Месечни архиви: септември 2017

Kinds of Blue Black

Viviane Sassen/Dr. Jacqueline J. Mahal and Mr. Benjamin SegalViviane Sassen: Kinee, 2011

The colours which approach the dark side, and consequently, blue in particular, can be made to approximate to black; in fact, a very perfect Prussian blue, or an indigo acted on by vitriolic acid appears almost as a black.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810)


Standing in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s Blue Black (2000), a twenty-eight-foot-tall painted aluminum wall sculpture commissioned for the main exhibition space of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, I heard Louis Armstrong’s gravel-strewn voice singing, “What did I do to be so black and blue?” Given the title of the sculpture, that the Armstrong song would pop into my head was not so unexpected, yet I had to ask what the lyrics of a melancholy show tune about racial inequality had to do with Kelly’s rigorous and elegant paintings, sculptures, drawings, and collages, part of an artistic practice that sought to “erase all ‘meaning’ from the thing seen” so that “the real meaning of it [could] be understood and felt.” Indeed, to view a work by this artist is to be made intensely aware of color, shape, and form, and Blue Black, with its strong palette and meticulous placement in architect Tadao Ando’s austere yet sensual building, is a perfect example of Kelly’s artistic mastery.

Robert Pettus/Pulitzer Arts FoundationEllsworth Kelly: Blue Black, 2000

Yet the colors blue and black, as Armstrong’s persistent voice in my head suggested, are evocative in ways that perhaps operate outside Kelly’s vision for his work. For example, “blue-black” is a term used primarily by African Americans to describe a skin tone found among dark-skinned people on the African continent. Blue and black also figure in the blues, a musical form deeply embedded in African-American culture, and the colors show up in Steve Reich’s Minimalist composition “Come Out” (1966), which loops recorded testimony from Daniel Hamm, one of six black youths wrongly accused of a murder in Harlem in 1964. After being beaten by the police, Hamm said, he had to open his bruises up “to let some of the bruise blood come out to show them” the extent of his injuries. This is not to say that all associations with black and blue that lie beyond Kelly’s concept for the sculpture are racialized, but to begin to think about the ways in which color often exceeds the boundaries of any artist’s stated intentions.

Gazing at the Kelly sculpture on my first visit to the Pulitzer, I realized an idea for an interesting exhibition was staring me in the face—a show that would explore the space between Kelly’s Blue Black and Armstrong’s “Black and Blue,” using them as bookends for an inquiry into how these two colors have been employed within a wide range of artistic practices. The exhibition that I ended up curating at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation this year, “Blue Black,” is by no means a comprehensive survey of the subject. The selected works hew flexibly to the theme, with many that contain colors other than the exhibition’s titular pigments and some that evoke blue or black without utilizing them. The exhibition was conceived as a meditation on the formal, political, and metaphysical ways the colors have been used, and an attempt to reveal the conversations artists have set up between them. In my ideal show, the artworks would physically touch—blue and black a shared identity prompting metaphoric backslapping and fist-bumping.

Private Collection/The Estate of Philip Guston, courtesy Hauser & WirthPhilip Guston: Dark Room, 1978

While Ellsworth Kelly and Louis Armstrong were the catalysts, there are many artists, writers, and exhibitions that anticipated and shaped it. David Hammons’s Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), an installation consisting of vast dark and empty gallery spaces, which viewers explored with tiny blue LED flashlights, was a formative influence, as was Chris Ofili’s chapel-like installation of crepuscular blackish-blue figurative paintings in “Chris Ofili: Night and Day,” his 2014 retrospective at the New Museum in New York. The poet and theorist Fred Moten presented a paper about Ofili’s work titled “Bluets, Black + Blue, Lovely Blue” at the New Museum in 2014. Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man (whose prologue has a brilliant meditation on Armstrong’s recording of “Black and Blue”) anticipates this exhibition, as do works by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Amiri Baraka.

The works are roughly organized around three combinations of the words “blue” and “black.” The first section of the exhibition, “blue black,” references the Ellsworth Kelly sculpture, and its works employ the colors as discrete visual elements. The second, “blueblack,” gathers works in which the colors are used in ways that visually blur the boundary between them. The last is “blue-black,” where portraiture of various kinds is used to explore the connection between blue and black as colors, on the one hand, and blackness as an identity on the other. Furthermore, the layout of the show—which eschews chronology, genre, and medium as organizing principles in favor of improbable conversations, provisional alliances, and poetic flow—is intended to encourage in the viewer a disloyalty to the curatorial structure.

Carrie Mae Weems/Collection Jack Shainman, New YorkCarrie Mae Weems: Blue Black Boy, 1997


So I went to the motherland; it was so beautiful. Just seeing black people in charge of everything. I’m talking about from the wino to the President. It was black. Blue-black. Original black. The kind of black where you go, “Black!”

—Richard Pryor, 1982


Blue-black is the kind of black where you go, “Black!” Perhaps that’s because blue-black traces its roots back to a mythic point of origin in Africa, whereas “black,” along with “Negro” and “African American,” might be considered just one more stopping point on the way to an as-yet-unknown destination. Many works in this section insert an invisible hyphen between the words “blue” and “black,” their depictions of black people deeply rooted in the combination of the two colors and proposing a subtle link to imagined African origins and American identities. Other works depict blackness in more oblique ways, while still others rely on literature, archival material, photographic representations, and ritualistic practices to figure blackness, a blackness which is intimately connected to blue.

The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NYKerry James Marshall: Untitled (policeman), 2015

In Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (policeman) (2015), a black cop sits impassively on the hood of his patrol car. Blackness as racial category and color converge in Marshall’s use of bone, ivory, mars, carbon, and other shades of black to give dimensionality, depth, nuance, and complexity to the rendering of black bodies, while blue is reserved in the painting for parts of the policeman’s uniform, patrol car, and the night sky. For Blue Black Boy (1997), Carrie Mae Weems toned a photograph of a young black boy a deep blue, playing with the connection between blackness, color, and language. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is represented with two works, Greenhouse Fantasies (2014) and Messages from Elsewhere (2013). Each of these uses naturalistic skin tones in its depiction of black subjects, yet Yiadom-Boakye’s canvases are not portraits but are instead amalgamations of a wide range of archival materials. Her titles suggest that blackness is a product of the imagination. The same could be said of photographer Viviane Sassen’s photographs Lemogang (2013) and Kinee (2011), each of which depicts an African subject draped in shadow against bright blue skies. Blackness is very black in her work, and although the subjects in her photographs are individually named, the works remain cryptic as portraiture.

Jim Corbett, Alise O’Brien Photography/Collection of Richard Prince/Whitney Museum of American ArtGlenn Ligon: Untitled (I Am Not Tragically Colored), 1990, at the East Gallery Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 2017

There is a strain of figuration in the exhibition that is rooted in language. For example, Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison) (2008) layers the letters “I” and “M” over a grid of pages from the novel. The two letters can be read as a shorthand for the title of the book or as the words “I am,” a historically and politically freighted assertion of personhood mirroring the quest of the unnamed protagonist in Ellison’s novel. Untitled (I Am Not Tragically Colored) (1990), a painting of mine where a text by the author Zora Neale Hurston is repeatedly stenciled in bluish-black oil stick down the length of a door-shaped panel, also uses language to figure the body. The gradual disintegration of the text in this work resonates with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s two oil-stick-on-canvas works To Repel Ghosts (1986), where a covering of paint ostensibly enacts the operation expressed in the title, which is also the only text that remains visible. Crossing out simultaneously annuls and asserts figuration, the ghosts that haunt him vanquished by the author’s expressive mark.

I did not create A Small Band (2015) specifically for this exhibition, but I could have. Comprising three large-scale aluminum words—BLUES, BLOOD, and BRUISE—with white neon tubes covered in black paint attached to them, the work references many of the central themes of this exhibition: a connection between the colors blue and black, the myriad ways artists have employed them in their work, the centrality of music and language in relationship to the two colors, and how identity is expressed through them. A Small Band was commissioned for the facade of the Central Pavilion at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale in 2013. It set the tone and mood for the entire exhibition within, which was described by its curator, Okwui Enwezor, as a “project devoted to a fresh appraisal of the relationship of art and artists to the current state of things.” Situated here at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation adjacent to Kelly’s Blue Black, A Small Band is meant to signal that it is part of a conversation on the “current state of things,” a conversation that began between Ellsworth Kelly, Louis Armstrong, and me, and that continues between the almost seventy works assembled. Tadao Ando said that he wanted the Pulitzer to be a place “where works of art are not exhibited merely as specimens but can speak to us as living things,” and as an exhibition, “Blue Black” aims to be noisy.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye/Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and Corvi-Mora, London/Private Collection, ChicagoLynette Yiadom-Boakye: Messages from Elsewhere, 2013

Adapted from Glenn Ligon’s catalog essay for “Blue Black,” which is at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation through October 7.

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This Empty House

Paramount PicturesJennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, 2017

Perhaps I would have liked Mother! more if, earlier that week and purely by coincidence, I had not streamed The Shining. Darren Aronofsky’s film shares several crucial plot points with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Both movies have, at their centers, the blocked middle-aged writer who hopes that country life—peace, quiet, and isolation from everyone except his loved ones—might jump-start his creativity. Both have initially passive wives who must draw on previously untapped reserves of fortitude as their husband’s travails expose them to chaos and danger. And both men are unfortunate in their choice of the bucolic retreat. Kubrick’s grand hotel and Aronofsky’s Victorian dream house turn out to have histories rife with anguish and violence, and it proves hard to craft the gorgeous sentence or lyric when the walls are dripping blood. So why, when these films have so much in common, does Kubrick’s seem like a perfectly realized work of art while Aronofsky’s may strike us as hollow and sophomoric?

One answer is that Kubrick’s film has characters while Aronofsky’s only has ideas; his main characters don’t even have names. It’s difficult not to be moved and frightened by the anguish that Kubrick’s couple, Jack and Wendy (played, with brilliant nuance and great depth, by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall), feel as they witness—and are powerless to halt—Jack’s decline into homicidal mania. Of course, as Kubrick demonstrates, it’s possible to have characters and ideas; it’s a great gift of narrative art.

The first half of Mother! is enjoyable enough, if only because it’s so beautifully photographed (by Matthew Libatique) and because it dramatizes a horror regularly experienced but only rarely represented on screen, at least not since Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That is, the nightmare of the host whose guests not only overstay their welcome but who, like unruly children, wreck the house.  

Here, the peace—or the uneasy truce—being disrupted is that of a poet whom Aronofsky calls Him (Javier Bardem) and his much younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence), named Mother in the credits, who expresses her devotion by renovating the couple’s rural Victorian mansion. Only the extreme close-ups on Lawrence’s anxious face and the scenes of Bardem interrupting his frustrating literary exertions by fondling a lumpy crystal dispel the sense that we are seeing out-takes from the PBS home-renovation series This Old House. As Lawrence’s character makes the exacting choice between two shades of plaster to smear onto a wall, it’s hard not to think of the phrase “watching paint dry” as shorthand for the ultimate experience of ennui.

Happily for the audience, if not for Him and Mother, the badly-behaved guests arrive. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer introduce welcome infusions of energy, mystery, and glamor as an ailing doctor and his wife who charm and flatter their host (the doctor is a fan of the poet’s work) into inviting them to stay. Our anxiety grows, along with Mother’s, as the doctor insists on lighting up in the smoke-free house and his wife interrogates Mother about her sex life. Soon, the guests’ two grown sons show up, and, in the home earlier described as “paradise,” have a bloody fight that heavy-handedly recalls the conflict between Cain and Abel. Mother becomes pregnant, the poet begins to write again, his book comes out, and mobs of avid fans mass on his front lawn, clamoring for their idol. Just when the writers in the audience may find themselves thinking that the lucky guy is having the ideal publication experience, authorial ego and literary fandom (spoiler alert!) lead to cannibalism and apocalypse.

Paramount PicturesJavier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence in Mother!, 2017

Mother! has generated such lively and widespread controversy that it takes a certain amount of rigorous effort to avoid reading about it before you see it. The fear is that a review may include disclosures that might dampen the thrill of the unexpected. In fact, I was unprepared for the intensity of the mayhem that erupts in the film’s last third. Even so, I wondered: Am I the only person in the theater who knows exactly where this is going, what prop, what image, and what resolution (of sorts) will appear in the final scenes? Does the promise that we will be shocked by a startling plot-turn disarm our ability—born of logic, experience, and common sense—to predict what will happen? Would viewers be confounded or intellectually stimulated by this without having been persuaded—by hype, by advance publicity, by the secrecy that shrouded the film’s première—that they will be provoked and astonished?

