As tens of thousands of people across the United States rushed to airports and took to the streets to protest Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigration by Muslims from seven countries, and refugees generally; as four federal judges issued emergency orders to prevent immediate deportations and sixteen state attorney generals made a rare joint statement calling the president’s action “unconstitutional, un-American, and unlawful”—we recalled a refugee we’d met not long ago from Nepal, where he’d spent more than a decade in a refugee camp. Resettled in New Hampshire, he was working several jobs, having already learned English and gotten a degree as a surgical technician. In that time he’d also saved $16,000 for the down payment on a house—a pretty crappy house in a pretty gritty neighborhood, but still. “USA,” he told us. “It stands for You Start Again.”
Over the last few years, we’ve spent considerable time in refugee enclaves across the nation. They are among the most admirable—and the most American—communities we’ve ever visited. Which is to say, President Trump’s ban on refugees is clearly racist and probably unconstitutional but it’s also just plain stupid, at least if the goal is to build a strong, safe, working nation.
Our interest in refugee enclaves began when our daughter, then a student at Brown, became the mentor of a kindergarten-age Bhutanese girl whose family had been resettled in Providence months before. (The New Hampshire man was Bhutanese as well—at least a hundred thousand Hindus were forced from the country and into Nepali refugee camps in the 1990s, where they languished until resettlement finally got underway about five years ago). In a series of stories for Smithsonian magazine, we documented communities across the country, learning the basic facts along the way: when refugees arrive they get $1,000, intended to cover three months’ rent. That’s it—they’re expected to pay back the cost of their plane tickets to America once they’ve got jobs. So the kindness of strangers is a help.
But it goes both ways. As we spent time with Vietnamese boat people in Oklahoma City, recent Iraqi arrivals in Phoenix, and other groups of recent immigrants, we found ourselves re-inspired with a sense of what once made our country really exceptional: its unparalleled ability to both assimilate and be improved by its newest arrivals.
They tend, for instance, to be ferociously hard workers. We sat in an Oklahoma City pho restaurant (one of dozens in the few blocks of the Vietnamese neighborhood) with a woman who was now general counsel at a major hospital. “For Americans, it’s like figuring out what your dream job is, or some nonsense like that,” she said. “But that was not in the equation for my parents. They wanted that for me, but for them, though they’d been successful in Vietnam, they never looked back. Just to have a job was wonderful. Never being dependent on anyone, making your own way. My dad was always like, ‘If you make a dollar, you save 70 cents.’” Money was not “a taboo topic,” she continued. “The bills got paid at the kitchen table. When my mother would talk with someone, it was like, ‘How much do you make an hour? What are the benefits? What will you do next?’” “When I was a little girl,” the woman added, “I apparently asked the American woman next door, ‘Why do you stay home? You could be making money.’”
And they value education in a way that too many native-born Americans no longer seem to. So many of the people we met were taking courses at technical colleges; young people who once cowered because their homes were being bombed now worried mostly that they’d get a bad grade. Their path was not easy. We met a young woman who’d arrived from Iraq in fourth grade during the war. Her first month in an American school a boy pulled off her head scarf on the school bus. “I didn’t know what to do—I couldn’t speak any English. So I pulled off my shoe and I hit the boy, and then I hit the bus driver because he didn’t do anything.” And then she went on to do what you’re supposed to do, excelling at school, excelling at college. Now she worked helping resettle other Iraqis, mostly people who had worked with the US military, as they arrived, often traumatized, in the Arizona desert. (These are the kinds of refugees the president has just banned: Iraqis displaced after our invasion in 2003, or by ISIS more recently.)
All the refugees and immigrants we met were eager to become American—but also wanted to hold on to parts of their own culture. And no matter what continent they came from, the parts they wanted to hold on to were much the same. In particular, they were appalled at the way Americans tended to treat their parents and grandparents, and hopeful their kids would not follow suit. “When you meet our seniors, there’s a different way of respecting them: saying ‘Namaste,’ for instance,” said one Bhutanese man, who helped teach classes for refugee children. “We want to preserve those relationships. When we were younger they helped us, so when they’re older, we help them. Here it’s different. When you’re eighteen or twenty, you leave your family, and eventually you put the old people in nursing homes. In five years no one from our community has gone into a nursing home.”
America, in other words, is not just doing refugees a favor by letting them in. They’re doing America a favor by coming here—revitalizing our economy, sure, bringing new talent and energy and enterprise to every part of our society, but also helping shore up our culture at its weakest spots. And they’ve been doing this for generations. What schoolchild doesn’t know the words of the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty—words that protesters all over the country scrawled on cardboard signs this weekend? America as the melting pot, America as a nation of immigrants—that is our collective identity. Even Dick Cheney, the architect of the Iraq war, spoke forcefully against the ban, articulating why many Americans find it reprehensible. “I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in,” Cheney said. “I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from.”
It’s a remarkable irony that the man who’s trying to stop these people from entering the country has never had to struggle a moment in his life, and hence never developed any of the character we have seen constantly on display in America’s vibrant refugee communities. And it’s even more ironic that he demands “extreme vetting” for people who have, in fact, been checked out more thoroughly than any other Americans before their arrival. If only the nation had conducted even a minimal vetting of our new president.
Several years ago, my right wrist became swollen and inflamed. My primary care physician ordered blood tests and X-rays, but the cause remained obscure. Empirical treatment with a splint and anti-inflammatory medication did not improve my symptoms, and so I was referred to a hand surgeon. He ordered further tests, including a bone scan, which evaluates not only the wrist but all of the bones in the body. That night, the surgeon called me at home.
“I just saw the results of the bone scan,” he said. “The wrist is not your major concern. It looks like there are multiple metastases in your ribs. You’re an oncologist. You need to speak with one of your colleagues about what to do next.”
I hung up the phone in shock, and within minutes my ribs felt as if they had been hit by a hammer. I lay down and took deep breaths, but the pain did not abate.
My wife, also a physician, was away on a ski trip. After several hours of phoning, I finally reached her. She tried to be reassuring, saying what I already knew, that bone scans can produce artifacts, suggesting disease where none exists. First thing in the morning, she said, I should have X-rays of my ribs; if there really were multiple cancer deposits, they would be obvious.
I was unable to sleep. Although I realized that I had had no discomfort before the call from the surgeon, I couldn’t shake the sense that the accelerating pain was confirming what the bone scan had found. And as a cancer specialist, I knew the implications were dire. Few tumors that have metastasized to bones can be cured.
Early the next morning, I arrived at my hospital’s radiology suite. X-rays of the ribs showed nothing abnormal. Slowly, the pain subsided.
I didn’t expect my reaction to the surgeon’s telephone call. During training, medical students often become hypochondriacal, developing symptoms of a disorder like Hodgkin’s disease after learning about it. I didn’t. And in one of our classes, a psychiatrist demonstrated techniques of hypnosis, selecting me as a subject. I proved not to be “suggestible,” a person who can be easily hypnotized. But after the incident with the deceptive bone scan, I experienced how powerful the mind can be in generating bodily symptoms.
Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist specializing in epilepsy who practices in London. Many of her patients suffer from so-called conversion disorders: somatic symptoms caused by psychological distress that defy ready diagnosis by medical tests or physical examination. “They are medical disorders like no others,” O’Sullivan writes. “They obey no rules. They can affect any part of the body…. Almost any symptom we can imagine can become real when we are in distress.”
Physicians who practice family medicine, pediatrics, or internal medicine learn that a substantial proportion of people seeking care have inexplicable complaints. Some surveys indicate that at least a quarter of such patients report symptoms that appear to have no physical basis, and that one in ten continues to believe that he has a terminal disease even after the doctor has found him to be healthy.1
Understandably, because the symptoms obscure the psychological genesis, patients seek a physical disorder to explain their condition, and turn to doctors like O’Sullivan to provide a diagnosis. Her findings are striking:
My first consultant post…saw me running a service whose main purpose was to investigate people with epilepsy who were not getting better with standard treatment. It transpired that approximately 70 percent of the people referred to me with poorly controlled seizures were not responding to epilepsy treatment because they did not have epilepsy. Their seizures were occurring for purely psychological reasons.
While not a psychiatrist, O’Sullivan proposes that their collapse and convulsions “happen for a reason. When words are not available our bodies sometimes speak for us—and we have to listen.”
That listening is no longer valued in today’s medicine. The patient’s “history” was once the centerpiece of his medical record, his story written in narrative form. With current electronic templates, information is fragmented into chunks designed to meet so-called quality metrics and maximize revenue from insurers. The patient’s story has been reduced to telegraphed key words that trigger prefigured algorithms, which generate pop-ups on the computer screen for further testing or generic therapies. O’Sullivan bemoans similar changes in the British medical system.
Under the time pressure of factory-like care, the physician uses a checklist rather than talking with patients in an open-ended way; in fact, some doctors often skip taking a fresh medical history and simply cut and paste the initial evaluation from the electronic record.2 This shift in the physician–patient interaction limits the kind of deep inquiry vital to diagnosing psychosomatic illness. “There are always two realities,” O’Sullivan writes: “the one which exists in the notes and the one which lives in the patient’s memory. I needed to know both and I knew that neither version could be wholly relied upon.”
Patients with imaginary illnesses are denigrated by many doctors. During my internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, I was introduced to a new vocabulary beyond technical medical terms. Among the words were “crock” and “turkey.” These were patients who offered an array of complaints likely to be psychosomatic in origin. Pulled in every direction to urgently attend to others with heart attack and sepsis and pulmonary embolism, doctors had scant patience to deal with such individuals. Although I resisted using such language, I still found myself, desperate for time, deeply resenting these patients’ requests for attention. “Psychiatric disorders manifesting as physical disease are at the very bottom of that pile,” O’Sullivan notes. “They are the charlatans of illnesses. We laugh at them.”
O’Sullivan has a wide range of references to explain the plight of those with imaginary illness. Cassandra was the daughter of the king of Troy, both blessed and cursed. “Her blessing was one of prophecy, Cassandra could foresee the future. Her curse was that she was not believed. That is how people with psychosomatic disorders feel. Their suffering is real but they do not feel believed.”
That belief goes beyond the doctor and includes the patient:
It can be very difficult for a patient to accept that they suffer from a conversion disorder (a medically unexplained neurological symptom) when that assumption is based almost entirely on what is missing. It requires great trust between patient and doctor. Every week I tell somebody that their disability has a psychological cause. When they ask me how I have come to that conclusion, all I can provide is a list of normal test results, evidence for ruling out diseases. When a person is paralyzed or blind or suffering from convulsions, it is not difficult to see why they find that a very unsatisfactory explanation.
O’Sullivan illuminates one of medicine’s most fraught moments, when a physician reaches the conclusion that there is no physical (or “organic”) disease. Matthew is a desperate patient convinced that he suffers from neuropathy. How definitive should O’Sullivan be in challenging this false notion? “Was I as sure as I said I was that Matthew did not have a disease? Should I simply have agreed with him that nothing is ever unequivocally certain?” She decides to be definitive in her assessment:
Any shred of possibility that a physical disease had been missed offered him hope that his illness was not psychological and he might cling to that. If I allowed him any glimpse of my doubt I could be sending Matthew on a quest for a disease that might easily take up a lifetime.
Matthew rejects his general practitioner’s diagnosis of psychosomatic illness and searches the Internet, which offers up a host of alternative causes: diabetes damages nerves and could result in the pins and needles he feels; trapped nerves might cause his symptoms; poor circulation might result in his discomfort. He consults a chiropractor, who wonders if Matthew might have a slipped disk in his neck. Soon, the areas of numbness spread from Matthew’s limbs to his trunk; paralysis follows blurred vision:
As I listened I tried to spot an anatomical pattern that would explain everything, but all I could see was that what Matthew was describing was impossible…. But at the same time, I wondered if he was simply elaborating on a simpler story. Maybe he had an organic neurological problem and it was being magnified and contorted somehow by the depth of his concern. So I kept listening.
