Месечни архиви: юли 2018

Lovers of Wisdom

De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman ImagesPlato, Pythagoras, and Solon; fresco in St. George’s Church, Suceava, Romania, sixteenth century

Poor Diogenes Laertius. He gets no respect. A “perfect ass”—“asinus germanus”—one nineteenth-century scholar called him. “Dim-witted,” said Nietzsche. An “ignoramus,” declared the twentieth-century classicist Werner Jaeger. In his lyric moods he wrote “perhaps the worst verses ever published,” an anthologist pronounced. And he had “no talent for philosophical exposition,” declares The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

Then why waste time on him? For this excellent reason: Diogenes Laertius compiled the sole extant work from antiquity that gives anything like a comprehensive picture of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy. He may have been a flaming mediocrity. He may have been credulous and intellectually shallow. He may have produced a scissors-and-paste job cribbed from other ancient sources. But those other sources are lost, which makes what Diogenes Laertius left behind, to quote the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “truly priceless.” Eighty percent of success is showing up, Woody Allen supposedly said. Well, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers showed up. And by dint of that, its author has become what Nietzsche called “the night watchman of the history of Greek philosophy: no one can enter into it unless he has given him the key.”

What made this fellow so lucky? It’s not hard to explain why certain works survive. We still have Plato’s dialogues because they were diligently preserved by the Academy. Aristotle too founded a school, and his treatises were widely copied and studied. (Still, the nineteen or so dialogues Aristotle composed—esteemed for their literary quality by Cicero as “a river of flowing gold”—were somehow mislaid by Western civilization.) But Diogenes Laertius didn’t have a school, as far as anyone knows. In fact, almost nothing is known about the man. Even his slightly absurd Greco-Roman name is a puzzle—was “Laertius” some kind of nickname? Judging from the historical references in Lives (which stop just short of the Neoplatonists), he probably lived early in the third century CE. There is a hint in his text that he might have been a native of the eastern city of Nicea. Beyond that he is a cipher. That his work should endure, when the vast majority of the philosophical writings he drew on perished, may simply have been a “quirk of fate”—so guesses James Miller, the editor of this welcome new translation.

If so, it was not an altogether unhappy quirk. Despite the ridicule to which he has been subjected, Diogenes Laertius has some undeniable virtues. It is true that he shows little interest in, and scant understanding of, actual philosophical reasoning. But he is keenly attuned to the philosopher as a social type, and an eccentric one at that. Philosophy to him was not a mere body of propositions; it was a way of life, one that pretended to be superior to conventional modes of human existence. He treats his subjects as public exemplars, for good or ill, of the precepts they advanced. The tension between logos and bios—between doctrine and life—keeps his heap of often dubious biographical reportage from sinking into tedium. So too do his flickers of irony: his philosophers are often “eminent” in the same sense that Lytton Strachey’s Victorians were. The life of reason, though noble on the whole, is seen to be hedged about by hypocrisy and absurdity. Even Nietzsche, who as a young philologist cast scorn on Diogenes Laertius for his mindlessly slipshod ways, came to prefer his work to “the soporific fumes” of more scholarly sources, because in it “there lives at least the spirit of the ancient philosophers.”

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers is organized into ten “books,” each of which is devoted to one or more philosophical schools and their founders. Plato gets his own book (the third); so does Epicurus (the tenth and final). Other figures afforded ample space include Zeno (the Stoic) of Citium, golden-thighed Pythagoras, Pyrrho the Skeptic, Aristotle, and Socrates. On the other hand, important figures like Parmenides and Anaximander get short shrift, and the entry for Cebes, a disciple of Socrates, reads in its entirety: “Cebes was a Theban. Three of his dialogues survive: The Tablet, The Seventh Day, Phrynichus.” (These dialogues are now lost.) An especially complete portrait is given of Diogenes of Sinope, the most prominent of the Cynics. And this is not the only Diogenes in play. There is also an entry for the less famous Diogenes of Apollonia, whom Diogenes Laertius, in an embarrassment of Diogeneses, manages to confuse with Diogenes of Smyrna. (It should be noted that Diogenes Laertius lived five or six centuries later than the multiple Diogeneses he writes about.)

In all, over eighty individual figures get entries—including one apparently rather clever “lady-philosopher,” Hipparchia the Cynic. (A couple of female students of Plato are also mentioned, one of whom is reported “to have worn men’s clothes.”) The author typically says something about the philosopher’s family origins and his teachers, then moves on to anecdotes about his life and apothegms expressing his opinions. We are furnished with details of his sex life, the more scandalous the better. Letters (some spurious) and wills are quoted, and the philosopher’s written works are listed. These stacks of titles, sometimes extending over several pages, are extremely valuable, since the works in question (like the aforementioned dialogues of Aristotle) have generally vanished. Finally, we are given an account, or several alternative accounts, of the philosopher’s death, often with an ironizing comment by the author in what he calls “my own playful verses.”

The principle of selection for these biographical materials is simple: cram in everything, without regard to plausibility or philosophical relevance. Physical details are abundant, if not always consistent. We are told of Zeno the Stoic, for example, that “he was lean, longish, and swarthy,” but also that he was “thick-legged, flabby, and weak”; also that “he delighted…in green figs and sunbathing.” Plato is “weak-voiced” but mocked for his “long-windedness.” Aristotle had thin calves and small eyes, wore fine clothes and lots of rings, and “spoke with a lisp.”

If the principle of selection for Lives is “anything goes,” its principle of organization is more definite—and not what we are used to today. Recent histories of Greek philosophy proceed both by chronology and filiation of ideas, falling into three broad chapters. First come the pre-Socratics, who were concerned with questions about the world’s origins and basic makeup—that is, with natural philosophy. Then comes the pivotal figure of Socrates, who turned philosophy in an ethical direction by asking the question “How to live?,” followed by Plato and Aristotle, who expanded its scope to take in not just ethics and natural philosophy, but also metaphysics, epistemology, and logic. Finally come the Hellenistic schools—Cynics, Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans—who narrowed the scope again by making philosophy primarily an ethical inquiry: an attempt to find the formula for the good life.

That is the scheme followed by, for example, Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy. Diogenes Laertius employs a very different one. He is what is called a doxographer. His concern is to catalog the opinions (doxai in Greek) of each famous philosopher, without much regard to how they might have arisen in reaction against the proposals of earlier speculative thinkers. Instead of viewing Greek philosophy as an evolving conceptual inquiry—with an inflection point at Socrates—he takes it to be a cluster of institutional schools. And he organizes these schools not chronologically, but by geography. There is an eastern or “Ionian” succession, originating in the city of Miletus (on the coast of present-day Turkey), and a western or “Italian” succession, originating in Greek colonies in Italy (notably Elea) and Sicily.

Diogenes Laertius treats these as two parallel traditions, with Athens as the convergent point. He devotes the first seven books to the “Ionians,” who range from Thales to Aristotle and beyond; and the last three books to the “Italians,” who range from Pythagoras to Epicurus. This jumbles not only chronology but also lines of influence. For example, Zeno of Elea, who flourished well before Plato and Aristotle, and whose ingenious paradoxes stimulated them both, counts as an “Italian,” so he is presented well after they are. Confusingly, he is also presented well after the other famous Zeno, Zeno of Citium, the much later founder of Stoicism.

Lives of the Eminent Philosophers proved highly influential when it was printed in Latin during the Renaissance. Montaigne stuffed his essays with anecdotes drawn from it, declaring that he was “equally curious to know the lives and fortunes of these great instructors of the world as to know the diversity of their doctrines.” Well into the modern era, historians were still following Diogenes’s doxagraphic model: dividing philosophers into institutional “schools” and collecting their sayings.

But around the turn of the nineteenth century that began to change. German historians, vigorously debating the nature of history, sought to trace a longer conceptual arc in the unfolding of philosophy, one transcending schools and geography. The most powerful advocate of this new approach was Hegel. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel judged the work of Diogenes Laertius harshly. “A philosophic spirit cannot be ascribed to it,” he declared; “it rambles about amongst bad anecdotes extraneous to the matter in hand.” What is important, Hegel argued, is not that a philosopher lived in such-and-such a way and said this or that; rather, it is how the philosopher fits into the evolution of human consciousness toward truth.

After Hegel, the reputation of Diogenes Laertius suffered a sharp decline among both classicists and historians of philosophy—as witness the abusive quotations I opened with. Yet one abuser, Nietzsche, later turned into a passionate (if ambivalent) defender. As a philologist, Nietzsche had contempt for the sloppy scholarship that went into Lives. But as a philosophical subversive, he had two motives for championing the work. The first was his hatred of Socrates’s moral optimism—a precursor, he thought, to slavish Christian morality—and his preference for what he saw as the darkly “tragic” worldview of the pre-Socratics. From the materials that Diogenes Laertius had preserved on figures like haughty Heraclitus and Etna-leaping Empedocles, Nietzsche hoped to recapture a sense of pre-Socratic tragic grandeur in Greek culture. His second motive for championing Lives was a more general one. Whereas Hegel insisted that the biography of a philosopher was irrelevant to his conceptual contribution, Nietzsche took the opposite view: bios is the ultimate test of logos. He wrote:

The only critique of a philosophy that is possible and that proves anything, namely trying to see whether one can live in accordance with it, has never been taught at universities; all that has ever been taught is a critique of words by means of other words.

Now, one is loath to put oneself in the position of adjudicating between Hegel and Nietzsche. In this case, however, I think it is safe to render a verdict, if a disappointingly bland one: they are both partly right. The philosophers chronicled by Diogenes Laertius fall into two broad categories: those who are primarily interested in the ethical question of how to live and those who aren’t. In treating the former, he does a pretty good job; in treating the latter, he is horrible.

Take Plato. He was interested in the question of how to live. In fact, his entire philosophy can be seen as emerging from an attempt to make sense of Socrates’s good life, and of the Socratic claim that virtue equals knowledge. But Plato’s dialogues—happily preserved—encompass metaphysical and epistemological doctrines that go far beyond ethics. And Diogenes Laertius’s account of those doctrines in his book on Plato can only be deemed inane. Page after page is given over to enumeration (“There are three kinds of friendship…. There are five kinds of medicine…. There are six kinds of rhetoric”), making Plato’s works seem an exercise in trivial taxonomy. Only in the penultimate paragraph is there the merest hint of his most important metaphysical innovation, the Theory of Forms. To say Diogenes Laertius had “no talent for philosophical exposition” is an understatement: he had an anti-talent.

Vatican Museums and Galleries/Tarker/Bridgeman ImagesHeraclitus of Ephesus; detail from Raphael’s The School of Athens, circa 1509

And how does Plato’s life, as recounted in Lives, serve as a test of his philosophy? We are told that when Dionysius I of Syracuse angrily said to Plato, “You talk like an old fart,” Plato intrepidly replied, “And you like a tyrant”—the sort of standard anti-tyrant story that, according to the Plato expert Gilbert Ryle, deserves “no credence.” We are told that Plato, a childless bachelor, was a busy seducer of women and boys, and that he addressed verses to a young girl urging her to give up her virginity to him—details lifted from the now lost On the Luxuriousness of the Ancients, by a dodgy scandal-monger called the Pseudo-Aristippus. And we are told that Plato may have died from a lice infestation: a presumably unedifying end for this otherworldly philosopher.

Such a preposterous amalgam of myth and hearsay leaves us siding with Hegel’s dim assessment of Diogenes Laertius. But then consider him on the Hellenistic schools. He is our main source for the lives and doctrines of Diogenes the Cynic, Zeno the Stoic, Pyrrho the Skeptic, and Epicurus. All these figures focused primarily, if not exclusively, on a single ethical question: What is the formula for the good life? The Stoics equated happiness with virtue, the Skeptics equated it with the tranquility that arises from suspending judgment, and so on. Their views on the best mode of life were not so much argued for as dogmatically asserted. And their metaphysical predilections, when they had any, tended to be at the service of their ethics. Epicurus, for instance, favored atomism because its randomness meant we didn’t have to worry about the gods.

These Hellenistic philosophies of life, short on important reasoning but long on practical prescription, are eminently suited to the critique proposed by Nietzsche: How did the lives go of those who propounded them? And here is where Diogenes Laertius doesn’t let us down.

Consider his portrait of Diogenes the Cynic. (It is interesting that Hegel thought the Cynics were too unsystematic to be considered philosophers, whereas Nietzsche aspired to be a modern-day Cynic.) The Cynic philosophy is a tough one to live by, involving as it does a spurning of conventional values and a resolve to live ascetically, by the rudest standards of nature—like a dog. (“Cynic” comes from kyon, the Greek word for dog.) Diogenes fully embodied this ideal, hewing so strongly to his idiosyncratic notion of virtue that Plato reportedly called him a “Socrates gone mad.” He lived in a disused wine tub, subsisted on abandoned scraps, and subjected himself to every hardship. He was contemptuous of power: when Alexander the Great offered to grant him a wish, Diogenes tersely replied, “Stand out of my light.” He outraged standards of decency by openly pleasuring himself in the marketplace and declaring, “If only one could relieve hunger by rubbing one’s belly.” (His recourse to public masturbation rates a double mention in Lives.)

Yet his cleverness in debate, his witty asperities, and his cussed integrity evidently made him beloved by Athenians. He also has modern appeal—not as a Mr. Natural avant la lettre, but rather as an opponent of all things tribal and provincial. When asked where he came from, he declared (using the Greek term cosmopolites), “I’m a citizen of the world.” When asked what he found most beautiful, he said, “Freedom of speech.” As a model of his philosophy, which emphasized praxis over abstract theorizing, he made a strong impression on his biographer, who concludes, “Such were his views and he clearly acted in accordance with them.”

Therein lies the value, admittedly curate’s-eggish, of Lives. But why a new translation? The old Loeb Library version by R.D. Hicks, first published in 1925, served well enough for almost a century. But this one by Pamela Mensch, a distinguished translator of ancient Greek, is superior in three respects. First, it is based on a more accurate edition of the Greek text, made by Tiziano Dorandi in 2013. Second, Mensch avoids the bowdlerization that the Hicks translation was often guilty of. Here is one example, from the life of the Academic philosopher Arcesilaus, involving a sodomitic jest:

Hicks: Again, when some one of immodest life denied that one thing seemed to him greater than another, he [Arcesilaus] rejoined, “Then six inches and ten inches are all the same to you?”

Mensch: To a man who let himself be penetrated and who recalled to him the doctrine that one thing is not greater than another, Arcesilaus asked whether a ten-incher did not seem to him greater than a six-incher.

Until I read the new version, I thought I was the one with the dirty mind.