Responses to the film have been so divided that The New York Times took the somewhat unusual step of providing a forum for readers to express their opinions. Some objected to the level of violence against women, though one might argue that by the end, the carnage seems gender-blind. One reader called Mother! “‘Groundhog Day’ in hell.” Another remarked that the true horror was realizing how much he’d paid to see it, while others seemed to enjoy the film’s “allegory aspect,” and what a few readers seemed to enjoy most was the argument itself: the controversy that the film has generated.

My objection is that Aronofsky isn’t much interested in his characters’ complexity or humanity, but purely in his own big concepts. Mother, in Aronofsky’s view, represents Gaia, Mother Earth, threatened by God (Bardem) and his creations. “We are empathizing with Mother Nature,” the director has said, “feeling her pain and her wrath.” It’s the sort of thing that appeals to students who enjoy finding symbols in texts, who warm to Moby-Dick only after hearing, usually from a well-meaning teacher, that Melville’s white whale represents evil. Fans of the movie seem to enjoy that game, figuring out who and what symbolizes something else, something more serious and important than a struggling poet and his beleaguered wife in their fabulous fixer-upper.

“I really wanted to make this kind of allegory about Mother Nature and our place and our connection to our home,” Aronofsky told The New York Times. “And so I cast Jennifer Lawrence as that spirit and then I had this breakthrough of using, to tell the story of humanity, the stories of the Bible.” The story of humanity? One may wind up concluding that by far the most terrifying thing about Mother! is that Darren Aronofsky seems to be Hollywood’s idea of an intellectual, our own brainy, home-grown auteur.

Mother! is now in theaters.

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Kate Millett: ‘Sexual Politics’ & Family Values

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesKate Millett with one of her sculptures at her studio at 295 Bowery, New York City, July 7, 1967

When Kate Millett died, half-forgotten, on September 6 at the age of eighty-two, obituary writers struggled to take the full measure of this pioneering feminist writer and activist. Maybe Second Wave feminism now seems so far away that we’re hazy about what once made it so thrilling and threatening. Let me state it plainly: Millett invented feminist literary criticism. Before her, it did not exist. Her urgent, elegant 1970 masterwork, Sexual Politics, with its wry takedowns of the casual misogyny and rape scenes that had made the reputations of the sexual revolutionaries du jour—Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence—introduced a new and remarkably durable idea: you could interpret literature in light of its gender dynamics. You could go to novels and poems for an education in sex as power. You may not agree that literature is the proper medium for consciousness-raising, but you can’t deny that Millett made reading a life-changing, even world-changing, act.

Millett was preceded by a great many other “lady critics,” as they were then infuriatingly called, the most estimable being, of course, Virginia Woolf. But Woolf was a more traditional reader, if also a subtler and more brilliant one, and not quite so single-mindedly focused on sex. After Millett came Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter, academic feminism, gender theory, queer studies, and all the still-ramifying dismantlings of patriarchy that dominate the study of culture today.

Millett was a synthesizer. She popularized the ideas bubbling up in the radical feminist circles of New York and London. This didn’t endear her to the members of those circles, who didn’t like it when a sister turned into a media star. Germaine Greer and Shulamith Firestone did the same thing, but they didn’t make the cover of Time, as Millett did. But what set her apart was the breadth of her intellectual ambition. She wrote Sexual Politics as a dissertation in the English department at Columbia, but, graduate student or not, she was going to get to the bottom of how her sex came to be so degraded—if she had to take on all of human history to do it. “The second chapter, in my opinion the most important in the book and far and away the most difficult to write, attempts to formulate a systematic overview of patriarchy as a political institution,” she states in the preface. Grandiose? Sure. But also: what guts!

If some of Sexual Politics, such as her long disquisition on Freud, feels dated, that’s partly because Millett changed the way we think about figures like him. Hardly anyone reads Freud literally anymore. “Penis envy” now sounds like a phrase you’d splash onto some ironic retro poster, not a real diagnosis. The idea that a political order based on domination has its origin in the subordination of women—well, it no longer seems novel, and she bears some responsibility for that, too. What remains enthralling, though, are Millett’s close readings, her exposés of the naked emperors of the literary left. “After receiving his servant’s congratulations on his dazzling performance, Rojack proceeds calmly to the next floor and throws his wife’s body out of the window,” is Millett’s deadpan description of the aftermath of the hero’s sodomization of a maid in Mailer’s An American Dream. Millett then observes, “The reader is given to understand that by murdering one woman and buggering another, Rojack became a ‘man.’” 

Millett has been accused of conflating author and character—Mailer and Rojack, and so on, a charge that isn’t always unfair but doesn’t necessarily absolve the authors of swinishness. She’s at her very best, though, when she writes about an author she loves, Jean Genet, whom she understands to be “doing gender” (a phrase she wouldn’t have used, of course). That is, in telling stories of sadistic pimps and submissive drag queens, Genet enacted a parodic critique of gender norms (more phraseology she wouldn’t have heard yet). Genet’s novels, she writes, “constitute a painstaking exegesis of the barbarian vassalage of the sexual orders, the power structure of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ as revealed by a homosexual, criminal world that mimics with brutal frankness the bourgeois heterosexual society.” (Any academic capable of writing a phrase like “barbarian vassalage” should have been awarded a Distinguished Professorship.) 

Millett could be sloppy in her scholarship, as Irving Howe sniffed in an epic-length obloquy in Harper’s. “Brilliant in an unserious way,” he wrote, unserious being the most damning thing you could say about an intellectual if you were a New York member of the species. She quoted tendentiously, which was Mailer’s complaint (one of them, anyway) in “Prisoner of Sex,” a bellow of wounded pride that was even longer than Howe’s and also published in Harper’s.

But these were quibbles, and couldn’t stop her hurtle toward fame. For a glorious moment, this very bookish literary critic was the face of American feminism. The New York Times called her the “high priestess.” After “Prisoner of Sex” became the talk of the town—and the revered Harper’s editor Willie Morris was fired for publishing it—Mailer organized a riotous debate known as “Town Bloody Hall,” which was filmed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker and is now streamable. It was a circus, and it was Millett who set it in motion, even though she refused to show up. Mailer aimed a torrent of insults at the feminists who did agree to take the stage or appear in the audience, among them Greer, Diana Trilling, Susan Sontag, Betty Friedan, and Cynthia Ozick. They rolled their eyes and gave as good as they got—much better, in most cases—and the crowd roared with delight. Try to imagine a public clash of ideas being so joyously gladiatorial today.

And then Millett faded away. She is owed a posthumous apology for the shameful way she was pushed out of the limelight. What did her in was the revelation, also in Time, that she was bisexual. Her non-heterosexuality irked Friedan, who feared more than just about anything that Women’s Lib might be tainted by the “lavender menace.” And Millett’s failure to commit to lesbianism outraged the militants on the other end of the spectrum. “The line goes, inflexible as a fascist edict, that bisexuality is a cop-out,” Millett later wrote. Confronted by a group called the “Radicalesbians” at a meeting that promptly made its way into Time, Millett said, “Yes I said yes I am a Lesbian.” She added, “It was the last strength I had.”

It was her last strength because Millett suffered from acute manic depression and couldn’t cope with the demands of being a celebrity public intellectual. Even as she continued her rounds of speeches and political activities, she began to withdraw to her farm upstate. Unstable, suicidal, she had to fight her own friends and family to get out of the mental hospitals they committed her to. She spilled garbled and unedited confessional memoirs into journals and then into print. Maybe she was acting on the feminist credo that the personal is political, and there are occasional flights of genius in these books. Flying (1974), which she wrote more or less while on book tour for Sexual Politics, is simply unreadable, but The Loony-Bin Trip (1990) deftly describes her slide into paranoia when she went off lithium, as well as a stint in an Irish mental hospital. The unreliable narrator toggles between sleeve-tugging ratiocinations and exquisite descriptions of the heightened consciousness that accompanies a state of mania. On the whole, though, her writings after Sexual Politics leave you wanting to flee her excruciating, stuttering vulnerability.  

As a result of her flameout, we have done Millet the disservice of not treating her as the major figure she was, of not taking on Sexual Politics the way we take on, say, The Feminine Mystique. Today she is faulted for having been insufficiently intersectional. “Millett and her fellow radical feminists often elided crucial differences between women—black and white, working-class and wealthy—in the name of ‘sisterhood,’” wrote Maggie Doherty in The New Republic. Millett did think in big, unnuanced categories, though I somehow doubt that she would have had patience for the word “sisterhood.”

But to my mind, Millett made a more consequential mistake in Sexual Politics, though she wasn’t the only one to make it. Her error was the error of Second Wave feminism, and it nearly did the movement in. It is that she wrote off the family. This was the part of the feminist package that most alienated your average American woman—that, and the claim that their failure to extricate themselves from this feudal institution reflected “false consciousness.” In Millett’s neo-Marxist conception (Firestone’s, too), the family was in its essence coercive, hierarchical, a means of reproducing the patriarchy. Millett and Firestone weren’t very pro-child, either. Having babies and taking care of them reduced women, Millett wrote, “to the cultural level of animal life in providing the male with sexual outlet and exercising the animal functions of reproduction and care of the young.”

This was wrong-headed. Marriage and family life may have amounted to glorified (or unglorified) slavery for women throughout much of human history, but they weren’t slavery when Millett was writing, and they definitely aren’t now, at least not in the developed world. The family isn’t perfect, heterosexual spousal relations unquestionably privilege the husband, and wives are still being penalized economically and socially for the free labor they put into raising children and maintaining homes. But married women aren’t helots, and they weren’t fifty years ago. When women had no right to own property or refuse sex, when their children belonged to their husbands, when they had little means of support other than fathers or husbands unless they worked for slave wages, then they were slaves. But women have most of those rights now, and somewhat improved work conditions, and it’s safe to say that they are in no rush to abolish the family.

On the contrary. The firebrands Millett ran with in the Sixties could never have imagined that the family would come to occupy a central place in contemporary progressivism. Nowadays, we have to fight to save the family against the disruptions of capital and forces of reaction that threaten to pull out props like health insurance and public education. No young socialist feminist would have guessed that marriage would become, not a prison for the unenlightened, but a luxury item unaffordable for many low-income Americans. A gender-fluid person living through the unfettered Sixties and Seventies would surely have been stunned if you’d told her that the fight for gay marriage would become the most successful example of left-wing organizing half a century hence. In Millett’s day, feminists demanded subsidized day care—as they should have, and must continue to do—but that was because they were trying their damnedest to get out of the home and into the workforce. They weren’t quite as alive to issues like paid family leave, which is, after all, a way to facilitate those “animal functions of reproduction and care of the young” that Millett disdained.

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty ImagesKate Millett at an equal rights demonstration, New York City, June 27, 1971

Millett devoted most of a chapter of Sexual Politics to attacking as fascistic and counterrevolutionary societies that emphasized family over sexual freedom. Her main examples were the Nazis and the Soviet Union under Stalin. This was ahistorical and naive. Neither Hitler nor Stalin had any respect for the family. The Nazis encouraged unwed motherhood if it meant more Aryan babies, and invented no-fault divorce so that Germans could rid themselves of Jewish spouses. The Soviets broke up families by staggering work schedules, turning children against parents, and sending wives to the gulag for failing to inform on their husbands. It’s painful to admit, but the condescending Howe, in his review, got this exactly right. “In every totalitarian society, there is and must be a deep clash between state and family, simply because the state demands complete loyalty from each person and comes to regard the family as a major competitor for that loyalty,” he wrote. “For both political and nonpolitical people, the family becomes the last refuge for humane values. Thereby the defense of the ‘conservative’ institution of the family becomes under totalitarianism a profoundly subversive act.”

