Месечни архиви: декември 2017

This Land Is Our Land

Stephen Shore/303 Gallery, New YorkNabi Musa, West Bank, January 19, 2010; photograph by Stephen Shore from the exhibition Stephen Shore, on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, through May 28, 2018. The catalog is by Quentin Bajac, with contributions by David Campany, Kristen Gaylord, and Martino Stierli. It is published by MoMA.

Between 1922 and 1925 my great-uncle, the journalist Najib Nassar, rode on horseback throughout Mandate Palestine and the newly created country of Transjordan. He published his observations as a series of letters in Al-Karmil, the weekly newspaper he edited in Haifa. In a number of these letters Najib voiced his fears about the fate of Palestinian farmers, especially in the north of the country, where absentee Arab landowners were selling their large estates to new institutions of the burgeoning Zionist movement.

During his travels northward from Jenin to Nazareth, Najib proposed that the nature of the Palestinian struggle with the Zionist movement was in essence economic. In the north of Palestine, wealthy Lebanese landowners owned entire villages. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, a series of legal developments in the Ottoman Empire—which ruled Palestine until 1917—had enabled the growth of these large land holdings. They included the promulgation of the Ottoman Land Code of 1858, which attempted to eliminate the musha system, whereby land was held in common, and required that the cultivator-turned-owner register his land with Treasury officials. Two things dissuaded farmers from doing so: the desire to avoid paying taxes on their land and the fact that the land registry was based in faraway urban centers such as Beirut and Damascus.

These developments had nothing to do with the Zionist project. They were simply intended to help implement a more centralized and rational method for the collection of taxes. In the hilly parts of Palestine, where the land was mainly planted with olive and fruit trees, holdings were small and the arrival of the Zionists changed little. But in the arable plain and valley regions, where water was more readily available, the Zionists sought to acquire land. Soon Lebanese landlords—the Sursuk, Twani, and Khoury families—started selling their holdings in Marj Bani Amer (now called the Jezreel Valley).

These feudal landowners had little interest in supporting the Zionist enterprise; they were unconcerned with colonization. But the profits from their lands were falling, and the cotton crops they planted had failed. They were investing in large-scale capitalist ventures in Egypt and Lebanon, such as the Suez Canal Company and the port in Beirut, and they needed cash. “By selling all they had in this plain,” Najib predicted, “these landowners would be contributing to the distress of the country that would arise from the establishment of a Jewish kingdom.”

The legal processes the Ottomans had begun were continued in the years after the end of their rule—first by the British military occupation of Palestine from 1917 to 1922, and then when the League of Nations granted the British a mandate over Palestine from 1922 to 1948. During both periods, the British continued to revise the land laws with a view to making the land more marketable and facilitating its sale to the Zionists. Among the British figures whose ideas provided the foundation for British land policy in Palestine was Sir Ernest Dowson, who believed that what the Palestinian fellah, or peasant, needed was “enclosure and partition of the common fields.”

In his book Enclosure: Palestinian Landscapes in a Historical Mirror, Gary Fields defines enclosure as “a practice resulting in the transfer of land from one group of people to another and the establishment of exclusionary spaces on territorial landscapes.” Dowson was intent on creating blocks of property that could be surveyed and registered with the Mandate Land Authority. Mandate authorities also sought to repeal the musha system. British officials were convinced that the enclosure of common land, which had already been implemented in England, had brought about “improvement” and “progress,” and they sought to replicate it in Palestine.

This British policy represented a victory for the Zionist movement. It made it possible for more Palestinian land to be sold to Zionist Jews. Yet although many offered lucrative sums for the land, not all landowners were tempted to sell. In some places, Najib wrote, landowners were establishing an agricultural school and planting more olive trees to stand against the encroachment. Enough Palestinians refused to sell that the Zionists ended up acquiring little land. The Palestinian writer and educator Khalil Sakakini was an educational inspector under the British Mandate. In his diary he described a trip he took on December 13, 1934:

If the Jews have a few impoverished colonies the Arabs have thousands of villages. We travelled from Jerusalem to Hebron to Beir Sabaa [now Beersheba] to Gaza to Khan Yunus to Majdal to Ramle to Lydda to Kalkilia to Tul Karam and only passed through Arab lands. What is owned by the Jews compares as nothing to what is owned by the Arabs in Palestine.

His observation was not far from the truth. By 1949, a year after the State of Israel was established, only 13.5 percent of its land was under formal Jewish ownership, either by private individuals or by the state.

In the course of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, some 750,000 Palestinians fled the fighting or were forced off their land. In 1950 Israel passed a law designating those lands as “absentee” territory and through a series of other legal measures reserved it for the use of the Jewish Israeli population. But there remained heavy concentrations of land—in the Galilee, the north of Israel, and the Negev in the south—that was still owned by the Palestinians who stayed in Israel and became Israeli citizens. In these areas, Palestinians still far outnumbered Jewish Israelis in 1950. The new state was confronted with two questions: how to “Judaize” those areas, and how to transfer most of the land there to Jewish Israelis.

As Gary Fields makes clear, the Israeli government used methods to achieve these two objectives not unlike the ones it used in the West Bank after the Six-Day War of 1967. In these areas, most of the land ownership was recorded only as written descriptions, such as that a particular parcel was bordered in the north by a road and in the south by an escarpment. The Israeli government did not recognize such descriptions as valid records of ownership. In the Galilee, Fields writes, Palestinians were compelled to prove, through documents, that they were the legal owners of the land:

Palestinians who held rights to their land through the Ottoman notion of continuous occupancy and cultivation were invariably unable to meet this requirement. As a result, their land passed into the category of state property. This newly designated state property became the foundation of Jewish settlement.

Over the past two decades, most of the land used for Jewish settlements in the West Bank has been acquired on the grounds that it belongs to the state. This tactic has enabled Israeli leaders to maintain that the state of Israel does not confiscate land from Palestinians to build settlements.

The state only began to use this legal ploy in earnest after 1982. Until then, the authorities acquired land for settlement primarily by requisitioning it for military purposes. A smaller percentage of land had been acquired by declaring it absentee land or territory formerly held by the Jordanian government. By 1979, when I cofounded the organization Al-Haq with several other lawyers to bring legal challenges against the Israeli occupation, Israel had gained control of roughly 30 percent of the land in the West Bank. But those acquisitions were for the most part scattered and separated by plots of private land, rendering most of them unsuitable for settlement building.

It was around this time that I was driving to Tel Aviv and passed by the land of François Albina from Jerusalem, one of my clients. I could see that mobile homes were being brought in. When I next returned to the site I saw a cluster of nine houses, which later developed into the settlement of Beit Horon. That evening I wrote in my diary that what was built so hastily could just as quickly be removed. I should have known better. I had seen the settlement master plan that the Jewish Regional Council in the West Bank had drawn up in cooperation with the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization. According to this plan, 80,000 Israeli Jews were to be settled in the West Bank by 1986 in twenty-three settlements and twenty outposts. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s minister of defense, declared that “we are going to leave an entirely different map of the country that it will be impossible to ignore.”

The custodian of absentee property had transferred Albina’s land to the Zionist agency with a long-term lease, because it was deemed to be state land. When I proved before an Israeli court that the land was privately owned by Albina, the judge decided that the transaction had been “in fact standard, strong and binding and this in spite of the fact that we concluded in our opinion that the ownership of the said land belongs to the appellant.”

The Israeli judges based this oddly contradictory decision on Article 5 of Military Order 58, according to which “any transaction carried out in good faith between the Custodian of Absentee Property and any other person, concerning property which the Custodian believed when he entered into the transaction to be abandoned property, will not be void and will continue to be valid even if it were proved that the property was not at that time abandoned property.” The presiding judge did not concern himself with the question of how the custodian could “in good faith” have believed that Albina’s land was abandoned. The custodian had, after all, had access to the area’s land registry, which was confiscated by the Israeli military immediately after the occupation. A circular dated November 14, 1979, restricted public access to land records. Such records are still restricted for most of the land in the West Bank that Israel controls.

Soon after the court ruled against Albina, two representatives from the illegal settlement of Ofra—established mainly on private Palestinian land—came to see me at my law office in Ramallah. They wanted me to register a local West Bank company for them. When I refused, they were incensed. “Why not? We are bringing progress to the area. Do you want to say you’re against that?” I responded that most Palestinians felt as I did and would not want to have anything to do with the settlers. They answered: “But why? We are not depriving you of anything. The more settlements, the more progress. How can that be bad for you?”

Albina’s case, which began in 1979, dragged on for several years. During that period, a change took place in the primary method the Israeli government used to acquire land for building Jewish settlements in the West Bank. We began seeing fewer cases of seizure for military purposes and more cases like that of Albina, which turned on the declaration of land as state property. The case that forced this shift in strategy occurred in 1979 and centered on a settlement called Elon Moreh.

On June 7, 1979, from a hilltop within the boundaries of the village of Rujeib, 1.5 miles east of the Jerusalem–Nablus highway, Mustafa Dweikat and sixteen other owners of 125 dunums of land (about thirty-one acres) witnessed the start of a “settlement operation.” With the assistance of helicopters and heavy equipment, a road was being built from the highway to the hilltop. The chief of staff had given his approval on April 11 for the requisitioning of the area for military purposes. On June 5, Brigadier General Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the military commander of the West Bank, had signed the requisition order, which designated an area of approximately seven hundred dunums as “seized for military purposes.”

The seventeen owners of the land appealed to the Israeli High Court of Justice. At the trial, their counsel presented an affidavit signed by the former chief of staff of the Israeli army, Haim Bar-Lev, in which he refuted the claim that the settlement contributed to Israel’s security. If anything, it would impede military operations. In the event of a war, he testified, the army might find itself having to protect the civilian Israeli settlement instead of fighting the enemy. For their part, the settlers submitted an affidavit by Menachem Felix, who maintained on behalf of Gush Emunim, the early pioneers of settlement in the West Bank, that “the settlement of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel is the realm of the most effective, the truest act of security.” He then concluded: “But settlement itself does not arise out of security reasons or physical needs, but by the power of destiny of the return of Israelites to their land.”

The Israeli court did not accept Felix’s statement. Nor did it accept Bar-Lev’s; but for the first and last time, lawyers for Palestinians succeeded in having the establishment of a settlement overturned. In its ruling the court said that the military government could not create facts about military needs that are designed ab initio to persist even after the end of the military rule in a given area, when the fate of the area after the end of such rule cannot yet be known.1

After that ruling, the government depended significantly less on military land seizures. The primary method of acquiring land for settlement construction from then on was to declare it state property. To determine what land could be so designated, a 1979 military survey estimated that 1.53 million dunums of land in the West Bank lacked a registered title or had been recorded, as in the Galilee, through written description only.

When I traveled to the United States in 1985 to promote my book Occupier’s Law: Israel and the West Bank, I spoke about the settlements and the danger they presented to solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. I found that many audience members were convinced by what they had been told by Israeli propagandists: that the settlements were necessary for the security of the State of Israel. I would remind my audiences of Bar-Lev’s statement, but most still accepted Israel’s security justification for building settlements. Now that the occupation of the West Bank is in its fiftieth year, the Israeli government no longer uses that justification. The leaders of the settlements and state officials today claim that this is their God-given land.

This biblical justification does not apply only to what Israel has classified as public property. It also applies to privately owned Palestinian land. According to Fields, a report by Talia Sasson of the Israeli State Attorney’s Office

documented systematic confiscations of private Palestinian land by settlers who, assisted by complicit government officials, established numerous unauthorized outposts on the landscape…which were later granted legal status as official settlements.

Nothing has been done to right this wrong and return the land to its registered owners. Menachem Felix’s justification for Jewish settlement using the authority of the Bible has trumped the secular law of the land.

The story of the transformation of the land in Palestine/Israel from the Ottoman period to the present takes up much of Fields’s book. But he tells it in a larger setting, tracing the idea of “enclosure” through England and North America before arriving at his discussion of the Palestinian landscape. What has happened there, he argues, belongs to a “lineage of dispossession” that can be followed back “to the practice of overturning systems of rights to land stemming from the enclosures in early modern England.” He describes at length how maps, property law, and landscape architecture were enlisted by modernizers from the seventeenth century onward in the Zionist practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to “gain control of land from existing landholders and remake life on the landscape consistent with their modernizing aims.”

In his chapter on the colonization of North America and the subjugation of Native Americans, Fields describes how “the law emerged as a crucial instrument in dispossessing Amerindians and transferring their land to colonists.” In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, he argues, the English “tended to favor acquisition of Amerindian land through what colonists considered lawful purchase,” although it was invariably the colonists who had the advantage in such transactions. By the early nineteenth century, in contrast, “the law had become an instrument…enabling the transfer of Amerindian land to settlers through forcible seizure.” A crucial moment in this development, for Fields, was Chief Justice John Marshall’s ruling in the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh that “conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny.” In this way, Fields concludes,

a discourse of land improvement and property rights—supplemented with notions of savagery and racism—had settled upon the landscape…while a ravaged and decimated population of Indians was enclosed in reservations.

Fazal SheikhAnisa Ahmad Jaber Mahamid, born in 1908 in the Palestinian ­village of al-Lajjun, Jenin District, and ­photographed by Fazal Sheikh in the Arab-Israeli city of Umm el-Fahem, 2011. Her portrait appears in Memory Trace, the first volume in Sheikh’s Erasure Trilogy, published by Steidl in 2015.

The popular image of Native Americans in the minds of most Palestinians is mostly derived from Hollywood movies and bears little similarity to the lives and social worlds they made in North America before the colonists arrived. Yasser Arafat was fond of repeating that “the Palestinians are not Red Indians,” by which he meant to distance us from the Native Americans and suggest that ours was a much more highly developed culture than what he judged to be their wild, rudimentary one. But reading Fields’s chapters on North America, I recognized the similarities between the treatment of Native Americans and some of Israel’s tactics and attitudes toward the Palestinians.

