers, voting rights, reproductive choice, gay rights and minority inclusion, racial and religious profiling and the separation of church and state, campaign finance and habeas corpus and the future of such extraordinary and deeply debated forms of punishment as solitary confinement, life imprisonment without parole, and the death penalty.

Many of us yearn for the Court to move in a progressive direction and dread a continuation of the rightward drift that Justice Scalia’s three-decade long presence on the Court facilitated. Even if labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are often oversimplifications, it captures more truth than it obscures to say that the Court is currently composed of four liberals (Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan), three conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito), and one jurist (Justice Kennedy) who leans sometimes in one direction and sometimes the other way. The Court is exquisitely balanced 4-4 on a wider swath of fundamental questions than at any time since the 1930s.

This crucial constitutional moment—this possible turning point in the life of our republic—calls on all of us, across the political spectrum, to drop the pretense that we have nothing in mind but what we deem the theoretically proper judicial methods, come what may, and simultaneously to resist the unfounded claim that only those who applaud right-leaning outcomes while proclaiming strict adherence to text and history can truly claim the mantle of constitutionalists who believe in the rule of law. That mantle instead belongs to those who are most candid about the non-existence of any ironclad “method” that should, or even can, obviate the necessity for human choices about the demands of justice and the meaning of America.

The greatest justices in our history—from John Marshall to Louis D. Brandeis, from Robert H. Jackson to Earl Warren and William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr.—have displayed that candor and have thereby helped make the Union stronger, the country better, and our Constitution more enduring and embracing. We should all welcome the opportunity to take part in a national debate over the values and perspectives we want the next justice to bring to the intricate task of interpreting our Constitution and our laws. But if we shut our eyes, ears, and minds to such questions, or reduce them to vague abstractions, as the Senate is now threatening to do, we will leave our nation’s remarkable constitutional system impoverished and our nation’s uncertain destiny imperiled.  

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The Original Wagner

A selection of costume designs for Der Ring des Nibelungen: Figurinen by Carl Emil Doepler, Berlin, 1889,
The Morgan Library & MuseumCostume designs for Der Ring des Nibelungen by Carl Emil Doepler, Berlin, 1889

Some devotees of Richard Wagner have suggested, not wholly in jest, that the best way to enjoy the master’s operas is with one’s eyes closed. For not only have few stage presentations of his monumentally conceived and famously lengthy music dramas ever approached the cosmic sublimity of their underlying compositions, but nowadays it appears mandatory for them to be produced as bizarrely as possible, and despite the composer’s detailed visual instructions to the contrary.

Lilli Lehmann as Woglinde in Das Rheingold, Bayreuth production, 1876
J. Albert, Munich/Metropolitan Opera ArchivesLilli Lehmann as Woglinde in Das Rheingold, Bayreuth, 1876

Wagner’s intentions were religiously followed at his annual Bayreuth Festival for decades after he died, but with the rise of Hitler—an avid Wagnerite and Bayreuth regular—the composer’s music became closely associated with Nazism. For example, in the 1930s productions of Siegfried, the avaricious dwarf Alberich was often depicted as a stereotypical money-grubbing Jewish merchant, and many observers saw his sniveling toady Mime as a caricature of the ghetto schlemiel. Adding to these associations were the composer’s own evident anti-Semitic tendencies, expressed in his notorious 1850 essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewry in Music), a diatribe against his principal early competitors, the Jewish-born composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn. Ironically, the postwar imperative to sanitize the Wagner corpus of its Fascist connotations encouraged other political interpretations that now can seem almost as objectionable as the Hitler era recedes into history.

All of which has made the history of the composer’s original conceptions—primary evidence of which is on view in the Morgan Library & Museum’s “Wagner’s Ring: Forging an Epic”—feel like something of a rediscovery. Consider the engravings of the stage décors by the nineteenth-century Viennese artist Joseph Hoffmann for the first complete presentation of Der Ring des Nibelungen in 1876. Conservative though Hoffmann’s set designs are in their realistic evocation of mountain landscapes and a quaint notion of “primitive” architecture (informed by the theories of the German architect Gottfried Semper), it’s hard not to see the Morgan show—in which several dozen letters, manuscripts, and documents trace the three decades from Wagner’s initial idea for the Ring cycle in 1848 to its first public presentation—as a rebuke to the antics that have lately turned this landmark of musical theater into an international freak show.

A stage design for Die Walküre, Act 1. Vienna: V. Angerer, by Joseph Hoffmann, circa 1878
Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection/The Morgan Library & MuseumAn engraving of Joseph Hoffmann’s stage design for Act 1 of Die Walküre, Vienna, circa 1878

Forty years ago, the composer’s direct descendants—who still control the artistic direction of the Bayreuth Festival, the all-Wagner summer jamboree he established in the sleepy Bavarian town of Bayreuth—commissioned Patrice Chéreau’s still-influential centennial mounting of the Ring, which caused an uproar among traditionalists but was also widely admired in some quarters and fostered a new school of Wagnerian dramaturgy. In it Chéreau presented the gods, demigods, and mortals of the four-part sequence not as pan-cultural archetypes of human nature, but rather as cartoonish avatars of nineteenth-century capitalism dressed in the kind of comical plutocratic garb the Bolsheviks used to connote enemies of the proletariat. Yet in the opinion of many, this crude neo-Marxist interpretation narrowed the universal implications that have beguiled Ring enthusiasts from the outset.  

Since then it’s become commonplace to set the Ring cycle not in some vaguely defined primeval world that underscores the saga’s profound mythic power, but rather in outlandish locales calculated to shock. New depths of absurdity were plumbed with Frank Castorf’s 2013 Bayreuth Ring, which marked the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth. Among the settings Castorf depicted were a Route 66 gas station and motel for Das Rheingold, and a pre-Russian Revolution Caspian oil field for Die Walküre. As for the climactic Die Götterdämmerung, here is how The Guardian’s Martin Kettle described it:

Erda gives Wotan a blowjob, while Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde beneath gargantuan Mt Rushmore-style sculpted heads of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao on a stage revolve that periodically transports them into Honecker-era East Berlin, where crocodiles hump one another and the hero and heroine drink themselves into a loveless operatic climax.

A set for Frank Castorf's production the Ring cycle, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, 2013
A set for Frank Castorf’s production of the Ring cycle, Bayreuth, 2013

New York City—a big Wagner town since the mid-nineteenth century, when its sizeable German immigrant population formed a ready-made audience for the composer’s operas— has had its own recent Ring fiasco: Robert Lepage’s staging introduced between 2010 and 2012 at the Metropolitan Opera. All four installments of this $40-million extravaganza were dominated by a mechanized forty-five-ton set, which The New York Times dubbed the “Valhalla Machine.” Designed by Carl Fillion (who has worked with Lepage for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas), this flange-beamed contraption cost around $16 million but proved hugely disruptive to the musical proceedings because of the loud noises it often emitted, to say nothing of its sporadic malfunctions, when on several occasions it subverted the drama’s high points.

But as the Morgan exhibition makes clear, the financial demands imposed by Wagner’s grandiose vision have been central to the Ring from its inception. Among the many fascinating documents on view are several dealing with money matters. Here—along with the expected musical manuscripts and source material for the libretto, which draws on Nordic legends—we can see one of the composer’s many begging letters to would-be backers, in this case Franz Liszt’s rich lover, Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein; an invitation to an 1853 Zurich reading of the tetralogy’s text (which Wagner also wrote), on which the author—avid for every last Swiss Franc he could hustle—scribbled a postscript that children under one year old were also welcome, lest their mothers stay at home; and an 1881 document in which his biggest creditor, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, forgives a debt payment. (Here the sovereign’s loony-looking signature seems to fully justify his “Mad” sobriquet.)

Richard Wagner's letter to Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein including the closing measures of Das Rheingold (detail), Zurich, January 16, 1854
Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection/The Morgan Library & MuseumA detail of Richard Wagner’s letter to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein including the closing measures of Das Rheingold, Zurich, January 16, 1854

Wagner— a posturing dandy, short in stature but with an enormous, leonine head and prominent profile, much like Leonard Bernstein a century later—was catnip to cartoonists, and in addition to Richard Wagner in der Karikatur (a 1907 compendium of visual lampoons) the Morgan exhibition displays several of the best-known satirical images of his time. Among them are André Gill’s 1869 engraving of the composer driving a spike into an enormous, blood-gushing ear, and Honoré Daumier’s no less palpable 1868 depiction of a Munich audience being blown backward in their seats by a maelstrom of fragmented musical notation, a sensation I’ve happily experienced on several unforgettable Wagner evenings.

André Gill: Richard Wagner (caricature), L’Éclipse, April 18, 1869
The Morgan Library & MuseumA caricature of Richard Wagner by Andre Gill in L’Éclipse, April 18, 1869

At the front of the single large gallery in which the show is installed, a video screen plays taped excerpts from the four operas, including the recent Met Rheingold and an orchestrally superb 1980 Bayreuth Walküre conducted by the late Pierre Boulez. Unfortunately there are no clips from the revolutionary postwar Bayreuth Ring cycles directed by the brothers Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, grandsons of the composer who—once Allied authorities allowed this erstwhile nest of Nazis to reopen in 1951—took over the festival from their mother, Winifred Wagner, a close and unrepentant friend of Hitler’s who privately referred to him as “U.S.A.”: unser seliger Adolf (our blessed Adolf).

The Wagner siblings’ starkly minimalist productions—in several instances the stage was left completely bare, and lighting alone defined some indoor or outdoor space—reflected two harsh realities: a lack of funding, and the need to avoid any representational feature that could be interpreted as political, given how compromised the Wagner legacy was. Significantly, these stripped-down stagings had a purifying effect that was quite intentional in shifting audience attention toward the Ring’s penetrating psychological aspects and away from the impossible stage business—swimming mermaids, flying horses, a fire-breathing dragon, and a talkative bird, among other fantasies—that has always bedeviled directors.

Like the best abstract art, the New Bayreuth Style, as it was dubbed, allowed viewers to project their own interpretations onto a nearly blank canvas, and to draw illuminating conclusions of their own about the deeper meaning of what they saw before them. The pendulum theory of culture—which holds that action and reaction reflexively animate stylistic swings as broad as those from Rococo to Neoclassical and Pop to Minimalism—might indicate that after every last anachronistic dystopia has been exploited as a stand-in for Valhalla we might finally see a return to undistracting theatrical values more closely aligned with Wagner’s gloriously transcendent music of the spheres.

“Wagner’s Ring: Forging an Epic” is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum through April 17.

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Obama’s Most Dangerous Legacy

Yemenis gather around a burnt car after it was targeted by a drone strike, killing three suspected al-Qaeda militants, January 26, 2015
AFP/Getty ImagesThe remains of a car containing three suspected al-Qaeda militants, after a drone strike, Yemen, January 26, 2015

President Barack Obama’s plan for closing Guantánamo, delivered to Congress on Tuesday, reaffirms his admirable desire to end before he leaves office one of the most problematic legacies of the US response to September 11. But he has yet to adequately address his own more lasting legacy in the “war on terror”: the secret killing of suspected terrorists with armed drones. On the same day the president issued his Guantánamo plan, a bipartisan task force gave him failing grades on his progress in bringing the drone program under the rule of law.

The Obama administration has made drones the weapon of choice for responding to perceived terrorist threats. According to the New America Foundation, George W. Bush oversaw forty-eight drone strikes in Pakistan; to date, Obama has already overseen 354, a 700 percent increase. Bush ordered one drone strike in Yemen; Obama has ordered 127. The precise numbers are disputed, but the New America Foundation reports that during Obama’s tenure, drone strikes have killed between 1,900 and 3,000 people in Pakistan, including over one hundred civilian victims. The practice peaked in Pakistan in 2010, and in Yemen in 2012, but continues to this day. The most recent reported strike in Yemen, for example, was on February 16, 2016, and killed three to six people. 