Third, the Mensch translation is furnished with a weighty apparatus of footnotes that are delightfully revealing of Greek history and folkways. For example, an otherwise puzzling reference by Diogenes Laertius to a radish is cleared up by a footnote informing us that one Athenian punishment for adultery “involved inserting a radish in the rectum of the guilty man.” Other virtues of this new edition of Lives include the hundreds of philosophy-inspired artworks with which the editor has chosen to adorn the text (a de Chirico, a Daumier, a Francesco Clemente…) and sixteen superb essays by such scholars as Anthony Grafton, Ingrid Rowland, and Glenn W. Most. (I am particularly indebted to André Laks’s essay, “Diogenes Laertius and the Pre-Socratics.”)

From time to time while making my way through Lives, I was moved to ponder what some future Diogenes Laertius might make of the present philosophical era. Which figures would strike him as models for living? Whose dramatic public gestures, whose devastating coruscations would he record? Who would strike him as a “philosopher” in the original Pythagorean sense: a lover of wisdom?

The Columbia philosopher Arthur Danto, in a somewhat acidulated “Letter to Posterity,” published shortly before his death in 2013, wrote, “Never, in my entire experience, have I encountered a philosopher I thought of as wise.” Most of his professional peers, he went on to say, were “shallow, vain, silly” compared with the best of humanity. Surely, though, we can think of a few philosophers from the last century who were as existentially impressive as those in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Ludwig Wittgenstein comes to mind; so does Simone Weil; perhaps Iris Murdoch, with her amatory adventurousness and devotion to a Platonic ideal of the Good; also Derek Parfit, who burned with a hard gem-like flame in pursuit of philosophical truth.

I think a future Diogenes Laertius might be especially attracted to a lesser-known figure of our era, the Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who upon his death in 2004 was justly memorialized in The New York Times Magazine as “one of the rare philosophers who lived a genuinely philosophical life.”* Morgenbesser was revered for his dialectical cleverness, his anticonventional ways, his willingness to suffer for philosophy, and especially his rapier-like flashes of humor. Like Diogenes the Cynic, he embodied the spoudogeloios (seriocomic) ideal even in extreme circumstances. During the 1968 student uprising at Columbia, Morgenbesser joined a human chain of protesters and got clubbed by the police. When later asked about the beating, he pronounced it “unjust but not unfair”: “It was unjust because they hit me over the head, but it was not unfair because they hit everyone else too.”

  1. *

    See James Ryerson, “Sidewalk Socrates,” The New York Times Magazine, December 26, 2004. 

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Football, Free on the Streets

Andrew EsieboOlodi-Apapa, 2006

The sight of people playing football daily in public spaces around the world is visual testimony of how the presence of bodies can turn the commonplace into the marvelous; proof, too, that football is a world game not because of the millions drawn to watch the World Cup, but because of the millions for whom the game is alive every day on the street, tournament or none. Andrew Esiebo’s “Goal Diggers”—an exhibition of photographs on the irrepressible love West Africans have for football—reminds us that the simple desire to chase a ball is one of our commonalities. From Nigeria to Ghana to Sierra Leone to Senegal, groups of resourceful young people play the game on sidewalks, under bridges, in hallways, on narrow streets filled with more obstacles than players, on dusty grounds adorned with ad hoc goalposts, on beaches with no barriers but the horizon.

“In Africa, the beautiful game isn’t confined to the stadium,” Esiebo writes. “From farmland to city roads, from beaches to markets, football belongs everywhere.” His images testify that kinship is found in play, and declare that this game doubles as a diasporic handshake.

Football invites you to lose yourself in other people’s stories; their play becomes yours as you follow the ball and intertwine your enthusiasm with theirs. The ritual of watching bodies at play draws us to them and allows us—our bodies—to join a shared rhythm. Football is therefore not just competition, but is generous, collective participation.

Esiebo is preoccupied with rituals of the everyday—the myriad ways they show creativity, empowerment, and survival. As if in gentle rebuke, he turns his lens to activities that highlight how simple daily experiences carry the shine of magnificence, revealing the significance of the overlooked and the dignity of the excluded.

He focuses on urban environments where there aren’t enough spaces for formalized recreation, where poor urban infrastructure and planning stifle cultural and social life. Players move out of defiance as much as pleasure. In Lagos, young men under a bridge play between makeshift goalposts composed of piles of tires joined at their peaks by a rope made from plastic strings. In Jamestown, Accra, children scamper on a tiny sidewalk around adults selling tomatoes to gain control of a ball; in the same district, another group of children imaginatively turn a narrow corridor into a football field. And whoever said that a small walkway between houses, with people cooking and going about their business, was off-bounds for a game of football? Present, but not in the way, these little ones in Lagos stand before the viewer as evidence that scoring is beside the point—the drama is in the dance: bodies making their way through the world with grace and exuberant glow.

As a kid myself, I never knew my country to be as international as when the World Cup came around. The quadrennial tournament made emigrés of us Jamaicans, and we became competing West Germans and Argentinians and Brazilians. We wore the national colors of our new countries proudly, hoisting flags and raising voices with such fervor that if a consular official saw us they’d grant us visas on sight. This was the great appeal of the recent World Cup for me: one nation becomes many, if even superficially. We jump the fence of sovereignty to cheer alongside fans of other countries, share in their joy. Or anguish. That crowd—away from the stadiums, gathered in living rooms and restaurants and bars, hushed and screaming before television screens—was what pulled me to the World Cup.

And no crowd I know of celebrates like a Jamaican crowd—banging pot covers they’ve converted to madcap cymbals, slamming palms on every flat surface in sight, turning the built environment into a drum kit. I was habituated, then, to believe a game isn’t worth seeing if there’s no pulsating energy around it; there’s no real action at a game if I can’t watch the watchers. The show is in the areas far beyond the stadium.

When I visited Lagos a few months ago, I instinctively looked, as I often do when I’m abroad, for signs of the one Jamaican everyone knows. Sure enough, I spotted more than a few people in Bob Marley T-shirts, and made a new friend, the Afrobeat musician Edaoto Olaolu Agbeniyi, in part because of our shared love for my countryman’s music and his support for pan-African struggle and unity. But as I explored the city’s teeming sidewalks and streets with Edaoto as my guide, I noticed just about everyone rushing by at warp speed. Lagos in a hurry is nothing unusual—the city is so fast-paced that one is reluctant to make any claims about it lest the place revise itself before you finish writing down your observations. But I felt an enthusiastic gale pushing everyone along to the same end.

Edaoto explained that people were quickening their paces to see a football game. With the World Cup approaching, and Nigeria’s beloved national team readying for Russia, I thought the Super Eagles must have had a warm-up match, so I asked whom Nigeria was playing. Edaoto turned to me, with a grin: “It’s not Nigeria. It’s Liverpool and Real Madrid.”

One wonders if his being born and raised in Lagos, and based not far from there, has drawn Eseibo’s eye to the ways people reshape their environment. Lagos is, after all, not merely a city on the move but also one preoccupied with change—self-improvement literature is hawked in the middle of streets overflowing with people intent on reinventing themselves and remaking their environs. It’s a city of constant improvisation. A city that seems made for people who find inventive ways to carve out space for leisure in the face of—really, under the actual shadow of—urban renewal and too-often merciless change.

How do people strengthen their identities by sharing space with strangers? How do they lose themselves with abandon in community, and gain a richer sense of self or personal freedom? How is being black, and part of a community of blacks, a bridge to unity and pathway to variegated expression? Eseibo pursues those questions across West Africa, and ends up in barbershops and hair salons, documenting—in the project Pride (2012)—stories of how strangers who co-exist share intimacies and thereby transform their spaces into places of trust and joy. Traveling around West Africa, he recognizes that football, like barbershops, reveals people’s inclination to reinvent themselves and transform their surroundings.

As attentive to the game as he is to setting, Esiebo fills his frame with the beauty of movement. Bodies are arranged like musical notes on a staff—whether they are playing alongside their reflections in a puddle of rain water in Olodi-Apapa, Lagos, or set in silhouette on a beach in Freetown, Sierra Leone—and bold color imbues them with an otherworldly feel. Sometimes the bodies have the force of symbols, as if poised to become fantasy; the game is both recreation and reverie. You rarely see any player’s face in detail. What you cannot miss, though, are the rich assembly of black bodies—in motion, sublime and alluring in their dips and leans and twists and lunges and runs and pauses, caught in a poetic choreography, at once jubilant and self-possessed.

His perspective rarely betrays the distance of a spectator—he brings us onto the field, inserts us in the game, releases us in its vibrancy, ready to receive or steal the ball from the player headed our way. I found myself running alongside the players, cheering them on from up close. (All the more so when I stood in Rele Gallery, in Lagos, surrounded by the large-scale photographs printed on Hahnemühle Museum Etching paper, which has a natural, non-glossy, texture and sometimes resembles a watercolor print. Alongside these prints is a video installation of a montage of football games where we see players chasing a ball that has been digitally removed, leaving us to focus on the game as a movement of bodies; one is reminded of the touching, heartbreaking, funny scene from Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), where a group of young men play a match with an invisible football, an act of spirited resistance after the game is banned by jihadists.) In the photographs, I experienced football as a communal activity, and was happy to abandon my role as a bystander. These images insist that we not be a spectator of spectators. They demand, too, that we see football as a diasporic language: the vocabulary might change from place to place, but the grammar remains the same. 

With this last World Cup over, and the accompanying global fever evaporating, the bars and cafés and restaurants and living rooms have emptied out. But the energy of football, abundant and unfading, has returned to its true locus, away from the stadiums. After the spectacle has gone, there are still the many who are often overlooked—some displaced from their homes by stadiums built for previous World Cup tournaments—playing the game that Andrew Esiebo lovingly portrays. They’ll come for what many have come for since the game began eons ago: the beauty of community; the inventive spirit of strangers and neighbors who readily turn whatever is under their feet into a playground; the joy of seeing bodies in motion, in relation to each other; the pleasure of being alive. Football is a shared beauty, a reminder that we find our better selves in company. And perhaps our best selves are our playful selves.

Andrew Esiebo’s “Goal Diggers” is on view at Rele Gallery in Lagos through August 3, and is part of his larger ongoing project on football called “Love of It.”

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‘Sorry to Bother You’: Boots Riley’s Trojan Horseplay

Annapurna Pictures Tessa Thompson as Detroit and Lakeith Stanfield as Cassius Green in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, 2018

It’s a good time to be an Oreo. Back in the days when I was a teenager, the black kids in Baltimore threw around that epithet with enviable ease. Oreo! Black on the outside, white on the inside. It’s a blunt insult, too blunt for skintones better rendered in shades of brown and a culture that deals in shade. The charge is impossible to refute, though: the second you deny it, some aspect of your denial becomes evidence for the claim, be it your nerdy recourse to logic in the face of the dozens, your weak comeback that hints at self-hatred—what’re you gonna do? Insult their blackness in turn?—or your whiny accent, which is likely what prompted the jibe in the first place. Simply to speak is to damn yourself. Woe unto you if you try to sound blacker.

Since the 1980s, sociologists and anthropologists have hijacked this playful signifying within the black community to explain the academic achievement gap, claiming that black students slack off because they equate “being smart” with “acting white.” This research has since been debunked. Indeed, no one knows better than black people that acting white—putting on the trappings of privilege, speaking as if you belong, as if you deserve to take whatever you want—has always yielded dividends in America. How do you think we got the Huxtables? (How do you think we got Bill Cosby?)

And now we have Donald Glover, who loves Star Trek and stars in Star Wars; Issa Rae, who raps her awkward-black-girl insecurities into the mirror and onto our screens; Michael B. Jordan, who stans anime and co-produced and acted in Fahrenheit 451. One of the most successful TV shows of late is Glover’s Atlanta, in which black culture’s internal variety and entanglement with white culture is on beautiful display in characters played by Glover, Lakeith Stanfield, Brian Tyree Henry, and Zazie Beetz. And the biggest film of 2018 thus far is Black Panther, a comic-book movie about an African kingdom whose claim to prominence is not music or sports but a technology program run by a nerdy princess named Shuri. We are solidly in The Era of the Oreo.

Acting white is the premise of Boots Riley’s raucous new film, Sorry to Bother You. Cassius Green (Cash for short), played with lithe, febrile grace by Stanfield, gets a job at an Oakland telemarketing company, RegalView. After several customers hang up on him, Cash gets some advice from a co-worker named Langston (played by OG Oreo Danny Glover): “Hey young blood. Lemme give you a tip. Use your white voice.” Cash brushes him off—people say he already talks with a white voice. Langston qualifies: no, not like Will Smith, not just sounding nasal, no. To have a white voice is to sound breezy, carefree, like you don’t really need the money. “It’s what white people wish they sounded like. What they think they’re supposed to sound like.” This a smart move on Riley’s part, akin to the one Ta-Nehisi Coates picked up from James Baldwin: to describe whiteness not as an identity but as the faith that possesses “those who believe they are white.” In the film, the rhetorical trope is made literal through dubbing: Cash’s white voice is played by David Cross. As his best friend Salvador (a sweet, dry Jermaine Fowler) says, “That’s some puppet master voodoo shit.”

What tumbles forth from this gag is a wild, campy romp. In desperate need of his namesake—Cash lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a car so wretched, so ratchet, that he operates the wipers by tugging strings threaded through the windows—he rides his white voice straight to the top floor, where the “Power Callers” work. The film’s central dilemma finds him torn between social mobility and a socialist movement, organized by another coworker Squeeze (a woke, low-key sexy Steven Yeun) and Cash’s girlfriend Detroit (the delectable, sloe-eyed Tessa Thompson). After the RegalView telemarketers strike, Cash breaks the picket line and soon loses his friends, his girlfriend, and his dignity—when a protester throws a soda can at his head, someone records the incident and posts it online. He spends the rest of the film as a meme, with a bloodspotted bandage wrapped around his forehead like a hipster sweatband. 

Chaperoned by an eyepatch-wearing, white-voiced predecessor (played by a brooding Omari Hardwick and dubbed by Patton Oswalt), Cash’s success as a Power Caller leads to an invitation from RegalView’s biggest client, Worry Free. This company houses, feeds, and entertains its workers in a factory-like setting, and its marketing (“If you lived here, you’d be at work already”) recalls Silicon Valley’s persistent, perverse fusion of work and life. A wrong turn in a mansion at an exclusive company party leads Cash to discover that Worry Free is engaging in a far more perverse fusion (spoiler!)—of humans and horses. California—in filmic terms, always on the edge of the country, the future, technology, sanity—has once again birthed a monstrosity: “equisapien” laborers genetically modified to be “bigger, stronger,” and well-hung, to boot.

