Месечни архиви: November 2017

France, Islam, & the Ramadan Affair


Jean-Luc Luyssen/Gamma-Rapho via Getty ImagesTariq Ramadan, Ivry-sur-Seine, France, November 14, 2003

Her name is Henda Ayari. She is forty years old and a Muslim; she was a Salafist, meaning that she adhered to a pietistic form of Islam. She says she’s still a Muslim, but she has abandoned the headscarf she wore for a long time. In 2016, she became a cause célèbre when she published a memoir, J’ai choisi d’être libre (I Chose to Be Free), in which she described her experience of brutalization at the hands of a violent husband. She also alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a Muslim preacher, whom she called Zoubeyr.

In October 2017, she became a cause célèbre all over again—this time in the wake of the Weinstein Affair, the ever-widening wave of revelations about sexual harassment and sexual assaults carried out by famous and powerful men. In France, the #MeToo hashtag was rendered as #BalanceTonPorc, which translates as “Squeal on your pig.” Ayari now revealed the real identity of Zoubeyr. His name is Tariq Ramadan. About a week later, another woman, who has remained anonymous, also made a complaint against him. Her testimony is terrifying: Ramadan is said to have “raped, assaulted, and humiliated” her. Soon afterward, four women in Geneva also accused him of forced sexual relations between 1984 and 2004, when they were between fourteen and eighteen years old. All the women described a relationship of subordination imposed by an authoritarian figure who needed to have women under his control. Ramadan has denied the allegations, blaming “a campaign of slander” orchestrated by his enemies and issuing a libel action in Paris.

Such is the “Ramadan Affair” that has scandalized and enraged France, but this was hardly the first time the Islamic scholar had been the center of controversy. The accusations of sexual assault and abuse have only added a vicious new energy to an already bitter debate concerning Ramadan that has divided French society.

So who is Tariq Ramadan? Born in Geneva, and resident in Switzerland, he is a grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. A controversial expert on Islam, Ramadan has taught in prestigious universities and was a professor at Oxford until he was placed on leave after the sexual assault scandal blew up. Long before that, Ramadan had earned notoriety for his writings and his activities. For thirty years, he was one of the foremost spokesmen for Islam on the European media scene. In France, his books, articles, and lectures have generated a blend of polemic, praise, and poison such as only true gurus can arouse.

For those in France who despise Ramadan, he has always practiced “doublespeak,” using his rhetorical talents to mask a covert but consistent message of jihad against the West—in particular, the critics say, against democracy and women’s rights. Among these opponents are many French intellectuals—such as the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter—as well as politicians of both right and left, notably the former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. For Ramadan’s defenders—whether they are Muslim or not, and whether they agree with him or not—Ramadan represents and articulates a path for Islam to engage with modernity without denying its foundations. These defenders, who include the renowned scholars of Islam Olivier Roy and François Burgat, reject the “doublespeak” idea. Burgat has observed that there is not a single French Muslim who has gone to Syria for jihad who has cited Tariq Ramadan as an influence. Indeed, many jihadists denounce Ramadan as a Western stooge.

For most of his career, Ramadan has generally enjoyed a favorable reception in English-speaking countries. After the terrorist attacks in London in 2005, he was invited by Prime Minister Tony Blair to take part as an adviser in a working group on Islamist extremism. In France, though, Ramadan has been embroiled in controversy. To his message to Muslims that they can be fully true to their faith and fully Western at the same time, and that sharia, or Islamic law, is not a divine essence but can be adapted to modernity, his adversaries respond that he is equivocating and scheming. They say that his goal is to disrupt the equilibrium of a country where there is a long-settled separation of church and state.

In 2004, Ramadan caused a storm when he initially called on Muslims in France to oppose the law against religious symbols in public schools, which de facto banned the wearing of the headscarf. Then, in 2005, Ramadan appealed for a “moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning, and the death penalty” in Muslim countries. The journalist Caroline Fourest jumped on this: because Ramadan was calling for a moratorium only on the lapidation of women, and not a ban, this was proof that he was not opposed to it in principle; that proved he was a fundamentalist in disguise. Ramadan responded that “it is not enough to condemn to advance things,” and that for Muslim countries to evolve, you have to “open the debate and find a pedagogy.” Ramadan has also been accused of homophobia and anti-Semitism. When in February 2016, he declared before an assembly of Muslims that “France is now a Muslim culture,” many claimed that the mask had slipped: this showed that Ramadan wanted to impose sharia in France as a legal norm.

The arguably artificial controversies aside, there are several reasons why Ramadan has become such a divisive figure in France. France’s Muslim population is larger (at about 8 percent of the total) than its counterparts in other European nations like Germany and Britain (both around 6 percent), and France has a “guilty conscience” about its Muslims thanks to its colonial history of subjugating Arab populations and Algeria’s bloody war of independence (1954–1962), which France ultimately lost. Ramadan was, for a time, an important example for Muslim communities in France, particularly among their youth, because he incarnated success and fame, but he was also an effective advocate for the legitimacy of Islam as a religious practice, which had until then been confined to the margins of society. To young Muslims of the quartiers, those underprivileged neighborhoods on the outskirts of major cities, Ramadan restored a sense of pride in being Muslim.

Finally, it is impossible to make sense of the Ramadan Affair without an account of what secularism, or laïcité, means in France. The principles of laïcité were foundational to the republic, and their influence was consolidated in the second half of the nineteenth century. French laïcité, which is distinct from Anglo-Saxon secularism, rests on three pillars: the separation of church and state, freedom and equality for all forms of worship, and the neutrality of the state in matters of religion. It would be unimaginable in France to have a banknote proclaiming In God We Trust. Why God? And which God exactly?

These principles were fought for and won in a France once known as the “eldest daughter of the church,” in which the Catholic Church was traditionally pro-monarchic and played a huge political part. Their eventual inscription in France’s constitution was a historic victory for the republican forces in French politics, largely of the left. From the start, though, the fight for laïcité was marked by a split between two camps. One was radically anticlerical; Victor Hugo was its great figurehead. This camp directly opposed the Catholic clericalism that rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. From the early twentieth century, under the slogan “Down with the red skullcaps,” referring to cardinals’ caps, this group gathered a coalition that ran from the Radical Party, representing a provincial bourgeoisie of the moderate left, all the way to anarchists. It tried to confine religion to the private sphere, restricted to its places of worship.

The second camp, led by mainstream socialists like Aristide Briand and Jean Jaurès, preferred a doctrine of state neutrality and the protection of the rights of minority religions, which in France then meant Protestantism and Judaism, rather than an outright ban on displays of religiosity in the public sphere. It is this second tendency that won during the debate in 1905 when it came to a vote on the law on the separation of church and state. In his 2014 book La république, l’islam et le monde, Alain Gresh recalls that “the Council of State, which had to interpret the 1905 law, did so in a liberal sense, assuring the right of churches to organize themselves as they wish, including in the public space.” Between 1906 and 1930, many municipal mayors in France tried to ban public processions by Catholics. In 136 cases out of 139, their rulings were overturned by the courts. Nevertheless, a virulent anticlericalism remained a potent force in French society.

A hundred years later, it was in the name of a pure and tough” laïcité that the National Front started a campaign in France to marginalize the Muslim religion. It is no small paradox to see the heir of an extreme-right and vigorously antisecular tradition in France today proclaim laïcité as an article of faith and demand its strictest possible application to Islam. Over the past three decades in France, the hard right has forced a debate on “French identity” that aims to show Islam is incompatible with France and the Republic in all circumstances. In its wake, many so-called “identitarian” groupings have emerged in French society. One of the most important is Riposte Laïque, which was founded in 2007 and whose website these days promotes a book titled Pourquoi et comment interdire l’islam (Why and How to Ban Islam).

This vein of nativist, nationalist identity politics has spread within, and beyond, the traditional conservative camp. After President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, he created a Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity, and Cooperative Development. When a Socialist government came to power in 2012, it followed Sarkozy’s lead; its new prime minister, Manuel Valls, became the champion of an intransigent laïcité that saw itself as a bulwark against the threat supposedly posed by Islam to French society. In 2016, Valls supported a ban on the burkini on beaches, while his ally the philosopher Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of brands that sold so-called Islamic fashion.

This was the background when, about ten days after Henda Ayari filed her complaint accusing Ramadan of rape, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo—which had been attacked by two armed jihadists in 2015, who murdered twelve people, including eight of the paper’s editorial team—published a cartoon showing Edwy Plenel, the editor of Mediapart, a left-wing online news outlet, with a mustache so bushy that it covered his eyes, ears, and nose, accompanied by the caption: “On the Ramadan Affair, Mediapart reveals ‘We did not know.’” What didn’t Mediapart know? It could hardly concern the alleged sexual misconduct of the Islamic scholar, since no one—not even Ramadan’s fiercest detractors—had published such accusations against him before Ayari issued her complaint (which Mediapart itself reported). What Charlie Hebdo’s editors meant is that Mediapart had previously closed its eyes and ears to the menace of Ramadan’s monstrous ideas—which, the cartoon implied, were somehow of a piece with his sexual misconduct.


Charlie HebdoThe Charlie Hebdo cartoon that pilloried Edwy Plenel, editor of the left-wing online news outlet Mediapart, in the wake of accusations against Tariq Ramadan, November 8, 2017

Mediapart represents, among other things, an evolving current in French society of multiculturalism, including the defense of immigrants and minorities. In 2015, Plenel published a book titled Pour les musulmans. The title echoed a famous article by Emile Zola, “Pour les juifs,” published in 1896 in defense of Captain Dreyfus. Plenel’s book made an explicit analogy between the wave of Islamophobia now plaguing France and the anti-Semitism that existed during the Dreyfus Affair. The “blindness” supposedly demonstrated by Mediapart and Plenel, according to the accusation of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, alludes to their agreeing in the past to debate with the Islamic scholar, thus lending legitimacy to his discourse and paving the way for the advance of radical Islamism in France.

