Novels as History

In response to:

The Reich in Medias Res from the December 6, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

Recently, Professor Robert Paxton did me the honor of writing a wide-ranging review of The Order of the Day [NYR, December 6, 2018], ending with a brutal conclusion. Understandably, the publication of my book in a great number of countries was unlikely to unfold without some amount of controversy and sniping. Robert Paxton, however, isn’t just any ordinary literary critic. He’s a professor of considerable renown, and the general approach of his article demands a response.

In his review, Professor Paxton scolded me first and foremost for being “opinionated,” and it’s around this admonition that his article subtly pivots. That reproach supposes the existence of a distant, neutral way of writing. With a view to a brief examination of this neutrality that supposedly draws a distinction between history and literature, I followed a lead. Robert Paxton gave a lengthy filmed interview to the INA, France’s National Audiovisual Institute. It’s an archive worth consulting.

One section quickly caught my eye. In it, Professor Paxton speaks about his maître, Raoul Girardet, and the interviewer reminds him that Girardet was a disciple of Charles Maurras, one of the leading far-right intellectuals of the years between the two world wars, as well as an activist and supporter of keeping Algeria French, jailed for his support of the Generals’ putsch. Whereupon Paxton made this strange declaration: “Raoul Girardet struck me as a man capable of being a very fair-minded historian, with an understanding of the archives and very sure-footed judgments, while keeping his own personal ideas to himself.”

As a way of illustrating just what Robert Paxton considers to be a very fair-minded historian, let us quote something that Girardet wrote in a book that Paxton mentions as having played a major role in his own intellectual development. Girardet, summoning up the soldier of what he calls the colonial saga, writes: “a true lord of war with an almost feudal appearance, in the old tradition of the Army of Africa which continues the exploits of the adventurer of the Moroccan campaigns.” Now, we’re talking about the Rif War, the first use of poison gases on the civilian populace, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. Among these true lords of war, we find the future General Franco, José Millán-Astray, and Marshal Pétain. I can’t say whether the phrase true lord of war is a good reflection of Girardet’s understanding of archives or his sure-footed judgments. But I do think that one may at least safely describe these views as vaguely “opinionated.”

Basically, it’s a very common attitude in academia to consider as inappropriate all intrusions into one’s domain of expertise. That said, it’s not entirely pervasive. As great a historian as Georges Duby, for instance, thought otherwise; he certainly believed that literature could teach him something, and not merely as a human being, but also as a historian. That’s the crucial point, and the reason that I wished to reply to Professor Paxton.

The position that he adopts so casually toward literature, the idea that it ought to behave itself and keep to the art of the novel, is not merely retrograde—it also entails a concept of knowledge. Because if Professor Paxton can drape himself as he pleases in the robes of history and improvise his literary expertise, that would seem to imply that history is serious business, where only one method applies, with its variants, while literature would be little more than an offhand pursuit. Aside from smacking of a naive territoriality, this attitude betrays above all a denial of all that is entailed by writing, language, and composition, the sort of thing that he dismisses contemptuously as “piling on disparate details,” or else more amiably as a prose that is “muscular, concrete, richly inventive.” In his estimation, knowledge cannot be built in anything other than “an analytical way.” From this point of view, Professor Paxton imagines that writing is nothing more than a matter of ornamentation, and composition, a simple question of balance. He is certainly free to apply these dreary categories to his own books.

Éric Vuillard
Rennes, Brittany, France
(translated from the French by Antony Shugaar)

Robert O. Paxton replies:

Éric Vuillard might be surprised to learn that I required students in my university courses on twentieth-century Europe and on France since 1848 to read a classic novel of the period, and to write an essay relating it to the course. Good fiction needs no utilitarian justification, but it can contribute powerfully to history teaching. Some novels do this better than others.

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Arguing Affirmative Action

In response to:

Justifying Diversity from the December 6, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

A rule against racial discrimination might prevent such discrimination from recurring, but it will not eradicate and may even perpetuate the effects of the discrimination that had already occurred, sometimes over generations, or as in the case of blacks, for centuries. Writing in the December 6, 2018, issue of The New York Review, Noah Feldman defends race-based affirmative action as a means of avoiding or lessening the effects of a history of racial discrimination, but he takes a far too narrow, mostly individualistic conception of what those effects might be.

Acknowledging the nation’s long history of racial discrimination, Feldman urges university admissions officers to focus on the “ongoing effects on current applicants” of such historical practices. He charges admissions officers with the near-impossible task of determining, on a case-by-case basis, whether “intergenerational discrimination” has shaped an applicant’s experience and limited his or her opportunities and if so, to give the applicant in question an indeterminate boost—the plus of affirmative action.

Feldman defends his approach and distinguishes it from the one advocated by Marshall and Brennan and their followers on the ground that his approach is forward, not backward, looking. On this issue, however, he is mistaken. The approach to affirmative action favored by Marshall and Brennan is forward looking, it too is concerned with the present effects of past discrimination, but it concentrates on the effects that past discrimination has had, not on the fate of individual applicants, but rather on social structure—the creation and perpetuation of an underclass that is defined in racial terms. From this perspective, race-based affirmative action should be seen as a strategy for eradicating the caste-like social formation that has disfigured American society from the very beginning.

Increasing the number of blacks who are admitted to, and graduated from, elite universities such as Harvard will improve the social standing of all blacks. It will reveal to all the world the capacity of the members of this long-stigmatized group to succeed in the highest academic circles and at the same time endow them with all the benefits and privileges usually associated with a Harvard degree. The assumption is that, in time, the social standing of blacks as a group will improve, and that it will be impossible to conceive of them as pariahs.

Race-based affirmative action arose in the late 1960s, first in the building trades and then in the universities, in response to the claims of justice pressed by blacks. Although the circumstances surrounding the development of affirmative action reflect the special urgency of the claims for justice of blacks, the historical roots of this practice does not mean that administrators and courts should turn their backs on the claims of justice now advanced on behalf of other disadvantaged groups seeking greater access to jobs or education. In fact, in defending race-based affirmative action in elite universities, Feldman always couples the claim of Latinos with those of blacks. Nor should we allow the prospect of other groups seeking remedies for the injustices they have suffered to bar the claims of blacks for the justice they seek. There can never be too much justice.

Commenting on the lawsuit against Harvard that has captured the attention of the nation, Feldman is doubtful that Harvard’s affirmative-action program is the reason why more Asian-Americans had not been admitted to the university. He also expressed a doubt that the university had discriminated against Asian-Americans, but is clear that if it can be shown that Asian-Americans were, in fact, subject to admissions discrimination based on stereotypes and if an appropriate remedy resulted in an increase in the number of Asian-Americans admitted, the burden of that remedy should fall on whites, arguably cutting back on the preferences given to the children of alumni or faculty. “It should not,” Feldman wisely concludes, “reduce the numbers of African-Americans and Latinos admitted.”

Owen Fiss
Yale Law School
New Haven, Connecticut

Noah Feldman replies:

My revered teacher, mentor, and friend, Owen Fiss, has long defended a structural conception of affirmative action, according to which remediation aims to repair the racial caste-subordination of slavery and segregation. Fiss served as a law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall and Justice William Brennan, and has developed a sophisticated theoretical defense of their constitutional vision.

Professor Fiss faults me for committing the individualist heresy of focusing on individual rather than collective effects of affirmative action. The individualist conception of affirmative action is especially dangerous because it opened the door to Justice Antonin Scalia’s rejection of affirmative action as a violation of the due process rights of whites individually “harmed” by the practice.

Professor Fiss is the consummate hedgehog, and I admire his singlemindedness. Yet his collective view of affirmative action faces two serious difficulties.

The first is that the remedial theory of affirmative action has effectively been overruled by the Supreme Court. Although Professor Fiss insists that remedial affirmative action is actually forward-looking (because it seeks a remedy for the future), the Court has long limited remedial affirmative action to situations where it can be shown definitively that a specific institution engaged in past discrimination. This approach thwarts the structural effects of affirmative action because it treats remediation as backward-looking in the sense of repairing a concrete harm. Once the harm is sufficiently past, it becomes very difficult to justify a continuing remedy.

Professor Fiss of course holds that Justice Scalia and the other judicial conservatives got this wrong. But there is no prospect of a return to his conception in any plausible real-world scenario. In contrast, the individual conception of affirmative action in college admissions remains alive, if hanging on by a thread.

The second problem with Professor Fiss’s structural argument is that, after decades of experience with affirmative action, we cannot simply assume, as he still does, that “increasing the number of blacks who are admitted to, and graduated from, elite universities such as Harvard will improve the social standing of all blacks.”

We have had an African-American president (who was president of the law review at Harvard Law School), yet it is not clear that Barack Obama’s presidency had overall positive effects on African-American social standing—witness the shootings that actuated Black Lives Matter and the reactionary election of Donald Trump. More broadly, the emergence of a substantial African-American elite in business, law, finance, medicine, and beyond, undoubtedly a good in itself, has not had a transformative effect on the economic and social well-being of poorer African-Americans.

From this it follows that we need a conception of affirmative action that recognizes the reality of ongoing racial-structural discrimination while acknowledging that the benefits of affirmative action accrue to specific, real-world people—not necessarily to the members of the race as a whole. Those beneficiaries deserve to be treated as individuals, not as stand-ins whose admission and graduation are intended to advance racial justice in the abstract.

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Welcome to El Paso


Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos A bus schedule at the downtown Greyhound station, El Paso, Texas, 2018

El Paso, Texas, is a four-hour drive south on the interstate from where I live in New Mexico. I have been going there for decades. Entering the city from the northwest, Interstate 10, once the King’s Highway, meaning the King of Spain’s highway to the capital of his western empire, Santa Fe, drops down quickly through the hills that surround the city. “El Paseo del Norte,” the pass to the North, is how the city began, at a break in the mountains of the Mexican state to the south, Chihuahua. After first passing the towering stacks of a closed copper smelter, then the University of Texas campus and the Sun Bowl, suddenly to the south you see a curtain hanging far behind the city—a wall of pastel yellows and pinks and browns, the myriad small houses of Ciudad de Juárez stretching for miles across the horizon. Today, Juárez has twice the population of El Paso.

When I first came to the Southwest in 1971, almost all the work in the chile and alfalfa fields, and often in the hotels, resorts, and restaurants, was done by Mexicans, almost all of whom were undocumented immigrants. They were called “Mojados,” an insult meaning “the Wet Ones,” then “illegal aliens,” and finally “undocumented workers.” It was pretty clear to everyone that, without their labor, the economy of the Southwest would collapse.

The undocumented worker with whom I was building my house, north of Bernalillo, was called Eddie. Eddie had been a bracero, part of the government program that brought Mexican workers across the border when we needed them. Bracero means “one who works with his arms.” As a bracero, Eddie picked cotton. He told me in Spanish, “They took out my appendix for a quarter.” The Bracero program was ended in 1964.

On Christmas Eve, ICE agents in El Paso, faced with an overcrowded facility, and following the deaths of two migrant children in their custody, took 214 migrants, drove them in vans to a park in downtown El Paso, and told them to get out. Most of them walked a few blocks to the Greyhound Bus Station, whereupon someone in the station called the police. The same thing happened in Las Cruces. After five years of coordinating these releases with Annunciation House, the largest aid group helping migrants get on their way from El Paso and Las Cruces, this time ICE agents didn’t tell anybody.

Over the next two days, ICE released another 400 members of migrant families. Men and women holding small children or traveling with teenagers, thousands of miles from the homes they had fled many months before, and after a week or ten days in detention, were now in America—they were free. All were given court dates, but until then, they could go anywhere they wanted in this country.


Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosA bus station, El Paso, Texas; migrants with children, seeking asylum, await their buses to leave after release from ICE detention centers

The neighborhood at the border crossing in El Paso is called “Chihuahuita,” Little Chihuahua. Hand-painted murals are everywhere. My favorite is of Guatémoc, the last Aztec Emperor. Hernán Cortés had him hanged. I wear an NYPD press credential, which has been called “the Shield,” around my neck with a chain. The medallion (it’s a laminated, heavy plastic square) has a picture of me in the middle. With it, I look like a cop. As we neared the Greyhound station in El Paso, I put it inside my shirt. As my wife, Nancy, pulled into the parking lot, I jumped out and walked up to a van with a CNN cameraman sitting behind the wheel.

“You can’t take pictures inside,” the newsman cautioned. Beside the van, he and his team had a large camera set up on a tripod. “We can only shoot when the sanctuary groups bring them in. There is a security guard inside the terminal.”