Debates about the morality, efficacy, and legality of drones continue. On Sunday, former NSA and CIA director Michael V. Hayden published a breathless account of drone killings in The New York Times, defending both individually targeted strikes and signature strikes (in which unidentified individuals are targeted because they look like combatants) as an appropriate response to terrorists who hide among civilian populations. Meanwhile, in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart maintains that attacking ISIS fighters with drones and other aerial bombs, as the administration has been doing, will only increase the likelihood that Americans will become the targets of terrorist attacks.

The drone debate is hampered, however, by a central and deeply disturbing fact: the Obama administration has done virtually all of its drone killing in secret, and refuses to acknowledge its attacks, even when they are reported in the press. As a result, we have no official account of who was killed, where they were killed, why they were killed, or how many persons other than the intended targets were killed. Organizations like the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism do their best to keep an accurate count, but it is challenging to do so, and at most they are able to record the approximate numbers killed—not what the basis for the killing was.

In June 2014, the Stimson Center issued a report on drones by an impressive bipartisan task force.  The task force was headed by Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, and Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and former Defense Department official.  It included former senior government officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Department of State, and Department of Commerce, from three different administrations.  The report did not condemn all use of drones, but was highly critical of the absence of transparency, accountability, and oversight with respect to their use away from traditional battlefields. It made a series of sound recommendations designed not to eliminate drone use but to bring the practice into the light of day and under the rule of law.

In the “report card” it issued this week, the Stimson Center task force graded the Obama administration on how well it has addressed those recommendations over the last year and a half. The results are not encouraging: three Fs, three Ds, and three Cs. Not a single A or B. The task force also had to give several Us, for “Unknown,” for example, on whether the administration has conducted a strategic review of the drone policy because the secrecy surrounding the program prevented the task force from determining even whether such a review has been undertaken.

The administration’s F grades all came on matters of transparency and accountability. The task force had recommended that the administration release information on the approximate number of strikes carried out by the military and the CIA; the general location and the numbers killed; the affiliations of those targeted and killed; and the numbers and identities of civilians killed. The administration has failed to provide such information for a single strike thus far. As the Stimson Center notes, since its 2014 report, “lethal UAV strikes have been reported in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan and Somalia, and against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.” Yet the administration refuses even to acknowledge the vast majority of these strikes. Obama did apologize when a drone strike in early 2015 on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border accidentally killed two al-Qaeda hostages, the American Warren Weinstein and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. And the administration has admitted to killing several Americans. But it has plainly killed many other innocent civilians; what possible justification is there for apologizing only when we kill Western civilians? And why acknowledge only those strikes in which Americans are executed?

The task force also flunked the administration for failing to provide a “detailed report explaining [the] legal basis under domestic and international law of U.S. lethal drone program” or to develop “robust oversight and accountability mechanisms for targeted strikes outside of traditional battlefields.” Obama and some of his national security officials have offered general defenses of their policy in public speeches, and in the summer of 2014 a federal court compelled the administration to release a redacted legal memo justifying the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in October 2011. But we still know very little about the legal standards that govern most strikes, the process the government uses to ensure that particular strikes adhere to those standards, and what review, if any, is done after the fact to assess whether the strikes were justified and proportional, and whether innocent civilians were killed or injured. Absent such information, accountability remains illusory.

Perhaps the biggest question posed by drones is whether and to what extent they change the calculus of war, and whether new laws are needed to govern their deployment. The task force recommended in its initial report that that the administration “foster the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields.” The importance of the issue is underscored by the fact that, as the task force notes, “at least nine countries are believed to have armed drones—China, France, Iran, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.” And four countries have used them to kill—the US, UK, Pakistan, and Israel. The weapon will proliferate, and as it does so, the US record will provide a dangerous precedent for others.

The task force gave the administration a D on the subject of developing an international legal frame for the use of drones. The administration escaped a failing grade in this category only because in February 2015 it announced that it seeks to develop international standards for the export of drone technology. In other words, the US has made progress only when it comes to imposing standards on other countries, but no progress whatsoever with respect to publishing and enforcing standards governing its own use of drones. We are right to be worried about how others may use the technology we export; but we need to recognize that other countries are just as right to worry about how we use the technology ourselves. As long as the Obama administration insists on the power to engage in unacknowledged, unaccountable killing, we have no right to criticize others who do the same. 

At this rate, Obama’s drone record may well be one of the most disappointing aspects of his administration’s legacy. But unlike with such matters as Guantánamo, where he faces significant political obstruction from Congress, he has the ability and the authority, on his own, to improve his record substantially before he leaves office. If he begins to take the Stimson Center recommendations seriously, he can still salvage his reputation—and more importantly, avoid creating a dangerous precedent for future leaders, here or abroad. If not, he will be remembered as the American president who asserted the power to kill suspects around the world by remote control, in secret.

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Cancer: A Time for Skeptics

Robert Pope: Radiation, 1989
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia/Robert Pope FoundationRobert Pope: Radiation, 1989

In his valedictory State of the Union address this January, President Obama endorsed Vice President Biden’s proposal of last October that the US needed something like a “moonshot” to cure cancer. “Tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done,” Obama said. “For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.”

The loved one I lost was my mother. At the age of sixty-seven, she developed breast cancer. She openly told family and friends of her diagnosis, and what followed: surgery, to remove the breast mass and adjacent lymph nodes containing deposits of the tumor, and a combination of chemotherapy agents to reduce the risk of recurrence.

Several years later, the cancer returned. She knew then that the disease was incurable, but she also knew that there was hope to extend her life with treatment. “I am playing leapfrog with the cancer,” she told me. There were times when the chemotherapy took its toll, my mother too fatigued to do daily chores, attend synagogue, or see a movie or play. But there were also periods when life was lived fully.

Twelve years after the initial diagnosis, her oncologist, a thoughtful and dedicated doctor, told her that the cancer was growing quickly and treatment options were few. A drug had recently been approved by the FDA for pancreatic cancer. It was called gemcitabine, and there had been much controversy over its value. The clinical trials showed that the drug extended survival for several weeks, and critics decried the idea that a toxic drug with such minimal benefit would be brought to market. But soon after it became available, oncologists began studying its use in other cancers, including breast cancer, and there were some early encouraging data that it might be beneficial.

In addition, another way of targeting cancer, attempting to cut off its blood supply with a so-called anti-angiogenesis agent, Avastin, had been approved by the FDA. Although there was no formal protocol for doing so, her oncologist suggested combining gemcitabine with Avastin. There were real risks of toxicity, to be sure, and he was not pressing my mother to comply with his advice. But she very much wanted to live, and did not believe that the end was near. Remarkably, dual treatment resulted in fourteen months of remission, the cancer in her bones and liver shrinking markedly. She was able to visit me in Boston and go to concerts in New York, all the while taking the drugs.

Ultimately, the effects waned and the cancer grew explosively. Her oncologist said that she might enter so-called phase 1 studies, where new drugs are tested primarily to assess side effects with little expectation of benefit. She thought about it for a while, but concluded that the time had come. She arranged for hospice care at home and, mercifully, died in her own bed without pain or anxiety.

Dr. Vincent DeVita is an eminent oncologist whose work informs how I and many of my fellow cancer specialists approach the care of patients with lymphoma. He opens his memoir, The Death of Cancer, written with his daughter Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn, with his family’s loss, that of a beloved aunt from cervical cancer. The narrative follows the arc of his efforts to combat cancer over the last fifty years, and asserts that we now have the tools—“skeptics be damned”—to eradicate it.

In 1963, DeVita, a newly graduated doctor, joined a group at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) that promoted chemotherapy for tumors when treatment of them primarily consisted of surgery and radiation. His mentors included Tom Frei and Jay Freireich, who combined single chemotherapeutic agents into the cocktail that first cured childhood leukemia. That success, DeVita argues, came from acting as transgressors, disregarding conventional boundaries in medical thinking.

DeVita, enthralled by the work of Frei and Freireich, wanted to repeat their success with leukemia. Along with several fellow trainees, including George Canellos, DeVita pursued Hodgkin’s disease, a deadly lymphoma. His group cobbled together four drugs, refining their doses and schedule of administration as they went along, rather than testing a set regimen. Then, when their series of doses was complete, they would analyze the data. The cure rate with the four-drug cocktail was so extraordinary that it was met with skepticism, if not downright dismissal, by many outside of the NCI.

DeVita recreates confrontations with critics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which “had been built on land donated by the Rockefeller family; Laurance Rockefeller essentially owned the place”; its “clientele tended toward the rich and the international.” The Memorial doctors were using a version of his cocktail but had changed it to lower its doses. They were concerned about side effects of severe vomiting, nerve damage, and sepsis; and they failed to reproduce his stunning results. After a contentious session, DeVita concluded that the New York specialists had “made changes to satisfy their own egos.” Other oncologists who reduced the toxic doses

seemed less concerned about healing and more worried about being sued or maximizing their income. Patients couldn’t push for higher doses if they didn’t know that it mattered—and all a doctor had to do was omit that information.

Indeed, cancer patients should be fully informed of all potential risks and benefits, as my mother was.

Ultimately DeVita’s method of combining drugs at high doses, rather than backing away, proved to yield the greatest number of lymphoma cures. DeVita also was a fierce advocate of the work of Bernard Fisher, the pioneering surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh who showed that combining chemotherapy agents for women like my mother with cancer in the breast and adjoining lymph nodes delayed recurrence and, in some cases, resulted in long-term cures.

The flexible approach at the NCI, modifying a treatment in real time, is anathema to many clinical researchers. Constantly shifting variables, like dose and timing of drugs, makes it difficult to accurately assess either benefits or side effects. It also requires great trust in the probity of the clinicians conducting the trial—trust that they are able to make the right decisions as they alter the protocols as they go along. Traditionally, the FDA has rejected such an approach, requiring that a set protocol be carried through to its prescribed end. Yet some researchers are now harking back to DeVita’s strategy in what is called an “adaptive clinical trial,” by which statisticians work to devise novel methods, to distill meaningful conclusions about the outcomes. These methods include applying probabilistic assessments at prespecified times to allow changes in patient numbers, doses, and other parameters of the trial. (Recently, the FDA has stated it is open to considering adaptive trials in approving new drugs.)

In addition to adaptive clinical trials, DeVita believes in individual innovation; he writes that an oncologist should be free to draw on preliminary data and employ an agent not yet FDA-approved for a specific cancer. Gemcitabine, at the time approved only for pancreatic cancer, proved to be a highly effective and well-tolerated therapy for my mother’s breast cancer; how much added benefit, if any, she received from Avastin can be questioned, since this agent was ultimately ruled ineffective in subsequent clinical studies. Moreover, DeVita approaches treatment of each cancer patient with the mindset articulated by the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould when he embarked on therapy for his own tumor. The median, he said, is not the message. The tail of the curve is worth aiming for, even in the most desperate cases.

Missing from DeVita’s glorification of mentors like Tom Frei is the history of treating breast cancer and other solid tumors with bone marrow transplant. Siddhartha Mukherjee, in The Emperor of All Maladies, his 2010 book on cancer, highlights Frei’s headstrong determination to administer high doses of toxic chemotherapy, even if the dose caused severe effects or brought the patient to the cusp of death. “If brute force was needed, then brute force would be summoned…. ‘We have a cure for breast cancer,’ Frei told one of his colleagues.” This galvanized a program at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where Frei had moved after leaving the NCI. According to Mukherjee,

[the four-drug therapy for leukemia] had succeeded, Frei privately believed, not just because of the unique chemotherapeutic synergy among the drugs, but also because of the unique human synergy at the NCI—that cocktail of brilliant young minds and risk-taking bodies.1

But DeVita’s friend and peer George Canellos, who also moved to Dana-Farber, was deeply skeptical and vocally opposed Frei’s “cure.”

Over nearly ten years, some 40,000 women around the world underwent transplantation of bone marrow in order to cure breast cancer. Fortunately, my mother never did; her oncologist thought it not likely superior in benefit and could kill her. He and Canellos were right. Frei’s transplant program was an unmitigated disaster. There is an important lesson here for the reader that DeVita omits: inspirational figures can become wedded to a model that works in one type of cancer but is misconceived in another.