This is precisely what competent clinicians learn to do: keep listening and reexamine initial assumptions. Ultimately, O’Sullivan is confident in her assessment of psychosomatic illness. But again, she wonders if she should leave room for doubt. Medicine, after all, is an inexact science:
The mistake of offering a patient an organic diagnosis just in case has led to many people suffering lifelong seizures with no abatement. It happens for a number of reasons. Doctors are frightened to face the almost inevitable anger that will occur when a psychosomatic illness is mentioned. But protecting the patient from that upset is not in their interest in the long term if they are being denied a diagnosis. Also, doctors worry about calling a symptom psychological and discovering later that there was an organic cause after all. Calling an organic problem functional [psychological] is a mistake that is guaranteed to engender anger in a patient and their relatives, and can lead to a lawsuit.
Some years ago, a colleague introduced me to a woman I’ll call Anne Dodge.3 She had lost count of the number of doctors she had consulted for her abdominal pain and weight loss. Twice she had been hospitalized in a psychiatric unit for an eating disorder. Her primary care doctor refused her request for further opinions, convinced that her complaints were entirely a reflection of mental distress.
At the prompting of her boyfriend, Anne sought out my colleague, a specialist in gastroenterology. He listened carefully to her long history of abdominal pain, reviewed the numerous tests and procedures she had undergone, and, most importantly, kept an open mind. It was likely she suffered from a psychosomatic illness, he thought, but there also could be an underlying physical malady. Occam’s razor is a scholastic principle taught in medical school: try to settle on a single explanation for a multiplicity of symptoms. But this injunction occasionally is contradicted by the reality of human biology. My colleague discovered that she had celiac disease. Indeed, a large proportion of people who suffer with this autoimmune disorder linked to gluten are initially told that the problem is in their head, not their gastrointestinal tract. Further, he concluded that she was indeed depressed and had become phobic about food, but who wouldn’t be after years of consulting physicians and being told that it was all imaginary?
O’Sullivan refers to a similar experience when she concluded that a patient’s complaints of chronic pain and arm weakness were psychosomatic. A brain scan proved otherwise:
There, right in the middle of the image, superimposed on the gray of the brain, was a white circumscribed ball of tissue that most certainly should not have been there. Fatima had a brain tumor, and it sat in just the place that when compressed would lead to weakness of the arm.
I have thought of Fatima often since that day. I use the memory of her to remind myself that a clinical suspicion is only that, an unsubstantiated opinion. A doctor forms a medical diagnosis in part based on knowledge of disease, but much is also drawn from the qualitative nature of the story that a patient tells. Doctors struggle when a patient’s complaints or level of disability seem to outstrip what they can find on examination. We expect people to complain only in proportion to our idea of their illness.
Our deepest learning as doctors occurs when we are wrong, when we think in a skewed way and jump to conclusions. Diagnostic error, alas, is hardly a rare occurrence. It is estimated that some 5 to 15 percent of patients are never diagnosed correctly or that there is a significant delay in the diagnosis, resulting in harm.
O’Sullivan provides a lucid summary of the history of hysteria, told through the work in the late nineteenth century of the famed neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris. He stood on a platform beside women who then were hypnotized and had been prepared to convulse as he explicated the stages of the seizures:
He showed the audience the depth of the women’s detachment from their surroundings by asking them to partake in activities to which they would never agree in their fully conscious state. Women undressed or crawled around the room on hands and knees like a dog. He experimented with metallotherapy, using magnets to shift symptoms from one part of the body to another or even from one woman to the next. Convulsions could be transferred from the right arm to the left. Even more incredibly, an affliction could be taken from one woman and given to the one beside her.
Charcot’s clinical presentations attracted not only physicians, but “the fashionable and elite of Paris,” O’Sullivan writes. “There were artists and actors and even the occasional royal. When the phases of la grande hystérie were described, le tout Paris were present to hear them.” Fortunately, there are now legal and ethical constraints that prevent such voyeuristic displays.
Despite hysteria defying the anatomy of the nervous system, and its demonstrable social contagion, Charcot regarded the malady as a hereditary brain disease. Moreover, O’Sullivan notes, he asserted that “hysterical phenomena could be induced to appear or disappear instantaneously just through applying pressure to the ovary.” Charcot also diagnosed men with hysteria, and claimed that pressure on their testes produced the same beneficial effects as pressure on the ovary.
The publicity about Charcot’s presentations resulted in a sharp rise in cases of hysteria. O’Sullivan writes:
By bringing the scientific study of hysteria to the fore, Charcot created a plague of hysterical seizures that quickly spread to all of France and then throughout Europe. In a single year he alone saw more than three thousand patients, eight hundred of whom were diagnosed with hysteria. The late nineteenth century was the age of hysteria.
Charcot died in 1893; detractors then disparaged his views on the disorder, and the epidemic was stemmed. O’Sullivan notes that “sufferers disappeared into the shadows.”
In contrast to Charcot, Sigmund Freud posited that psychological trauma was converted to physical symptoms. In his studies with Josef Breuer, hysteria was associated with mnemic symbolism. The case of Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim) is an example: she suffered from severe cough, paralysis of her right arm and legs, and altered vision, hearing, and speech. This was attributed to her unexpressed resentment over the trauma of her father’s death. O’Sullivan embraces this approach: a person who experiences an insult as if it were a slap in the face might develop severe facial pain; a woman who “swallows unkind words, or a truth that she is not permitted to say,” might then become mute, or feel something is stuck in her throat.
O’Sullivan recounts a personal experience akin to mine after the telephone call from the hand surgeon. She visited an elderly friend, and as she entered his home, “a wave of odor hit me, a slap of wet dog directly in the face.” The living area was filled with old newspapers, the kitchen countertops held unwashed crockery. Two dogs sat on the sofa and, after they were shooed down, she took their place. She writes:
Even now I can feel vividly the discomfort I felt that afternoon. My imagination was attributing life to that sofa that it did not contain. My skin was so invaded by itching that when my friend left the room for a moment I had to stand and shake out my clothes looking for imaginary insects. Even when I went home I could not escape the feeling of a thousand flea bites. Only when I had washed my clothes and showered did I feel any relief.
She realized that there were no insects in the sofa, that nothing was crawling on her skin, nothing nipping her:
But the itch and tickle felt absolutely real. My mind had produced real physical sensations triggered only by an idea. Even with the evidence of my eyes that saw no fleas I simply couldn’t shake the imaginary feeling of being bitten. And even though it was years ago, and all in my mind, I am experiencing it all over again now just by remembering it.
O’Sullivan’s writing is at its best when she provides a vivid picture, like that of the unkempt house and dog-soiled sofa. But much of the book reads as if she were telling a colleague about a case or explaining to a patient her thoughts about psychosomatic disorders. Moreover, most of the patients we meet have convulsions caused by a conversion disorder. This is understandable, given her specialty, but the reader feels as if he or she has already covered this clinical territory as the pages unfold.
Freud advocated a “talking cure” for conversion disorders; others pursue a cognitive behavioral approach. O’Sullivan regularly refers her patients to psychiatrists:
There is no single solution to psychosomatic illness. To look for one is akin to looking for the cure for unhappiness. There is no single answer because there is no single cause. Sometimes you just have to figure out what purpose the illness serves, find what is missing and try to replace it.
This sounds somewhat Freudian, but no further detail is given on how to accomplish such findings and replacements.
For those who have never had a psychosomatic symptom, and doubt that emotion can dramatically alter physiology, O’Sullivan cleverly invokes a universal experience:
How easily we accept…different facets of laughter. It is a physical display of emotion, its mechanism is ill-understood, it is not always under our voluntary control, it affects our whole body, it stops our breathing and speeds up our heart, it serves a purpose, it releases tension and communicates feelings. Laughter is the ultimate psychosomatic symptom.
Our mind can forcefully speak through our body not only in distress, but in joy.
See my articles “Sick With Worry: Can Hypochondria Be Cured?,” The New Yorker, August 11, 2003; and “Hurting All Over: With So Many People in So Much Pain, How Could Fibromyalgia Not Be a Disease?,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2000. ↩
See Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, “Off the Record: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Going Electronic,” The New England Journal of Medicine, April 17, 2008; and “Medical Taylorism,” The New England Journal of Medicine, January 14, 2016. ↩
Many Negroes from the Bayou country could and did pass for white. They, too, had hank-straight black hair, dark eyes and shell-cream skin.
—Maya Angoulou, “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry like Christmas”
For one of the most prolific and highly-praised cartoonists who ever lived, George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat (1913-1944), didn’t like talking about himself. Recoiling from photographers and brushing off personal questions with elliptical answers and even occasional fabrications, George or “Garge” or “The Greek” always preferred the focus to be on the multivalent, multifarious, and multicultural characters who populated the inner world he made every day with the scratchings of his pen. A direct throughline of thought-to-gesture in black ink on white paper, George Herriman’s drawings come alive before the reader’s eye with a vital, persuasive complexity previously unknown in the history of art. Krazy Kat lived on the page—but he—or she—had a secret. And so did George Herriman.
Krazy Kat has been described as a parable of love, a metaphor for democracy, a “surrealistic” poem, unfolding over years and years. It is all of these, but so much more: it is a portrait of America, a self-portrait of Herriman, and, I believe, the first attempt to paint the full range of human consciousness in the language of the comic strip. Like the America it portrays, Herriman’s identity has been poised for a revision for many decades now. Michael Tisserand’s new biography Krazy does just that, clearing the shifting sands and shadows of Herriman’s ancestry, the discovery in the early 1970s of a birth certificate which described Herriman as “colored” sending up a flag among comics researchers and aficionados. Tisserand confirms what for years was hiding in plain sight in the tangled brush of Coconino County, Arizona, where Krazy Kat is supposedly set: Herriman, of mixed African-American ancestry, spent his entire adult life passing as white. He had been born in the African-American neighborhood of racially mixed, culturally polyglot 1880s New Orleans, but within a decade Herriman’s parents moved George and his three siblings to the small but growing town of Los Angeles to escape the increasing bigotry and racial animosity of postbellum Louisiana. The Herrimans melted into California life, and it was there that George, with brief professional spates in New York, would remain for the rest of his life.
But imagine knowing something about yourself that’s considered so damning, so dire, so disgusting, that you must, at all cost, never tell anyone. Imagine leaving behind a life to which you cannot claim allegiance or affection. Imagine suddenly gaining advantages and opportunity while you see others like you, who have not followed in the footsteps of your deception, suffering. Herriman, once he was considered white, didn’t even have a way of voicing this identity. Until he started drawing Krazy Kat.
I may be in the minority here, but I really think that most if not all readers of Krazy Kat during Herriman’s lifetime would have had a hard time thinking of Krazy as anything but African-American. Krazy’s patois, social status, stereotypical “happy-go-lucky despite it all” disposition all funnel into a rather pointed African-American identity. And Herriman, confoundingly, was not above using racial and even racist imagery himself, his early work especially filled with eye-popping stereotypes and blackface caricatures. At the turn of the century, when Herriman was just starting his career, the nineteenth-century cultural phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, while admittedly in the early process of passing into nostalgia, was still prevalent. Large orchestral shows of dozens of performers like Haverly’s and Christy’s Minstrels, grotesquely metastasized from the already ghastly four-person troupes , filled vaudeville halls and theaters; blackface performances, in a cruel twist of cultural fairness, were the first places for African-American performers to find a foothold. (W. C. Fields called Bert Williams, probably still the best known Black American entertainer from this era, “the saddest man I ever knew.”)
At the same time, a reader alive in the early part of the twentieth century probably didn’t really have to think about these associations any more specifically than we think the “Minions” sound vaguely Latino, or why Felix the Cat or Mickey and his minstrel mouse gloves were so funny. Of course Krazy Kat was black. A funny black cat. Just the right amount of slippage and shift in Krazy’s animus, helped along by a tradition of children’s animal stories, was all that was necessary for him/her to be two things—and nothing—all at once.