This kind of talk only excites me. I took a single camera, a digital Leica M9, removed the sun shade, mashed it into one of the pockets of my vest, put another lens into another pocket, pushed a spare battery into my jeans, and stepped inside. There they were, the migrants who had been making so much news. Women and men sat in clusters, each with children, often small children, clutching stuffed dolls probably given to them at the shelters.

The main waiting room had a small cafeteria next to it, and the one security guard, wearing a bright chartreuse vest, had just stepped inside to order something to eat. All I had to do was stand somewhere he couldn’t see me and make my pictures. Eventually, he got his lunch, came up to a counter facing a glass wall that looked directly into the waiting room. Unless I kept an obstruction, like a pillar between us, he could see me. I had been watching a particularly handsome man standing in a boarding lane in the terminal with his son. I moved in to take a better-composed picture when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“You can’t take pictures in here.” It wasn’t security. It was a volunteer from the shelters who had brought the migrants to the station and was helping them get on their way. This is the kind of interruption that makes someone like me exceedingly unhappy, but I remained calm, was very polite, and walked away from my subject with him. I showed him my NYPD press pass, and said things like “I’m on your side,” none of which made any difference. “Even CNN can’t get in,” he said. Then, as I continued to protest, he pulled out his cellphone and announced that he was calling the police. “OK,” I said, “I’m leaving.”


Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosThe chapel inside Annunciation House’s largest El Paso shelter for migrants called Nazareth House, December 2018; after release by ICE, asylum seekers typically spend three nights here until volunteers help the migrants on their way

My next stop was a small shelter run by Annunciation House. The organization now runs fifteen shelters in the area, all full. I had phoned one of them, in downtown El Paso, from the road and was told that the group’s “media person” would talk to me. It’s cold here in the Southwest right now, and it was freezing in El Paso when the media person stepped outside to speak with me. I could see through the crack of the door a few families sitting on folding chairs. “Can’t we talk inside?” I asked. “No,” she said. She also made clear that she wouldn’t help me take pictures. “We protect our people,” she said.

That was day one. The next day, I reached the bus terminal at 8 AM. A new group of another dozen or so migrants was there. A teenager walked in with a printed letter-size sheet of paper pinned to his chest that said: “I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. CAN YOU HELP ME?” Naturally, I wanted to make his picture, but there, over in the far corner, was my nemesis, the man who had threatened to call the police on me. I left.

A shelter called The Rock was a few blocks down the street. Its main room was filled with donated clothing, held in large garbage bags and pillowcases, and some food in cardboard boxes. The volunteers there couldn’t have been friendlier. Two trucks were parked in front filling up with loads to take out to the shelters. I walked up to two young women who had arrived in an old Ford 150, the truck bed now filling up with donated clothes and food. I showed them my shield, explained what I was up to, and said, “May I follow you?” Off we went.

The first place they stopped, a woman came to the door and said, “We’ll take the food.” That left the women with a truck full of clothing.

“What are you going to do now?” I asked.

The woman who had been driving said, “We have no fucking idea what we’re doing.”

“Oh,” I said. “I was in the civil rights movement. It was just like that.”

Nazareth House is the largest of Annunciation’s hospitality sites. It was about five miles away. They drove and I followed. The site was located on the large Catholic campus of Loretto Academy in West El Paso, but the women in the Ford were unable to find the shelter.  

“Did you see those two young boys at those dumpsters we passed? Do you speak Spanish?” I asked.

“Not the Spanish they speak.” Both our vehicles headed toward the dumpsters and the next thing I knew, the two women and two Mayan teenagers unloaded the truck and were marching in a line carrying boxes and bags toward the double metal doors of the one-story building nearby. I got in the line, someone opened the door, and we marched right in. Inside, they stopped at a brightly lit room, an office, to talk to someone. I turned a corner, walked down the hall, and vanished inside. I pulled the Leica out of my pocket and began to walk down the hall looking for migrants to talk to.


Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosA mother and her son outside their room in Nazareth House, a shelter near the Mexican border, El Paso, Texas, December 2018; they have left their villages in Central America because of violence, and walked and bused through Mexico, then crossed into the US seeking asylum

The building formed a large square with dorm rooms on three sides, each with an iron door, a tag on the side with a card identifying the name and number of persons inside. Each room had three cots and an outside window. Most rooms held a parent and one or two children. On the fourth side was a chapel and the kitchen. In the center of the large square was an open playroom for children. I never knocked on a door or opened one, but if a door was partially open and I was invited in, I would step inside, make a picture, and in Spanish ask them to tell me their stories.

When I stepped into the chapel, an open room with a large crucifix in the corner, three men were on their knees in prayer. One began to crawl around the room on his knees, as he gestured with his arms. It seemed to me that he was thanking God to have reached this building on this side of the border, a building where he was warm, fed, and without threat of arrest. Most people stay here for just a few days.

At that moment, a boy stepped out of the children’s room and asked me to come inside. There was a small library on one wall. A young girl was engrossed in a book she had on her lap. The boy was holding a book and wanted to know if he was allowed to take it out into the hall to read. “Of course,” I said.

Other young men began to come up to me to tell me their stories. When I asked one his name, he took my cellphone, and typed onto the notepad I was using: “My name is Henry. Departamento Huehuetenango. San Pedro Necta.”

Then, in Spanish, he asked me if he could use my phone. I had been hiding from authorities. I was even hiding from them inside the building. My phone was low on power. I was using it to make notes as I interviewed people. And then I thought, What am I thinking? I thought of my mother, who was fifteen when she reached New York from Russia, and my father, who came there from Germany. Both had arrived on ships in New York Harbor. Both had fled hostile, murderous governments.

Henry, too, had fled from a murderous situation at home. He had traveled by bus and on foot for forty days across Mexico. He had just been released with his father after a week in an ICE detention center. Henry was trying to get to South Carolina. He had a relative there. He was trying to learn his address.  

“Two minutes, Henry,” I said in Spanish. “You can use it for two minutes.”

Henry put in the number of his relative. We both waited as the phone rang. There was no answer. The mailbox had not been set up yet. Henry gave me back the phone. I got up to leave. We hugged each other.

“Good luck, Henry,” I said. “Welcome to America.” 


Danny Lyon/Magnum PhotosA young asylum seeker from a village in northern Honduras, Nazareth House, El Paso, Texas, December 2018; he and his father spent forty days crossing Mexico, on foot and by bus, and a week in an ICE detention center

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Paris Pastoral: a City Recultivated


Mira KamdarSheep grazing in Saint-Denis, November 2018

Past the faceless concrete housing projects, the kebab joints, the corner stores, the bus stops, and the tramlines of the city of Saint-Denis in metropolitan Grand Paris, the sheep snatch at plants on weedy strips between the sidewalk and the street. Urban shepherdess Julie-Lou Dubreuilh, curly-haired and ruddy-cheeked, dressed in black jeans and a royal-blue down jacket, clicks the end of her long staff on the pavement, urging her flock along with low cries of “ehh.” The sheep quicken their pace, ivy yanked from chain-link fences disappearing into their mouths like strands of spaghetti. 

Located just north of Paris, the administrative department of Seine-Saint-Denis is France’s poorest and most ethnically diverse. Its Brutalist public housing complexes, once triumphant monuments to socialist modernism, are now sites of social marginalization. It’s the last place one would imagine seeing wandering shepherds tending their flocks. Yet here, and elsewhere in metropolitan Paris, an urban agricultural revolution is taking root.

That revolution has the blessing of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. On her watch, the city pledged in 2016 to cover 250 acres of urban space with greenery by 2020. In 2017, the city launched Pariscultures, a program that solicits bids for urban agriculture projects to ensure that roughly one third of that area is dedicated to agriculture. One winning project is BienÉlevées, a play on the French expression meaning “well raised” (as in well brought-up children), founded by four sisters who grow saffron on the roof of a Monoprix supermarket.

These are small efforts compared to the intensity of agricultural production in metropolitan Paris’s past when the land traversed by Dubreuilh’s flock today was known as the plaine des Vertus, the Plain of Virtues, its rich soil producing a large variety of food for discriminating Parisians. In 1891, 80 percent of the produce sold at Les Halles, the old food market that was ripped out of the center of Paris in the early 1970s, was grown on the periphery of the city. Some of the plants favored by Dubreuilh’s sheep are survivors from that era. “That,” she said, pointing to what looked to me like a weed on the day I walked with her and her sheep, “is a variety of dandelion that was grown here for salad.” 

The agricultural past of peripheral Paris is the jumping off point of the exhibition “Agricultural Capital: Projects for a Cultivated City” at the Pavillon de l’Arsenal, which now runs through February 10. The exhibition’s premise is that the artificial separation of the urban, the agricultural, and the natural in the Île-de-France region has been devastating to all three. As urban space in and around Paris expanded after the end of World War II, so, too, did dedicated space for nature, a tonic urban planners believed essential for city-dwellers. Environmental concerns beginning in the 1970s accelerated a trend of setting aside natural areas as sanctuaries for imperiled wildlife. Agriculture was banished from both the new urban and natural zones. Farmers were stripped of their responsibilities as custodians of an intermingled human and natural environment that produced nourishment for people and created habitat for birds, insects, wild plants, and animals. 

Over the past century, exhibition curator Augustin Rosenstiehl told me, “the space reserved for nature in the Île-de-France doubled”—“yet, during the same period, the diversity of our biomass has collapsed.” The key to preserving biodiversity, essential to human survival and to making metropolitan Paris a resilient city, Rosenstiehl believes, is a new urban planning that restores the essential place that small-scale, ecologically sustainable agriculture formerly held in a habitat where people, plants, and animals thrive together. 

The exhibition’s 480-page catalog is nothing less than a manifesto—a call to action by an array of architects, urban planners, geographers, agronomists, and farmers who argue that the only way for the metropolitan Paris to survive the environmental calamities and social inequities, including global warming and a sharply divided metropolis that includes some of the richest and many of the poorest people in France, that threaten the city’s future is to embrace “agricultural urbanism.” In his introduction, Rosenstiehl writes: “In the face of ecological crisis, there appears to be a tacit consensus defending the idea of a modern urbanism that goes well beyond the limits of the city to develop all the functions of the region: develop the urban and its activities, but also Agriculture and Nature.” In his remarks at the opening of the Agricultural Capital exhibition in October 2018, Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor of Paris, put the stakes more bluntly, declaring: “The new urbanism will be agricultural or it will not be.” 

Whereas “urban agriculture” may include high-tech farm towers, computer-monitored, hydroponically grown tomatoes or micro-irrigated salad beds on supermarket rooftops, “agricultural urbanism” argues for the transformation of the metropolitan into a porous, diverse, interactive habitat where agriculture permeates the experience of the people, plants, and animals that live there—precisely the kind of urban habitat that existed on the periphery of Paris between 1870 and 1930.


Mira KamdarAn “above-ground agriculture” plot in Saint-Denis, November 2018

In the nineteenth century, urbanization and industrialization drew from every region of France and countries around the world a cosmopolitan corps of migrant farmers escaping rural poverty. They brought their diverse experiences of farming to land on the outskirts of Paris, making it, the exhibition claims, the most productive fruit and vegetable acreage in history. To meet the demands of hungry Parisians and a bourgeoisie particular about the variety and quality of its food, these farmers, working small plots of land, constantly innovated and improved their production. Without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, they were able, by using techniques such as cultivation under glass cloches, to pull as many as eight harvests a year out of their plots. Carts that took fresh fruits and vegetables into Paris in the morning returned in the evening loaded with manure and other organic waste, which was plowed into the soil. Nearby forests were sustainable sources of wood products. People lived on the land they farmed and were connected to each other and to the city of Paris by a dense network of paths and roads through the cultivated and inhabited land. 

This porous, symbiotic relationship between city and country resulted not only in an agricultural productivity superior to what contemporary industrial farming can muster today, but it also did so with little waste or harm to the environment. Food was produced, without chemical inputs, close to where it was consumed. Local pollinators and wild plants and animals found ready habitats in networks of hedgerows and woods. People lived on the land they farmed, in easy proximity to Paris. The farming life was not isolating.

The exhibition labels this period one of “promiscuity,” in the sense of an indeterminate mingling. This promiscuity was wiped away during the second half of the twentieth century by zoning laws that formally separated urban, natural, and agricultural spaces, strictly defining which activities were allowed in each and forbidding, for example, the construction of housing on agricultural land or the grazing of livestock in forests. Small farming plots were consolidated in the service of large-scale, machine-based agriculture. Labor-intensive production of fruits and vegetables disappeared from the riverine valleys around Paris, which became natural corridors for new highways and rail lines, and the development of new urban hubs. In the Île-de-France region around Paris, nearly all the farming that is left is industrial grain production—acre after acre of mono-cropped wheat with nary a person, let alone a bee or bird or animal, in sight. 