Lit by California’s neon sun and neon signs, flecked with bright colors that bespeak black aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s—think the hip-hop groups TLC and Salt-N-Peppa, or the Friday movies—Sorry to Bother You has been described as indebted to music videos. But it feels more like a brilliant cartoon to me: dubbed voices, slapstick violence, dumb jokes, over-the-top gestures. Kate Berlant is excellent as marketing consultant Diana DeBauchery, with her rolling eyes and heaving bosom. (“What is ‘capital’?” she smirks, making spastic finger quotes.) The film masterfully uses the cartoon logic of repetition too, extending certain sequences to hilarious—and discomfiting—effect.

So, when Diana first takes Cash up to the Power Caller floor, she presses a seemingly endless series of numbers into the security pad to access an elevator, which then rallies them to their work day by praising their sexual potency at length over the intercom. When Cash refuses to join the strike, he and Salvador engage in a hysterical rap battle, but of faux-pacetic encouragement rather than insults, one-upping each other with smarmy corporate-speak: “Best wishes!” “I hope your year is spectacular!” “It’s on me!” “No it’s on me!” At the Worry Free party, the CEO (a perfectly cast, buoyantly obnoxious Armie Hammer) insists that Cash spit some lines and starts up a rally cry among the white guests: “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” they chant for an awkwardly long time. Each bit is less like a running joke and more like if a joke were a run-on sentence—and, notably, most of them are pointed at white people, or rather, at the strained enthusiasm of their efforts to convince themselves of their whiteness. 

Indeed, smuggled inside Riley’s rollicking mashup of surrealism and sci-fi is a cutting critique of race and class. It is a satire in the original, Greek sense—a satura, or medley, of forms that use humor and exaggeration to ridicule the vices of society. The film gives us a model for how to reconcile its unapologetic silliness and its political seriousness with its most appealing character, Detroit, whose empty New Age koans about “being present” are redeemed by her fierce, zany, brazen works of art. She makes her own earrings: little sculptures like a gold man in an electric chair and a sequined cock and balls, or big bubble letters with two-part messages like KILL KILL KILL/MURDER MURDER MURDER and TELL HOMELAND SECURITY/WE ARE THE BOMB. In one art performance, she decries the mining of coltan in Africa, then asks audience members to throw bullet casings, cell phones, and water balloons filled with goats’ blood at her barely clad body. She and a crew of art activists called the Left Eye install a kitschy sculpture in front of RegalView: the CEO of Worry Free fucking a horse from behind. Detroit sidles up to onlookers the next day and tries to influence their interpretation: “Maybe the artist is being literal.”

Annapurna Pictures Stanfield as Cassius and Armie Hammer as Steve Lift in Sorry to Bother You, 2018

Detroit, like Riley, makes the kind of political art that critics might call “obvious” or “didactic”—it hits you over the head. But literalism is the bedrock of satire, along with reductio ad absurdum: taking something to its logical conclusion. Many of us first learned about satire by way of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which suggested that the solution to the problem of Irish famine was to eat babies. To make something utterly literal pushes through to the other side of the real—this is why satire so often bleeds into surrealism, as in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (a working man is a bug). But this kind of satire relies on a certain plausibility, too: its absurdity is an index of how idiotic, how ludicrous the current political reality actually is. Hence the mantras of Trump’s America: It must be hard to write satire right now. I thought this was The Onion at first. You can’t make this shit up.

Sorry to Bother You uses its literalism to canny effect. Left Eye is an allusion to TLC, but it also refers to a group of leftists. A popular TV show called I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me covers contestants in actual shit. When the partygoers exhort Cash to rap, he flails around and eventually just starts saying “nigga shit, nigga shit, nigga nigga nigga shit” to appease them. Well, precisely. The film’s action is made literal, too, through delightfully low-budget special effects. When Cash makes calls, his desk appears to drop right into customers’ homes. As his fortunes rise, his own cluttered home in his uncle’s garage cracks open—furniture and decor shed their dingy skin to reveal shiny new selves—until it has been replaced by an apartment straight out of Dwell, all clean lines and white planes and muted artwork. To cast off poverty like this might seem like a gimmick. To house workers in warehouses then spotlight them on a show called NTV Spots might seem hyperbolic. But spend one day with me in the Bay Area, where Boots Riley and I both live and where Sorry to Bother You was filmed, and you’ll realize how brutally accurate all this is, how mashed up against each other the mansions and the tents are over here.

In this sense, the movie is not just Marxist but materialist at heart. The dubbed voiceovers and the equisapiens both literalize figures of speech that have a sordid political history. To “talk white” is to ventriloquize a white actor’s voice. To turn workers into horses makes concrete the idea of the slave laborer as “packhorse” or “workhorse.” Hovering behind this absurd plot twist is a semantic history of oppression. Mulatto—a black and white human named for a mule, half-horse, half-donkey. Studthe word for a horse who impregnates thoroughbreds, widely used to refer to black male slaves. This figure also plays with the legacy of horse-men in satire: from Shakespeare’s Bottom to Swift’s superior race of horses (the Houyhnhnms) in Gulliver’s Travels to BoJack Horseman. The film’s low-hanging horse dick jokes invoke those original hoofed hybrids, too, the satyrs, whose name is often mistaken for the origin of satire because the satyr plays were in fact satirical: tragicomic burlesques that used phallic props and priapic pranks to send up the intervention of the gods—the lazy, wealthy debauched One Percenters of their time—in human affairs.

But I don’t want to freight this carnivalesque jaunt with too much European historical baggage—or reinforce the tendency of reviews to frame it only in relation to white artwork. This film is black on the inside, too, reaching back through hip-hop and black cinema to a deep tradition of black satire: George Schuyler’s Black No More (1931), which literalizes racial passing with a machine that turns black people white; Sun Ra’s standoff between blaxploitation and race pride in Oakland in Space Is the Place (1974); Richard Pryor pretending to be a deer in Live on the Sunset Strip (1982). Fran Ross, who worked for the too-brief run of the Richard Pryor Show, published a novel in 1974 about a biracial super-heroine whose quest to find her father mirrors the Greek myth of Theseus. Full of vagina jokes—including a rubber “wedge” called the Maidenhead® that a potential rapist’s erection bounces off—etymological digressions, cartoonish violence, quirky diagrams to categorize shades of blackness, and a horse-dicked male prostitute named Kirk, Ross’s novel epitomizes the humor and the power of taking race “relations” literally. I like to think that it’s one ancestor to Riley’s rambunctious hybrid of a film. Its title, by the way, is Oreo.

Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is now in theaters

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Why Trump’s Hawks Back the MEK Terrorist Cult

Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesMEK leader Maryam Rajavi presiding over a rally in memory of the group’s members killed in Iraq in 2013, Tirana, Albania, September 1, 2017

On July 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to address an Iranian-American audience at the Reagan Presidential Library in California. The speech is part of a deliberate policy of escalating tensions with Iran, targeting its economy and supporting Iranian opposition groups—all for the purpose of pressuring and destabilizing Iran. At least one member of an Iranian terrorist group that has killed American citizens will also be in attendance. But it won’t be to disrupt Pompeo’s speech; rather, to support it. In fact, the member is on the invitation list.

Last month, the same terrorist group held an event in Paris, busing in thousands of young people from Eastern Europe to hear Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani call for regime change in Tehran. A similar event in Paris last year was addressed by John Bolton, who recently became President Trump’s national security adviser.

How an organization that was only delisted by the US Department of State as a terrorist group in 2012 could so soon after win influential friends at the heart of America’s current administration is the strange and sinister story of the Mujahedin-e Khalq, better known by its initials, MEK. Commonly called a cult by most observers, the MEK systematically abuses its members, most of whom are effectively captives of the organization, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Regardless of its delisting by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—a political calculation on her part since many senior Democrats, as well as Republicans, had been persuaded by the MEK’s lavish lobbying efforts—the group has never ceased terrorizing its members and has continued to conduct assassinations inside Iran.

In the 1980s, the MEK served as a private militia fighting for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Today, it has a different paymaster: the group is believed to be funded, in the millions of dollars, by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Washington, D.C., as in Paris, France, the MEK pays tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to US officials. Bolton, in particular, is a long-time paid supporter of the MEK, reportedly receiving as much as $180,000 for his appearances at the group’s events.

The group is so awash with cash that it doesn’t just pay the speakers; it buys the audience, too. Those young Poles and Czechs who traveled to hear Giuliani’s speech on June 30 came not out of fascination with Trump’s lawyer but for the free weekend in Paris they were offered. The only thing the MEK’s money can’t buy is popular support among Iranians.  

The MEK goes back a long way. Founded in the early 1960s, it was the first opposition group to take up arms against the repressive regime of the Shah. Its ideology was based on a blend of Marxism and Islamism, and the group enjoyed widespread support inside Iran in the 1970s. But a series of missteps saw its popularity dramatically dwindle. After the Shah was deposed, the group’s rivalry with Ayatollah Khomeini came to a head not long after the MEK opposed Khomeini’s decision to release the fifty-two American embassy staff held hostage by Iran, and instead, called for their execution. In fact, only a few years earlier, as part of a campaign targeting the Shah’s regime, the MEK assassinated three US Army colonels and three US contractors, in addition to bombing the facilities of several US companies.

Many of the MEK’s members fled to Iraq and established military bases with the blessing of Saddam Hussein. Siding with Saddam in that long and devastating war, which was estimated to have killed more than 300,000 Iranians, turned the MEK into traitors in the eyes of the Iranian public. Nothing has happened since then to change this view of the MEK inside Iran. But the more politically irrelevant the MEK became, the more extreme and cultish it got. After suffering a military defeat in 1988 in which it lost around 4,500 of its 7,000 fighters in a disastrous incursion into Iran, the MEK was in crisis. To prevent the organization’s collapse, its leader, Massoud Rajavi, intensified the cult-like character of the organization in order to prevent its members from defecting.

In 1990, all members of the organization were ordered to divorce and remain celibate. Their love and devotion should be directed only toward the leaders of the organization, Rajavi determined. To reinforce the leadership’s control, some eight hundred children of MEK members were sent abroad from their camp in Iraq to be adopted by exiled members of the group in Europe or North America. If the adult members tried to leave the MEK, they would completely lose touch with their children. To this day, there are scores of MEK members who dare not leave the terrorist group for this very reason. And there are countless children of MEK members who dream of one day being reunited with their parents. I know several of them.

The MEK’s human rights abuses have been well documented by human rights organizations. The MEK leadership has reportedly forced members to make taped confessions of sexual fantasies that are later used against them. In Iraq, disobedient members were routinely put in solitary confinement—in at least one case, for as long as eight years, according to HRW. Other members were tortured to death in front of their kin. As one US official quipped to me in 2011 when the organization was running its ultimately successful multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to be removed from the State Department’s terrorist list: “Al-Qaeda actually treats its members better than the MEK treats its.”

The MEK, of course, rejects all accusations of terrorism and abuse. The group is not a cult, its advocates insist, but Iran’s strongest democratic opposition group in exile, which seeks a free and democratic Iran. Its members were not forced to divorce, a senior MEK official told the BBC in 2010. Rather, they all divorced their spouses voluntarily. En masse. And anyone who raises these accusations against the group is immediately branded a partisan for the theocratic regime in Tehran.

Mario Tama/Getty ImagesJohn Bolton and Rudy Giuliani at an MEK memorial event, New York, 2013

Given the MEK’s long record of terrorism, human rights abuses, and murder of US citizens, one would think that senior American officials like Giuliani, Pompeo, and Bolton wouldn’t go near the MEK, let alone fraternize with its members or take its fees. But when it comes to Iran, the usual rules don’t apply.

Even when the MEK was on the terrorist list, the group operated freely in Washington. Its office was in the National Press Club building, its Norooz receptions on Capitol Hill were well attended by lawmakers and Hill staff alike, and plenty of congressmen and women from both parties spoke up regularly in the MEK’s favor. In the early 2000s, in a move that defied both logic and irony, Fox News even hired a senior MEK lobbyist as an on-air terrorism commentator.

Al-Qaeda may treat its members better, but rest assured, neither al-Qaeda nor ISIS has ever rented office space in Washington, held fundraisers with lawmakers, or offered US officials speaking fees to appear at their gatherings. But the MEK did this openly for years, despite being on the US government’s terrorist list. The money that Maryam Rajavi (Massoud Rajavi’s wife, who has taken over leadership of the organization since Massoud’s mysterious disappearance in Iraq in 2003) offers to American politicians and the organization’s aggressive advocacy and lobbying only partly explain the group’s freedom of action at the heart of America’s political capital. Certainly, some politicians have likely been duped by the MEK’s shiny image, but Washington’s better-informed hawks are not duped; they simply like what they see, even at the risk of running afoul of federal ethics laws.

At the heart of this improbable-seeming affinity lies a sense of common interest between these anti-Iran fundamentalist, pro-war elements in Washington and Rajavi’s terrorist militia. The US hawks have no problem with the MEK’s terrorist capacities because the group’s utility is beyond dispute—after all, NBC reported that Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, relied on MEK operatives to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists during Iran and Israel’s secret dirty war between 2010 and 2012.

American officials, including the national security adviser, can have no illusions about the MEK’s disingenuous propaganda lines about seeking democracy or enjoying support inside Iran. They know very well how despised the MEK is in that country. Unlike other Iranian opposition groups, however, the MEK can mount military operations. Its members are experienced in sabotage, assassinations, and terrorism, as well as in guerrilla and conventional warfare. These are not qualities that lend themselves to any project of democratization, but are extremely useful if the strategic objective is to cause either regime change (by invasion) or regime collapse (by destabilization). In other words, for Washington’s anti-Iran hawks, the MEK doesn’t have to replace the theocracy in Tehran; it just needs to assist its collapse. The ensuing chaos would weaken Iran and shift the regional balance of power toward US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

When my organization, the National Iranian American Council, campaigned against the delisting of the MEK in 2012, I gathered that some in Washington were uncomfortable with our position even though they had no sympathy for the group. They viewed the MEK as irrelevant and felt that resources should not be spent on fighting to keep the group on the list. Others feared the harassment that inevitably follows speaking up against the MEK. But we remained firm in our opposition and pointed out that if the MEK was taken off the list, the warmongers in Washington would be able to throw their full support behind the organization and use it to advance its policy of confrontation against Iran.

In 2012, my organization warned that the MEK was an Iranian version of the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition-in-exile to Saddam Hussein led by Ahmed Chalabi, which the neoconservatives in Washington tirelessly promoted in the early 2000s to provide grounds for going to war in Iraq. Sadly, it is now clear that our worries were warranted: the MEK’s greatest friends and allies in Washington—its paid advocates, in fact—now have the ear of a president who already tore up the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran.