Yet I doubt that, despite Israel’s assiduous efforts over several decades to push Palestinians into confined areas within the West Bank, the outcome will be the same. What distinguishes Israel/Palestine from the other regions Fields describes is that the usurpation of land in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is taking place long after the age of colonialism came to an end, sixty-nine years after the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in defiance of international law. Jewish settlements violate Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring its own people into occupied land. And this is happening in full view of the media in one of the most reported conflicts in the world.

Despite the extensive documentation, both visual and textual, of what took place in the part of Mandate Palestine where the Israeli state was established sixty-nine years ago and is currently taking place in the West Bank, Israel remains unable to come to terms with its past, unwilling to recognize the Nakba (catastrophe) that took place in 1948, and unprepared to accept that the Palestinians are a nation entitled to self-determination.2 The claim continues to be heard that the Zionists made the desert bloom and that the Palestinians were not forced off their land. And yet, as Ramzy Baroud shows in his moving new book, The Last Earth, A Palestinian Story: “The Nakba, the genesis of all the pain that has been endured by every Palestinian over the last four generations, persists.”3

In his conclusion, Fields tell us that he wrote Enclosure to show

how the making of private space, the making of white space, and the making of Jewish space on territorial landscapes all spring from the same exclusionary impulses deriving from the enclosures and the appropriation of land in England. Such impulses have enabled groups of people across time and territory to proclaim: “This is my land and not yours.”

In the West Bank, where I live, the effect of the creation of “white space” became more evident as time passed. In the first decades of the Israeli occupation settlements were established mostly in remote areas and did not have a significant impact on the daily lives of Palestinians. It is entirely different now. The separation wall divides many communities from their arable land; roads have been built that Palestinians are not allowed to use; nature reserves have been established from which Palestinians are excluded. Now when I try walking in most of the hills in the West Bank I am called a trespasser. The enclosure of the land has given rise to a system of discrimination over the use of natural resources of land and water that is akin to apartheid. Where interaction between the two communities was possible in the past, they now live entirely separate existences in the tiny space that they share unequally.

Although Fields’s book provides convincing evidence that what took place in Palestine/Israel shares a common lineage with what took place in England and North America over the past three centuries, it must be pointed out that most of the land in Israel was taken after the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. In the West Bank it was only after the Oslo Accords of 1993–1995 that Jewish settlements tripled in number. Only then did the Israeli public come to believe that the more than 60 percent of the West Bank classified as Area C—under sole Israeli control—would eventually be annexed to Israel.

Reading Enclosure brings home the tragedy of such immense and irrevocable destruction. The sad truth is that the creation of gated communities and walled states is spreading well beyond the three regions he discusses and is fast becoming the norm in today’s world. A few years ago, while taking a hike close to my home, I encountered a young settler from Dolev who objected to my presence in the hills where I’ve walked for many years. Challenging my right to hike there, he tried to call the army to evict me from the land. As we waited for them to arrive, he claimed with unflinching conviction that it was he, not I, who “really lives here.”

  1. 1

    The case is discussed at length in Michael Sfard’s excellent new book, The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights, translated by Maya Johnston (Metropolitan, 2018), pp. 164–176. 

  2. 2

    See Sarah Helm’s article in this issue. 

  3. 3

    To be published by Pluto in February. 

Source Article from http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/nybooks/~3/zl3VOaoxTPY/

A Soviet New Year, With Mayonnaise

Anastasia EdelThe author in a “Snow Maiden” costume at her grandfather’s house for New Year’s, Novorossiysk, Russia, 1980

Without mayonnaise, there could be no New Year in the Soviet Union.

A better half of holiday dishes hinged upon it. The sauce—though no one would ever call it that; mayonnaise was a thing-in-itself—came in 200-gram glass jars, and its metal lid had to be pried open; nothing was screw-on in those days. No label either. Just its full name, “Mayonnaise Provençal,” embossed on the lid, along with the expiration date. But the slim jar could not be confused with anything. Behind the glass, the mayonnaise had a grayish tint that would turn green once it mixed with the ingredients of salad Olivier, a Soviet rhapsody of cubed boiled potatoes, bologna, eggs, pickles, and canned green peas.

You could never just buy mayonnaise. You could only get it, sometimes in a favor exchange, sometimes at a special distribution center for important people, like party members or employees of the commerce sphere, most of whom were party members also, so it was one and the same thing. Some trade union members could access mayonnaise, too, though I never figured out which ones; my mother’s union couldn’t.

Factory stores were another path to mayonnaise. They’d sell deficit foods there before the holidays, to keep the proletariat off the edge—it was their country, after all—but you had to work at the plant to be eligible to shop there. My mother worked at the Institute of Culture, and they didn’t have a food store on the premises, let alone one that would trade in mayonnaise. The intelligentsia was an underclass, a “thin layer” between the proletariat and the peasantry Lenin had called it, so the state didn’t fuss about mayonnaise for its least-valued constituency.

Nor would the private markets sell mayonnaise. They’d sell everything else—poultry birds proudly displaying curly yellow fat in their cavities, as if in reproach to the bony and blue chickens sold in state grocery stores. Mandarins and pomegranates from Georgia, arranged in meter-high orange triangles. Sour cream so thick a spoon could stand up in it. Homemade cheeses, honey, produce, pickles of every imaginable vegetable or fruit, including apples. Prices were astronomical, but the stuff was there. Mayonnaise, on the other hand, was the monopoly of the Soviet state, and the state could never produce enough of it. So, if you wanted to meet the New Year properly, with your salad Olivier, your herring-under-a-fur-coat, and your stuffed eggs, you had to work it.

My mother, for instance, had an acquaintance in our local grocery store. Unlike most Soviet grocery stores titled simply “Grocery,” our grocery had a name: “Northern.” The origin of that name in a small southern town was obscure. The store may have been north of some important strategic object, like the district party committee or the nearby Air Force College for pilots from the Warsaw Pact countries. Or that name could have been a southerner’s dream of north, where snow was a guaranteed appearance for much of the New Year holiday, providing a necessary white backdrop for your New Year trees, hard-fought for, like everything else. In the south, where we lived, a rare snowstorm was an occasion for puddles and slush.

The Northern store employed exclusively women, most of them already divorced or still not married and therefore looking for a husband—the result of another deficit, but of men, not mayonnaise: a gender imbalance left behind by the war, they said, even though the war had been over for forty years. The grocery store women wanted to look good for the deficit men, and because there were no good clothes in the store, just as there was no good food in the groceries, they went to private seamstresses with their two meters of fabric, their threads, their buttons, and their zippers, and ordered skirts and dresses. One of those women, a cashier in the Northern, ordered her holiday clothes from my mom, who had trained herself to be a seamstress when she wasn’t teaching piano at the Institute, because every single mother in the USSR had to survive somehow, and that was her way.

In exchange for the skirts, the cashier would “hold” some of the foods that the state planners had dispatched and that had never quite made it to the food hall, preordained tokens in the complicated system of favors, bartering, and bribes that supplemented our perpetually collapsing planned economy. Everything good went straight under the counter. Like the yellow, pre-packaged butter that didn’t leak water as its pallid cousin sold by weight did. Imported spaghetti that, unlike the output of our local macaroni factory, didn’t turn into a sticky clump during cooking no matter how much you stirred it. Ham without fat and bones. Canned green peas.

The green peas were almost as an sich as mayonnaise. If imported spaghetti could at times be acquired at the end of a two-hour-long line (strictly two packs per pair of hands, no more), and if one could conceivably live without ham, canned green peas were a critical ingredient of salad Olivier and, thus, of the New Year holiday. The holiday, ever since “bourgeois” Christmas had been cancelled. Yet never in my life had I seen a can of green peas on a shelf of our Northern grocery.

There was a place for it, though. A friend of a friend just returned from Cuba, I had once overheard my mother’s client saying during the fitting, which took place in my room since that’s where the mirror and the sewing machine were. That friend was a surgeon, dispatched to help revolutionary Cuba because it lacked qualified medical professionals. He’d come back shaken. The only grocery on the shelves of their grocery stores, the surgeon had told the friend of a friend: cans of Soviet green peas. It was reassuring, of course, to know that someone had it worse than you, and to have solved the mystery of green peas’ absence, but questions remained. Did the Cubans need green peas as much as we did? In their faraway tropical country, did they even have salad Olivier? And above all, did they know of our sacrifice?

When making Olivier, green peas were always the last to make it into the pot, a prelude to the mayonnaise. Each can of peas produced about half a glass of sweet juice that my mother would always hand to me, and that, as a single child, I didn’t have to share with anyone. Strained of their liquid, the peas tumbled out of a can in a merry green avalanche, the only round shape in the kingdom of cubes.

Then came the mayonnaise, the thing that held everything together. It had a distinct taste, with hints of sharp mustard and white vinegar, and sunflower oil, too. If an open can was left in the fridge for a couple of weeks—say, when you’d overdone it with the favor channels and received several jars—that oil would separate, forming a thin yellow refrigerator-hardened layer on top of the unused mayonnaise that, as time went by, would get crisscrossed with cracks, like mud at the bottom of a drying puddle. You could restore the original composition with a fork, and while it somewhat lacked in freshness, it was good enough to be slathered on a piece of dark bread, concocting the memory of the holiday.

But that would be next year. On December 31, as the New Year tree (an atheist state’s answer to the Christmas tree) spread the scent of pine resin over the apartment, its fragile snow-maidens and icicles scintillating in the light of a ceiling lamp, the mayonnaise was still sharp and plentiful. It poured easily out of a jar and had to be incorporated slowly with a spoon, starting from the top of the salad mound, and going down in concentric circles all the way to the bottom, until each small cube was smothered in the magic sauce. You could check by tasting the salad from various sides of the pot, though you had to go easy, or there would be not much left for the holiday table.

By the time the Olivier made its public appearance, around 9 PM, it had been freed from its prosaic container and heaped in a cupronickel-rimmed crystal bowl that, in the ordinary times, gathered dust on the living room windowsill, a memory of a wedding that didn’t live up to its expectations. Soaked in the solution of vinegar and salt, scrubbed and patted dry, the sparkling bowl was an appropriate framing for Olivier—the king of the table, and evidence of man’s triumph over adversity.

Also on the table, golden Riga sprats, reminders that the Baltics were Soviet, too. Canned crabmeat from Kamchatka, nine time zones away in the far north. A platter with thinly-sliced servilat, a species of hard salami so rare that even my mother’s friend in the Northern grocery, with all her under-the-counter power, could not procure any. When my grandfather was alive, it came from him, part of a special holiday food packet that he would send us from the nearby town where he lived.

Anastasia EdelThe author with her mother, Lyudmila Alexandrova, at New Year’s, Krasnodar, Russia, 1986

The most amazing thing in that packet was a list with the “state” price for every food item it contained. A can of Chatka crabmeat: two rubles, eighty five kopecks. A can of salmon caviar: two, seventy. A can of cod liver: one, fifteen. A kilo of servilat: five, ten. The whole thing amounted to some fifteen rubles. Even with our meager incomes, we could have afforded it, had the items only been in the stores. But they weren’t. When we would go to my grandfather’s, Mother would pay him back the rubles and kopeks she owed for the holiday packet without saying a word, but I knew she couldn’t square it away, why a man who had everything insisted on the reckoning part. He had his reasons, we assumed. Something to do with children not depending on their parents.

When he died abruptly, my mother had to find new procurement channels. They came in the shape of my better-off classmates’ parents, her occasional boyfriends, and, sometimes, her students. Once, it was a balalaika major taking mandatory “general piano” classes who worked at night at the city’s meat processing plant and left the premises with sausage links tied to his back or legs, to be used as currency. Everyone did that, he confided to my mother, and not everyone got caught. That’s why an unskilled laborer’s job at the meat-processing plant was something of a boon.

And then the servilat that had made its way to our holiday table through such peril was arranged, sliced fan-style, on a dinner plate. Next to it, in a fish-shaped dish, herring-under-a-fur-coat spread its cruelty-free mantle of boiled carrots, beets, potatoes, and raw onions. In this second mandatory New Year dish, mayonnaise acted as a divider, separating one colorful layer from another. In another crystal bowl—emptied for the occasion of Mother’s rings and necklaces—was shredded carrot salad with walnuts and raisins, the carrots’ orange flamboyance tempered by the mayonnaise. Boiled eggs, halved and stuffed with the yolks that had been whipped with crushed garlic and mayonnaise, mandatory dish number three. Sandwiches spread with melted grated cheese, garlic, eggs, and, of course, mayonnaise. Smoked cod liver on toast, or chopped with eggs and green onion, both versions so filling you could only manage a few bites, and with great care not to drop any on the tablecloth or your dress, because the fish stink would be impossible to get out. Fresh herbs bought in the produce market and laid out on a flower-decorated tray brought home from a tour trip to socialist Hungary—cilantro, dill, parsley, collectively known as “the vitamins.” Crunchy homemade pickles, reminders of hot August days made even hotter by the water boiling in a giant aluminum pot, to sterilize the three-liter pickle jars. Transparent slabs of shredded chicken in aspic, trembling at the touch of a fork. In the oven, roast meat à la France: beef cutlets baked with onions, grated cheese, and mayonnaise. In the fridge, the ten-layer Napoleon cake, a six-hour-marathon-baking affair, taking half an hour per layer, preparation and chilling time not included (nor mayonnaise).