Nevertheless, one detail in Herriman’s strip that would have absolutely cemented this identity in the minds of contemporary readers has since passed into obscurity: Krazy Kat’s banjo. Through received clichés and shifts of poverty and culture in America, the banjo has come to be thought of as an instrument of poor whites, but at the turn of the century, it was as emblematic as a watermelon as part of the African-American stereotype. In fact, the banjo has a solemn origin: descended from the West African akonting, xalam, and ngoni instruments, played as an accompaniment to storytelling by Wolof griots in Senegal or the Jola in Gambia, early instruments like what became the American banjo were recreated by American slaves from whatever plantation materials were at hand—gourds, turtle shells, coconuts, animal skins—to try to hold on to a memory of life and culture torn from their grasp.
To the modern reader, the banjo in Krazy Kat might seem a lighthearted accessory, but when Krazy picks it up to sing “There is a Heppy Land Fur, Fur Away,” the meaning, to thoughtful readers of the 1920s to the 1940s, would have been clear. Even more astonishingly, Krazy never plays a “proper” banjo, but plays the gourd or coconut banjo, the origins of which by the time of the strip’s appearance would indeed have been obscure. Herriman knew what he was doing, and it’s not insignificant that the very last strip he left unfinished on his drawing table showed Krazy playing a gourd banjo. The earliest representation known of such an instrument appears in the watercolor The Old Plantation, painted by South Carolina slaveholder John Rose in the late eighteenth century.
What do these racial and cultural connections mean for how we see Herriman’s work? From their dimming over the years compared with Krazy Kat’s increasing artistic incandescence, they are clearly not necessary to an appreciation of the strip. But put yourself in Herriman’s shoes, and then reread Krazy Kat with this knowledge rewoven into the tapestry of his work. Think of pink Ignatz, the mouse who is Krazy’s constant tormentor. Think of the brick. Think of what W.E.B. DuBois called the “dual consciousness” of African-Americans, think of the brick hitting Krazy, over and over and over again. (Tisserand shrewdly notes that a July 30, 1866, New Orleans race riot, which Herriman’s father may have witnessed, started when a white boy threatened to throw a brick at African-American soldiers parading through the town.) Think of what recasting that gesture of hate as one of love actually means to its recipient. Think of the lynchings of the 1910s, the race riots of the 1960s, the American police shootings of 2016, the iPhone videos that continually show the treatment of African-Americans as property. Think of Barack Obama, half Scotch-Irish, half African.
George Herriman saw the history of America and its future and wrote it in ink as a dream on paper, and it is a dream that is still coming true. In December, disparate Native-American tribes and activists who had gathered in North Dakota for months staved off an oil pipeline that would have cut through ancestral Sioux burial lands; Herriman began visiting the Diné or Navajo nation and befriending its citizens before some western states were even twenty-five years old. Navajo rug patterns and the folklore of Monument Valley came to define the very cosmos of Krazy Kat. (A wonderful detail in Tisserand’s book recalls Herriman, who had Hollywood friends, setting up a private screening of older western movies with actual Navajo supporting actors for a Navajo audience, solely because the actors had said insulting things in their native language that only the Native audience could understand.)
And our most recent election involved debates about the equality of transgender teens, of those trapped inside a body by which they feel betrayed. Krazy Kat’s self-defining gender-switching—“I don’t know if I should take a husband or a wife,” Krazy once remarks—couldn’t be more timely, more oracular. Nor, sadly, could Ignatz’s seemingly implacable hatred. Even sadder, in that same American election, Ignatz won.
Everyone “passes” in some way or another; everyone has something they’d rather not discuss, something of their history they’re trying to downplay or hide, some story that doesn’t jibe with the vision and identity they’d prefer to have. This is the essence of fiction. Every one of us nightly, daily, hourly—every minute—reviews, sorts, discards, rewrites details that allow us to somehow get on with our lives, unrecorded acts of revision tantamount to what a writer commits professionally on a page. Do it well, and you’re mentally healthy. Do it badly, and you’re crazy. Fundamentally, we understand others only as refractions through the optic of ourselves, and fiction not only offers an alternative construct, but in its finest form allows the reader to inhabit, and most importantly, to empathize with another consciousness. (Or in Herriman’s case, with a cartoon cat.) So is kaleidoscopic Krazy really the crazy one, whom Ignatz can only understand through the reducing lens of his narrow, white mind?
Lately, I’ve been wondering if Herriman knew that one day his secret-in-plain-sight would be uncovered, that America would change, adapt and grow up enough as a people to understand Krazy Kat in all of its psychological and poetic depth. I’m not sure if we’ve yet reached that point, but what myself and other cartoonists already knew—that the strip was already the greatest ever drawn—is now magnified, multiplied and maximized. Krazy Kat is not just one of the greatest comic strips, it’s one of the strangest, most inventive, emotional, and personal works of art of the twentieth century. In their admiration for Herriman, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, and Jack Kerouac sensed something in his line and voice that was endemically American, deeply felt. Herriman should now take his rightful place as one of the most original African-American voices of the early twentieth century, contemporary with, if not predating, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston as one of the first writers to understand the racial animus of America and to try to fix the essence of black consciousness on paper. That Herriman made it come alive, sing, dance and suffer in an art form barely fifty years old is all the more astonishing. For decades, we’ve all been reading and laughing and, most of all, feeling for Krazy Kat, who passed right under our eyes as a living drawing on a page. But what we were really feeling came straight from the heart. It was the very soul of George Herriman himself.
Adapted from an essay to appear in the catalog of an exhibition on George Herriman at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain, opening in October 2017.
Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White was just published by HarperCollins. The collected Krazy Kat strips are published by Fantagraphics.
When Barack Obama became the forty-fourth president of the United States in 2009, he appointed Norman Eisen, a “special counsel for ethics and government,” to ensure that he violated no prohibitions on conflicts of interest. Before he was replaced in 2011, Eisen, later an ambassador to the Czech Republic and a lawyer who specialized in cases involving fraud, addressed a wide range of questions, including such matters as whether President Obama, a basketball fan, could accept tickets to see the Washington Wizards or the Georgetown Hoyas play.
When Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he sought a formal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on whether he could accept the award without violating a constitutional prohibition on the president or any other federal officer accepting “emoluments,” essentially any payment or benefit, from a foreign state. (The office concluded that he could, only because the Nobel Prize Committee is a private entity with no foreign government involvement.) Like every president to precede him in the last four decades, President Obama placed all his investments in a blind trust, so that he would be unaware of his interests and therefore free of conflicts of interest with respect to the many decisions he might make that could affect his own personal wealth. President Obama, again following the precedents of his predecessors, also released his tax returns, both during his campaign for office and as president. Obama, in short, was punctilious about ethics, and his administration was almost entirely free of ethics scandals.
Donald J. Trump, who became the forty-fifth president on January 20, has taken a different approach. He comes to office having repeatedly refused to release his tax returns, even after a leak indicated that he may have paid no taxes for eighteen years. He has cited an ongoing IRS audit as his reason for not disclosing his returns, but the IRS itself has refuted that claim, saying that “nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information.”
Two days after inauguration, his administration announced that Trump would not release the returns even if an audit were complete. Trump has somewhat gleefully asserted that the conflict-of-interest rules don’t apply to the president. He mixed together personal business and official diplomacy during several meetings and conversations with foreign officials during the transition. And despite his widespread private holdings in commercial real estate, condominiums, hotels, and golf courses here and around the world, he has refused to follow the lead of his predecessors by selling his assets and placing the proceeds in a blind trust. Instead, he has transferred management, but not ownership, of the Trump Organization. He retains his ownership in full. And he has assigned operational responsibility not to an independent arm’s-length trustee, but to his sons, Eric and Donald Jr.
As a result, President Trump almost certainly began violating the Constitution the moment he took the oath of office. It’s true that conflict-of-interest statutes don’t cover the president—not because we don’t care about compromised presidents, but because such statutes generally require officeholders to recuse themselves from decisions in which they have a personal financial stake, and in the president’s case, recusal is rarely a workable option, since there is no alternative decision-maker.
But the Constitution subjects the president to a conflict-of-interest law: the so-called “emoluments” clause. That clause provides that no federal officeholder may, absent express approval by Congress, accept “any present, Emolument,…of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” It is designed to ensure that federal officials, from the president on down, serve only the interest of the American public, and are not compromised by foreign influence. In 1787, Charles Pinckney of Virginia proposed the provision at the Constitutional Convention, urging “the necessity of preserving foreign Ministers & other officers of the US independent of external influence.”1 At the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution, Edmund Jennings Randolph explained that the clause was “provided to prevent corruption.”2
The emoluments clause is a categorical bar against a president receiving payments from foreign states. Recognizing that divided loyalties are difficult to discern, that self-interest is an extremely powerful motivator, and that foreign states may seek to buy influence, the Framers chose to ban all presents or “emoluments…of any kind whatever.”
The sole exception was where Congress expressly authorized a transaction, presumably on the theory that such a public and transparent accounting would reduce the risk of corruption and undue influence. According to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 1981, an “emolument” is any “profit or gain arising from station, office, or employment: reward, remuneration, salary.”3 As the reference to “salary” or “gain” suggests, the prohibition is not limited to outright gifts, but includes payments for services rendered or profit from ordinary business transactions.
What does this mean for Donald Trump? The extent of his business, the Trump Organization, is murky, since it is privately held and Trump has been extremely reluctant to divulge details. But public records establish that his organization is involved in deals and contracts around the globe. Many of those ventures stand to gain from the actions of foreign governments or their agents—including investments involving foreign state-owned companies, government contracts or permits, lease agreements, or even overnight stays or events held at Trump hotels, golf courses, or other properties.
The single largest tenant of Trump Tower is the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a wholly state-owned company. Trump’s major business partner in the Philippines was named by President Rodrigo Duterte as special envoy to the United States. Trump has ongoing business projects throughout the world, including in Argentina and the nation of Georgia. He receives millions of dollars in licensing revenue from a Trump hotel in Panama. And then, of course, there is Russia, where Trump has long had extensive business dealings, and where government officials were recently overheard by our intelligence agencies celebrating Trump’s election, after a campaign in which Russia hacked and then leaked confidential e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, among other Democratic organizations, in order to boost Trump’s chances.
In a comprehensive and persuasive report published in December by the Brookings Institution, Norman Eisen and Richard Painter, former ethics experts for Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, respectively, along with the Harvard constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, warned that “never before in American history has a president-elect presented more conflict of interest questions and foreign entanglements than Donald Trump.”4 In their view, one shared by many constitutional law and ethics experts, the only way for Trump to avoid receiving benefits from foreign governments or their agents, given his far-flung business interests, would be to sell his business and create a blind trust for his assets—as Trump’s predecessors have done upon assuming office.
Trump initially dismissed the idea that there would be any problem with his running the United States and the Trump Organization simultaneously. But as criticism mounted, he promised that he would work out a remedy to the problem before taking office. In a January press conference, he laid out his “solution.” He said he would transfer management of the Trump Organization to his sons. The Trump Organization would engage in no new foreign deals. He would appoint an ethics officer to review any new domestic deals. And he would donate any proceeds from foreign dignitaries staying in his hotels to the American people.
These measures are embarrassingly inadequate to address the constitutional concerns. The emoluments clause prohibits the receipt of any gain from a foreign state or its agent. The clause is obviously not limited to hotel stays. It’s also not limited to new deals or foreign deals. The prohibition extends to any benefit obtained from any foreign agent or state official in any business transaction with a Trump Organization concern, abroad or at home. To ensure that no such payments were made by any foreign official would demand absolute transparency of the Trump Organization’s every lease, contract, guest bill, and golf course fee.
That’s why Eisen, Painter, and many other ethics experts have condemned the Trump plan as insufficient. Walter Shaub, head of the US Office of Government Ethics, pronounced the plan “meaningless.” As the arrangement now stands, Trump retains full ownership in his businesses, and therefore stands to profit from ongoing business with foreign agents seeking to curry favor. Trump knows full well where he has businesses. And he will now be in a position to use the power of the presidency to benefit his own corporate brand. The only thing that is “blind” about this scheme is the fact that virtually everyone outside the Trump family will continue to be in the dark about the details of Trump’s foreign business ties.