Working at the National Cancer Institute, within the Beltway, DeVita became adept not only in cancer medicine but in cancer politics. Biden’s “moonshot” metaphor echoed the language that President Nixon employed in asking Congress to declare a “war” on cancer in 1971.2 Nixon announced a timeline to win that war, five years, a gift for the bicentennial of 1976. Mary Lasker, a prominent Democratic Party contributor and philanthropist, and Benno Schmidt, a Republican who managed the Rockefeller fortune, together led the effort, and acted as DeVita’s political mentors.

DeVita offers an insider’s look at the manipulations and machinations that occurred, particularly the ways Lasker dealt with members of Congress to get her way. DeVita recalls accompanying Lasker to see Senator Hubert Humphrey:

We went right in, and they hugged and kissed and made small talk for about five minutes before Mary got around to introducing me. Before we went in, Mary had said to me, “I’m going to ask him for a $200 million increase over the president’s budget.” Panicked, I told her there was no way I could think of things to justify that kind of an increase. She gave me an angry look because she hated people to tell her they couldn’t spend money. She just told me to be enthusiastic and not to worry about it because she usually only got half of what she asked for anyhow.

DeVita acknowledges that the public was misled about the timeline of the war on cancer, but for what he believes was a greater good:

As we knew, the bicentennial celebration would come and go without a cure for cancer. And the predictable articles on the “failed” war on cancer started to appear in the mainstream press. “U.S. Cancer Program Termed ‘Sham,’” screamed a headline in March 1975 in The Boston Globe…. “War on Cancer Stirs a Political Backlash,” according to The New York Times in May 1975, while in the same year “False Front in War on Cancer” ran in the Chicago Tribune.

It misses the point to bristle at the media for holding the war’s proponents to their false promise. Just as a doctor should not lie to a patient, advocates for medical research should not lie to the nation to gain tax dollars.

In 1980, DeVita became the director of the NCI. Four years later, he provided Congress with a new goal in the war on cancer: a 50 percent reduction in cancer-related mortality by the year 2000. This did not occur, although the reduction was real: about 17 percent. In 2005, Andrew von Eschenbach, the subsequent NCI director, testified to Congress that he could “end all cancer suffering and deaths by 2015.” When Senator Arlen Specter, who had had cancer, pressed him about this assertion, von Eschenbach said that with more money he could do it by 2010.

In 1988, DeVita left the NCI to become physician-in-chief at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He lasted five years, clashing with Paul Marks, the president, who seemed to favor laboratory research over DeVita’s clinical programs:

Marks called a meeting…to announce my departure. I wasn’t there, but one of my former colleagues was. Later, he told me that Marks had said, “The problem with Vince is that he wants to cure cancer.”

DeVita, who then moved to Yale, confesses with a tone of embarrassment how he secured a large federal grant for its cancer center in the review process:

We played the game. We stretched the truth and told them that hallway conversations were formal program meetings, and the dean assured them that I was truly in charge. The president of the hospital promised continued unyielding support, which he never gave…. Twice, I got Yale’s core grant approved by finessing the truth.

Forty-five years after Nixon declared a war on cancer, success is most striking in our understanding of the biology of the disease. That biology is quite different from what was conceived by the experts around Lasker who were certain that viruses caused human tumors. Many millions of dollars were spent, and countless work hours expended, trying to find these putative human cancer viruses. The thinking was that when a single, common root for all cancers was identified, a single “silver bullet” would forever eradicate the disease.

A color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing the spread of cancer cells
Science SourceA color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing the spread of cancer cells

This proved not to be the case. Largely from the seminal work of Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus at the University of California, San Francisco, and Robert Weinberg at MIT, we discovered that cancer does not usually originate from the outside—through viruses—but we carry within ourselves the seeds of the malady, in the form of so-called oncogenes, i.e., genes that can be activated by chemical toxins, radiation, or random mutations. The proteins for which they code no longer control normal cell growth. There are also tumor suppressor genes that may act to counter the effects of oncogenes; when tumor suppressor genes are mutated, their restraining effects are lost. There is remarkable heterogeneity among cancers as both oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes mutate or amplify in number.

More daunting are recent studies showing that, within a single person, an initial cancer growing in an organ like the kidney can show a different array of mutations than the metastases emanating from it. As a result of these and a great many other developments, we now also recognize that “cancer” is a multiplicity of diseases; that even within the category of a single cancer type, like breast or lung, there are numerous subcategories. A tumor’s constant genetic changes may explain, in part, why so many treatments fall short; tumors have the nefarious capacity to alter their character and escape our grip, often likened to Proteus at the seashore.

Still, as DeVita rightly argues, we are now at a much better place than we were in past decades, not only in our biological knowledge but also in our treatment options, including success with immune therapies for, among others, melanoma and lung cancer. Such therapies, and there are now several of them, can stimulate the immune system to reject and destroy the growth of cancerous cells.

Recent statistics indicate a 23 percent drop in cancer deaths from 1991 to the present.3 Part of this decline is attributed to preventative strategies, like the campaign against smoking; part is due to early detection of otherwise lethal cancers, as with regular colonoscopies; and part from improved survival among patients with lymphoma, breast cancer, and other malignancies.

DeVita asserts that we could do much better; that if promising therapies were “used to their fullest potential…we could cure an additional 100,000 patients a year.” He does not show how he arrived at this number; physicians and scientists should have a basis for such claims, since such statistics tend to be repeated throughout American society.

DeVita puts part of the blame on the FDA. The agency is attacked from the right for being too slow in approving drugs and too concerned with side effects, and from the left as beholden to the pharmaceutical industry and far too ready to approve prematurely the release of drugs that turn out to have deleterious side effects. “Of course, both groups have taken things too far,” he writes. “Most of us recognize that we need regulations; we don’t want the FDA to go away. But we do want it to get out of the way.” Another obstacle is that

doctors risk FDA censure if they use an approved drug under any other circumstance, and patients are penalized because insurance companies won’t pay for treatments not approved by the FDA.

Most disturbing, some insurers now give doctors bonuses, up to $1,000 per patient a month, to prescribe the insurers’ protocols rather than decide autonomously what is best for a person.4

Dr. Richard Pazdur oversees review of oncology drugs at the FDA. DeVita casts him as an obstructionist. But recently Pazdur has modified his views on drug development, based in part on personal experience; his wife, an oncology nurse, developed metastatic ovarian cancer. Last November, the FDA approved more anticancer agents than at any time in the past.

Currently, there are more than seven hundred new cancer drugs and vaccines in development, the majority so-called “first in class,” representing approaches to treating cancer that are different from any other marketed therapy. These include nearly one hundred new agents for the treatment of lung cancer, eighty-seven for leukemia, seventy-eight for lymphoma, and seventy-three for breast cancer. The regulatory process at the FDA is accelerating, and some of DeVita’s concerns may become moot.5

In 2016, 1,685,210 new cancer cases and 595,690 cancer deaths are projected to occur in the United States. What will happen to these Americans is the principal concern of the new cancer initiative. But the false promises I have mentioned from Nixon, Lasker, and von Eschenbach also seem to be in the mind of Vice President Biden, who lost his son Beau last year to a brain tumor. Biden has become an active leader in the efforts against cancer. At the recent World Economic Forum, he said, “I’m not naive enough to think or suggest we are going to have a cure for every cancer…in the near term.” The NIH director, Francis Collins, a widely respected physician and scientist, embraced the initiative, but also sounded a note of caution: “We need to be careful not to overpromise, but…this is the moment to really pull out the stops.”6 To that end, the Obama administration will ask Congress for $1 billion to fund the initiative.

A “moonshot” to cure cancer boils down to an engineering problem. But there still are significant conceptual gaps in our knowledge, not merely technical ones. We have limited understanding about how cancers spread, the process of metastasis, and how tumors change to escape from the grip of targeted therapies directed against gene mutations.

In his recent appeals to doctors to make more progress on cancer, Vice President Biden concentrates on breaking down the “silos” in which he says information is held. He wants to encourage sharing of such information so that experts will be able to crunch “big data.” There are already big data undertakings, including CancerLinQ and GENIE. How much added value will come from combining databases in order to increase the information available is uncertain.

Biden also set a goal of making “a decade’s worth of advances in five years instead of ten, and eventually end cancer as we know it. We’re not looking for incremental changes, I’m looking for quantum leaps.” He did not define how advances per year will be measured, so that we know we’ve collapsed ten into five. In my view, a major impediment to a “quantum leap” is our inability to predict from laboratory studies which drugs will succeed in patients. Most agents we test fail in clinical trials, even though they target mutations and kill cancer cells in a petri dish or in animal models. Not only are we in need of new and more effective therapies, but we need a health care system that reliably delivers such therapies, particularly to underserved and poor populations.7 The high costs of new cancer drugs may make them beyond the reach of many people of limited means.

DeVita enumerates the many deficiencies that marked Nixon’s war on cancer, notably top-down management by self-serving bureaucrats, sweetheart contracts to friends, and costly clinical trials addressing trivial treatment issues. The progress over the past forty-five years in combating cancer arose largely from challenging authority and rejecting conventional thinking. That means skeptics in both science and policy should be eagerly welcomed, not damned.

  1. 1

    Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies (Scribner, 2010), p. 310.  

  2. 2

    Jerome Groopman, “The Thirty Years’ War: Have We Been Fighting Cancer the Wrong Way?” The New Yorker, June 4, 2001.  

  3. 3

    Rebecca L. Siegel et al., “Cancer Statistics, 2016,” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, Vol. 66, No. 1 (January/February 2016).  

  4. 4

    Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, “How Medical Care Is Being Corrupted,” The New York Times, November 19, 2014.  

  5. 5

    Jo Cavallo, “November Yields Record Number of FDA Approvals for New Oncology Drugs and Drug Indications,” The ASCO Post, December 10, 2015.  

  6. 6

    Matthew Bin Han Ong, “Biden’s Cancer Moonshot to Focus on Bioinformatics and Data Sharing,” The Cancer Letter, January 22, 2016; and Matthew Bin Han Ong, “Obama Announces Moonshot to Cure Cancer,” The Cancer Letter, January 15, 2016.  

  7. 7

    ”Promising the Moon,” The Lancet, January 23, 2016. 

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Russia: The End of the Illusion?

Police officers detain an activist who was taking part in a rally of foreign currency mortgage holders, near the Central Bank headquarters, Moscow, Russia, February 8, 2016
Sergei Karpukhin TPX Images of the Day/ReutersPolice officers detaining a protester near the Central Bank headquarters, Moscow, February 8, 2016

On Monday evening, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television to announce that, following a telephone conversation with President Barack Obama, Russia and the US had reached an agreement on a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, to begin at midnight on February 27. Putin went out of his way to present Russia as a team player, in step with the West on Syria, though the accord allows bombing to continue against the Islamic State (ISIS), the al-Qaeda-backed Nusra Front, and “other terrorist groups”—a loose category that for Russia might include anti-Assad forces that the US and Western allies have been backing. Indeed, the agreement was the latest indication of how far the Russian government has been able to pursue its interests in the conflict—while gaining new diplomatic stature. As Nicholas Burns, former US undersecretary of state for political affairs, told The Washington Post after a similar peace effort in mid-February, “We are being completely outfoxed in Syria by Putin.”

But Putin’s newly-claimed role as a world leader may also be aimed at distracting Russians from more pressing concerns at home. With plunging oil prices and double-digit inflation, the Russian economy is cascading downward, causing some of the largest protests the Kremlin has faced in several years. The price of oil, a mainstay of the Russian economy, fell from $110 per barrel in June 2014 to $27 in January this year. The ruble has lost 60 percent of its value against the dollar since 2013, and real wages of Russians have shrunk by almost 10 percent in the past year. A recent poll by the respected Levada Center in Moscow found that more than half of all Russians—53 percent—think the greatest threat now facing their country is economic impoverishment.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been confronted with some of the most devastating revelations of high-level government corruption yet to surface during the Putin era. They have even touched two of Putin’s closest allies, Vladimir Yakunin, the former president of Russian Railways, and Yuri Chaika, Russia’s powerful prosecutor general. This combination of economic turmoil and faltering government credibility could threaten the stability of the Putin regime, especially if ordinary Russians lose enthusiasm for its military ventures abroad.