Was there any basis for this attack? Hardly. In 2016, Mediapart published a five-part investigative series on Ramadan, his networks, his hold over some young Muslims, his ambiguous statements, his former financial links with the Gulf state of Qatar, and so on. In the past, Mediapart has also given major coverage to sexual harassment and violence toward women. Yet that counted for little. The supporters of Charlie are mobilized. When Plenel declared on the radio station franceinfo that “a left that no longer knows where it is, has allied with a right, or even an extreme identitarian right, to find any pretext, any calumny, to return to the obsession with the war on Muslims and the demonization of everything concerning Islam and Muslims,” the editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Laurent Sourisseau, known as Riss, retorted that, by accusing Charlie of making “war on Islam,” Plenel was “condemning it to death a second time” and excusing in advance any future Islamist killers. In short, the attack on Mediapart and Plenel had nothing to do with sexual harassment or the abuse of male power. Rather, Charlie Hebdo’s editors chose to use Ramadan’s presumed sexual misconduct to scapegoat a movement that wants to see France evolve in the direction of multiculturalism (or what, in the United States, might be called diversity). “The debate is a trap, jinxed, impossible,” one Mediapart journalist commented despairingly. “What can one say to people who have taken gunfire?”

On Mediapart’s side, however, came a petition signed by some 160 notables, including the economist Thomas Piketty, the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, the filmmaker Costa-Gavras, and the sociologists Edgar Morin and Alain Joxe. They declared:

We seem to be confronted by a political campaign that—far from defending the cause of women—manipulates it to impose on our country a deleterious agenda composed of hate and fear. This campaign attacks the newspaper that for almost ten years has constantly fought this politics of fear, defending the cause of equality against all kinds of discrimination, whether aimed at women, LGBTs, Muslims, blacks, Jews, victims of racism and xenophobia, migrants, and refugees.

The debate is beset by irrationality and landmines. To take just one example: yes, part of the far left tends to overlook the virulent anti-Semitism that exists in certain Muslim circles—which is visible now in the online forums full of messages calling Ramadan’s principal accuser, Henda Ayari, a “Zionist whore” and worse. But the counter-attack against “Islamo-leftism” represents any advocates of Muslims’ benign integration into France as being, at best, the “useful idiots” of jihadism, complicit in an ideology that nourishes racism.

The latest jibes against Mediapart, led by Manuel Valls, have taken a disturbing turn. The former Socialist prime minister has cultivated an image of being the left’s standard-bearer in a struggle against radical Islamism that, in the name of pure laïcité, is virtually a struggle against Islam, period. Valls has defined the terms of his politics thus: “Of course, there is the economy and unemployment. But essentially, it is a cultural and identity battle.” Embracing the part of demagogue, he recently said of Mediapart and Plenel: “I want them to choke, I want them removed from the public debate.” Plenel responded by denouncing Valls’s “political drift toward authoritarian and intolerant shores”—though such attacks against Mediapart were “only a symptom of a country that is not always clear either about its democratic culture or about its plural identity. The symptom, too, of an uncertain era that tiptoes between democratic impatience and authoritarian temptations.”

The Ramadan Affair has thus reopened the historical split over laïcité within the French left, but the dispute has found new grounds—about whether national identity is something fixed or evolving, about what place Muslims and immigrants have in the country’s future. These cleavages, which divide not only the French left but society in general, are something Emmanuel Macron had hoped to elude. Macron did succeed in excluding from the 2017 election presidential campaign an identitarian politics that for three decades has sought to supply a resounding “Non!” to the question: Is Islam compatible with the French republic? In his campaign book, Revolution, Macron tried to circumvent the issue with a message of tolerance.Laïcité is a freedom before it is an interdiction. It is made for each person to be integrated,” he wrote. “How can one ask our fellow citizens to believe in the Republic if some of them use laïcité to tell them they don’t have a place in it?”

On one rare occasion during his election campaign, Macron directly criticized those who apply a “vengeful laïcité”—and when he did so, he placed himself at the opposite pole to Valls. But today, in the wake of the Ramadan Affair, Macron finds himself caught up in the return of this controversy over Islam and French identity. This time, it is neither the far right of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, nor those of the Gaullist right who emulate Sarkozy, who are winning, but an ex-Socialist who still claims to be on the left (he quit the party after the election). Valls may lack a political home for now, but he has signaled that he means to make identity—Islam vs. France—his main theme. If President Macron fails to pull the country out of its socio-economic doldrums, he will have to face a dangerously sharpened identity politics.

—translated by Susan Emanuel

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Big Rocket Man

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by Gerald Scarfe

Donald Trump has threatened “Little Rocket Man” with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”—not even seen, presumably, at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. We possess, after all, many more and much better (that is, much worse) explosives than were used by President Truman in 1945, when he incinerated those cities without Congress or the American people knowing we even had them.

The fact that President Trump (“old lunatic”) has a legally absolute power to destroy Kim Jong-un (“short and fat”) over dueling insults is so scary that Senator Edward Markey and Representative Ted Lieu are trying to restrict that absolute power, so that only Congress would have the authority to declare nuclear war. This seems not only reasonable but constitutionally necessary. The Constitution in fact denies the president the power to declare war and reserves it solely to Congress.

More than that, the framers clearly opposed the massing of power in the executive—lest it become the monarchy they had opposed with a revolution. They so feared one-man rule that they entertained the idea of a double executive (based on the ancient Roman consulship) or a legislative council. The single executive was adopted largely because James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued that it would make the president more impeachable (it would be hard to fix responsibility on members of a team or a council). They thought one man would be more accountable—not anticipating post-Constitution developments like “executive privilege,” the “classification” of secrets, and “the unitary executive” that would make him less accountable.

But now that we have traveled so far from constitutional government, what can we do? The atom bomb was born as a secret project of President Franklin Roosevelt, and then deployed by Truman without any but his own authority. Truman did not even know, as vice-president, that Roosevelt was developing this new weapon until he became the chief executive himself and was let in on the secret. Then, after the bombings of Japan were sprung as a surprise on the whole world, presidential authority to keep and use the “Bomb” (soon to be a vast arsenal of hydrogen explosives) was extended undiminished in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946.

Ever since, every president carries with him wherever he goes the “football” containing the codes for the immediate arming and launching of obliterative missiles. As Vice President Dick Cheney said of President George W. Bush’s war power in 2008, “He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen [that phrase again]. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call the Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.”

The symbolism of that tremendous power has put the nation on a permanent war footing—so much so that we think and talk about the president as “our commander in chief,” though the Constitution does not give him that power over citizens but only command “of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States” (Article 2, Section 2). That is: he is not even the commander in chief of the National Guard in its normal service in the separate states, only when it is nationalized for use in the country’s wars.

The war footing of the presidency in 1946 was the setting of the Atomic Energy Act. President Truman did not know what conditions would prevail after World War II. He did not want to give up any of the vast powers the executive had accumulated in that conflict. He tried to impose universal military training on all young males. He tried to prevent strikes by drafting coal miners and steel companies into military service, since all sources of strength were to be at his disposal as our commander in chief. He did not ask Congress for approval of American intervention in the Korean War, since his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, said that might weaken his power to respond instantly to nuclear threats. There was a wartime edginess then not only over the Soviet threat from abroad but from inner subversion that had to be guarded against by “classification” of our many secret programs, loyalty oaths, and extensive monitoring and blacklisting of suspected leftists. (In the 1950s, Donald Trump’s dogged defenses of the Russian leader and government would have made him unemployable on TV as a loyalty risk.)

War conditions, instead of fading after the defeat of the Axis, found new homes as fresh threats came. World War II melded into the cold war, which has melded into the “war on terror.” There was no reduction in arms expenditures between the “end” of one peril and preparation for the next. When Truman was given his authority over the Bomb, there was at first not a full deployment of nuclear production and delivery systems. The president thought he could preserve a nuclear monopoly.

As other nations have acquired the Bomb, we have had to develop strategies for containment with them. The “nuclear club” now numbers nine, while other countries are working to develop their own nuclear weapons. As each one acquired the Bomb and different degrees of deliverability, there was a temptation to think the scourge of further spread could be eliminated by a preemptive strike; but the danger of again using any nuclear weapon was too terrible to be entertained, and the notion that a first blow would not be followed by a renewed nuclear program was seen to be chimerical. So attempts at treaties and other agreements restricting production or proliferation were explored. (Even when George W. Bush launched a false-alarm attack on Iraq’s nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” it was at least not a nuclear attack.)

When the Constitution granted one person the executive power, there was an expectation that he would consult experts—scientific, military, and diplomatic—before making his decisions. He was given a power that he was expected to use:

He may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subjects relating to the duties of their respective offices. (Article 2, Section 2)

This power of inquiry is in fact a duty, one that President Trump has neglected. Rather than consult the officers trained and reporting to the president, he has mocked the most experienced intelligence veterans (calling them political hacks), dismantled the government’s scientific bodies (as promoting hoaxes), drained the diplomatic agencies (as useless bureaucrats), and reduced or eliminated national commitments to other countries. He says he does not need expertise; he knows more than experts; he has a very good brain, which is his greatest and often his only resource. This neglect of necessary requirements for governing offers in itself grounds for impeachment, but he is hasty enough that in the long impeachment process he might be goaded to use the very nuclear power whose duties he has not prepared himself for using responsibly.

The assumptions that Congress made about the conduct of President Eisenhower or President Reagan—that they could be counted on to act with humble precaution—no longer seem to apply. What can be done? There comes a time when, as Cicero put it, “The highest law should be preservation of the people,” Salus populi suprema lex esto. A crisis sufficient to justify use of this maxim cannot be predicted. It could be any first nuclear strike the president may order. Only extreme peril can justify an extreme remedy. It is said (I don’t know with what truth) that in 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the implementers that in the event of a nuclear order from President Nixon, who was in a massive drunken funk, they should clear it with him.