On May 5, just two weeks after he joined Trump’s legal team, Giuliani told an audience at a D.C. convention organized by an MEK front group that Trump was “committed to regime change.” The war party in Washington has its Iranian version of Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress.

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Korean Souls

Han Kang
Han Kang; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Han Kang, the South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for her novel The Vegetarian, was nine years old in 1979 when a new military regime came to power in South Korea after a coup. Her family had just sold their house in Gwangju, where she had been born and raised, and moved to Seoul. The family that purchased it had two sons. Han’s father, a teacher, knew the younger of the two, a fifteen-year-old middle school student named Dong-ho.

Less than a year after Han’s family settled in Seoul, over 250,000 citizens of Gwangju protested against the declaration of martial law by Chun Doo-hwan, the new military strongman. Chun was called “the Butcher” for his savage tactics against dissidents; he had been a protégé of his predecessor Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian and brutally repressive president who was assassinated by his own director of the Korea Central Intelligence Agency. During the Gwangju Uprising, which historians have compared to the Paris Commune (1871) and Tiananmen Square protests (1989), Chun deployed highly skilled South Korean paratroopers—trained to fight North Koreans—against the citizens of Gwangju. For a couple of days these untrained people, some of them armed with weapons taken from local police stations, managed to hold back Chun’s soldiers and form a civilian government. This didn’t last.

On the pretext of preventing Communist infiltration from North Korea, under Chun’s directive and with the tacit consent of the Carter administration, paratroopers, including the 7th Special Warfare Corps—considered Chun’s private army—bayoneted, clubbed, and shot children, university students, and women and men of all ages. Lee Jae-eui, a Gwangju student protester who was imprisoned and tortured for his participation and who later wrote the most important account of the Gwangju Uprising, remembered that “even at the very beginning of the operation, the corps was brutal and cruel, as if they had a license to kill. These were the same soldiers who had crushed revolts in Pusan and Masan the year before.” Among those killed was Dong-ho, the younger son of the family that had moved into Han Kang’s childhood home.

The siege in Gwangju lasted ten days. The number of the dead and missing remains disputed. Some estimates cite as few as 165 deaths, others as many as nearly two thousand. Chun’s soldiers destroyed and hid the bodies of those killed, a fact his government later denied. The infamous National Security Law, still in force today in a modified form, prevented anyone from publicly disputing the government’s statements about the uprising.

Han’s novel Human Acts, set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising and spanning three decades, is a work of tremendous intellectual and philosophical ambition. It continues the inquiry into violence and self-determination that Han began in The Vegetarian, in which a housewife resists the strictures of her family life by gradually refusing to eat: a self-abnegation that literally diminishes her body. The rest of the book’s characters struggle to rationalize her increasingly erratic behavior. Plausible justifications for her fasting—health concerns, religious doctrine, faddishness—ultimately fail. Her rebellion, they are slow to realize, is against the idea of the family itself.

Han also writes about bodily suffering in harrowing detail throughout Human Acts, but here her characters are above all preoccupied with the nature of the soul. Where does it go after the body is destroyed? How do the soul and body separate? How do souls communicate with one another?

Human Acts consists of six chapters that center on different characters—innocent children, imprisoned and tortured students, a persecuted book editor, a “factory girl”—and a factual epilogue by the author. Han’s alternating use of first-, second-, and third-person points of view gives the book a polyphonic quality, but the setup is simple: during the tumultuous siege of Gwangju, two boys, Dong-ho and Jeong-dae, set out to find Jeong-dae’s older sister, Jeong-mi, who is missing. As they search for her in the crowds, Jeong-dae gets separated from Dong-ho. Snipers shoot Jeong-dae, and Dong-ho flees.

Later, Dong-ho goes to the makeshift mortuary in the Provincial Office to look for Jeong-dae and Jeong-mi. He does not find them. But Seon-ju and Eun-sook, two young female volunteers who are cleaning up bodies, enlist Dong-ho to help them. A university student, Jin-su, manages the small cadre of volunteers who care for the dead. When paratroopers descend on the Provincial Office, Dong-ho and the students who have not already fled surrender and are gunned down with their hands in the air. These six characters—Dong-ho, Jeong-dae, Jeong-mi, Seon-ju, Eun-sook, and Jin-su—form the symbolic community of Gwangju. The novel follows the arcs of their respective lives and deaths.

Dong-ho’s job in the mortuary is to catalog the dead: “You made a note in your ledger of gender, approximate age, what clothes they were wearing and what brand of shoes, and assigned each corpse a number.” He also lights candles. Jin-su, his de facto supervisor, has somehow found him “five boxes of fifty candles each” in the hopes that they will alleviate the stench of the bodies. Dong-ho knows that the candles do nothing for the smell, but he keeps them lit and continues to place them in the empty bottles that serve as candlesticks. The act seems to fulfill a memorial purpose for him, a form of faithful attendance that can only be observed by the living. Like the votive candles lit in the Catholic Church to symbolize prayers offered for another person—living or dead—these candles suggest both yearning and solidarity. As Dong-ho is replacing a candle stub, he stares at the body in front of him. “Suddenly it occurs to you to wonder,” he says, “when the body dies, what happens to the soul? How long does it linger by the side of its former home?”

At the gymnasium where volunteers have laid out corpses for identification, Dong-ho hears a protest speech through the loudspeaker: “The souls of the departed are watching us. Their eyes are wide open.” Dong-ho, who, we later learn, was killed in the uprising, wonders how this can be. In contrast to the slaughtered teens whose bodies he watches over at the gym, he recalls his grandmother’s death from pneumonia as “every bit as quiet and understated as she herself had been.” As she expired, “something seemed to flutter up from her face, like a bird escaping from her shuttered eyes above the oxygen mask. You stood there gaping at her wrinkled face, suddenly that of a corpse, and wondered where that fluttering, winged thing had disappeared to.” In Han’s world, the soul flies, soars, flutters, and floats. It has the kind of motion that a human does not.

Han is interested in the mechanics of a soul’s separation from its host body. The second chapter of Human Acts, “The Boy’s Friend, 1980,” returns to the Gwangju Uprising from the point of view of the just-murdered Jeong-dae. His soul hasn’t yet ascended; when another corpse’s hair touches his face, he says, “I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.” Jeong-dae resists leaving his body, knowing that he will lose his human faculties when he does:

I hovered around my cheeks, the nape of my neck, clinging to these contours so as not to be parted from my body…. My body seemed to slide beneath my wavering grasp, as though trying to shuck me off, but I clung on with a strength born of desperation.

While still in his body, he encounters other souls. One touches him, a “breath-soft slip of incorporeal something, that faceless shadow, lacking even language.” Jeong-dae is flustered, because he doesn’t know “how to communicate with it. No one had ever taught me how to address a person’s soul.” But “still we sensed, as a physical force, our existence in the mind of the other.” If Dong-ho’s souls are like birds, Jeong-dae’s are like shadows.

When the soldiers set fire to all the corpses, Jeong-dae’s soul realizes that “what had been binding us to this place was none other than that flesh, that hair, those muscles, those organs.” Freed from the rotting body, he passes “up into the air as though exhaled in a single breath.” The release is not gratifying. Jeong-dae wants to find his sister’s soul but knows that such a reunion might be disappointing, because in Han’s world souls are disturbed, powerless to effect change, and left to wander with their questions and their partial knowledge. They are without the comfort of language or community; they have no consolation; they exist among us without rest.

Such meditations on the undying soul occur in Human Acts alongside stark assessments of how trauma affects the body. In the decade after Jin-su and another unnamed leader of the student uprising are released from prison, they struggle with the memory of the torture they suffered. “The interrogation room of that summer was knitted into our muscle memory, lodged inside our bodies,” Jin-su’s cellmate reflects. Another prisoner describes the image of a corpse “etched into the insides of my eyelids…. Where I’ll never be able to scrape it off.”

These survivors have nightmares and insomnia and numb themselves with painkillers and alcohol. Eun-sook spends seven days attempting to forget the seven slaps she receives from a government censor. The unnamed prisoner, who suffered much worse, attests that “some memories never heal. Rather than fading with the passage of time, those memories become the only things that are left behind when all else is abraded.” Jin-su, who still dreams of Dong-ho and the other boys who were slaughtered, commits suicide.

Han’s depictions of the afterlife in Human Acts reflect the combination of cultural, religious, and philosophical influences—shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, secular humanism, and Christianity—that informs the modern Korean consciousness, but they don’t quite correspond to any one of them. Some of her characters go to church, some honor Buddha’s birthday, and others observe jesa, the Korean ceremony for paying homage to the dead. Han’s view of the afterlife involves a soul—which Christians believe in and Buddhists do not—but lacks a Judeo-Christian or Muslim form of heaven and hell.

Sangil YiMangwol-dong cemetery, Gwangju, South Korea, 1991; photograph by Sangil Yi from his ‘Mangwol-dong’ series. It appears in Suejin Shin’s book Contemporary Korean Photography, published recently by Hatje Cantz.

Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, Christianity has had a strong impact on the political history of the Korean peninsula. Christian clergy were at the forefront of resistance against the Japanese colonial government, and famous patriots and martyrs, including Gil Seon-ju (1869–1935) and Yu Gwan-sun (1902–1920), were deeply influenced by Christian ideals. It’s worth noting that Lim Seon-ju, the female factory worker in Human Acts, shares a name with Gil Seon-ju, often called the father of Korean Christianity and a leader of resistance against Japanese colonialism. Christians have also been involved in the democracy movement throughout the history of South Korea. For many decades, Catholic priests gave sanctuary to demonstrating students and negotiated on behalf of unjustly imprisoned dissidents. Kim Dae-jung, a central figure in the democracy movement and the only Korean to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, was a devout Catholic.

Christians appear throughout Human Acts—a man carrying a Bible to church on a Sunday morning is murdered, church ladies hand out food to protesters, churches protect union organizers, factory girls attend services, and a heroic union leader finds courage in her Christian faith. But when Seon-ju, who had once volunteered in the Provincial Office and gym with Dong-ho, appears twenty-two years after the Gwangju Uprising in the chapter called “The Factory Girl, 2002,” she rejects Christianity explicitly:

I could never believe in the existence of a being who watches over us with consummate love.

I couldn’t even make it through the Lord’s Prayer without the words drying up in my throat.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

I forgive no one, and no one forgives me.

Seon-ju, who was caught protesting armed with a megaphone and a gun, has survived torture and imprisonment and spent decades on the run from the police. She leads a solitary life and struggles quietly, doing work for which she cares little. The sort of faith that motivated Gil, her namesake, has no comfort for her. Not all dissidents are motivated by such beliefs, Han might be implying; whether they embrace religion or repudiate it, they have to come to terms with what they have done, what has been done to them, and how they will survive.

Christianity continues to spread in South Korea today and has become an important part of the country’s political and social fabric. But the responses to this Western religion have varied, as Han shows. She is neither dogmatic about nor dismissive of metaphysical struggles like Seon-ju’s. Nor does she ignore the indigenous beliefs and practices that continue to have a place in Korean culture. In Korean shamanism, the soul of the dead possesses the body of a mudang, an intercessor, which allows it to communicate with the living. Han never explicitly mentions shamanism, but it seems to inform her method, in Human Acts, of giving expression to those who have been killed.

Han is similarly subtle when she addresses Korea’s ancient, unjust caste system. Dong-ho’s parents run a “leather shop in Daein Market,” and his father’s back was injured from “carrying a heavy box of hides.” A Korean reader will likely recognize this as a reference to caste. Dating back to the twelfth century, those who worked as executioners, dog catchers, butchers, and leather workers were baekjeong, Korea’s “untouchable” outcasts. Touching the dead, which is seen as ritually unclean, remains taboo in many cultures, and although the caste system has not existed in South Korea for many generations, in Human Acts the profession of Dong-ho’s parents and his own work in the makeshift morgue draw attention to the persistence of social discrimination. The people of Gwangju were economically and politically disadvantaged under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, because these two leaders favored the Gyeongsang province in the southeast. By invoking the caste system, Han is emphasizing the inequity of being singled out for punishment and subjugation strictly on the basis of belonging to a disfavored tribe.

Human Acts is an easy book to admire but not an easy one to read. Han deals directly with the terrible pain that Koreans have inflicted upon one another. Her descriptions of the effects of torture and brutality on the bodies of dissidents are disturbingly graphic: ants nibble at genitals; intestines burst under boots; blood leaks from corpses in a “viscous treacle ooze”; there is always an inescapable odor of decay.

A different sort of desolation comes to those who survive. In the novel’s last chapter, Han gives voice to Dong-ho’s mother, who has been forever altered by the loss of her son three decades earlier. She thinks of him constantly and keeps him alive in her mind by remembering him. Living without him is nothing short of ultimate despair: “I’m the one who’s being left behind, alone in this hell.”

I cannot name another work of recent literature in which the loss of a child is so poignantly rendered, with such economy and elegance. In the last pages of the chapter, Dong-ho’s mother addresses him directly:

I don’t have a map for whatever world lies beyond death. I don’t know whether there, too, there are meetings and partings, whether we still have faces and voices, hearts with the capacity for joy as well as sorrow. How could I tell whether your father’s loosening grip on life was something to pity, or to envy?

Han was clearly haunted by Dong-ho’s murder and by the deaths of all those who perished in May 1980. In the epilogue to Human Acts she explains that, in researching the book, she traveled to Gwangju to learn more about Dong-ho. She visited the former site of his house—her old house—met his brother, went to his middle school, and brought three candles to his grave. When she lit them, she writes, “I didn’t pray. I didn’t close my eyes, or observe a minute’s silence.” Instead, she knelt over Dong-ho’s grave and watched the candles burn. Her account ends on the same image she gave Dong-ho to imagine the soul when it escapes: “I stared, mute, at that flame’s wavering outline, fluttering like a bird’s translucent wing.”

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Ten Questions Brett Kavanaugh Must Answer

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty ImagesSupreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh listening as President Donald Trump announced Kavanaugh’s nomination at the White House, Washington, D.C., July 9, 2018

With his selection of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the United States Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has the opportunity to alter the makeup of the Court for generations—and to place it far to the right of the American public. Justice Kennedy, himself a conservative appointed by President Ronald Reagan, proved to have an open mind in his more than thirty years on the bench, and, as a result, kept the Court within the mainstream of American society.