There was Champagne for the adult guests whom Mother had started hosting once going to Grandfather’s for the holidays was no longer an option. For the kids, there was sweet and strongly-carbonated foreign Pepsi-Cola, brewed at one of those “licensed plants” that our Communist leaders had negotiated, inexplicably, with the imperialists. Only one thing in the world tasted better than salad Olivier, and that was Olivier washed down with Pepsi. It was a Marxian dialectic: mayonnaise Provençal and Pepsi-Cola—each a quintessential symbol of the two irreconcilable ideological systems, fused in our mouths to trigger a burst of Soviet happiness hormones. More salad Olivier, anyone? Champagne? Pepsi? 

The TV station beamed holiday shows with whimsical names that, for once, had nothing to do with building socialism, like “The Little Blue Flame,” or “Brasserie Twelve Chairs,” where famous men and women sat beside their holiday tables decorated by small New Year trees, artificial snow sparkling on plastic branches. Jokes called out across the room, tinsel streaming from the ceiling like silver rain, champagne bottles popping on both sides of the screen. At about 11 PM, the New Year fever would intensify. Dancing stopped, toasts became hurried, and everyone kept glancing at the clock. As another year in the “country of workers and peasants” wound to an end, our Leader addressed us briefly from the TV screen. Once he was done, the volume was turned back up, and everyone’s eyes were glued to the giant clock on Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower.   

If you wanted something badly, New Year’s Eve was your chance to wish for it. But for your wish to come true, you had to think it exactly when the Spasskaya Clock struck midnight. The pathos-filled trio of Kremlin chimes signaled the countdown. A fresh bottle of Champagne had to be opened at the first loud bhom and poured into glasses around the room. Those who had been smoking on the balcony would be summoned back into the living room. Those still in the kitchen would bring whatever they were spreading, arranging, and mixing, and get their refilled glasses. Even the kids would be offered a splash of Champagne. Family members would be exhorted to gather closer to one other. Seven, everyone counted. Eight! Nine! Ten!

Throughout the years, my wish never changed, even though it stubbornly refused to come true. It was true that I never liked the few boyfriends that my mother had, save for that one classmate she should have married instead of my father. And it was true that in this patriarchal southern town, few men could handle a woman like my mother. Her predicament, her lonely quest for our survival, her sewing skirts in exchange for jars of mayonnaise with other struggling women, were as inexorable as the movement of time, signaled by the strikes of the Kremlin clock. But this was New Year’s Eve, the one day in the USSR when hope trampled reason. Eleven! Twelve!

Let my mother get married.

Happy New Year! Serpentine rings of streamers uncoiling in colorful spirals over the table, confetti falling into the empty Olivier bowl and over the half-eaten herring-under-a-fur coat. A smell of sulphur from the  “Bengal Fire” sparklers showering silver arrows over my hand without burning it. Homemade rockets crisscrossed the sky with loud whistles, and people on the balconies called out holiday good wishes to those in the apartment building across the way. Mother’s kiss on my cheek, the elusive scent of Miss Dior, then the smell of Turkish coffee wafting from the kitchen. The Napoleon cake, now being cut, would be eaten before the New Year was barely an hour old, and that year, we hoped, would be better than the one that came before. Once a year, the Soviet people had the right to be hopeful. And so we were. The mayonnaise helped.

Anastasia EdelLyudmila Alexandrova, the author’s mother, with a “Bengal Fire” sparkler at New Year’s, Krasnodar, 1967

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Portrait of the Artist as a Single Mom

Rasmus Meyers Samlinger, Bergen, Norway/Bridgeman ImagesHarriet Backer: By Lamplight, 1890

In my mind, the scene of the accident was always the same. It didn’t clearly make sense how it happened, but that didn’t matter. When it played out behind my closed eyelids, I saw my truck, a late-Eighties Toyota 4Runner, stopped perpendicularly to the main street in the northern side of downtown where we lived in Missoula, Montana. Sometimes, I saw myself slumped over in the driver’s seat with the whole side-panel caved in. Other times, I was flat out on the pavement in the turning lane, our red-and-blue plaid wool blanket over my upper half. Mia, my oldest daughter, who was seven at the time, was never there. But Coraline, less than six months old, always was.

Through several variations, Cora screamed from her car seat in the back of the truck, still facing backwards, her footed pajamas barely reaching the end of her seat. Or she was still strapped in, but in the middle of the street, the truck between us, watching emergency workers walk past her, first with interest, then with confused frustration. The scene would play on like that, with my body carried away on a stretcher, my truck towed, someone cleaning up the glass and fluids left behind. Coraline grew increasingly uncomfortable, and nobody was there to pick her up. Nobody came to get her. I was all she had, and I was gone.

This scene came into my head often. I couldn’t seem to stop it. Coraline would be cradled on the nursing pillow in my lap, asleep, done with nursing but not willing to unlatch from my breast. I’d stare at her, seeing the possibility of her left alone in the street with no one to comfort her, and start to cry. This little human being, whom I had chosen to have and raise alone in a moment of stubborn empowerment, needed me to provide her with warmth, food, shelter, and love, without any thought for my own mortality.

This recurring vision came barely a year after I had, at age thirty-five, completed my senior year of college, graduating with a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing and finally achieving a dream that had begun nearly ten years earlier. Only a year and a few months had passed since I’d made the decision not to abort the pregnancy that would lead to Cora’s birth, despite needing food stamps to feed myself and my first child, Mia. We still relied on government assistance for food, housing, health insurance, and our electric bill.

I’ve joked with friends that in choosing to keep a pregnancy that began with a one-night stand, knowing I’d be on my own, I’d severely overestimated my abilities. The truth is, after years of emotional abuse and manipulation from Mia’s dad, I wanted the chance to have a child on my own terms.

We had been without a home before, after I told Mia’s father that I was pregnant and that I was keeping the baby. I’d found a perfect little cottage, where Mia was eventually born, but the owner died a week after. Mia’s dad had been so excited about fatherhood in those weeks that it seemed safe to move in with him again. So safe that I combined our bank accounts. He spent my savings in a month. When I asked if I could start working on the weekends, he told me he didn’t want to waste his free time having to watch the baby. When the holidays came around, I cried in secret at night, miserable.

For months after Mia was born, I spent my days alone while her dad worked. He hated that I was at home, that I lived with him, that I’d decided to have his baby. He hated me every second of the day, so much so that I was sure his daughter felt it, too, when he yelled at me over her wails. She was barely old enough to crawl when he kicked us out.

I didn’t want to be a single mom. My family couldn’t help, but it didn’t stop me from asking. I stayed with my dad and his wife for a few weeks before he started asking when I was going to move out. Working my way down a long list of homeless shelters, I found what seemed like the only vacant spot north of Seattle in, coincidentally, the town we’d just run from. Moving there brought relief, gratitude, and stabbing pains of failure. I’d failed to provide a family, a home, a good mother, for my daughter. I’d failed to make it outside this tiny town. I couldn’t feel anything else but that.

I scrubbed the floor of the homeless shelter we lived in—a little cabin we thankfully had to ourselves—so Mia could scoot around on the tile without getting dirty. For Mia’s first year, despite the difficulties, I was never completely without support. I’d been able to save a little money before she was born. I didn’t have to work or worry any more about paying rent for the trailer we’d lived in with her dad. Even though we’d become homeless, there were housing programs in place that would carry us to transitional housing, then our own apartment, with a voucher that paid the rent. My caseworker at the Housing Authority in the small, ocean-side town of Port Townsend, Washington, gave me comfort, stability, and a sense of hope. She felt like a relative when she called to check in on us.

We were allowed ninety days at the shelter. So I had to find not just a job, but stable employment, and fast. My résumé had awkward gaps, especially after 2008, when the recession took hold. Nobody wanted to hire someone who needed to work during daycare hours—not even the coffee shops I applied to, thinking I’d get at least an afternoon shift with my ten years’ experience. When I said the hours I could work were limited, their eyes lowered. That was the end of the interview. Going back to school, to get some kind of degree beyond high school, turned into my only option. I could take classes online at first, doing homework late into the night after Mia went to bed. Slowly, I chipped away at the list of required core credits while working a day job as a maid.

When I’d found out I was pregnant with Mia, I’d thrown the application for the writing program of my dreams at the University of Montana into the garbage. Five years later, I filled out the application again. Once my admission was granted, I never doubted my decision to move us to Missoula, so far from anything we’d ever known. Mia’s dad consented, somewhat easily, and signed the court documents to allow our relocation. Maybe he knew my determination would will me to fight. Or maybe the offer of lowering his child support payment by $200 was too good to pass up. He still blamed me for moving his daughter away from him. It fueled his anger and, far more than the physical distance, made him separate himself more from her emotionally.

By the spring of 2012, I was walking the same halls of generations of writers and poets before me—James Welch, Richard Hugo, William Kittredge. And I met Judy Blunt, whose book, Breaking Clean, had a story similar to my own. She was the head of the Creative Writing department that year. I sat in her office, knowing that she, too, had started college at the same school later in life, with not one kid, but three.

“I want to be a writer,” I said out loud, maybe for the first time. I wanted to tell her that it was all I’d ever wanted to be since I was in the fourth grade, when my English teacher Mr. Birdsall made us keep a journal, and that I’d kept one ever since. I knew of no other dream than to write. I wanted to tell her that I’d put off settling into being a real writer to live a life worth writing about. Now I needed to learn how to process my experience, to put it on the page in a way that wasn’t just late-night scribbling. But Judy didn’t respond to my proclamation. I figured she probably heard that a lot. I lowered my eyes. “But I’m a single mom. It seems so frivolous to get an arts degree.”

Though I’d weighed the pros and cons of obtaining a degree in English, and listed the ways it could be considered useful, even practical, to have a four-year degree in language arts, it still seemed like a huge risk. I wanted college to help me support my family, be a contributing member of society, get off food stamps. But what I wanted most of all was a book I’d written to hold in my hand.

School drove me deep into debt. I’d never be able to afford writing retreats, or for my writing to be an art that would get me published but without pay. Time to write, in that sense, was a privilege not granted to me. Writing had to support us. I instinctively felt that publishing a memoir was a major destination along the road to a stable writing career, but it was one I had no directions for. It stretched out before me, glimmering in the distance, and often felt like an impossibility founded on pure faith in my ability, or pure stubbornness.

Judy offered neither advice nor judgment. She told me about passing her kids from one person to the next so she could focus on her writing workshops. She told me about writing her book in the hours before dawn, before she went to work sanding and refinishing wood floors. When she spoke of her writing process, it didn’t resemble the image I had of a large desk looking out through bay windows over pastoral scenes—an artist waiting for inspiration, unconcerned about how bills would be paid. She talked about writing the same way she did about sanding a floor. It was gritty, dirty, and hard. Work that, with my blue-collar roots, I could understand.

I suppose I followed her example. Mia bounced from one babysitter to another, often coming with me to class. My professors didn’t seem to mind the kid with headphones, slurping chocolate milk, stinking up the room with a Happy Meal. Once, as we were leaving, my writing instructor, the great Debra Earling, bent down to shake hands with Mia, only five at the time. “You know your mom’s a very good writer,” she said. Mia stared, and though she doesn’t remember the moment, she started saying she wanted to be a writer after that. 

Every time my car broke down during those years, or I had to fill out renewal forms for our food stamps, my stomach clenched in selfishness and guilt. We were struggling like this because I had chosen to get an art degree instead of work. Being on government assistance, that didn’t seem like an option for me, let alone one to accept, even though it never felt like there was any other option but that. I was a writer. I had to write.

As a full-time student (and mother), I could only work ten to fifteen hours a week, shuffling around half a dozen housecleaning clients on my own. I took out the maximum amount of loans to give us something to pay all our monthly bills, which I managed to keep around a thousand dollars. A Pell Grant and a small scholarship for survivors of domestic violence paid my tuition for the fall and spring semesters, but they didn’t cover the classes I took during the shorter winter and summer study periods. The tuition for those usually went on a credit card.

Since we’d moved away, Mia’s dad had declined to take her for the summers, leaving me to scramble to pay for child care. Eventually, I decided to do something that I’d promised him I wouldn’t—petition to double the amount he paid in child support. As a result, by the time I neared the end of my required classes, I’d racked up almost $1,000 in legal fees. Plus, I had $50,000 in student loan debt, and about $12,000 in credit card debt. My minimum monthly payments on the credit cards alone hovered around $300. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I’d have to start making the $500 monthly payments for the student loans once the six-month grace period ended after the commencement ceremony.

Coraline came only a month after I graduated college in June of 2014. I drifted through the last month of my pregnancy with an aching pelvis, interviewing for legal assistant positions I didn’t get, the large balloon of a belly going unmentioned but not, apparently, unnoticed. In the meantime, my rejection from the college’s MFA program meant that I had to somehow grow my own platform for my writing, working on a memoir, collecting bylines as a freelance writer, hoping the followers would come.

To start, I looked for jobs that required writing or editing. I found two—one as an intern for the local YWCA, writing op-eds, blog posts, and letters to the editor, and another editing events on the community calendar. My income drifted between $500 and $800 a month. In the meantime, I had won my case for increased child support for Mia, but I’d depleted my savings in the process. We had a little less than enough to pay the bills, so I went on shuffling payments from one credit card to the next. But at least I could work from home, with Coraline drifting from nursing to sleeping to fussing on my lap. I took only two days off work after she was born but, I reminded myself, I was getting paid to write. I was a working writer.