We can only hope that there are high-ranking patriots who might act like that if Big Rocket Man went after Little Rocket Man. Even a soldier in the field must disobey a truly disastrous order from a manifestly disabled officer. The commander in chief has to be held to the same standard as his subordinate commanders, for the preservation of the people. It is reassuring to know that the current commander of the US Strategic Command, Air Force General John Hyten, as well as a former one, General Robert Kehler, recognizes this as a rule of international law.*

November 22, 2017

  1. *

    Kathryn Watson, “Top General Says He Would Resist ‘Illegal’ Nuke Order from Trump,” CBS News, November 18, 2017. 

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Not So Innig

In response to:

The Perfectionist from the November 9, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

Tim Page in his review of Harvey Sachs’s biography of Toscanini [NYR, November 9] speaks of the preference of some of us for a particular style of interpretation of classical German composers, imbued with what the Germans call Innigkeit, or “inwardness,” as he translates the word. He surely means Innerlichkeit, the real German counterpart to “inwardness.” Innigkeit has nuances of warmth and intimacy.

The contrast between the German world and the Latin one has a long history, arguably going back to the pietism that preceded Luther’s Reformation. Innerlichkeit is a central element of this contrast, and is behind, for instance, the contrast underlined by the early Thomas Mann between Zivilisation (France) and Kultur (Germany). Heidegger would also emphasize the contrast, identifying Germany with classical Greece.

Toscanini’s great contemporary Wilhelm Furtwängler exemplifies the contrast, not only in terms of interpretative style.

Pádraig Murphy
Dublin, Ireland

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Spy Novelists

In response to:

Back from the Cold from the November 23, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

A small correction to “Back from the Cold” by Christian Caryl [NYR, November 23]. John Bingham was not Sir John Bingham, but John Bingham 7th Baron Clanmorris of Newbrook, Mayo, whose ancestors included the winner of a VC at the Battle of Jutland. He was an MI5 spy but not the head of MI5. If it had been Bingham himself that had said that he had tried his hand at novel-writing it would have been put down as typically English understatement. In fact, he published seventeen thrillers, detective stories, and spy novels, two of which were subsequently filmed. Before joining MI5 he was art editor of the Sunday Dispatch. Le Carré has said that it was the success of Bingham’s novels that encouraged him to write his first novels. Incidentally, Bingham’s wife was a playwright, and his daughter Charlotte is a very successful romantic novelist and scriptwriter.

Alan Suckling, QC
Norwich, England

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Acting Natural


Cinema GuildFrom Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August, 2008

The camera, just by its presence, altered human behavior. The motion picture camera changed the nature of acting. Among other things, it created that apparent oxymoron, the non-actor, the subject of an unusually rich and stimulating series now at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Programmed by Dennis Lim and Thomas Beard, “The Non-Actor” is predicated on the idea that all camera-based movies are documents and that filmed acting is perhaps synonymous with behavior. In this sense, the first movie actors—the workers filmed leaving the Lumière factory or the family that the Lumière brothers documented in Feeding the Baby in the mid-1890s—were the also the first non-actors.

Movies existed in multiple prints and could be widely distributed, thus freeing actors from the constraints of time and space as well as the burden (or satisfaction) of performing for a live audience. Editing allowed actors to seemingly perform miracles. The close-up, no less radical, rendered theatrical acting ridiculous and encouraged a new, subtle form of physiognomic performance. By their nature, motion pictures emphasized the performer at the expense of the role. “For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his ever-relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Movie stars, to a far greater degree than stage actors, are always playing heightened versions of themselves. 


PDFrom Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October, 1928

Motion picture technology simultaneously created a hierarchy of movie stars—ageless creatures of light, at once everywhere and nowhere on the screen—and democratized movie presence. If, as Benjamin noted, cinema deprived the stage actor of an actual connection to a live public, the medium allowed members of that public to themselves become actors: “The newsreel offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passer-by to movie extra.” (“The Non-Actor” provides a fascinating example of this in the form of three short movies by Margaret Cram who, throughout the 1930s, produced the same scenario—a Hollywood star returning to her hometown, being kidnapped and rescued by a local hero—in a number of New England towns using locals as actors.)

The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein may have been the first to widely use nonprofessional performers in his narrative films: first in Battleship Potemkin (1925), and then again in October (1928). He chose them according to their appearance—a practice he called typage. Typecasting also led to the practice of casting against type, as when Carl Theodor Dreyer chose the boulevard comedienne Marie Falconetti to play a martyred saint in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

The most celebrated early exponent of the non-professional actor was the pioneer documentarian and amateur ethnographer Robert Flaherty, whose films—Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), and, with F.W. Murnau, Tabu (1931)—were semi-fictional narratives in which Inuit and Polynesian islanders played themselves in situations that were often staged. Some twenty-five years later, the professional ethnographer and amateur filmmaker Jean Rouch developed a more collaborative form of documentary with his West African subjects in his so-called ethnofictions, Moi, un Noir (1958) and Jaguar (1954–1967).


Icarus FilmsFrom Jean Rouch’s Jaguar, 1954–1967

Each in his way, Flaherty and Rouch were devoted to enlarging the cast of filmable humanity by concentrating on non-Western individuals. It might have been more honest for them to present their subjects as actors, which is in a sense what Rouch did. The nonprofessionals in his work give coached performances that effectively reframe the films as narrative fictions. On the other hand, non-actors were among the signifiers of authenticity—along with location photography and open-ended narratives—in the most influential of cinema movements, Italian neo-realism. The movement was short-lived (it lasted only from the end of World War II into the early 1950s), but filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica set an example for a number of Third World and American independent directors who succeeded them. The Italians’ influence can be felt in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), and Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1962), to name three films included in the Lincoln Center series. All three are extremely pragmatic productions that use youthful non-professional actors and strong locations—although in its voice-over and fragmentary editing Black Girl also reflects something of the French new wave.


Janus FilmsFrom Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, 1966

Film, however, is an impure medium. Neo-realist directors cast nonprofessionals by type and professional actors against type. (Anna Magnani was a music hall performer before Rossellini cast her in his 1945 masterpiece, Rome, Open City.) Filmed in the rubble of postwar Berlin, Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948) is often described as a movie cast with German non-actors—but the truth is more complicated. Rossellini drove alone through the city without a particular story in mind, searching for what he called “satisfactory physical types.” Coincidentally or not, a number of them turned out to have performing experience. The film’s principals included an elderly silent movie actor, a chorus girl, and a circus boy—cast by Rossellini for his resemblance to his deceased son, to whom the movie is dedicated. None wound up playing themselves, although a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma wrote admiringly of eleven-year-old Edmund Meschke that “at no point does the child give the impression of ‘acting’, or of being an actor. It is impossible to say that ‘acts’ his role well or badly…. The child simply exists there before us, captured in his ‘existence’ by the camera.”


Janus FilmsFrom Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, 1948

 “The Non-Actor” includes several relatively recent films that play with the notion of non-non-acting by presenting members of their nonprofessional casts as film actors. These include two Portuguese films, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), which serves as commentary on Costa’s earlier films documenting the residents of a vanished Lisbon slum, and Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in which, once funding disappears, the filmmaker’s original plan to make a movie in a remote village collapses into a documentary of its own making. Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (1984)  is an even more extreme revisiting of an unfinished film, involving the same non-actors, now two decades older.

The most remarkable of these is a midcareer film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose more conventionally neo-realistic earlier films had featured non-actors playing themselves in reconstructions of actual events. Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) is a partially staged (and reenacted) documentary about a poor Tehran man who successfully persuaded a middle-class family that he was the well-known film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and wanted to make a movie about their lives. The imposter was discovered and subsequently stood trial, an event that Kiarostami was able to record—and even supply some of the imposter’s defense.


Cinema GuildFrom Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later, 1984

In contrast to these cinematic halls of mirrors are the radically stripped-down narratives by two utterly dissimilar film artists, Robert Bresson and Andy Warhol. Bresson regularly cast non-actors—whom he referred to as “models”—in dramatic narratives to eliminate any sort of faked emotion, most radically when he used a donkey as the protagonist of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Warhol simply turned his camera on his typical extroverted non-actors and, without any direction, let them perform in unedited takes that often lasted half an hour. Even more than Bresson’s, Warhol’s movies—particularly those, like Vinyl (1965), that featured his “superstar,” Edie Sedgwick—questioned whether movie acting was anything more than the presentation of self. 


Janus FilmsFrom Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, 1990

Any consideration of non-acting should at least consider what it means for acting to be “authentic”—though this is not a question “The Non-Actor” addresses directly. Possibly responding to the challenge of Italian neo-realism, Marlon Brando—arguably, the most influential American actor of the past century—reinvented the notion of on-screen naturalism. In his early films, The Wild One (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954), and even in certain later ones, Brando dramatized acting in the same way that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dramatized the act of filmmaking.

Welles was also an actor, one inordinately fond of make-up and bombast, as is apparent in the 1958 Martin Ritt film The Long, Hot Summer which I recently had occasion to watch. A dull mediocrity, the movie is a free adaptation from William Faulkner made with an eye toward Hollywood’s cycle of Tennessee Williams films—and unlikely to be revived, except as an attempt to mimic the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Paul Newman, who had starred in that film, here appears in a version of his earlier role, a charismatic, secretly traumatized drifter, with Welles cast as a version of the overbearing pater familias embodied in Cat by Burl Ives. It could be that by casting Welles, Ritt hoped to show that the Welles character represented an anachronistic generation. If so, he got more than he bargained for. 

Welles’s grandiloquence not only clashes with the more subtle performances given by the film’s Actors Studio types (Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick), it calls attention to their stylization. Welles’s overbearing acting—which, given his dislike of the project, may have been intentional—is another form of non-acting, more authentic than the role-playing of the successfully phony performers who surround him, and perhaps the subject for another series.


Janus FilmsFrom Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966

“The Non-Actor,” a survey spanning over forty films, is at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through December 10.