Using original artwork created for the exhibition, archival photographs, botanical documentation, and comparative maps of land use and population density in the Île-de-France in 1900 versus today, “Agricultural Capital” takes the visitor on a comprehensive tour of more than a century of the evolution of Paris and its environs. It also offers a series of utopian alternatives to urban modernity from the past, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Le Corbusier’s Radiant Farm, and references the return of urban agriculture to cities under duress, specifically Havana, Cuba, and Detroit, Michigan. There are large color photographs of some of the urban and suburban farmers who are creating a new “metropolitan rurality” today, and examples of the innovative machinery and technologies they are developing—and sharing on open-source platforms—for urban farming.

Large architectural drawings allow the visitor to envision what a new agricultural urbanism could achieve—say, a highway rest area of the future where people waiting for their electric cars to charge can buy fresh local produce from an adjoining farm, where they can stretch their legs while picking berries along a footpath between the plants. Or the sadly barren lawns surrounding the banlieues’ benighted housing towers replaced with community gardens and a field that turns into a soccer pitch after its safflowers have been harvested. New paths would allow people—as well as wild creatures such as hedgehogs—to circulate between the private gardens of suburban homes, whose standard foundation plantings and chemically dependent lawns have themselves been replaced by edible and pollinator-friendly plants. 

The exhibition also imagines Paris’s tramway lines with dedicated trams for livestock, so that flocks like the one shepherded by Dubreuilh could be transported for grazing on public parks and meridians where gas-guzzling mowers and hedge trimmers would no longer be required. Abandoned factories and commercial warehouses could be converted into multi-use structures for performances, housing, food production, and restaurants, as could old barns and hangars for farm machinery, effectively bringing community and the arts to now isolated rural areas.

In late November, I visited one of the urban farming projects featured in “Agricultural Capital.” Located on what was the last remaining vegetable farm in the city of Saint-Denis, the site is a ten-minute walk from the end of the number thirteen Métro line. Standing in the middle of the fields, a McDonald’s is visible on one side of the property. The dome of the Grand Mosque of Saint-Denis rises beyond the other. Rows of multistory apartment blocks flank the back, and more are under construction across from the farm’s entrance. It’s the perfect location for an experiment in agricultural urbanism. 

In 2017, a nonprofit artists’ collective, le Parti Poétique, and the for-profit Fermes de Gally jointly signed a twenty-five-year agricultural lease with the city of Saint-Denis, which owns the land. The idea was to create an interactive agricultural space for an ethnically diverse city whose residents have little opportunity to experience farming, and scant access to locally produced food. 


Jean-Pierre Sageot/Parti PoétiqueYuhan, a “wwoofeuse,” tending kale at the Zone Sensible, Saint-Denis, September 2017

Saint-Denis native, artist Olivier Darné, founded the Parti Poétique in 2004 after a beehive he’d set up on the roof of his home led him to think differently about the urban space around him and about the relationship between culture, nature, and food. The honey his bees produced Darné dubbed “Miel Béton,” or concrete honey—“the result of what I call the pollination of the city,” he told me. “Introducing bees was a way to ask questions about how public space functions, not only as a place to send out messages but also as a place to build relationships.”

The Parti Poétique now manages some 120 hives in Saint-Denis, which, the group claims, is the largest urban apiary in Europe. It has also created a bank of fertilized queen bees to populate new hives, a boon to beekeepers and farmers who depend on honeybees to pollinate their crops. Last winter, nearly a third of France’s beehives perished, suspected victims of the pesticides and parasites that have been decimating bee colonies around the world. Metropolitan Paris, where pesticides are little used, has become a “natural” sanctuary for bees facing extinction on industrial farmland. 

The new farm is an opportunity for the Parti Poétique to expand its work beyond beekeeping. Called Zone Sensible—the term used by the French state for neighborhoods troubled by disaffected immigrant youth meaning “sensitive area,” but which can also simply mean an area perceptible to the senses—the farm hosts an outdoor performance platform, artists in residence, a kitchen where people from the community can cook using produce and herbs grown on the property, and, of course, beehives. 

Standing in the middle of Zone Sensible’s two-and-a-half acre plot on a chilly day this past November, Franck Ponthier, the head gardener for the Parti Poétique, explained as sirens wailed in the distance: “We call this a world garden. There are more than 135 nationalities in Saint-Denis. The goal is to grow, at a minimum, 140 varieties of plants.” A landscaper who had worked with Darné to create bee-friendly plantings in the area, Ponthier gave up landscaping for urban farming in 2016. He said he was disgusted by “seeing soil as rich as gold paved over for parking lots and housing towers.” He is dedicated to establishing an organic farm on the site that uses the techniques of permaculture—the creation of sustainable agricultural ecosystems—in place of conventional single-plant rows vulnerable to pests and disease. To that end, the garden features multitiered, interplanted rows of plants and herbs. 


Parti PoétiqueAn aerial view of the Zone Sensible, Saint-Denis, France

The rows radiate out from a central star with strips of lawn in between, mimicking the formal layout of the Potager du Roi, the kitchen garden created on the orders of Louis the XIV at Versailles. Ponthier told me the layout is in homage to the Fermes de Gally, the Parti Poétique’s partner on the site, which opened its first farm to the public near Versailles. The people of Saint-Denis now have access to a garden befitting a king.

The Fermes de Gally’s La Ferme Ouverte, The Open Farm, occupies a larger portion of the site’s original farm acreage. The Fermes de Gally—operated by the brothers Xavier and Dominique Laureau, whose family has been farming in Île-de-France for a century—now employs some 500 people across France with a mission to “cultivate nature in cities.” In 1967, the Laureaus opened one of the first garden centers in France. In 1995, they created a “teaching farm” in Saint-Cyr-L’École and, a decade later, another in Sartrouville where people could pick their own produce and interact with farm animals.

Xavier Laureau told me the Open Farm “project is atypical because Saint-Denis is atypical.” While the farm’s primary focus is public education, it also aims to create new jobs in urban farming in an area of high unemployment and “to commemorate the type of agriculture that was practiced in the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” as part of a larger mission of the “agricultural reconquest” of urban space. The use in France of the greenhouse effect to heat urban, above-ground agricultural spaces dates back, he said, to the seventeenth century: “We talk about permaculture today but what they did was far more sophisticated.” 


Mira KamdarA farmstand in Saint-Denis, November 2018

At the Open Farm, a former farm building now houses a photographic archive, old farm tools, and indoor hydroponic minitowers. There are spaces where people can bake their own bread and press their own apple juice. There are sheep, goats, and chickens. Rows of vegetables provide produce for a farm stand where several women in headscarves were buying produce on the day I visited. “We had no place to buy fresh vegetables like this before,” one told me. An old hangar next to the original farmhouse is slated to be converted into a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, meetings, and other public events. 

Laureau contributed essays to the “Agricultural Capital” exhibition catalogue and in November spoke at a public meeting on urban agriculture in Paris that was organized by Enlarge Your Paris, the Métropole du Grand Paris, and the Bergers Urbains, the urban shepherds, including Dubreilh, who founded Clinamen, their sheep operation. The event, part of yearlong series on urban agriculture in greater Paris, attracted a standing-room-only crowd. Around the theme “Urban Agriculture: From Farm to Plate,” the various participants agreed that metropolitan Paris would probably never be self-sufficient in food. But they also agreed that the social and environmental benefits of urban agriculture could no longer be ignored, and that the current model of urban expansion is unsustainable. The series, designed to reveal “what is already happening in urban agriculture,” in the words of Vianney Delourme of Enlarge Your Paris, kicked off last September with a photogenic amble through the streets of northern Paris with Clinamen’s sheep; it will culminate in July with a sheep walk around the entire periphery of the city. 

In a landscape that appears anything but pastoral, the sheep entrance passers-by. When I walked with them on their migration to winter quarters in a sheepfold in the Parc Georges-Valbon a few weeks ago, a group of young men stopped to take selfies with the sheep, and a shopkeeper called out an offer to buy one for 600 euros. (Dubreuilh told him the sheep weren’t for sale.) An elderly Algerian woman in traditional headscarf and robe broke into a smile as we passed her house, and when I asked another woman on the sidewalk what she thought of the sheep, she laughed and replied: “Oh, you know, I’m a country girl. I grew up with farm animals.”

After the sheep were safely corralled in their shelter, Dubreuilh invited me to join her and her fellow shepherds for lunch in their headquarters. As we prepared and ate a meal of scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables, she told me she and her shepherding partner at Clinamen, Guillaume Leterrier, “became urban shepherds because we think that when people interact with animals, they become more human.” 

“When people come across a flock of sheep, they slow down, they adopt the pace of the animals,” she said. “They reflect on their own rhythm, on their daily routine. A flock of sheep brings humanity and freedom to the city.”


Mira KamdarUrban shepherdess Julie-Lou Dubreuilh leading her flock in Saint-Denis, November 2018

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Bonfire of the Bathroom Vanities


Joanna NeborskyGary Shteyngart

The rambunctious satires of Gary Shteyngart have previously had one foot rooting around the real-life New York City, the other foot dug into the rubble and riches of post-Soviet republics or the oddly similar rubble and riches of an imaginary dystopian New York. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, his first novel, he describes Vladimir Girshkin on his twenty-fifth birthday as divided almost evenly between there and here: “He had lived in Russia for twelve years, and then there were the thirteen years spent here. That was his life—it added up.” Over the course of the novel, Vladimir seeks love and success in both worlds, from the smooth, pious liberality of his girlfriend’s Upper East Side parents to the cheerful greed and brutality of a tracksuited bunch of Russian mobsters in an Eastern European city based on Prague.

In Absurdistan, Shteyngart’s next book, the hero is, like Vlad, born in the Soviet Union and educated in the US. Misha, a “buttery” 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, loves rap and a girl who describes herself as “half Puerto Rican. And half German. And half Mexican and Irish. But I was raised mostly Dominican.” Like Vladimir, Misha is a man of the old world and the new.

The hero of Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was born in a New York City that turns him into an immigrant in his own home. The text-message epistolary novel takes place in a future New York that has imploded into an authoritarian regime, the authority in question being money.

In Lake Success, his new novel, Shteyngart has shifted to recognizably American soil, specifically the United States that rolls beneath the wheels of a Greyhound bus. Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who escapes his obscenely wealthy New York life by running off on a red-state road trip. It is just before the 2016 presidential election. And because of the timing, the geography of the South and the West, the political references, and the poor and middle-class people Barry meets on his travels, Lake Success presents itself as a book about America. But Barry is just a tourist in America. Lake Success is really a New York story, and a good one.

New York towers avariciously above the other places Barry visits, the moral squalor of its Wall Street elite meticulously rendered. Barry gauges his place in the world with the precision of the rare watches he collects, and measures his rise quite literally floor by floor of the building where he lives, in a condo just one floor below Rupert Murdoch’s. During dinner with neighbors—on the lowly third floor—Barry looks up their two-bedroom apartment on Zillow to see how much they paid for it: a mere $3,800,000, less than a fifth the price he paid for his floor-through place high above.

Barry is not a nice guy, and like most of Shteyngart’s heroes his obnoxious qualities are so complete and so overwhelming as to create an almost sympathetic innocence and naiveté. His self-centered inhumanity is part of what humanizes him for the reader. He has had to work not only at getting rich but also at cultivating an acceptable personality: as a kid he practiced his “friend moves” in front of the mirror so successfully that he is known now as “the friendliest dude on the Street.” His wife, Seema, trained as a lawyer but, in the way of the new-age trophy wife, leaving her career behind, describes him as “that boyish, goofy, preprogrammed, backslapping, Tiger Inn, let’s-be-friends, one-of-the-guys bullshit Barry.” But she also sees “the desperately struggling, scared-of-getting-it-wrong, always-on-the-lookout-for-hurt Barry. Or maybe they were one and the same.”

The third-floor apartment Barry is so curious about and contemptuous of belongs to Julianna, a doctor who has made friends with Seema in the lobby, and her husband, Luis, a writer (“I’m what they call a ‘writer’s writer’”) whose sales rankings (1,123,340) Barry has already checked out on Amazon. Luis affects a certain cynicism, but Shteyngart does not excuse him from the city’s ludicrous social climbing. Luis complacently explains the discrepancy between his low book sales and his condo as the result of lecturing for $20,000 a pop: “You do fifty of those a year, and, well, a million bucks ain’t a lot in New York these days, but you’re at least welcomed into the anthills of the one percent.”

Barry notices there is no art in the apartment except a vintage Spanish-language James Bond poster:

It didn’t have the uniqueness or value of Seema’s Miró or the neglected Calder in their library, but it was a found object that signaled that the writer had an identity. It didn’t matter if it was invented. He had invented it. He was the fucking writer! That’s what he did.