Stephanie LandStephanie Land eight months pregnant with her daughter, Coraline, on graduation day with her daughter Mia, Missoula, Montana, May, 2014

We lived in the oldest house in Missoula in a converted apartment on the ground floor. A plaque out front named it “The Worden House,” and tourists stopped to take photos of its chipped white paint and sagging porch. Built in the late 1800s, it had evolved to four apartments and an office where the owners sold season ski-lift tickets for hundreds of dollars each—though none of that money seemed to go into improvements on the property. Our space was the largest, but the kitchen area had only two cupboards, a small fridge, and a stove with a rolling microwave cart for counter space. That summer, beneath the room that the girls and I shared, the stray cat who’d lived in the basement died during a week when temperatures climbed to a hundred. That section of the house had no insulation under the floor. I lay in bed at night, breathing in the stench.

Though at that time of year, the temperature inside often remained at eighty degrees even at night, I knew that in only a few months I’d fail to keep the space above sixty. The curtains would sway as the winter winds blew in. My landlord offered nothing to help insulate us from the cold.

“Maybe we need to discuss if this apartment is suited for your family,” he wrote in an email. When I told him I didn’t have a choice, he asked me to sign a new lease that prohibited me from having roommates. He claimed not to know that I sublet the only bedroom to classmates or friends for a small amount in exchange for help with child care. He told me to sign the lease and pay the full $875 a month on my own, or move out within thirty days.

Missoula’s population numbers about 70,000, but it fluctuates between college semesters and summers. Many college students have the privilege of parents who pay their rent, which raises housing costs and widens the gap between local wages and the cost of living. When I started looking for low-income housing assistance, most organizations had little to no funding and long wait-lists. For someone in Missoula to get a Section 8 voucher, the federal housing assistance program, the wait was three to five years (it can be much longer in bigger cities), and for any emergency housing I’d need an official eviction notice from my landlord. Many low-income housing complexes still wanted at least $800 for a two-bedroom apartment, plus first and last month’s rent, and a deposit.

For two months, in between hours that I worked or cared for my children, I walked to property management offices, talked to several caseworkers for housing assistance, and faced a dozen landlords who gave me a half-hearted grin once they saw I expected to live with an infant and seven-year-old in a studio. “This space is better for students,” they tried to tell me. Even for the spaces above neighbors who smoked, whose floors were stained permanently brown with dirt and grease, but would still cost me at least $700 a month with utilities.

Stephanie Land“The Worden House,” where Land lived in a converted apartment, Missoula, Montana, 2012

“I had to keep anything from getting to me then,” I told my therapist recently, when she asked if I’d experienced any kind of post-partum depression after Coraline’s birth. “I couldn’t allow myself to cry, or I’d cry all the time.”

“Depression can appear in different ways,” she said. “Sometimes people shut down and become numb.”

“I wasn’t depressed,” I said, carefully, trying not to clench my teeth. “I was just really tired.”

I knew I was exhausted at the time, but what I could never admit to myself was how lonely I was. Maybe I could now. I guess I just did. Loneliness meant rejection; I believed that I was alone for a reason. Loneliness meant I’d failed at doing everything on my own. Loneliness meant that I needed affection, wanted company, or a partner, but all of those things felt impossible to obtain. I tried not to want, and closed my eyes to scenes of fathers holding happy children on their shoulders. I didn’t scroll through social media on holidays. Instead, I kept up the façade that we were happy, my children were happy, and sometimes we even went out and did things.  

Perhaps because of my bone-aching fatigue at the time, I have very few memories of Cora’s first few months. The room we slept in was built to be a living room, with its large fireplace and bay window. A door to the common area, with a washer and dryer from the Seventies, was mostly glass and didn’t have a deadbolt. Panes of glass also flanked the lock at the back entrance by the alleyway, where people slinked home at night. Once, I’d woken up to hear someone roughly twisting the doorknob, knocking angrily on the door, yelling at me to let him into his house—too drunk to know he didn’t live there anymore. More recently, I opened my eyes to several flashlight beams crossing through windows of our bedroom, leaving shadows of large figures on the pull-down blinds, the kind that snap off their holders if you let go of them after tugging. Someone spoke into a radio. They were cops, not burglars, but that didn’t exactly ease my mind. Long after the police left, I wondered what they had been looking for.

I was getting so little sleep worrying about what would happen if there was a break-in. I hadn’t properly washed in days because the baby screamed whenever I put her down. I felt spongy, and none of my clothes fit. When Coraline’s diaper exploded and I had to change it on a table in a public bathroom, keeping one hand on her while fishing in my purse for wipes, a shirt, a plastic bag for dirty clothes, and new pants, my exhaustion and frustration grew to anger, and I’d yell at Mia to stop playing with something on the floor. I needed help and knew I wouldn’t get it. I was all I could depend on, and I had failed myself. I’d look down at the baby on the table and fight the feeling of regret for bringing her into the world.

At those moments, I would have given anything to be able to walk away. I wanted to tap out. I wanted to hand her over to her other parent, the one she didn’t have, so that he could handle it for a while. I wanted a break I was certain I’d never get, and it was hard to want something so badly, especially when it’s another human. A partner. Wanting something like that, in the way that I did, made me feel desperate. A person, I was certain, nobody wanted to date.

“I just can’t give you what you need,” one man had said to me, the last one I’d allowed myself to really like. And that was when it was still just Mia and me.

“I never asked for anything,” I reminded him, even though I knew he was already gone.

Most of the guys I dated just wanted sex, and that was fine. Sometimes, that was all I wanted, too. I liked the affirmation, the reassurance, that I was still someone who could be desired. When I just had Mia, all of that was easily attainable. She could spend the night at a friend’s house so I could go out, be free, maybe even see a band and drink beer. Coraline was different; she wouldn’t let anyone else hold her. When she was around a year old, I tried a few at-home daycares, even one lady who was known as “The Baby Whisperer.” Cora screamed so hard that she upset the other children. It wasn’t until she was nearly eighteen months that I could leave her for a couple of hours, to escape to a café down the street to work. Up until then, I worked, writing until two or three in the morning for blogs and websites aimed at single moms, sitting on the living room floor, my laptop teetering on a footstool, Cora sleeping in my lap.

In one important way, though, we had caught a break. My name had, miraculously, risen to the top of a wait-list through the Missoula Housing Authority for their Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. We were offered a 600-square-foot apartment with two windows that faced north and saw barely any sun. But I could afford the tiny bedrooms and bathroom, and washer and dryer, on my own. Still, the anxiety followed me: it took weeks before I didn’t wake up to every sound in the night. Coraline continued to constantly orbit around me, while Mia often ran over to play at the neighbor’s. That apartment released me from housing insecurity, but the crushing sense of hopeless loneliness was always near. I felt it when I opened my eyes in the morning, and I felt it when I closed them at night.

In between, I worked. Sometimes up to sixty hours a week. I was learning that everything that happened in my life could be turned into Internet content for pay. Most often, I had up to thirty different pieces in varying stages: from pitch, acceptance, edits, or queued for publication, to invoice and payment. That’s what being a freelance writer requires in this economy, if you want to sustain a livable income.

It took two years, but I wrote my way off food stamps. Things started to look up. I got my first smartphone. I traveled to speak on panels and attend conferences about social and economic justice—the subjects I was starting to become known for writing about. When the book deal came from an essay I’d written about cleaning houses, I hung up the phone, stood in my living room, and felt the air expand around me. Mia was at day camp, and Cora was in daycare. I’d need to go pick them up in thirty minutes.

I closed my eyes, breathed in and out for five counts. It had been my life’s ambition since I was ten to publish a book, and there it was. I wanted to scream, jump, cry. I wanted someone to do that with me. Instead, I opened my eyes, grabbed my wallet, and walked out the door. It was Coraline’s birthday. We needed cupcakes to celebrate.

Stephanie LandLand with her daughters Mia and Coraline and her dog Bodhi, Missoula, Montana, 2015

This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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Dominica: After the Storm

Marica HonychurchTrees stripped by Hurricane Maria in the interior of Dominica, October, 2017

Lennox Honychurch wrote the book on Dominica. Born on this small, mountainous island in the Windward Antilles in 1952, he first published The Dominica Story in 1975. An updated version of the book remains the standard history of a country that few Americans could distinguish from the Dominican Republic until recently, when Hurricane Maria blasted its peaks with 160-mile-per-hour winds and images on the news showed a once-lush land that then resembled the surface of the moon.

Located between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica was named for the day of the week—a Sunday—when Columbus first glimpsed its steep sides. The island— which is just under 300 square miles, about the size of New York City—remained unsettled by Europeans for much longer than its neighbors; it remains home today to a proud community of indigenous people whom the Spanish dubbed “Carib” but who call themselves Kalinago. The island passed back and forth between French and English control many times before it became, in 1763, the British colony it would remain until winning independence in 1978.

Honychurch’s roots there go back generations, and his devotion to Dominica has made him work to restore its colonial-era forts and to write several more books. His most recent is a study of how Dominica’s “maroons,” or runaway slaves, once thrived in the still-untamed woods of what the local tourist board now touts as “the Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

On the afternoon of September 18, as Hurricane Maria bore down, Honychurch was in his home by the island’s north shore. The next day, after the storm had moved on and was raging toward Puerto Rico, I tried to reach him on his cellphone. My call went straight to voicemail. Dominica’s power grid was wrecked, and its few cell towers were snapped in half: the only way to communicate with anyone there, for weeks after the storm, was via email or Skype with those who had access to government computers in the island’s little capital, Roseau. From friends there, I soon learned that Honychurch was all right. He’d built his house—unlike most homes on an island where nine in ten abodes saw severe damage—using traditional hurricane defenses; it had stood firm. But it wasn’t until seven weeks after the storm that I finally reached him—with the help of a temporary cell-tower, Honychurch explained, that the phone company has erected near his village.

“We had what you’d call a ‘mixed preparedness’,” he sighed, explaining that many of his neighbors hadn’t absorbed Maria’s full danger until the storm hit. “On the US cable TV stations, where many people here get their news, ‘making landfall’ means hitting Florida or Puerto Rico; they don’t focus much on the littler islands that Atlantic hurricanes hit first.” Honychurch told me his story of experiencing the worst storm ever to strike his island. He described the steep uphill battle that Dominica is still facing three months later, after the most damaging Caribbean hurricane season on record. Even to begin a rebuilding process will take years, and in the meantime, the world’s spotlight moves on. (Our conversation has been condensed.)

—Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro: I wonder if you could describe for me the day Maria hit, the buildup to the storm, and your experience of it. Were people in Dominica ready, in any way, for what hit them?   

Lennox Honychurch: Most people weren’t, no. Right up until Maria’s outer bands began to hit, many people here hadn’t realized the enormity of her approach. There was still talk on local radio, that afternoon of September 18, of Maria moving more to the south, toward Martinique. But by 8:00 or so that evening, as it got really bad, it became clear to all that this was indeed a Category 5 hurricane, hitting us full force, and that it was going to go diagonally across the whole island.

We’ve had bad hurricanes before. Hurricane David, in 1979, was a landmark in the twentieth-century history of Dominica. But it’s amazing how time wipes away memory. As Maria landed, many people went to so-called hurricane shelters—village schools and churches, mostly. But many of those buildings were built in the last couple decades with big flat roofs; they weren’t up to a storm like this. Their roofs came right off, and people were exposed.

You, though, were okay in your house, but what was that night like there? And what is it about your place, which I know you modeled on older French homes in the Antilles, that allowed it to stand firm? 

Marica HonychurchA kitchen in Roseau Valley, Dominica, September, 2017; click to enlarge

I’m on headland facing north, and that night it was like being on the bow of a ship—the winds surging and waves crashing against the cliffs’ bottoms, rain pouring down. Gusts chopping up the trees like spinach. But I built my place to withstand storms and based it on the old houses the French learned to build on Martinique in the eighteenth century—they’d had a number of experiences there, by then, that taught them they had to be ready to withstand these storms that arrived, in the days before satellites and televisions, with no warning—when you had to be able to close up in ten, fifteen minutes. Their houses had heavy shutters. Mine has those, and a steep-pitched roof with rafters that are close together and have “hurricane ties” at either end. It’s built of actual boards rather than sheets of plywood. The galvanized [steel] on the roof is screwed in, not nailed. The houses here that weathered Maria were the old ones, or done in that style. It’s the houses built since the 1970s and 1980s, these places made from just nailing together plywood and particle board—including many homes of the upper classes, not just the poor—that got destroyed.

When you opened your door, the morning after, what did you see?

Well, it was just after first light at 6 AM that I opened my door—to a completely new vista. I had been surrounded by coastal forest, but that was completely gone—I was looking across to houses, though now demolished, that I knew were there but that I had never seen from my place before. The landscape was completely transformed, returned to how it would have looked 200 years ago, when the island’s coasts were all planted with sugarcane. You could see for miles. Except for the ground, of course, was covered not with sugar but with branches. My neighbors, beginning very early that morning, began to arrive. I was one of the few people on the island who didn’t lose water or power. My concrete cisterns were full; the solar panels bolted to the roof held. And so those first few days, especially, my community service was just to be available for people coming for showers and for water; for ice and electric current.

You live in the north of the island, the other end of the island from Roseau. But I know that most of your family, your mother and sister, live in the south, up in the hills over the capital. But you had no way, in the aftermath of the storm, to reach them, right—no one did, since all phones were out, and I presume the roads were, too?  There are, of course, only a few major roads in Dominica, whether you’re circling the coast or crossing the interior.

Yes, that’s right. And I was keen to head south right away, to see my mother. She was about to turn ninety-two—Maria hit on September 18 and my mum’s birthday was September 21. So I wanted to get there for that; also just to ensure that my mum, and my sister and my sister’s kids, with whom she lives, were okay. And there was no way of communicating with them but to go. But many of the roads, as you say, were washed out; those that weren’t were impassable. So I considered walking—it would have been some thirty-two miles on foot. But I met a man by my place, a couple days after the storm, who had just done sixteen miles, and he had started at 6 AM.  So I realized there was no way I could walk across the island in one day—over tree trunks and through rivers, but also, now, dodging the electric poles and cables that were twisted and spun all over the place. So I waited until the road was partially open, a few days later. And I drove a way into the interior, as far as I could go, but I had to walk the rest, about ten miles.   