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Kick Against the Pricks


Gabriela Maj/Patrick McMullan/Getty ImagesDonald Trump with Allie LaForce (Miss Teen USA), Natalie Glebova (Miss Universe), and Chelsea Cooley (Miss USA) at a launch party for Cara Birnbaum’s book Universal Beauty: The Miss Universe Guide to Beauty, Trump Tower, New York City, April 2006

At first it was a lot of enormous media potentates crashing to earth, followed by a bunch of lesser despots and lords, many employed in the media industries too, and it soon expanded to include half the men in Hollywood and ancillary trades like politics. The accompanying din was the clamor of pundits (those who hadn’t yet been felled themselves) attempting to explain what had happened—then reexplain, then explain some more—because the picture kept changing: soon the not-so-powerful were under fire too (freelance writers and experimental novelists were among those anonymously charged in an online list), and it was becoming unclear whether it was “toxic masculinity” or masculine panic we were talking about.

But at the beginning, the story seemed plain enough. It turns out that in the tallest skyscrapers and plushest hotels of the most advanced economies, many high-profile men have been acting the part of feudal lords, demanding droit du seigneur from their vassals, the vassals in this case being their female employees and others wishing entry into their fiefdoms. Evidently there’s been a covert system of taxation on female advancement in the work world, with the unluckier among us obligated to render not just the usual fealty demanded by overweening bosses but varying degrees of sexual homage too, from ego-stroking and fluffing (which is gross enough), to being grabbed and groped, to the expectation of silence about full-on rape.

From a political standpoint the exposés about the current extent of sexual harassment look like a significant cultural upheaval: a major victory in the centuries-long fight for women’s equality. This time the battleground is career, and the opponents being slain are the career gatekeepers. A struggle over careers is, to be sure, a bourgeois revolution—I mean this in the historical rather than the disparaging sense. If women’s bodies are still being treated as property, then another Reign of Terror was long overdue. If women are stuck with the task of overthrowing aristocratic privilege a few hundred years late, it’s because this social stratum needs to be liquidated before all genders can achieve civic and economic equality.

That the agents of destruction have been women simply telling their stories in public is nothing less than delicious. Women were gossiping, complaining, name-calling, and suddenly the world was listening. (In fact, historians have written extensively on the importance of gossip and its venues, such as coffeehouses, in fomenting previous revolutions.) Each tale that came tumbling out was more sordid than the last: infinite variations on the theme of sexual scumminess. The revelations weren’t exactly new, but the frame had shifted: the handsy boss, the lewd entreaties, the casting couch, were no longer going to be business as usual. Every revolution has its weapons of choice—once it was muskets and guillotines, this time around it’s “sharing” and media exposure. It wasn’t heads that were rolling, it was careers: contracts yanked, deals canceled, agents quitting, e-mail accounts shuttered. Career death is hardly nothing—it’s the modern equivalent of losing everything. (When the Times recently compiled the names of twenty-four prominent men accused of sexual harassment, it did rather bring to mind the spectacle of heads on a pike in a public square. The name conspicuously absent, unfortunately, was our groper-in-chief Donald Trump, who’s thus far managed to slither away from the variety of sexual charges lodged against him.)

About those chopped-down potentates and lords: many of them, one couldn’t help but notice, were not the most attractive specimens on the block: bulbous, jowly men; fat men who told women they needed to lose weight; ugly men drawn to industries organized around female appearance. Men with weird hair. Is it wrong of me to bring this up? We do, after all, move through the world as embodied creatures. I wondered what it felt like, if you’re such a guy, one who’s managed to accrue some significant portion of power in the world but you’re still you—coercing sex out of underlings. When you look in the mirror, is it a great white hunter you see staring back, with women as your game of choice? Sure you’ve won, you’re on top, but isn’t every win a tiny jab of confirmation about your a priori loathsomeness? If sexual domination assuages something for certain men, is it because somewhere inside lives a puny threatened runt, and extracting sexual compliance is some form of recompense? One woman, who’d fought off the advances of a naked, pleading film producer, recalled that he thereupon broke into tears and said she’d “rejected him because he was fat.”

The mantra lately heard across the land is that sexual harassment isn’t about sex, it’s about power. I wonder if this underthinks the situation: Is the man who won’t stop talking about sex a man convinced of his power, or one who’s desperate to impress you with his prowess? Failing to notice the precariousness of power encourages compliance, especially among the women targeted. If recent events tell us anything, it’s that power is a social agreement, not a stable entity. The despots had power because they did things that were socially valued and profitable, but the terms of the agreement can shift abruptly. (Force is different from power, which we’ll get to.)

Looking for political analogues, I found myself leafing through my old copy of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, a useful handbook for aspiring revolutionaries. Social upheavals like the current one—chaotic and improvised, yet destined—happen when certain echelons retract their consent to existing conditions and make new demands. Gramsci calls it “war of position.” Toppling power isn’t about storming the Bastille these days, it’s about changing the way people talk and think. If our upheavals come dressed in different garb, creating a crisis of authority for those in power is still how the world changes.

But we’re also reminded by recent events that the agents of progress can be unlikely: just as the military was a major force in desegregation, now we have corporations like News Corp acting like progressives on sexual harassment. Or ostensibly—what looks like progress can also be a way of dispersing protest, Gramsci would say. But speaking of unlikely agents, that one of the more significant battlefield wins recently was achieved by a former Miss America, Gretchen Carlson, is tough for those who’d prefer their feminist victories to come from women with better feminist credentials.

It was Carlson’s good fortune that her new book, Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back, came out two weeks after the first round of charges against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, reminding the world that she’d been the one to light the fuse that started the conflagration. Carlson’s 2016 sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox chairman Roger Ailes netted her a $20 million settlement, an apology from Fox, and Ailes’s head on a platter, handed to her by Rupert Murdoch fils. (Murdoch père then tendered Ailes a $40 million parting gift; Ailes died the following year.) Unfortunately you won’t learn any of this from Be Fierce—you don’t get $20 million without a nondisclosure agreement.

For a fuller picture I recommend reading Gabriel Sherman’s excellent reporting on Ailes and the culture of Fox alongside Carlson’s book.* It’s from Sherman we learn that Carlson secretly recorded her meetings with Ailes on her phone for a year and a half—including his remark that the two of them should have had sex long ago to resolve their differences, spoken sometime before she was fired (after an eleven-year stint as a newscaster) and sometime after she lodged complaints about the climate of sexism at Fox, for which Ailes labeled her a “man hater” and demoted her.

After news of the lawsuit broke, thousands of women in every sort of occupation—waitresses, Wall Street bankers, oil rig operators—wrote to Carlson about their own experiences, and most of her book is devoted to their stories. None of the news is good. Harassment of every sort is rampant in every industry, ranging from explicit quid pro quos to nonstop entreaties for dates or sex, to egregious sexual hazing of women in nontraditionally female occupations like cop or soldier. The less job security you have, the worse it is; fast food workers are especially vulnerable.

What happens to women who try to resist or report harassment is also uniformly bad, Carlson reports. Human Resources offices are unresponsive (there to protect the company only); harassers who respond to complaints with defenses such as “You think I’d hit that?” (Trump’s defense too) are believed over accusers. Women who come forward are likely to be passed over for promotions and good assignments, or find their jobs mysteriously eliminated. On rare occasions when a boss-harasser is actually fired, the woman who brought him down often gets treated like a leper by his allies. The majority of those who report harassment end up in different jobs, which makes it understandable that, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 70 percent of women who are harassed don’t report it. The Bureau of Justice Statistics keeps a separate category for workplace rapes and sexual assaults, which number upward of 43,000 a year, but Carlson notes that “women’s advocates say that this number vastly underrepresents such crimes.” Then there are the psychological effects Carlson catalogs: depression, sleep disorders, lost self-esteem, even suicide attempts.

Be Fierce is quite useful on the practical side of these issues, where Carlson is obviously alluding to her own experiences. Have a plan before you go to HR or you’ll find your options predetermined; you may have a mandatory arbitration clause in your employment contract you don’t know about (Carlson and her lawyers got around hers by suing Ailes as an individual, Sherman reports). As for recording people without their knowledge, check your local laws.

Where the book gets awkward is Carlson’s attempts to reconcile her more feminist leanings with the contours of her own career, launched by that stint as Miss America. She felt uncomfortable being on display, she says, and surprised to find herself “evaluated strictly on my looks.” She resented other people’s idea that by participating she was “agreeing to be objectified.” Claude Rains’s overquoted line about being shocked to find gambling at Rick’s came to mind—aren’t they called “beauty contests”?

One can agree that Miss America contestants shouldn’t be the object of sexual come-ons by every sleazy PR guy in town, while wishing to point out that Miss America contestants are there to uphold certain fantasies about femininity. Carlson says this herself, and tells us that after yielding the throne she took a feminist studies course and wrote a paper reflecting on her realization that if women’s role is to “do emotional labor and serve men,” for Miss America it’s all the more so. Though Carlson doesn’t go into it, one well-known man who expected such services was, of course, the future president, who’s accused of groping and kissing at least two Miss USA contestants without permission. Trump himself boasts of barging into dressing rooms in the Miss Teen USA contest to gape at unclothed teenage girls. Upon purchasing the Miss USA franchise, he says, he “made the heels higher and the bathing suits smaller.”

The “idealized pedestal” Miss America gets put on is itself a form of disempowerment, Carlson eventually came to realize. True, and if you flip to your local Fox affiliate, you’ll see the same compliant femininity distilled to its purest iteration. Like beauty contestants, the women of Fox are hired on the basis of looks, then laminated into near mannequins. The visual requirements may be ramping down at other news networks, but the optics at Fox make clear what’s expected from women: to begin with, not to be men.