Faced with a growing budget deficit—$38.6 billion this fiscal year—the Kremlin has been racing to cut costs and raise revenue. But it has met with stiff resistance. Long-distance truckers, an essential part of the Russian economy, began protests against a new road tax in November. In early December they tied up traffic in Moscow, but were pushed back by police and have camped out ever since in improvised shelters outside the city. Now a major, ten-day strike of truckers from forty of the country’s regions is about to begin, and it is sure to cause major chaos. Significantly, the truckers have broadened their protests to include a range of economic issues. As one trucker put it: “For the outside, [Putin] is great for many … he’s sticking his nose into everything — Syria, Turkey — so good, so powerful, but in his own country, he can’t even talk to the people.”

Since the start of the year, such unrest has spread to other constituencies as well. In several cities, pensioners and mortgage holders have been staging economic protests. In Krasnodar and Sochi, hundreds of pensioners came out to protest the government’s decision to revoke their transportation subsidies. In Volgodonsk, several hundred pensioners took part in a recent rally against a new law monetizing their benefits because the cash payments they receive are not sufficient to cover the costs of what they previously got for free. And in Moscow on February 8, riot police confronted over a hundred holders of foreign-currency mortgages, who had blocked a street next to the Russian Central Bank. The protesters, who cannot make their mortgage payments because of the decline in the value of the ruble, are demanding a recalculation of their loans. Similar mortgage holders have been demonstrating outside several banks in Moscow on a daily basis.

What may make these isolated protests more dangerous is that they are occurring just as the issue of government corruption is spilling into the mainstream media. In early February anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny reported that Yakunin, the former railway boss, is under investigation by the Russian police, the MVD. Yakunin’s history with Putin dates back to the 1990s in St. Petersburg, where both were pursuing financial gain from the newly created free-enterprise economy. Yakunin was a neighbor of Putin at the elite Ozero dacha cooperative, which they founded in 1996. In 2005 Putin appointed Yakunin head of Russian Railways, a powerful and lucrative monopoly that became Yakunin’s sinecure. According to Forbes magazine, Yakunin’s income in 2013 was $15 million.

But Yakunin’s cozy relationship with Putin started to falter in 2013, after Navalny, who along with a dogged research team culls information from public records, described a large chain of hotel complexes and off-shore companies that Yakunin and his two sons had acquired:

We state that the family of … Yakunin, with the aid of corruption and abuse, has constructed a business empire, incorporating offshore companies around the world. The value of this empire is in the billions of dollars.… It is a mafia family of the purest kind, and it exists due to its mafia boss, Vladimir Putin, who gives license to steal everything around.

Apparently under pressure because of these revelations, as well as Yakunin’s gross mismanagement of the railway system, Putin finally fired him in August 2015. But Yakunin did not disappear. In a recent interview with Bloomberg in January, Yakunin, who in 2014 had been put on the US sanctions list (travel bans and asset freezes for specified Russian officials) because of the Ukrainian conflict, talked openly about the vulnerability of the Russian ruling class and observed that the “circle will continue to rotate.” The message was that no one in the financially privileged Russian elite is secure.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia, June 20, 2013
Dmitry Lovetsky/Pool/Files/ReutersRussian President Vladimir Putin and former Russian Railways president Vladimir Yakunin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia, June 20, 2013

These charges have coincided with new corruption revelations about Yuri Chaika, the Russian prosecutor general, who has been one of Putin’s closest allies since his appointment in 2006. Chaika has opened numerous cases against Putin’s critics and has led, with other arms of the Russian criminal justice system, investigations into murders of political opponents of Putin that have exonerated the Kremlin. On December 1, Navalny’s Fund to Combat Corruption released an explosive forty-minute video documenting large business enterprises belonging to Chaika’s family that are tied to a notorious criminal gang in the south of Russia. The video also showed footage of a luxurious hotel in Greece and a villa in Switzerland that Chaika’s son Artyom had purchased allegedly by illegal privatization of state property in Russia.

Then came a remarkably blunt music video by Pussy Riot—a group known for its tangles with the Kremlin—that was aimed directly at Chaika. Posted on YouTube on February 3, the video mocks Chaika for his family’s corruption and his protection of other corrupt Russian officials in the Kremlin, even as he imposes arbitrary and abusive justice on people the government doesn’t like.

Of course, corruption among close relatives of high Russian officials is hardly new. (Indeed Yeltsin famously put his money in Swiss bank accounts for his daughters.) But in the past, such allegations were mostly only reported in the marginalized, independent Russian media, and would have been ignored by the Kremlin. Navalny’s video was watched on YouTube by over four million viewers in December alone. Chaika was forced to respond, saying that the film’s allegations were a “hatchet job” financed by William Browder, a former investor in Russia and now a leading critic of the Kremlin. Putin, when asked about the scandal at his annual news conference in December, could only say, feebly, that he did not know whether or not Chaika’s sons had done something illegal.

Even Putin’s daughters, hitherto a taboo topic in the media, are not immune to reports that they have benefited financially from family connections. Putin’s younger daughter Katerina recently married the son of a Putin crony, Kirill Shamalov, and the two have a reported net worth of close to $2 billion. The younger Shamalov reportedly gained his wealth by acquiring a major stake in a Russian oil and gas company after borrowing money from a bank owned by a close Putin associate, Gennady Timchenko.

The ever courageous and persistent Navalny has documented these allegations in a February 11 blog post and has filed a suit against Putin with a Moscow regional court for violating the Russian Constitution concerning conflicts of interest on the part of government officials.

In a recent interview, Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center, was asked about the effect these reports were having on the public mood. “Corruption scandals are erupting weekly, with high-level officials appearing on the screen…Whether one likes the regime or not, the general impression is one of total corruption.”

For the moment, the growing discontent may be alleviated somewhat by Russia’s aggressive policies abroad. For example, thanks to the propaganda efforts of state-controlled television, the Kremlin’s military interventions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have bolstered Putin’s image as a strong leader. Russians are traditionally patriotic and nationalistic, and polls showed that they endorsed the decision to invade Crimea in early 2014 and bought the Kremlin’s line that Russia had to support separatists in Eastern Ukraine because the West had engineered a change of government in Kiev that threatened Russia. The majority of Russians also agreed with the Kremlin’s September 2015 decision to start a bombing campaign against ISIS and other anti-Assad rebels in Syria. A Levada Center poll taken at the end of January found that a majority still approves of the Kremlin’s campaign to support the Assad regime, but also that Russians are losing interest in the Syrian conflict, presumably because they are focusing on economic concerns.

One sign of how seriously the government is taking the current economic crisis is its plan to raise billions of dollars through a new round of privatizations, including share offerings for a major shipping firm, Sovkomflot, and two state-owned oil companies, Rosneft and Bashneft. But these offerings may end up with the spoils going to Russia’s oligarchs and further accusations of corruption. As two Russian journalists observed: “Russian’s [sic] well-connected magnates may have to be cajoled into investing at a critical juncture for the economy, but could in the long term end up with valuable assets at bargain prices, leaving the Kremlin open to accusations of sweetheart deals.”

How will all this affect Putin? Another recent Levada poll showed that 82 percent of Russians would vote for him if elections were held now. Pollster Gudkov explained: “Where do the ratings of Putin come from and what supports them? They rest on the illusion that somehow Putin can get us out of the crisis and continue on the course that brought economic well-being since 2000.” But presidential elections are not scheduled until March 2018. Will Putin be able to sustain the illusion until then?

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The Election Pileup

"Truckers for Trump" convoy, Des Moines, Iowa, January 28, 2016
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images“Truckers for Trump” convoy, Des Moines, Iowa, January 28, 2016

This country is facing the extraordinary situation of an election year in which control of all three branches of government is up for grabs. The confluence of a Supreme Court vacancy—a seat that could be the Court’s deciding vote—with presidential and congressional campaigns raises the stakes to an unusual height.

The House is populated mainly by representatives whose seats have been gerrymandered and, barring an avalanche, is unlikely to lose its Republican majority. In the Senate, however, a switch of five seats could put the Democrats back in control—or only four if the Democrats win the presidency, since the vice-president can break ties, including on the vote of who organizes the Senate. It’s possible that the Supreme Court opening that resulted from Justice Antonin Scalia’s death will be filled before the election, but mighty forces are at work to prevent that. The struggle over the vacancy reflects the same collision of forces that have shaped Congress and its dealings with the president for the past seven years, and it could influence the decisions voters make this fall.  

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s announcement, less than an hour after Scalia’s death became known, that the Senate wouldn’t consider any Supreme Court nomination by President Obama for the rest of his term, was yet another sign of the Republicans’ disrespect for the president. But McConnell was also trying to protect his troops from a major election-year fracas—and perhaps his own position as well. The far right, which dominates the House Republican Conference and is gaining ground in the Senate, insists that the decision about the Court should be made by the next president—anything to prevent President Obama from filling the seat. (These so-called strict constructionists of the Constitution don’t seem to have read it in a while. If the Founders had thought that a Supreme Court Justice should be chosen by popular referendum, by a plebiscite, they would have said so. In fact, they arranged for quite the opposite.)

McConnell, who usually thinks long, had reason to expect strong pressure from the right against allowing Obama to fill this crucial seat in a Court that had often been divided five-four on major issues, with the conservatives in the majority. Republicans have made it a point to oppose every major legislative initiative Obama has made, and on several issues, such as guns, campaign finance, gerrymandering, voting rights, abortion, and deregulation, on which they were stymied, they could count on the Supreme Court to enforce their agenda (hence their fury when Chief Justice John Roberts switched sides to save Obamacare). Obama had succeeded in naming two liberals—Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan—to replace two liberals but the right was damned if it was going to let him fill Scalia’s seat.

The dynamics of the fight over the vacancy will not be unlike fights over legislation, all-out and highly partisan: the far right sets out the most extreme position and threatens more centrist Republicans that, if they don’t go along, a highly conservative figure might challenge them in the primary. Moreover, the partisan collision over filling Scalia’s seat can provide both parties with a handy mechanism for stirring up their base for the election. The Republicans, with twenty-four Senate seats up for reelection—seven of them from states that Obama carried in 2012—could be in a vulnerable position. The Democrats have just ten seats up for reelection and have a shot at regaining control of the Senate. The Supreme Court fight, therefore, is tightly interwoven with the election.

The absolutist position against even considering an Obama nominee was vulnerable to common sense. Since when, it was asked, can a president not exercise his constitutional duties in the fourth year of his term? A few Republican senators—including Chuck Grassley, who heads the Judiciary Committee—sensing that ruling out any Obama nominee wasn’t tenable, suggested that they’d be amenable to hearings. But, as McConnell and his allies understood, hearings would inevitably lead to pressure for a Senate vote. In a press conference last week, Obama himself brought pressure by insisting on his constitutional prerogatives. He also made it clear that he intended to nominate someone who would be difficult for the Republicans to vote against—this suggested a jurist on a lower court who had been confirmed with overwhelming Republican support. Of course it’s also possible that the Republicans will learn in November that the next president will be another Democrat.

Even before Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina, it was beginning to sink in among numerous observers that Donald Trump could actually win the Republican nomination. After Trump’s South Carolina victory, with his main rivals—Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—dividing most of the remaining votes, it became hard to see how he could be stopped. If Trump wins the nomination he will be among the least informed candidates for the presidency in a long time. He blusters his way through the (relatively few) substantive questions put to him in interviews and debates: he knows how to get things done; he has “lots of friends” among the (fill-in-the-blank, be it a nationality, such as Mexicans, or other groups, such as Muslims or members of Congress). And he’s been subjected to little follow-up questioning: so far, to my knowledge, when Trump says, as he has frequently, about his fuzzy health care plan, that we won’t leave people “dying in the streets,” no one has pointed out that those are the people whom Medicaid and emergency rooms are designed to take care of.