Writer, hedge-fund manager—they are both assholes.

Shteyngart understands both Barry and Luis with that Shteyngartian eye for weakness, for posing, for fraud. “Luis was still on some kind of meta-riff about both candidates being sleaze,” he writes delightedly, “even though he said it was costing him Twitter followers.”

Seema ends up having an affair with Luis, but by then Barry is long gone. He has run away from home (where he terrified his wife and young child with a violent outburst) and is on the lam (he’s under investigation for insider trading). He throws away his phone and his credit cards and, like a hobo on a freight train, rides through the South with nothing but $200 and a suitcase filled with priceless watches. In Atlanta, he looks up a former employee, a young man named Jeff Park who was fired a few years ago (he had accidentally omitted a minus sign in an Excel spreadsheet, costing the firm $150 million). Jeff is doing fine now, to Barry’s confused surprise. A big financial fish in the relatively small pond of Atlanta, Jeff lives close to his parents in a floor-through apartment that would cost ten times as much in New York. When he isn’t making money at his computer he works out and drives fabulous cars. The Wall Street dream life. And he’s happy enough to be able to understand that he’s been lucky. Barry’s been lucky, too, he says:

“You found yourself working in the right industry at the right time. No regulation. All the leverage you could eat from the banks. I’m not even going to mention the insider trading that’s just part of being in the old boys’ club…. Hey, I’m not knocking what we do,” Jeff said. “It takes smarts. But so much of it is luck. You execute one good trade, and people will listen to everything you say for the next five years.”

But Barry disagrees. “All I know is I never had any advantages,” he tells the Korean-American he still thinks is Chinese. “I wasn’t even lucky enough to be born to immigrant parents.”

His wife, however, was. Seema’s mother is that most wonderful thing, a Gary Shteyngart mother, a formidable first-generation mother seething with love, unerring in her cruelty. In The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, the mother is a Russian Jew. In Absurdistan, she is Korean. In Lake Success, she is Tamil. In every case, she is a wonder, a monster of cold, smothering love. When Seema calls her mother for comfort in the midst of her sadness and abandonment, she says, “Oh Mommy…I wish you would say a nice thing right now.”

“Try to be a better daughter,” her mother said.

“That’s not a nice thing.”

“Nice is not my specialty. Call your father if you want to hear something nice.”

“Can you tell me you love me?”

“That you should know already.”

“What if I don’t? What if I got bonked on the head and had amnesia or something? Like in that Tamilian movie. Whatever. Something.”

Seema could hear her mother start up her car again. “Is that what happened to you, Seema-konde? Because that would explain a lot.”

“That’s what happened to me.”

“Then fine,” she said. “Then I love you.”

When Seema first told her mother she was going to marry Barry, her mother treated it as her due, “like it was one of two acceptable choices, a white-shoe law firm partnership being the other one.” And Seema remembers how, when she was younger, her mother

would hover over her bed at all hours of the day and night (good luck finding the word “privacy” in Tamil), imparting all those ludicrous and painful life lessons. Freshman year in high school she had drawn Seema a chart of the social acceptability of her friends. Jews and WASPs fared at the very top, one had “money (increasing),” the other “social power (decreasing).” The Asians were separated into several tranches, with the Japanese—who had bought up so much of our country just the previous decade—leading the pack. Tamils hovered several blank spaces above Hispanics, who themselves rested on the shoulders of blacks.

The precarious footing of the immigrant and the ugly parochialism it engenders are never far from Shteyngart’s work, and among his great gifts are his intimate descriptions of how violently they distort motherly love. Here is a passage from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook:

“Vladimir, how can I say this? Please don’t be cross with me. I know you’ll be cross with me, you’re such a soft young man. But if I don’t tell you the truth, will I be fulfilling my motherly duties? No, I will not. The truth then…” She sighed deeply, an alarming sigh, the sigh of exhaling the last doubt, the sigh of preparing for battle. “Vladimir,” she said, “you walk like a Jew.”

“What?”

What? The anger in his voice. What? he says. What? Walk back to the window now. Just walk back to the window. Look at your feet. Look carefully. Look at how your feet are spread apart. Look at how you walk from side to side. Like an old Jew from the shtetl. Little Rebbe Girshkin.”

Seema is a different kind of mother, and her child, Shiva, is different too. Three years old and recently diagnosed with autism, Shiva is part of the reason Barry ran away. Seema and Barry have kept “the diagnosis” secret from everyone, but when Julianna, the doctor from the third floor, insists on bringing Arturo, her own ostentatiously cute three-year-old, to play, Seema’s new friend figures it out. One of the few unquestionably decent characters in the novel (she is a doctor who is doing research on the Zika virus), Julianna is not only unfazed by the screaming child banging his head against the wall, she is able to calm him, to touch him, to teach her own little boy to appreciate Shiva. The big bouncy ball and the horsehair brush, telltale signs of therapy, are novelties, interesting new toys for Arturo. And Seema watches with relief, and a new confusion:

Seema breathed in and out, in and out, with great force, the way she had been taught by a meditation app she had abandoned a few months ago, because it had only made her more anxious. So now what? She had made a new friend and was sleeping with that new friend’s husband. Her disabled child had made friends with the woman’s son, also her lover’s son…. Where would it all end? And where the fuck was Barry?

Barry is in San Antonio trying to rekindle a college love affair; he is trying to connect with his college girlfriend’s son, to teach the withdrawn boy to swim and to come up with his own “friend moves,” just as Barry did as a lonely child. “I don’t like friends,” Jonah tells him, something Barry understands all too well. He is trying to carve out a life that will work better than the one he left behind, but his fantasies for a more authentic life are just that, fantasies, standing in for real hopes and real dreams, the way his “friend moves” stood in for friendliness. His dream of a happy family, after all, involves three children brushing their teeth at a long, custom-built vanity with three sinks. Not three children, but three children at three sinks. The material expression of love and family has swallowed both love and family for Barry.

Shteyngart offers Barry’s shallow materialism as an illustration of America’s malaise, not news to anyone since Tocqueville, or Trollope’s mother. But he always rescues himself with detail, and the three sinks, one after the other, is an image so preposterously empty of the beauty of family that it is touching.

When Barry does finally come back to New York, Seema explains,

in essence, that she didn’t like what Barry was. Not who, but what. We lived in a country that rewarded its worst people. We lived in a society where the villains were favored to win…. How could people who didn’t live in a Central Park West penthouse believe in anything anymore?…

“Oh, honey,” she said, “can’t you see what’s around you? You’re not Shiva. You don’t have excuses. You’re a man who makes tons of money while the world goes to shit around you. You make money because the world goes to shit around you. In the end, that’s who you are.”

That’s a heavy load for any one character to carry, and it is something of a miracle that we feel any sympathy for Barry at all. But we do. That is the magic of melancholy.

Festering corruption is a given in a Shteyngart novel, but more important are the festering emotions of the people forced to live, and even prosper, in his flamboyantly tainted landscapes. Lake Success follows someone trying to find an answer, a simpler and purer life. But the novel is not about simplicity or purity at all. It is about complications, tangles and knots, muddied expectations and outcomes. Emotions ripple any surface, shudder against conflicting emotions, leaving waves of questions and doubt. Seema’s response to her child is as nuanced, as alive, as Barry’s watches are not. Barry “couldn’t live without their insistent ticking and the predictable spin of their balance wheels, that golden whir of motion and light inside the watch that gave it the appearance of having a soul.” That balanced movement, tiny and delicate but tied so intimately to the grand movements of the earth itself, has cracked. There is no predictability or order in the real world of real wives and real children on the spectrum.

Unlike Barry, Seema is ultimately able to make her peace with the wayward nature of reality. She tells her parents about the diagnosis, and they come to live with her, her mother loudly blaming Barry for everything and her father stubbornly working with Shiva’s obsessive behavior rather than against it. The big gold W of the W Hotel, which Shiva stares at? His grandfather makes a W with his fingers and touches Shiva’s hand:

Now…they would chart their way through Manhattan by following an endless series of signs with Ws, Walgreens being the ultimate beacon by which Shiva could navigate, although McDonald’s arches also appeared to be an upside-down W as far as the young speller was concerned…. It used to be she would ask herself: Who is my son? What’s in his head? Well, now she knew. W was in his head…. If she had to see the world as being either in service to her son or not, then that’s how she would see the world. She should put up the Internet ad right away: “Not-yet-divorced wife of missing husband seeks man to be peripheral to her disabled son. Must be at least five foot ten.”

Barry, meanwhile, is in a bus station in Phoenix, his suitcase with all his watches stolen, holding a cardboard sign:

THEY STOLE ALL MY MONEY.

I HAVE AN AUTISTIC SON.

PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.

ANY LITTLE BIT HELPS!

☺GOD BLESS YOU☺

Shteyngart writes about the details of failure: economic, romantic, filial, and, perhaps most strikingly, physical. He describes urban landscapes as if they are alive, like the “contorted insect of a building, its chimney pumping effluent into the night” in Absurdistan; or breathing sorry music like “the ugly gigantism…of a collection of buildings that, with their rows of balconies on both ends, resembled soot-covered accordions” in Super Sad True Love Story. If his cities are pictured in all their dark, pulpy corporeality, the bodies of his characters are equally sordid, and treated similarly as landscapes swollen or shrunken with meaning.

It’s interesting that Barry, unlike his predecessors, exhibits physical charm. He is tall and broad-shouldered with a swimmer’s physique. He smiles. There is the merest mention of an incipient bald spot. Shteyngart’s other men, fat and oily and, for good measure, buttery like Misha in Absurdistan, or sweaty with hideous feet like Lenny in Super Sad True Love Story, or waddling shamefully on Jew feet like Vlad in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, are the satirical, fleshly manifestations of failure, matched by the politically and socially satirical decrepitude of buildings crumbling and sinking into politically, ethically polluted mud.

Failure has a stink, and Shteyngart’s prose sniffs out the physically grotesque with an almost unseemly joy. His satire shakes as resplendently as Misha’s belly. His plots are clammy, fantastical, a snarl of personal and political absurdity. If he is often overwrought, and he is, he is also sharp and refined in his understanding of self-consciousness. Lake Success is moodier, less showy than his earlier novels, closer in tone to Little Failure, his brilliant, funny, heartbreaking memoir. Barry may be a man with many millions, he may live high above the rest of us, looking out of floor-to-ceiling windows we will never press our noses against, but everyone can recognize his view: the vantage of despair. And, gently, incrementally, of hope.

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Matthew Whitaker: the Ethical Mire of Trump’s Top Law Officer


Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump and Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, December 18, 2018

News summary:

When Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker accepted the role of overseeing the Mueller investigation, he failed to disclose to Department of Justice ethics officers that, as head of a conservative watchdog group, he had cooperated with senior White House aides of President Trump in finding ways to attack the work of the special counsel—in one case by filing a Federal Election Commission complaint against a critic of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who was under scrutiny by Mueller.

If Whitaker had revealed these directions from the White House and his actions on Trump’s behalf, Justice ethics officers would almost certainly have advised him that his continued oversight of the special counsel would violate ethics rules. According to a senior Justice official with knowledge of the matter, Whitaker may face investigation by the department’s inspector general over his omission.

As the confirmation hearing for Whitaker’s permanent replacement as attorney general begins, senators will want to know from President’s Trump nominee, William Barr, what action he will take to prevent similar efforts by the White House to interfere in and frustrate the special counsel’s investigation.


In August 2017, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who then headed a conservative advocacy group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, more commonly known by its acronym FACT, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that the Democratic National Committee and one of its consultants had violated federal election law. Whitaker’s complaint claimed that the DNC and a Ukrainian-American political strategist named Alexandra Chalupa had broken the law when she met with officials at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., during the 2016 presidential election to find out what, if anything, diplomats there knew about Paul Manafort’s work as a political adviser to a former Ukrainian president and political party that wanted their country to cut ties with the West and align Ukraine with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Chalupa, who already knew about Manafort’s decades-long work on behalf of the pro-Russian Ukrainian political interests from her work as a human rights activist, had grave concerns that Manafort had recently been named to be Donald Trump’s campaign manager. 

It was routine for Whitaker and FACT to file such complaints with the FEC, the Internal Revenue Service, the Office of Government Ethics, and the Justice Department alleging wrongdoing by Democratic Party candidates and officeholders. Ordinarily, little came of these complaints. Indeed, the FEC has given no indication it will investigate Whitaker’s allegations in Chalupa’s case, and no evidence has emerged that either Chalupa or the DNC did anything wrong. Whitaker understood that his complaints would garner media coverage, amplifying his allegations of impropriety, even as the federal agencies with whom he filed his complaints almost invariably turned down his requests to investigate. News organizations that reported on the complaints rarely informed their readers later that no wrongdoing had been uncovered. A Republican political operative involved in some of FACT’s earliest efforts told New York Magazine: “The whole thing just became a chop shop of fake ethics complaints.”

