• Most American playgoers of my generation only know John Osborne through the excellent films of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer directed by Tony Richardson a half-century ago. Though the original Angry Young Man enjoyed a brief American vogue—Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer were produced simultaneously on Broadway in 1958—no play by Osborne has been seen on the Great White Way since 1969. I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the much-praised Old Vic revival of The Entertainer makes it to New York sooner or later, Anglophilia being what it is, but I very much doubt that Osborne’s plays will ever take root in this country, for what (mostly) made him angry was the British class system, about which normal Americans know little and care less. A novelist can overcome that obstacle if he’s sufficiently clever and has other interesting things to say—Kingsley Amis did it—but only the very greatest of playwrights can contrive to embed in a two-hour-long play sufficient background information to make so fundamentally impenetrable a subject intelligible to those who know nothing about it going in. Osborne had his moments, but he wasn’t that good, not even in The Entertainer.
The estimable online journal Democratiya is featuring some recently unearthed cabinet memos by the British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin from early 1948, “setting out the case for the Atlantic alliance and for a muscular social democratic antitotalitarianism,” as Democratiya’s editor, Alan Johnson, puts it. (The memos can be read here; Johnson’s gloss is here.)
Bevin was a self-educated worker, who had been forced to drop out of school at the age of ten in order to support himself. His native wit propelled him to the top of Britain’s trade union movement and then to a leading position in the Labor Party. His clear-eyed recognition of the threat and the evil represented by Soviet Communism led him to become the mastermind behind the North Atlantic treaty (although these memos don’t bear directly on the treaty). In contrast, America’s brainchild for keeping the postwar peace was the UN. The biggest fear of that generation of statesmen was that a third world war centered in Europe might soon follow the first and second.
Last week I attended a reading of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s poems at the New School in downtown Manhattan. At the podium were the poets Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski, Herbert’s translator Alissa Valles, the journalist and dissident Adam Michnik, and New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn. This event marked a long-awaited occasion: the publication of Herbert’s collected works in English. Collected Poems, 1956-1998, in Valles’s sensitive translation, makes an important addition to our understanding of post-war literary modernism, and of post-war poetry in general.
On the occasion of Herbert’s death in 1998, his compatriot, translator, and friend Czesław Miłosz wrote a short, understated poem about their shared art form and how the deceased unfailingly attended it:
He, who served [poetry],
is changed into a thing,
delivered to decomposition
into salts and phosphates,
into the home of chaos.
Changed into a thing: a line Herbert himself would have seen as no small compliment. A battered son of Eastern Europe who saw his country repeatedly swapped by Hitler and Stalin, Herbert was understandably preoccupied with the permanent and stable. His poetry is a lasting monument to the safety of objects, to what he once called “a predatory love of the concrete.” Flowers, diamonds, armchairs, stools–these rarely let one down in the flux of life, and through them mankind can fashion a saner metaphysics than through appeals to History and the inevitable forces of “progress.”
One can react in various ways to the unearthing by a Cambridge University researcher of a never-published 1937 article by Winston Churchill. This article, entitled “How The Jews Can Combat Persecution,” may actually have been, we are told, the work of a pro-fascist ghostwriter named Adam Marshall Diston.
One can, for instance, be disappointed to find out that Churchill used ghostwriters. Et tu, Winston?
One can accept Churchill’s use of ghostwriters but still wonder: a fascist ghostwriter? In 1937? And even if for some inexplicable reason Churchill saw nothing wrong with this, why on earth would he have asked such a person to write about the Jews?
Out to sea, hunting Nazi war ships, Saul Bellow’s Augie March encounters a sailor, a brilliant autodidact, who tells him, “Pascal says people get in trouble because they can’t stay in their rooms. The next poet laureate of England—I figure—prays to God to teach us to sit still.” It would take W.H. Auden, who might well have become England’s poet laureate had he sat still, half his career to arrive at a similar conclusion about the mischief men do in pursuit of lofty goals. The centennial of his birth fell on February 21st of this year; most of the comments on this sadly muted occasion focused on the distinction between his “early” and “late” stages, which also happen to coincide with his Communism and his regained Anglicanism.
“God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarians within.” There’s something amusing about hearing Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, talk like this. He was referring to the construction of the hydrogen bomb, an effort he considered harmful and unnecessary, which the Hungarians in question–the physicist Edward Teller and the mathematician John von Neumann, both Jews–strongly advocated as a means of undercutting Stalinist expansion in Eastern Europe. Von Neumann had recently invented game theory, which would soon be applied to the lethal calculus known as “mutual assured destruction,” while Teller was the rumored archetype for Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove.