Trump’s longtime tax lawyer, Sheri Dillon, who appears to have little or no constitutional law experience, defended these partial measures at the January press conference by claiming that selling the assets would be difficult. Without Trump’s connection, she maintained, the businesses might be far less valuable and would therefore have to be sold at a discount. She claimed that even if Trump sold his business interests, he’d still have the right to receive royalties, although she did not explain why he couldn’t sell those as well. Others have noted that a liquidation of the Trump Organization would have substantial tax consequences. But the fact that Trump might sustain an economic loss or actually have to pay taxes is no justification for violating a constitutional constraint designed to forestall corruption and foreign influence. As we know all too well, foreign influence is not a speculative or abstract concern when it comes to this president.
So what now? Trump has taken the oath, and he is violating the Constitution. What remedies are available? The Framers considered this prohibition so important that they deemed its violation to be grounds for impeachment. But no one expects the Republican Congress to institute impeachment proceedings anytime soon. If the Constitution is to be enforced, it will have to come at the insistence of the people.
The day before the inauguration, the ACLU filed a series of Freedom of Information Act requests aimed at bringing to light Trump’s conflicts of interest. Secrecy—some might even say smoke and mirrors—has been Trump’s preferred mode when it comes to his business dealings. But as president, he is subject to transparency obligations that he did not face as a private citizen. And transparency is the first step on the road to accountability.
Trump is also likely to face multiple lawsuits. Already on January 23, Eisen, Painter, and Tribe filed suit on behalf of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a nonprofit watchdog group, asserting that Trump is violating the emoluments clause. An issue may arise about whether this organization has suffered a sufficiently specific injury to give it legal “standing” to sue. But other suits are likely to follow. The federal courts have recognized that businesses have “standing” where official actions that are allegedly illegal put them at a competitive disadvantage with other businesses. A rival hotel company, real estate developer, or golf course owner could sue over the illegality of Trump’s ongoing arrangements. Whether a particular economic transaction between a foreign official or agent and a Trump business constitutes a constitutionally forbidden “emolument” is a legal—not a political—question, fully susceptible to resolution by the courts. If courts could order President Bush, in an ongoing armed conflict, to subject his detentions of “enemy combatants” to legal review, surely they can order President Trump to conform his business interests to the express demands of the Constitution.
The president of the United States is supposed to serve the American people, not himself, and certainly not the interests of foreign states. President Trump chose to seek this office, and this responsibility. He is trying to have it both ways, serving himself, his family, and his far-flung business interests while simultaneously making foreign and domestic policy decisions that will inevitably have direct effects on his personal holdings. That way lies scandal, corruption, and illegitimacy. Unfortunately, our forty-fifth president has deliberately chosen to undermine the interests of the people he represents in order to further the interests of the one person he cares about most.
—January 26, 2017
The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, edited by Max Farrand (Yale University Press, 1966), Vol. 2, p. 389. ↩
The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, edited by Max Farrand (Yale University Press, 1966), Vol. 3, p. 327. ↩
Opinions of the Office of Legal Counsel, Vol. 5, pp. 187, 188 (1981). ↩
Norman L. Eisen, Richard Painter, and Laurence H. Tribe, “The Emoluments Clause: Its Text, Meaning, and Application to Donald J. Trump,” Brookings Institution, December 16, 2016. ↩
The small town of San José Guayabal is located in a region of dry, flat land about forty minutes north of San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital. Most of its 11,000 inhabitants work in farms, growing onions and corn, and it has little to distinguish itself from other places in the area. But in one sense, it is remarkably different than almost anywhere else in El Salvador: in recent years, it has apparently been largely free of violent crime.
The Salvadoran Civil War ended twenty-five years ago, when the right-wing military government entered a peace agreement with the leftist rebels it had been fighting since 1979. But it’s not uncommon to hear Salvadorans describe the current situation in their country as a “state of war” or “like the war” or “worse than the war.” In 2015, the murder rate reached an all-time high: 6,657 were killed in a country with a population of just over 6 million. And nearly 300,000 of the country’s citizens—a number equal to the entire population of the capital city—now find themselves displaced from their homes by violence. Every year a growing number try to flee the country, many of them children or unaccompanied minors. El Salvador has recently been called “the most violent peacetime country in the world.”
Much of the violence has been driven by a turf war between the country’s two largest street gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the government’s fight to quell them. Both gangs originated in Salvadoran immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s, where many had gone to flee the civil war. But when a large number of undocumented Salvadoran migrants were deported back to El Salvador in the 1990s, the gangs traveled with them. Those returning arrived in a state still recovering from a war that had left 75,000 dead and the country’s infrastructure weak, and with little opportunity. Gang members strengthened existing groups, and quickly recruited new followers. In the decades since, the gangs have consolidated their power across the country, mostly through extortion. (While some gang members do sell drugs, they are street-corner dealers and generally not affiliated with international cartels.) The government takes a hard-line approach to these gangs that, many claim, exacerbates the situation.
Today, in many parts of the country, gangs dictate a significant part of the economy and much of what goes on in daily life. In 2014, citizens filed an average of seven complaints of extortion a day, while the national board of small businesses calculates that 70 percent of small companies regularly pay renta (protection money) to gangs. A recent study by the country’s central bank found that Salvadorans paid gangs a total of $756 million yearly. These payments, it concluded, combined with the lost income from people afraid of taking jobs and the money spent by many households on private security and other ways to ensure their own safety, cost the country 16 percent of its GDP.
Though they are unmarked, every local knows the borders of a given gang’s territory. Citizens avoid crossing them, fearing that they might be killed. Many Salvadorans don’t like to even mention the gangs and instead refer to them by different code words—“The Numbers” for Barrio 18 and “The Letters” for Mara Salvatrucha. Private security men with rifles stand outside restaurants and stores, even in peaceful neighborhoods. (People don’t trust a business that isn’t guarded by a man with a rifle, one Salvadoran told me.) Gangs control how and if citizens can move freely. Bus drivers who cross in and out of different gang territories must pay up. According to reporters at the Salvadorian investigative paper El Faro, 692 transportation workers have been killed in the last five years. In August 2015, gang members in San Salvador told all bus drivers to stay home; then they killed six who disobeyed and continued their routes. San Salvador slowed to a halt for four days. Businesses stayed closed. Schools canceled class.
But the largest effects of the violence are often invisible. Fear of gangs prevents students from going to school and young people from holding jobs. According to one report, nearly 40,000 children dropped out of school in 2015, primarily out of concern for their own safety. Such is the fear inspired by gangs that even rumors can provoke panic. Last year, word spread that only girlfriends of gang members could have blonde hair; the next day, women around the country began dyeing their hair black to avoid any trouble. (Alarmingly, the murder of Salvadoran women has risen 750 percent over the past five years.)
It was this crisis that led me to visit San José Guayabal, the town north of the capital that has recently been celebrated in the press for being violence-free. For years, the national government has been trying to address the rampant gang problem in various ways—with little to show for it. In 2003, then-president Francisco Flores launched Mano Dura (“hard fist”), a law-and-order strategy aimed at regaining control of the streets and rounding up gang members. But as Sonja Wolf describes in her new book Mano Dura, more than 95 percent of the nearly 20,000 arrests made were dismissed in court for lack of evidence. More recently, in 2012, the government secretly facilitated a truce between the two main gangs, bringing a temporary lull in the violence, but it was short-lived. Things have been even worse since it broke down.
In San José Guayabal, Mayor Mauricio Vilanova says he wanted to try a different approach. Worried about growing gang violence in the area, in 2014 he decided to form a committee to implement preventative measures among the population. He claims to have turned his citizens into “antennas,” supplying them with phones and encouraging them to contact him when they might have information, as gangs do. Accounts in the national press suggest he has been very successful: while inter-gang violence has continued, there have been hardly any murders of civilians in the town, he claims.
When I arrived with a few other journalists to meet Vilanova last August, the mayor wouldn’t let us go directly into the town, so we waited at a gas station for him to escort us. It was a Sunday, and funeral processions were going by—the casket on the back of a truck, followed by mourners in a pick-up. When the mayor arrived, the back of his truck was filled with armed guards carrying assault rifles. We followed the car down the road to the town, which was decorated with gang graffiti. Where graffiti had been covered up, replacements had been freshly painted. The wall of a school featured a picture of an angel next to a large “MS,” the insignia of the Mara Salvatrucha, painted over in red.
At his office, he explained his crime-fighting strategy. He said that local citizens frequently come to him with reports about who might be about to join a gang or who might have committed a crime. (At one point, he interrupted the conversation to let us know that someone had contacted him. “I just received a WhatsApp,” he said. He read it aloud: There was new information about a murder at a pupuseria.) “We want people to participate in prevention,” he continued. People create soccer fields but when young kids leave, they put their gang colors back on. He highlights the job-training programs he has created for local citizens. In one program, town members make little dolls called “foamys,” which can then be sold, though it wasn’t clear to whom. Some people made dolls of Vilanova and his wife, which he keeps by his desk. The doll of his wife is dressed as a civilian and has glasses. His doll is holding an Uzi.
Vilanova showed us a slideshow of gang members he knew of in the area, identifying each by their affiliation and their aliases—El Caballo, El King Kong, El Vaca. This one, he said, pointing to one slide, “we have under control, we talked to her mom.” That one works with directives from her father in jail. This one is only eighteen, but he’s killed twenty to thirty people. That one teaches “satanic things, like smoking marijuana.”
Their capture seems to be always on his mind. Later in the day, Vilanova took us to a wedding he was officiating. It was in the bride’s house, a small yellow structure on the outskirts of town. Armed men walked behind the mayor as he blessed the couple and told them about the importance of following the Bible. He gave a long and rambling speech about family values. He asked the groom if he cooked and ironed and stressed that domestic work had to be shared. He made an off-color joke that was met with laughter. Then, during the reception, he showed off images on his cell phone of young men he had apprehended.
Vilanova made it clear that he believed that his approach was working. But it was hard to tell what the townspeople really thought about it. When I asked to talk to some locals, he brought me toward a group of men sitting in the town square and asked them himself: “Am I doing a good job? Is there extortion? Are you happy to live here?” On the walls of the town, murals exhorted teens not to get pregnant and advised against domestic violence. Some had a menacing quality. In one mural, a man reached up to hit his wife, only to be stopped by an angel grabbing his arm.
At his house, where dogs and cats were roaming around, Vilanova talked about the importance of family planning and lamented that Salvadorans were having more children than they could support. The government could order people to undergo vasectomies, he suggested. Local governments should have more power, he said. At one point Vilanova referred to gang members who had fled town. How had they been discouraged? The mayor talked about how he would regularly drive past the homes of people he considered criminals. “We like them to know that the mayor controls the territory.”
Could Vilanova’s strategy—or a similar preventative approach—be replicated at a national level? In recent times, the Salvadoran government has been talking more about addressing the social forces that give rise to gang activity. For example, the government’s current anti-violence program, Plan El Salvador Seguro, gives priority to strengthening communities by reducing youth unemployment and helping former prisoners and gang members reintegrate into society, at least on paper. But there isn’t much evidence that these programs are working, or even being actively supported. Meanwhile, the government’s main strategy has changed little: the Salvadoran army has expanded by over 50 percent in the past few years and clashes between police and gangs—in which civilians are often killed—have become increasingly frequent. Mano dura, one analyst told me, has become more like mano brutal.
“There’s a double speak” in the government’s approach, said Verónica Reyna, Deputy Director of Human Rights at Passionist Social Service, a Salvadoran NGO that helps citizens who have been targeted by the police. Despite the talk about social programs, she said when we talked last fall, “what they implement are repressive measures in the population.” In a recent case Reyna worked on, a young man who taught breakdancing at a local youth institute was beaten up by police. When he tried to fight back, police took him into custody where he was tortured by having his testicles electrocuted. They let him go without explanation before he hit the seventy-two hour mark, after which they would have had to make a formal charge. This sort of brutality isn’t just a case of mistaken investigation, she indicates. Police know who the gang members are, she says, and they fear retribution if they attack them. So they go after non-gang members to show that they are doing something.