One has the sense that Trump hasn’t made a special effort to bone up on specific issues, that he gets his information from television talk shows and Time. He counts on bluster to propel him. And he adjusts. After the Republican debate preceding the South Carolina primary descended into an out-of-control screaming match, with candidates calling each other liars—John Kasich, who has insisted on a positive campaign, didn’t partake—Trump toned himself down; he also swore off swearing, because it wouldn’t go down well, he was told, with the good people of South Carolina, which has an even higher proportion of Evangelical voters than Iowa. If Trump is the nominee, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he toned down further, studied up on some issues, and projected an earnestness that would have reporters rhapsodizing about the “New Trump.” What’s astonishing is that someone so intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency has gotten so close to it.

But first, Trump has to win the nomination. His main rivals have severe disadvantages. Marco Rubio had the discipline (and certainly the ambition) to pick himself up off the mat after his disastrous repetitive debate performance before his fifth-place New Hampshire finish. In South Carolina, Rubio came in second, with the help of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (who in this and in her eventual decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol—that wasn’t her first instinct—was in consonance with the wishes of her party’s hierarchy, which is appalled at the prospect of Trump or Cruz being the nominee) and Senator Tim Scott. Still, Rubio was only .2 percentage points ahead of Ted Cruz, who was third, and his following is said to be wide but not passionate, whereas Cruz’s highly conservative followers (Cruz refers to them—and himself—as “Courageous Conservatives”) believe in Cruz strongly. But so far there haven’t been enough of them to allow the Texas senator to win a state other than Iowa, where his followers were exceptionally well organized.

President Barack Obama carries a binder containing material on potential Supreme Court nominees, Washington, D.C., February 19, 2016
Kevin Lamarque/ReutersPresident Barack Obama carrying a binder of material on potential Supreme Court nominees, Washington, D.C., February 19, 2016

After Jeb Bush came in fourth in South Carolina, nearly fourteen points behind Cruz, he was enough of realist to suspend his campaign that night. It may be recalled that as soon as it became clear that Jeb would run, the consensus in political circles was that he’d win the nomination. This overlooked that he had been out of politics for eight years and that during that time the electorate and his own party had changed. But it’s not just that this wasn’t Jeb’s year; he also didn’t have his brother’s ambition or mean streak. Nor did he have a master strategist like Karl Rove. It wasn’t until late in the New Hampshire contest that Jeb began to look comfortable on the stage and to perform creditably in the debates. Trump’s early attack on him as “low-energy” hit home—almost all of Trump’s insightful characterizations of his competitors do—because Bush clearly wasn’t enjoying himself.

Jeb Bush came across as a decent man; he masked that his foreign policy advisors were much the same as the neocons who’d advised his elder brother. But Jeb’s judgment wasn’t always on target: How could he not have been prepared for questions about his brother’s Iraq policy? What made him think as he was sinking in South Carolina that the thing to do was to bring in his mother and older brother to campaign for him, thus reinforcing his dependence on his patrimony? It had been eight years since George W. had been president and a lot of the younger veterans in South Carolina had served three or four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jeb’s family briefly stepping in for him didn’t move the needle. George W.’s one speech was only so-so. It turns out that Barbara Bush is the smartest pol in her family. When it was still a question as to whether Jeb would run, she was opposed, saying, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”

Still, Jeb Bush’s campaign was historic in a couple of respects. It showed that family connections cannot carry one to victory, and it exploded a myth about the funding of campaigns. Numerous observers (myself included) had assumed that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010—allowing unlimited (and secret) contributions to be raised for a supposedly independent group backing a candidate—would have a possibly decisive impact on an election. But the whopping $150 million that Jeb raised obviously did him little good. Great sums were lavished on ads that couldn’t camouflage his weaknesses and that simply got lost in the jumble. There’s still a lot of money parked on the sidelines that could be deployed in what is now a three-man Republican race—Trump, Rubio, and Cruz (though John Kasich and Ben Carson are staying in)—but it’s not at all clear that a candidate is a good investment, at least at this stage. So much attention has been paid to Citizens United that people seem to have forgotten that even before that decision the campaign finance system was riddled with corruption.

On the night of the Nevada caucuses, held on the same day as the South Carolina primary, Hillary Clinton showed why she could still be a formidable candidate. Clearly aware of the considerable criticism that her speeches weren’t exactly soaring, she gave an inspirational victory speech. This was the candidate who, most unusually, had had to start her campaign twice: the first attempt, which mainly consisted of meeting in private in Iowa with only eight or so people, didn’t work out very well and so she started again on Roosevelt Island (with only an OK speech that she read in a sing-song manner). This was the candidate who sometimes seemed tone-deaf. But now, having defeated Bernie Sanders, who had been reported to be coming on strong in Nevada, by a vote of 53-47, Clinton gave a totally fresh performance.

Without using notes, Clinton spoke not of the various programs she wanted to sponsor—her usual fare—but of aspirations. She made it not about herself, but about people looking for a leader who understood their economic situation, or who were seeking racial justice. With a side shot at Sanders and perhaps also Trump, she said, “Americans are right to be angry, but we’re also hungry for real solutions.” She asked, rhetorically, “Who will protect the right of every citizen to vote, not every corporation to buy elections?” She worked in Wall Street (sounding a bit like Sanders) and Flint, Michigan (in an appeal to blacks)—and talked about filling the vacant Supreme Court seat.

The generational divide within the Democratic party remained dramatic: Sanders won eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds by a vote of 82-14. As before, while Clinton won among older women, Sanders overwhelmingly won younger ones. In her caucus-night speech, speaking to young people’s concerns, Clinton promised to cut interest rates on student loans and cap payments (this stopped well short of Sanders’s promise of a free college education for everyone). She also did a riff that began with “Imagine….” (“Imagine a tomorrow where no child grows up in the shadow of discrimination or under the specter of deportation.”) We shall see if she has assimilated this approach.

By contrast Sanders gave much the same speech, word for word, that he’s delivered throughout the campaign—about the “rigged economy” and the billionaires who cannot be allowed to take over our politics. Of course, he didn’t give any hint that his failure to defeat Clinton in a caucus state, which is supposed to benefit him because of the intensity of his followers, boded ill for later contests, as did his failure to cut significantly into Clinton’s advantage with blacks. Despite early reports that Sanders had bested her among Hispanics, the sample was too small to be sure of that. 

One way Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in Nevada was to glue herself to Barack Obama and become his greatest cheerleader. This could also help her in important subsequent contests in which the black vote will count for a very large proportion of the Democratic voters. Obama remains highly popular within the Democratic Party, especially among blacks. Clinton chastened Sanders for suggesting one time on a radio show that someone challenge Obama from the left in 2012; Sanders expressed the view held by many on the left of the party, who felt “disappointed” in the president—failing to recognize what he’d been up against and how much he had nevertheless gotten done. But Clinton’s devotion to Obama has been situational: in her book about her State Department years, Hard Choices, she made sure to point out where she’d differed with the president she’d served, especially in her advocating, over his objection, that the United States should arm the Syrian rebels early on. At that point, Obama was doing his best to stay out of the Syrian morass—a position with which various current and former national security officials concurred.

Clinton won Nevada with a lot of help. Her husband campaigned heavily for her there, but perhaps even more important, Harry Reid, the longtime senator from that state who is arguably the boss of the Democratic party there, put his heavy hand on the scales. Clearly believing, as do virtually all of his Senate colleagues and the party leadership, that Clinton was far the stronger candidate to compete in the general election, Reid convinced the state’s union leaders to allow time off to vote in the caucuses—above all the Culinary Workers Union, which hadn’t taken a position on the primary because its workers (particularly the younger ones, as opposed to the leaders) tended to favor Sanders. Nevada could turn out to have been the turning point in Sanders’s unexpectedly strong challenge to Clinton. If Sanders couldn’t catch her there, a caucus state that looked for a while like it might go his way, it’s hard to see how he could defeat her in a large state with a substantial black vote.

And so the race for the nominations of each party for the presidency gives signs perhaps of soon settling into one between Clinton and Trump—though Sanders may have enough money from small donations to stay in the race as long as he wants. Then it’s worth remembering that this is 2016, when all sorts of surprising things have happened. Meanwhile, the Senate and the public are at this moment awaiting the president’s nomination to the Supreme Court and are settling in for a noisy and consequential battle.

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Liberal, Harsh Denmark

A cartoon published by the Danish newspaper Politiken showing Inger Støjberg, the country’s integration minister, lighting candles on a Christmas tree that has a dead asylum-­seeker as an ornament, December 2015
Anne-Marie Steen PetersenA cartoon published by the Danish newspaper Politiken showing Inger Støjberg, the country’s integration minister, lighting candles on a Christmas tree that has a dead asylum-­seeker as an ornament, December 2015


In country after country across Europe, the Syrian refugee crisis has put intense pressure on the political establishment. In Poland, voters have brought to power a right-wing party whose leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, warns that migrants are bringing “dangerous diseases” and “various types of parasites” to Europe. In France’s regional elections in December, some Socialist candidates withdrew at the last minute to support the conservatives and prevent the far-right National Front from winning. Even Germany, which took in more than a million asylum-seekers in 2015, has been forced to pull back in the face of a growing revolt from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s own party and the recent New Year’s attacks on women in Cologne, allegedly by groups of men of North African origin.

And then there is Denmark. A small, wealthy Scandinavian democracy of 5.6 million people, it is according to most measures one of the most open and egalitarian countries in the world. It has the highest income equality and one of the lowest poverty rates of any Western nation. Known for its nearly carbon-neutral cities, its free health care and university education for all, its bus drivers who are paid like accountants, its robust defense of gay rights and social freedoms, and its vigorous culture of social and political debate, the country has long been envied as a social-democratic success, a place where the state has an improbably durable record of doing good. Danish leaders also have a history of protecting religious minorities: the country was unique in Nazi-occupied Europe in prosecuting anti-Semitism and rescuing almost its entire Jewish population.

When it comes to refugees, however, Denmark has long led the continent in its shift to the right—and in its growing domestic consensus that large-scale Muslim immigration is incompatible with European social democracy. To the visitor, the country’s resistance to immigrants from Africa and the Middle East can seem implacable. In last June’s Danish national election—months before the Syrian refugee crisis hit Europe—the debate centered around whether the incumbent, center-left Social Democrats or their challengers, the center-right Liberal Party, were tougher on asylum-seekers. The main victor was the Danish People’s Party, a populist, openly anti-immigration party, which drew 21 percent of the vote, its best performance ever. Its founder, Pia Kjærsgaard, for years known for suggesting that Muslims “are at a lower stage of civilization,” is now speaker of the Danish parliament. With the backing of the Danish People’s Party, the center-right Liberals formed a minority government that has taken one of the hardest lines on refugees of any European nation.

When I arrived in Copenhagen last August, the new government, under Liberal Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen, had just cut social benefits to refugees by 45 percent. There was talk among Danish politicians and in the Danish press of an “invasion” from the Middle East—though the influx at the time was occurring in the Greek islands, more than one thousand miles away. In early September, Denmark began taking out newspaper ads in Lebanon and Jordan warning would-be asylum-seekers not to come. And by November, the Danish government announced that it could no longer accept the modest share of one thousand refugees assigned to Denmark under an EU redistribution agreement, because Italy and Greece had lost control of their borders.

These developments culminated in late January of this year, when Rasmussen’s minister of integration, Inger Støjberg, a striking, red-headed forty-two-year-old who has come to represent the government’s aggressive anti-refugee policies, succeeded in pushing through parliament an “asylum austerity” law that has gained notoriety across Europe. The new law, which passed with support from the Social Democrats as well as the Danish People’s Party, permits police to strip-search asylum-seekers and confiscate their cash and most valuables above 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,460) to pay for their accommodation; delays the opportunity to apply for family reunification by up to three years; forbids asylum-seekers from residing outside refugee centers, some of which are tent encampments; reduces the cash benefits they can receive; and makes it significantly harder to qualify for permanent residence. One aim, a Liberal MP explained to me, is simply to “make Denmark less attractive to foreigners.”