The idea of rigidly binary gender roles is under assault in certain quarters, but it’s hard at work here, indeed visually exaggerated as much as possible. Even when the persona is feisty, the dress code says feminine submission: tourniquet-tight dresses (undergirded by tethers of the appropriately named “Spanx”), plunging necklines, four-inch stilettos to prevent anyone from bolting. Hemlines are so dangerously short that recrossing one’s legs—given Ailes’s notorious “leg-cam”—leads to embarrassing crotch shots being posted online; in the ones of Carlson she appears to be auditioning for Sharon Stone’s role in Basic Instinct. (Men in the newsroom are allowed not to have bodies; women are all body.)

Then there’s the trademark Fox mouth: lips glossed to perpetual blow-job readiness. One illuminating tidbit from Sherman’s reporting is provided by a former Fox makeup artist who tells of female anchors dropping by to get their makeup done before private meetings with Ailes. “I’m going to see Roger, gotta look beautiful!” they’d say; at least one of them resurfaced post-meeting with the makeup on nose and chin gone.

I’m not saying that women get harassed because of the way they dress. The point is that the way Ailes expected “his” women to dress makes clear the role they were expected to play: receptacles. Whether that means blowing the boss or swallowing male fantasies generally, that’s the visual. If those who signed on had difficulty speaking out about harassment in the workplace because they felt shame regarding the trade-offs they’d made—and many have said that they did—shame is what women are meant to feel in this equation. Shame is what they’re there to absorb. Women get to be the dumping ground for every form of male weakness and self-loathing that can be offloaded onto them. The convenience of misogyny is that men are spared from hating themselves because they have women to hate instead.

The women of Fox are pitching these arrangements, among their other duties. Patriarchy doesn’t have standing armies (though some feminists have theorized rape as its enforcement wing); what it has is cultural institutions like Fox, where its values and norms get disseminated. Whether or not the high-minded liberal intellectual who told his female underlings to wear tighter dresses—or the nerdy public radio boss who stuck his tongue into unwilling women’s mouths, or the pudgy pundit who made free with his erections—is a Fox viewer, the cultural work of Fox is to make explicit a set of implicit assumptions about female receptivity that these men also buy into.

“Sexual harassment thrives in an atmosphere where women’s rights are not valued,” Carlson writes. Agreed. But control over your body isn’t only about not being groped, it’s also about access to birth control and abortion rights, and here the women of Fox, however feisty in demeanor, are crap as allies. Megyn Kelly once told a feminist guest that feminists go wrong by endorsing a pro-choice platform, because they’re alienating half the American female population. This misses the point so completely you wonder if the Spanx was cutting off the oxygen flow to her brain.

The political demand of the moment is for men to be better men: we want them to give up the toxic masculinity and vestigial behaviors that impede women’s equality. But are there vestigial aspects of femininity too that are similarly maladaptive for the modern workplace? The question came to mind as I read Carlson’s account of an experience at one of her early jobs: she was riding alone in a car through rural Virginia with a cameraman who suddenly launched into a discussion about how much he’d enjoyed touching her breasts when he put a microphone under her blouse, and kept talking about it, in a “graphic monologue,” for the entire trip back to the office. Carlson’s response was “sheer terror,” she writes. Shaking, she pressed herself against the passenger door, praying she wouldn’t have to jump out of the moving vehicle. Once back at the office she was trembling so badly her boss noticed and asked what had happened; feeling sick to her stomach, she told him. (The cameraman was eventually fired over something else.)

It may not win me any popularity contests to ask this next question, but what stopped Carlson from just telling the cameraman to shut up? True, she was a young woman in her early twenties, and recently hired. And he was out of line. But he wasn’t her boss. He hadn’t threatened her, unless talking grossly about her body is threatening in and of itself. He hadn’t groped or fondled or kissed her against her will (all of which I firmly believe should sever a man from his paycheck).


Michael Schwartz/New York Post Archives/Getty ImagesGretchen Carlson shortly after she was crowned Miss America, September 1988

One answer to the question may be that Carlson was socialized female, and a certain delicacy about sexual matters is a long-standing attribute of traditional femininity. (Which makes raunchy jokes by female comedians funnier than those of their male counterparts: more social taboos to violate.) But if we’re demanding that men overcome their gender socialization, are there aspects of femininity we might wish to ditch too? Cowering when a man mentions sex transforms it into the equivalent of the master’s stick: he merely has to wave it to keep you in line. It’s the internalized submission of a colonial mentality—and in fact, left-wing feminists, a dying breed in these Lean In times, used to propose regarding women as “the last colony,” including those of us residing in the advanced metropoles.

Perhaps if women unlearned this response we’d fare better—just in case men don’t cease waving their sticks immediately. Worse, do we participate in propping up male power—or the aura of power the wielders wish to create—by helpfully trembling on command? Carlson mentions theories that verbal incidents like hers with the cameraman are a “gateway crime” to sexual assault, but if we react to verbal harassment as if it’s a slippery slope to rape, we’re going to be far less able to contest it, at least in instances where that’s a possibility.

Collapsing all varieties of sexual malfeasance together, regardless of the scale of the injury—as in the viral #MeToo campaign, which half a million women joined after the news about Harvey Weinstein broke—has been useful from the standpoint of activism. But in everyday life, distinctions matter. You want to know when to tell someone to shut up and when to jump out of a moving car.

This would also involve the ability to distinguish between force and power. Among the many things to hold the monstrous Weinstein accountable for is that he makes it all the more difficult to have that discussion.

The accounts of Weinstein’s accusers—over a hundred have been compiled online—reveal that at times he used physical force to subdue women. But more often his tactic of choice was intimidation; he rode the aura of power. He was also a practiced manipulator, and manipulators know their audience: he played on women’s fear of making scenes or standing up to men. Those who didn’t buy into it seem to have fared better. The actress Lupita Nyong’o recalled several encounters with Weinstein in an essay for The New York Times. When he trotted out his familiar moves, she refused to play the expected role: when he asked to give her a massage, she turned the tables and gave him one instead, consciously putting herself in control of the situation. When he tried taking off his pants, she walked to the door, not giving him the satisfaction of seeming intimidated. And he backed down. She seems to have understood that Weinstein may have had power over her career, but he didn’t have power over her, and making that distinction gave her more options for negotiating a bad situation.

There are thousands of stories circulating, and a lot to process. What’s been particularly horrifying to learn is the seriality of the harassment enterprise, the enormous numbers of victims so many of the sexual exploiters racked up. It’s like they’re on autopilot, programmed to extract sex—or recompense, or humiliation, or something—from unwilling women. Whatever they’re after, clearly no quantity of it ever suffices. Learning about other humans acting so robotically presents a conceptual difficulty. We wish to emphasize the moral agency of the predators, their supposed gains—sadistic pleasure, the glee of getting away with it—which enlarges their monstrosity and distinguishes them from the rest of us. But who would “choose” to be a robot?

Some years ago I had coffee with a man who had Tourette’s, and whose tic involved touching, which meant that he kept leaning across the small table and touching me on the shoulder, eventually migrating to the breast area. It made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to mention it because I didn’t know if he could control it. Was this lechery or disability?

A similar question nags about some of the sexual malefactors in the news. Anthony Weiner has been the public face of the sexual tic for some years now: a man of demonstrable intelligence under the sway of a compulsion so intellectually disabling that after a string of previous life-wrecking exposures, he still allowed himself to be set up once again, this time by a fifteen-year-old. Anyone could have seen from ten miles away that it was a frame—anyone but Weiner, that is. (The girl later said she was trying to influence the course of the 2016 presidential election, which she probably did—James Comey reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails after seizing Weiner’s computer once his new friend turned him in.)

Pundits have been quick to pronounce that men such as Weiner aren’t sex addicts; they make choices. But neither analysis seems entirely adequate. The question I find myself wanting to ask is: What happened to these men? When you hear of a man masturbating into a potted plant, or behind his desk, or worse, pinning a woman down and masturbating onto her clothes, yes, clearly they hate and need women. Evidently humiliating women is a means to alleviate something. (Psychoanalysts say about flashers that a man’s need to whip out and display his penis is to reassure himself that it’s still there.) Still, if hatred of women is automatically transmitted to men by a misogynist culture—the customary feminist analysis—why are some men so much more monstrous than others?

One answer, sure to please no one in the condemnation business, was suggested by the feminist Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur (1976): the problem for men is that they had mothers. Having once been children, a time where women controlled their bodies in humiliating and disempowering ways, men seek to turn the situation around in adulthood. Mother-dominated child-rearing, thought Dinnerstein, is the reason behind men’s loathing of women and everything culturally inscribed as female. Both men and women remain semihuman and monstrous under such arrangements, and this is both our social situation and our personal tragedy: men can’t give up ruling the world until women cease to have a monopoly on ruling childhood. To push Dinnerstein’s speculations to an even gloomier place: do mothers take out on their sons the abuses they themselves have suffered at the hands of men?

There’s a built-in weirdness to possessing a sexuality, whatever your gender. It reminds us that we’re animals; it’s bendable into perverse configurations, which is maybe what we also like about it. We’re afflicted with bizarre, amoral dreams on a nightly basis. Our fantasy lives don’t always comport with our ideas about who we should be. We go to work and have to pretend we don’t have genitals under our clothes, and that our coworkers don’t either. Maybe this is more of a problem for biological men, given their physiology, which externalizes desires more blatantly; women are afforded more secrets. But women can be weirdos and sadists too: the worst fictions about us are that our natures are pacific and oppression has made us nobler people. Online feminism is itself a playground of bullying and viperishness, most of it under the banner of rectitude.

Will men ever see women as full-fledged human beings rather than ego salves and receptacles? Until that day, the accusations and exposés will continue: the floodgates have opened and aren’t closing anytime soon. That’s exciting. No doubt there will be innocents caught in the crossfire, as distinctions continue to collapse and mutual suspicion increases (men and women already resemble red and blue states); as office compliments become affronts, and pats on the back actionable.

But it’s not exactly news that sexuality fractures self-coherence. We’re badly held together by social mores and the threat of punishment, which is how we become such good compartmentalizers. I suspect that anyone who wondered how Harvey Weinstein could have endowed the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers while serially assaulting aspiring actresses and assistants is someone who either lacks imagination or has never done a thorough moral inventory.