In her book, Wolf examines three Salvadoran NGOs that have long sought alternative strategies to end the violence, including more resources for prevention and rehabilitation programs. But the government has largely brushed aside these ideas, she observes, deeming them secondary to law enforcement and repression. Human rights experts have warned about the growing use of lethal force by the state, noting that from 2013 to 2015, 91 percent of those killed in clashes between police and gangs were gang members while just 9 percent were police. Some speculate that this is because the gangs are less well-equipped than the police. But many human rights workers suggest that government forces are killing indiscriminately.
Nor does the government account for civilians who are killed in anti-gang operations. “Poor male often automatically means ‘gang member’ in the eyes of law enforcement,” says Larry Ladutke, Amnesty International’s specialist for El Salvador. The government seems to worry more about appearing to go soft than about possible human rights abuses; the vice president has said that police should be free to shoot to kill if threatened.
The country’s human rights agency is currently investigating 119 alleged extrajudicial killings by members of security forces between 2013 and 2016 as well as 161 homicides attributed to death squads. In May, the police arrested twenty-two people, including six officers they said had dressed up as active-duty police officers in order to carry out contract killings. They claimed that they received between $100 and $1,000 for their services from civilians and other members of the police. Among those who had been killed were an old woman in a wheelchair and a twelve-year-old. The police have been killing an average of 35 gang members a month since January 2015.
In San José Guayabal, when I asked Mayor Villanova how many had been killed under his administration, he said there had been only one death in recent years. But he clarified: there had been only been one death “that we lament,” a death of an upstanding citizen. Gang members, or people he believes to be gang members had regularly died. The National Police could not provide me with statistics about the murder rate in San José Guayabal or the surrounding area, despite multiple requests. A press officer instead sent over a statement by the head of the police saying that the homicide rate had recently gone down nationally: “In 469 recent shoot-outs, 429 members of criminal groups had been killed.” In such an environment, how can one tell who is a savior and who is strongman? For Salvadorans, this is a calculation that needs to be made every day.
Reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation. A second article, by Aryeh Neier, will examine the continuing quest to address human rights crimes from El Salvador’s civil war.
The average human brain weighs in at something under three pounds and has a volume of 1,250 cubic centimeters (76 cubic inches). Despite the complexity of its architecture and the daunting interconnectedness of its 85 billion neurons, the goings- on in this small space have now been pretty well documented. We know what faculties are impaired when each part of the brain is injured, which neural activity, more or less, correlates with which behavior. Yet, as we discussed in our earlier dialogues, all these impressive results have not brought us any closer to accounting for consciousness or even establishing where exactly it “happens.”
How have scientists and philosophers dealt with this impasse? Some, like the philosopher Galen Strawson, have suggested that since it is self-evident that consciousness is real and physical, and equally evident that neuroscience hasn’t accounted for it, there must be crucial things we don’t know about the physical world. Others, like the neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, suppose consciousness must “emerge” from the highly integrated neural processes taking place in the brain, yet, as we noted in our last conversation, they don’t seem to have any conclusive empirical evidence. Others still, like the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, deny that consciousness exists at all and insist that integrated selfhood is a delusion. While many of Dennett’s points make good sense, his claim that the issue of consciousness is mostly a matter of conceptual confusion has not brought us any closer to understanding the nature of conscious experience.
There are, however, a number of scientists and thinkers who’ve taken a different line. Not convinced that the consciousness problem will be solved by studying the brain alone, they have begun to look outside the head.
Tim Parks: Riccardo, how can one conceive of consciousness if it is not a brain-generated representation of the world outside?
Riccardo Manzotti: Let me offer a premise. I believe we are up against two equally strong, equally commonsensical, but incompatible intuitions. We feel that we, our selves, are located where our bodies are, and very likely inside our bodies. On the other hand, we don’t feel we are made of the kind of stuff we see when we look inside a human body. Our conscious experience is of quite a different nature from these cells, membranes, muscles, fat, and bodily fluids.
Parks: Could that be why we’re so fascinated by movies, paintings, even anatomy drawings that show the body being cut up or taken apart?
Manzotti: I’ve often thought so, yes. The real horror is not what’s there, the gruesome mess, but what’s missing! Rummaging through the body’s innards, we don’t see anything that resembles a self.
Parks: Traditionally the way round this has been to suppose that the mind, or even soul, is indeed in there, but invisible, insubstantial—made of non-physical stuff. Surely modern science couldn’t be accused of taking this position.
Manzotti: You would think not, yet recent neuroscience is perilously close to it. Consciousness, the neuroscientists claim, is inside the brain but eludes our observation. They see neural activity that correlates with consciousness, but acknowledge that this is not consciousness itself and don’t even try literally to observe consciousness itself. Since everything that is physical is detectable, this is akin to claiming that consciousness is not physical. And so we go back to Descartes and to dualism.
Parks: Let’s move on, then, to the obvious alternative: that we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Is the idea that the brain might not be the seat of consciousness a new one?
Manzotti: Not at all. If you like you could go as far back as Aristotle, who claims that the soul is, if only briefly, identical with the objects of our experience; the soul is “in a way all existing things; and knowledge is in a way what is knowable, and sensation is in a way what is sensible.” It’s worth remembering that for Aristotle the soul is material rather than spiritual, and thus akin to what we mean today by consciousness. So what he’s saying is that, at any given moment, our consciousness is identical with the form of what it is conscious of. When you see an apple, your consciousness and the apple are made of the same stuff, which he calls the form of the apple. If only, as he says, briefly.
Coming nearer to our own time, the behaviorists, B. F. Skinner in particular, argued against consciousness as something internal and against memories as things that are stored in the head. Like Dennett later, they played down the importance of phenomenological consciousness and concentrated on manifestations of selfhood in behavior. Essentially, they were reacting against notions such as “introspection,” “inner mental life,” and other remnants of German idealism, not to mention various unscientific forms of spiritualism. Yet by focusing exclusively on observable behavior, they threw the baby out with the bath water, ignoring consciousness altogether.
Parks: But where would consciousness be, exactly, if not in the head? What would constitute it?
Manzotti: In the second half of the twentieth century a number of thinkers, notably the psychologist James J. Gibson, began to focus on the interplay between body and environment. Rather than a representation of the world in the brain, a “movie in the head” as it were, perception was conceived as a skillful activity, or interaction with what is around us.
Parks: I do therefore I am!
Manzotti: Exactly. These thinkers are not denying or ignoring consciousness, as the behaviorists seem to be doing. Rather they talk a lot about our initial experience of the world, how as babies we discover our environment through touch and exploration, how all experience amounts to an engagement with what the world offers us.
Parks: Tell us who these people are. Talk us through it.
Manzotti: There are many versions of the same idea and plenty of fancy names: ecological perception, embodied cognition, externalism, enactivism, and the extended mind. Essentially, though, despite their many nuances, all of them are making the same claim: that what the body does constitutes, causes, or is the basis of the mind. Gibson, for example, worked with air force pilots and suggested that consciousness might be identical with the interplay between body and airplane or even with the interplay between plane and airstrip. Crucially, he introduced the notion of “affordance.” This is the idea that every external object offers or “affords” the body certain opportunities for active engagement. Crudely, you could think of how a pair of scissors offers itself to the thumb and fingers. Notice that this “affordance” depends on both body and object. For an animal that didn’t have the opponens pollicis—opposing thumb and fingers—the scissors would offer quite different possibilities and thus different affordances. Doorknobs, steps, bicycles, and keyboards all offer obvious cases of coupling between the body and external objects. Gibson’s point was that there was no need for these “affordances,” this matching of body and environment, to be represented in the brain, since they were already present externally in the meeting of body and object.
Parks: I’m sorry, but I can’t help noticing that all the examples you’ve given are man-made objects. Things made on purpose to fit our bodies.
Manzotti: I was trying to get the idea across as clearly as possible, but you’re right, there’s a problem here. Man-made objects are designed to have specific affordances that pull you toward them. In principle, you can see the affordances that, say, pebbles or bananas might offer a human being, or the ground beneath our feet for that matter. But such affordances are less clear in nature. Then of course there are many things—distant mountains, clouds in the sky—with which we have no interaction at all, yet we experience them just the same. Still, the biggest problem for Gibson’s approach is that the very idea of action is “mental.”
Parks: I don’t follow you.
Manzotti: Well, we can all see the persuasive power of the baby coming to consciousness through interaction with the external world. But we describe the child’s explorations as “actions” because we assume that he or she is a subject. What I mean is, the notion of action requires that first we have a subject, a conscious being. You wouldn’t say that a washing machine acts, but a person washing clothes does. A dog acts, or even a mouse, but not a glacier, or a wave moving across the sea.
Parks: So if the notion of action depends on consciousness, you can hardly use it to account for consciousness.
Manzotti: Right. However integrated we may be with our environment—and I believe we are—actions are not special things that can be used as building blocks to manufacture consciousness. They are events that happen because subjects do them to pursue their goals.
Parks: So this approach was short-lived?
Manzotti: The initial intuition that consciousness requires the external world we experience every day, that the mind isn’t simply locked in the skull as the internalists would have it, is a powerful and persuasive one; hence, after Gibson, there were lots of people eager to find ways round the problems this approach faced. In a seminal paper on behavioral and brain sciences published in 2001, J. Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë offered a new version—they called it enactivism—that made a big impression on me at the time.
Parks: Why was that?
Manzotti: First they explicitly abandoned the idea that perception involves representations of the outside world created inside the brain by our neurons. That took courage. Instead, they proposed that seeing is a form of physical action. For example, they drew attention to the fact that our eyes are always in movement when we are looking, even though the object we are looking at appears to be still. I was impressed, in particular, by their claim that the skin is not some kind of magic threshold or insuperable barrier; on the contrary, there is a seamless, physical, causal continuity between what’s going on in the brain and what is happening in the world. When you see, photons bounce off the objects seen and pass through the air to meet the retina. When you hear, sound waves agitate the eardrum. And when you hold a tool in your hand, they pointed out, it actually becomes an extension of your experience. The Cartesian spell that kept subject and object apart, something the neuroscientists had reconstituted as the separation between brain and world, seemed on the point of dissolving.
Parks: It’s good to hear you enthusiastic for once. But I’m afraid I don’t get it. I can see that consciousness might be able to encompass certain prostheses. In the end even a pair of glasses becomes part of our system of perception; a pen or keyboard often seems an extension of oneself and I can imagine a seamless causal chain moving from my neurons to the pixels on my screen. I also take the point that our eyes are constantly mobile as they engage with the world. But I don’t see how that actually accounts for consciousness, for our experience of the world, or even of our bodies. I must say I’ve read Noë and really enjoyed his lively approach, but this was my problem throughout.
Manzotti: Well, you’re right to be skeptical. O’Regan and Noë ditched the term affordance, which carried a hint that the object was designed specifically to integrate with human action, and spoke instead of objects offering “sensory motor contingency.” But essentially it meant the same thing and didn’t solve the fundamental problem: if consciousness is constituted by actions, then for every experience there has to be a corresponding action. This sounds fine when we’re talking about things like surfing, skiing, carving the Sunday roast, or even kissing, but there are so many cases where it doesn’t work.
For example, I lick a strawberry ice cream and a chocolate ice cream. The action, licking, is the same, the sensory motor contingency, that is the affordance that the two ice creams present to the mouth, is the same, but the taste quite different. There simply isn’t a different action, a different engagement of the body with the environment, to match every different experience we have.
Parks: I presume we’re distinguishing, then, between the action of licking and the action, if you want to call it that, of the taste buds as they meet the different flavors?
Manzotti: From a mechanical perspective, different taste buds do not perform different actions. They are triggered by different molecules and are, of course, connected with different neural groups. But saying that a bitter taste is the outcome of bitter taste buds is tantamount to saying, as Johannes Peter Müller said in the nineteenth century, that the quality of our experience is provided by the peripheral nerves, an idea now entirely discredited, first and foremost by neuroscientists. The problem for the enactivist theory is that the tongue performs the same action no matter what ice cream is melting on it. And then that the properties of the experience—whether a chocolaty taste or a strawberry taste—are different from the properties of the physical action, licking.