Danish hostility to refugees is particularly startling in Scandinavia, where there is a pronounced tradition of humanitarianism. Over the past decade, the Swedish government has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, despite growing social problems and an increasingly popular far-right party. But one of the things Danish leaders—and many Danes I spoke to—seem to fear most is turning into “another Sweden.” Anna Mee Allerslev, the top integration official for the city of Copenhagen, told me that the Danish capital, a Social Democratic stronghold with a large foreign-born population, has for years refused to take any refugees. (Under pressure from other municipalities, this policy is set to change in 2016.)

In part, the Danish approach has been driven by the country’s long experience with terrorism and jihadism. Nearly a decade before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January 2015, and the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris in November, the publication of the so-called Muhammad cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had already turned Denmark into a primary target for extremists. Initially driven by a group of Danish imams, outcry against the cartoons gave strength to several small but radical groups among the country’s 260,000 Muslims. These groups have been blamed for the unusually large number of Danes—perhaps as many as three hundred or more—who have gone to fight in Syria, including some who went before the rise of ISIS in 2013. “The Danish system has pretty much been blinking red since 2005,” Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert who advises the PET, the Danish security and intelligence service, told me.

Since the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, the PET and other intelligence forces have disrupted numerous terrorist plots, some of them eerily foreshadowing what happened in Paris last year. In 2009, the Pakistani-American extremist David Headley, together with Laskar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terrorist organization, devised a meticulous plan to storm the Jyllands-Posten offices in Copenhagen and systematically kill all the journalists that could be found. Headley was arrested in the United States in October 2009, before any part of the plan was carried out; in 2013, he was sentenced by a US district court to thirty-five years in prison for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

In February of last year, just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a young Danish-Palestinian man named Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein tried to shoot his way into the Copenhagen meeting of a free-speech group to which a Swedish cartoonist, known for his caricatures of Muhammad, had been invited. El-Hussein succeeded in killing a Danish filmmaker at the meeting before fleeing the scene; then, hours later, he killed a security guard at the city’s main synagogue and was shot dead by police.

Yet many Danes I talked to are less concerned about terrorism than about the threat they see Muslims posing to their way of life. Though Muslims make up less than 5 percent of the population, there is growing evidence that many of the new arrivals fail to enter the workforce, are slow to learn Danish, and end up in high-crime immigrant neighborhoods where, while relying on extensive state handouts, they and their children are cut off from Danish society. In 2010, the Danish government introduced a “ghetto list” of such marginalized places with the goal of “reintegrating” them; the list now includes more than thirty neighborhoods.

Popular fears that the refugee crisis could overwhelm the Danish welfare state have sometimes surprised the country’s own leadership. On December 3, in a major defeat for the government, a clear majority of Danes—53 percent—rejected a referendum on closer security cooperation with the European Union. Until now, Denmark has been only a partial EU member—for example, it does not belong to the euro and has not joined EU protocols on citizenship and legal affairs. In view of the growing threat of jihadism, both the government and the opposition Social Democrats hoped to integrate the country fully into European policing and counterterrorism efforts. But the “no” vote, which was supported by the Danish People’s Party, was driven by fears that such a move could also give Brussels influence over Denmark’s refugee and immigration policies.

The outcome of the referendum has ominous implications for the European Union at a time when emergency border controls in numerous countries—including Germany and Sweden as well as Denmark—have put in doubt the Schengen system of open borders inside the EU. In Denmark itself, the referendum has forced both the Liberals and the Social Democrats to continue moving closer to the populist right. In November, Martin Henriksen, the Danish People’s Party spokesman on refugees and immigration, told Politiken, the country’s leading newspaper, “There is a contest on to see who can match the Danish People’s Party on immigration matters, and I hope that more parties will participate.”


According to many Danes I met, the origins of Denmark’s anti-immigration consensus can be traced to the national election of November 2001, two months after the September 11 attacks in the United States. At the time, the recently founded Danish People’s Party was largely excluded from mainstream politics; the incumbent prime minister, who was a Social Democrat, famously described the party as unfit to govern.

But during the 1990s, the country’s Muslim population had nearly doubled to around 200,000 people, and in the 2001 campaign, immigration became a central theme. The Social Democrats suffered a devastating defeat and, for the first time since 1924, didn’t control the most seats in parliament. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the ambitious leader of the victorious Liberal Party (no relation to the current prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen), made a historic decision to form a government with support from the Danish People’s Party, which had come in third place—a far-right alliance that had never been tried in Scandinavia. It kept Fogh Rasmussen in power for three terms.

From an economic perspective, the government’s embrace of the populist right was anomalous. With its unique combination of comprehensive welfare and a flexible labor market—known as flexicurity—Denmark has an efficient economy in which the rate of job turnover is one of the highest in Europe, yet almost 75 percent of working-age Danes are employed. At the same time, the country’s extraordinary social benefits, such as long-term education, retraining, and free child care, are based on integration in the workforce. Yet many of the qualities about the Danish system that work so well for those born into it have made it particularly hard for outsiders to penetrate.

Denmark is a mostly low-lying country consisting of the Jutland Peninsula in the west, the large islands of Funen and Zealand in the east, and numerous smaller islands. (It also includes the island of Greenland, whose tiny population is largely Inuit.) The modern state emerged in the late nineteenth century, following a series of defeats by Bismarck’s Germany in which it lost much of its territory and a significant part of its population. Several Danish writers have linked this founding trauma to a lasting national obsession with invasion and a continual need to assert danskhed, or Danishness.

Among other things, these preoccupations have given the Danish welfare system an unusually important part in shaping national identity. Visitors to Denmark will find the Danish flag on everything from public buses to butter wrappers; many of the country’s defining institutions, from its universal secondary education (Folkehøjskoler—the People’s High Schools) to the parliament (Folketinget—the People’s House) to the Danish national church (Folkekirken—the People’s Church) to the concept of democracy itself (Folkestyret—the Rule of the People) have been built to reinforce a strong sense of folke, the Danish people.

One result of this emphasis on cohesion is the striking contrast between how Danes view their fellow nationals and how they seem to view the outside world: in 1997, a study of racism in EU countries found Danes to be simultaneously among the most tolerant and also the most racist of any European population. “In the nationalist self-image, tolerance is seen as good,” writes the Danish anthropologist Peter Hervik. “Yet…excessive tolerance is considered naive and counterproductive for sustaining Danish national identity.”

According to Hervik, this paradox helps account for the rise of the Danish People’s Party, or Dansk Folkeparti. Like its far-right counterparts in neighboring countries, the party drew on new anxieties about non-European immigrants and the growing influence of the EU. What made the Danish People’s Party particularly potent, however, was its robust defense of wealth redistribution and advanced welfare benefits for all Danes. “On a traditional left-right scheme they are very difficult to locate,” former prime minister Fogh Rasmussen told me in Copenhagen. “They are tough on crime, tough on immigration, but on welfare policy, they are center left. Sometimes they even try to surpass the Social Democrats.”

Beginning in 2002, the Fogh Rasmussen government passed a sweeping set of reforms to limit the flow of asylum- seekers. Among the most controversial were the so-called twenty-four-year rule, which required foreign-born spouses to be at least twenty-four years old to qualify for Danish citizenship, and a requirement that both spouses combined had spent more years living in Denmark than in any other country. Unprecedented in Europe, the new rules effectively ended immigrant marriages as a quick path to citizenship. At the same time, the government dramatically restricted the criteria under which a foreigner could qualify for refugee status.

To Fogh Rasmussen’s critics, the measures were simply a way to gain the support of the Danish People’s Party for his own political program. This included labor market reforms, such as tying social benefits more closely to active employment, and—most notably—a muscular new foreign policy. Departing from Denmark’s traditional neutrality, the government joined with US troops in military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq; Denmark has since taken part in the interventions in Libya and Syria as well. (In his official state portrait in the parliament, Fogh Rasmussen, who went on to become general secretary of NATO in 2009, is depicted with a Danish military plane swooping over a desolate Afghan landscape in the background.)

Yet the immigration overhaul also had strong foundations in the Liberal Party. In 1997, Bertel Haarder, a veteran Liberal politician and strategist, wrote an influential book called Soft Cynicism, which excoriated the Danish welfare system for creating, through excessive coddling, the very stigmatization of new arrivals to Denmark that it was ostensibly supposed to prevent. Haarder, who went on to become Fogh Rasmussen’s minister of immigration, told me, “The Danes wanted to be soft and nice. And we turned proud immigrants into social welfare addicts. It wasn’t their fault. It was our fault.”

According to Haarder, who has returned to the Danish cabinet as culture minister in the current Liberal government, the refugees who have come to Denmark in recent years overwhelmingly lack the education and training needed to enter the country’s advanced labor market. As Fogh Rasmussen’s immigration minister, he sought to match the restrictions on asylum-seekers with expedited citizenship for qualified foreigners. But he was also known for his criticism of Muslims who wanted to assert their own traditions: “All this talk about equality of cultures and equality of religion is nonsense,” he told a Danish newspaper in 2002. “The Danes have the right to make decisions in Denmark.”


Coming amid the Fogh Rasmussen government’s rightward shift on immigration and its growing involvement in the “war on terror,” the decision by the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad seemed to bring into the open an irresolvable conflict. In the decade since they appeared, the cartoons have been linked to the torching of Western embassies, an unending series of terrorist attacks and assassination plots across Europe, and a sense, among many European intellectuals, that Western society is being cowed into a “tyranny of silence,” as Flemming Rose, the former culture editor of Jyllands-Posten who commissioned the cartoons and who now lives under constant police protection, has titled a recent book.1 In his new study of French jihadism, Terreur dans l’hexagone: Genèse du djihad français, Gilles Kepel, the French scholar of Islam, suggests that the cartoons inspired an “international Islamic campaign against little Denmark” that became a crucial part of a broader redirection of jihadist ideology toward the West.

Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were published by Jyllands-Posten in September 2005
Roald AlsFlemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were published by Jyllands-Posten in September 2005

And yet little about the original twelve cartoons could have foretold any of this. Traditionally based in Jutland, Jyllands-Posten is a center-right broadsheet that tends to draw readers from outside the capital; it was little known abroad before the cartoons appeared. Following reports that a Danish illustrator had refused to do drawings for a book about Muhammad, Rose invited a group of caricaturists to “draw Muhammad as you see him” to find out whether they were similarly inhibited (most of them weren’t). Some of the resulting drawings made fun of the newspaper itself for pursuing the idea; in the subsequent controversy, outrage was largely directed at just one of the cartoons, which depicted the Prophet wearing a lit bomb as a turban. Even then, the uproar began only months later, after the Danish prime minister refused a request from diplomats of Muslim nations for a meeting about the cartoons. “I thought it was a trap,” Fogh Rasmussen told me. At the same time, several secular Arab regimes, including Mubarak’s Egypt and Assad’s Syria, concluded that encouraging vigorous opposition to the cartoons could shore up their Islamist credentials.

Once angry mass protests had finally been stirred up throughout the Muslim world in late January and early February 2006—including in Egypt, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan—the crisis quickly took on a logic that had never existed at the outset: attacks against Western targets led many newspapers in the West to republish the cartoons in solidarity, which in turn provoked more attacks. By the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in early 2015, there was a real question of what Timothy Garton Ash, in these pages, has called “the assassin’s veto,” the fact that some newspapers might self-censor simply to avoid further violence.2Jyllands-Posten itself, declaring in an editorial in January 2015 that “violence works,” no longer republishes the cartoons.

Lost in the geopolitical fallout, however, was the debate over Danish values that the cartoons provoked in Denmark itself. Under the influence of the nineteenth-century state builder N.F.S. Grundtvig, the founders of modern Denmark embraced free speech as a core value. It was the first country in Europe to legalize pornography in the 1960s, and Danes have long taken a special pleasure in cheerful, in-your-face irreverence. In December Politiken published a cartoon showing the integration minister Inger Støjberg gleefully lighting candles on a Christmas tree that has a dead asylum-seeker as an ornament (see illustration on page 34).