Another development that the young author of Sexual Politics and her peers did not anticipate was how neatly their anti-family bias would dovetail with feminism’s swerve toward careerism. Best sellers like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, New York Times article after New York Times article, and, of course, Hillary Clinton’s benighted campaign have all dwelt obsessively on pay equity, shattering the glass ceiling, and other workplace concerns. Women have to have equality in the workforce, obviously, because they’re there to stay. But the women and, increasingly, men who are most egregiously discriminated against today are those who are not in the workforce, or only partly in the workforce, because they do the unpaid labor of care. These are the people who—at the risk of going all cosmic—keep the species alive, civilization going, and life itself bearable. And they are treated like dirt for it.

The family that Millett and her peers wanted to throw out the window turns out to be a source of love, and pleasure, and grounding, and meaning, that many people just aren’t willing to dispense with. In a grim global economy, raising children can look a whole lot more fulfilling than the grinding, underpaid, and insecure employment on offer. I don’t mean to say that there weren’t feminists in Millett’s time who grasped that the family needed saving, not destroying. But these groups (the National Welfare Rights Organization, Wages for Housework) were shoved to the margins of the movement. Wages for Housework was trashed as reactionary, because more mainstream feminists misinterpreted the group as trying to push women back into the home. It was just too soon to demand honor and dignity—and compensation—for the “women’s work” that had been demeaned for so long and used as a reason to deny women access to other opportunities.

Even though Millett never had children, and had to flee a traditional and disapproving  Catholic family to realize herself as a radical and a lesbian, she needed that family to survive her many travails, as well as the little family she put together with her partner and her closest friends. Her memoirs of her time on the farm make clear that she found so-called drudge work to be gratifying and redemptive. She put up buildings by hand, cared for horses, grew food. Had she been able to re-enter the fray of public debate, perhaps she would have helped to steer the feminist revolution toward the people it will have to wrap its arms and minds around if it is really going to help all women flourish (and all men, too): not just the hewers of wood, etc., but also the pushers of strollers, the swabbers of kitchen floors, the givers of loving kindness and care.

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A Carnival of Desecration

Peter Saul/Mary Boone Gallery, New YorkPeter Saul: Quack-Quack, Trump, 2017

With his imposing paunch, outsized neckties, and pompadour as pointy as Woody Woodpecker’s beak, Donald Trump has the most recognizable profile of any American president since Richard Nixon. Yet, as a cartoonist of my acquaintance has complained, artists are having a hard time caricaturing Trump, mostly likely because he already is a caricature—one reflected in mass culture’s fun-house mirror for close to forty years.

We’re sick of Trump and we’re sick of being sick of him. Well-populated by images of the president, Peter Saul’s new show “Fake News,” at Mary Boone Gallery through October 28, is hardly a palliative, but it does illustrate the crass absurdity of the current moment.

Saul, now eighty-three, has been categorized as a political pop artist and a proto-punk neo-surrealist, although he has as much in common with the grotesque Mad magazine cartoonist Basil Wolverton as with any American painters. He’s done Nixon and Reagan (both as governor and president) as well as George W. With candy colors placed in the service of gross physical distortion and blandly offensive savagery—crucifixions are common, the electric chair is a frequent prop—his unnaturally festive work would scarcely seem out of place on the wall of a Venice Beach tattoo emporium. “Not to be shocking means to agree to be furniture,” he once said. Still, Saul’s portraits of Trump are relatively naturalistic—though the impossible settings in which the president is placed are not.          

Trump appears three times in the canvas Quack-Quack, Trump. He’s socked in the jaw by a giant cheeseburger and gawked at by a one-eyed space monster piloting a flying thumb. Another, larger Trump is surrounded by a plague of little cartoon ducks (a staple of Saul’s iconography). Some have roosted in Trump’s pompadour; he appears grumpy and blindly shoots at them with a ray gun in each hand. A third, scowling Trump emerges from a charcoal whirlwind amid a cloud of blue dollar bills.

The Trump coiffure has a life of its own in Donald Trump in Florida, crowning two of the pustular bile-green crocodiles that dominate the painting, as well as a matronly lady whose head demurely emerges from a pink cloud. Trump, looking weirdly self-satisfied, is half-reptile, perched on an inverted palm tree and oblivious to the crocodile aircraft headed his way even as one more Trump stares past the bills slobbering out of another croc’s mouth. 

Peter Saul/Mary Boone Gallery, New YorkPeter Saul: Blue Boy with Ice Cream Cone, 2017

In short, the president is one more character in Saul’s ongoing carnival of desecration. To see these paintings is to recognize Saul as something of an American Scene painter. (Some of his 1960s paintings mock Thomas Hart Benton.) Accordingly, Saul easily integrates Trump into his world—could the reverse ever be possible? “Fake News” includes two of the Old and New Master parodies that Saul has been painting since he travestied Guernica and De Kooning in the early 1970s. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch is reimagined with ducks; the subject of the mock-Gainsborough Blue Boy with Ice Cream Cone is greedily fixated on an outsized swirl of orange glop that has an unmistakable resemblance to the Trump pompadour.

Trump famously refused to buy the silkscreened Trump Tower photographs that Andy Warhol created on spec for the building’s atrium in 1981. By Warhol’s account, Trump deemed them insufficiently gaudy—black, grey, and silver, rather than orange and pink (and gold?). But Saul’s “Fake News” paintings, especially the cheerful, inane pomposity of Nightwatch II, the gaily florid detritus of Global Warming, the Last Beer—so tropical and lively with its surfacing shark and coral-colored sky—and the scurrilous stooge-like, ultra-violent battle between American frontiersmen and Mexican regulars depicted in yummy fuchsia and ochre in Return to the Alamo 78, might make a lot of sense installed poolside at Mar-a-Lago or hung in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Trump is so tasteless that Peter Saul is, by comparison, tasteful. “Fake News” is something of a misnomer for this show. It should really have been called “The New Normal.”

Peter Saul’s “Fake News” is at the Mary Boone Gallery through October 28.

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A New European Narrative?

Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty ImagesPro-EU protesters at a demonstration against Poland’s right-wing government, Warsaw, May 2016. The sign says, ‘The people defend the Constitution as well as freedom, laws, and the threefold form of government.’

Back in 2013—an age ago, the calm before the storm—José Manuel Barroso, then the president of the European Commission, gave a speech launching a new project. This was before the refugee crisis, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before the British voted to leave the European Union, before the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, London, and Barcelona.

Nevertheless, Barroso—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:

I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.

With that, he launched the “New Narrative for Europe,” a cultural project that looked impressive on paper. Artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” They made contributions to a new book, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates on the New Narrative were held across Europe, in Milan, Warsaw, and Berlin as well as Brussels. Members of the European Commission (each member state has one) held “citizens’ dialogues” across the continent too. A New Narrative website was created so that young Europeans could “have their say.”

The aim was to create a strong sense of European federal identity, and while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I. Barroso’s project had some of the elements of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept.

Except, of course, that it was not popular. The artists, writers, and scientists squabbled about the declaration. The Mind and Body of Europe sank without a trace. The debates went unremarked. The website is still there but seems not to have been recently updated. None of the six books reviewed here, all by experts on European politics, mentions the New Narrative project at all. Giles Merritt, the author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe’s Troubled Future, does have a section entitled “Searching for a ‘Grand Strategy’…or Even a New Narrative,” but he fails to cite Barroso’s initiative.

And yet in very different ways, and for very different reasons, all six of these books ultimately argue that yes, a new narrative, or a new European political project, or an institutional revolution, is exactly what Europe needs. It’s not hard to understand why. The continent is plagued by crises that cannot be solved by any one European nation acting on its own: the arrival of millions of migrants, the rise of terrorism, the spread of international corruption, the imbalances created by the single currency, the high youth unemployment in some regions, the challenge from a revanchist Russia.

At the same time, Europe, like the American states before they adopted the Constitution in 1789, still has no political mechanisms that can create joint solutions to any of these problems. A common European foreign and defense policy is still a pipe dream; a common border is difficult to enforce; a common economic policy is still far away. Instead, decisions made unilaterally by the larger states wind up determining policy for the continent, often creating anger in smaller states. Alternatively, decisions are not made at all, in which case the anger comes from the general public.

None of this is entirely new. As Heinrich Geiselberger writes in his introduction to The Great Regression, an anthology of fifteen essays, all of the elements of Europe’s current predicament were predictable and were indeed predicted not only in 2013 but back in the 1990s, an era of great optimism about Europe and more generally about the global economy: “All the risks of globalization that were discerned at the time actually became reality.” At the time it was also hoped that European and international institutions would bring people together in ways that would make solutions possible. Membership in the EU and NATO, as well as dozens of smaller organizations dedicated to everything from the regulation of pharmaceuticals to the promotion of culture, would gradually bring the continent together. Many hoped they would also eventually help integrate Russia and North Africa into Europe as well. But it didn’t happen. Despite those hopes, no collective European identity has emerged in the past two decades, let alone a Western or “cosmopolitan” collective identity that might be capable of formulating a unified political response to any of these problems.

Reading through the current literature on Europe, it isn’t hard to understand why. If the artists, writers, and scientists assigned to the New Narrative could not agree on a way forward, neither can the six books here. And it is notable that although they come from different countries—the UK, the US, Greece, Ukraine, Germany, Bulgaria—the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate them are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological. Ultimately, they disagree about the endgame: where Europe is going, what it should become, and what it should do in order to get there.

Most of the contributors to The Great Regression at least start from the same vantage point. Geiselberger explains that his book is designed to address not just a crisis but a “neoliberal” crisis, one that he believes has been caused by the ruling economic philosophy of the past three decades, by which he means the philosophy not just of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher but of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and the International Monetary Fund. Some of the arguments here are familiar and can be heard not only on the left but on the right and in the center. Financial markets are too powerful; trade unions are too weak. Globalization has been good for the wealthy in the West, bad for the poor. Deregulation has brought some ugly surprises.

Particularly given the EU’s reputation among conservatives in Britain and the US as a left-leaning institution, some will be surprised to discover that several contributors to The Great Regression believe that despite its redistributive functions and its support for the social welfare state, the EU is part of this same neoliberal problem. Robert Misik argues, for example, that with its uniform regulations and competition laws, the EU makes “practical implementation of left-wing ideas” impossible. Because this is the view held by Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader, it’s an important one to reckon with: after all, if Labour had a pro-European instead of a Euroskeptic leader, Britain might well not be leaving European institutions at all.

The trouble is that it isn’t clear what an alternative, more left-wing EU would look like. Should the members of the deeply interconnected European single market be allowed to nationalize industry again? Nationalize banks? Since these are all ideas that failed in the past, why would they work in the present? With surprising pragmatism, Slavoj Žižek suggests that a “left alternative” to the current international trade regime might be a “programme of new and different international agreements—agreements which would establish control of the banks, enforce ecological standards, secure workers’ rights, healthcare services, the protection of sexual and ethnic minorities, etc.” Since this is some of what global trade agreements do already, this is not particularly revolutionary, but at least it is a concrete idea that could be implemented jointly, if there were the will to do so.

Yet even the contributors to The Great Regression are not in total agreement about the causes of the current malaise. Ivan Krastev, for example, is not much interested in the ownership of the means of production but is extremely concerned about migration, immigration, and the “majoritarian” political impulses they have provoked. Both in his Great Regression essay and in his short book After Europe, Krastev argues that the waves of refugees heading for Europe have prompted, in many European countries, not merely economic fears and increasing levels of racism but a kind of “demographic panic.” For his fellow Bulgarians, “the arrival of migrants signals their exit from history, and the popular argument that an aging Europe needs migrants only strengthens the growing sense of existential melancholy…. Is there going to be anyone left to read Bulgarian poetry in one hundred years?”

Nikolay Doychinov/AFP/Getty ImagesMigrants and riot police at the Harmanli refugee camp in southern Bulgaria, near the Greek and Turkish borders, November 2016

Krastev also believes that the porous borders within Europe, one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, turn out to have a psychological cost. The educated feel comfortable traveling, living, and working all across the continent. But those who can’t or won’t live abroad harbor suspicions about those who do: “They feel comfortable in their ethnic states and mistrust those whose hearts lie in Paris or London, whose money is in New York or Cyprus, and whose loyalty is to Brussels.” The rural–urban divide that is so clear in the United States thus gains an extra dimension in Europe, where people in small towns and villages have often turned against the EU, while people in cities support it. It’s worth remembering that the Brexit vote in Britain was not only a rich vs. poor vote, it was also an urban vs. rural vote. Large swathes of the well-off English country gentry voted against the European Union and its foreign ways.