Kennedy often voted with his conservative colleagues, including in gutting the Voting Rights Act, restricting workers’ access to courts to challenge discrimination on the job, and upholding President Trump’s Muslim travel ban. But Kennedy was also willing to join his more liberal colleagues. His vote was decisive, for example, in recognizing marriage equality, preserving women’s right to have an abortion, upholding affirmative action, banning the death penalty for juveniles, forbidding prayer at public school graduations, affirming the constitutional right of Guantánamo detainees to challenge their detentions, limiting anti-immigrant state laws, and interpreting the Fair Housing Act to ban practices that have a disparate impact on minorities. Because all of these cases were decided by 5–4 votes, their continuing vitality hangs on a single vote, Kavanaugh’s. 

Even if Kavanaugh would not have voted the way Kennedy did on any of these cases, some of these precedents might survive on grounds of stare decisis, the principle requiring the Court to adhere, generally, to its past decisions. But the key word here is “generally.” Courts can and do overrule precedent. The Supreme Court did just that this past term, for example, in overruling a forty-year-old decision allowing public sector unions to charge fees to cover the costs of services they are required to provide to all employees. So, while it’s unlikely that all of the cases in which Kennedy cast a decisive vote in a liberal direction will be overturned, any number of them could be. And the Court can substantially weaken a right without formally overruling it, as indeed it already has done with the right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade.

In light of that fact, and that Trump expressly vowed as a candidate to appoint justices who would overrule Roe v. Wade, it is incumbent upon the Senate to pose probing questions to Kavanaugh—and to require him to provide meaningful answers, not artful dodges. Nominees all too often avoid answering questions about their views by simply describing existing Supreme Court doctrine and then insisting they cannot say how they would vote on any particular matter that might come before them. But in speeches and writings while a judge, Kavanaugh has repeatedly expressed his own views on many matters that might come before him, including whether presidents should be subject to civil and criminal lawsuits; if he could express his views there, he should not be permitted to avoid expressing them on other topics in the Senate confirmation hearing.

Here, then, are ten questions I suggest the senators ask Kavanaugh. These questions avoid asking about any specific case, and seek the nominee’s own views, not a description of Supreme Court law. Senators will have to be insistent about getting responses, however, if the hearings are to have any value.

1. Are you committed to interpreting the Constitution as it was understood at the time it was written, or do you agree that its meaning evolves over time through Supreme Court interpretations?

This is perhaps the single most important question for Kavanaugh. Over its history, virtually all Supreme Court justices have interpreted the Constitution as evolving over time. If it did not, segregation would still be constitutional, sex discrimination would not be barred by the Equal Protection Clause, the First Amendment would not protect speech that erroneously attacks the character of public officials, and the Constitution would not protect marriage equality, abortion, or contraception. A small number of conservative justices have over the course of history argued that the Constitution must be interpreted exclusively in an “originalist” fashion, to protect only what it was understood to protect at the time it was adopted. Justice Antonin Scalia was the most outspoken proponent of this view, but Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch also generally adhere to it. Another conservative vote for this backward-looking method of understanding constitutional rights would jeopardize many of the advances that we hold most dear. Does Kavanaugh agree the Constitution as understood today reflects our values, as developed over time, not merely those of the founding generation?

2. Do you believe the Constitution’s guarantee of individual liberty protects the right to make personal decisions regarding one’s own body and intimate relationships, including whom one chooses to marry, how to raise one’s children, whether to use contraception, and whether to obtain an abortion?

Some of the Constitution’s most important rights stem from the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment provisions prohibiting the government from taking life, liberty, or property without due process. Those provisions have been interpreted for nearly a hundred years as protecting certain crucial liberties, and over time have come to include the rights to choose how to educate one’s child, to live with one’s family, to use contraception, and to obtain an abortion. They also protect the rights of adults to engage in consensual sexual relations of their choice, and of gay and lesbian and interracial couples to marry on equal terms as straight and same-race couples. Some conservatives, however, don’t believe the Court is authorized to interpret liberty to protect these kinds of rights.

Kavanaugh has not ruled directly on the validity of Roe v. Wade, or indeed on any of the other issues detailed above. But in a case involving an immigrant minor in US custody, he overturned a court order requiring the government to allow her to obtain an abortion, and would have required her to delay her abortion for at least eleven days, and very likely longer—had not the full court of appeals reversed Kavanaugh’s decision. In addition, at confirmation hearings for his current position as a federal court of appeals judge, he pointedly refused to say whether he thought Roe v. Wade was correctly decided. And, more recently, he publicly praised Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s dissent in Roe.

Given Kavanaugh’s record and Trump’s promise, senators must demand a substantive answer about Kavanaugh’s own view. If he will not acknowledge this right, so central to American’s lives, then, like Robert Bork before him, he would very likely be unwilling even to recognize a right of contraception—a view that the Senate considered so far outside the mainstream as to warrant rejecting Judge Bork’s confirmation in 1987.

3. Do you agree that, as Justice Kennedy has written for the Court, “[t]he ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives”? What impact should that have on the constitutionality of laws restricting abortion?

Access to contraception and abortion are central to the struggle for women’s equality. A recent study finds that being denied an abortion results in increased household poverty and dependence on public assistance and reduced employment. A judge who declines even to acknowledge these facts would blind himself to the consequences of his decision for the status of women in our society.

4. You have defended a robust conception of executive power. Recently, the Supreme Court said that its decision upholding the internment of Japanese Americans on the basis of race and national origin was wrong. Can you name other historical examples where you believe presidents acted unconstitutionally in the name of national security? Should the courts have rejected presidential assertions of national security in those cases, and on what basis?

National security has been invoked by presidents to justify detaining and deporting communists, interning Japanese Americans, torturing suspects, wiretapping innocent Americans, and barring travelers from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country—the last of which was intended to deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to ban Muslims. If courts do not enforce constitutional and legislative limits on the executive branch’s broad invocations of national security, the president will have a blank check to violate fundamental individual rights.

5. In your 2006 confirmation hearings for a federal court judgeship, you said that you “absolutely” believed President Bush’s statements that the United States does not torture and does not condone torture. Knowing what you know now about the United States’s use of waterboarding and other coercive methods against detainees, do you still believe that the United States did not torture?

Kavanaugh worked for President Bush in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, when President Bush authorized actions that are widely acknowledged here and abroad to be gross violations of human rights, including torture by waterboarding. A Supreme Court nominee who does not acknowledge that waterboarding is torture would raise serious concerns about his willingness to put his obligation to law above his personal or political ties.

6. Do you believe that public colleges and universities have a compelling interest in ensuring that they have diverse student bodies?

The Supreme Court has held for decades that race-based affirmative action is permissible to further a compelling interest in maintaining diverse student bodies, as long as race is considered as one factor among others in a holistic assessment of applicants. But as noted above, Justice Kennedy provided the crucial fifth vote in the court’s most recent decision upholding the practice. If Kavanaugh is unwilling to recognize the long-established principle that diversity is a compelling interest, he may provide the fifth vote to end affirmative action.

7. Does the free exercise of religion clause give individuals a constitutional right to engage in conduct that harms others, or does one person’s free exercise end at the point that it inflicts harm on others?

Opponents of certain constitutional rights, including the right to abortion and to marriage equality, have begun cloaking actions that violate these rights in the exercise of religion. A bakery, supported by the Trump administration, argued in the Supreme Court this term that the owner’s religious beliefs permitted the store to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation by refusing service to a gay couple seeking to buy a wedding cake. The Supreme Court declined to hold that the free exercise of religion allows individuals to invoke religion as a justification for inflicting harm on others; on the contrary, it insisted that the “general rule” is that religious objections do not allow businesses to violate generally applicable nondiscrimination laws. (The court ruled for the baker, but only on the ground that the process that adjudicated his case was infected by religious bias). If Kavanaugh is unwilling to recognize religious freedom stops where it inflicts harm on others, he could abet a campaign to undermine the civil rights of everyone—not just same-sex couples—in the name of religion.

8. Do you agree that a core function of the Supreme Court in our democratic society is to protect the rights of minorities that cannot protect themselves in the political process? Does that principle justify the Court’s precedents protecting LGBT individuals?

The Supreme Court has had an important part in protecting the rights of those who lack the political power to have their rights protected through the democratic process. Minority groups and dissidents will by definition be disadvantaged in a majoritarian political system. That is why the Court looks with such skeptical scrutiny on laws that target racial minorities or unpopular speakers. On similar grounds, there are strong arguments for recognizing that government discrimination against LGBT individuals should be viewed with heightened scrutiny by the courts, as is discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and race. Kavanaugh’s views could determine whether LGBT individuals will be entitled to equal dignity and treatment under the Constitution.

9. Do you agree that US courts may consider international law in interpreting US laws and, in particular, that US courts may consider whether US laws comport with international law?

Kavanaugh has written that federal courts should not look to international law when reviewing statutes or executive branch actions, even in contexts squarely governed by international law, such as the laws of war. This view is contrary to centuries-old doctrine dating back to Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy (1804), which held that “an act of Congress ought never to be construed to violate the law of nations if any other possible construction remains.”

Justice Kennedy, by contrast, frequently looked to international law sources in his decisions, such as when striking down the death penalty and life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as unconstitutional, and in ruling that sodomy laws making gay sex a crime violate due process. In Graham v. Florida (2010), which invalidated life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses, Kennedy explained that:

The Court has treated the laws and practices of other nations and international agreements as relevant to the Eighth Amendment not because those norms are binding or controlling, but because the judgment of the world’s nations that a particular sentencing practice is inconsistent with basic principles of decency demonstrates that the Court’s rationale has respected reasoning to support it.

Kavanaugh should be asked whether he believes it appropriate to look to international law when interpreting statutes concerning matters that international law addresses, and constitutional provisions such as the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment or the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.

10. President Trump has nominated you to the career opportunity of your lifetime. If presented with a case involving his personal interests, what standard will you use in deciding whether to recuse yourself from the case?

The Supreme Court could well decide any number of issues arising out of the Robert Mueller inquiry, which is investigating the president’s alleged obstruction of justice. While working for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton, Kavanaugh wrote the section of the Starr report that justified impeaching Clinton for, among other things, lying and obstructing justice. In 2009, however, he wrote an article arguing that presidents ought not to be subject to civil lawsuits, criminal indictments, or even criminal investigations while in office. If any of those issues reach the Supreme Court, will Kavanaugh, appointed by Trump, be able to serve, or will he recuse himself in light of having directly benefitted so substantially from President Trump’s selection?

As a matter of policy, the ACLU, of which David Cole is the National Legal Director, neither endorses nor opposes Supreme Court nominees.

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World Cup 2018: Football Sans Frontières

Matthias Hangst/Getty ImagesFrance celebrating their win against Croatia with the World Cup Trophy, Moscow, July 15, 2018

This is the seventeenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


It was about mid-way through the first half, at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, when those of us in the US who joined the billion or so humans who watched the World Cup Final on TV were given our first view, accompanied by mentions from our announcers on Fox about lightning nearby, of the angry grey skies over Russia’s capital. By that point, the fittingly eventful finale to a most eventful tournament had already seen three goals. The wily Croatians, zipping the ball forward with intent, had dominated the opening exchanges. But France, as a top team set up by its old defensive midfielder of a coach less to dominate matches than to win them, had taken an undeserved lead. Their impish attacker Antoine Griezmann went down rather easily under a Croatian challenge to force a free kick, then arced a shapely cross into the penalty box that careened meanly off one of Croatia’s own players and past their fluorescent-clad goalie, Danijel Subašić, into his net. 

The Balkan side, quite used to fighting back, was unfazed. The powerful winger Ivan Perišić lashed home a stunning goal—before he unluckily canceled out his equalizer, with the help of the video assistant referee, when he was judged to have handled the ball inside the Croatian box. As Griezmann stepped up to take the resulting penalty, thunder rolled over Moscow. And Vladimir Putin, grinning in a luxury box, murmured blandishments to another pleased-looking man in a suit, FIFA President Gianni Infantino. The two leaders soaked up the gratifying spectacle of what was, if not by popular acclamation, then at least according to the ads in every break on Fox, the culmination of “the greatest World Cup ever.”

Putin and Infantino had reason for satisfaction. Over four weeks and sixty-three games before the final—games full of upsets and drama and peachy goals—nary a drop of rain or more significant mishap like crowd violence had sullied the proceedings. Even the Pussy Riot pitch invasion seemed not so much an irritant to Putin as part of the final’s entertainment. Such was Russia’s success in orchestrating this tournament that it wasn’t hard to imagine, in that old Soviet stadium lavishly renovated for the occasion, Putin reassuring Infantino that he had even the weather under control—that the rainclouds wouldn’t burst until after the match. Sure enough, minutes after the final whistle of the Cup’s final game marking France’s 4–2 victory, the heavens opened. 

Two years ago, Putin was an international pariah whose best friends on the world stage were grim dictators like Bashar al-Assad and Ramzan Kadyrov. Now the Russian leader was playing gracious host to the world, before a global TV audience of a billion-plus. And a few hours later, he would fly to Helsinki for another flattering photo op with America’s fawning president. Not a bad summer for an old KGB apparatchik. Nor for FIFA, which netted a reported $5 billion from the tournament.

But what about for the rest of us? By most accounts, very many Russians, especially those in provincial host-cities, enjoyed themselves thoroughly. Not just in rooting for Russia’s upstart team, but also fraternizing with convivial visitors from Brazil or Senegal or Peru—or, at least, renting them their flats on Airbnb.

As for those of us who tuned into matches staged in Saransk and Volgograd and Rostov-on-Don, the Cup provided the unique alchemy of a sporting festival predicated on competition among nations that, as its old French founder envisioned, also nurtured feelings of friendship and commonality. All the more so, when the football was as fine as it often was with such vibrant encounters as Mexico’s bold and beautiful win over defending champions Germany (daringly forecast by Francisco Goldman in our series here), and a Clásico Ibérico between Portugal and Spain, a 3–3 draw between two top teams that featured scintillating play and Cristiano Ronaldo’s rescuing a draw for his country, moments from the death, with a sublime free kick—celebrated as only he can.

Avid soccer-watchers have for years maintained that the World Cup is not where football is played at the highest level. That would be a claim more fairly applied to the European Champions League, where a dozen or so of the continent’s richest clubs have assembled all-star teams from the four corners of the earth. The result, when such groups of players train and play together over months and years, are teams whose depth of understanding and speed of play can astonish. In such a world football ecosystem, the prevailing wisdom says, only rarely can a top national team compete with the likes of today’s Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Real Madrid—and then only because, as with Spain and Barca a decade or so ago, its core of players are from one of those clubs.