It’s strange, in light of this anecdote, to realize that only a few books examine the preternaturally powerful impact of Hungarian Jews on the 20th century, particularly in the arts and sciences. Kati Marton’s The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World comes as a welcome entry in the field. Under the rubric of scientists, Marton examines the lives of Teller, von Neumann, Eugene Wigner*, and Leo Szilard, all of whom ushered particle physics into its eschatological own.
Eric Hobsbawm was given three pages to write a cover piece about the Spanish Civil War for the review section of Saturday’s Guardian. He produced a paean to the Communist and fellow-traveling intellectuals of the 30’s, who lost the war but won, he claims, a posthumous victory by “creating the world’s memory.”
The passage in which he deals with the handful of pro-Republican intellectuals who criticized Stalin exhibits Hobsbawm’s own relativistic attitude to the truth. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, he says, was turned down by his fellow-traveling publisher Victor Gollancz and given a “critical” review in the New Statesman (i.e., a hatchet job) because, as Orwell himself wrote, Gollancz and his ideological allies believed that “one must not tell the truth about what is happening in Spain and the part played by the Communist party because to do so would prejudice public opinion against the Spanish government and so aid Franco.”
There is perhaps nothing more likely to give you a healthy skepticism about utopian politics than to know that your father was executed by the Soviet secret police. In the case of the abstract painter Jules Olitski, who died February 4, the result was a lifelong distaste for art that prostituted itself to a political agenda. Today such fastidiousness seems peculiar, the quaint relic of a vanished era, which might account for the note of polite ambivalence in his obituary notices.
Olitski was born in the Ukraine in 1922, a few months after his father’s death. His mother fled to New York, where Olitski grew up and studied painting. His father’s murder seems to have haunted him, and he perpetrated a hoax about a Soviet painter hiding from Stalin’s assassins in a Brooklyn basement, a strange alter ego whom he named Jevel Demekov—a variant of Jevel Demikovsky, his birth name.
Olitski came of age during the heyday of the New York School, but he had little use for the agitated canvases and violent gestures of Jackson Pollock and his ilk. Instead, Olitski looked to purge his canvases of all violence, or even the visible evidence of labor. He dyed his canvases with delicate stains, or sprayed them with fine mists of color; the shimmering pools of color that emerged looked as if they had formed spontaneously, the way that a veil of frost might appear on a window.
Olitski was not alone in his quest for diaphanous color. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and others pursued similar artistic goals; collectively, they formed the movement known as color-field painting (or “post-painterly abstraction,” the rather ponderous term that Clement Greenberg assigned it). But Olitski’s star was short-lived. With the rise of Pop Art and the increasing politicization of art during the Vietnam war, his sensuous and apolitical art became deeply unfashionable. Nonetheless, he made ravishing chromatic essays to the end. At the same time, he remained a keen and outspoken critic of the art world. In a lecture a few years ago, he suggested that a kind of aesthetic Gresham’s Law was at work, in which low art drove high art out of circulation.
Reputations rise and fall, of course, and it may well be that Olitski will one day be rehabilitated. I rather doubt it. Such rehabilitations require publicity campaigns and the dissemination of images, and Olitski’s fragile essays are impossible to photograph with anything near the chromatic subtlety they require. One would as soon ask a short-order cook to make a copy of a gourmet dinner. This is to be regretted, for at a time when the entanglement of art with politics has been good for neither, Olitski’s principled stand has much to teach us.
On February 6th, Human Rights Watch announced the winners of this year’s Hellman-Hammett grants, awarded to “writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution.” The grants honor playwright Lillian Hellman and novelist Dashiell Hammett and are funded from Hellman’s estate. This year’s recipients were mostly from China, Vietnam, and Iran, and were presumably worthy and needy.
But what is a “human rights” organization doing honoring the memory of these two literary thugs? HRW says that “Hellman and Hammett were both interrogated in the 1950′s about their political beliefs and affiliations” in an era when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Communist paranoia helped fuel nearly a decade of anti-Communist ‘witch hunts.’. . . Hellman suffered professionally. . . . Hammett spent time in jail.”
Whatever paranoia and witch hunts there may have been in the 1950′s, Hellman and Hammett could not have been among the objects, for they were Communists, true-believing, loyally-serving devotées of Stalin.
When the Soviet dictator purged his rivals, he staged grotesque “show trials” at which first the prosecutors denounced the defendants, then the defense attorneys denounced the defendants, and then the defendants—having been tortured and threatened with the murder of their families—denounced themselves. Leftist intellectuals around the world raised their voices to protest this travesty.