The side effects of such discomfort may be dangerous indeed. In response to this challenge, Krastev argues, ethnic and political majorities in several countries have begun to act like threatened minorities themselves. Claiming that they require extraordinary measures to stay in power and “protect the nation” from outside threats and foreign influence, illiberal leaders in Poland and Hungary have tried—the latter successfully, the former thus far less so—to restrict their courts and media.

But the promotion of the interests of “True Poles” or “True Hungarians” over those of supposedly disloyal cosmopolitan elites is not a particularly “Eastern European” phenomenon. Had she won the French presidency, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front and the runner-up in the 2016 election, would have tried to do the same for the “True French”—and of course Donald Trump would like to do the same for “Real Americans.” At their worst, the British Brexiteers also sound quite a bit more like English nationalists than the free-traders they claim to be.

Like his fellow authors, Krastev is cautious about offering solutions, beyond the enigmatic observation that Europe’s crises have always done more to pull the continent together than Europe’s institutions. In The End of Europe, James Kirchick also offers dark comfort: “Although there are many arguments in favor of European integration, perhaps the strongest is that the alternative is so much worse.” Kirchick, like Krastev, believes that Europe’s deepest problems are not so much economic as psychological and cultural. But he phrases the problem differently. What Kirchick fears is a “loss of faith in the universal, humanistic values of what might be called the European idea.”

He sees, on the populist right, the same scorn for rule of law and democratic norms that Krastev has observed. In a chapter on Hungary he quotes at length Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s famous oration in praise of “illiberal democracy,” during which he disparaged the “divisive” nature of democracy and advocated, instead, the emergence of a “great governing party…a central field of force, which will be able to articulate the national issues…without the constantly ongoing wrangling.”

But Kirchick also sees dangers coming from an ideologically rigid left that has sought to ignore the problems caused by the immigration wave, including the dangerous plague of Islamic terrorism and, in some places, a rise in crime. He excoriates the “constricted political discourse in which decent, ordinary people are told not only that plainly visible social phenomena don’t exist but also that voicing concerns about these allegedly nonexistent phenomena is racist.” Along those same lines, he worries that the entire debate about immigration will become a partisan, bifurcated battle between the genuinely racist far right and a “multicultural” left that can’t bring itself to address the public’s legitimate (or even illegitimate) desire for more security.

Kirchick notes that these divisions have been deliberately exacerbated by an outside force: Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has now defined the EU, alongside the US, as its most important enemy. Russia dislikes the EU because it gives small European countries more clout in their dealings with Moscow—the EU can, for example, prevent the creation of Russian gas monopolies in Eastern Europe. Russia also dislikes the EU because it offers a clear ideological alternative to corrupt oligarchy. Ukrainians protesting against their pro-Moscow government in 2014 waved the EU flag because they believed it stood for the rule of law, anticorruption, democracy, and free speech. In response, Putin, whose worst nightmare is the emergence of precisely that sort of crowd in Russia, began energetically backing politicians and political parties on both the far left and the far right of the European political spectrum, precisely in order to undermine the European project from within.

This subject takes us into the realm of expertise of Anton Shekhovtsov, who has been tracking and cataloguing the Russian relationship with the European far right for many years. In Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, Shekhovtsov lays out the historical background of the relationship, going back to the Soviet era. He argues that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin and groups loyal to it “dramatically stepped up active measures and other subversive activities inside the West.” In a different era, this support might not have mattered. But thanks to the economic shifts and the migration/immigration turmoil described above, extremism of all kinds was already on the rise in Europe, just at the moment when Russia began to put serious resources into supporting it.

That support now takes a number of forms, ranging from Russia’s outright, openly acknowledged funding for Le Pen’s presidential campaign to more secretive attempts to manipulate public opinion using online hacking, trolls, and bots. These techniques, first used in European elections, were repeated in the US in 2016 to great effect. In a number of European countries, including Italy and Germany, Russia has made great inroads into mainstream politics as well, by establishing economic relationships with powerful companies and buying the services of influential politicians, among them the former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. But again, Shekhovtsov’s goal is not to find solutions but rather to lay out the parameters of a problem that few really understand.

For a wider range of possible solutions and policy proposals, the reader must turn back to the books by Giles Merritt and Loukas Tsoukalis, both of which are far more Brussels-centric, policy wonkish, pragmatic, and thus somewhat harder to read than the others. These focus on the EU as an institution, and they offer laundry lists of policy recommendations. Merritt calls for, among other things, an EU-wide program to modernize infrastructure, a larger community budget, a more activist central bank. Tsoukalis wants policies that encourage social cohesion, such as a European unemployment scheme. Both men want, as many others do, reform to the EU’s democratic institutions. Suggested changes to the EU’s parliament have been under discussion for years, including changing its composition to include members of national parliaments, or electing candidates from multinational constituencies. So far, all such projects have been halted by inertia.

Both men also want, again like many others, a more robust EU foreign policy, one that would give Europe a voice in the world commensurate with its size and economic strength. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Europe’s failure to have a foreign policy is the source of many of its problems. A Europe that could stand up to Russia would not be so easily manipulated by Russian disinformation. A Europe capable of ending the civil wars in Libya and Syria, instead of pretending they weren’t happening, wouldn’t have a refugee crisis on the current scale at all.

The trouble with all of these ideas is that they come back to the problem that I began with: to push through parliamentary reform, to construct, finally, a real European army, to build support for a larger budget or central bank, Europe needs a set of institutions to which people feel loyal and attached. To provide small European nations with the confidence they need to thrive in a globalized world; to inspire enough growth to keep people thriving in rural Bulgaria or Spain; to create a real border agency that makes people feel secure; to persuade southern Europeans to take the Russian threat seriously and Eastern Europeans to take the refugee crisis seriously—all of this requires a level of political energy that always seems to be missing at the European level, and even, in many European countries, at the national level too.

Kirchick wants a “renewal of the muscular liberal center.” Tsoukalis writes that “Europe needs a game changer, one of those big initiatives that sometimes in history succeeds in radically transforming the scene.” Merritt wants to “persuade public opinion that we must rethink our comfortable and cherished assumptions about Europe’s privileged place in the world,” and start fighting harder to be heard. In short, Europe needs a narrative.

It could be, of course, that a “game changer” is just around the corner. Most of these books were published before the latest round of European elections, and some of them seem prematurely gloomy. A general backlash against Brexit and widespread revulsion at President Trump have already reduced support for the anti-European far right in Austria and the Netherlands. The unexpected triumph of Emmanuel Macron, the very incarnation of muscular liberalism, in an election in one of Europe’s most important countries has set off a wave of speculation: Are there other Macrons waiting in the wings, perhaps in Poland or Italy, who could pull off the same trick?

The likely victory of Angela Merkel in Germany also changes the Franco-German relationship from a tired cliché into something dynamic. Different though they are in character and background—portraits of them together look like an allegorical painting, “Youth Encounters Experience”—both Merkel and Macron are committed to the European Union, to the political center, and perhaps, it has been hinted, to major reforms. The notion of a European finance minister who could begin to coordinate the continent’s economic policy in a meaningful way has been discussed; so has a European army. If Merkel and Macron do push for those major reforms, they are staking everything on a proposition that hasn’t been tested: namely, that what people really hate about Europe isn’t that it usurps national power, but that it seems powerless.

And if Merkel and Macron disappoint? One European diplomat of my acquaintance likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.

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Afghanistan: What Troops Can’t Fix

Jonathan Ernst/AFP/Getty ImagesThe view from a helicopter carrying US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Kabul, April 24, 2017

For Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Afghanistan was “the just war,” but for President Donald Trump it is just a war he didn’t want to deal with. Reluctant from the start of his term to send more US troops to Afghanistan, after taking eight months to decide what to do, Trump has finally been persuaded to send 3,900 more troops by a military high command that is getting anxious about the possibility of failure. There is no timeline for American troops to come home.

The war has gone on for sixteen years, and as recent meetings at the United Nations General Assembly demonstrated, it has become even more complicated than the one fought by Bush or Obama. Afghanistan faces a number of growing internal threats: terrorist attacks, loss of territory to the Taliban, economic collapse, corruption, growing public disenchantment, and an internal political crisis as warlords and ethnic politicians challenge the government of President Ashraf Ghani. But the gravest new threat is regional. At least three nearby states—Pakistan, Iran, and Russia—are now helping the Taliban, according to US generals, Western diplomats, and Afghan officials I have spoken to.

Yet there appears to be little awareness of these threats in Washington. Trump’s policy statement on Afghanistan on August 21 and his address to the UN on September 19 talked up the US military deployment, and his language was a smokescreen of “winning” and “victory” that gave no hint as to what these troops would do differently to gain back ground lost to the Taliban. In a further military escalation, the Trump administration is also preparing to dismantle limits set by Obama on drone strikes. The CIA, rather than just the Defense Department, will now be authorized to carry out drone attacks, which in the future will not require high-level vetting and will be allowed to target the foot soldiers of militant groups, as well as specified leaders.

At the same time, President Trump has ruled out “nation building” and made no mention of economic or diplomatic support for the Afghan government. America’s NATO allies now emphasize a political solution to the war and peace talks with the Taliban, but there was no hint of compromise or interest in negotiations by Trump. The only avenue left for negotiation is the Taliban office in Qatar, which has been used for the past six years by multiple mediators, including representatives of the United Nations, the US, and several European countries. Now, however, according to The Guardian and diplomatic sources, it appears that Presidents Trump and Ghani agree that the office should be shut down. That would mean closing the last open access to some Taliban leaders, and it would make any future negotiations with the Taliban movement even more difficult and entirely dependent on Pakistan.

Not that the US is ready to lay the groundwork for an eventual political solution. There is still no team in place at the State Department or the National Security Council that can carry out the many complex tasks needed. The new US ambassador to Kabul was appointed only in late September. As I described in a previous post, Trump has effectively handed over conduct of the war to his generals.

In the past, Afghan-related initiatives taken by US presidents, whether at the UN or at NATO summits, met with immediate backing from European and other allies. This time, there was not a single ally who publicly praised or endorsed Trump’s Afghan policy. The tepid applause from world leaders for his UN speech spoke volumes. Only NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, belatedly welcomed the sending of more US troops in an interview with a wire service. (NATO’s own deployment of some four thousand troops in Afghanistan will continue.)

The most enthusiastic backer of Trump’s proposals was, not surprisingly, the beleaguered Ghani. The Afghan president adroitly gave Trump the ultimate accolade: that his Afghan policy was better than Obama’s.

In reality, the US strategy offers little help to Ghani with the multiple crises he faces at home, where politicians and warlords who once supported him are in revolt and demanding that he either carry out promised reforms and hold elections or step down. The country is in the throes of a severe economic crisis, and there is no apparent plan for dealing with either the tens of thousands of internal refugees who have been displaced by the war or the nearly one million refugees who have arrived in Afghanistan penniless after being forced out of Pakistan and Iran.

The fighting with the Taliban has intensified in recent weeks, and is now spread across a dozen provinces. The US military estimates that the Taliban controls about 40 percent of the country and one third of its population.

These Taliban successes would have been impossible without the support and sanctuary that the group receives from a number of countries. This was a major focus of Trump’s accusations at the UN. Trump has taken a hard line against Pakistan for its longtime harboring of the Taliban leadership.

“It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban,” he told the General Assembly, making a clear allusion to Pakistan. In his August policy statement, the president criticized Pakistan by name.

Pakistan has a record stretching back to the 1970s of giving succor to Afghan extremists of one kind or another in order to gain political leverage over its neighbor. After the Taliban’s initial defeat in 2001, when America and its allies first occupied Afghanistan, Pakistan helped restore the militants’ strength and has sustained the Taliban with its so-called Quetta Shura, or Leadership Council, which is based in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

“The Quetta Shura, Peshawar Shura, these shuras are identified by cities inside Pakistan,” said General John W. Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, in Kabul in August, “we know Afghan Taliban leaders are in these areas.”

Pakistan strongly denies these accusations and says that it, too, has sacrificed much in its own war against terrorism. Interviewed at the UN, Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, said, “There are no sanctuaries anymore. There are none at all. I can categorically state that.”