But part of the fun of the World Cups, which often bring together far-flung players who’ve only met for brief training camps ahead of qualifying games, is to see which countries seem to gel and which crash out amid internal squabbling. This year, both of the 2014 finalists in Brazil, Germany and Argentina, had star-studded squads whose stars openly fell out with their antic coaches. (Germany went down in the group stage, while Argentina, despite Messi’s heroics against Nigeria, always looked a mess—with the old Argentine dread in full evidence in its round-of-sixteen demise against Croatia.) When a brilliant Belgian side disposed of Brazil in the quarterfinals, the “demise of South America” became one of the Cup’s meta-narratives; another was the failure of any team from Africa, for the first time since 1982, to reach the second round. The real anomaly in the all-European final four was a young England team whose presence, to those unfamiliar with the many layers of British self-loathing and psychodrama when it comes to failing at World Cups, was thanks to its remarkable achievement in actually winning a penalty shootout (against an off-key Colombia).

It was around that moment that Fox commentator Alexi Lalas coined, in a tweet, “Best. #WorldCup. Ever.” A former US national team defender once best-known for his shaggy red hair, Lalas has evolved into a bloviator in the Fox News style, shouting over foreign analysts with superior soccer pedigrees. Fox adopted the Lalas slogan, one suspects, to draw viewers to telecasts since numbers were down from 2014 when the US was playing in Brazil. Cue Gianni Infantino’s speaking in his capacity as the world’s king of soccer that this “fantastic, incredible, unbelievable World Cup” was, indeed, the Best Ever. 

Aficionados armed with numbers have pointed out that this Cup did feature more games than any predecessor with a tying or winning goal after the eightieth minute (twenty) and that there was only one nil-nil draw among its sixty-four matches. More anecdotally, the tournament felt wide open. Even the worst games—the Russians’ strategy against Spain, after nicking an early goal, was to stack ten men behind the ball and defend furiously for ninety minutes—offered the compensatory drama of a raucous home crowd, in a nation that knows more than most about weathering attrition. But the truth, as some of the pieces we’ve published in this series have suggested, is that the question of a World Cup’s greatness depends on where you sit—on how your team does, but also if you happen to be the right age for that Cup to lodge in your memory as a kind of Platonic ideal of World Cup-ness. (If you’re Simon Kuper’s kids in Paris, having watched Les Bleus win at just the right time, that will live on as a “golden summer”.)

There was pain for fans of those teams—like Peru, Morocco, and Egypt—whose presence in Russia was years coming but whose big hopes ended with disappointing results, if with dignity intact. Trusty Mexico followed an electrifying start—that famous win over Germany—by reverting faithfully to type, with an agonizing round-of-sixteen loss to Brazil—but not before its fans had forged a remarkable bond with another country’s. As Mexico played out a lackluster loss to Sweden, it needed the un-fancied South Korea to pull off a major upset by beating mighty Germany itself—and the Koreans, seizing the chance, obliged. Among the innumerable bits of digital ephemera posted by fans to social media over the last month, few were so moving as a posse of overjoyed fans in Mexico City making their way to the South Korean embassy, and, pulling the grinning ambassador into an impromptu dance on the street, toasting with shots of tequila.

None of us needed to be in Mexico, or Russia, to experience such epiphanies of connection. There’s no time like a World Cup for a world city like New York to reveal itself, still, as a metropolis of immigrants where anyone is welcome to take a subway ride from El Gran Uruguayo Bakery, in Jackson Heights, after hailing Uruguay’s dashing striker Edinson Cavani with his compatriots, to little Senegal on 116th Street in Harlem, to catch the Lions of Teranga at Le Baobab in the afternoon. In the taqueria in Brooklyn where I caught the end of Belgium’s stellar game against Japan—a game in which the unfancied Japanese, playing with tremendous cohesion and drive, led 2-0 through brilliant goals, only for Belgium to storm back and win—I sat near white kids in Jordans and Guatemalans in boots and black women in tights, all of our eyes stuck to the screen. I watched my companions’ hearts leap from their chests, after the match, toward the weeping players on the losing side. The Haitian writer Dany Laferrière wrote a book called I Am a Japanese Writer; in that moment, we were all Japanese footballers. Many of us know exactly what Vanessa Barbara’s brother meant when he said, “I want to live in a World Cup.” Now that living in a World Cup is done for another four years, we mourn having to return to living merely in the world, a world less full of hope and of play.

The televisual spectacle presented by the world’s most popular game can certainly be manipulated as propaganda by autocrats. But just as no outcome in a football game is ever guaranteed, so does the Cup allow other meanings. Witness the rise of the brilliant young Frenchman Kylian Mbappé. Breaking out as the world game’s new big star, he has also become a familiar symbol—flags hailing “Liberté, Egalité, Mbappé” have been much in evidence—of what a genuinely multicultural France might look like. Since the last time a team of brown and black footballers did France proud, in 1998, we’ve learned that those gains can be illusory. But France’s victory in 2018 was born in its banlieues—and it was brought up, prosaically put, by social democracy—that is, by the political will embodied in public policy, in France as in Belgium in recent years, not to shove immigrants’ kids to the margins of society, but to incorporate those who learn to play in the slums into organized sport with good facilities and committed coaching.

Social democracy isn’t just the way to win at public health outcomes; it’s the way to win at sport, too. But there is something more potent to recognize, as football now heads home (though not to England, with apologies to fans of Harry Kane). For the game now returns to its roots, which are not in stadiums or on TV, but in vacant lots, on streets, and in playgrounds around the globe. Until recently, the kids playing pickup games, lending their own vocabulary to a universal grammar, were calling themselves Messi. Soon, it may be Mbappé. Wherever they’re growing up, they don’t want to live walled off in a ghetto. They want to live in the world. Football is how they do it.

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The BBC and Brexit: An Exchange

Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty ImagesBritish Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer, and United Kingdom Independence Party leader Paul Nuttall during filming for the BBC’s current affairs program The Andrew Marr Show, London, December 4, 2016

In response to:

How the BBC Lost the Plot on Brexit,” July 12, 2018

To the Editor:

Nick Cohen acknowledges the BBC “follows the highest journalistic standards.” Were he to apply those standards to his own essay, he would find he has ignored a number of inconvenient facts.

Nick says our reporting of scandals surrounding the Brexit referendum “barely exists” and our coverage is “perfunctory.” That will come as a surprise to our audience, as we have reported on every aspect of the story over the past two years.

Take his main example, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica whistleblower story. When it broke, we covered it on our major news bulletins for eleven days in a row. Our Business, Economics, Media, and North America Editors and Technology Correspondent all reported on aspects of the story.

We also interviewed the whistleblowers themselves. Shahmir Sanni’s interview with Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was the lead story on the day his revelations were published and Chris Wylie was interviewed on two of our flagship programs, The Andrew Marr Show and Newsnight.

The most inconvenient facts concern our award-winning investigative program, Panorama—which, as Nick knows, does not shy away from hard-hitting journalism. Here, his account is misleading. 

Carole Cadwalladr has been widely recognized for her tenacious journalism and we were keen to work with her. She had been working with another broadcaster, coming to Panorama only at a much later stage. 

For Panorama to make a program, it needed to be confident of the underlying evidence behind the whistleblowers’ claims. Panorama asked for access to all the evidence, but that was not forthcoming. Limitations were placed on the BBC’s own investigation of the allegations and constraints on who we could approach. In short, we did not have the scope to make a program that met our standards of robust independent investigation in the time available.

Nick also claims the BBC is behaving as if the debate about Brexit is over, quoting presenter Nick Robinson to make his point. The article cited actually points out that the conclusion of the referendum campaign ended the legal obligation for balance between two rival campaigns, thus reducing the pressure on broadcasters for “false balance.”

The BBC does indeed occupy a unique position in world journalism—as the most trusted international broadcaster. That is why hundreds of millions of people worldwide turn to BBC News each week.

We do not expect our journalists to “say what they believe,” as Nick advocates. We ask them to report accurately, offer informed professional judgements and go wherever the evidence takes them.

This means our audience will sometimes hear views they don’t agree with, read facts that don’t support their own views, and see news stories which are outside their comfort zone. 

There can be few times in the BBC’s history when its journalism has mattered more. This is not an organization frightened of journalism, but committed to it. 

James Stephenson
News Editor
BBC News and Current Affairs


Nick Cohen replies:

It gives me the measure of the BBC’s James Stephenson that his response to my piece has an omission so glaring it left even this battered skeptic slack-jawed with amazement at how he thought he could get away with it. To ask a question on many American lips this week: What is going on with Russia? Did it slip Stephenson’s mind? Or is he too embarrassed to raise the BBC’s failure to cover the subject?

As I recounted in the original piece, leaked emails from Arron Banks, the insurance tycoon who, lest we forget, gave the largest donation in British political history to fund Leave.EU, had multiple meetings with the Russian embassy and was offered stakes in Russian gold mines. The emails were in the possession of Isabel Oakeshott, a “journalist” (I use the term broadly) working for a right-wing Tory tycoon. These emails ended up in the hands of Carole Cadwalladr at The Observer, who being a proper journalist, published them. Prima facie evidence of the interest of a hostile foreign power in the British democratic process is, by any reasonable standard, news. Unless, that is, a news organization’s judgment is stymied by a fear of the consequences of pursuing the truth.

The BBC’s response encapsulates everything that is wrong with the corporation. I said it was frightened of journalism precisely because it could not treat evidence of Russian involvement as news. Instead, it treated  the emails as mere talking points, the excuse for a catfight, and for the BBC to play out another round in the culture wars.

It invited Cadwalladr and Oakeshott to slug it out on the Today program. That was it. No investigation. No exposure of the emails’ contents to Today’s audience. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that real journalists do not behave like this. They investigate and let the facts speak for themselves—unless that is, they have a policeman in the head whispering “back away, this is too contentious, this is too political, our bosses won’t like it.” As it is, The Guardian and The Observer, the Financial Times and The Sunday Times (which supported Brexit, incidentally, but knows a story when it sees one) are investigating. Yet, every morning, I turn on the Today program to find its journalists still haven’t plucked up the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear.

Britain now has three Electoral Commission inquiries into the financing of the Leave campaign and one police inquiry. Meanwhile, our Information Commissioner is liaising with the FBI.     

While the BBC provides adequate coverage of the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in American politics, it barely notices the British connection. Perhaps the BBC would be happier if it were an American rather than a British broadcaster; its American coverage is in every way superior.

To turn to the subjects Stephenson is prepared to discuss. His account is—how to put this without using strong language?—disingenuous and self-serving. Stephenson glides too quickly and too easily over Panorama’s passing up the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story, one of the scoops of the year. As I said above, turning away exclusives is not what journalists do. We want to be first. It’s how we keep score.

Stephenson writes: “Panorama asked for access to all evidence but that was not forthcoming.” I spoke to Cadwalladr, who said the BBC was offered access to all the evidence The Observer and The New York Times possessed, along with eminent lawyers to take its journalists through it. I then double-checked and spoke to witnesses who were present at the meeting between the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and the BBC. They confirmed Cadwalladr’s account.

Stephenson continues: “When it broke, we covered it on our major news bulletins for eleven days in a row.” This is not how I or, indeed, Cadwalladr remembers it. Cadwalladr said: “I contacted the weekend editors of the BBC to tell them the story was coming. In the Cambridge Analytica case, there was one small piece on the web on the Sunday and then the story was ignored by the main bulletins for forty-eight hours.” As for the second leak from Shahmir Sanni on breaches of electoral law by the Leave campaign (a brave act of whistleblowing that has been vindicated by our Electoral Commission, which announced today that Vote Leave did indeed break the law), to the best of Cadwalladr’s recollection and mine, it was not covered by the main bulletins.

Stephenson says I misunderstood Nick Robinson’s remarks about Brexit being over and the demands for balance vanishing. Robinson was just arguing that the constraints of the referendum campaign ended when the campaign ended. Perhaps my phrasing was clumsy, but if Stephenson reads my piece again, he will see that I quote Robinson at the end of the section about the failure of the BBC to balance its coverage by holding the politicians who brought us Brexit to account.

I am not talking about a failure of investigative journalism here, but of basic journalism. US readers who doubt me should contact their friends in the UK and ask them how many times they have heard BBC interviewers balance their broadcasts by pounding the politicians who promised there would be no trouble with the Irish border, a bonanza for the NHS, and that the Brexit deal would be “the easiest in history.” I would be interested in their answers. I may have missed something, but I am damned if I can remember the BBC doing so at all. In this context, Robinson’s statement about the need for balance being over was all-too prophetic.

I am not alleging a conspiracy. The BBC journalists I speak to talk of something less sinister but more pervasive: a fear of the consequences of honest reporting. The BBC has let Britain down because it fears being seen to question the people’s verdict. Fear is killing the BBC’s journalism, as it kills all journalism, which in the end depends on editors giving reporters the freedom to follow a story wherever it may lead and whatever the consequences. 

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The Romanovs’ Art of Survival

Popperfoto/Getty ImagesThe daughters of Tsar Nicholas II—Marie, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Olga—Russia, circa 1915

The twentieth century was not kind to the Romanovs. The night of July 16–17 marks the centenary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family by their Bolshevik guards at Yekaterinburg. As the revolution raged on, scores of members of the Romanov family perished in woods, mines, and prison yards; those who survived, labeled enemies of the people, were forced out of the country. This tragic conclusion of a 300-year-old dynasty was not, however, the end of the Romanov family. Despite the immense trauma they had suffered, the Romanovs endured, adjusting to their new circumstances. Throughout these trials, they had an unlikely ally: art. 

Almost all the Romanovs had an artistic bent: they painted, doodled, carved, embroidered, cut jewelry, or sculpted. As Russia’s rulers before the 1917 revolution, their communications with the world were governed by official considerations; the personal remained invisible to the society at large. But there were flesh-and-blood men and women behind the scepter, tiaras, and ermine mantels, and they felt, processed, suffered, rejoiced, raved, prayed, and reminisced. To a family whose every move was watched and discussed, art offered an avenue to channel individual experience in a private mode.

For many Romanov exiles—hounded, stripped of their wealth, living under the constant fear of further reprisals—art became, in part, a coping mechanism. Later, as the memory of the massacre gave way in its immediacy, new generations of Romanovs took to art for reasons not so different from the rest of us: to meditate, to understand, and to express.

Over the twentieth century, the Romanovs produced a vast artistic trove that few are aware of, since most of their creative output was meant for family consumption. Because the family was scattered around the world by the events of the revolution, that collection is currently dispersed among private archives, family albums, basements, under-the-bed boxes and, in rarer cases, museums and galleries. When studied as a whole—in as much as its fragmented nature affords—two persistent themes emerge. One is the Romanovs’ intense, penetrating view of nature. For centuries, nature exploration has been a favorite Romanov family pastime. In those inimitable Russian forests, mountains, and steppe, they found aesthetic pleasure, refuge, and, at times, salvation.