—November 22, 2017

  1. *

    See his numerous articles for New York magazine, including “The Revenge of Roger’s Angels,” September 5, 2016. 

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Walden on the Rocks


Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection/Bridgeman ImagesJ.M.W. Turner: Wreckers—Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore, 1834

The bodies are strewn everywhere along the beach. Burials are complicated because nobody knows the names of the dead—mostly women and children fleeing famine and poverty, trying to reach the land of plenty that has been promised to them but finding, instead, an early end in turbulent waters. Spectators gape at the debris from the recent shipwreck “cracked up like an eggshell on the rocks,” while others go about their business.

“In the very midst of the crowd about this wreck,” writes an eyewitness to the aftermath of the disaster, “there were men with carts busily collecting seaweed which the storm had cast up, and conveying it beyond the reach of the tide, though they were often obliged to separate fragments of clothing from it.”

This scene of devastation and indifference seems torn from the latest headlines or photos from around the world, just one more group of refugees appearing fleetingly on our screens and in our consideration. In fact, the victims of this particular wreckage were 140 Irish immigrants who perished when the St. John, the ship upon which they had sailed to “the New World, as Columbus and the Pilgrims did,” crashed on the shores of Cape Cod during a huge storm in October 1849. The eyewitness referred to above, without whom we might not remember the incident at all, was none other than Henry David Thoreau.

It is not that story of bereavement on the shore that first comes to mind when thinking about Thoreau today. This year’s articles, exhibits, commemorative stamps and the like to mark the bicentennial of his birth have focused, rightly, on a life dedicated to nature in its multiple and luminous forms, and his ground-breaking call to civil disobedience. But it is worth turning our attention as well to that lesser known experience of his on Cape Cod, the calamity he witnessed such a long time ago that nevertheless feels so sadly contemporary. Thoreau issues a challenge to us over the chasm of time and we would do well to listen to him.

What strikes me most today is how Thoreau understood and demarcated the moral dilemma posed by anyone confronting a catastrophe such as the sinking of the St. John. He contemplates the workers who, with “no human interest in the matter,” go on with their everyday lives: “Drown who might, they did not forget that this weed was a valuable manure. This shipwreck had not produced a visible vibration in the fabric of society.” And he notes that, for an old man who, along with his son, was carting “the wrecked weed” to his barnyard, “those bodies were… but other weeds which the tide cast up, but which were of no use to him.”

Thoreau is not judgmental about this attitude, perhaps because it strangely mirrors his own dispassionate detachment. With the eloquence typical of his discussions of his own mental meanderings and contradictions, Thoreau explains the reason for his emotional distance: “If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more,” adding that rather than “all the graveyards together… it is the individual and private that demands our sympathy.”

It is an uncomfortable observation, all the more so for being undeniable. In this year alone, the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, innumerable migrants continue to die without most of us in the West having any idea about the contours of those lives, their identities, dreams, faces. Who knows anything about the hundreds of unheralded Mexican and Central American migrants who have died anonymously this year trying to cross the desert which, like a vast dry perilous ocean, separates Mexico from the United States? Or about the Rohingya who have recently been consumed by the Bay of Bengal as they attempted to escape the massacres in Myanmar? Are we in the privileged West not equally ignorant of the lives and deaths of almost three thousand migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have perished at sea in search of sanctuary in Europe, one hundred of them in the last few days alone, including twenty-six Nigerian women, most of them underage, who may have been raped before they drowned?

Could it not be said of them, as Thoreau wrote of the Irish corpses he contemplated, “Why care for these dead bodies? They really have no friends but the worms or fishes.”

We are faced today, as we will unfortunately be tomorrow, with the same ethical quandary that Thoreau formulated so elegantly but was unable to resolve: How can we breach the gap in empathy that resurfaces every time we are bombarded with news and images of corpses on the shore or in the desert or under the ruins of a city, so many bodies blurring into one another that we cannot meaningfully process the fact of their deaths?

One way of counteracting that “collapse of compassion,” as psychologists call it, is to take a route that Thoreau did not follow. He ascribed the fate of those corpses to the workings of Nature, avoiding any mention of the “visible vibration in the fabric of society” that led those families to flee their homeland. He does not address (either here or elsewhere in his work) the famine that drove so many starving inhabitants of Ireland to emigrate, a famine that was man-made and not at all due to “the law of Nature.” The potato blight that compelled those Irish families to mount perilous boats was exacerbated by social and economic afflictions: exploitation by absentee landlords; land tenancy that favored grazing over crops and made farmers dependent on one vulnerable strain of potatoes; the export, by Ireland’s colonial government, of enormous amounts of food at the very moment when the people of that island were starving.

Today, if each of us cannot fully bring into our hearts all the faraway fatalities we see on the news, we can at least try to acknowledge and understand the causes of such cataclysms, a necessary step toward preventing further carnage. Civil wars, poverty, political repression, droughts, and pollution are ordained not by Nature but by Man. In fact, it is our human ravaging of Nature, the very depredations that Thoreau most dreaded—“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste to the sky as well as the earth”—that is so often the source of the conflicts and scarcity that have pushed many millions to search for salvation in foreign lands. A desperate quest destined only to get worse: the International Organization for Migration reports estimates of between 25 million and 1 billion additional refugees created by man-made climate change by 2050.

If Thoreau did not analyze the storm of social ills behind the tragic shipwreck he was witnessing with the perceptiveness and patience he lent to his descriptions of trees and flowers and streams, he does provide a model of what needs to be done when we feel helpless and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the horrors that assail us daily. He would urge us, in these times when the Earth he venerated is so assaulted and pillaged, when communities have been destroyed and their residents forced to flee, that we heed his call, in “Civil Disobedience” (1849), or nonviolent resistance to oppression. He might say to us now, as he said to his fellow citizens then, that it is “not too soon for honest men to rebel.”

Thoreau practiced what he preached. Opposing what he deemed the two evils of his day, slavery and the Mexican-American War (waged, he believed, as an imperial project to expand the territory for slavery), he refused to pay his taxes, preferring to be jailed. It was this stance that prompted him to write the essay “Civil Disobedience,” which was to inspire Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. The latter echoed Thoreau in his 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail”: “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.”

It is true that most of us possess neither the courage nor the stamina to undergo such drastic penalties. That does not mean, however, that we are condemned to lead “lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Thoreau does not demand that everyone display a taste for martyrdom. On the contrary, two hundred years after his birth, he has gentle advice for his readers, suggesting how each of us might build a legacy of creative protest: “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once done well is done forever.”

Thoreau believed that we, like Nature itself, can renew ourselves “completely each day.” If we listen to his voice intensely and deliberately, perhaps we can be encouraged, each of us on our own terms, to discover that small way to contribute to a different sort of society. Because those bodies scattered upon the sand and the sea that Thoreau saw—a vista obscenely repeated in our time—are, if we dare to look deep into the canvas of our imagination, harbingers of the communal fate that is in store for the ship of humanity as it heads toward the rocks. They are a warning to us to act now, to sing the song that is still in us, before it is too late to prevent the wreck that awaits us all on this damaged planet. And with no Thoreau left on the beach to tell our tale.

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Truth in Advertising


Fox Searchlight Pictures/Blueprint PicturesFrances McDormand as Mildred Hayes in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017

Early in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) pays a business call on Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), a young man who runs a small agency that rents out advertising space along the nearby country roads. Months before, Mildred’s daughter was murdered, and the grieving mother has lost patience with the police’s failure to solve the crime. She has decided to send a message via three billboards that will say, in black letters against a red background, one after the next: “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Mildred hopes that these bold reminders—impossible to ignore, especially after she is interviewed on the local TV news—will shame the cops out of their torpor and inspire them, in the absence of a conclusive DNA match, to try harder, perhaps, as she suggests, even to take blood from every man in the county over the age of eight.

By the final scene, a great quantity of blood will have been splashed across the screen, yet despite the impressive amount of mayhem and gore on view, Three Billboards is an unusually literary film. McDonagh, who began his career as a playwright, and whose previous films include Seven Psychopaths (2012) and the brilliant In Bruges (2008), is intensely concerned with language. In fact, Three Billboards is partly about the power of language—specifically, the outrage and havoc caused by the few words that Mildred chooses to display.

During Mildred’s first meeting with Red, they discuss which colloquial and medical terms for body parts and sexual intercourse cannot be bannered in public, and throughout the film, there are questions and debates about vocabulary and phraseology: why the police must now say “person of color” rather than using an old-fashioned racist epithet; whether a vapid young woman could really have said “begets” (as in “anger begets more anger”) when she seems not to know the difference been “polo” and “polio”; if a dwarf named James (Peter Dinklage) should bother correcting the ignorant folk who keep referring to him as a midget. The first encounter between an aggressive deputy called Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and the black police chief (Clarke Peters) who has been brought in to run the squad turns on a stupid joke about whether one of them has said “hard of hearing” or “hard of reading.” And when Mildred rants at the local minister who urges her to take down the billboards, she hammers at him by repeating the word “culpable.” Like the LA street-gang members who are considered legally “culpable” for the actions of their fellow Crips and Bloods, the preacher, she insists, is “culpable” for the crimes of his gang members—priests anywhere who have molested altar boys.

Early on, the film acknowledges its literary debts. Just before Mildred’s first conversation with Red begins, we may notice (if we are looking closely) that Red is reading a book by Flannery O’Connor. It’s by no means a casual or accidental choice. One feels O’Connor’s spirit hovering over the film, and not only because, like her fiction, it is set in the rural South and leavens a deep seriousness with broad and often grotesque humor: a horrific and hilarious scene in a dentist’s office recalls precisely how O’Connor allows her characters to reach the boiling point—and boil over. McDonagh shares many of O’Connor’s preoccupations: obsession, fanaticism, eccentricity, violence, physical deformity, the lifelong legacy of guilt that can result from a family conflict, and the unexpected, even shocking ways in which the faithless can stumble upon redemption. Like O’Connor, he denies his characters an easy entry into a state of grace. McDonagh prefers to suggest the possibility of grace, and he makes it clear, as O’Connor does, that salvation, even partial salvation, requires thought, work, and struggle.