But Pakistan’s Afghan policy is in the hands not of the politicians, but of the military and its Inter-Services Intelligence agency. One reason that the previous prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was forced to step down last month was his constant tussle with the military over his policy of improving relations with India and Afghanistan. In contrast to Sharif, Abbasi reflects the military viewpoint faithfully, professing his strong opposition to Indian political involvement in Afghanistan, something that Trump has supported, much to Pakistan’s chagrin.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty ImagesAfghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and US President Donald Trump during the United Nations General Assembly, New York City, September 21, 2017

The Taliban also receives support from Iran and Russia. NATO diplomats have told me that while Russia has built contacts with the Taliban operating in northern Afghanistan along the borders of Central Asia, Iran has been backing Taliban militants in the west of the country. The goals of Russia and Iran are to have influence in Kabul if the present government collapses and the Taliban comes to power. They also seek to ensure that Pakistan does not dominate the Taliban as it did in the 1990s, and that the Taliban continues to resist the spread of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the entire region.

There is an urgent need for reconciliation among the regional neighbors so that the Taliban can be pushed into peace talks. But the US is not in a good position to act as broker. America has no diplomatic dialogue with Russia or Iran. It has poor relations with Pakistan, which it is now threatening with sanctions. And it is suspicious of China, which has so far been helpful in trying to initiate regional talks. The US’s only friend in the region is India, which is not a direct neighbor of Afghanistan and whose participation in Afghan affairs Pakistan will not tolerate. As if to demonstrate how far apart all the interested states are, an announcement followed the UN meeting that the US defense secretary, Jim Mattis, will travel to New Delhi to urge India to do more in Afghanistan, while Pakistan’s all-powerful army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, will make an unprecedented trip to Moscow to muster Russian assistance.

If there is hope for a change of US policy in Afghanistan, it depends on the willingness of the Trump administration to listen to the recommendations put forward by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a nonpartisan body empowered by Congress to report on mistakes made by the US in Afghanistan since 2001. In a speech in Washington on September 21, Sopko outlined some lessons learned and his recommendations for improving the performance of the Afghan security forces and for spending US funds more effectively.

Sopko’s first main finding was a direct criticism of how the US military has failed in recent years to stabilize and sustain nations in post-conflict situations, Afghanistan foremost among them. He also argued that support for the Afghan army needs to better fit the country’s “contexts and needs” if that force is to survive a US military withdrawal. Moreover, the US has to encourage any host nation to “take ownership of security sector assistance programs.” This has long been the aim, but over the past sixteen years, the US military has never succeeded in it, either in Afghanistan or in Iraq. Despite spending more than $74 billion on training and equipping the Afghan army, the results have been dismal. Although Sopko’s recommendations command respect among independent policy experts in Washington, there is little sign that the Pentagon under Mattis is paying attention.

Afghanistan’s neighboring states may wish to see peace there, but they all want it on their own terms and with their own national interests preserved above all. The growing involvement of major powers like Russia and Iran in backing the Taliban will affect America’s ability to train the Afghan army well enough and fast enough to win the war. The Trump administration has reversed the Obama administration’s error of giving the Taliban a timeline for American withdrawal. But there is little sign of any plan, policy, or political will other than a continued US military presence of indefinite duration. It is hard to see the next sixteen years turning out any better than the last.

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Who Killed the ERA?

Diana Mara HenryFirst Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalynn Carter, and Betty Ford, International Women’s Year presiding officer Bella Abzug, and Torch of Freedom relay runners at the opening ceremonies of the National Women’s Conference, Houston, November 1977

In the summer of 1968, George Wallace, in between terms as governor of Alabama, concluded that endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment for women would help his third-party presidential campaign. He declared his support in a telegram to Alice Paul, the head of the National Women’s Party, who had cowritten the first draft of the amendment in 1923 and had been campaigning for it for forty-five years. The pro-segregationist Wallace was hardly alone among conservative politicians in his position. Strom Thurmond, a Republican senator from South Carolina, likewise supported the amendment, saying in 1972 that it “represents the just desire of many women in our pluralistic society to be allowed a full and free participation in the American way of life.”

In fact, the Republican platform had supported the Equal Rights Amendment as far back as 1940; opposition had come mainly from pro-labor Democrats, who feared that equal treatment for men and women would mean an end to legislation that protected women from dangerous jobs. Labor opposition waned as the increasingly active feminist movement—frustrated that the Supreme Court had never interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee to apply to discrimination on the basis of sex—made passing the Equal Rights Amendment a top priority. In 1971 the House approved the ERA by a vote of 354–24. The Senate followed the next year by a vote of 84–8. The proposed amendment’s language was straightforward: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The necessary ratification by three quarters of the states—the magic number of thirty-eight—looked eminently achievable.

Shortly after Congress’s endorsement, however, Wallace repudiated his earlier support, and in his platform proclaimed:

Women of the American Party say “NO” to this insidious socialistic plan to destroy the home, make women slaves of the government, and their children wards of the state.

In 1980, the year Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Republican National Convention dropped the party’s long-standing support from its platform. Momentum for ratification slowed dramatically. Opponents raised fears that the amendment would subject women to the military draft and lead inexorably to unisex bathrooms. When the June 30, 1982, deadline that Congress had set for ratification arrived, only thirty-five of the necessary thirty-eight state legislatures had voted yes, and the ERA died.

What happened? How did an effort born in bipartisanship end in polarizing defeat? Clearly, the ERA prompted a profound debate about the place of women not only in the workforce but in the home, the family, and society itself, in the course of which the amendment became entangled with the rise of the religious right that helped to bring about Reagan’s electoral sweep. Was the ERA the cause of polarization or its victim? Or did it turn out to be something else: a catalyst for positive change in legislative and judicial attitudes? It was while the ERA was pending that the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger took the first steps toward expanding the understanding of equal protection to include equality of the sexes, tentatively at first but eventually bringing us to where we are today: living under what some students of social movements, like Reva B. Siegel of Yale Law School, call the de facto ERA.1

Jane J. Mansbridge’s Why We Lost the ERA (1986), written in the immediate aftermath of the events it describes by a political scientist who was part of the pro-ERA effort, argues that “much of the support for the Amendment was superficial, because it was based on a support for abstract rights, not for real changes.” Mansbridge’s account holds up surprisingly well. She contrasts a painfully factionalized pro-ERA campaign, riven by debates over what priority to attach to abortion and gay rights, with the rigidly organized and spectacularly successful STOP ERA movement (STOP was an acronym for “stop taking our privileges”) led by Phyllis Schlafly, who persuaded her followers—largely conservative and religious women—that their very way of life was at stake.

Of course, that way of life was disappearing rapidly—as a result not of feminism but of household necessity during the economically stagnant 1970s. As the traditional family structure, with the male breadwinner at its head, became an unaffordable luxury, women entered the paid workforce in great numbers. Yet for many women as well as men, a traditional family remained the ideal, even as it receded from possibility.

This disjunction is at the heart of the historian Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (2012). Self depicts a rich history of struggle over the war in Vietnam, gay rights, and religious values, as well as a conflagration over gender roles prompted by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year celebrations—which actually lasted for three years, from 1975 through 1977. Self understands the period primarily from an economic perspective. Those he labels “breadwinner conservatives” were acutely aware of the changing nature of the family, he writes, “yet chose to understand it ideologically, as a result of feminism, rather than sociologically, as a result of economic change. That analysis led not to proposals to assist women in managing the double day but to the launching of a jeremiad against feminism.” Self observes further that “it was not feminists’ analysis of American society that fell short,” but rather their failure “to manage the political narrative of the ‘crisis of the family.’”

Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand is the most recent effort to probe the feminist/antifeminist struggle of the 1970s for what it might tell us about today’s polarized America. It’s an ambitious book, built around a close study of an event that Self treats in only a few pages and Mansbridge in a single passing reference: the congressionally mandated, federally funded National Women’s Conference that took place in Houston in November 1977. The conference was organized by the National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year, set up by the Ford administration in 1975 to coordinate American participation in the United Nations–sponsored Decade for Women. From May to July 1977, some 130,000 people—all but a few hundred of them women—took part in state-level meetings to select delegates and debate the conference’s agenda. The idea was to come up with a “plan of action” for the national delegates to adopt and present to the White House and Congress.

The path to this goal was intensely contested, with a number of the state conventions becoming ideological battlegrounds over issues like federally funded child care, gay rights, and abortion. Two thousand delegates and nearly 20,000 observers eventually attended the official conference in Houston, while a similar number gathered across town in a conservative counter-convention organized by Schlafly. Both sides emerged highly mobilized and ready for continued battle.

The events of 1977 are often portrayed merely as one episode in a decade of feminist conflicts, gains, and setbacks. Spruill, a historian of southern and women’s history at the University of South Carolina, makes the rather stronger claim that the competing conferences “ushered in a new era in American politics—the beginning rather than the end of a protracted struggle over women’s rights and family values.” Whereas in the early 1970s Democrats and Republicans had, in Spruill’s view, “both…supported feminist goals,” the events of 1977 created two polarized and increasingly partisan camps. The plan of action that emerged from the official convention in the end included support for the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. It called for equal access to credit, which banks routinely denied to married women on the premise that the husband was in control of the family finances. One plank called for reform “based on the principle that marriage is a partnership in which the contribution of each spouse is of equal importance and value.” The counter-conference was dominated by Christian and anti-abortion delegates united under a “pro-family” banner. Spruill notes that the official delegates were so “caught up in their own conference experience” that they had “little sense” of how equally empowering the Houston weekend had proved to be to the other side.

It’s hard to make the case that 1977 was solely, or even primarily, responsible for setting in motion the struggles that left us with a “pro-family” Republican Party and a Democratic Party committed, at least on paper, to a women’s rights agenda. As George Wallace’s flip-flop five years earlier demonstrates, the ERA was already toxic, if somewhat belatedly, to social conservatives, and the battle over family values was already in full cry. Spruill herself refers to Richard Nixon’s 1971 veto of a bill that would have established a network of federally funded child care centers. Nixon’s veto message, written by Patrick Buchanan, denounced the bill as a “long leap into the dark” that promised to commit “the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal modes of child-rearing against the family-centered approach.”

Nonetheless, Spruill’s project of historical reclamation is an important one. While the National Women’s Conference and the competing Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally did not quite amount to “Four Days That Changed the World” (as it was described in a Ms. magazine headline the following March), they were signal events that drew thousands of women into political engagement and offered clearly defined—if opposing—arguments in which these new activists could discover sympathies. Gloria Steinem may well have been right in a recent interview to call the National Women’s Conference “the most important event nobody knows about.”

The National Women’s Conference, almost counterintuitively from today’s perspective, had the full blessing of the political and intellectual establishment. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, then seventy-five years old, told the delegates that “this conference may well be the turning point, not only in the history of the women’s movement, but in the history of the world itself.” First Lady Rosalynn Carter was in attendance, along with one Democratic and one Republican predecessor, Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford; the trio was formally welcomed by the mayor of Houston. The event’s over-the-top theatricality was epitomized by a six-week-long torch relay that began in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women’s rights convention had been held in 1848, and concluded in Houston. The final lap was covered on network television. Maya Angelou wrote a declaration for the occasion, which was printed on a scroll that the torchbearers carried. As Spruill describes the scene:

There was a tremendous response as the three young women runners—white, black, and Latina—delivered the torch and Maya Angelou’s poem to the three First Ladies as an all-female bugle corps dressed in golden Amazon helmets saluted them.

Who could possibly forget that? But we have.

Spruill offers intriguing glimpses of a young Ann Richards, a self-regarding Betty Friedan, and a deeply ambivalent President Jimmy Carter, who inherited the project from President Gerald Ford and watched it warily from the White House. After receiving the National Plan of Action in a formal ceremony, Carter set up a forty-member National Advisory Committee for Women but kept it at arm’s length. The new committee’s members, many of whom had been leaders at the Houston conference, grew impatient when the president did not make the conference’s action items a legislative priority. For his part, Carter was trying to navigate between liberal and conservative forces within the Democratic Party without alienating the social conservatives who had been among his earliest supporters. When the women went public with their dissatisfaction, Carter reacted angrily by firing the group’s leader, Bella Abzug, the legendary former Democratic congresswoman from New York who, as Carter’s appointee, had been the presiding officer in Houston.