Explaining his own reasons for commissioning the Muhammad cartoons, Flemming Rose has written of the need to assert the all-important right to “sarcasm, mockery, and ridicule” against an encroaching totalitarianism emanating from the Islamic world. He also makes clear that Muslims or any other minority group should be equally free to express their own views in the strongest terms. (Rose told me that he differs strongly with Geert Wilders, the prominent Dutch populist and critic of Islam. “He wants to ban the Koran. I say absolutely you can’t do that.”)

But Rose’s views about speech have been actively contested. Bo Lidegaard, the editor of Politiken, the traditional paper of the Copenhagen establishment, was Fogh Rasmussen’s national security adviser at the time of the cartoons crisis. Politiken, which shares the same owner and inhabits the same high-security building as Jyllands-Posten, has long been critical of the publication of the cartoons by its sister paper, and Lidegaard was blunt. “It was a complete lack of understanding of what a minority religion holds holy,” he told me. “It also seemed to be mobbing a minority, by saying, in their faces, ‘We don’t respect your religion! You may think this is offensive but we don’t think its offensive, so you’re dumb!’”

Lidegaard, who has written several books about Danish history, argues that the cartoons’ defenders misread the free speech tradition. He cites Denmark’s law against “threatening, insulting, or degrading” speech, which was passed by the Danish parliament in 1939, largely to protect the country’s Jewish minority from anti-Semitism. Remarkably, it remained in force—and was even invoked—during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. According to Lidegaard, it is a powerful recognition that upholding equal rights and tolerance for all can sometimes trump the need to protect extreme forms of speech.

Today, however, few Danes seem concerned about offending Muslims. Neils-Erik Hansen, a leading Danish human rights lawyer, told me that the anti–hate speech law has rarely been used in recent years, and that in several cases of hate crimes against Muslim immigrants—a newspaper boy was killed after being called “Paki swine”—the authorities have shown little interest in invoking the statute. During the cartoon affair, Lidegaard himself was part of the foreign policy team that advised Prime Minister Fogh Rasmussen not to have talks with Muslim representatives. When I asked him about this, he acknowledged, “The government made some mistakes.”

A playground in Mjølnerparken, a housing project largely for immigrants in north Copenhagen known for gang activity and high unemployment
Claus Bech/ScanpixA playground in Mjølnerparken, a housing project largely for immigrants in north Copenhagen known for gang activity and high unemployment


Last fall I visited Mjølnerparken, an overwhelmingly immigrant “ghetto” in north Copenhagen where Omar el-Hussein, the shooter in last year’s attack against the free speech meeting, had come from. Many of the youth there belong to gangs and have been in and out of prison; the police make frequent raids to search for guns. Upward of half the adults, many of them of Palestinian and Somali origin, are unemployed. Eskild Pedersen, a veteran social worker who almost single-handedly looks after the neighborhood, told me that hardly any ethnic Danes set foot there. This was Denmark at its worst.

And yet there was little about the tidy red-brick housing blocks or the facing playground, apart from a modest amount of graffiti, that suggested dereliction or squalor. Pedersen seems to have the trust of many of his charges. He had just settled a complicated honor dispute between two Somalian families; and as we spoke, a Palestinian girl, not more than six, interrupted to tell him about a domestic violence problem in her household. He has also found part-time jobs for several gang members, and helped one of them return to school; one young man of Palestinian background gave me a tour of the auto body shop he had started in a nearby garage. (When a delegation of Egyptians was recently shown the neighborhood, the visitors asked, “Where is the ghetto?”)

But in Denmark, the police force is regarded as an extension of the social welfare system and Pedersen also makes it clear, to the young men especially, that he works closely with law enforcement. As last year’s shooting reveals, it doesn’t always work. But city officials in Copenhagen and in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, describe some cases in which local authorities, drawing on daily contact with young and often disaffected Muslims, including jihadists returning from Syria, have been able to preempt extremist behavior.

Across Europe in recent weeks, shock over the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has quickly been overtaken by alarm over the challenge they are now seen as posing to social stability. Several countries that have been welcoming to large numbers of Syrian and other asylum-seekers are confronting growing revolts from the far right—along with anti-refugee violence. In December Die Zeit, the German newsweekly, reported that more than two hundred German refugee shelters have been attacked or firebombed over the past year; in late January, Swedish police intercepted a gang of dozens of masked men who were seeking to attack migrants near Stockholm’s central station. Since the beginning of 2016, two notorious far-right, anti-immigration parties—the Sweden Democrats in Sweden and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands—became more popular than the ruling parties in their respective countries, despite being excluded from government.

Nor is the backlash limited to the right. Since the New Year’s attacks by migrants against women in Cologne, conservative opponents of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy have been joined by feminists and members of the left, who have denounced the “patriarchal” traditions of the “Arab man.” Recent data on the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, who in January were polling at 28 percent of the popular vote, shows that the party’s steady rise during Sweden’s decade of open-asylum policies has closely tracked a parallel decline in support for the center-left Social Democrats, the traditional force in Swedish politics. Confronted with such a populist surge, the Swedish government announced on January 27 that it plans to deport as many as 80,000 asylum-seekers.

As the advanced democracies of Europe reconsider their physical and psychological borders with the Muslim world, the restrictive Danish approach to immigration and the welfare state offers a stark alternative. Brought into the political process far earlier than its counterparts elsewhere, the Danish People’s Party is a good deal more moderate than, say, the National Front in France; but it also has succeeded in shaping, to an extraordinary degree, the Danish immigration debate. In recent weeks, Denmark’s Social Democrats have struggled to define their own immigration policy amid sagging support. When I asked former prime minister Fogh Rasmussen about how the Danish People’s Party differed from the others on asylum-seekers and refugees, he said, “You have differences when it comes to rhetoric, but these are nuances.”

In January, more than 60,000 refugees arrived in Europe, a thirty-five-fold increase from the same month last year; but in Denmark, according to Politiken, the number of asylum-seekers has steadily declined since the start of the year, with only 1,400 seeking to enter the country. In limiting the kind of social turmoil now playing out in Germany, Sweden, and France, the Danes may yet come through the current crisis a more stable, united, and open society than any of their neighbors. But they may also have shown that this openness extends no farther than the Danish frontier.

—February 10, 2016

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France: Is There a Way Out?

Actors from the Globe Theatre performing Hamlet for refugees and migrants in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, France, February 2016
Dan Kitwood/Getty ImagesActors from the Globe Theatre performing Hamlet for refugees and migrants in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, France, February 2016

On the morning of Thursday, January 7, French President François Hollande made his way in the rain to the Paris police headquarters on the Île de la Cité, just two months after the coordinated Islamist attacks of November 13, 2015, that killed 130 people and wounded over 350 at the Bataclan concert hall and several restaurants and cafés. He was there to commemorate the anniversary of last January’s terrorist operation that left dead twelve people at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, one policewoman near a Jewish school in a Parisian suburb, and four others in a kosher market near the Porte de Vincennes. The commemoration was not about moving on. Hollande thanked the police and fire departments for their sacrifices in the fight against terrorism, and explained that the end was not in sight. He then placed a large wreath at the monument for fallen officers in the building’s grim courtyard.

While he was speaking, a young Tunisian man named Tarek Belgacem approached the local police station in the gritty immigrant neighborhood La Goutte d’Or. As he was about to reach the guard he shouted “Allahu Akbar” and drew out a meat cleaver. When he ignored orders to halt, he was shot dead. Officers noticed wires coming out from his coat and found that he was wearing a fake explosive vest. In his pocket was a rambling testament, with a drawing of an ISIS flag, pledging allegiance to the caliphate. In subsequent days it was revealed that he had been crisscrossing Europe for years committing petty crimes. Most recently he had been living under one of his many pseudonyms in a German refugee asylum where he drew attention for painting an ISIS insignia on his wall and taking photos of himself with an ISIS flag.

The following day, a Friday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls made a moving speech at the kosher market, declaring that “without the Jews of France, France would not be France” and deploring the fact that a small but growing number of them are leaving the country out of fear. On Monday, as if in response to his statement, a fifteen-year-old Turkish Kurd living in Marseille attacked with a knife a Jewish teacher wearing a kippa, who was on his way to work, apparently trying to decapitate him. The student told police that he had committed the act in the name of Allah and ISIS and then made threatening statements against the French army for “protecting the Jews.” The next day the leader of Marseille’s largest Jewish organization urged Jewish men to “hide a little” and not wear their kippas until “better days” arrive.

No one in France expects them soon.

Until the November Bataclan massacre it appeared superficially that French life was getting back to normal after the shock of last January.

There were partisan polemics in the months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks but they were not about security. One focused on the national school curriculum, a fetish object the French rub whenever they feel unsafe. To the question “Who lost French Muslim youth?” the instinctive response of many was the educational system, and they pointed to everything from the declining number of hours students study French history to the deemphasis on Greek and Latin. Articles were even written on the epidemic of orthographic mistakes on student exams as a sign of civilizational decline.1

Another polemic was over the left-libertarian philosopher Michel Onfray, who told the conservative paper Le Figaro that he held the left responsible for taboos against addressing public concerns about Islamism, immigration, and refugees, which in his view only hastened the shift of working-class and rural voters to the National Front.

This provocation reanimated a bitter quarrel among France’s intellectuals over who was guilty of la trahison des clercs in the face of terrorism: the traditional left that blamed “Islamophobia” and social marginalization, or the growing number of former leftists who point to political Islamism and the abandonment of the principles of laicity. In the face of “media hysteria,” Onfray temporarily withdrew his book on Islam that was already in press, stopped giving interviews, and shut down his Twitter account.

These sideshows apart, French political life reverted to the state it was in in 2014, which is to say morose and petty. Confidence in François Hollande, which rocketed up due to his handling of the crisis, soon crept back down to abysmal pre-Charlie levels. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, eyeing another run in 2017, succeeded in changing the name of his conservative party to Les Républicains without changing anything else about it, or about himself, his worst enemy. The genial former prime minister Alain Juppé, his old rival, leads him in the polls.

The National Front, which hoped to capitalize quickly on security concerns and present itself as a strong but responsible alternative to the Socialists and Republicans, was instead plunged into a civil war last April. In two interviews the party’s retired founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, repeated his infamous line about the gas chambers being a mere “detail” in history, and added kind words about Pétain. His daughter Marine, the current president of the party, who is intent on “de-diabolizing” it, immediately expelled him. What followed resembled an inept college production of King Lear. The old man disowned his daughter and blamed the break on her vice-president, Florian Philippot, a young graduate of the grandes écoles widely detested on the far right for being gay, who was assigned the role of Edmund. Marine, playing Regan and Goneril, stuck to her guns in meetings and several court battles, eventually ousting her father, but was left exposed as the leader of an eerie clan, not a transparent democratic party.

While the political class fumbled, the French economy remained dangerously stalled. At 10 percent, the unemployment rate is the highest in twenty years and one of the highest in Europe. (The German unemployment rate is 6 percent, the lowest in twenty years.) Half of those out of work have been so for at least a year. The Hollande government recognizes that structural reforms (such as changes in working hours) are needed but is stymied by the opposition of unions, Socialist members of Parliament, and the wider public, which is economically conservative, attached to its suffocating web of small privileges, and ready to resist forcibly if provoked. (It must be added that EU debt policies have exacerbated the problem by preventing the government from further stimulating growth and investing in public works.)

In October Air France employees protesting a company plan to reduce its workforce broke into negotiations and attacked two company officials, who were saved by their union counterparts. Pictures of fleeing businessmen with their clothes in shreds were on every front page. In June taxi drivers with medallions shut down parts of Paris and the airport in protests against nonunionized drivers for Uber, beating several up and smashing a number of their cars. Under this pressure the Constitutional Court shortly thereafter ruled illegal one of Uber’s most popular services.