What was distinctive—and odd—about FACT’s complaint in this filing against the DNC and Chalupa was that Whitaker had lifted numerous passages verbatim from a previous complaint filed with the FEC by various mainstream and liberal organizations seeking an investigation into whether the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. had violated federal campaign finance law by attending the infamous Trump Tower meeting of June 2016. At that meeting, Trump Jr., the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and campaign manager Paul Manafort met with intermediaries of the Russian government who had promised to provide “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Even more strangely, Whitaker acknowledged his word-for-word borrowings. In a footnote in the complaint itself, Whitaker wrote that:

Much of the language in this complaint is taken verbatim from a recent complaint filed by Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, Paul S. Ryan, and Catherine Hinckley Kelly involving comparable circumstances. Given their well-known commitment to even handed non-partisan enforcement of federal campaign law, we trust they would not object.

At the time of Whitaker’s complaint, President Trump and his aides were arguing that the Democrats had engaged in much the same conduct as Donald Trump Jr.—Alexandra Chalupa’s outreach to Ukrainian officials, they said, was no different. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny but the White House’s efforts were designed to persuade some—especially among the president’s conservative base—to believe that a moral and legal equivalence applied. And Whitaker was willing to try to provide grounds for the claim.

The complaint against Chalupa and the DNC was extraordinary for another reason: one former Trump administration official and one current one told me that Whitaker made the filing only after the White House encouraged him to do so. As a CNN legal commentator and the head of FACT, Whitaker was one of the most high-profile and outspoken critics of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. That caught the attention of President Trump. As a result, Whitaker was interviewed by then-White House Counsel Don McGahn and a second lawyer for the president about joining Trump’s legal team. Although Whitaker did not get the job, he and White House officials discussed how Whitaker might serve the president’s interests in a private capacity. They suggested specific arguments Whitaker could make in defense of the president. They encouraged him to attack Mueller relentlessly, and they identified other possible targets for him. Among them was Alexandra Chalupa—and not long after that discussion with White House officials, Whitaker filed his complaint against her and the DNC with the FEC.

Trump had famously berated, humiliated, and threatened to fire his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from overseeing the Russia investigation; Trump later also threatened to fire deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein for appointing Mueller as special counsel and then overseeing his work while refusing to curtail or undermine the investigation. On November 7 last year, Trump made good on his threats by demanding Sessions’s resignation and naming Whitaker as acting attorney general the same day. At the highest levels of the Justice Department, Whitaker was viewed as the least qualified, least experienced person ever named to act as an attorney general in the modern political era, and many believed that the president had appointed Whitaker to that post only so that he might undermine the special counsel’s work. Given the fate of his predecessor, Whitaker could not easily have defied Trump and recused himself, but there is no reason to believe the compliant Whitaker even considered doing so.

Indeed, after Whitaker was appointed, he chose to disregard the advice of a senior Justice Department ethics officer that he recuse himself from overseeing the special counsel’s investigation, the legitimacy of which he’d questioned. In discussions with both the ethics officer and a group of Justice officials whom Whitaker selected to consider whether he should recuse himself, Whitaker never disclosed that while he headed FACT and worked as a CNN legal commentator, he had consulted with the White House about lines of attack against Mueller, according to a senior Justice Department official familiar with the matter. Neither did Whitaker inform them that he had filed his complaint against Chalupa and the DNC at the behest of the White House.

The senior official, fearing retaliation if he spoke publicly on the issue, told me that this “omission by Whitaker is a glaring one” and “a half-step away from being a lie by omission.” The official said that any Justice Department official, even the ones handpicked by Whitaker, would—in light of the Chalupa filing and his attacks on other political adversaries of the president at the behest of the White House—have advised that Whitaker needed to recuse himself from the special counsel’s investigation. This official believes that Whitaker should be investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general to determine whether Whitaker withheld crucial information from the Justice Department officials who were providing him with legal advice about whether he needed to recuse himself. Because of the government shutdown, no Justice spokesperson was available to comment.

The disclosures in this story that Whitaker concealed vital pertinent information from Justice Department ethics advisers come as no fewer than ten Democratic senators on Friday asked the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate Whitaker’s refusal to recuse. The IG is already considering another possible investigation of Whitaker. Senate Democratic Minority Leader Charles Schumer has formally asked the IG to investigate allegations that Whitaker might have been feeding information about the Mueller investigation to the president and his aides. In his request, Schumer cited a report I wrote for Vox, as well as subsequent stories on CNN and in The New York Times, disclosing that when Whitaker was serving as chief of staff to Sessions, he also counseled the White House on how the president might pressure Sessions and Rosenstein to conduct investigations of Trump’s political enemies, even though both officials, and then-White House Counsel Don McGahn, believed that doing so would be improper and potentially illegal. The House Judiciary Committee is also seeking Whitaker’s testimony on these matters.

But Whitaker’s value to Trump as a shield against the special counsel’s investigation is, in any case, time-limited. On December 7, the president named as his next attorney general William Barr, who had served in that post during the first Bush administration and who has also been a firm critic of Mueller’s investigation. Barr’s confirmation hearing begins on Tuesday.


Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesWhitaker flanked by other Cabinet members at the White House, January 2, 2019

Chalupa was a part-time consultant to the DNC, and served as a co-chair of the DNC’s Ethnic Council during the 2016 presidential election. Her mission with the DNC was to turn out Ukrainian-American voters as well as those of other foreign ethnic communities, something she had done for more than a decade. Alarmed that the man whom Donald Trump had named to be his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had been an adviser to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who wanted Ukraine to cut ties with the European Union and make it more closely aligned with Russia, she set out to find out what she could. Part of that effort entailed speaking to officials of the Ukrainian embassy to see what they knew.

Chalupa’s concerns turned out to be well-founded. In August 2016, Manafort was forced to resign from the Trump campaign after disclosures that he had received millions of dollars in clandestine payments from Ukrainian political interests. Two years later, Manafort was convicted of eight federal felony counts of fraud related to his efforts to conceal those payments and evade paying taxes on them.

The comparison between what Donald Trump Jr. did in attending the Trump Tower meeting and what Alexandra Chalupa did has always been a facile one. The Russian Federation—an adversary of the United States—engaged in a covert intelligence effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort agreed to a meeting with individuals they were told were associated with the Russian government to obtain “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. was acting on behalf of his father and his presidential campaign. It is illegal for a political campaign to accept help from a foreign individual or government, and illegal not to disclose it; that is, in part, why the Trump Tower meeting has been a focus of the special counsel’s investigation.

In Chalupa’s case, however, she conducted her research on Manafort on her own account; her consultancy for the DNC involved outreach, not opposition research. Although Chalupa mentioned what she was doing to colleagues at the DNC, they took no interest in her efforts, and in July 2016 she quit working for the DNC to focus more on her human rights advocacy and also to investigate Manafort. As I reported for Vox, she even organized a protest in Manafort’s hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, in which protesters held up signs saying “Putin, hands off the US election.” The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign have said that they had no involvement in her efforts, and no evidence has surfaced to contradict that claim. The FEC has given no indication that it intends to investigate Whitaker’s complaint.

In filing complaints against Chalupa and others, FACT represented itself as nonpartisan. Despite its commitment to demanding “openness and transparency” in others, FACT has refused to publicly identify its donors. In tax filings, FACT has identified its only source of income as an entity called DonorsTrust, a “pass-through” that allows wealthy conservative donors to donate but remain anonymous. After he became FACT’s executive director in 2014, Whitaker would be paid a total of $1.2 million by the organization’s donors. During most of his tenure, he was FACT’s sole full-time employee. In the first nine months of 2017, before he was named chief of staff to the attorney general, Whitaker was paid $502,000 in salary.

FACT describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit “group of citizens which is committed to exposing unethical behavior, changing the culture of politics, and restoring faith in our public officials.” But its targets have been almost exclusively Democratic, and during the 2016 presidential campaign, the most frequent target of FACT’s efforts was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Its claims of nonpartisanship were too often credulously accepted by news organizations reporting about FACT’s allegations or publishing columns Whitaker wrote. In July 2016, after then FBI Director James Comey announced that no criminal charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server, Whitaker wrote an op-ed for USA Today entitled “I would indict Hillary Clinton.” 

In an effort to deflect attention from disclosures about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, the president himself, working with his surrogates on Capitol Hill, in the conservative media, and at advocacy groups like FACT, cited the Ukrainian matter in an attempt to illustrate that what his son and advisers had done was commonplace and carried out by both sides in the 2016 election. The White House also hoped that Congress, the FEC, or even the Justice Department and FBI might investigate the DNC and Chalupa.

With his frequent appearances on CNN in which he assailed the special counsel, Whitaker was pursuing a personal agenda: in June 2017, in a CNN green room, Whitaker told John Q. Barrett, a professor at St. John’s Law School, “that he was flying out from Iowa to NYC to be on CNN regularly because he was hoping to be noticed as a Trump defender, and through that to get a Trump judicial appointment back in Iowa.” In August 2017, Whitaker said on a radio show that Mueller’s appointment was “ridiculous” and “smells a little fishy.” Whitaker vowed that if he felt the special counsel’s investigation had become “a fishing expedition,” he would be “one of the ones jumping up and down” to rein him in. On another occasion, Whitaker mused on air about how senior Justice Department officials might impede the Mueller probe by simply denying Mueller necessary funding. “I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced with a recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt,” Whitaker said. A month later, Whitaker was invited to the White House to discuss joining the president’s legal team.

During Whitaker’s discussions with White House officials about a job, the conversation more than once turned to potential avenues of attack against Mueller’s investigation. The New York Times had recently disclosed details of the Trump Tower meeting, and Trump had led the effort to undercut the implications. Trump himself favored using the Ukraine issue to argue that the president’s son did no worse than the Democrats had done.

On July 10, 2017, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders encouraged reporters to investigate how “the Democrat National Committee coordinated opposition research directly with the Ukrainian Embassy… So if you’re looking for an example of a campaign coordinating with a foreign country or a foreign source, look no further than the DNC.” Sebastian Gorka, then a White House deputy assistant, appeared on CNN to reinforce the message: “Let’s compare [the Trump Tower meeting] to the DNC sending its people to the Ukrainian embassy to coordinate oppo attacks against our candidate,” he said. “If you want to see collusion, it’s in the DNC. I mean, it is up to their necks.” On July 12, Sean Hannity devoted the opening of his Fox News program to defending the Trump Tower meeting—in part by arguing that the Ukrainian matter was equivalent. On July 24, Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to the Justice Department to say he was conducting an investigation. And on July 25, Trump tweeted: “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign—‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G. @seanhannity”

According to people familiar with Whitaker’s discussion in the White House, Whitaker said he would do what he could. After that initial meeting and a series of phone calls with White House Counsel Don McGahn and others, McGahn informed Whitaker that they thought it best for Whitaker and for them that they not hire him immediately. Whitaker was told that, for the time being, he was more valuable “on the outside,” continuing as a CNN legal commentator and in his position at FACT. On August 9, Whitaker filed FACT’s complaint about the Democratic National Committee and Chalupa.

But just before he did so, Whitaker again met with McGahn and at least one other senior White House official to talk further about the possibility of his joining the president’s legal team to defend Trump from the special counsel’s investigation. Even Whitaker could not have guessed how well his loyalty would be rewarded. He would win not a judicial nomination from the Trump administration but the post of chief of staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions—and then succeed him by becoming the acting attorney general.

There is both irony and unintended consequence in Whitaker’s complaint against the DNC and Chalupa. Whitaker, of course, was trying to score rhetorical points by copying portions of the complaint by Common Cause, the Campaign Legal Center, and other advocacy groups filed against Donald Trump Jr. To his mind, Whitaker was reinforcing the argument about equivalence, but by adopting portions of their complaint as his own, Whitaker was also unwittingly embracing their position that the Trump team may have violated campaign finance law. Brendan Fischer, the federal reform director for the Campaign Legal Center, who helped write its complaint, pointed out to me that Whitaker’s complaint adopted the position that a ban on foreign campaign contribution includes “anything of value, including information and leads, the fruits of paid research, or similar investigatory activity, to a political committee.” Whitaker also embraced the position that the “ban applies to both the solicitation and receipt of such a contribution.” Fischer added:

Don Jr., of course, is under investigation for soliciting a prohibited in-kind contribution from Russian nationals in the form of opposition research. Given Whitaker’s stated position on the law, there is no credible way that Whitaker could oppose prosecuting Don Jr. for soliciting or receiving opposition research, if the evidence supported such a prosecution.