Phyllis Schlafly
Phyllis Schlafly; drawing by David Levine

Notwithstanding the many colorful personalities at the official conference, the star of this account is indisputably Phyllis Schlafly, whom Spruill credits with awakening, molding, and mobilizing America’s churchgoing housewives into a powerful political force. While the leadership of the feminist side was diffuse and not infrequently in conflict, on the anti-ERA side it was all Schlafly. Schlafly, who had lost two congressional races in Illinois, was a deeply political cold warrior whose husband, Fred, was president of the World Anti-Communist League. She supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964; her book A Choice Not an Echo, which called upon the Republican Party to defeat the party’s liberal faction, sold more than three million copies and is credited with helping Goldwater defeat Nelson A. Rockefeller for the Republican nomination.

Schlafly was not initially engaged either by the ERA debate or by women’s issues in general. Communism and national defense were her primary concerns. But others sought her out as one of the country’s most prominent conservative women. Once she got started, she never really stopped. (She died in September 2016 at ninety-two, six months after endorsing Donald Trump’s candidacy during the Republican primaries.)

Schlafly created a powerful grassroots movement, personally selecting the leaders of her many state chapters. Although a devout Catholic, she could speak across denominational lines to recruit conservative Protestants and also Mormons, whose contribution to the anti-ERA effort was more important than is generally recognized. Schlafly had, Spruill notes,

an extraordinary ability to unite in a coalition religious conservatives from groups hostile to one another. She accomplished this by emphasizing their common belief in the primacy of divinely created gender roles and familial structure while respecting denominational differences.

This “pro-family” coalition proved essential to the growth of the anti-abortion movement in the late 1970s; Spruill suggests that without it, abortion as a political issue might well have remained a parochially Catholic concern.

As Reva Siegel and I document in our book Before Roe v. Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling,2 many religious denominations felt obliged to take a formal position on abortion as momentum grew in the early 1970s for reform of the nineteenth-century laws that made it a crime in every state. Surprisingly, even conservative groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention took positions in favor of limited reform. Only the Catholic Church remained opposed to any modification of the old criminal laws, and it was becoming increasingly active in state-level politics to defend its position.

The ERA’s early supporters, most but not all of whom supported abortion reform, worried that abortion might derail the amendment and went out of their way to insist it would not change the abortion status quo. Schlafly—a nonpracticing lawyer—would have none of it. During the months before the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), she warned her followers that the ERA would not only destroy the traditional family but would bring about “abortion on demand” and, for good measure, same-sex marriage as well. This multipronged threat became a rallying point for cultural conservatives for whom, as Spruill puts it, “the sense of working for a righteous cause was empowering.” The anti-ERA effort was infused with religious language and imagery. Among anti-ERA activists, 98 percent identified as church members, compared with fewer than half of active ERA supporters.

Spruill appears to have interviewed every participant in the International Women’s Year events who was still alive during the years she spent on the project. Her exhaustive research, with more than a thousand footnotes, displays the vice of its virtue. She seems to have felt obliged to quote everyone she interviewed, even when it adds little to the documentary record or proves less than illuminating, as in the case of her 2009 interview with Jimmy Carter, whose conflicted involvement with the feminist leadership provides an interesting side plot. (Although many feminists said that he did not do enough for the ERA, Carter believed he “had done all that he could.”) Still, the nearly overwhelming detail and the abundant presence of distinctly subordinate players make Divided We Stand an invaluable, if at times barely readable, reference book.

There is an alternative, or at least supplemental, reading of what happened in Houston forty years ago that Spruill, committed to her thesis that the competing conferences led to today’s cultural and political polarization, seems not to see. A convergence of sorts emerged from the effort to bring women to Houston to rally for their separate causes. Both sides spoke past each other, to be sure, but whether they knew it or not, they also, in their different ways, were speaking the language of women’s rights: at a fundamental level, each side recognized a woman’s right to leave home, travel to a distant city, and stand up for what she believed to be in the best interest of her sex. By definition this was a claim, even if unacknowledged, to equal access to power, to equality in form if not in name.

Spruill quotes many pro-ERA activists who describe the National Women’s Convention as transformative. Yet they were not the only ones transformed by Houston or the events of the mid-1970s. Jane Mansbridge, in her thirty-year-old account of “why we lost the ERA,” suggests this:

When the ERA was in the newspaper, when a co-worker went to an ERA demonstration, or when advocates debated the ERA in the school gym, women who normally thought little about these issues seem to have begun to ask themselves about the amount of housework they were doing, about their pay, and about what kind of person they wanted to be.

The result, Mansbridge concluded, “was both creeping feminism and creeping antifeminism,” a complex picture of change and resistance, centered on a profound debate over what kinds of social arrangements are in women’s best interests.

This process has an ironic echo in today’s abortion debate. As pictures of fetuses held aloft at demonstrations failed to gain sufficient traction, anti-abortion strategists appropriated the language of women’s liberation and began to place the pregnant woman herself at the center of their moral claim for restricting access to abortion. In 2013, the Texas legislature cynically invoked women’s health as the justification for imposing onerous and medically unnecessary regulations on abortion clinics that would predictably close most of them. In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), the Supreme Court overturned the law, finding that by destroying the state’s abortion infrastructure, the regulations would actually hurt women rather than help them. While it was a crucially important decision, few would be so naive as to consider it an end to the debate over how to serve women’s welfare, whether in regard to abortion or anything else, within the Supreme Court or outside it.

Spruill ends her book with Donald Trump’s election: “It was clear that the polarization of American politics had reached a new and ominous level and that the nation was more divided than ever.” November 8, 2016, was one day that indisputably “shook the world.” Whether its origins can be found in the “four days that changed the world” in Houston is open to debate. But the value of reconstructing those days and pondering their meaning for the light they might shed on ours is unquestionable.

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Germany’s Election: Choosing the Unspeakable

Omer Messinger/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesStage crew covering the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) logo after a campaign event, Gendarmenmarkt Square, Berlin, September 22, 2017

A hush fell over the Willy Brandt Haus, the headquarters of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), when the results of the German federal election were announced on Sunday. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Germany’s far-right party, a party with members who have argued for shooting refugees and against German atonement for the Holocaust, received 12.6 percent of the vote. Its success came at the expense both of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which lost 8.6 percent of its seats, and the SPD, which, with 20.5 percent of the vote, saw its worst result since the end of World War II.

Party members and guests stood in silence, shaking their heads. Passing journalists sniffed around for quotes. Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, gave a halting speech in which he exhorted the party to fight against extremism. He left the stage and the room began to clear.

Until recently, the German election seemed to have a foregone conclusion: Merkel and the CDU, with its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would sail into a fourth term of government; other parties would experience relatively little shakeup. Posters with bland slogans (“For a Germany in which we live well and happily”) papered trees and poles in Berlin. At campaign rallies, party members handed out shoehorns and novelty wooden spoons to spread their messages.

The only major sign of the election in my neighborhood was a large CDU center that opened up in Mitte a few blocks from where I live—the first time any party had opened such a center, the receptionist proudly told me. When I visited last week, the place was almost empty. A photo booth allowed visitors to take pictures of themselves with pro-Merkel slogans. (“Because she keeps her promises.” “Because she governs without scandal and drama.”) Around the corner, an interactive display turned people’s faces into emojis. Stand perfectly still, and you’d be replaced by a round, yellow Merkel head.

The chancellor was set to arrive a few hours later to hold a press conference for children. She told the assembled kids that, if she weren’t chancellor, she’d want to be an “astronaut flying over the earth,” and that her favorite hobby was growing potatoes.

The apparent calm of the election belied the real concerns of the German public, concerns evident in the election results. Merkel began her campaign late and then barely campaigned; she gave plain speeches that rarely mentioned her opponents. To the eyes of the public, the two major parties seemed nearly identical. This provided the AfD with an opening to be the opposition. If people turned to a party that said the unspeakable, it was partly because very speakable things weren’t being said at all.

The German political system is parliamentary, and for the last four years, the two major parties, the SPD and Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc, have governed together in a so-called Grand Coalition. In some ways, the coalition has been good for the SPD, Clara West, a party representative in Berlin, told me. It helped the party push through certain important measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage. But being part of a coalition made it hard for the party to claim these victories as its own.

At a rally at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin last Friday, Schulz complained about Merkel’s party’s taking credit for the SPD’s political program. “What, then, is the difference between Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz?” he asked. If “the SPD promised that the sun would shine over the Gendarmenmarkt, one can assume that two hours later a report would come from a press agency: The CDU’s committee on weather conditions, led by Angela Merkel, had already planned it for fourteen days.”

“Merkel and Schulz: they agree,” read a headline after the one TV debate of the election season, in which the two candidates seemed to bat canned answers back and forth. The four other parties that will enter the Bundestag, or Parliament—in addition to the AfD, the economically liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Greens, and the far-left Die Linke—were relegated to a follow-up show the next evening. Merkel and Schulz barely discussed the eurozone. Education and NATO spending did not come up.

Voters noticed the lack of political debate, and complained. At a rally for Die Linke, an eighteen-year-old physics student told me that politics had become too sleepy. Merkel had been chancellor since the student had been six years old. Reelected, she would govern well into his time at university.

“Things don’t come into the political discussion when the same party is in power,” he said. After the TV debate, the AfD’s polling numbers rose. 

On Saturday, I went to north-east Berlin, where both the SPD and the AfD were canvassing voters in front of a mall. Activists from the two parties worked off the same sidewalk, barely looking at each other. At the SPD booth, party members talked with voters, hugged them, and asked about their lives. At the AfD booth, a long line of journalists waited to interview a single supporter.

Heinz, eighty-one, a former East German soldier, and his wife Christine, seventy-five, said they would vote SPD, even though they were disappointed by the party’s performance. “Schulz should have fought more. He should have been more on the offensive,” Heinz said. At least the AfD “actually talked about what people are complaining about.” For him, this was the American airbase in Ramstein, which he hoped would soon close.

The central issue of the campaign, migration, barely came up at all in most of the speeches by Merkel and Schulz. Merkel herself hardly mentioned the subject in her campaign, as if hoping the issue would simply go away. The CDU’s “strategy was to not talk about it, hoping in vain that voters wouldn’t realize it,” Dr. Timo Lochocki of the German Marshall Fund told me. 

In the absence of debate, the AfD’s xenophobic nationalism set the agenda for every other party. Christian Lindner, the head of the libertarian FDP, which has reentered the Bundestag with 10 percent of the vote after failing to meet the 5 percent threshold in 2013, gave an interview to the right-wing tabloid Bild that was headlined “All refugees must go back!” 

When the AfD hired an American company, Harris Media, to run the party’s final advertising push, the consultants were criticized for suggesting the slogan “Germany for Germans.” Yet it was a member of Merkel’s own cabinet, Thomas de Maizière, who in April published an article in Bild that attempt to define German culture in anti-immigrant terms: “We are not Burka…. Our country is molded by Christianity.” 

Nearly all the parties called for more police presence and increased deportations of illegal immigrants. Such policies would once have been “unthinkable,” an SPD member told me while handing out flyers. Soon after, a voter came over to the stall to complain about how much refugees were costing the country.

No candidate in the election proposed a future in which migrants could be anything but a source of crime or discord; no party articulated any other kind of vision for German society. Voters could barely have been faulted for forgetting that, just two years ago, the chief executive of the automaker Daimler suggested that an influx of migrants could be a “new economic miracle” for Germany. In this election, when violence was mentioned, it was only Islamic terrorism; hate crimes against migrants in Germany, which rose last year to nearly ten incidents a day, did not figure at all, from my observation.

At his rally on Friday, Martin Schulz brought a Holocaust victim onto the stage and kissed her on the forehead. The AfD, he said, were “the gravediggers of democracy.” He called for “tolerance.” But migrants and people of color seemed nearly absent from the political stage, even as sentiment against them pushed people to the polls.

No one knows what the AfD will do in the Bundestag. For the moment, pundits are buzzing about a so-called “Jamaica” coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the Greens, and the FPD, whose party colors make up those of the Jamaican flag. This would allow the SPD to act as the opposition, possibly weakening the AfD. “Tonight our collaboration with the CDU is over,” Schulz said Sunday night, getting the biggest cheer of the evening.