The forward-looking finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, fully measures the cost of France’s economic failure and has called for major reforms. All he has been able to obtain, though, is an absurdly modest package that could be passed only by using a complicated constitutional maneuver that obviated the need for a parliamentary vote. The law increases slightly the number of Sundays that stores can open and the evening hours workers can work, and simplifies the labyrinthine process for getting a driver’s license so that young people can get to jobs. Long-distance bus companies can finally compete with the national train system on major routes, and some closed, archaic legal professions that date to the ancien régime will be opened up.

After months of hysterical doomsaying, these were the only changes. The psychological barriers to further change—such as extending the standard thirty-five hour workweek or simplifying the country’s labor code that makes hiring and firing a nightmare—are high. A poll last year found that over two thirds of the French support allowing more stores to open on Sundays. Less than half, though, say they would be willing to work on those days.

Perversely, this paralysis swells the ranks of potential National Front voters, even though the party has no economic policy to speak of. So does perceived paralysis in dealing with immigration and refugee issues. In fact, France has accepted relatively few asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, and rejects their applications at nearly three times the rate of other European nations. But this is not the public perception. One reason is the long-festering situation in the so-called “jungle” of Calais. For a decade and a half now France has had to deal with large waves of illegal migrants, from Albanians to Kuwaiti Bedouins, who are trying to make their way to Britain and find employment. (Given the dire economic situation, they have no interest in remaining in France.) Several large encampments have grown up near the Calais Chunnel entrance and every night anywhere from a dozen to a thousand of the mainly young men try to sneak through on foot or hide in the trucks in line. Some die trying. It’s a police nightmare and a humanitarian disaster.

The shantytown complex now houses around six thousand; the population of Calais is only 72,000. It is for all intents and purposes a small town, with a hospital, schools, library, entertainment center, restaurants, and cafés. Not long ago a British businessman opened a shop there offering women’s products catering to the migrants, and some evangelicals founded the Life in Jesus Church. The French government has little room to maneuver since Britain resists admitting these people and EU rules require France to offer them basic sustenance. These subtleties are lost on those living near the camps, who feel besieged and unprotected. Working-class Calais used to be a bastion of the French Communist Party. In the first round of recent regional elections 49 percent of the vote went to the National Front, which promised to stop giving aid or even medicine to the migrants.

The regional elections were held in December, just a few weeks after the Bataclan attacks, and there was general alarm that the National Front would capture control of two or more of the twelve newly consolidated metropolitan regions. And indeed at 28 percent it did receive slightly more votes than any other party, allowing it to claim once again to be “the first party of France.” But as is so often the case, its slight lead in polls and raw votes was not translated into electoral victory because its support is so spread out geographically. And in regions where Socialist candidates ran third behind the National Front and the Republicans, they were instructed by the party to withdraw. (The favor was not returned by Republicans.) As a result, though the National Front won roughly the same percentage of votes in the second round, it did not gain control of a single region.

Every time the National Front vote rises, the rest of France panics, and rival parties are not above exploiting this fear. François Mitterrand was a master of the art. In 1985 he introduced proportional representation in parliament simply to draw votes away from his conservative rivals, even though it meant that the National Front won thirty-five seats and, more importantly, legitimacy. At the moment, this kind of cynical jockeying in what has become a three-party system is a more immediate problem than the prospect of a National Front government or presidency. The Socialists and Republicans can mask the vacuity of their electoral programs by focusing on blocking the National Front, which in turn can hide its lack of a program behind demagoguery about the other two parties’ failures. (And since the National Front governs only a handful of towns it is protected from failing.)

The attention of the political class is now focused almost exclusively on the presidential elections of 2017, not on France’s long-term challenges. The chances of Marine Le Pen winning one of the top two spots in the first round are high, which would mean a repeat of the 2002 election when her father came in second, forcing the parties of the left to throw their support behind the conservative Jacques Chirac in the second round. Any president, Socialist or Republican, elected under such circumstances would be in no better a position to act decisively than François Hollande is in right now.

Marine Le Pen speaking to supporters at the end of the second round of regional elections, Hénin-Beaumont, France, December 2015
Jerome Sessini/Magnum PhotosMarine Le Pen speaking to supporters at the end of the second round of regional elections, Hénin-Beaumont, France, December 2015

Economic stagnation, political stalemate, rising right-wing populism—this has been France’s condition for a decade or more. So has nothing changed since the Charlie Hebdo killings? Yes it has, and not simply because of the Bataclan massacre. Since 2012 France has suffered a steady series of Islamist terrorist attacks, some dramatic, some less so, that have changed the political psychology of the country.2 Intellectuals and politicians have been arguing about the causes of le malaise français for decades, calling on the French to change their policies and thinking, on the assumption that their destiny was in their hands. That assumption no longer holds. The globalization of economic activity, including the American financial crisis and the transfer of decision-making to the opaque institutions of the European Union, has been eroding the sense of national self-determination for some time. And now the refugee crisis and international jihadist networks are eroding confidence that the state, which the French expect to be strong, can protect its citizens.

Though there were no major successful terrorist attacks on French soil between January and November 2015, there were enough small or unsuccessful ones in the news to keep the public on edge. In February, just weeks after the Charlie murders, three soldiers defending a Jewish center in Nice were stabbed by a Muslim man, and in November a jihadist network in Saint-Denis and Lyon was discovered and dismantled. In June another Muslim man whose name was in a police terrorist database decapitated his employer at a delivery company near Lyon, and before trying to blow up the building planted the man’s head on the building’s gate next to two banners, one referring to ISIS and the other with the Muslim shahada written on it (“There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”). He then took some photos.

In August a young Moroccan living in Spain, who was also in a European police database, boarded a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris with a Kalashnikov and a Lugar pistol; he wounded five people before his guns jammed and he was wrestled down by two vacationing American soldiers. In October and November French police foiled what would have been two major attacks against naval installations in Toulon and Orléans by French Muslims with Syrian connections. And in December police investigating a recent female convert found in her apartment the hollowed-out mold of a pregnant woman’s belly, presumably intended to hide explosives. The French government now has a policy of publicizing its antiterrorism operations, which keeps the public alert but can also leave it with the jitters. In September the minister of the interior announced that over 1,800 French citizens had been identified as belonging to jihadist networks, triple the number recorded in January 2014.

The gruesome Bataclan attacks were the most dramatic and deadly in this series. Most disturbing was the discovery that it was an international operation organized in Belgium where several of the killers lived, and planned by ISIS in Syria where some had trained. At least two had reentered Europe through Greece by pretending to be refugees. This is the first terrorist operation in Europe for which ISIS has taken public responsibility, and its statement was nothing less than a declaration of war:

Let France and all nations following its path know that they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign….This is just the beginning.

The Hollande government responded in kind, immediately putting ten thousand troops on Parisian streets and declaring a state of emergency, giving the police extraordinary powers to conduct searches without warrants, detain suspects, and impose temporary house arrest. Speaking before a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate, the president then declared that France was at war with ISIS and would be stepping up its bombing campaign in Syria and Iraq, not withdrawing. Most controversially he called for binationals convicted of terrorist crimes to be stripped of French nationality, a proposal that runs up against current constitutional and European jurisprudence but has been Hollande’s most popular move since being elected. (The government has subsequently removed any reference to binationals from the proposal.) According to a national poll taken a few days after the attacks, a large majority of the public would like to go even further by detaining all those who have been identified as potential terrorist threats by the police.

With less fanfare the Hollande government has also accelerated plans to reform French Muslim institutions, something unimaginable under the American or British political systems. In 1808 Napoleon set up a system of local and national Jewish “consistories” made up of rabbis and laymen whose task was double: to represent the community before the government and to carry out its directives regarding civic education, synagogue governance, military service, and other matters. The consistories still exist and have moral authority within the French Jewish community but no longer serve as semi-state institutions. Until quite recently no such institution existed for French Muslims. In the 1980s the Mitterrand government reached out to private Muslim organizations about some sort of pact regarding Islam and the principles of laicity, and such an agreement was reached in 2000. In 2003 a French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) was created, loosely modeled on the Jewish consistories.

The CFCM has not been a great success, mainly because there are sharp divisions and turf battles among Muslim leaders with strong attachments to religious authorities in their home countries, who in turn fund French mosques. But the Hollande government is committed to reducing and monitoring those ties and encouraging the development of a French Islam that would be friendly to the republic.

Most significantly it has gotten the CFCM to set up a certification program for imams that will require them to get an acceptable theological and especially civic education. Today only a fifth of French imams are native Frenchmen and only a third master the language; most preaching is in Arabic. They are said not to be very learned, having on average ten years’ less education than French rabbis, ministers, and priests.3 To professionalize and modernize this class the state is also setting up programs in Muslim theology and religious studies in the universities, which the latter have until now resisted on the grounds that the long-fought-for French tradition of laicity in education should prevail.

As welcome as these reforms may be, it is hard to imagine that they can do much to help stem radicalization. Olivier Roy, a somewhat idiosyncratic French specialist on Islam, published a much-discussed article shortly after the Bataclan massacres arguing that jihadism has nothing to do with Muslim institutions and little to do with Muslim life. He noted that the large majority of French jihadists are second-generation Muslims who, unlike their parents, speak French, grew up with little to no contact with mosques or Muslim organizations, and before their conversions drank, took drugs, and had girlfriends. They are estranged from their parents and don’t know where to fit in. Or they are recent converts, largely from rural areas and many from divorced families. Why is that, Roy asks? If Islam or social conditions are essentially to blame for breeding terrorism, why do such structural problems affect only this very narrowly defined group? Why does it not attract first- or third-generation French Muslims, or those whose Islamic culture is the deepest? And why does its appeal extend to children of the successful middle class? His answer: jihadism is a nihilistic generational revolt, not a religiously inspired utopianism.

Roy is being provocative. And hardly realistic when he concludes that crushing ISIS “will do nothing” to affect this revolt. Strained parent–child relations in the face of modernization are nothing new, and neither is political revolt growing out of them. In Fathers and Sons Turgenev explored these psychological dynamics that were at work already in mid-nineteenth-century Russia. But it took the rise of revolutionary Marxism and fascism, first as ideologies, then as foundations of state and military power, to transform those intimate dynamics into world-historical ones, with bloody results. Islamic jihadism, whose advance has accelerated since the Arab Spring turned to winter, remains a dangerous threat in its own right.

But the most disturbing implication of Roy’s argument, in the French setting, is that the state can do nothing to deal with the sources of this revolt. The French react to terrorism much differently than Americans do. The victims’ families do not appear weeping on television or get book contracts, conspiracy theories have little traction, and even the National Front does not engage in the hysterical demagoguery that has become standard in the Republican presidential campaign. (After the November killings Marine Le Pen was a model of composure compared to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.) Nor do the French suffer from a pathological distrust of the state. They like to be governed, as long as they are governed well. Accordingly, if public officials look responsible and show sangfroid they will be left alone to do their jobs, as long as they make evident progress.

At the moment, though, the French state looks dangerously weak: on the one side economic stagnation and political paralysis, on the other international terrorism and an enormous number of migrants in a border-free Europe, with little sense of how to deal with any of this. The savvy conservative Alain Juppé seems to have understood that the coming presidential election will be about relieving public anxieties on these two fronts. To inaugurate his campaign he has just published a book titled For a Strong State. It would be suicide for an American politician to use such a title, but if Juppé makes strength the theme of his campaign he may very well end up in the Elysée Palace. If he doesn’t, and no other candidates persuade the public that they can control France’s destiny, that will leave only Marine Le Pen and her eerie clan to turn to. I will discuss these prospects in a second article.

—February 10, 2016; this is the first of two articles.

  1. 1

    See my “France on Fire,” The New York Review, March 5, 2015. 

  2. 2

    See my “France: A Strange Defeat,” The New York Review, March 19, 2015. 

  3. 3

    See the interview with Henry Laurens, “L’Europe et l’Islam: actions et réactions,” Le Débat, May–August 2015, p. 61. 

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