Aside from his vulnerability in apparently breaching government ethics rules to gain his appointment, the acting attorney general would thus also be hard-pressed to prevent Donald Trump Jr.’s being subpoenaed by the special counsel about the Trump Tower meeting. But as the new information in this story reveals, had Whitaker—the nation’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer—told the truth in the first place, he might never have been overseeing the special counsel’s investigation at all.


Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty ImagesProtesters denouncing the newly appointed acting attorney general over concerns about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Times Square, New York, November 8, 2018

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The Radical Empathy of Amos Oz


Dominique NabokovAmos Oz, Hulda, Israel, 1983

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, the 2002 novel-cum-memoir that, his obituarists agreed, was surely Amos Oz’s finest literary work, the Israeli laureate, who died in the last days of 2018, wrote these words:

When I was little, my ambition was to grow up to be a book. People can be killed like ants. Writers are not hard to kill either. But not books: however systematically you try to destroy them, there is always a chance that a copy will survive and continue to enjoy a shelf-life in some corner of an out-of-the-way library somewhere in Reykjavik, Valladolid or Vancouver.

Most of Oz’s admirers in Israel and around the world, those who long assumed that Oz was just a year or two away from a Nobel prize, would, I suspect, nominate the exquisite, elegiac Tale as the book best suited to incarnate Oz’s spirit, in accordance with his childhood wishes. It tells the story of his early years in the Jerusalem of the British Mandate, where he was raised by a librarian father whose head was forever buried in pages and footnotes, and a mother plagued by a depression that eventually led her to commit suicide when her son was twelve.

It is a magnificent book. Even so, it is not the vessel I would choose to carry my own memory of Oz. I would name instead In the Land of Israel, a non-fiction collection of reported essays originally published in the weekend edition of Davar, the now-defunct newspaper of the Israeli labor movement. The book recounted Oz’s conversations with Israelis and a handful of Palestinians, in Israel and on the West Bank, a few months after Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon had ordered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Much of what commends the book, which became an international bestseller, is obvious. It is brilliantly written, the novelist proving to be a patient, sharp-eyed reporter. He has a particular knack for direct speech. One chapter is devoted almost entirely to a monologue delivered by a man Oz calls only Z., an ultra-nationalist with feverish fantasies of a murderous Jewish militarism. Z. jumps off the page. Indeed, for those readers who found some of Oz’s fiction too brooding or too slow, In the Land of Israel fairly fizzes with energy: Z. might be one Oz’s most memorable characters.

But the reason why the book endures in my mind, more than three decades after I read it, does not relate chiefly to its literary merits. Its power was partly a matter of timing. I was sixteen when I picked it up, a child raised in a strongly Zionist household, the son of a mother who had been born in Petach Tikva in 1936, in what was then Mandatory Palestine. I had come of age in Habonim, a Jewish youth movement dedicated to the ideals of the kibbutz and steeped in Labor Zionism. I’d been fed stories of pioneers toiling in fields and orchards as they built a socialist utopia, one that would at last allow Jews to shake off two millennia of persecution and stand tall in the world.

In the mid-1980s, those dreams were colliding with reality. I’d seen the pictures of the Lebanon war on the news; I’d read about the massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, which, yes, were committed by Christian Phalangists but, as Israel’s own Kahan Commission had found, under the eye of the Israeli military. I had also traveled in Israel enough that it was becoming plain, even to my teenage gaze, that the comforting stories diaspora Jews had long told themselves about the country were not true. The discrimination, the inequality, the occupation: they were all too visible to be ignored.

The obvious response to all this was clear enough. I could have decided that the whole thing was a sham, that the Zionist enterprise was rotten from the start and that everything I’d been taught was myth and propaganda. Plenty of my Jewish contemporaries made precisely that move. But then, at that very moment, along came Amos Oz and In the Land of Israel.

The book did not tell me I was wrong to deplore the occupation or Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. On the contrary, in that collection, and in later essays and articles—which I gobbled up—Oz regularly supplied fresh and damning evidence of where Israel was at odds with its own declared values. But he was firm that none of that contradicted a basic belief in Jews’ right to a home of their own. For all his denunciations of successive Israeli governments, for all his fluent and furious protests against wrong-headed wars and military brutality, his fundamental conviction in Jewish self-determination was not shaken.

Indeed, and this was what made such a powerful impression on my younger self, he refused to accept that there might be any contradiction between the two stances: he insisted that it was his very Zionism that led him to believe in the Palestinian right to independence. He supported the Palestinians not in spite of the fact that he was a Zionist, but because he was a Zionist.

One chapter in In the Land of Israel sees Oz visiting the offices of Al-Fajr, a Palestinian newspaper whose name means “The Dawn.” Oz reflects on the fact that in 1868, in Vienna, Peretz Smolenskin had founded a Zionist, Hebrew newspaper also called The Dawn. He quotes the opening page of the very first issue of Smolenskin’s version, which was full of dreamy talk of a people reclaiming its destiny and national self-respect. “It occurs to me,” Oz writes, “that it is surely not difficult to translate those words into Arabic.” Oz is telling us that the needs of these two peoples, Jews and Arabs, may not be identical but they are not so very different. If you believe in self-determination for one, then logic compels you to believe in that same right for the other.

In another chapter, Oz works through the moral reasoning that underpins his position. He visits the small—it was small then—West Bank settlement of Ofra. He listens to the settlers; then their leaders invite him to address an audience of forty or fifty of them at a public meeting, on a Saturday evening, once the sabbath is over. He lets us hear his own voice, uninterrupted. Deploying one of the trademark metaphors that were his sharpest tools of persuasion, he argues that the justness of the Jewish claim to historic Palestine is “the justness of the drowning man who clings to the only plank he can…

And the drowning man clinging to this plank is allowed, by all the rules of natural, objective, universal justice, to make room for himself on the plank, even if in doing so he must push the others aside a little. Even if the others, sitting on that plank, leave him no alternative to force. But he has no natural right to push the others on that plank into the sea. And that is the moral difference between the “Judaization” of Jaffa and Ramla and the “Judaization” of the West Bank.

In other words, the logic that makes the existence of 1948 Israel legitimate is the same logic that makes the post-1967 occupation illegitimate.

I remember reading those pages over and over again. I have returned to them in the years since. They represent as clear a statement of the liberal Zionist creed as I have read. They challenge the illiberal Zionist and the liberal anti-Zionist equally, for they insist that either all nations have the right to govern themselves or none does. The illiberal Zionist is urged to concede that right of self-determination to Palestinians, the liberal anti-Zionist is urged to concede it to Jews.

Oz’s version of liberal Zionism, expressed not only in In the Land of Israel but also in his later writings, media interviews, and public lectures, had three core components. I now understand that these elements were not confined in scope to the Israel–Palestine conflict, but were applicable elsewhere, if not everywhere—that they amounted to a world view.

The first was a belief in compromise, not just as a sometimes necessary evil but as an ideal in itself, to be cherished and admired. He once wrote that too often is compromise seen “as weakness, as pitiful surrender,” whereas, he explained, “in the lives of families, neighbors, and nations, choosing to compromise is in fact choosing life.” The opposite of compromise is not pride or integrity. “The opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.” (Oz was fascinated, in both his fiction and non-fiction, by the figure of the fanatic, defined as the man “who wants to change other people for their own good.” When he and I met in 2016, Oz put it to me like this: “He [the fanatic] is a great altruist, more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, change you, redeem you—and if you prove to be irredeemable, he will be at your throat and kill you. For your own good.”)

The second principle was a demand—not always realized—for moral rigor, for moral judgements to be consistently applied. Oz was enraged by double standards, often faulting Israel’s Western and European critics for slamming Israel for behavior they readily forgave in themselves. He disliked lazy conflations and comparisons. He used to say that “He who fails to distinguish between degrees of evil becomes a servant of evil.”

I don’t pretend that Oz always got it right. Plenty on the left, inside and outside Israel, were disappointed when he supported the Operation Cast Lead offensive in Gaza in 2008–2009 and felt similarly let down when he described the repeat performance in 2014 as “excessive but justified.” But no one could deny that Oz wrestled with these judgments seriously and demanded of himself no less than of others a moral coherence. Mere tribal solidarity was insufficient to commend an action or policy: he would ask himself how he would react if the boot were on the other foot, if Israel was not doing but was being done to.

Which brings us to the third element of what we might call “Ozism”: a deep, even radical, empathy. Empathy is, of course, an essential requirement of the serious novelist. Oz’s day job meant that he was constantly imagining himself in the shoes of others. But that capacity is found less often in a political thinker. For Oz, however, it was the foundation stone on which everything else was built. Empathy runs through every chapter of In the Land of Israel, as Oz uses his imagination to identify with all those he encounters: religious settlers in Tekoa, angry Mizrahi Jews in Bet Shemesh, Palestinians in Ramallah, even Z. It’s the quality that enabled him to tell their stories, the quality that made him a natural storyteller. But it is also what made his hostility to fanaticism and belief in compromise a defining creed. Because he understood that one’s enemy is also, and always, a human being.

This, then, is why Oz was both revered and reviled as a prophet at home and garlanded with attention and prizes abroad. Of course, part of it was his rugged good looks, his astonishingly eloquent English, and his sonorous, broadcast-ready voice. But mainly it was his moral clarity and, deeper, that gift for empathy. Long after liberal Zionism had come to seem quaint in an Israel whose heart had grown harder, those qualities retained their value—none more so than the compassionate knowledge that people are frail creatures, frightened, flawed, and ultimately, like Oz himself, mortal.

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‘Roma’: Through Cuarón’s Intimate Lens


NetflixYalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, 2018

Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie Roma, named for the fashionable bourgeois neighborhood in Mexico City where Cuarón grew up and where the movie is set, begins with a still close-up of floor tiles. They’re plain; they seem to be made of a composite of cement and either crushed stone or crushed brick. From off screen there comes a slosh of water, soon followed by more sloshes as well as sounds of trickling and brushing. Something is being cleaned. Before the viewer can figure out what, water rushes into the frame, lightly sudsy. As it washes over the tiles, it brings on its quicksilver surface a bright reflection, which, as the water steadies, unfurls, wavering, into a rectangle. Subsequent sloshes ripple the rectangle away, but repeatedly, wobblingly, it reassembles itself. When a small airplane, perfectly in focus, softly droning, sails across it, we realize we are looking at a reflection of open sky.

A child left alone in a sunny yard might play such a game of noticing. It’s a beautiful emblem of moviemaking, reflection and water doing the work of lenses and film. There’s a similar sequence in Terence Davies’s movie The Long Day Closes (1992), when Davies’s camera lingers on a patch of sun as it shifts slowly along a bedroom carpet. In Davies’s movie, the implied perspective is Davies’s own as a young boy; from his patient fascination with the ray of sunlight the viewer infers that his vocation as a filmmaker is born. The sensibility through which Cuarón’s movie is perceived, however, is a more complex construction.

Perhaps Cuarón himself, as a child in 1970, noticed such reflections in his family’s driveway, but the movie slowly, gently suggests another possible origin: the young Mixtec woman cleaning the driveway. In the movie, she is called Cleo, a role played contemplatively and with fine understatement by Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actress. The character is based on Liboria Rodríguez, who worked as a nanny in Cuarón’s family when he was a child and has remained close to the filmmaker; Cuarón has dedicated the movie to her. In the movie, Cleo is not only responsible for washing the driveway but also for sweeping, doing the laundry, fetching the family’s four children home from school, singing lullabies, and, in general, being present for the children in a way the parents are unable to, in part because they’re busy professionals—he’s a doctor, she’s a chemistry professor—and in part because they’re going through a divorce.

Cleo appears in almost every scene, far more often than Paco, the son who appears to be a fictionalization of Cuarón’s younger self. But even though the movie opens by looking through her eyes—a perspective on the driveway that returns at a crucial moment later, from a steeper camera angle—it isn’t told merely from her point of view. It seems to convey her perceptions as they might have been reflected in the observations, intuitions, imaginations, and memories of Paco and the rest of the family, which is also to say, as they must have been remembered, reconstructed, sharpened, and deepened by the moviemaker’s adult intelligence. Cuarón seems to be trying to tell his story from a transitional space between the mother-like Cleo and the family she serves.

The politics of that transitional space are delicate. Cleo lives in the bosom of the family but has few privileges in it, as we see when, in an early scene, she briefly sits to join the family as they watch a comic skit on television and is ordered by the mother to brew the father a cup of chamomile tea. “No, because she’s with me,” protests the youngest son, Pepe, beside whom she’s sitting, but Cleo, who must do her duty, gets up. The mother isn’t portrayed as heartless—in fact, the movie celebrates the family’s love for Cleo as genuine—but it is clear that Cleo’s intimacy with her employers is to some extent made possible by the class difference between them.