Yet the negotiations over such a governing coalition could take months, and it’s unclear whether these three very different parties would be able to work together. If that partnership doesn’t work, the CDU will have to try another grand coalition with the SPD; if the SPD were to refuse, there could be another election in January, Dr. Lochocki told me. He predicted that the right wing of the CDU will now gain more power as the party tries to recover from its losses. The idea of a CDU-AfD coalition at some point in the future does not seem impossible: some CDU members have already tried to cooperate with the AfD in state parliaments.

As for the AfD, this election was a greater success than its leaders had hoped for. Georg Pazderski, the head of the party in Berlin, told me on Saturday that any result in the double digits would be a considered a win. “Voters are waking up,” he said. On the sidewalk, another AfD member was handing out white roses along with a pamphlet on Christian values.

“White! The color of innocence,” he yelled. Most passersby accepted the roses. “It is becoming easier to support the AfD,” Pazderski said. “It will be easier when we sit in the Bundestag.”

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The Art of Wrath

‘King Priam Begging Achilles for the Body of Hector’; drawing by Henry Fuseli, circa 1770–1771

The two recent translators of the Iliad, both veteran classical scholars, have long inhabited that now largely abandoned category, Man of Letters. Barry Powell has published poems of his own; Peter Green has translated Apollonius of Rhodes, Catullus, Ovid, and Juvenal, and both are novelists. Both now bid (Green avowedly so) to seize the crown of the long-reigning king of Homer translators, Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad of 1951 remains the standard.1 If either succeeds, I suspect it will be Green, though his competitor is a worthy one.

Like Lattimore, Green and Powell have rendered the unrhymed Greek into unrhymed verse. Green’s language tends more to the contemporary and colloquial than either of the others’ (Lattimore was not above a little light archaizing), but apart from the occasional lapse of taste, he has succeeded in producing a fluent and highly readable version that often achieves a poetry of its own. Powell is lucid and remarkably successful in making a literal translation nonetheless enjoyable, but the price is that his unobtrusive verse is slightly prosaic; his great virtue against Green is that he preserves Homer’s dignity without fail.


Green prefaces his translation with a moving account of his lifelong engagement with Homer, and his long-held, long-failed ambition to translate his poems: “Of course, it didn’t happen. A mass of other work got in the way. I married, had children, was caught up in endless responsibilities.” His life has indeed been prodigiously productive, so that the climax to his narrative of these frustrated Homeric hopes is at once both poignant and inspiring, with a charming if perhaps unintended humorous side effect:

It was only a year ago, when I realized that on my next birthday I was going to be ninety, that I asked myself what I had to lose, even now, by tackling the Iliad; and in a curiously relaxed mood sat down and tried my hand at book 1.

At age ninety Cato the Censor could boast only of having begun learning Greek—Green is about to turn ninety-one, his Iliad is out, and his Odyssey on the way: an epic coda to an epic career.

Powell has devoted almost all his scholarly energies to Homer, so his late career move to translate the author is unsurprising (though it seems to have surprised Powell: it was his Oxford publisher who suggested it, “out of the blue”).

The proem—the poem’s first seven lines—announcing the Iliad’s subject is a brilliant and influential example of how Homer can make what is difficult and dense seem easy and light. Recreating the effects in English is not an easy feat, especially when difficult decisions about textual variants are thrown into the mix. Here is Lattimore’s version of the proem, which opens with an address to the muse, the divine source of epic poetry:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Now Powell:

The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus,
the destructive anger that brought ten-thousand pains to the
Achaeans and sent many brave souls of fighting men to the house
of Hades and made their bodies a feast for dogs
and all kinds of birds. For such was the will of Zeus.

Sing the story from the time when Agamemnon, the son
of Atreus, and godlike Achilles first stood apart in contention.

And finally Green:

Wrath, goddess, sing of Achilles Pēleus’s son’s
calamitous wrath, which hit the Achaians with countless ills—
many the valiant souls it saw off down to Hādēs,
souls of heroes, their selves left as carrion for dogs
and all birds of prey, and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled—
from the first moment those two men parted in fury,
Atreus’s son, king of men, and the godlike Achilles.

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language. The opening word, mēnin, wrath, is the subject of the long poem that follows, but not of the long sentence it begins. This word order in the original creates a markedly stylized but not a strained effect. Poetic Greek can bring off putting the potent single thematic word first and then proceeding to other parts of the sentence, placed in an order that satisfies the demands of rhetoric and versification. Not English, where “man bites dog” means that man bites dog and not the other way around. Homer’s translators and imitators must either invert English’s natural preference for putting the subject first, or else forfeit the emphasis Homer has given the word “wrath.” Milton, imitating Homer’s opening (“Of Man’s First Disobedience and [four more lines of things to sing of]…Sing Heav’nly Muse, that,” etc.), tricked his way around the stricter demands of English word order: the phrasal “sing of” let him tuck a bit of the verb in ahead of the unnaturally front-loaded object. The reader is aware of the resulting grammatical suspense, and willing to wait indefinitely for the rest of the verb to drop.

As we can see, only Lattimore has chosen loyalty to English over Homer’s word order, which in literal translation goes like this: “Wrath sing, goddess, Peleus-son Achilles’, baneful, which hurled….” Matching inflectional markings on “baneful” and the relative pronoun that follows it tell the Greek reader that both go with “wrath” rather than, for example, “Achilles”: it’s the baneful wrath of Achilles that hurled….

But in order to tell an English reader the same thing, the relative clause has to plump down right after the noun and hold on for dear life: “Sing the wrath which….” Try to preserve the Greek word order and English speakers will have to pause to figure out that which leapfrogs backward to wrath. This is why Powell and Green, unwilling to give up Homer’s effect, opt for the hiccup repetition that eliminates any ambiguity: “wrath, goddess, sing…wrath, which….” Lattimore finessed the problem by exchanging the adjective opening line two (baneful) for a more mobile part of speech (devastation) to park the relative clause after: “and its devastation, which put….”

So, line one, round one to the reigning champ. But the next challenge comes as soon as line 5, a notorious editorial crux and a touchstone of any translator’s nerve. It gets the better of all three. Here the contest is between the manuscripts, which all point in one direction, generally agreed to be the wrong one, and the sense. How do we decide? The choosing will be concealed from everyone but the translator’s conscience, and as we will see, the impulse to have things both ways can be irresistible.

The vulgate text of the Iliad—the accepted Greek version of the text—established in the mid-second century BCE by the Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus, tells us that the baneful wrath of Achilles, after sending the souls of many heroes to Hades, made of their bodies “takings for dogs and all birds.” Three and a half centuries later, a single source reports that Aristarchus’s predecessor Zenodotus had read the word “banquet” in the space occupied by “all” in our standard text: “and made their bodies takings for dogs/and for birds a banquet.” Our source rejects this reading on the fastidious grounds that in Homer “banquets” are always for humans. In 1978 the British scholar M.M. Willcock countered that the vulgate reading “all” was “flat and inaccurate, seeing that only certain birds, such as vultures, would be interested,” a judgment endorsed by more recent commentators, who have also shown that the objection to using “banquet” of animals is not even supported by usage.2

More to the point of the passage, Zenodotus’s “banquet” creates a sarcastic and pungently emotional climax to the enumeration of the consequences of Achilles’ wrath. It is, in short, a much better reading, and derived from a credible pre-Aristarchan source. So why not adopt it?

‘Achilles Sacrificing His Hair on the Funeral Pyre of Patroclus’; drawing by Henry Fuseli, circa 1800–1805

In fact, that’s what everybody wants to do, but nobody dares. Scholars over the past century or so have demonstrated a depressing consistency of equivocation. Walter Leaf (1900) read “all” in his text, but commented: “On the whole ‘banquet’ seems intrinsically a better reading, but we have no right to leave the uniform tradition of the manuscripts.” In an Oxford commentary of 2001 Simon Pulleyn does much the same. Perhaps the greatest cognitive dissonance has been effected by the gigantic Basel edition of the Iliad that began publication in 2000 (originally projected at more than fifty volumes, but now scaled back): it prints the Greek word for “all” on the left-hand page, but the facing translation reads Zenodotus’s “banquet,” and the commentary defends it vigorously and persuasively.3

With that background we can see that what our translators are doing is recapitulating a long-standing scholarly failure of nerve in a more economical fashion. Green says what the dogs got was “carrion,” which acceptably renders Greek heloria, literally, “takings,” or “booty.” When he completes “carrion for dogs” with “and all birds of prey,” however, he silently gives the lame “all birds” some help by adding the helpful qualification “of prey,” which is nowhere in the Greek (“scavenger birds” would have been more accurate). But Green’s adjustment here is nothing compared to what Lattimore and Powell do: if “carrion” is acceptable for the neutral “takings” of the Greek, where then did Lattimore get the “delicate feasting” with which he feeds his dogs? I think we know the answer. Although his retention of Aristarchus’s “all” kicks Zenodotus out the front door, “delicate feasting” (or Powell’s “feast”) smuggles him and his “banquet” back in through the rear.

Should we be grateful to our editors and translators for letting us have our delicate feasting and eat it, too, rather than moralizing about their cowardly equivocations? Certainly it would not be hard to imagine a post-modernist defense of the palimpsestic effect achieved by allowing Zenodotus’s ghost to lurk behind the dais over which Aristarchus presides. But I would have thought the choice here was simple: believe Zenodotus.

The tailpiece of line 5, “and the will of Zeus was fulfilled,” creates a distinctively Homeric effect, better served by Lattimore and Green than Powell. This kind of coda, which Homer uses to round off comparisons and other passages of implicit pathos, was called by ancient scholars an epiphōnēma—something like “concluding pronouncement”—usually an observation that subtly departs from the ethical or rhetorical perspective of what precedes it.4 Thus, when the Greek hero Diomedes, meeting in battle for the first time the Trojan ally Glaucus, asks who he is, the latter begins (my translation):

Why do you ask my birth?
as is the birth of leaves, so is that of men:
the wind blows one growth of leaves to the ground, but the burgeoning
wood sends forth others, and the season of spring succeeds.

The last clause is strictly speaking irrelevant to the comparison, but profoundly affects its tone by opening up a wider and possibly hopeful perspective.5 The epiphōnēma is thus a kind of editorializing “spin”—often moralistic—but in Homer’s hands is always added with the lightest of touches, introduced at the end of a sequence as if no more than another item in it: it is left to the audience to note the change of tone and orientation. So here in the proem, the unobtrusively introduced “and the will of Zeus was fulfilled” lifts our eyes from the grisly activities of the animals on the battlefield to the cosmic perspective of Zeus’s plan, whatever it may be. The heavy emphasis of Powell’s “for such was the will of Zeus” is at odds with the delicacy Homer customarily displays when using this rhetorical figure.

But what is this plan of Zeus that was fulfilled? To say “we don’t know for sure, but it sounds impressive enough” would be flippant but sadly accurate. Aristarchus thought it was the plan of the Iliad itself, by which Zeus deliberately honored Achilles in his quarrel with Agamemnon by temporarily granting the Trojans the upper hand. This seems most likely, though what is especially notable is that Homer raises the question without answering it: he seems to want the proem to leave us sensing that what is about to unfold is ominous and important, but somewhat mysterious in its theological implications.6

Again our understanding of this portentous problem comes down to an interpretation of the grammar. Consider line 6: “Since that time when first there stood in division of conflict Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.” Lattimore prints this line so that it follows directly on “and the will of Zeus was accomplished.” Green and Powell, on the other hand, punctuate heavily at the end of line 5, with Powell even reinforcing his full stop with a paragraph break after it. The point at issue is whether the “since” (or “from the time when”) is telling us something about Zeus’s plan—that it started with the two heroes’ quarrel—or is part of the poet’s charge to the muse starting in line 1: “Start the tale from this point” (which is where the narrative actually does start).

The former interpretation has the double defect of ruining the epiphōnēma of line 5 and of contradicting Homer’s own account: Zeus is drawn into the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon only by the extortionary intervention of Achilles’ goddess mother (end of Book 1), and very much against his better judgment. To say that his own plan began to be fulfilled at the moment they first quarreled is simply wrong. So Green and Powell have the evidence of the poem on their side. The problem for them is that Homer does not usually stretch out his sentences so long—so that in lines 6–7 we are still working off of the verbal charge of “sing” in line 1.