Parks: All the same, action does shape and enrich our experience, doesn’t it? And we know that every action, every perception, subtly alters neural connections and pathways in our brain, such that we recognize at once when we have already done something before, touched a particular surface, tasted a particular ice cream.
Manzotti: Who could disagree? The problem is that what philosophers and scientists propose as the basis of consciousness—be it neurons or action—invariably turns out to be just one of many elements involved in delivering or tuning consciousness. Not the thing itself. Neurons obviously have a part; damage them and your consciousness will be changed. Actions have a part; as you say they shape and enrich consciousness. Culture and society also have a part; they mold and direct our consciousness. But none of these things is consciousness itself.
Parks: How did the enactivists handle dreams?
Manzotti: Well, here we have the obvious problem of experience without action. When we dream we are for the most part lying motionless. The eyes may be moving beneath the eyelids, but they are certainly not interacting with affordances in the immediate environment. In any event we now know that while most dreams take place during REM sleep, we can in fact dream in all phases of sleep. And of course dream experiences are hardly limited to the visual. In order to explain this special case then—experience without action—some enactivists have begun to distinguish between potential actions, or dispositions to act in response to the world’s affordances or sensory motor contingencies, and real actions or enacted actions.
Parks: So dreams become just one category of potential actions?
Manzotti: That’s it. When you are experiencing but not acting you are potentially acting. The problem is that in suggesting this solution they have created something separate from the physical world, a shadowy layer of possible, hypothetical actions waiting to be brought to life.
Parks: It sounds like we’re heading back to a separation between mental and physical, where the mental is everything we’re unable to account for.
Manzotti: To make matters worse, Noë speaks of our “possessing sensory-motor knowledge” rather than just interacting with the environment. This means that consciousness has now been relocated to a sort of abstract level—knowledge—which looks suspiciously like a mental repertoire of stored representations. It hardly matters whether these are representations of actions or sensory motor contingencies, rather than objects, they are still representations, namely something different from physical reality. This was precisely the kind of theory enactivism had set out to debunk.
Parks: It really does seem impossible to think about consciousness without falling back at some point into this Cartesian view, the real world out there and a representation of it in the head.
Manzotti: You can see why everyone is willing to give so much credit to the neuroscientists, or just scientists in general, hoping they will come up with something that will solve the dilemma, some as yet unknown aspect of the material world that will explain why consciousness is indeed in the head, but has nevertheless managed to remain invisible up to now.
Parks: I can see you don’t believe that’s going to happen. But at least it’s now clear that behind the problems encountered by all our thinkers, of whatever persuasion, is the vexed relationship between subject and object, the conundrum of how the world can be both out there and in our heads, apparently, at the same time. You feel that the enactivists’ decision to look for an answer outside the head was right, but that the focus on action was wrong. Let me propose then that in our next conversation we tackle that issue head-on: subject and object, inside and outside. Let’s consider every possible relation between the two. I also think, Riccardo, that it’s time you showed your hand and told us what you think. It is too easy breaking down other people’s ideas; you should give us something positive to chew over.
Manzotti: It will be a pleasure. But let me invoke Sherlock Holmes: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
Parks: Excellent. So in our next conversation we dispatch the last impossibilities and expect to be surprised.
This is the fourth in a series by Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks on consciousness.
Everyone I know seems a little ashamed of the compulsive phone-checking, but it is, circa 2017, our species-specific calling card, as surely as the bobbing head-thrust identifies the pigeon. No one much likes spending half the workday on e-mail, but that’s what work is for many of us. Our accelerating disappearance into the digital ether now defines us—we are the mediated people, whose contact with one another and the world around us is now mostly veiled by a screen. We threaten to rebel, just as we threaten to move to Canada after an election. But we don’t; the current is too fierce to swim to shore.
There may, however, be islands in that digital whitewater, spots where we could haul ourselves out of the rapids and rest, remembering what it was like Before. Or if we are too young to remember, then experiencing it for the first time. David Sax’s thesis in his new book, The Revenge of Analog—and it’s a beguiling one—is that these islands are growing larger and more numerous. He brings us tales of these analog refuges, crankily safe from the instantaneous and universal. Places where we can relax, and maybe even think, as opposed to click. Places where we can touch actual physical objects.
Like, for instance, vinyl records. Sax begins his tour of the resurgent analog in a record-pressing plant in Nashville, where workers feed pellets of polyvinyl chloride into record presses, “great bulky assemblages of hydraulics, heavy-gauge buttons, pipes, hoses, and thick slabs of metal made decades ago.” Even five or six years ago, these presses were almost silent, the workers manning a six-hour shift every few days. After all, first the compact disc and then the streaming Web had digitized the music business; now, for a monthly charge half the price of a single LP, Spotify will deliver virtually every song ever recorded to your phone. By 2006, just 900,000 new vinyl records were sold in the entire United States, or
roughly a quarter of what Disney’s High School Musical soundtrack did in combined CD and download sales that year alone…. Vinyl records were, by any objective metric, dead.
Since then, however, vinyl sales have grown more than 20 percent a year—there were twelve million LPs sold in the US in 2015. Record stores have opened up across the continent and around the world—Berlin alone has more than a hundred. Why?
Sax, happily, avoids a lot of stereophile chatter about compression ratios; it’s not superior sound that has young people flipping through bins. (And it is, overwhelmingly, young people. As one Houston record shop owner said, “There wasn’t a couple days going by where I wasn’t showing kids in their early twenties how to put the needle on the record.”) Instead, there’s something about the tangibility of the actual physical platter that appeals:
Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.
By contrast, “nothing is less cool than data.”
One could, of course, point out that perhaps “pride” should be reserved for accomplishments somewhat harder than acquiring a stack of records—say, for learning how to play music yourself. (The distance between an LP and a Spotify playlist is much shorter than the distance between a piano keyboard and a phonograph.) Still, there is a palpable sense of ritual that comes with a tone arm and a groove-cleaning brush. “With vinyl, you’re on your knees,” Sax quotes the musician Jack White telling Billboard. “You’re at the mercy of the needle. You watch the record spin and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire. It’s hypnotic.” White has his own record company, Third Man Records, whose motto is “Your Turntable’s Not Dead.”
One analog exception might prove the digital rule, but Sax has a dozen. At Design Week in Milan, for instance, he notices something interesting: every person he meets is carrying the latest-model iPhone, but also a black Moleskine notebook. Once he starts looking, he finds them everywhere upscale types gather:
Nearly everyone I interviewed for this book pulled out a Moleskine notebook at some point, or had one sitting nearby. For a thoroughly analog object, the Moleskine is one of the iconic tools of our digitally focused century.
Indeed, when the company went public, it had a dotcom-scale valuation of €490 million. For notebooks. The reason has something to do with that elusive idea “creativity.” Moleskine’s marketers have played on it shamelessly, contending that these particular paper pads had a part in the success of Picasso and Hemingway. Which seems unlikely—if they hadn’t used Moleskines, they would have used some other notebook, because notebooks were what there were. But now computers are what there are, and Sax manages usefully to contrast a white sheet of paper and a blank, blinking screen:
Creativity and innovation are driven by imagination, and imagination withers when it is standardized, which is exactly what digital technology requires—codifying everything into 1s and 0s, within the accepted limits of software.
This seems to be true, or at least plausible: Sax tracks down many architecture firms and even software companies that hand out notebooks and forbid their designers to turn on their computers till the brainstorming and initial design are done on paper. Whiteboards—i.e., paper on a wall—have vanquished digital “smartboards” in classrooms and office conference rooms. The expanse of white, and the pen as a natural extension of your body, seem to offer more of a goad to the imagination than a computer.
They also offer less of a distraction. It’s possible that the real advantage of a Moleskine (or its many competitors) is what it doesn’t do, i.e., let you Tweet or look at Facebook. “You can waste time with all kinds of stuff,” one time-management expert tells Sax, “but the digital world provides a lot of opportunity to waste a lot of time.” A notebook’s selling point is that you can’t use it to look up stock futures or to swipe right or to play solitaire. It concentrates, not dissipates, the mind. What if Picasso had had Snapchat? What if Hemingway had spent half the afternoon writing Yelp reviews of his favorite bars?
It’s not just paper to write on that’s making a comeback—it’s paper to read from. E-book sales have begun to slow, Sax notes, and though almost no one has figured out how to make money from online publishing, many magazines still thrive—The Economist, for instance, has seen its print subscriptions grow by 600,000 in the last decade, despite a $150 subscription price. Both The Economist and TheNew YorkTimes find that a great many of their new print subscribers are young people, for whom the experience of print periodicals may be novel.
Some of that, as with the Moleskine, may be mere status-seeking: “We assume younger people want The Economist as a social signifier,” says The Economist’s deputy editor. “You can’t show others you’re reading it with the digital edition. You can’t leave your iPad lying around to show how smart you are.” But there’s something deeper, maybe even deeper than the idea that a print magazine, with actual pages, is easier to curl up with. A magazine, says Sax, has “finishability,” “a defined beginning, middle, and end.” It doesn’t spool on forever in the manner of the Web. “We sell the feeling of being smarter when you get to the end,” says the man from The Economist. “It’s the catharsis of finishing.”
So far most of the virtues Sax has listed for the analog world are private and personal—the rush of creativity (or really the rush of the possibility of creativity) that comes with buying a Moleskine, the slightly smug sense that your record collection somehow makes you a curator of your musical life. He’s on even stronger ground, I think, when he takes up the question of connection to other human beings. This was supposed to be digital’s real selling point—the ability to reach out and touch any other human being, to never be alone, to always have a window open to the outside world. The worldwide web replacing the parochial and provincial spaces we used to inhabit. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way; instead it’s turned us more inward. Two people in the same room, each on their laptops, are barely in the same room. Here’s Sax describing the experience of play in our digital world:
Even if you were playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty with the same group of friends around the world each day, talking smack over your headsets, and typing in snippets of conversations, you were ultimately alone in a room with a screen, and the loneliness washed over you like a wave when the game ended.
Contrast that with what he finds at a board game parlor (one of hundreds across North America) that opened in his Toronto neighborhood a few years ago:
It was a bitter Tuesday morning in March,…but Snakes & Lattes was warm and bustling. The espresso machine hissed, and laughter rose up from a dozen tables. By lunchtime, the café, which seats around 120, would steadily fill up, and by six that night, every table would be occupied. At that point, the bustle in here would transform into a deafening tumult: a mix of belly laughs, defeated groans, surprised screams, triumphant shouts, and the click-clack of plastic and wood on cardboard…all set to the soundtrack of classic pop music, which wouldn’t peter out until well past midnight.
Board games are the clunky polar opposite of the shiny digital experience. But Sax demonstrates that even as the Web has risen and the revenue from video games comes to rival the profits from movies, there’s also been a striking renaissance of people pushing little figurines around the tops of tables. Hundreds of new titles emerge yearly (which is why board game parlors like Snakes & Lattes have game sommeliers, who try to figure out which of their thousands of games you’ll most enjoy playing), and some of them, like Settlers of Catan, become huge hits. The reason, Sax suggests, has only a little to do with the games themselves, and more with the desire to do something with other people:
With analog gaming, whether it is an intricate board game or a child’s game of tag, all the players need to work together to create the illusion of the game. It requires a collective investment of your imagination in an alternate reality to believe that you actually own Park Avenue [Place], and the colored slips of paper in your hand are worth something.
When we play video games “we share ownership of that experience with the software. The program and device restrict our ability to shape the experience of play to our imagination.” Whereas analog games, requiring as they do a table full of people, are very different. Sax quotes an academic who coedits the journal Analog Game Studies, a man named Evan Torner:
I can’t invite five friends over to my house and say, “Let’s all play starship!”…But I can invite them over to play a game my friend designed on one card, called Vast and Starlit. It’s just this little piece of cardboard that lets us all pretend we’re on a starship together easily.