I was very glad, as I did so, that other people had walked before. Because the roads were unrecognizable. It was thanks to those footsteps in the mud, their cutlass marks through branches, that I found my way. My mum and my sister and her kids, thankfully, were okay. They’d lost water and power. But they were okay. And that walk through the interior, seeing the devastation to the forest, was astonishing.   

The trees, nearly all of them, were snapped off halfway up their trunks. But what was even more striking was how they’d been stripped, by the branches tearing through the forest and ripping off the bark, the orchids, everything. That, and the parrots—those that hadn’t died. They looked, on these stripped rainforest trees, like specks of emerald green. And you could just tell they didn’t know what had hit them. They were in a state of shock. In the weeks since, there’s been real concern about one of our native species here—the Imperial Parrot, which you find only in Dominica and which is on our national flag. Even before the hurricane, they were extremely rare, and the National Forestry folks haven’t reported seeing any since. Other parrots have come from the mountains to the coasts, whose flora are greening faster than our forests. In the trees by me now, we have red-necked parrots that we never had before—usually they live on the mountain. 

Marica HonychurchAlbert Joseph, Loubiere, Dominica, 2017

Birds, of course, weren’t the island’s only traumatized inhabitants. Tell me about your encounters with people as you traversed the island that first time after the storm, and since.  

Among the most striking experiences was passing through the Kalinago territory—the area where the indigenous Kalinago people live, on the Atlantic coast. It’s a part of the island that’s totally exposed to the elements, and the devastation there was awful. I talked with many people whose houses were just spread around like matchsticks. Since the island is so mountainous, most people live around its edges by the coast. But that also meant that all of our rivers—we have a saying here: “Dominica has a river for every day of the year”—did as much damage as the wind in many spots. The rivers brought down boulders, and huge trunks of trees like battering rams coming down flooded ravines. It was as though the island had vomited everything out onto its coastal villages.

People here are extremely resilient, and look after each other—in rural districts especially, we like to talk of “koudmen”: the spirit of helping hands. Living on this rough, rugged island, Dominicans are accustomed to nature’s fury, even if it isn’t a full-fledged hurricane. They have a remarkable capacity to just pick up, and piece together what they can—to go from having a three-room house to picking up the pieces and sheltering their families in one room instead. We’re also fortunate here, as damaging as the rivers were during the storm, to have them. In the Leeward Islands—Antigua, Barbuda—they don’t have such water; accessing fresh water, in those places, is really a chore. After Maria, our rivers may have been running murky, but at least people could wash their clothes. And they had access, too, to our springs. All over the island, I saw people putting plastic gutters from ruined homes down into springs to get fresh water—using bits of ruined houses to drink.

I know that many people, too, have just left. We’ve been hearing about that in many places—about how climate change, and awful storms made worse on a warming planet, are increasingly a driver of migration. What has that looked like, in recent weeks, in Dominica?   

In the immediate aftermath, the ferry was providing a free service to Martinique and Guadeloupe, so many people took advantage of that. Many people have gone to Antigua, where Dominicans have long gone to look for work. And Antigua must be having a hell of a time—they’ve also got everyone from their sister-island, Barbuda, which was completely razed by Hurricane Irma. From my house on the north coast, I saw so many little fishing boats passing the point here, just crowded with people, leaving for the French islands or wherever else.  

Thirty-eight years ago, Dominica’s population was the highest it’s ever been. The day before Hurricane David, in August 1979, our population was 85,000. After David, the next census, the population was 15,000 less, at 70,000. Before Hurricane Maria, we were down to about 68,000. And now, people have just been going in droves. We may be down, goodness knows, to maybe 45,000. But plenty of other people, of course, can’t leave.  And many of our elderly, people in their eighties and nineties, have been dying recent weeks—expiring of a kind of broken heart, I think, from the shock of it all. The number of deaths has not been fully quantified. A couple of weeks ago, they were saying, “Twenty-four dead, thirty-four missing.” But with so many people living in forests and on isolated farms, you just don’t know. A lot of people were swept away.

Marica HonychurchWest Bridge, Roseau, Dominica, October, 2017

The situation in rural areas is one thing, but a lot of the international coverage of what was happening in Dominica, especially right after the storm, focused on Roseau—this more urban area, where people depend more on shops than their own land or neighbors to eat. And Roseau isn’t even a city by world standards; it’s just a town, really, of 20,000 people. What was the situation there? 

Well, as you say Roseau may not be a big city, but it is home to about a third of Dominica’s population. And there’s been a lot of chaos. The port was so damaged, as ships began to arrive with goods and aid, all these containers were being piled hither and yon. Finding what was in what, and what was meant for whom, and getting goods into shops, caused a great deal of dismay. Many of the shops were raided by hungry or thieving people. Many shopkeepers found it virtually impossible to open again, and some, especially Chinese or others not from Dominica, have just left. The picture with aid has, of course, been very difficult.

In Dominica, as in many other Caribbean islands, we call ourselves independent—we won independence from Britain in 1978—but on occasions like this, you really see how extremely dependent we still are on the goodwill and assistance of wealthy countries. And these countries’ focus, with all the damage done by hurricanes elsewhere, has been elsewhere, too. The US, after Maria, had Puerto Rico to deal with. The British had a ship in the region, but they had to deal with the British Virgin Islands. The French were already on the ground dealing with St. Martin and St. Barthélemy, after Irma, and helped Martinique and Guadeloupe prepare and deal with Maria, with the full force of the French government. No one has really focused on Dominica. Which was so different from when Hurricane David hit us in 1979. That time, the US came right away, the army and their engineers; the French; the British, of course. They each had an encampment here. But not this time.

Eventually, some aid arrived—but you’ve said that a lot of the rebuilding has been more at the grassroots; it’s been about local organizations and efforts, sometimes partnering with people abroad.  

Yes, eventually, contingents from those various nations came to help. So did foreign aid workers from Unicef, UNESCO, the World Health Organization. But certainly, a lot of the work has been left to us. In my district, many children aren’t back in school. Hospitals and clinics that aren’t yet connected to power or running water are still doing what they do—delivering babies, tending to the sick and old, carrying on in hugely trying circumstances. I’ve been focused, personally, on distributing water filters to such clinics, and to individuals, too. An organization on [the island of] Grenada sent up a container full of these “Lifesaver” purifiers—they’re like jerry cans with filters, to help make river-water potable—that I went and picked up by the port, and have been distributing daily from the back of my pickup, along with packets of seeds the Grenadans also sent, to help our farmers who grow vegetables. Many people are doing things of this nature, with the help of family from overseas sending down supplies.

But the situation remains desperate. We need building materials, steel, and wood to put roofs on our schools. Of course, the utility companies are also going to have to make a huge reinvestment—they’ve lost so much in terms of cables and poles—and they’ll need help. Our basic infrastructure is shot. Which is why, now, our prime minister [Roosevelt Skerrit]’s job has become to seek assistance.

Right after the storm, Skerrit went to the UN and gave an eloquent speech in which he implored the richer countries, those whose carbon outputs have fed climate change, to help those countries most vulnerable to global warming’s effects.

Yes, and that’s a conversation about which we’re keenly aware. “To deny climate change,” as the prime minister put it, “is to deny a truth we’ve just lived.” Where his demands for help with readying islands like Dominica for storms will go, we’ll see—that’s a question for the long term. For now, the political situation is about seeking funding—it’s about going not just to the UN, but to Washington D.C., to various embassies and high commissions, trying to gain help. Getting the millions required for rehabilitation, one senses, won’t be easy. In 2017, there are problems around the globe that dwarf ours here. But we’ve got to make our voices heard.

Hurricanes are not new in the Caribbean. Here in Dominica, as I’ve been saying on local radio, we’ve had to deal with them many times in our history. The challenges, on our warming planet, have changed; the strength of this storm was exceptional. But we’ll rebuild this time, too. We’ve got no choice.  

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Yeltsin’s War in Chechnya

In response to:

The Man Who Lost an Empire from the December 21, 2017 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of William Taubman’s biography of Mikhail Gorbachev [“The Man Who Lost an Empire,” NYR, December 21, 2017], Strobe Talbott also comments on two subsequent rulers of Russia: Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin, like the last leader of the Soviet Union, writes Talbott, “was loath to use force or risk instability as the world’s largest territorial state dismantled itself,” whereas Putin pursued a “scorched-earth strategy in subduing Chechen secessionists.” Yet it was Yeltsin in late 1994 who first chose force to crush Chechnya’s separatist movement, by launching a devastating war that entailed massive indiscriminate bombing of the capital city Grozny and smaller Chechen towns. Many thousands of civilians—Russian and Chechen alike—perished, and tens of thousands became refugees or internally displaced people.

Yeltsin’s “war of choice” to put down a mainly secular movement for autonomy sowed the seeds of the subsequent Islamist terrorism that has wracked the region since and reverberated in places as distant as Boston. In April 1996, almost a year and a half into the Chechen war, at a summit meeting with Yeltsin in Moscow, Talbott’s boss President Bill Clinton effectively endorsed Russia’s resort to force. “I would remind you that we once had a Civil War in our country,” said Clinton, fought “over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no State had a right to withdraw from our Union.” It is past time to recognize that the corruption and violence we condemn in Putin’s Russia began with Yeltsin, rather than with his hand-picked successor.

Matthew Evangelista
President White Professor of History and Political Science
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

Strobe Talbott replies:

As Professor Evangelista says, Boris Yeltsin’s military operation against Chechnya in 1994 was an act of mass cruelty, and the resulting alienation of his liberal supporters was a self-inflicted blow to his presidency that weakened him politically. My reference to Yeltsin’s aversion to force concerned his resistance to revanchists bent on adjusting the borders of the USSR’s constituent republics to bring as many ethnic Russians as possible into an expanded, predatory, post-Soviet Russian Federation. Yeltsin’s opposition protected the Soviet Union from a decade-long bloodbath like the one that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

When it came to Chechnya, Yeltsin was dealing not with a newly independent state but with militant secessionism within the Russian Federation. He first tried to quell the movement with punitive raids targeted against rebel strongholds, but that strategy ended in debacles and further advances by the guerrillas. With more patience, subtlety, and time, Yeltsin might have negotiated a settlement that would have kept Chechnya in Russia. Even if a peaceful compromise was impossible, Yeltsin should have found means other than an all-out invasion that caused many thousands of casualties among Chechen civilians. Two years later he tried to make amends by granting Chechnya a high degree of autonomy, renouncing the future use of force, and accepting the elected nationalist president, Aslan Maskhadov.

As for the US government’s statements during that First Chechen War, I have written from experience as a member of the Clinton administration. In my memoir of US–Russia relations in the 1990s, The Russia Hand (2002), I acknowledged that we knew little about the Chechens’ side of the story and were inclined to accept Moscow’s, a shortcoming that skewed our analysis and policy. I also expressed regret over missing a chance to persuade President Clinton not to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln.

That said, those of us who met with Yeltsin in the early and mid-1990s could see that he was frustrated and enervated by the lethal chaos in the Caucasus. We had quite a different impression of Vladimir Putin when, as prime minister in 1999, he launched the Second Chechen War. After several murderous and still not fully explained bombings in Russian cities, he ordered a relentless air campaign against Chechnya. That assault was much more brutal than Yeltsin’s war, and it ended with the installation of Chechen leaders so thuggish, violent, and deeply entrenched that they have operated with impunity even in Moscow itself. Yet Putin’s popularity skyrocketed in Russia, clinching his succession to Yeltsin and anticipating what he is and does today.

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Damage Bigly

Donald Trump
Donald Trump; drawing by Gerald Scarfe

The tax legislation that was just rammed through Congress makes it quite clear that Donald Trump’s first year in the White House has been much more damaging to the nation than that of any other president in modern times. Before this bill, it might have been possible, though wrong, to argue that as president, Trump had brought to his office more sound and fury than action. The notion took hold for much of 2017 that his failures in Congress, along with a series of court rulings, had limited his impact; the failure to repeal Obamacare and the courts’ blocking of the early versions of his travel ban were cited as examples of the supposedly constrained Trump presidency.

No more. The sweeping tax bill gives a huge tax cut to corporations and to wealthy individuals, and will add roughly $1 trillion over the next ten years to the federal deficit. It will widen further the already enormous gulf between the very wealthy and the rest of America. And it sets the stage for an attempt by Republicans in Congress in 2018 to shrink the federal deficit by cutting benefits to a large number of Americans through reductions in Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs.

The end-of-year tax legislation forces a reexamination of quite a few other ideas about the Trump presidency that have taken hold from time to time over the past twelve months. One is the assumption that the Republicans in Congress and their leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan viewed Trump merely as a temporary tool. Once the Republicans got the tax cuts they were so desperately seeking (so this argument went), they would prove more willing to move against him, to condemn his excesses and his outrages. But now that the tax bill has been completed, they seem more wedded to Trump than ever; they will need his support for, among other things, their budget-cutting efforts to follow.

So, too, the passage of the tax bill suggests a new look at the question of what might happen if Trump were to be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence. There has been a sotto voce line of argument among liberals that Pence would be even worse for the country than Trump. The logic of this was that Pence seemed more conservative than Trump and more beholden to financial interests like those of the Koch brothers; at the same time, he is closer to congressional Republicans and thus would be more able to get legislation through Congress. But the tax bill underscores the fact that Trump himself can get spectacularly regressive legislation through Congress; the supposedly “populist” streak that he occasionally displayed during his presidential campaign is sheer fiction, at least when it comes to economic policy.