There are even hints that the class difference is part of a larger social structure that is unjust, and in which the bourgeois family that employs Cleo is to some extent implicated. Cleo learns at one point, for example, that soldiers have come to take the land where her mother lives, and learns at another point that a land deal by a relative of her employers who lives in the country made locals there so angry that they poisoned one of his dogs. It is perhaps a sign of the movie’s good intentions that its story as well as its perspective is shared. In the course of the movie, the children are disillusioned about the nature of their parents’ marriage, and Cleo’s heart is broken in a love affair that involves an unplanned pregnancy—but if anything, Cleo’s storyline is the more compelling.  

That’s a somewhat inappropriate way to phrase it, because the spirit of the movie is very much about imagining a way of looking at the world in which such stories needn’t be in competition. However much the intimacy between Cleo and her employers’ children may have been structured or conditioned by social and economic bias, the intimacy between them was real, the movie insists. To the children, in fact, it may have felt more real than their relationship with their biological parents. Cuarón’s genius is that he is able to induce an appreciation just as vivid in the viewer. From the first scenes, the sensory details of the world he paints, the leisurely pace with which he paints it, and his nonjudgmental comprehensiveness attach themselves to a viewer’s heartstrings.

We hear birds chattering in their cages, and we hear Cleo flushing a toilet under the stairs. The family dog leaps excitedly at the prospect of the children coming home from school, and it turns out that it’s the dog’s poops that Cleo was scrubbing from the driveway in the opening shot. Dog poop later becomes a small but telling plot point, and something of a symbol, as will make sense to anyone who has been the caretaker of a pet, infant, or invalid and has had to learn not to mind its dailiness and its inevitability. What better sign of domesticity, and even of intimacy more generally? Of course the dog poop is also an occasion for the movie’s sly sense of humor, equally manifest when the father maneuvers his hulking Ford Galaxy, of which he is evidently quite proud, into a driveway so narrow that there can’t be more than half an inch to spare on each side, his car radio blasting Berlioz with an oblivious majesty that must be intended to evoke the Strauss waltz to which Kubrick choreographed a space station docking in 2001: A Space Odyssey.


NetflixAparicio as Cleo and Marco Graf as Pepe in Cuarón’s Roma, 2018

When, during a game with toy pistols and capes on the rooftop, Pepe is ditched by one of his brothers for failing to die when it’s his turn to, Cleo enters the game by stepping away from her laundry basin, lying down, and refusing, at first, to answer Pepe’s demand that she say what she’s doing. “I can’t,” she explains. “I’m dead.” And then she and Pepe listen, and we with them, to the barking of neighborhood dogs, and the squawk of radios on neighboring rooftops (there is no music in Roma except that heard by its characters). She adds, “You know, I like being dead.” There aren’t many movies capable of conveying the pleasure, only intermittently available to anyone, and lately, it seems, harder and harder to access, of being in the world without any aim other than appreciation of it, and maybe it’s partly a viewer’s gratitude for being reminded of the pleasure that so quickly makes the movie’s characters so dear.

Cuarón did his own cinematography, and he gets his camera to do a number of things that I didn’t think a movie camera was capable of doing. He manages to point it at actors directly backlit by a setting sun, for instance, without reducing them to mere silhouettes. He films from behind two actors seated in the rear of a dim movie theater without washing out either them or the movie screen beyond that they’re watching—and then, when the curtain falls and the house lights go up, Cuarón keeps the camera rolling, and somehow richly captures the scene under the new lighting, too. Cuarón has explained that he adopted the photographer Ansel Adams’s principle of seeking to preserve as much of the visual information in an image as possible, even in its darkest and lightest portions, and that to achieve such extended dynamic ranges, he often reshot a scene without its actors at multiple exposures and then rotoscoped the takes together.

Perhaps most boldly, Cuarón arranges several crucial scenes so that the important action takes place along the axis perpendicular to the camera lens, a daunting technical challenge. By demanding an enormous depth of field, such a blocking necessitates a stark narrowing of the camera’s aperture, which makes the lighting of a scene even more of a challenge. When one figure is in front of the other, it’s tricky to maintain a visual balance between them, not to mention keep the figure in front from obstructing the one behind. Nonetheless, the most moving scene in Cuarón’s movie is blocked this way, with Cleo lying across the screen in the foreground as she watches—and we watch over her shoulder (or rather, across her shoulders)—events in the background that break her heart. The viewer’s eyes, instead of bouncing between left and right, have to travel repeatedly into the scene and then back out of it. While I watched, sobbing more or less uncontrollably, a part of me kept thinking, But he can’t be filming the scene this way. It’s impossible.

In another surprise, Cuarón drops Cleo and the grandmother of her employers’ family into the middle of the Corpus Christi massacre of June 1971, in which paramilitaries trained and armed by the Mexican government killed twenty-five student protesters and wounded dozens more. It has been reported that to shoot the scene Cuarón had to cast over 800 extras; it’s a chilling show of moviemaking force. As the sequence begins, a shelf of clocks shows the time to day, as if to spotlight the intersection of history and private life, and the scenes that follow reminded me, in their intensity and uncanniness, of the famous long take in Cuarón’s end-of-humanity thriller Children of Men (2006), in which the world’s last infant is carried through a long hallway, down a flight of stairs, and out a doorway as her cries silence the refugees, insurgents, and government soldiers fighting around her. The end of humanity isn’t an explicit theme of Roma, but lately I’ve found myself wondering whether any artwork of the first caliber can be created anymore that doesn’t somehow reflect a sense that there are changes underway in the world so grave that they are unlikely to be survivable in any form we have yet imagined.

Roma is an act of understanding—an investigation by Cuarón of where he came from, and of what and who made him—and it’s moving in the way that an honest and generous investigation of that kind can be. The film’s juxtaposition, however, of political violence so cruel and total as to seem almost an act of God, on the one hand, with tender and quiet appreciation of the gift that some people are able to make merely by their daily presence, on the other, made it feel to me like an act of mourning, as well—a pause to acknowledge the beauty of the world that we have lost and are continuing to lose.


Roma is playing in select theaters and available streaming on Netflix.

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The Tender Nostalgia of ‘Cold War’


Opus Film/Amazon StudiosJoanna Kulig as Zula in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, 2018

The opening scenes of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War offer the most exhilarating film-making I’ve seen in a long while. We are first assailed by the loud discordance of a bagpipe-like instrument. In precise, haunting black and white, we focus on a peasant’s grubby digits, his rheumy eyes; then upon the blunt and awkward faces of the people around him; a violinist’s acne-pitted cheeks; the chickens pecking in their yard. A lone small boy in an overcoat and flapped cap stands listening, sober and perhaps skeptical. These first sounds and images, initially without context, have us, as the wonderful French word has it, dépaysé (displaced or disoriented). And while this film tells a grand love story, it is also a film about nation, art, and belonging, about where, how, and indeed whether, against the backdrop of Europe’s postwar conflicts, artists can find a home.

From the musical barnyard of the first scene, we are transported to another world, a sort of music hall, where a vast peasant woman plays an organ-like instrument, her heavy shoes pumping bellows beneath her voluminous swaying skirts. And transported again, to a simple little girl with braids who sings solo in a humble interior. We gather that a pair, Irena, the woman, older than the man, Wiktor, along with a bureaucrat named Kaczmarek (who drives them, but will prove much more than a driver), are touring the postwar Polish countryside to record folk music for an archive and for the founding of a folk troupe, the Mazurek ensemble, which will perform, and hence revitalize, the music of the Polish people.

In an arresting early scene, their van, as if a toy or cartoon, comes to a stop in the apparent void of a snowscape. Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) needs to relieve himself, and after first pissing against a tree, he wanders into the ruins of a church. The camera lingers on the damaged frescoes; conveys the soaring walls, now roofless, through which we see the treetops and the vast sky. The moment—the film will return to it much later—is sacred, a moment of pure beauty. It’s not clear whether Kaczmarek (an avid Communist keen to discard religion) appreciates this; but we do. If the utterly compelling brutality of the musicians’ faces recalls the genius of Pasolini, this moment, for all its comparative brevity, evokes Tarkovsky. From the first, watching Cold War we know—with joy and relief—that we’re in the hands of an artist with vision, an artist whose aesthetics will shape and give meaning to his material. The film has a grand story to tell, but it’s as much about the telling as the story itself.

Pawlikowski was, in Cold War, inspired by his own parents’ complicated relationship: the protagonists, Wiktor and Zula, bear their names, and the film is dedicated to them, although it is not strictly biographical. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the musician we meet from the outset, one of the founders of the Mazurek ensemble, for which Zula auditions. Her chutzpah and her mysterious past (she is rumored to have killed her father) intrigue Wiktor, who selects her for the troupe in spite of Irena’s skepticism. Zula is played by Joanna Kulig, the marvelous actress who had a minor part as the magnetic singer in Pawlikowski’s beautifully austere Ida (2013): in this film, too, she sings, gloriously. Kulig is impossible not to watch: like Jeanne Moreau, she has a sexy beauty that is, in rare moments, almost ordinary; those glimpses of plainness only enhance her attractiveness. Ambitious but passive, secretive but on occasion blunt, impetuous yet cowardly, passionate and childish, Zula has a human complexity that is rare in contemporary cinema (and rare in contemporary fiction, too). Next to her, Wiktor seems unexplored, a foil: Kot is a fine actor, but his role is the lesser, that of a man entranced, who loves this woman and his music—and who looks great unshaven, with a cigarette in his mouth.

Once the Mazurek ensemble is launched, Kaczmarek emerges as a scheming apparatchik whose control over the group will grow only ever more draconian—and more cynical. The singers, with increasing success, tour the Communist world singing songs to boost Stalin, rather than playing the strange, unmelodic tunes Irena and Wiktor sought to save from oblivion. Irena quits the group in protest; Wiktor stays on, in order to be near Zula and, we discover, in order to facilitate their defection to the West.


Opus Film/Amazon StudiosKulig as Zula and Tomasz Kot as Wiktor in Pawlikowski’s Cold War, 2018

Once the film follows Wiktor to the postwar jazz-world Paris of Sidney Bechet in the Caveau de la Huchette, of dark streets, Seine-side meanderings, dusty garrets, and cafés (to which Zula, for a time at least, will follow him), Cold War becomes considerably less surprising, and deploys a more conventionally glamorous set of images and metaphors. Ah, Paris!, we think, as we have surely thought before: Paris, in black and white, is indeed gorgeous. Events, too, have their filmic parallels. In one scene, Zula recalls Bardot in Godard’s Contempt; in another, Bette Davis in All About Eve; in a third, she has something of Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film. There’s a shot that evokes the famous Robert Doisneau photograph The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville (a poster of which I, like a million other students, had on my dorm room wall). My nineteen-year-old, or even my twenty-seven-year-old, self would have swooned uncritically at these scenes, in thrall to Pawlikowski’s depiction of tortured artists and their intense, destructive allure, beautiful people in beautiful places doing foolish things. I’d expect—and hope—that younger viewers will have this delicious experience. In mid-life, though, I view them with tender nostalgia for my own naïveté. I’ve learned by now that this appealing torment is myth, not truth, and that actual torment looks quite different. I’ve seen the myth often in films before and, even acted out by the charismatic Wiktor and Zula, it can’t affect me quite as once it would have.

Pawlikowski deploys his artistic echoes skillfully—his allusions are deliberate, simultaneously affectionate and ironic—but his recreation, however deft, of an actual and artistic era (mid-century Paris and the films of that Paris) doesn’t rival the visceral power of the earlier Polish scenes. By the time the narrative regains a bleaker East—in which a prison camp is glimpsed, and in which Kaczmarek has become an impresario, with Zula the showpiece of his tacky productions—it seems that the artistic exhilaration of the film’s first twenty minutes cannot be retrieved, and that perhaps this is Pawlikowski’s point. But somehow, Wiktor, Zula, and their creator, find a way out, a return, if you will, to purity; and the film’s conclusion is as beautiful as its opening.

Cold War is, of course, about Wiktor’s and Zula’s drive to find and keep each other, across years and borders; and about the ways in which, in this pursuit, they destroy one another and, for periods, their love. They inevitably take other lovers: Wiktor’s women have barely a line to utter onscreen; but Zula’s suitors include not only Wiktor’s French producer friend Michel (Cédric Kahn), but also the seedy but steely Kaczmarek, whose blandly evil presence evolves, over time, into something less forceful, a puffy small man’s enduring greed for which we feel something almost like tenderness. There’s surely something to be said for the longevity of his commitment to Zula, too: what, one wonders, might their story look like from his perspective?