Some games were explicitly designed as mere social lubricants: the best-selling Cards Against Humanity, for instance, whose creators wanted something “so stupidly simple, ridiculous, and juvenile” that any group of people could “pick it up and start laughing in seconds.” The game, says Sax, “distills the appeal of the analog gaming experience down to its essence: human contact.”
The notion of imagination and human connection as analog virtues comes across most powerfully in Sax’s discussion of education. Nothing has appealed to digital zealots as much as the idea of “transforming” our education systems with all manner of gadgetry. The “ed tech” market swells constantly, as more school systems hand out iPads or virtual-reality goggles; one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”
At the other end of the educational spectrum from African villages, the most prestigious universities on earth have been busy putting courses on the Web and building MOOCs, “massive open online courses.” Sax misses the scattered successes of these ventures, often courses in computer programming or other technical subjects that aren’t otherwise available in much of the developing world. But he’s right that many of these classes have failed to engage the students who sign up, most of whom drop out.
Even those who stay the course “perform worse, and learn less, than [their] peers who are sitting in a school listening to a teacher talking in front of a blackboard.” Why this is so is relatively easy to figure out: technologists think of teaching as a delivery system for information, one that can and should be profitably streamlined. But actual teaching isn’t about information delivery—it’s a relationship. As one Stanford professor who watched the MOOCs expensively tank puts it, “A teacher has a relationship with a group of students. It is those independent relationships that is the basis of learning. Period.”
The inherent appeal and functionality of the analog world is so evident that Sax has no trouble finding it—indeed finding it rampant—in Silicon Valley. The further up the food chain of the digital economy you go, the more foosball tables and free buffets you find, because those entrepreneurs have figured out that the screens that made their fortunes perform poorly when it comes to innovation. At Adobe Systems, employees with ideas have access to a tool called the Adobe Kickbox. It is a cardboard box. Inside are coffee, chocolate, pens and pencils, a notebook. “It is intentionally a very hands-on, tactile, nondigital thing,” said its “creator,” an Adobe “strategy executive.”
It’s so you focus on the idea, and not get constrained by the nitty gritty of technology that’ll lead you away from your thought processes. Programmers inherently have a bad habit of jumping into code and building when they get an idea…. Once built, they become married to it, and it narrows their horizons.
It is perhaps too easy, after a disastrous presidential campaign carried out via Twitter and featuring cascades of fake news that proliferated across Facebook, to yearn for something more grounded. One could, if one wanted, poke fun at Sax’s earnest examples, people toting their records and playing their European board games. He describes, for instance, various start-ups trying to recreate Polaroid film, “celebrating analog film’s imperfection, rather than chasing digital perfection”; this seems as silly as every young man growing the same bushy beard and every young woman getting a sleeve tattoo.
But back up far enough and many things our species does are silly. The premise of the digital world is that we can do all these silly things…faster and more easily. But why exactly would we want to? Why should efficiency be the standard measure, and not pleasure? I defy you to read Sax’s book without wanting to buy a Moleskine, put an LP record on a turntable, or play a game of Scrabble with your friends. It’s true that he mostly ignores some of the deepest questions raised by the digital age: the obsolescence of human labor against the tide of automation; the endless, uncheckable spread of surveillance. But the small rebellions he chronicles help us understand the general shape of a threat that goes beyond Karl Marx and his nineteenth-century complaints about capitalism; it’s in our digital era that all that was solid really did melt into air. Or into Wi-Fi, anyway.
The virtues of digital turn out to be the vices as well. Having all the music on earth at your instant disposal turns out to be almost the same as having none; Spotify’s playlists show people picking the same tunes over and over. Digital life’s too self-absorbed—either we evolve quickly away from the social primates we have always been or else we will quietly suffer from the solipsism inherent in staring at ourselves reflected in a screen. It’s too jumpy; concentration, from which all that is worthwhile emerges, is the great loss.
Like all respectable commentators, Sax takes pains to assure us that he’s not a Luddite; the correct and responsible deity is Balance, blandest of goddesses. And it is at least possible that digital technology is reaching a high-water mark and might before long begin to recede to a more manageable level, possible that after our initial intoxication we can come down from our binge and learn to handle this new drink responsibly. At the outset of this review I compared the digital era to a fast-moving stream, which theoretically one could learn to navigate. But it’s more likely, I think, that we’re in a permanent flood stage, where we will have to somehow continue stretching and contorting ourselves to stay above the tide or else resign ourselves to drowning in the cascade of data. One is grateful to David Sax for mapping the eddies where we might, at least for a moment, find some stillness, respite, and fun.
Filmmaking is social science by other means. That could be the maxim of the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. He is known for dropping ordinary calamities—a drowning, a miscarriage, an affair—into palsied social structures and watching these structures stress, clench, and agonize away. Watching his seventh and current film, The Salesman, I was reminded that while making audiences happy is its own justification—look at La La Land—feel-bad films must bribe their way to acceptance, offering either a voucher for moral indignation, scenes of a depraved or misanthropic nature (Michael Haneke is especially diligent in this regard), or a level of artistic achievement that transforms the act of observing other people’s misery into a general catharsis. For all its undoubted moments of power, however, The Salesman—which was recently nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language film category—has surprising weaknesses.
Farhadi treats every film as a miniature, with a small number of precisely drawn characters. But in its exploration of the social forces that operate in his much-misunderstood homeland, The Salesman is more ambitious in scope than any of his films to date. Its subject, the inviolability of women and the ways that men exercise guardianship over it, is of course a universal theme. But to my knowledge it has never been dealt with in such surgical detail by a filmmaker in Iran.
The Salesman breaks taboos and, unlike earlier Farhadi films, notably the Oscar-winning A Separation, has been permitted a long run in Iranian cinemas by the state censors. (A Separation came out in 2011, before the glasnost of President Hassan Rouhani, and was only briefly allowed onto the big screen.) These two facts have made The Salesman the biggest grossing film in Iranian history. Admittedly, the sums involved are paltry in a country of relatively few movie theaters and a superabundance of pirated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice DVDs. But the film’s performance at the box office shows that it speaks forcefully to its primary audience.
Farhadi’s new film revolves around a married couple, the stage actors Rana (the excellent Taraneh Alidoosti) and her husband Emad—played by Shahab Hosseini, who shone in his supporting role as the pugnacious working-class husband Hojjat in A Separation. As the film opens, Rana and Emad are in rehearsal to star as Linda and Willy in a Persian production of Death of a Salesman. After the opening performance, while Emad remains at the theater dealing with the censor—troubled, no doubt, by the play’s suggestions of sexual and alcoholic dissolution—Rana returns to the couple’s new flat. There, she emerges from the shower in response to a ring at the doorbell. Thinking it is Emad, she buzzes in the new arrival, leaves the door ajar, and returns to her ablutions. The next thing she knows she is being molested by a strange man.
Here is The Salesman’s driving calamity. Rana’s instincts are to try and forget what has befallen her. Emad, on the other hand, wants revenge, and not solely for the distress caused to his wife—as the plot progresses it becomes clear that Emad is driven to track down Rana’s assailant above all by his sense that his guardianship of his wife has been challenged. This is made explicit in the film’s climactic scene, when Emad snares the perpetrator and Rana begs her husband to let him go—or their marriage is over. “Don’t interfere!” Emad snaps back.
To reach this moment, Farhadi has patiently layered his themes of patriarchy, reputation, and privacy. It emerges that the previous inhabitant of the couple’s flat was a prostitute, and Rana’s molester a former client. (“Salesman” is a not entirely satisfactory translation of the film’s Persian title; foroushande, which means “seller,” is either male or female, and can have sexual connotations.) Emad himself is stung when the woman next to him in a shared taxi makes clear her unhappiness at being seated in such close proximity to an unrelated male. And at the school where he teaches part time he confiscates a naughty boy’s smartphone and scrolls through his personal photographs; the burden of victimhood shifts.
Between the lines, expressed in glances and asides, is the suggestion that Rana, if not quite at fault for being molested, was culpably negligent for letting in a man who turned out not to be her husband. The way that this idea is released and allowed to drift offers a malignant subtext to Farhadi’s rigorous view of his own society, which, despite the uneven entry of egalitarian values, remains wedded to old-fashioned honor codes. The irony here is that the professional environment in which The Salesman is set—the theater—is often decried by Islamic hardliners for its moral dissipation; Rana and Emad’s relationship unravels in Iran at its most emancipated.
It is Alidoosti’s character who shows this most forcefully. Rana neither knows what has happened to her—she passed out after realizing that a stranger had entered her bathroom—nor, exactly, does she want to know. She circles warily around the truth, trying to distract herself—but she and we are slowly made aware that her assailant has changed the terms of her existence. Farhadi is brilliant at getting Iran’s leading ladies to cry; his aesthetic sense seems to demand this exchange of beauty for desolation. When Alidoosti breaks down, her loneliness is heart-rending.
For all the nuance in this performance, however, the film’s central partnership subsides into immobility. Apart from a few occasions (such as in the shared taxi, or the classroom), when he gives hints of a rounder character, Emad seems shaped only by suppressed male anger, and this becomes a trope rather than a trait, tiresomely reminiscent of the character he played in A Separation.
This does not seem to be the fault of the actor. When Farhadi allows him, Hosseini displays a more human panoply of emotions, and even–a full hour into the film–lets slip a smile. But he is never the equal of Rana in complexity. The beauty of A Separation was that no one was right. Here it is too clear with whom Farhadi’s sympathies lie.
A second conundrum is raised by the play within the film. Framing his story around a canonical text with which Western audiences are perhaps overfamiliar, and Iranian ones hardly at all, is risky. Scenes from the theater company’s performance of Death of a Salesman are folded into the film, and the actors’ ad-libbing and distortion of Miller’s lines effectively convey their private agony. But I was unclear as to what correspondence, if any, exists between The Salesman and Miller’s tale of despair and dashed expectations.
Farhadi seems to work best when directing three actors through their endless possibilities of word and heart: his last film, The Past, is a brilliantly sustained pas de trois, while in A Separation the orderly disintegration of a marriage is complicated and enriched by the couple’s daughter. So it is little surprise that the long, riveting final scene of The Salesman, dominated by the interplay of victim, perpetrator, and avenger, is the most complete of the film. Here, at least, Farhadi’s jungle is full of diamonds.
The Salesman will bereleased in the US on Friday, January 27.
The writer Andrei Sinyavsky, perhaps the first person to become known as a Soviet dissident, once quipped that his “differences with the Soviet regime were primarily aesthetic.” Buried in a dense autobiographical essay and qualified as a joke, the line nonetheless was and remains one of the most-repeated sentences among the differently minded in the Soviet Union and in Putin’s Russia. It has a way of coming to mind every time one cringes at Russia’s political spectacle—which is nearly every time one turns on the television or radio or picks up a newspaper. Whether it’s the sight of Putin entering a room like a thug who owns it, or the sound of his below-the-belt jokes, or the ritual of politicians and talking heads trying to out-scream and out-sabre-rattle one another as they engage in what passes for discussion on television—though none of them seems to be able to form a complete sentence—it has a way of making one ashamed of seeing and hearing.
More than half a century after Sinyavsky came up with the phrase, Americans who witnessed Donald Trump’s inaugural weekend can now fully grasp its meaning. Throughout the campaign, anyone who watched Trump could see that he used a different aesthetic vocabulary than any candidate in living memory: his bullying was shameless, his hatred was naked, his disregard for decency and decorum was gratuitous. He mocked a disabled reporter, he humiliated women in a wide variety of ways, and he made highly ritualized occasions such as the presidential debates and the Al Smith dinner painful to watch. Most important, he lied constantly, blatantly, and inconsistently, stripping words of their meaning. Still, hope somehow persisted that the fact of becoming president would somehow elevate Trump—as though his aesthetics were not a reflection of his entire political self but merely a style that could be dropped when the occasion demanded it. But when the inauguration came, Trump, for twenty-four hours, not only trampled on some of the most hallowed public rituals of American power; he made a spectacle of it.