More importantly, although Pence stands on the far right of the political spectrum, he at least is on the spectrum of ordinary politics, while Trump is not. His tendencies veer toward authoritarianism and white nationalism, with an overlay of conspiracy theories and hucksterism. Pence is a conventional, even boring politician, and while deeply conservative, he would bring with him far less of the racism and far fewer of the attacks on enemies, truth, and the rule of law that have proved so incredibly damaging to the nation’s social fabric under Trump.

Even before the tax bill, Trump’s first year had caused great harm to the nation. It is worth examining where he has had the greatest impact and where he has failed. Until the tax bill, many of the domestic proposals to which Trump had accorded the highest priority had run aground; either Congress failed to approve them or they were blocked in the courts.

He said he was going to do away with the Affordable Care Act on the first day of his administration, but it remains on the books today. It is sometimes argued that Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security program, created in 1935, did not become accepted as a permanent feature of American life until two and a half decades later, when Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president after Roosevelt, finished his eight-year term without seeking to abolish it. In a comparable way, historians may someday come to view the Trump presidency as the time when Obamacare (or at least some of its central features, like required coverage for preexisting conditions and allowing children to stay on their parents’ policies until age twenty-six) became an established part of America’s health system.1

The wall along the Mexican border that Trump ordered to be constructed as soon as he took office is nowhere close to being built. He has not persuaded Mexico to pay for it, and at this point Congress hasn’t agreed to fund it either. Trump’s original plan to restrict Muslim immigration into the United States was blocked for most of the year in the courts. The plan had to be revised not once but twice; then, in early December, the Supreme Court allowed the third version of the plan to go forward while legal challenges proceed. As Trump’s top-priority initiatives got bogged down in the courts, so too did some of his other campaigns. Last summer, he announced on Twitter one morning that he was barring transgendered Americans from the armed forces. That policy too has been blocked in the courts.

Nevertheless, even when the courts have ruled against him or Congress has failed to do what he wants, Trump has inflicted considerable damage on domestic policy through his appointments and executive actions. The effects have been clearest and most lasting on the federal judiciary.

For most of the past year Trump trumpeted his early appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court as one of his greatest successes. That was a largely hollow boast, since the person most responsible for the appointment was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had blocked President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Court throughout the previous year.

However, the harm to the judicial branch and Trump’s personal imprint on it are considerably greater when one considers the lower courts. By mid- December, Trump had appointed twelve judges to the US Court of Appeals, one level down from the Supreme Court, the most this early in any presidency since Richard Nixon’s. Virtually all of them are from the right. At the level of district or trial courts, Trump’s nominations have included figures like thirty-six-year-old Brett J. Talley, who has never tried a case and was unanimously rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. This proved too much even for Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who refused to confirm him.

Meanwhile, a new proposal is being circulated by a right-wing legal scholar to expand the number of appellate judgeships (now 179) by two- or threefold, and to increase the number of district judges as well, with the avowed purpose of “undoing the judicial legacy of President Barack Obama.”2 In short, while the courts have served as an occasional constraint upon Trump during his first year in office, he is moving quickly to reshape the judiciary so that, in the long run, it may prove to be less independent and less constraining than it has been.

Elsewhere, across a range of environmental and regulatory agencies, Trump has appointed officials with a record of hostility to the idea that the federal government operates for the benefit of the public. The most prominent example is Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who as the Oklahoma attorney general had repeatedly gone to court to block various EPA actions. Over the past year, Pruitt has introduced a series of initiatives favorable to the industries the EPA regulates, for example eliminating rules that limit carbon-dioxide emission. He has also repeatedly questioned the work of the EPA’s staff on climate change and other scientific issues.

It is a mistake to think that Trump has been causing damage only to a few specific regulations or areas of policy. The effects have been pervasive. One of the most detailed descriptions of what Trump has meant at the grassroots level comes from Michael Lewis, in a recent article in Vanity Fair about the Department of Agriculture.3 Inside the department, the effects of the new Trump era are registered division by division, program by program: cuts for the food stamp program, a weakening of the regulations governing school nutrition, looser rules for meat inspection, the politicization of the department’s science programs, instructions to the career staff to stop using the phrase “climate change.” All of this has taken place within Trump’s first year in office.

When it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, Trump has been a one-man wrecking ball, destroying many of the understandings, agreements, and relationships that have served as the foundation for American foreign policy for a half-century or more. The damage is not confined to specific policies: Trump has gone after the institutions that guide American foreign policy, especially the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.

This has been a yearlong campaign, starting immediately after Trump took office. In his first week as president, he announced that the United States would withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade agreement the Obama administration had negotiated that was aimed at strengthening America’s ties with eleven countries in Asia and elsewhere. That decision strengthened perceptions in Asia of the US as a nation in retreat and thus helps China in its ambitions to become the leading power in the region. In December, Trump tore up decades of US policy by deciding to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This threatens to harm America’s relations with nations in the Middle East that have long supported US policy, such as Jordan and Egypt. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said following Trump’s announcement that there will no longer be a role for the United States in the Middle East peace process.

Far-reaching as they were, the decisions on TPP and Jerusalem merely served as bookends for the many foreign policy changes in Trump’s first year. During 2017, he also withdrew the US from the Paris accord on climate change. He became the first US president to waver on America’s commitment to NATO, refusing to say on his first trip to Europe whether the US would abide by Article V of the NATO treaty, which provides for collective defense. (In that case, he later came around after repeated prodding by his foreign policy team.) He roiled America’s closest neighbors by ordering a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Beyond this undermining of past policies and agreements, Trump conducted himself in ways that eroded America’s friendships with other countries and their leaders. His penchant for confrontation extended even to America’s closest allies (indeed, more to allies than to adversaries, since he mostly held back from challenging Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping). Eight days after he was sworn in, he engaged in an icy phone-call standoff with Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull. (“I have had it. I have been making these calls all day and this is the most unpleasant call all day. Putin was a pleasant call. This is ridiculous,” the new president told the leader of America’s closest friend in the Asia-Pacific region.) In late November, Trump outraged the British public and drew a public rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May when he retweeted incendiary, inaccurate anti-Muslim videos posted by a leader of the far-right group Britain First.

Along the way, there were Trumpian dustups with Mexico, Germany, and South Korea, among others. Trump regularly suggests that America is paying too much for its alliances and agreements, and that other countries aren’t paying enough. It sometimes seems as though he believes that we don’t need allies and would be better off without them. America’s closest partners have responded accordingly. Early in December Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister, said that the Trump administration has come to view Europe as a “competitor or economic rival” rather than an ally and that relations with the United States “will never be the same.”

In cases where his policies aren’t entirely new, Trump’s style—his pattern of tweets and personal insults—has added a new dimension to them, with unpredictable results. The biggest foreign policy challenge of his first year came from North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear weapons program. Trump’s threats to use force against North Korea were not a departure from past American policy; under the rubric of “coercive diplomacy,” previous administrations have also considered possible military action against North Korea. But Trump went a step further by taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, calling him “Little Rocket Man” not only in tweets but in formal settings including the United Nations General Assembly. He even threatened that he would “totally destroy” the country.

Samuel Corum/Anadolu/Getty ImagesWhite supremacists marching through the campus of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, August 2017

In the midst of these policy upheavals, Trump was responsible for the most unstable foreign policy team of any president since World War II. His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, lasted less than a month in office before he was forced to resign, and by the end of the year had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. At this writing, it appears that Tillerson may also be headed for a tenure shorter than any secretary of state in modern times: a series of reports in early December said that Trump would be replacing him within weeks. While Tillerson is still there, Trump has consistently undermined him. One day Tillerson states that the US is ready to talk to North Koreans. The following day, the White House says the exact opposite.

US foreign policy can survive some personnel upheavals, but Trump has done institutional damage as well to the organizations that are responsible for shaping America’s relations with the rest of the world. At the time he took office, Trump’s principal target was the CIA, which he and his supporters accused of being part of a “deep state” conspiracy against him, an attack prompted by the agency’s reports on Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. He continued throughout the year to attack the CIA, accusing it of being partisan or biased and its former leaders of being “political hacks.”

The harm at the State Department was worse. Tillerson appeared to be the sort of corporate hatchet man who is brought in from outside to cut the staff as drastically as possible, before he is himself transferred away. With Trump’s evident support, he left a wide array of senior positions vacant for most or all of the past year. That meant, for example, that he dealt with North Korea without either an assistant secretary of state for East Asia or a US ambassador in South Korea; the US still does not have an ambassador to Egypt, whose government is beginning to deal with the Russian military once again. The result of the State Department’s short-handedness is that ever more policy is being made by overtaxed officials at the National Security Council and the White House, which is apparently the way Trump wants it. The vacancies are merely the top of the heap of rubble at the State Department; Tillerson has acceded to a wave of deep budget cuts that eliminate large numbers of positions throughout the department.

Worst of all has been the harm Trump’s America First foreign policy has caused in the realm of ideas. Over the past seven decades, the United States at least professed to stand for principles of human rights and democracy (although American policies did not always live up to those ideals). Under Trump, the ideals have been all but abandoned. He seems to believe only in commercial advantage, and rarely if ever makes even a touchstone reference to human rights. The major countries he has courted most assiduously, avoiding confrontation wherever he can, have been autocratic regimes: China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. Whether coincidentally or not, these also happen to be three countries with large sums of public or private money to invest overseas.

The greatest damage done during Trump’s first year concerns neither domestic nor foreign policy, but something far deeper: it is the harm he has caused to America’s political system and to the democratic norms that underlie it. No evaluation of the impact Trump has had as president could be complete without addressing his attacks upon the rule of law, upon notions of political and racial tolerance, upon national unity, upon the freedom of the press, upon civil discourse, upon truth itself. The result has been to fray the bonds that hold American society together.

Trump has abandoned the very notion of civil discourse by refusing to accord his political opponents even a minimum level of respect. No other president in modern times has so insistently portrayed his adversaries as dishonorable. The usual practice of ordinary democratic give-and-take seems alien to him. At various times, usually through his Twitter account, he has responded to criticism by lashing out at Republican senators such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell, Bob Corker, and Jeff Flake, as well as his attorney general Jeff Sessions, disparaging their motives, their character, their height (Corker, Marco Rubio), or their ancestry (the US district judge Gonzalo Curiel, impugned because of his Mexican-American background). Other presidents have aspired to become moral leaders; Trump has become America’s chief thug.

He has seriously undermined the rule of law and the very principles of democracy by calling for the investigation and prosecution of his political adversaries. The cries of “lock her up” that marked his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton (which were denounced at the time, even by prominent Republicans, as typical of a banana republic) have evolved in 2017 into his repeated suggestions that the Justice Department should go after her (with, now, the support of many Republicans).

Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, after he resisted Trump’s pleading to go easy on Michael Flynn. At this writing, it is not clear whether he will try to fire Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who took over from Comey the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But by early December, his supporters were engaged in a campaign, with his evident support, to undermine the legitimacy of both Mueller personally and the FBI as an institution. When his travel ban was blocked in the courts, Trump responded by denouncing the judges. So much for the independence of and respect for the judiciary.

Trump has shown even less willingness to respect the constitutional validity of another American political tradition: an independent press as a restraint and watchdog on government. Any stories he doesn’t like are dismissed as “fake news,” along with the news organizations that have published or broadcast them—the very word “fake” underscoring that he refuses to recognize their legitimacy. Beyond the press, Trump seems to reject the concepts of objective truth, rational discourse, and scientific expertise, the Enlightenment ideals on which this country was founded. From the earliest days of his administration, he has asserted his own contrary-to-fact versions of events even when plain, verifiable evidence proves otherwise. Consider, for example, his claims that the crowds at his inauguration were bigger than those for President Obama, or his insistence that he won the popular vote in the 2016 election.

Finally, Trump has sought, repeatedly and deliberately, to sow divisions. He has attacked one group after another: Mexicans, Muslims, protesting black athletes. In the process, he has brought to the surface some of the raw, ugly emotions of hate in America that in ordinary times lay more or less suppressed, and has given presidential validation to racism and nativism, along with hostility toward education, science, and professionalism.

The effects are poisonous. If the United States were to face some sudden crisis—an attack overseas or at home, an economic collapse—Trump, like any president, would need to summon forth a sense of national unity in response. He would instead confront the sullen, divided nation he has so steadily provoked. Even if there is no such national emergency, the divisions he has created could last, harming the nation for years after he leaves office.

It is frequently said that through his incessant bellicosity, Trump is “playing to his base,” but that explanation raises more questions than it answers. His base represents less than 40 percent of the country. The election results of the past two months, particularly in Virginia and Alabama, demonstrate the limitations of merely exciting his base; by themselves, his core supporters are usually not enough for victory. Why, then, does Trump not try to expand his support in the way that other presidents have often done? (Bill Clinton’s strategy of “triangulation” comes to mind.)

One unsettling possibility is that Trump believes that somehow, in some future crisis, his polarizing approach may succeed in galvanizing the country into some new political constellation in which his base of 35 to 38 percent will suddenly jump to a majority. Another possibility, even more disturbing, is that we are witnessing a strategic embrace of rule by minority: Trump may believe that his judicial appointments and his favoritism toward the donor class of the wealthiest Americans, when combined with political tactics like gerrymandering and voter suppression, will enable him to govern and win reelection without ever gaining anything close to a popular majority. The third possibility is that there is no strategy at all; Trump cannot expand his support simply because he is by nature unable to do so. He can manage to convey only anger, resentment, and prejudice; he lacks the ability to heal divisions, to win over those who oppose him, to seek common ground.