The second is the idiosyncratic playfulness with which the Romanovs used art as family entertainment. The colorful vignettes and illustrations that decorate their letters, the doodles and cartoons, the hand-drawn holiday cards and booklets, the tchotchkes and painted pebbles they gifted each other at birthdays and anniversaries amount to a secret language developed and reinvented from generation to generation in ways that even the scattered state of the family in the twentieth century could not undo. Imaginative, often humorous, and at times fantastical, these artifacts paint a different, more authentic portrait of a family whose life and legacy continue to pique our interest, one hundred years after the Romanovs were swept off the world’s political stage. For what is art if not a window into another’s mind?


For Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III and mother of the last tsar, Nicholas II, painting was a lifelong pursuit. Born as the Danish princess Dagmar, she studied art with her mother, Queen Louise, and was proficient at painting in both watercolors and oils. She ensured that all her children painted, too. The serenity of her son Nicholas’s early watercolors makes for an eerie contrast with the violence that would soon engulf the future tsar’s land and his family. Nicholas’s daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and his son Alexei also painted; the cards they sent to other family members were often hand-drawn.

Maria Feodorovna was destined to outlive her husband and witness the destruction of his dynasty, as well as the disappearance of her two younger sons, five grandchildren, daughter-in-law, and numerous close relatives. In 1919, King George V, her brother-in-law, sent the battleship HMS Marlborough to evacuate her and her immediate family from Crimea. “I think about you a lot and remember the good times past, when we were all living together,” she wrote on black-bordered mourning notepaper to her grandson Nikita Alexandrovich, who was by then living in a “grace and favor” house in England, from her native Denmark, where she spent the rest of her life. Her funeral, in 1928, was the last time a large group of Romanovs collected for more than half a century.


Maria Feodorovna’s older daughter, Xenia, another HMS Marlborough passenger, was known for her miniatures. A pleasure pursuit during happier days, in exile Xenia’s art was frequently sold to benefit Russian refugee causes or gifted to family. She had survived an eighteen-month-long imprisonment at the family’s Crimean estate along with her mother, Dagmar, her sister Olga, her husband Sandro, and six of her children. “To watch and realize that our country is being destroyed, and so senselessly, is unbearable,” Xenia wrote to her brother Nicholas in Siberia in November 1917. In exile, Xenia spent most of her time on charitable causes and in supporting her large family. Estranged from Sandro, she lived on a small allowance allocated to her by the Windsors and on the proceeds from the sales of her jewelry. She wasn’t the only seller: in the 1920s, the Soviet government auctioned off confiscated Romanov treasure in London, including items that belonged to Xenia personally. Among the few things Xenia bequeathed to her grandchildren were two albums with drawings of her former jewelry collection that she had sketched together with her father, Alexander III, at the turn of the century.


Also aboard HMS Marlborough was Xenia’s nineteen-year-old son, Nikita Alexandrovich. Nikita carried with him a box of cartoons he’d started drawing a few years before the revolution. Designed to work as animation-style sequences, with humorous captions in imperial Russian, Nikita’s colorful vignettes followed the adventures of the imaginary Prince Sharikov as he entertained friends at his estate in the Tula region, received peasant delegations, and vacationed in France. In exile, as Nikita changed countries and occupations, Prince Sharikov was promoted to political office as prime minister, appointing his cabinet, strategizing over battle maps, and scolding sloppy generals. Hundreds of these watercolors ended up in the United States, where Nikita, by then a married man and a father, tried his hand at merchant banking and teaching Russian in a military academy. He lived to be seventy-four, and died in Cannes, France, in 1974, never having assumed any citizenship. Like most exiled Romanovs, Nikita considered himself a citizen of Russia.


Nikita’s aunt Olga, younger sister of Xenia and Nicholas II, became the most prolific artist of the Romanov family, with a museum to her name and hundreds of paintings sold worldwide. Among her fondest childhood memories Olga counted looking through her father Alexander III’s teenage drawings of a fantasy city populated by pugs. Olga studied with some well-known artists of her time and served as a patron to art societies. After an unhappy first marriage, on the eve of the revolution she married her long-time love, Captain Nicolai Kulikovsky. Together, they lived through the Romanovs’ Crimean imprisonment and a year of hiding in southern Russia. In 1920, as the fortunes of the anti-Bolshevik White Army deteriorated, the Kulikovskys finally fled Russia via the Black Sea, with their two young sons.

In exile—first in Denmark, then in Canada, where the family moved after World War II—Olga’s bright still-lifes and genre scenes gained a steady following. She gave most of them away at Russian bazaars and as gifts to family and friends, but she also sold many, the proceeds serving as supplemental income to the farm that provided for the family. In her art, Russia appears unspoiled by war and revolution, permeated by the light her memory imparted to the land she loved. Born in a 600-room palace at Gatchina, near St. Petersburg, Olga shunned formalities and pretensions, believing that her best dress was the one she put on before standing before her easel. She died at the age of seventy-eight in 1960, outliving her husband by two years. 


Another Romanov woman whose artistry saw her though tough times was Maria Pavlovna, daughter of Tsar Nicholas’s uncle Pavel, who was murdered in 1919. Maria escaped Russia by presenting to the German patrol a document that identified her as a former Swedish princess, which she had hidden in a piece of soap. In strained circumstances in exile—first in London, then in Paris—she began sewing her own clothes. Her fashion sense and embroidery talents caught the attention of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, who made Maria her exclusive embroidery supplier. (Chanel also enjoyed an affair with Maria’s brother, Dmitry, who had been involved in the conspiracy to murder Rasputin; their relationship furthered Chanel’s fascination with Russian themes.) Although the embroidery house Kitmir that Maria founded existed for only a few years, it gave work to scores of Russian refugee women—and pulled its owner out of “sleepwalking,” as Maria described her state after the revolution. She published two volumes of memoir, lived and worked in the US and Argentina, and died in Germany in 1958, at the age of sixty-eight.


In Paris, Maria crossed paths with Irina Yusupova, Xenia’s only daughter and the wife of Felix Yusupov, once the heir to Russia’s largest private fortune—and another conspirator in the Rasputin affair. A woman of extraordinary beauty and even greater shyness, Irina painted from an early age, her work ranging from dreamy watercolors to booklets filled with flowers, mushrooms, and imaginary creatures. After evacuating aboard the British battleship with the rest of the family, many of whom would never forgive Felix for the Rasputin plot, in 1924 the Yusupovs opened their own fashion house in Paris, IrFé. It caused a furor even with the jaded Parisian public, becoming known for its artistic use of color, fusion of Russian and Oriental styles, and trend-setting slim silhouettes. But, like Kitmir, IrFé closed within a few years, unable to survive the Depression and the owners’ lack of business skills. They lost what little remained of Felix’s fortune, but their much-gossiped about marriage lasted for more than half a century. When Irina died three years after Felix in 1970, she was buried in the same plot with him and her in-laws in a cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, south of Paris.


Some five decades after her great aunt Irina’s death, Victoria Galitzine spent hours in her family home in Sussex, England, looking through Irina’s booklets filled with flowers and mushrooms in her mother’s family archive. Today, in a small coastal town in northern California, Victoria keeps alive the family tradition of hand-drawn cards, cartoons, and nature painting. Victoria learned to doodle from her father, an amateur cartoonist and artist named Emanuel Galitzine, who held her on his lap as he sketched. Her mother, Penelope, also paints. After majoring in marine biology, Victoria worked for a conservation nonprofit in Santa Cruz, California. She then quit her job to pursue art. A “nature nerd” with a beehive and chicken coop adjacent to her studio, Victoria paints birds, trees, flowers, and mushrooms with the precision and perspective that, in typical Romanov fashion, suggest a depth of perception beyond that of a casual observer’s. In Victoria’s rendition, living things come across as vivid portraits rather than just species. Her work has been exhibited in several local galleries.


Victoria wasn’t the first Romanov artist to settle permanently on the California coast. In 1949, having served as a lieutenant in the British Navy during World War II, Andrew Romanov, a grandson of Xenia and Sandro, decided to leave the old world for good, arriving in America with just a few hundred dollars to his name. Working in shipping, import-export, and carpentry, he also began painting on Shrinky Dinks, plastic sheets from children’s activity kits that shrink when baked in the oven. Vibrant, folksy, by turns lyrical and tongue-in-cheek, the naïve style of Andrew’s art invokes the Russia of his exiled parents, his strange childhood in Frogmore Cottage, a “grace and favor house” on the grounds of Windsor Castle, and his life in America. He has exhibited in many galleries, published a pictorial memoir, The Boy Who Would Be Tsar, and, at ninety-five, is the oldest living descendant of Tsar Nicholas. In 1998, he went to St. Petersburg to bury the remains of his great great uncle and his family.


Also at the 1998 funeral ceremony, filled with apprehension and hope as the Romanovs and post-Communist Russia acknowledged the ghosts of their past, was a thirteen-year-old Rostislav Romanov, great grandson of Xenia and Sandro. Like most Romanov descendants, Rostislav arrived in a country he had never seen, and that generations of his ancestors had managed to keep alive only in his imagination. He fell in love with Russia immediately, instinctively recognizing the folk art, the old wooden houses, the churches, and the songs of the Old Believers: “my soul felt at home,” he said. When, a year later, his father died unexpectedly, Rostislav began to “paint his feelings,” as his art teacher had suggested.

Today, a fully-fledged artist with several international exhibitions under his belt, he continues to draw inspiration from the physical world. He has lived and worked in Russia, and travels there frequently. On July 18, 2018, along with a group of his relatives, he will be in St. Petersburg at the centenary memorial service for his murdered great great uncle Nicholas and his family. To Rostislav, Russia means not tragedy but “soul, friends, and beauty.” One can only hope, as the somber anniversary of July 17 is commemorated, that Russia, where tragedy and beauty have so often walked hand in hand, lives up to its people’s high expectations for a more hopeful future.

The author would like to acknowledge the cooperation and assistance of Romanov family members, art collectors, and art institutions in compiling the information and images for this essay.


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Dr. Death

Josephinum, Ethics, Collections and History of Medicine, MedUni Vienna Hans Asperger, bottom right, with the staff of the Vienna Children’s Hospital, 1933

Long-deceased Viennese doctors, unless they’re called Freud, rarely make newspaper headlines. But one has recently done so on both sides of the Atlantic. On April 19, the academic open-access journal Molecular Autism published a detailed article by the Austrian medical historian Herwig Czech about Hans Asperger, the Viennese pediatrician whose name has since the 1980s designated a syndrome that forms part of the wider autism spectrum. Like many prominent Austrian medical figures of his generation, Asperger’s wartime record of involvement in some of the deadliest aspects of Nazi medical practice had long remained unquestioned or was glossed over. Now he stood exposed as having been far from an opponent of Nazi thinking; racial hygiene was, in fact, at the center of his beliefs.

The historian Edith Sheffer’s book Asperger’s Children was published a month after Czech’s exposé. Her research was contemporaneous with his and draws on the same archival sources, but books take longer. Hers is an impassioned indictment, one that glows with the heat of a prosecution motivated by an ethical imperative. She charges Asperger with a heinous medical crime: sending at least thirty-seven of his child patients to their deaths. Herta Schreiber, who had suffered meningitis and diphtheria, was just short of three when her de facto death certificate was signed, in part on the grounds that she was “an unbearable burden to the mother.”

Accused with Asperger is the whole of the Nazi ideological apparatus that converted a diagnosis—a highly personal form of human assessment—into the first rung of a routine killing machine. Finally, Sheffer wants to indict the entire capacious category of autism, which she argues includes too many different kinds of people alongside the high-functioning, often talented, but somewhat relationally challenged people who have been given the diagnosis of Asperger’s—a diagnosis that for the US has now been shifted, in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), into the broader autism spectrum.

The term “autistic” originated with the talented Eugen Bleuler, director of the Burghölzli, the pioneering psychiatric hospital in Zurich. In the early part of the twentieth century some of Europe and America’s best physicians spent at least a season there. Bleuler valued Freud’s insights and took a cue from psychoanalysis in his efforts to attend to unconscious mental processes and listen to patients’ words. Among the staff was Carl Jung, whose patient Sabina Spielrein also became a well-known psychoanalytic practitioner and the teacher of the famous psychologist Jean Piaget. Patients were seen individually twice a day: doctors were instructed to write down everything they said, whether or not it sounded like nonsense.

In the detailed description of the group of schizophrenias he included in a 1911 book, Bleuler coined the term “autistic” to characterize thinking—something that, unlike many, he was certain was going on in his patients—and feeling that were more than usually introverted, self-absorbed, and lashed with fantasies. He said he owed the term to Freud’s “autoerotism,” which described an infant’s inner fantasy life prior to any engagement with the external world. Autistic thinking took place “in symbols, in analogies, in fragmentary concepts…in crude offenses against logic and propriety.”1 In Bleuler’s understanding, schizophrenic patients suffered from a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions; from ambivalence (another new term, which Freud picked up from him), as well as from delusions and hallucinations. Freud folded the idea of autistic thinking into his own theory of the narcissistic state of earliest infancy, when inner and outer life were not distinguishable.

Autism as a separate diagnostic category did not exist for Bleuler, Freud, or indeed for any doctor until 1943. What brought it into being was the birth of a new field: child psychiatry, with its close observation of behavior and its measurements and assessments carried out in schools, hospitals, or institutions.

Bleuler’s patients were all adults. Children, if they were seen to be mentally ill or considered “deficient” in some way, were put in the care of hospital neurologists (as Freud had been, in his earliest medical position) or institutions. Then, throughout the 1920s, psychoanalytic thinkers like Melanie Klein and Anna Freud turned their attention to the inner life of the infant and child. Theories of child development soon arose, many of them based on the close observation of behavior. It was this latter emphasis on behavior rather than on inner life that tilted the balance toward the kinds of categories today’s DSM uses to classify mental disorders.

A stand-alone category of early infantile autism didn’t come into use until 1943, when the psychiatrist Leo Kanner published his “Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact” in the journal Nervous Child. The article, heavily endebted to his Austrian colleagues Georg Frankl and Anni Weiss’s work in Vienna’s Curative Education Clinic, concentrated on eleven young patients, eight boys and three girls, who had been observed and assessed by a variety of diagnostic tests, plus parental reports. Kanner argued that despite the borrowing of Bleuler’s term, these children’s profiles were not precursors of adult schizophrenia. What they had in common was an “extreme aloneness.” They had no interest in others and had not established relationships with their parents or other children. They had, however, a good relationship to objects that didn’t change in appearance and position. Their speech was disturbed in various ways; they had an anxious and obsessive desire for sameness that manifested itself in repeated acts and speech. They also had excellent rote memory. Kanner’s children all had professionally successful parents, who he noted were not warmly affectionate toward their offspring: this led him to the rather unhappy later hypothesis that “refrigerator mothers” might have something to do with his small patients’ autism.