This strikingly dissolute syntax was curiously influential—Herodotus seems to have imitated it in the proem to his Histories—but I especially admire how Green has solved the problem: while Powell as usual achieves perfect lucidity (“Sing the story from the time when”), he does so by having recourse once again to a repetition not in the Greek. Green avoids this distortion by putting lines 3–5 between dashes and so giving the reader a visual cue to carry the syntactical construction of what precedes over into what follows. Thus he gets the interpretation right without interrupting the forward motion that is always Homer’s aim—and this is one of the great virtues of Green’s translation as a whole: its limber fluency.


Less successful are some of his dictional choices. When he says that Achilles’ wrath “hit the Achaians with countless ills,” replacing a rather colorless verb with a distracting colloquialism—“Hit me with your best shot!”—it is a sudden veering out of key that happens often enough to create a certain anxiety in the reader. Sometimes we can see that a specific effect is being aimed at. When Zeus, who has forcefully prohibited the other gods from meddling in the battle at Troy, spots Hera and Athena heading down from Mount Olympus to do just that, he sends the messenger god Iris to stop them, concluding the commission with some zestfully enumerated threats:

I’ll cripple their swift horses in their harness, I’ll hurl
themselves from the chariot, which I’ll smash to pieces:
not in ten circling years will they get over the wounds
that my thunderbolts will inflict upon them! That way
Miss Grey-Eyes will learn what it means to fight her father!

Zeus is indeed annoyed, and there is a complicated irony in his applying the nickname “Grey-Eye” to his daughter Athena here, in that a few lines earlier she had herself predicted to Hera that “though he is angry with me now” (i.e., for her meddling) “the day will come when he calls me his dear Grey-Eye once more” (8.370–3, my translation): all-knowing Zeus, seated a few hundred miles away on a different mountaintop, seems somehow to have picked up this prediction, which he now throws back at her. But “Miss Grey-Eyes”? That seems a little adolescent. Green is straying near the tone of Christopher Logue’s sometimes powerful, sometimes appalling reimagining of the Iliad, in which he at one point has Achilles apostrophize his king as “Cuntstruck Agamemnon” and at another has Zeus (“God”) affectionately address “teenage Athene” as “Chou-Chou.”7 When Green threatens to go Logue, as here, it is a relief to turn to the sober accuracy of Powell: “Then maybe the flashing-eyed one/will know what it is to fight against her own father.”


The two editions differ in the supplementary aids they provide. While Green’s translation makes for a better read, Powell’s gets us closer to the Greek (as does Lattimore’s); as such it is more scholarly, and would be suitable to put in the hands of students who want to go deep in. Green has deliberately declined to include any introductory guide to interpretation, since he wants his readers to come up with their own, and is extremely sparing with explanatory notes (though further guidance is offered in a synopsis and an idiosyncratic fifty-page “Select Glossary” at the end). Powell’s notes are abundant, though he avoids stultifying pedantry, and he has had the excellent idea of interspersing pictures (more than fifty) of Greek vase paintings, sculptures, and even amusing curiosities like a portrait of the second Mrs. Heinrich Schliemann bedecked in jewelry that her archaeologist husband had dug up from the presumed site of Troy—before the walls of which we also get a picture of Powell himself. His maps are far better than Green’s, and his introduction is a serious attempt to familiarize the reader with the literary, linguistic, historical, and archaeological backgrounds to the poem (Green’s twenty-four-page introduction is interesting but quite personal and unsystematic).

Powell has for many years advanced a theory that an illiterate Homer dictated the Iliad and Odyssey to an unknown genius who adapted the Phoenician alphabet to this purpose by outfitting it with the hitherto missing vowels. In our present state of knowledge the theory is beyond proof or disproof. Powell has argued for it elsewhere with great learning and acuity, and states it here as an established fact, even giving the moment of its first propounding the final slot (“AD 1991,” i.e., the date of Powell’s book) in a “Homeric Timeline” of fifteen items (“c. 1200 BC: Fall of Troy,” etc.).8

Each of these translations is an accomplishment its author can be proud of. If you want an Iliad for the beach, take Green’s—for the study, Powell’s.

  1. 1

    The old warhorse is showing no inclination to head out to pasture: it was recently reissued with an excellent introduction by Professor Richard P. Martin of Stanford, who also contributed substantial notes and other aids to the reader; see The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore, with an introduction and notes by Richard Martin (University of Chicago Press, 2011). For the superiority of Lattimore’s translation to those of Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald, among others, see Hugh Lloyd-Jones, “Welcome Homer!,” The New York Review, February 14, 1991; and Greek in a Cold Climate (Barnes and Noble, 1991), pp. 1–17.  

  2. 2

    Homer, Iliad, edited with introduction and commentary by M.M. Willcock, Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1978). The late Martin West defended “all birds” by pointing to the phrase’s occurrence in the fifth-century comic playwright Aristophanes; see his Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Leipzig: Saur, 2001), p. 173. This is unpersuasive: the play he cited, a fantasy called Birds, depicts a bird takeover of the universe and, in the passage in question, has a bird chorus enumerate the benefits that will be conferred on the Athenians by individual bird species, provided they award Aristophanes’ play first prize: “But if you vote against us…you will be shat on by all birds.” No such contrast motivates “all birds” in the Iliad.  

  3. 3

    The Iliad, edited by Walter Leaf (London: Macmillan, 1900–1902), Vol. 1, pp. 3–4; Homer, Iliad 1, edited with an introduction, translation, and commentary by S. Pulleyn (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 120–121; Homerus Ilias, edited by M.L. West (Stuttgart/Leipzig: Saur, 2000), Vol. 1; Homers Ilias: Gesamtkommentar, edited by J. Latacz et al. (Munich/Leipzig: Vieweg and Teubner, 2000), Vols. 1, pp. 1, and 2–3; and 2, pp. 19–20.  

  4. 4

    For a recent discussion of the epiphōnēma, see Michel Patillon, Corpus rhetoricum: Tome III.1 Pseudo-Hermogène, I’invention (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012), pp. xcvii–ix.  

  5. 5

    West here adopted the reading of the pre-Aristarchan Aristophanes of Byzantium, “in the season of spring,” which then requires that “leaves” be understood as subject of “succeed”: “and they succeed in the season of spring.” This replaces the lilting epiphōnēma of the transmitted text with a banality.  

  6. 6

    A minority of scholars look for the plan outside the Iliad itself, often pointing to the first surviving fragment of the non-Homeric epic Cypria, in which Zeus puts in train the events culminating in the Trojan War in order to relieve the earth of its excess population. It would be highly uncharacteristic of Homer to refer so obliquely in his proem to a plan mentioned nowhere else in the work, all the more so given that the ensuing poem most certainly does narrate the unfolding of a plan of Zeus (to honor Achilles after his quarrel with Agamemnon), who guides the action decisively from the end of Book 1 all the way through the bitter end (with a time-out for sex in Book 14). Green is himself an advocate of the overpopulated-earth theory (see p. 543), but even he is unwilling to foist it on the proem (p. 25, note 2).  

  7. 7

    War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad, a collection of Christopher Logue’s four adaptations of sections of the Iliad, as well as previously published material (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). The quotations above are cited from this new edition: Agamemnon, p. 24; teenage Athene, p. 112; Chou-Chou, p. 122.  

  8. 8

    Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge University Press, 1991) and Writing and the Origins of Greek Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2002). The “Homeric Timeline” is on p. xxvii of the translation. 

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Nuclear Apocalypse Now?

Collection of the New-York Historical Society/Gift of Chesley Bonestell/Bridgeman ImagesAn illustration by Chesley Bonestell for “Hiroshima, U.S.A.” in Collier’s, August 5, 1950

Seventy-two years ago, the United States launched a pre-emptive nuclear strike against a hated faraway Asian nation. The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, which killed some 146,000 men, women, and children—and the subsequent devastation of Nagasaki, a few days later—opened a new era for humanity. Not one of hope or progress, but of the very real possibility of annihilation of most life on Earth.

That such an immeasurable catastrophe has not befallen us, despite so many nations being armed with weapons of mass destruction, was because deterrence worked. Every actor in this dance of death understood that mutually assured destruction made the use of nuclear weapons unconscionable and, yes, MAD. Though the theory of deterrence was tested several times—almost to destruction during the 1963 Cuban missile crisis—we have managed to remain safe so far.

Until now. For today, we seem to be edging—if not rushing—toward a clash between two belligerent nations: the most powerful on the planet, the United States, and North Korea, whose leader sees nuclear weaponry and the development of long-range missiles as crucial to the survival of his constantly menaced country and his rule over it. Kim Jong-un’s grandiose warnings of an attack on the American mainland have been met by Donald Trump’s promise to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

At the United Nations this week, the president ratcheted up the tension by threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” and taunting its leader, saying, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.” Kim Jong-un answered with his own insults, calling the US president “a frightened dog,” “a mentally deranged US dotard,” and “a rogue and a gangster fond of playing with fire,” and promising the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

But there was another, more telling aspect of Trump’s UN speech. This most thoughtless and impetuous of American presidents also called the possibility of nuclear conflict “unthinkable.” On the contrary, we must think about it. And crucial to any understanding of the moral import of the possible use of nuclear weapons is to go back to the foundational moment of this nuclear age and ask again: Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes?

We have no way of knowing what the people of North Korea would make of that question, any more than we know what their views are about their leader’s avowed willingness to order a nuclear first strike. After all, the citizens of the so-called Democratic Republic are closeted in a “dense fog” created by Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, “to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”

We do, on the other hand, know something about what Americans think. Two years ago, a Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of American respondents regarded the bombing of Hiroshima as justified, a clear majority, though significantly down from the 85 percent who felt that way in 1945.

There is still much controversy around the issue. The traditional justification for the attack was that it was the only way to force the Japanese High Command to surrender immediately, and to avoid a long and costly invasion of island after island that would have led to countless American and Allied casualties. But subsequent historical research has revealed that Japan capitulated out of fear that the Soviet Union would land forces on the Japanese mainland and occupy half the country. The findings of historians Gar Alperovitz, Murray Sayle, and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, among others, refute the conventional wisdom that the first nuclear attack in history was an absolute necessity.

Yet the myth persists. The question is: To what extent does Americans’ belief in the rightness of President Truman’s fateful decision in 1945 provide moral support for the brimstone rhetoric of nuclear conflagration that President Trump is deploying today?

Polling may provide only a partial answer to that, but it is suggestive. In May, a Zogby Analytics survey found that 52 percent of respondents would support a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s WMD program (though a nuclear strike was not specified in the poll question). Another, more recent study suggested that American public approval of a nuclear first strike could be as high as 60 percent if such an attack would save thousands of US soldiers’ lives, even at the price of millions of civilian casualties in the enemy country. Sound familiar?

This week’s trade in brawling insults between Trump and Kim has eroded the comforting notion that such scenarios are purely hypothetical. Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea should encourage the American people to ask whether they would countenance another nuclear first strike to be launched in their name. If a majority still believes, mistakenly, that the cataclysmic blasts that ravaged Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were a necessary evil, at a time when the United States was the world’s sole nuclear-armed power, what can persuade our fellow citizens that striking a pariah nation with a nuclear arsenal in 2017 would not also be a necessary evil?

To debate these issues is an urgent intellectual task, a national conversation that should be taking place in every home, school and work place. John Hersey’s reporting for The New Yorker in “Hiroshima” shocked many in 1946, but over the decades America has largely escaped thinking too deeply about its responsibility for the devastation and suffering of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the burnt bodies, the radiated air, the screams amid the rubble. The power of the US nuclear force today is thousands of times greater than it was in 1945; the ruin it might inflict on the people of North Korea unimaginably worse.

Debating whether Hiroshima was a war crime is, at this moment, anything but an academic exercise. America’s presumed innocence is not benign. It allows an ignorant and bellicose president to open the door not just to the Kim regime’s destruction, but to a possible act of collective suicide on a global scale. If Trump nukes North Korea, what will China do? And Russia?

In 1888, the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche predicted the coming of “wars the like of which have never been seen on earth before.” It seems unlikely that Trump was recalling Ecce Homo when he echoed Nietzsche’s phrase with his promise of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but he should consider the warning of Albert Einstein, four years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

If this president is seriously considering the first nuclear attack in more than seven decades of uneasy atomic peace, it won’t matter this time whether we call it a war crime. It would be an apocalypse that might leave no one to claim they were innocent.

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