On the day after Trump was sworn in, more than a million Americans turned out in protest demonstrations in Washington and other cities across the nation. The harm he has caused to the nation since then is severe enough to justify demonstrations many times that size. Street demonstrations, though, cannot remove Trump from office. He will stay on, most likely, for four or eight years, until he is defeated at the polls or removed from office through impeachment or the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. There are now extensive debates among Trump’s many opponents about which of these approaches to pursue. They involve serious questions of tactics and strategy that are beyond the scope of this article.

After Trump’s first year in office, what is clear beyond doubt is that the damage he is causing to the nation, to its domestic and foreign policies, and even more to the rule of law, to its constitutional system, to its social fabric, and to its very sense of national unity, is piling up week by week. The longer he stays, the worse it will get.

—December 21, 2017

  1. 1

    Both Trump and the Republican Congress have sought to weaken the Affordable Care Act, Trump with an executive order eliminating some subsidies to insurance companies and Congress in a provision of the tax bill eliminating mandated coverage. But the law still stands. 

  2. 2

    See Linda Greenhouse, “A Conservative Plan to Weaponize the Federal Courts,” The New York Times, November 23, 2017.  

  3. 3

    “Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the USDA’s Scientists,” November 2017. 

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Consciousness: Where Are Words?

Diana Ong/Bridgeman ImagesDiana Ong: Brain child, 2008

Words, words, words. With the advent of the stream of consciousness in twentieth-century literature, it has come to seem that the self is very much a thing made of words, a verbal construction forever narrating itself and reconstituting itself in language. In line with the dominant, internalist view of consciousness, it is assumed that this all takes place in the brain—specifically, two parts known as Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area in the left hemisphere. So, direct perception of sights and sounds in the world outside the body are very quickly ordered and colored by language inside our heads. “Once a thing is conceived in the mind,” wrote the poet Horace in the first century BC, “the words to express it soon present themselves.” And we call this thinking. All our experience can be reshuffled, interconnected, dissected, evoked, or willfully altered in language, and these thoughts are then stored in our brains.

—Tim Parks

This is the fourteenth in a series of fifteen conversations on consciousness between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks.

Tim Parks: Riccardo, you have been presenting quite a different theory of consciousness, which suggests that there is nothing “stored” in the brain. No images, no sounds, and, I assume, no words. As you see it, the brain is a powerful enabler that allows experience to happen, but this experience is actually one with the objects we see, hear, smell, and touch, outside our bodies, or again, one with the body itself in those cases where it is the body that is experienced. And we are this experience, not something separate from it. You have explained dreams, hallucinations, and non-verbal thoughts as more complex and delayed forms of perception, always insisting that each experience is identical to something outside the brain, something whose existence is relative to our body. But how can that possibly be the case for language? When I am thinking silently to myself, where can the language possibly be, if not inside my head?

Riccardo Manzotti: Imagine you’re lying in bed planning to furnish a house you’ll soon be moving to in a distant town. What do you do? You start thinking about different items of furniture to figure out if they will go together in the space there. This would normally be explained by saying that you are imagining mental objects—representations in your head—and arranging them together in a mental space, another mental representation, again in your head. But in our previous conversation, we reached the conclusion that there are no “mental” objects—no thoughts, that is—separate from real objects. Simply, there is no need to introduce this new entity, thought, between body and object.

When we say we are thinking, what we are actually doing is rearranging causal relations with past events, objects that we have encountered before, to see what happens when we combine them. We don’t need a mental sofa to put next to a mental armchair. We allow the sofas and armchairs encountered in our past to exert an effect in the present, in various combinations. Like a controlled dream.

Parks: But we were talking about words, Riccardo, not sofas and armchairs! Last time we talked about thinking things directly; this time we’re considering thinking in language, which is surely different.

Manzotti: Not at all. Words are really not so different from sofas and armchairs. They are external objects that do things in the world and, like other objects, they produce effects in our brains and thus eventually, through us, in the world. The only real difference is that, when it comes to what we call thinking, words are an awful lot easier to juggle around and rearrange than bits of furniture.

Parks: External objects you say. But what kind of object is a word? Is it a sound? Is it a visual sign? What about when it is neither spoken nor written, but simply thought in the head?

Manzotti: Exactly as with the furniture, what we have is a rearrangement of our causal relations with past events—in this case, words initially heard in the external world. If we take things slowly and simply observe what happens as we learn to speak and think, you’ll see that, once again, there’s no need to posit the entity you call “a thought in the head.”

Parks: Go on, then.

Manzotti: A mother repeats words to a baby. That’s how it starts for most of us. So, we have sounds, which are physical objects. The sounds are repeated, frequently, insistently, in reference to things, actions, emotions, to the point where they become labels that are perceived together with facts in the world. As soon as you have the fact, the sound/word is present; as soon as you hear the sound/word, the fact is present. And when you make the right sound, the food arrives.

Parks: I suppose you could say the same thing happens with certain movements that a parent teaches a child. Pointing, waving, clapping, or even using tools: spoons, forks.

Manzotti: Indeed. But it’s important that the sounds/words don’t just come singly; they come in patterns, building up more and more complex objects, phrases, sentences. And many of the sounds don’t relate to an object/experience, but to the other sounds in the pattern. I mean words like, “and,” “but,” “as,” “because.” Then the patterns can be rearranged. Hear the beginning of the pattern and the rest follows automatically.

Parks: Surely not altogether automatically, or we would simply be forever repeating the same things?

Manzotti: True. Let’s say there are powerful automatisms, rules if you like, that govern this constant rearrangement of words we experience. The further you proceed in a sentence, the more your options close down. However, we’re not trying to offer a linguist’s description of language function here, simply to establish how and where language is experienced. It is a patterning of real, physical, external objects, and these are one with our experience. They are our experience.

Parks: But some words refer to imaginary entities, or abstract entities. Are they external objects?

Manzotti: All sounds/words are physical objects in the same way. But you’re right, once we get used to the idea that a sound refers to an object, we can start inventing sounds/words for imaginary or notional objects—angels, dark matter, whatever—and then use other sound/words to put them in relation to the experience/objects we are familiar with.

Parks: But how did we arrive at an imaginary or notional object, something that doesn’t perhaps exist, if you’re saying there is nothing to experience but real external objects?

Manzotti: What is an angel but a juggling of past experience: beautiful body, plus wings, as in a dream? What is dark matter if not a piece needed to complete a puzzle, a theory, made up of endless complex objects in the world? Sometimes, the imaginary object is a reshuffling of real objects and thus it is real in its own way; sometimes, it is nothing. Both these very different notional entities can be traced back to direct experience.

Parks: In other words, you’re saying that we don’t so much think in a language—English, Italian, whatever—but constantly rearrange our experiences, our world, of which the language we speak is a part. It’s world-ish!

Manzotti: Yes. Think of people who are born stone-deaf. Are they going to be thinking in sound/words? If they’ve never heard words, how can they be hearing them in their thinking? They can’t. In fact, if you ask such people about this—in writing, of course—they tell you they think in signs. They’ve learned their language visually, so they think words visually. Those are the external objects they are dealing with. Interestingly, some people born deaf say they think in images with captions.

Parks: Which brings us to the written word.

Manzotti: Right. At a certain point, the child who has learned to speak is invited to look at signs on paper or on screen, and relate them to the sound/words he or she knows. This introduces yet another object into the mix: the written word. Written words now prompt sounds and thus the child’s relations with object experiences. Words also facilitate the rearrangement of these experiences in all kinds of extended forms. We go back and forth so frequently between these different kinds of objects that we have put in strict relation to each other—sound, sign, referent—that as the world acts on our brains in what we call experience, so the sounds that we relate to each object/experience are also active in our brains. And we call this silent thinking.

Parks: To sum up, words and language amount to a kind of behavior—like learning a series of movements, or a dance, with infinite variations.

Manzotti: Correct, and just as you can’t find a pirouette stored in a dancer’s brain, so you wouldn’t have found “To be or not to be” stored in Shakespeare’s. At the end of our last conversation, I quoted E.M. Forster’s remark, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” This is exactly right. Language is a performance. We launch into it, we have a direction and we set off. But until we have said or written the thing, until we’ve performed it, we don’t know how it will turn out.

Parks: So, nothing is stored in the head.

Manzotti: All the objects we encounter, the objects we call experience, continue to be active in our bodies and brains, continue to be our experience. It is the nature of our fantastically complex brains that they allow these encounters to go on, and to go on going on. The encounters are not “stored” and are certainly not static. They are continuing to happen. They are us.

Parks: But there must be some order. Isn’t this a recipe for chaos?

Manzotti: Words are one way we try to impose a rather crude order on a fantastically complex, nuanced experience. Language makes categories—for example, in the area of colors, where we name only a small number of the vast range of colors we see. In 1858, the British statesman William Gladstone, commenting on Homer’s references to color in The Iliad and The Odyssey, suggested that our experience was limited and determined by linguistic conventions. But in 1898, the ethnologist W.H.R. Rivers’s study of the inhabitants of Murray Island (between New Guinea and Australia), people who had no names for colors as basic as green and blue, conclusively demonstrated that human beings see all shades of colors even when they don’t have words for them. In 1969, the anthropologists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay established that color names do not change the colors one sees, and later studies have confirmed this.

Parks: So, by segmenting infinitely nuanced experience into a limited number of words, language allows us to impose a little order, though presumably at the risk of leaving a lot of experience out of the system.

Manzotti: It’s like a net we’ve made and throw over the world. It catches some fish and lets others slip through the links. But it doesn’t create fish, or stop them from existing. And we’re always tampering with our net to have it capture new fish, or exclude certain fish we want to pretend don’t exist. Sometimes, the net captures fragments of the net itself (for the net itself is an object), and it gets tangled and snarled. In short, it’s as if we’d built a world with Lego bricks that corresponds very crudely to the world as a whole, and we keep adjusting it to fine-tune the correspondence.

Parks: And just as there is no inner “cinema screen” in the brain on which visual images are seen, so there is no inner auditorium in which the voice resounds.

Manzotti: It is all echo and learned behavior. Our words are the words of our mother tongue, not other languages (or not until we’ve been exposed to them for a long time).  There is some interesting overlap here with the work of Julian Jaynes, a Princeton-based psychologist who in the late 1970s claimed that consciousness is not concocted inside the brain but is a learned process based on language. As Jaynes saw it, we talk to ourselves and hallucinate our own voices. His hunch was that, in the past, people have often mistaken this hallucinated voice for external sources, thus inventing gods, angels, demons, and the like.

Parks: Whereas you, I presume, would see all supposedly internal voices as simply a collection of past voices still rumbling on thanks to the brain’s capacity to allow immediate perception to continue.

Manzotti: Yes. In the 1950s, when the neuroscientist Wilfred Penfield used electrical charges to stimulate the cortex of his patients, they reported hearing the voices of people they knew. Since then, other scientists have consistently obtained similar results. As we said when we discussed dreams, all perception involves both immediate experience and, as it were, buffered experience, perception that remains in the background and comes to the fore, if at all, only when immediate attention to the here-and-now is not required.

Parks: But in that regard, words are rather different from, say, my visual memory of an exciting soccer game, in that I keep performing language pretty much all the time, and when I want. If it’s a hallucination, it’s an extremely controlled hallucination.

Manzotti: Yes, because we train ourselves assiduously and from the earliest age to give structure to the world in this way. Learning languages, even dead languages like Latin and Greek, has always been considered good for one’s education, because it promotes this organization of experience. Society demands language of us and promotes it most determinedly. In those very rare cases where a child is abandoned in nature, yet survives (so-called feral children, or wolf children), without having gone through the language-learning process, they are not, alas, like Kipling’s Mowgli, smart, bright kids. Unused to the constant manipulation of experience that language allows, they are cognitively impaired. Language, as Ludwig Wittgenstein insisted, is a game. Constantly playing this game, we learn how to organize those objects we call words and, eventually, with them, the world.

Parks: As always, you have systematically eliminated any entities that might intervene between the world and the body, all representations and so-called mental phenomena. As you see it, all experience is made up of external objects and the rearranging of external objects. But what I want to ask now is the crunch question: Who is doing that rearranging, who is focusing on this part of the landscape or that, who is choosing this word rather than that?

Manzotti: Where and what is the self you mean? Who says I? Who pulls the levers? A soul, a ghost in the machine? We’ll tackle this in our next, and last, conversation. But let me leave you with that all-too-famous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as he crossed a bare field in winter twilight:

I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

But instead of the Universal Being, God, perhaps we could just say the world: “I am a part of the world, that part relative to my body.”

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Conor Cruise O’Brien at 100

David Levine

As he liked to remind us, Conor Cruise O’Brien was born on the day after the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. He might have added that he made his entrance four days before the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as during the closing stages of what Winston Churchill called “the ghastly crime of Passchendaele,” and the collapse of the Italian army at Caporetto; as Lady Bracknell might have said, November 1917 was a month crowded with incident. And he was born in Dublin, at a time when Ireland was in turmoil following the Easter Rising the year before. 

The legacies of every one of those events—the Great War, the Rising, the October Revolution, and Balfour—played a part in Cruise O’Brien’s career. His own life was crowded with incident to a startling degree, as critic, historian, diplomatist, pro-consul, politician, and journalist, which included writing for The New York Review of Books for many years. While he was an official of the Irish government in the 1940s and 1950s, he moonlighted as a literary critic, writing as “Donat O’Donnell,” the pen name under which he published his first book, Maria Cross, a collection of essays on Catholic writers. 