In Germany as well as Austria during the Nazi period, death, as Sheffer notes in her book, was often “a treatment option” for doctors. With the aim of purifying the state, Nazis designated not only Jews, Roma, and homosexuals as toxic subjects—the first two slated for elimination—but also the disabled, those of “inferior hereditary material,” patients in mental institutions, and children who were judged likely to become an ongoing drain on the public purse. Young people who didn’t or couldn’t conform, who were not gemeinschaftsfähig—able to demonstrate what Sheffer translates as “community competence”—regularly ended up in the so-called T4 euthanasia program, named after its headquarters, Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin, home of the Charitable Foundation for Curative and Institutional Care.

In Vienna, whose population enthusiastically welcomed the Nazis, such children were sent to be murdered at the notorious Spiegelgrund, part of the Steinhof mental hospital complex in the Vienna Woods. Ironically, the Steinhof itself had been designed by the great architect of the Vienna Secession, Otto Wagner, in the reforming first decades of the century, when it had been seen as a pioneering project to improve the lives of the ill. “The child euthanasia program reveals an intimate dimension to extermination,” Sheffer writes:

Doctors personally examined the children they condemned. Nurses personally fed and changed the sheets of children they killed. They knew the children’s names, voices, faces, and personalities. Killings were typically done in the children’s own beds. Death came slowly, painfully, as children would be starved or given overdoses of barbiturates until they grew ill and died, usually of pneumonia.

Sometimes their brains or other body parts found their way into research jars—a fact only disclosed in the late 1990s.

Asperger was part of the assessment apparatus that determined the fate of such children. Though no death warrants signed in his name exist, and though he claimed, like so many of his countrymen did after the war—despite prior vocal enthusiasm or fellow-traveling—never to have been a Nazi sympathizer, it is clear from the archival evidence Sheffer expertly amasses that he knew he was signing off on children’s fates. Crucially, too, his notions of what constituted “autistic psychopathy” in childhood, which he described most fully in his 1944 treatise of the same name, were deeply influenced by Nazi ideology.

Earlier researchers, like the science journalist Steve Silberman in Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (2015), have claimed that Asperger—who lauded his autists’ special, if eccentric, talents—was neither a Nazi sympathizer nor a participant in the euthanasia program. Silberman, like many in the field, may have been relying on the redoubtable German developmental psychologist Uta Frith, who spread Asperger’s fame from her base in the UK and remained willfully blind to his implication in Nazi ideas and practices. Perhaps the photographs of him have counted in his favor. They show a tall, fair man of impeccable bearing who would look good in the short trousers of the Wandervogel, the boy-scout-like groups he and the Nazis favored. Asperger did use some positive language about the more educable children in his care, but Sheffer’s analysis clearly tilts the balance against him.

Born near Vienna in 1906, Asperger trained at the city’s university during the 1920s. It was a time when an experimental children’s clinic, focusing on Heilpädagogik—which Sheffer translates not as “therapeutic” but as “curative” education—flourished under Erwin Lazar. Like many other doctors and psychologists across Europe and in the US after World War I, Lazar was interested in “dissocial” youths and in distinguishing between the social, physical, and psychiatric reasons for their difficulties or criminal behavior. Ideas of therapeutic education abounded. August Aichhorn, who was persuaded by Anna Freud to run a child guidance center for delinquents alongside the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, used these cases as the basis for his famous book Wayward Youth (1925). It was translated into many languages and reviewed in the UK by Donald Winnicott, the pioneering pediatrician and analyst.

Poverty, a desperate home life, and parental predations began to be seen as shaping these children’s psychological and mental lives and contributing to their delinquency. Yet once the social, the psychological, and the medical were conflated, it made a difference whether they were being assessed from the political left or the political right. For those in the latter group, a “wayward,” rebellious youth who didn’t fit into the normal cohort could land in a general category of undesirability—those “defective” individuals who were, according to right-wing politicians, a burden on the nation and, according to eugenicists, harmful to what we would now call the gene pool.

In Austria and Germany, as in the rest of the West since the nineteenth century, eugenic thinking was popular. In Britain—where it was launched in the 1880s by the statistician Francis Galton, Darwin’s half cousin, who was much influenced by his Origin of Species—the emphasis of such thinking lay largely on positive eugenics. Reformers both on the left and on the right supported intelligence testing and “breeding for the best,” in the hope that the general “standard” of the population would be raised. In Scandinavia, and particularly in Nazi Germany and Austria but also in the US, the emphasis was on negative eugenics. Forced sterilization programs for “undesirables” of all kinds persisted after World War II. North Carolina continued its enforced sterilization program of the “mentally defective or feeble-minded” until 1977. Five thousand of the 7,686 people sterilized there were black. Indeed, the wide acceptance of sterilization in various countries may be one reason that the Nuremberg Trials paid little attention to this heinous aspect of Nazi purification policy, which compounded sterilization with euthanasia.

Hans Asperger was a self-proclaimed eugenicist and a right-wing Catholic. He worked briefly with the staff of the progressive clinic that Erwin Lazar, a student of Bleuler’s, had led. It was in this clinic that many of the earliest ideas on autism originated, in particular with two of its talented staff who would soon emigrate to America. The Nazi sympathizer Franz Chvostek, who ran the so-called swastika clinic at the University of Vienna, became his ally, and he was abetted in his climb through the ranks when the Vienna Children’s Hospital was taken over by Franz Hamburger, an ally of Chvostek’s. Both men were known eugenicists and believed in mass sterilization. Hamburger fired most of the hospital’s Jewish staff, and in 1931 Asperger, aged twenty-five, became one of his early appointees.

In 1934 he was made head of the Curative Education Clinic, where he worked alongside the notorious Erwin Jekelius, an early SA member. With Hamburger, Asperger took part in the “Motorized Mother Advising” unit, traveling the Austrian countryside to provide medical advice to parents, but also creating a register of “hereditary feeblemindedness,” among other ills. After the Anschluss, Sheffer writes, Asperger’s other professional comrade, Jekelius, became “the most prominent figure in child and adult euthanasia in Vienna, directing the killing centers of Spiegelgrund and Steinhof.”

Asperger first mentioned “autistic psychopathy” in 1938, but it had already been described by two talented Jewish staff in the clinic earlier in the 1930s: Georg Frankl and his soon-to-be-wife, the psychologist Anni Weiss. In 1937 Frankl emigrated to the US with the help of Leo Kanner. At Johns Hopkins he worked with Kanner and eventually Weiss, who had emigrated in 1934 and spent a few years at Columbia. In Vienna they had together identified in high-functioning children “the disruption of affective contact” that became a classic part of the autistic spectrum. Asperger never credited his Jewish compatriots in his speeches or writings.

Sheffer probes Asperger’s affinities with Nazi psychiatry, particularly his use of the term for soulful belonging, Gemüt, at once an assessment of character and of unity with the Volk. A failure in Gemüt slipped into definitions of psychopathy: the term gemütlosen Psychopathen was applied to children who were withdrawn, willful, isolated, whose “confinement of the self…led to a narrowing of relations to their environment.” Not to conform or fit into the state’s stereotype of a healthy body and a healthy mind could mark one for elimination.

Children born out of wedlock, teenage loners, “delinquents,” unconventional adolescent girls whose stepfathers and stepmothers worried about their sexuality—all such undesirables could find themselves with a fatal diagnosis. Killings in Spiegelgrund began on August 25, 1940. By the end of the war, at least 789 children had perished under the euthanasia program; some had physical, some mental problems, and others simply didn’t conform to the time’s definition of “normal” and couldn’t, according to the doctors, be integrated into the community.

Sheffer dramatically incorporates the voices of the few children who survived the sadistic terrors of the psychiatric regime into her account, as well as extant case notes. This makes for an anguishing text. It also gives one pause. How did Uta Frith—who taught many of the neuropsychologists and cognitive psychologists who now lead the field and, in 1991, made the first English translation of Asperger’s text on autism—manage to overlook his Nazi affiliations? Sheffer tells us that Frith chose not to publish Asperger’s preface, which gives a clear indication of his Nazi sympathies. But then the city of Vienna, ever slow to acknowledge its record of active collaboration while pleading its “occupation” under Nazi rule, only memorialized the children who had been killed at Spiegelgrund in 2002. One of its chief euthanizing medics, Heinrich Gross, like Asperger himself, went on to have a successful postwar career.

Starting in the 1960s, the numbers of children with “autism syndrome” diagnoses rose and rose. Nonpsychoanalytic researchers gained prominence in the field and rejected Kanner’s theories about “refrigerator mothers.” Instead they favored measuring behavior to abet epidemiological research and the study of entire populations. What we now call evidence-based medicine, which focuses on statistics rather than individuals, was on its way. An epidemiological study in Britain by Victor Lotter in 1966 showed that autism was to be found in 4.5 of every 10,000 members of the child population. This number kept rising as institutions for the care of the mentally ill were closed throughout the 1960s and attempts were made by governments to integrate all children into the school system.

Manfred Bockelmann/© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Johann K., who was killed under the Nazis at the Spiegelgrund ­children’s clinic, Vienna, 1943; drawing by Manfred Bockelmann, 2012

The figures also grew because the definition of autism syndrome now stretched to include children who had never acquired speech and might suffer from various kinds of “retardation.” With this reclassification, by 2006 the reported rate was 116.1 per 10,000. As the historian Bonnie Evans has noted, in France, where institutions for “retarded” children did not close, the numbers of people diagnosed with autism remained small.2

Meanwhile Britain and the US shared experts and evolving descriptive language for a range of behaviors and conditions that fell into the autism spectrum. In the third edition of the DSM, autism moved out of the diagnosis of adult schizophrenia to become a subcategory of “pervasive developmental disorders” (PDD). By the time DSMIV was published in 1994, the criteria for a diagnosis of autism were “a qualitative impairment in social interaction” and “communication,” plus “restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities”—all setting in before the age of three. The diagnosis also included a delay or abnormal functioning of symbolic or imaginative play.

Asperger’s name first appeared in English-language medicine in 1981, when the British psychiatrist Lorna Wing published an account of a syndrome she named after him, drawing on his 1944 treatise on autistic psychopathy. In that paper, Asperger described children, some of them “little professors,” who lacked the ability to interact with others. “Asperger’s disorder,” a new subcategory of PDD included in DSM-IV, was distinguished by the fact that children showed no delay or deficit in intelligence or cognitive abilities or verbal communication, but like other autistic children exhibited impairments in social interaction and behaved in repetitive and ritualistic ways. Soon, Asperger’s became widely known as the high-functioning end of autism. In the popular media it was variously attributed to nearly all men and certainly all nerdy men: brilliant computer geeks, scientists, husbands who never adequately looked at or spoke with their wives.

It is unclear whether this common usage contributed to Asperger’s disorder disappearing as a separate diagnosis from DSMV (2013) and being merged into an autism spectrum disorder. (Asperger’s remains in the International Classification of Diseases, which is maintained by the WHO.) We don’t know whether the autism spectrum will eventually emerge as a single neuro-developmental disorder with causes that scientists will track, whether the current pandemic is linked to environment or genes, or whether it’s a single disease at all (rather than a reclassification of various others).

What is clear is that by now the disparate cohort who bear the diagnosis of autism has grown hugely, and that for many such people their diagnoses have had a primary part in their self-definition. For some, this medical identity can urge them toward much-needed special care or special schooling. It can also have, as Sheffer indicates, a negative effect—perhaps like all group identities, which assume similarity where there is substantial difference. This book is dedicated to her son, Eric, who she indicates has suffered from the “act of classification.”

The philosopher of science Ian Hacking has wonderfully described the phenomenon of diagnostic categories “making up people.” A large set of social factors contribute to the popularity of a diagnosis, which in turn creates the lenses through which we see ourselves and others. The growth of the autism diagnosis has been set in motion by patient activism, statistical conflation, websites, blogs, and chat rooms, art exhibitions, provision of services specifically for that diagnosis, media portraits, Web and medico/political campaigns, books such as Andrew Solomon’s prize-winning Far From the Tree, and the attention of talented writer-doctors such as Oliver Sacks. All these combine to create a particular kind of being who, for better or worse, bears an identity that is a medical diagnosis, most often a psychiatric one that at once stigmatizes and destigmatizes. In Rewriting the Soul (1995), Hacking traced the noisy rise of Multiple Personality Disorder. That diagnosis has now all but disappeared.

Sheffer clearly wishes the diagnosis that bears Hans Asperger’s name would disappear, and indeed any “totalizing label based on varying traits” rather than a set of physiological causes. Autism imprisons children in a single classification and affects their being in the world and their treatment by others.

It may be that because of Sheffer’s work, as well as Czech’s, Asperger’s name will disappear from diagnostic classifications and fade from the popular consciousness. Whether that will suffice to dismantle the entire category of autism is doubtful. There are too many vested interests in the campaign for greater recognition, research funds, and services to sufferers. Campaigners, as well as many doctors and psychologists, are vocal in repeating that early diagnosis reduces parental anxiety and children’s loneliness, provides access to special schools, and helps children develop in the best possible way. Until another set of classifications arrives to deal with the considerable challenges that now go under this name, autism will likely be with us.

If I have one cavil with this impassioned book it is that Sheffer, in making her case against Asperger and Nazi mental health policy, perhaps too readily and speedily folds the enthusiastic and necessary reforms of the 1920s welfare state—with its far-reaching hopes of improvement for an impoverished class and hapless children—into the vicious Nazi state. Of the tireless medical reformer Erwin Lazar, she writes that while “seeking to improve the care of children,” he “expanded a system that in time would ultimately control and condemn ‘dissocial’ children.” It is true that a state that prioritizes society and the social good may end up creating an assessment apparatus with norms of behavior that sometimes lead to the ostracizing of those who are different and lack Gemeinschaftsfähigkeit or “community competence.” But this also happens in many states that prioritize individual rights and liberties and have no welfare apparatus whatever. As many countries after World War II have shown, welfare arrangements need not lead a state to do away with its own citizens.

  1. 1

    Eugen Bleuler, Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenias, translated by Joseph Zinkin (1911; International Universities Press, 1950), pp. 66–67. 

  2. 2

    “How Autism Became Autism: The Radical Transformation of a Central Concept of Child Development in Britain,” History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 26, No. 3 (July 2013). 

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