He defiled the inauguration with a speech that was not only mean and meaningless but also badly written, pitched to the basest level of emotion and intelligence. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon” was how he summed up the American foreign policy legacy: a zero-sum game in which a penny spent—whether on the Marshall Plan or an ill-conceived war – is a penny lost. “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have born the cost” is how he summed up the work of all the men and women who have come before him, in effect the entire political history of the country, which he declared to be over: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” Having dismissed the political past, he offered, by way of vision, the future of a fortress under siege: a walled country that puts itself first, the way a self-help manual might advise you to “put yourself first,” convention and consideration for others be damned.
In his small-mindedness and lack of aspiration, Trump curiously resembles Putin, though the origins of the two men’s stubborn mediocrity could not be more different. Aspiration should not be confused with ambition—both men want to be ever more powerful and wealthier, but neither wants to be or even appear better. (One way in which Putin continuously reasserts his lack of aspiration is by making crude jokes at the most inappropriate times—as when, during a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in 2013, he compared EU monetary policy to a wedding night: “No matter what you do, the result will the same,” his way of lightly covering up the “you get fucked” punchline. Watch this video to see the German chancellor cringe.
Trump marked his first moments in office by wielding power vengefully: the head of the D.C. National Guard lost his job at noon, and between festivities the new president signed an executive order to begin undoing his predecessor’s singular achievement, the Affordable Care Act. He swept the White House website clean of substantive content on climate policy, civil rights, health care, and LGBT rights, took down the Spanish-language site, and added a biography of his wife that advertises her mail-order jewelry line. At the same time, as Trump moved through the day, he repeatedly turned his back on his wife. He immediately degraded the look of the oval office by hanging gold drapes.
American political pageantry is aspirational. The extended ritual of the inauguration conveys an understanding of the importance of the office of president and awe and pride in the miracle of the repeated peaceful transfer of power. The ceremony, the concert, the lunch, the parade, the balls, and more—all of this serves to create a nationwide mood of celebration and self-congratulation. It is like a giant wedding designed to make even the most curmudgeonly of relations tear up. It is a moment for all to shine—for the celebrants in their magnanimity and for the less fortunate in their own generosity. As the day progresses and the new first couple accept the honor and the responsibility bestowed on them, they transition into a different state of being: as the country watches, they acquire the quality of being presidential (which so many pundits hoped against hope Trump would suddenly display).
Trump had no use for any of it: the magnanimity, the generosity, the awe (unless it’s inspired by him personally), the pride (unless it’s his own), the aspiration. Indeed, the single quality he displayed repeatedly was his lack of aspiration. Take his speech. Better yet, take the cake. On Saturday it emerged that the inaugural-ball cake that Trump and Vice President Mike Pence cut with a sword was a knock-off of President Obama’s 2013 inaugural-ball cake. Obama’s was created by celebrity chef Duff Goldman. Trump’s was commissioned from a decidedly more modest Washington bakery than Goldman’s, and the transition-team representative who put in the order explicitly asked for an exact copy of Goldman’s design—even when the baker suggested creating a variation on the theme of Goldman’s cake. Only a small portion of Trump’s cake was edible; the rest was Styrofoam (Obama’s was cake all the way through). The cake may be the best symbol yet of the incoming administration: much of what little it brings is plagiarized, and most of it is unusable for the purpose for which presidential administrations are usually intended. Not only does it not achieve excellence: it does not even see the point of excellence.
On Saturday, Trump went to the CIA and stood in front of a wall honoring the memory of agents who died in the line of duty, failed to acknowledge the location, and lied to the faces of the people gathered, provoking an unprecedented rebuke from outgoing CIA chief John Brennan. He lied uninventively, stupidly, embarrassingly—“Trust me, I’m like a smart person,” he said. He dispatched his press secretary to do the same. Perhaps drawing on his own approach to business dealing, he recklessly said that the US should have “kept” Iraq’s oil, and left open the possibility that it might do so in the future—apparently unaware of the implications of a policy of resource plunder for US military deployments around the world. And he did all of this in language that was offensive to the mind and the ears, and in clothes offensive to the eyes. His advisers and cabinet picks sport the same aesthetics: Kellyanne Conway’s coat inspired jokes about what happens when the gays refuse to dress you, and Betsy DeVos’s subliterate tweet (about the “historical” inauguration) inspired mockery of the incoming education secretary’s ignorance—as did her performance during her Senate hearing on Tuesday.
But even as Trump was promoting his brand at the CIA, the cringeworthy spectacle of his inauguration had already given way to its aesthetic opposite: pictures of millions of determined, peaceful Americans taking part in women’s protest marches in Washington and across the country—events that brimmed with witty slogans, good cheer, and irony. Of course, the marchers’ differences with Trump are more than aesthetic: they are political and philosophical. On the other hand, Trump does not appear to have any politics or philosophy. He may be as free of content as any human being in the public eye. The aesthetics of his inauguration reflected that spectacular vacuousness.
Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov has theorized that the Soviet totalitarian system, which ruled through violence and fear, created a society in which all initiative was suppressed, personal and professional growth was all but impossible, and the entire society became stagnant. As a result, the word “elite” became a misnomer in Russian: the people with the greatest access to money and power did not perform the traditional tasks of setting priorities, tastes, and the agenda for progress. In the absence of social mobility, there was no aspiration. In addition, because there was no mechanism for transfer of power and the powerful were forever frightened of losing it, the country became a gerontocracy, but also something else too: a kakistocracy.
The rule of the worst seemed to become a thing of the past in the 1990s, but under Putin mediocrity returned with a vengeance. Not only did the media come under the control of the Kremlin but it acquired an amateurish quality. Not only did the government start lying, but did so in dull, simple, and unimaginative language. Putin’s government is filled with people who plagiarized their dissertations—as did Putin himself. The ministers are subliterate. The minister of culture, who has a doctorate in history, regularly exposes his ignorance of history; indeed, Trump might be tempted to plagiarize the minister’s dissertation, which begins with the assertion that the criterion of truth in history is determined solely by the national interests of Russia—if it’s good for the country, it must be true (much of the rest of the dissertation is itself plagiarized). Other ministers provide the differently minded Russian blogosphere with endless hours of fun because they use words the meaning of which they clearly don’t know, or ones that don’t exist—as when a newly chosen education minister invented a word that seemed to mean that she had been appointed to the cabinet by God. They also make ignorant, repressive, inhumane policy. But their daily subversion of integrity and principle is indeed aesthetic in nature. And it serves a purpose: by degrading language and discrediting the spectacle of politics the Russian government is destroying the public sphere.
Sometimes vastly different processes yield surprisingly similar results. Trump is staging an assault on America’s senses that feels familiar to me—not because he admires Putin (though he does) or because he is Putin’s puppet, but because they seem to be genuinely kindred spirits. It might take a long time to understand why we have come to enter the age of a kakistocracy, but evidently we have.
The Women’s March on Washington began the way most grassroots ideas do these days: as a Facebook page. But for all the ways that social media has transformed political organizing—facilitating publicity and recruitment, and providing, for better or worse, a public forum for debate over membership, tactics, and goals—protest itself remains stubbornly analog, an activity of bodies assembled in a single place for a common purpose. So, too, the paraphernalia on which protest depends: buses and trains, poster board and markers, drinking water and Porta Potties, Band-Aids and walking shoes.
Of all this unheralded equipment, the bus stands out as protest’s defining symbol—the cheapest, most efficient means of transporting the greatest numbers of bodies over long distances since at least the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. In this regard, the Women’s March was no different from the 1963 March on Washington, when buses streamed through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel at a rate of one hundred per hour. On Saturday, we met our bus before dawn, on a street corner in the West Village, a couple dozen strangers clutching handmade signs, neck pillows, and clear plastic bags—march rules—filled with foil-wrapped sandwiches and water bottles. We made a stop uptown to pick up more passengers, including a pair of hitchhikers who’d overslept and missed their ride, fraternity being protest’s unspoken ethic.
By the time we hit the highway, all fifty-seven seats were occupied. We were a motley group: psychologists, lawyers, and teachers, parents and high-school students, a couple of bankers, a graphic designer, a composer, an artist, and an eight year old. Ten of us were men. Tupperware of homemade pumpkin bread made the rounds. Someone came down the aisle with chocolate-covered pretzels wrapped in little cellophane bags, each containing a slip of paper with an inspirational quote from Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Malala. Metro passes for the subway in D.C. were handed out. A protester travelling with an extra poster board and a Sharpie gave them to a protester who had neither. Someone Googled the Cyrillic for “Not my president.” (Не мой президент.) A cellphone was circulated, open to a photo of an aerial banner in the sky above Manhattan: WE OUTNUMBER HIM—RESIST.
In some ways we were already marching. The fog hung thick over I-95 south, but as the sun rose, the highway outside our windows gradually became visible, and, so, too, the vehicles in the lanes alongside us: a preponderance of buses. Buses filled the service areas along the New Jersey Turnpike, the restrooms overflowing with their passengers: women and men in hand-knit pink “pussyhats”—a rebuke to Trump’s sexual crudity and a gleeful repurposing of a traditionally feminine domestic craft as a symbol of opposition. On the march’s app, where protesters posted images of themselves in demonstration regalia and cheered one another, one woman uploaded a photo of a needlepoint sampler she’d made. “I’M SO ANGRY I STITCHED THIS JUST SO I COULD STAB SOMETHING 3000 TIMES,” it read.
Arriving in late morning, at the parking lot near RFK Stadium, in D.C., two miles east of the Capitol, the sight of the more than a thousand other buses already there, was elating: irrefutable proof of our collective magnitude. (By the end of the day, lot attendants said, eighteen hundred buses had pulled in.) By the time our group ascended from the metro onto the mall, we had missed most of the pre-march rally. It hardly mattered. Few in the enormous throng of people already congregated there—we were packed in so tightly we could hardly move—could hear the speakers anyway. The mood was cheerful, almost giddy, as ebullient as Trump’s inaugural speech had been dark and glowering. As the crowd—women and men of all ages, some in wheelchairs, some walking with canes or pushing strollers—patiently inched its way along the march route, toward the grassy Ellipse in front of the White House, spontaneous chanting broke out in waves: “This is what democracy looks like!” “My Body, My Choice!” “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants!” And, my favorite, “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!” A handful of limber marchers perched in the branches of the trees lining the mall. A small, curly-haired boy and his mother held matching posters, hand-lettered in rainbow colors, spoofing lyrics from “Mary Poppins”: “Super Callous, Fascist, Racist, Extra Bragga Docious.” The D.C. police reported not a single march-related arrest. (According to The Washington Post, during the inauguration on Friday, more than 230 people were arrested for riotous behavior.)
Purely as a visual spectacle, the march was a rousing success: some 500,000 people assembled in the capital, as well millions more in other cities across the country and around the world. Together, these throngs of human faces—as diverse in their ethnic composition as the much smaller audience for Trump’s inauguration was overwhelmingly white—formed a single, incontestable rebuke. It was an expression of dissent directed at a president who is notoriously impatient with nuance—one marcher’s poster lamented, “All these signs, and Trump doesn’t read”—and who is fixated, to an alarming degree, on imagery, on the medium to the exclusion of the message; the protests spoke Trump’s language.
Obsessed with statistics and superlatives—the biggest, the greatest, the most—Trump can’t bear to be bested at his game. With the march underway outside the White House, his administration tried to change the subject to a different set of numbers: estimates of the turnout for his Inauguration the previous day. Meeting with reporters in the West Wing on Saturday afternoon, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, claimed that the crowd at the US Capitol on Friday had been “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” and excoriated the media for publishing photographs indicating otherwise. (In fact, the turnout for Obama’s first inauguration was three times as large.) Trump was still focused on his inauguration numbers on Sunday morning, tweeting, “Wow, television ratings just out: 31 million people watched the Inauguration, 11 million more than the very good ratings from 4 years ago!” (In fact, the television audience for Obama’s first inauguration was considerably larger.) Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, went on television to defend the administration’s use of what she called “alternative facts,” christening its deceitful approach to reality with a risible new phrase that immediately began trending on Twitter. (As in: “Trump won the popular vote #alternativefacts.”)