More important was his first book as an historian, adapting his doctoral dissertation into a study of the great nineteenth-century leader of Irish Home Rule, Parnell and His Party (1957). I recently took part in a symposium to mark the centenary of Cruise O’Brien’s birth, at his alma mater, Trinity College, Dublin, and it opened with a discussion of “O’Brien and the Writing of History.” Despite its detailed scholarship, that book is still colored by the author’s nationalist sympathies—in particular, toward republican illusions about the causes of partition—despite the fact that Cruise O’Brien knew, partly through his first wife who was from a Belfast Presbyterian family, more than Parnell the patrician Protestant about the reality of Ulster, where, then and now, the Protestants were a community, not a class. This was something that Cruise O’Brien came to understand better than most southerners.

Not long after his Parnell book was published, Cruise O’Brien’s life was changed by a dramatic episode that made him internationally famous, both revered and reviled—something that became a persistent theme in his life. He was an Irish delegate at the United Nations in New York in 1961 when he was plucked from obscurity by Dag Hammarskjöld, the cerebral Secretary-General of the UN (and “one of the very few people who had read Maria Cross,” Cruise O’Brien observed drily), and sent to deal with a crisis in the newly independent Congo, involving the secession of the mineral-rich southern provinces of Katanga with barely disguised support from Belgium, the former colonial power. With the CIA also playing a sinister role in the affair, the UN assignment was challenging, to say the least. Doomed or not, the operation quickly turned into a fiasco: a painful one for Cruise O’Brien, and a tragic one when Hammarskjöld himself was killed in an air crash in suspicious circumstances. Michael Kennedy, the editor of “Documents on Irish Foreign Policy,” an initiative of the Royal Irish Academy, was highly critical of the part Cruise O’Brien played in the UN mission. The official role of the small number of Irish troops responsible to him was the thankless one known as peace-keeping. But when they found themselves surrounded by vastly superior forces, Cruise O’Brien ordered them into action. It was an episode that demonstrated that military leadership was one of the few talents he did not have. Kennedy was also unimpressed by the account of the mission Cruise O’Brien gave in To Katanga and Back, the 1962 book he wrote to defend himself and settle scores. 

At least the termination of his diplomatic career meant that Cruise O’Brien could resume his literary and journalistic one. At that time, he became a darling of the left—later to be much disappointed—when he stood, or wrote, on the anti-colonialist and anti-anticommunist platform. In 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, Cruise O’Brien was still writing about it as an unfulfilled dream. He quoted with approval Franz Fanon’s defense of cleansing revolutionary bloodshed, as well as the Irish nationalist William O’Brien who said that “violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation.” And in his 1970 book on Albert Camus, Cruise O’Brien attacked the French writer for his equivocations over Algeria. 

“Whatever Happened to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s Camus?” asked Max McGuinness of Columbia University, and “Whatever Happened…?” was a question often asked about Cruise O’Brien, as his political position shifted and some who had once cheered him then jeered. After an interlude as a professor in New York, Cruise O’Brien returned to his native Dublin and entered Irish politics. At first, he was “almost a rock star,” as Stephen Kelly of Liverpool Hope University put it, among the everyday politicians of the Irish Labour Party when he entered parliament, in 1969. By then, as the Troubles were beginning, Irish politics were dominated by “the North,” even more so when Cruise O’Brien joined the cabinet of Liam Cosgrave’s coalition government from 1973 to 1977. In 1972, Cruise O’Brien had published States of Ireland, a book that influenced a generation by the way it dissected and demolished the ritualistic “United Ireland” nationalism that the southern Irish had learned under the long rule of Éamon de Valera. That critique and his resolute opposition to any compromise with violent republicanism meant that Cruise O’Brien was, as he lamented, “altogether out of tune with my [cabinet] colleagues over Northern Ireland.”  

His career in politics came to an abrupt end in the 1977 election, when the Cosgrave government was defeated and he lost his seat. Returning to journalism, Cruise O’Brien worked for an eventful few years as the editor of The Observer in London, when he was again out of tune with some of his colleagues, and still more with Tiny Rowland, the shady financier who bought The Observer in 1981. After Cruise O’Brien left the paper, on which he had bestowed some of his best journalism, he was a columnist for a variety of English and Irish papers. Throughout, he maintained not only a bitter hostility to the IRA, but also a sustained critique of the republican ideology to which almost all Irish people of Catholic-nationalist origin paid at least lip service. In a brilliant 1982 essay for The New York Review, he called it “a lie that clings to us and burns, like the shirt of Nessus.” 

Although Cruise O’Brien denounced nationalism in his own country, he adopted another’s in the shape of Zionism, which led to his absorbing, if one-sided, book The Siege (1986). He accepted the premises of Zionism somewhat uncritically, and paid too little attention to the Palestinian Arabs, who had been the majority population of Palestine when Zionist settlement began, and to the possibility that they had suffered an injustice. This unlikely displacement of patriotic feeling sprang partly from his own philo-semitism, and partly from his tendency to conflate all terrorists (notably, the IRA and the PLO), but also from an undoubted esprit de contradiction: he took up the cause of Zionism and Israel just as the liberal left turned against them. 

Partisan as he was, Cruise O’Brien adhered to his own code of intellectual honesty in his study of Israel. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Zionist movement was split between the Labor Zionists under David Ben-Gurion and the right-wing Revisionists led by Vladimir Jabotinsky (the forebears of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party). Cruise O’Brien pointed out in an essay published in his 1988 collection Passion and Cunning what many liberal supporters of Israel have tried to overlook—that in their attitudes toward the Palestinian Arabs, the only real difference was that Jabotinsky expressed himself with a public candor that seemed impolitic to Ben-Gurion.

By the end of the two-day symposium at Trinity, there was a more measured and nuanced appreciation of this extraordinary man than there had been during much of his life, or even at the time of his death. Cruise O’Brien has been called one of those people whose role it is to be brilliantly wrong. He was certainly wrong some of the time, as in his anti-anti-Communist days when he speciously downplayed the character of Soviet tyranny, or later when he, likewise speciously, opposed a boycott of South Africa, which gave his enemies an opportunity to label him, wrongly, as an apologist for apartheid. But the two most impassioned speakers suggested that he was right often enough. The Ghanaian writer Cameron Duodo said that, whatever else may be said about the Katanga episode, Cruise O’Brien’s memory was revered in Africa to this day as the man who had stood up to the European imperialists and the Americans. And the Irish writer and columnist Eoghan Harris, an erstwhile republican himself, praised Cruise O’Brien for the courage he had shown in his opposition to violence. 

Although some of Cruise O’Brien’s gloomy prognostications about Northern Ireland appear to have been belied by events, the latest impasses—over devolved government there and over the border after Brexit—suggest that a dose of pessimism is still in order. But in Africa and Ulster—those locales of the defining episodes of his life—was he wrong at the right time, or right at the wrong time? 

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Uncanny Christmas

David FratkinMystic Menu

The vision of babies that recurs in my work is not accidental. My images take the shape of my obsessions.

As a child, I enjoyed playing with my sister’s dolls—behavior that was tolerated until I reached age six. The dolls were taken away, but my interest in them was not. As an adult, I began a small collection of the oddest “what-were-they-thinking?” toys I could find. My chief creative interest has always been painting, but when I got a night-shift job at a major publishing house, with unfettered access to Xerox machines, my dolls took on new lives as copier art props.

Narrative tableaux based on overwrought religious imagery, especially as it intersects with consumerism (such as mass-marketed holidays), became my specialty. I was long ago downsized from the publishing house, so I continue to create images on a home scanner, and now also use computer animation applications.

Just as for Freud, ancient objects became metaphors for primal states, so for me, the accessories of childhood unlock an archaeology of the mind. The Xerox or printer scan is an ideal medium for this. The light is pure Caravaggio, while the glass plate becomes the perfect stage for dreamlike juxtapositions. 

My love of the doll imagery of Joseph Cornell and James Ensor, for instance, is partly born of the sense of childhood kept alive. Their work preserves the uncanny perception of dolls’ attractive creepiness, a seeming consciousness.

Received ideas are unwittingly incarnated in the manufactured rubber objects and identities emerge. Using artificial breasts, snakes, naked baby-dolls, and other props, I give that consciousness expression, satirizing what was unwitting and making it manifest and visceral: a weird vision ripe with resonant gender tensions, aesthetic hierarchies, neuroses, and, perhaps, spirituality.

I find that when people see my photocopy-based art, they laugh and squirm at the same time. They feel the release of humor, but they also feel that such things shouldn’t be funny.

David FratkinThe Dark Side


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Christmas in July

Spaarnestad Photo/Bridgeman ImagesThe Netherlands, 1912

My first summer job was trimming Christmas trees in July. It was a shitty job, like most summer employment, badly paid and of dubious purpose. You might think that pines, spruces, and firs grow naturally into their pyramidal shapes. “Back, behind us,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in one of her beautiful poems about Maine, “the dignified tall firs begin./ Bluish, associating with their shadows,/ a million Christmas trees stand/ waiting for Christmas.” The truth is that evergreens are as various in their search for sunlight as the rest of us Earth-dwellers. Branches splay out every which way; two or three prongs vie for the apex; spindly trunks wind their way around rocks or adjacent oak trees. They do not look as though they are auditioning for Christmas cards. It was to wage war on this natural idiosyncrasy that we tree-trimmers were hired, to march up and down the long rows of trees and introduce some uniformity into the chaos.

I don’t remember how the news reached us, in our rust-belt town in Indiana, that boys were being hired, at ninety-five cents an hour—minimum wage, we were informed, as though no additional lure were required—to trim Christmas trees in neighboring Ohio. We answered the call like birds summoned south in September. Loaded into flatbed trucks in the morning darkness, we were driven across the nearby border, under an ugly green arch that identified our town, absurdly, as the “Gateway to the East,” and on to Brookville. We weren’t exactly migrant workers crossing the Rio Grande. And yet, for half the year, Indiana was in a different time zone than Ohio, cussedly refusing (just as our county rejected fluorinated water as a Commie plot) to join the rest of the East in Daylight Savings Time. “If God wanted us to have more daylight,” according to a letter in the local Palladium-Item, “He would have given it to us.”

It was scorching hot in July, of course, but we wore long-sleeved flannel shirts and blue jeans against the pine needles. Armed with heavy shears, we moved methodically down the rows of trees, making executive decisions about which tall branch would henceforth be the top, where the angel or star would be placed. Contenders were sacrificed, along with overlong branches that exceeded the length of those below. When we were done with each tree, it looked, sometimes a little forlornly, as if it just might pass muster in a living room. Five more months of growth would hide the surgery.

My parents were ambivalent about Christmas in general, and always insisted, scornfully, on a “live tree.” We didn’t buy our tree from a Christmas tree farm. We bought it from a nursery. With its bulky ball of roots wrapped in burlap, the tree, even if only two or three feet tall, was extremely heavy, requiring all three brothers to hoist it to the living room. There, it was ensconced in a metal tub and decked with our mostly homemade decorations, along with the candle-holders, outfitted with little clasps, imported from Germany.

Actually, pretty much our whole Christmas was imported from Germany. My father had left Berlin in 1935 to live with a refugee family, assimilated Jews like him, in London. Christmas was celebrated in such families, and in ours, at arm’s length. We gave modest gifts, laid them under our little live tree, and opened them on Christmas Eve, “in the German fashion,” we were told. We ate lebkuchen and pfeffernüsse and marzipan. My parents had both converted to Quakerism before their marriage, an additional complicating factor. Just as Quakers refuse to take oaths on the conviction that they always tell the truth—a burden for me during the Pledge of Allegiance, religiously practiced in Indiana public schools, where I sheepishly refused to cross my heart—they also do not, traditionally, celebrate holidays, on the belief that all days are equally holy.

The Tannenbaum, oddly, was the focus of many of our rituals. After it survived the dry indoor heat and the scary real candles, we carried it outside to be planted with its predecessors. These grew in a long line along one side of our modest “ranch house”: two hallways—one was the kitchen and the other gave on three bedrooms and a bathroom—with a family room at one end and a living room, which doubled as my father’s study, at the other, all laid upon a concrete slab. This row of evergreens eventually came to resemble the rows at the Christmas tree farm in Brookville, awaiting the trimmers. There’s no sign of the trees on Google Earth. I just checked. I wouldn’t be surprised if later property owners cut them down, one by one, for Christmas trees, cheap at the price.

Now, I have my own family, here in Emily Dickinson’s Amherst, once as hostile to “Papist” Christmas as the Quakers were. At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson spent one ambivalent year, and where I now teach, the founder, Mary Lyon, determined that the best way to “celebrate” Christmas—when girls were required to remain on campus, lest they be tempted by holiday frivolity—was by fasting. “How magnificent the ‘Christmas tree,’ must have been,” Emily wrote a close friend in 1847, the year she enrolled at Mount Holyoke. “I had a great many presents, Christmas, & New Year’s holidays—both—but we had no celebration of the former which you describe.”   

My family is very passionate about Christmas trees. We insist—or rather, my wife and our two sons insist—that the search for the tree must be arduous. We are surrounded in bosky Amherst by small Christmas tree farms, as I meekly point out, but instead we drive over an hour to remote Ashfield, up near the Vermont border, to a particular farm. There, outfitted with saws and a large cart, a sort of wheeled gurney, we hike to where the trees are, a half hour’s climb up the sloping path. Then, with much discussion—should cuteness be a factor, or some elusive element of character?—we select our tree. According to a recent piece in The New York Times, Christmas trees cut in Nova Scotia are classified as “perfect,” “fancy,” or merely “choice.”

Something like the same categories govern our own decisions, as I experience flashbacks to Christmas in July, in Brookville, Ohio. It is difficult, especially in high snow, to cut the tree at the base. When the paths are icy, the trip down can be hazardous. By the time we get the tree home, in the back of my wife’s pickup truck, we feel we’ve earned it. I’ve earned it. At ninety-five cents an hour, I feel like I’m due some serious back pay.  

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