Fox Searchlight Pictures/Blueprint PicturesWoody Harrelson as Chief Willoughby and McDormand as Mildred in McDonagh’s Three Billboards, 2017

For Mildred, that struggle is complicated by the fact that her chosen antagonist, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), is a profoundly decent, intelligent, hard-working, and conscientious man who has done everything in his power to solve the baffling case. In addition, the whole town knows that the police chief is dying of cancer, and their love and respect for him supersedes the reserve of sympathy that Mildred is rapidly forfeiting with her relentless, alienating fury. Among the most extraordinary aspects of McDormand’s virtuosic performance is her willingness to let us see how rage, grief, borderline poverty (Mildred works in a gift shop selling ceramic bunnies), and recklessness can ravage one’s appearance. There’s a great beauty in Mildred’s determination and her ferocious bravery, and in the purity of McDormand’s choice of art and truth over glamour and vanity.

We anticipate that Willoughby will die before the film’s end, though we may be startled by the way in which his death occurs. In any case, he prepares for it by leaving three letters—one for his wife, one for Mildred, and one for Dixon—that we hear him read in voice-over, so that they function as three long monologues. Not only are the letters beautifully written and deeply affecting, but each, though different from the others, is also a sort of love letter. He tells his wife the things that, he hopes, will allow her to go on without him. He reassures Mildred about how hard he’s tried to find her daughter’s killer, and offers her a sort of promise or prophecy that will, by the film’s end, turn out to be at least half true. And he tells the violent, hotheaded Dixon (whom we have seen administering a brutal beating) that what he needs in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a detective is love. Ultimately, it’s Dixon’s acknowledgment of this need that moves Three Billboards toward its perfectly low-key, perfectly ambiguous, and satisfying ending.

Although McDonagh makes no mention of the political climate beyond Ebbing, it’s hard not to see the film as a reflection of our dark current moment and as a comment on the resentment and rage simmering inside so many Americans; on the widespread sense that those in power (especially the police) are not working in our interests; and on the dissolution of community, of public trust, of tolerance and civility. Yet the film’s conclusion offers some faint hope. After the final scene, in which Mildred and Dixon agree to consider acting with mercy, thought, and forbearance, the audience with whom I watched the film—on a wintry Saturday afternoon, in a sold-out theater in downtown Manhattan—burst into grateful applause.


Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is now in theaters.

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How to Stop Trump Blowing It Up


Copyright: www.bridgemanimages.comA still showing Slim Pickens from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964

Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was on a mission. In his view, President Trump’s thermonuclear threats against North Korea were leading the country down the “path to World War III.” His committee hearing on November 14 aimed to raise the alarm, and generate support for measures that would prevent the president from launching a first nuclear strike. But by the end of the day, there was no mistaking the gloom in the room. “I do not see a legislative solution today,” he told reporters. “That doesn’t mean, over the course of the next several months, one might not develop, but I don’t see it today.”

Yet the solution was staring him in the face. The War Powers Act of 1973 requires presidents to gain congressional consent within sixty days to any action that raises an “imminent” threat of hostilities; and if they fail to gain majority approval, they must terminate their military preparations within the next thirty days. That clock has already run out on Trump’s North Korean provocations. It was possible to discount his early tweets as mere rants that didn’t amount to an imminent threat. But this view could not survive his UN speech warning Kim Jong-un that he would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if the regime didn’t halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program. If any doubt remained, it was dispelled when General Robin Rand, the chief of the Air Force’s Global Strike Command, confirmed that “We’re ready to fight tonight… We don’t have to spin up, we’re ready.”

Trump gave his UN speech on September 19, which means that the act’s sixty-day period for unilateral presidential action ran out on November 18. Under the War Powers Act’s explicit provisions, the president can engage in no further provocations, such as military incursions into North Korean airspace, without gaining a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) from Congress.

The act’s ban on unilateral presidential action is not absolute; it expressly authorizes the president to respond unilaterally to “an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.” If North Korea assaults American bases in Korea, or fires missiles at Guam, Trump is indeed authorized to respond with “fire and fury.” But in the meantime, he must restrain himself—and the statute provides his congressional critics with special procedures to insist that he keep his forces under control.

Yet none of the legal experts testifying before the Foreign Relations Committee took the act seriously. They all suggested that the 1946 Atomic Energy Act represented the last word on the matter. Passed in the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Congress was then concerned that the Pentagon might treat nuclear bombs like other weapons, and launch them whenever they thought it made strategic sense. The 1946 act rejected this view, putting the nuclear trigger firmly in the hands of the president, and not his generals.

But the 1973 act responded to an even more fundamental problem. Although Richard Nixon had won the 1968 election with a promise to end the Vietnam War, he executed a 180-degree turn once in office and continued to escalate the conflict, despite the repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1971. Nixon responded to mass protests with the assertion that his powers as commander-in-chief sufficed to continue the war. This was too much for a bipartisan coalition led by Senator Jacob Javits, which insisted that the Constitution gave Congress, not the president, the ultimate say over war and peace. Nixon bitterly resisted, requiring Congress to pass the act over his veto, but even he did not claim that the law’s sixty-thirty clock was unconstitutional. Nixon’s silence was replaced by explicit presidential consent in 1980, when the Carter administration’s Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion affirming the constitutionality of the time limits.

This opinion has never been officially withdrawn, even during the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration, when John Yoo, then in the Office of Legal Counsel, was writing notorious opinions glorifying the powers of the commander-in-chief. Even President Trump has recognized the limitations imposed by the War Powers Act. When he ordered a military strike in Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in April, administration lawyers promptly sent Congress the notice that triggered the sixty-day countdown, noting that it was acting in a manner “consistent with the War Powers Resolution.” But like the Senate committee experts, the administration’s lawyers have failed to take seriously the act’s clear and equal application to presidential decisions that create an “imminent” danger of hostilities.

A day of reckoning may be coming. A lawsuit now before the federal Court of Appeals in D.C. may soon require the White House and Capitol Hill to confront the legacy left by Javits and his congressional coalition. The suit was brought by Captain Nathan Smith when he was serving as an intelligence officer at Operation Inherent Resolve, the command headquarters for the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. President Obama announced an open-ended war against ISIS in a television address of September 10, 2014, but he failed to obtain congressional approval for his military campaign within the next sixty days. While he acted “consistent[ly] with the War Powers Resolution” in notifying Congress, his letter summarily asserted that the AUMFs passed by Congress in 2001 against al-Qaeda and 2002 against Saddam Hussein sufficed to authorize his new war against ISIS—despite the fact that ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, did not come into existence until 2004.

The circumstances surrounding the passage of these earlier AUMFs made it very difficult to sustain such a claim in a credible fashion. The congressional record shows that the leaders of the House and Senate specifically rejected President Bush’s initial 2001 proposal, which would have granted him authority to deter “future attacks,” and the final text only allowed him to target organizations specifically involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Similarly, the 2002 AUMF did not mention Syria at all, and allowed the president only to use force against the threat from Saddam Hussein’s regime. How then could these decade-old AUMFs justify Obama’s war against a new enemy in a post-Saddam world, with America attacking insurgent forces in Syria as well Iraq?

The Obama administration’s lawyers never even tried to answer this question in a serious legal opinion written by the White House Counsel or the Justice Department. This failure contrasted sharply with Obama’s prior practice when making war against the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. On that occasion, the president also failed to obtain congressional consent within the required period. But at least the White House Counsel issued an opinion that tried to explain why the 1973 act should not be interpreted to require permission under the special facts presented by the Libyan case. If, however, Obama’s bare assertions about the use of US military force in Syria and other theaters are permitted to stand, he will have created a precedent that will allow Trump and his successors to transform Bush’s limited AUMFs into a warrant for a “forever war.”

This placed Captain Smith in an untenable position. By the time he arrived at the US military’s command headquarters for its campaign against ISIS, the timetable for unilateral presidential action under the War Powers Act had expired. Yet Smith was facing orders on a daily basis that required him to use his skills to help coordinate air attacks on ISIS troops. When he had entered the service, he had sworn “to support and defend” the Constitution of the United States; yet if he took this oath seriously, he was obliged to disobey the illegal orders authorized by his commander-in-chief, and face the certain prospect of a court-martial for his acts of defiance. To escape this dilemma, he entered the D.C. courts to obtain a definitive legal opinion of the kind that the administration had failed to provide. Smith explained that he would continue to obey his orders, pending a decision by the judiciary. This would allow him to preserve military discipline while assuring the ultimate vindication of the Constitution if the federal courts found that there was no legal basis for President Obama’s claim to be “tak[ing] care that the law be faithfully executed.” (I have debated the central legal issues in a podcast discussion with a leading member of Obama’s Office of White House Counsel.)

Along with my co-counsel, David Remes, I presented Captain Smith’s arguments to a three-judge panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals in late October. Although the court had officially granted fifteen minutes to each side, the hearing (which can be heard here) lasted for more than an hour. The judges engaged seriously with the fundamental issues raised by the case and are likely to publish their opinion, or opinions, in the next few months. Assuming that the case will then go before the Supreme Court, the final decision may not be rendered until the spring of 2019. But I hope that Court of Appeals’ judgment early next year will be enough to awaken Congress from its slumber and recognize how the War Powers Act provides it with the capacity to rein in President Trump’s belligerent impulses.

In particular, the act grants the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and its House counterpart, the power to circumvent the Rules Committee and present proposed AUMFs that “shall become the pending business of the House in question… and shall be voted on within three calendar days thereafter.” This means that Senator Corker’s committee can immediately require the Senate to consider an AUMF that denies Trump the authority to launch a nuclear first strike against North Korea, and then require each Senator to stand up and be counted on this crucial issue.