But Cold War is also about art itself, and the conditions necessary for its creation. Art is always a balance of freedom and constraint, and these two artists find their balance differently: Wiktor needs the freedoms of the West, whereas Zula seems unable to survive them. The film is also about originality and influence—both in its musical movement, from the wild strangeness of Polish folk music to the kitschy renditions Zula will sing, later, at Kaczmarek’s behest, and in Pawlikowski’s thrilling visual conversations with his directorial predecessors: he has made a work of art at once familiar and entirely itself. In spite of minor flaws—or perhaps, like the riveting Joanna Kulig, in part because of them—Cold War is superb: in its performances, its direction, its cinematography. More stylish and less self-conscious than the marvelous Ida, this film is deeply pleasurable to watch, all the more for being so thoughtful and self-knowing. Pawlikowski’s combined seriousness of purpose and playfulness restore faith in the form: What is great art if not serious play?


Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is in theaters. 

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The Long War Against a Gay ‘Cure’


Kay Tobin/New York Public LibraryFrank Kameny (center) with Mattachine Society of Washington members marching in the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, New York City, 1970

For most of human history, homosexuality has been condemned on three grounds: that it is a sin, a crime, and a sickness. Despite the emergence in recent decades of gay-affirming scriptural exegeses, many major religious denominations continue to regard homosexual acts, if not the homosexual inclination itself, as immoral. As to the second rationalization, only in 2003, with the Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, was gay sex decriminalized across the United States, thereby lifting the menace of legal sanction that had long shadowed gay lives. And thirty years earlier, a similar liberation had taken place when the stigma of mental illness was officially disassociated from same-sex attraction.

For this latter advance in human understanding, we largely have Frank Kameny to thank. A Harvard-trained astronomer fired from his job in the Army Map Service in 1957 because of his sexual orientation, Kameny was the first person to challenge the federal government over its anti-gay discrimination policies. Understanding that the rationale for barring highly qualified homosexuals like him from public service rested not only upon the McCarthyite claim that they were liable to subversion, but also that they were mentally unfit, he took it upon himself to change the scientific consensus. Kameny’s most consequential insight as an activist was that it was not the homosexual who is sick, but rather the society that deems him so.

“The problems of the homosexual stem from discrimination by the heterosexual majority and are much more likely to be employment problems than emotional problems,” Kameny wrote in a 1969 letter to Playboy, responding to an article that advised “therapeutic methods” for treating the male homosexual. (One suggested method entailed reading said magazine not for the articles but the pictures.) Doctors “would be of greater service to the harassed homosexual minority,” Kameny concluded, “if they ceased to reinforce the negative value judgments of society and, instead, adopted a positive approach in which therapy for a homosexual would consist of instilling in him a sense of confident self-acceptance so he could say with pride, ‘Gay is good.’”

Published the same year as the Stonewall uprising, at a time when even most liberals were inclined to view homosexuality as an affliction (albeit one whose sufferers deserved pity rather than prison sentences), these were radical words, wholly at odds with the long-settled convictions of the psychiatric establishment. In the first edition of its definitive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published in 1952, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) listed homosexuality alongside other “sexual deviations” like pedophilia and exhibitionism. The diagnosis was, in the words of the National Gay Task Force, the “cornerstone of oppression” for homosexuals. It was also a source of untold personal torment. During the postwar era, some of the common techniques used to “cure” homosexuals of their supposed illness were electroshock treatments and aversion therapy. The latter, administered by medical professionals, would sometimes entail a patient being injected with a nausea-inducing element and made to view sensual images of members of their own sex. In 1970, when a gay undergraduate at no less a cerebral and rational place than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried to organize a dance for Boston-area gay students, the dean of student affairs turned him down. Homosexuality, he told the school newspaper, was “a disease.”

To such castigatory generalizations about the sanity of him and his fellow gays, Kameny had a bold retort. “Yes, we are sick—we are sick of your manipulation and exploitation of us,” he declared at a 1971 meeting of the APA. He proceeded with a list of eight demands, one of which was that “homosexuality be removed permanently from the psychiatric list of diseases.” In conclusion, Kameny defiantly called for “treatment of the oppressing society instead of the attempted treatment of us, the oppressed homosexual.” Two years later, thanks to the fervent lobbying of Kameny and other gay activists working in tandem with sympathetic heterosexual members of the APA, the nation’s leading organization of mental health experts, removed homosexuality from the DSM. Soon thereafter, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other professional groups, explicitly stated their opposition to efforts aimed at changing people’s sexual orientation. (The battle over the APA designation is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, Cured.)

While the APA’s 1973 decision was a momentous and under-appreciated moment in the history of gay rights (as significant, if not more so, than Stonewall), it did not mark the end of organized attempts to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals. That same year, a man named Frank Worthen started an organization called Love in Action (LIA), founded, in the words of one of its leaders, “as a Christian ministry to prevent or remediate unhealthy and destructive behaviors facing families, adults, and adolescents, which includes promiscuity, pornography and homosexuality.” With one of the three traditional condemnations of homosexuality—sickness—now obviated by the medical establishment, the destructive effort to make gay people straight would be smuggled in under the rubric of another: sin.

*

The evolution of conversion therapy from prevalent medical practice to pseudo-scientific religious scam is the subject of a legal white paper entitled The Pernicious Myth of Conversion Therapy: How Love in Action Perpetrated a Fraud on America. Written by a team of lawyers from the firm McDermott Will & Emery LLP, it has been drafted on behalf of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. One of the earliest gay rights activist groups (co-founded by Kameny in 1961), it has today been reconstituted as an organization devoted to “archive activism,” which uses archival material to illustrate the ways in which American institutions persecuted gay people. The publication of the report is timed to coincide with the release of the film Boy Erased, based on the real-life experiences of a young man forced by his evangelical Christian parents to undergo conversion therapy in 2004 at a Memphis facility administered by LIA. 

The report traces the origins of modern-day conversion therapy to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., originally known as St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane. Founded by social reformers to provide humane treatment for the mentally ill in 1855, its most famous patients have included Ezra Pound and John Hinckley Jr., Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin. Beginning in 1948, when the United States Congress (which then governed the District of Columbia) passed a “sexual psychopath” act criminalizing gay behavior, the hospital became a repository for gay men and women who ran afoul of the law. In the words of Mattachine President Charles Francis, St. Elizabeths operated as a “shadowy think tank of psychiatry and policy behind much of the bad science, barbaric treatments, ‘cures’ and investigations of an era.”

According to the statute, patients would remain at the hospital until its leadership determined they had “sufficiently recovered so as not to be dangerous to other persons.” St. Elizabeths’ senior psychiatrist from the 1920s through the 1960s was Dr. Benjamin Karpman. “Chasing all of the homosexuals out of one city (even assuming such a thing were possible) would not solve the problem of homosexuality, any more than chasing all of the thieves out of one city would solve the problem of dishonesty,” he explained in a 1954 memorandum. “Psychiatry should take time out from discussing homosexuality as an individual ‘disease’ and offer a constructive plan for dealing with it as a social problem.” Although he supported the decriminalization of same-sex sodomy, which put him at odds with the city’s overzealous police department and its congressional overlords, Karpman nonetheless saw homosexuality as a scourge in need of treatment. (Considering how his pathologizing of homosexuality would later be re-appropriated by evangelical Christians, Karpman’s skepticism toward religious injunctions against same-sex desire is ironic. “The fundamental religious objection to homosexuality is not that it is immoral, but that it is sterile,” he wrote. “The only ultimate concern of religious institutions is their own economic preservation. ‘Sin’ is simply their stock in trade; they can no more do without it than a grocer can do without canned soup.”)

For those who wished to treat themselves in the comforts of their own home, the Farrall Instruments Company of Grand Island, Nebraska, marketed the self-administered “Visually Keyed Shocker” a disturbingly cheery advertisement for which is included in the white paper’s appendix. “Aversive conditioning has proven an effective aid in the treatment of child molesters, transvestites, exhibitionists, alcoholics, shop lifters and other people with similar problems,” reads the catalogue description, published the same year as the APA’s decision to remove homosexuality from the DSM. “In reinforcing heterosexual preference in latent male homosexuals, male slides give a shock while the stimulus relief slides of females do not give a shock.” Customers could also purchase a “penile expansion monitor” to measure their progress.

Condemnation by the medical establishment eventually discouraged the widespread use of such quack methods to “cure” homosexuality, at least among licensed medical professionals. But it would take far more than a secular edict to erase millennia-old, deeply ingrained, religiously inspired societal stigma against homosexuality. The APA’s 1973 decision, the white paper notes, came amid the sexual revolution and women’s movement, events that “triggered fear and panic in the hearts of some members of society.” Devoid of a medical diagnosis, the attempt to convert homosexuals persists, albeit dressed up in religious garb. Though claiming a basis in prayer rather than science, conversation therapy was “rooted in the same misconception earlier embraced by the medical community and the federal government: the idea that homosexuality was wrong and needed to be cured.”

The second half of the white paper traces the ordeal of LIA, which became the subject of international outcry after a plaintive blogpost written by a sixteen-year-old boy shipped off by his parents to one of the group’s re-education camps went viral in 2005. “If I do come out straight, I’ll be so mentally unstable and depressed it won’t matter,” the young man wrote. Under public pressure, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and several other state entities launched investigations of LIA, but given that the boy was a minor, and that LIA was not advertising itself as a mental health institution (in which case it would need to obtain a license from the state), there were no legal grounds on which to penalize the organization. (Visiting one such program in North Carolina several years ago on a reporting assignment, I asked a young participant about his introduction to the “homosexual lifestyle.” My heart sank at his reply: “I worked in retail.”)

Opponents of conversion, however, eventually won another sort of victory. In an ending so common as to be unremarkable, the director of Love in Action resigned, declared himself happily homosexual, renounced his past work, and married his same-sex partner. “No amount of religious indoctrination can change a person’s sexual orientation,” John Smid told the authors of the white paper:

We were playing with people’s minds… We were working in a genre that we were not educated or equipped to work in. And if we were educated and equipped, we could not have gotten a license to do it. The mental health professionals and organizations all clearly stated that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. There should not be an attempt to change that in a person’s life.

Smid says that, in his three decades of working in the so-called “ex-gay” movement, he never saw anyone “who experienced a change from homosexual to heterosexual.” He has since contributed an archive of personal papers, amassed over his long career with LIA, to the Mattachine Society, which in turn donated them to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

According to the Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank, some 700,000 LGBT people in the United States have been subjected to conversion therapy, and 57,000 children will be sent to such programs before the age of eighteen. A dozen states including the District of Columbia currently prohibit state-licensed mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy techniques on minors. Ever since 1973, however, when the APA removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, conversion therapy has largely been the remit of religious ministries, which are, of course, free to tell parishioners whatever they wish about the ways of the universe, the sinfulness of same-sex attraction included. The Institute notes that existing state-level bans permit clergy to engage in conversion therapy practices provided they “do not hold themselves out as acting pursuant to a professional license.” 

One creative way of addressing this loophole is to treat conversion therapy as a form of consumer fraud. That is the approach of the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, a bill introduced in 2017 in the US Senate by Patty Murray of Washington, which would prohibit both the provision of conversion therapy “for compensation” and advertising that claims it will change one’s sexual orientation. In California, a gay rights group is suing a therapist on behalf of a lesbian who spent $70,000 over five years for “therapy based on fraudulent, harmful lies,” which led her to believe that her sexual orientation could be changed. But given all the promises organized religions make to their flocks—a right enshrined in the First Amendment—it’s hard to see, legally, how prohibitions on “praying the gay away” would pass muster.

Nonetheless, increased scrutiny of conversion therapy—in particular, harrowing stories from “survivors” about their emotional torture at the hands of those promising to “cure” them—is likely to have the same long-term effect on this “pernicious” practice as similar exposés have had on the cult known as Scientology. To be sure, that dangerous sect still attracts a handful of followers. But it would attract a lot more were it not the subject of frequentcritical media attention (and biting satire).

Reflecting on the long struggle against conversion therapy, I am reminded of the answer Frank Kameny gave when I asked him what had been the most important lesson he had learned in life. “The one thing in which I have absolute faith is the validity of the product of my own intellectual processes,” the famously stubborn Kameny told me in a 2010 interview, a year before his death at the age of eighty-six. “Therefore, if society and I, or the world and I, differ on something, I’ll give them a second chance to make their point, and I’ll take a second chance to make my point. And if we both still differ, there will be a war. And I tend not to lose my wars.”

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