This is only the beginning. Once the House and Senate have reclaimed Congress’s war-making authority under the 1973 act, they would do well to scrutinize the case for other interventions in far-flung places ranging from Niger to Pakistan. There have already been encouraging moves in this direction, with the House recently protesting the undeclared war in Yemen. Additional debates and votes would permit voters to understand the crucial issues surrounding particular military engagements in time for the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Even if Congress leaves it to the Supreme Court to restrict Trump in other cases, it must draw the line when it comes to Korea. It is one thing to allow the president to assert that the AUMFs of 2001 and 2002 justify military action against a variety of terrorist groups that did not even exist at the time of the authorizations. It is entirely another matter to permit Trump to ignore the War Powers Act’s requirement of congressional consent before he may launch a preemptive nuclear attack that could lead to annihilation on a global scale.

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China’s Art of Containment


Jiang ZhiJiang Zhi: Object in Drawer, 1997

On the evening of May 20, 1989, in response to weeks of mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government placed Beijing under martial law. The following morning, in Hong Kong, far to the south, Wen Wei Po, the main Communist-controlled newspaper in the British territory, published a glaring white space containing four large Chinese characters—tong xin ji shou, meaning “heartbreak”—instead of the usual front-page editorial.

The editor of the paper, Lee Tze Chung, was a famously loyal apparatchik who for decades had followed every twist and turn in the party line. But that day, in protest against the declaration of martial law in Beijing, he “opened a skylight” of blank space in his paper. In the purge that followed the violent suppression of protesters on June 4, Lee was dismissed from his post.

Skylights were commonplace during the Chinese Republic that lasted from 1912 to 1949. In-house censors working for the Nationalist Party at newspapers and publishing houses throughout the country deleted politically sensitive articles before they went into print. In 1933, the writer Lu Xun, a frequent target of the censors, said it was hardly surprising that Chinese writers lacked a backbone: “Once the editors have removed a few ribs here, and the censors have taken away a few more there, what’s left?” Blank spaces were a warning to writers and readers alike to comply with the party line. After the victory of the Communists in 1949, China’s skylights were closed. Some hoped that an era of openness had dawned, but in the new one-party state writers and editors soon learned the art of self-censorship, and that good news was the only news.


David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2017Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 2017

The events of 1989 and China-style skylights both feature in “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The exhibition takes 1989 as a pivotal moment not only for China’s politics, but also for its cultural scene. The fixation is justified. For nearly three decades, the Chinese authorities have exhorted people simply to “move on” from what they dub the “Tiananmen Incident.” Their reasoning is simple: the political stability vouchsafed by the military repression of opposition to the party and its program in 1989, and continued police action since, have given China its best chance since 1840 to realize a national dream of wealth and power. Opponents of this view still cleave to a long-frustrated tradition of modernization with democratization that dates back to the first days of the Republic in the early twentieth century.


Song Dong/Pace Gallery/The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York/Song Dong: Stamping the Water, 1996

After Tiananmen, artists, generally sensitive to the changing temper of society, were caught up in the “tidal wave of commercialism” of the 1990s. But as the cultural avant-garde experimented with an array of artistic motives and forms, the Chinese Communist Party also evolved. It learned to manage a globalizing economy and melded its dated Leninist political model with new technologies.

“Theater of the World” is an account of two important decades in that tortuous journey and it revisits the era of China’s global emergence from an academic and inclusive curatorial perspective. Crucially valuable is the effort made to redress an imbalance in the general international understanding of contemporary Chinese art, one which has previously over-emphasized what the art critic Jed Perl has called “radical chic with blood on its hands.” Regardless, the curators of “Theater,” partly under the influence of Wang Hui, an establishment “new Marxist” favored by left-leaning Western academics, follow the trend of earlier exhibitions to celebrate too readily vacuous critiques of capitalism, to unearth supposed acts of resistance in artistic gestures, and to extol experimental forays as rebellions in miniature.

On October 4, 2017, the Guggenheim was forced to open skylights on its own China show. An article in The New York Times by Jane Perlez, published two weeks before the exhibition opened, featured three works that used live animals. Public outrage and an online petition signed by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanded that the museum remove the offending works. Beyond the reasoned criticism of the exploitation of animals for mannered cultural thrills, there were overt threats of violence against the museum and its staff.


Huang Yong Ping/Guggenheim Abu DhabiHuang Yong Ping: Theater of the World, 1993

The curators of “Theater of the World” shied away from a public defense of their artistic choices; after issuing boilerplate statements about respecting artistic freedom, they yielded to the online power of the crowd, and opted to open skylights, leaving three gaping holes in the exhibition. One of the evacuated works—Huang Yong Ping’s eponymous installation Theater of the World (1993)—was the show’s centerpiece. A turtle-shaped cage, Huang’s “theater” was designed to house live insects and reptiles that would slowly devour each other over the course of the exhibition (and be periodically replenished). When creating this piece Huang mused whether he had designed “an insect zoo? A test site where various species of the natural world devour one another?… A metaphor for the conflict among different peoples and cultures?”

The wall behind the cage features a multi-paneled map commissioned by the Guggenheim. The work of Qiu Zhijie, a prominent conceptual artist and a professor at a Chinese state institution, this map of the Chinese world offers an unruly topography, a landscape of concepts, themes, art movements, political slogans, and geopolitical buzz words. The exuberant mêlée is supposed to reflect cultural plurality and a country in disarray, yet Qiu unintentionally reveals the real mind map of contemporary China, one built on the bedrock of the Communist Party. It also hints at an uncomfortable reality: from the 1990s semi-official artists from China have benefited from the successes of the Communist Party’s economic program while enjoying the international cachet of “transgressive art,” that is, art that is naughty but not dangerous.


Qiu Zhijie/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkQiu Zhijie: Map of “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” (detail), 2017

Ai Weiwei was a member of The Stars, a celebrated post-Mao art collective that pioneered unofficial exhibitions, who had moved to New York in the early 1980s. After he returned to Beijing in 1993, he viewed the Chinese art scene with a critical eye:

The investigation of all kinds of language, the deployment of a sparkling array of methodologies and media, the plagiarism of styles and content—none of these things can disguise the cultural deficit, a lack of self-awareness, social critique, and creative independence. Instead, artists celebrate their craven pragmatism and opportunism. They reflect degraded standards and a lack of heartfelt values.

The preface to “Theater of the World” is a small sculptural piece, also by Huang. Dating from 1987, it is a mound of pulp that the artist made by placing two art books—Wang Bomin’s 1982 The History of Chinese Painting and a 1979 translation of Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting—in a washing machine for two minutes. It is presented as a Dadaist response to the dilemmas facing artists caught between tradition and modernity, the national and the global.


Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis/T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2001Huang Yong Ping: The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987 (reconstructed 1993)

We are told that Huang “sought to liberate our languages, imaginations, and essentially our lives from the locked hegemonic systems of logic and value.” The same year that Huang pulped his art books, an English-language translation of Hungarian dissident Miklós Haraszti’s The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism appeared (a Chinese version was published in 2015). Haraszti’s book remains an essential guide to understanding the culture of the People’s Republic of China. He observes that:

[Dissidents] are nutrients, like broken blossoms in a garden.… We can utilize their aesthetic discoveries, just as we do the experiments of Western artists.… We can create “valuable” and “organic” innovations from their unacceptable conceits.… They make cultural politicians more sensitive and critics more clever.… The more talented and flexible the state, the more pleasurably it can suck the dissidents’ vital fluids into the organism of state culture.

“Theater of the World” is an illustration of Haraszti’s insights. In an illuminating catalogue essay, Philip Tinari, one of the curators, wonders:

Are we then… to deduce futility in the fact that the endgame of the art movement that began with these [party-led economic] reforms is a self-conception that has brought an entire scene not forward and out into the world but back into an official scheme that long predated it? Might we go so far as to see in 1989 and 2008, the dates that mark the range of our exhibition, specters of 1919 [May Fourth leading to the establishment of the Communist Party] and 1949 [the foundation of the People’s Republic of China], respectively?

If Huang’s machine-washed art history was a prelude to “Theater of the World,” what I regard as its “postscript” has been tucked away on the ground floor of the museum’s rotunda next to the entrance to the restaurant. By reconfiguring an installation made in Beijing in 1995, Wang Gongxin opens a skylight in the museum floor itself. The original, Sky of Brooklyn—Digging a Hole in Beijing, consisted of a 3.5-meter “well” dug in the living room floor of the artist’s Beijing house. A television monitor at the bottom of the well showed footage of the sky of Brooklyn in a continuous loop. Wang added a soundtrack: “What are you looking at? What’s there to look at? There are a few clouds in the sky. What’s there to see?”


Wang Gongxin/David Heald/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkWang Gongxin: Sky of Beijing—Digging a Hole in New York, 2017

The artist imported his old floor tiles for the Guggenheim show and replicated the well. This time the work was called Sky of Beijing—Digging a Hole in New York, and the television monitor offered an unbroken view of the sky over the Chinese capital. Sotto voce, small-scale, discreet, Wang’s work is a welcome relief after the cacophony and bristling ambition of much of the rest of the exhibition. Wang’s bottomless well invites the viewer to reflect on two clichés: one is the notion that if you were to dig a hole straight through the earth you would end up in China; the other comes from Zhuangzi, the third-century BCE Taoist thinker who said that you can’t discuss the vast ocean with a frog at the bottom of a well for he only sees what is over his head.

If, in 2017, Wang’s recreation of an old skylight at the Guggenheim reveals a new vista, it is of troubled skies both over Beijing and New York.


Qiu Zhijie/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkQiu Zhijie: Map of “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World”, 2017; click to enlarge

“Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” is at the Guggenheim Museum through January 7, 2018. The accompanying book Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World, edited by Alexandra Munroe with Philip Tinari and Hou Hanru, is published by the Guggenheim.

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