Hellman and Hammett, by contrast, raised their voices to denounce the protesters. They signed a petition that appeared in the Communist party journal New Masses, with the heading “Leading Artists, Educators Support Soviet Trial Verdict.” They and their comrades declared that the Moscow defendants had
resorted to duplicity and conspiracy and allied themselves with long-standing enemies of the Soviet Union—nationalists who had ties with capitalist, fascist, and White Guard Allies, and even with former czarist agents provocateurs. Degeneration may therefore be charged to the defendants, and not the Soviet Union, which gains strength internally and externally by the prevention of treason and the eradication of spies and wreckers.
A far more fitting tribute to the memories of Hellman and Hammett would be an award honoring the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of political persecution.
In 1978, back when I was working for him on Capitol Hill, Senator Pat Moynihan propounded what he called “the Iron Law of Emulation.” The basic idea was that organizations in conflict with one another come to resemble one another. Because he was drawing on the work of the 19th German sociologist Georg Simmel, some on his staff used to call it, somewhat mockingly, the Iron Law of Simmelation.
But Moynihan’s point was a good one. And today, with former New York Times reporter Judith Miller on the witness stand in the trial of Scooter Libby, we can see the iron law at work in the fiercely adversarial relationship between the Times and the U.S. intelligence community.
The editors and reporters of the New York Times believe they are covering the CIA–and in fact they are–but they are also in competition with the spy agency and the resemblances between the two institutions are striking.
Both, to begin with, have a remarkably similar mission. The CIA is charged with trying to inform its clients (the White House and the rest of the executive branch) about the world around it: what is going on where, what are the looming dangers, what are the facts, and how do reliably do we know them? Much of what the New York Times does is precisely the same, except its client is not the government but the newspaper-buying American public.
Because they are caught up in certain characteristic American dysfunctions, both institutions carry out their functions with mixed results.
The CIA and the Times, for one thing, are both charter members of the cult of “diversity.” In 1995, the spy agency created an internal body called the Resources Oversight Council aimed “at improving the agency’s efforts to hire and provide career development for women, minorities, the deaf, and people with disabilities,” leading the CIA to hire more Hispanics at the very moment when it really needed more Arabic speakers.
The Times has been doing something quite similar, and damage has demonstrably been done. In 2006 the paper announced with much fanfare that an internal body known as “the diversity council” had concluded that “diversity is essential to our business future and our journalism.” But the emphasis on diversity had been in place for decades, and it was to figure in one of the worst debacles (see below) the newspaper ever endured.
Like any large elite organization the CIA and the Times must contend with mediocrity creeping in and gumming up the works. Thus, the CIA has kept incompetents in its ranks, including “anonymous”–a.k.a. Michael Scheuer, its top expert on Osama bin Laden, who despite his insistence on always “checking the checkables,” has enormous difficulty spelling proper names and who characterized bin Laden as “the most respected, loved, romantic, charismatic, and perhaps able figure in the last 150 years of Islamic history.” And “gentle,” too.
The Times, for its part, keeps an impressive daily log of its errors, spelling and otherwise, which despite an army of editors, it cannot seem to contain. For more serious instances of bias and misinterpretation, one need only recall the reporting by Walter Duranty of Stalin’s show trials and artificial famine in the 1930’s, the placement of the Holocaust on the back pages during the 1940’s, its depiction of the North Vietnamese defeat in the Tet offensive as a major victory, or turn to watchdog outfits like CAMERA for an array of contemporary documentation.
Both institutions, over the years, have had worse than bad apples in their ranks. The CIA has suffered outright turncoats like Soviet mole Aldrich Ames, who despite internal evaluations of egregious misbehavior was steadily promoted upward until he was in a position to give away the CIA’s most precious assets.
The New York Times has had its outright traitors, too, like the diversity-hire Jayson Blair, whose fictional reporting the paper was to call “a profound betrayal of trust.” During his five-year career progressing from intern to national reporter, the management of the Times received numerous warnings that the rising star was actually a comet waiting to crash. Despite such cautions, Blair steadily advanced, like Aldrich Ames, eventually reducing the Times to what it itself called “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”
But in both institutions, it is not deliberate bad faith that typically creates malfunction but something else. The CIA notoriously failed to foresee the attacks of September 11 and then issued an erroneous “slam-dunk” assessment that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The problem was simply that agency analysts placed too much stock in Iraqi émigré sources who were telling them what they wanted to hear. The New York Times’s credulous treatment of Saddam Hussein’s WMD arsenal fell into the same trap.
Judith Miller was front and center. In reporting on Saddam’s burgeoning (but non-existent) WMD program, she too placed too much faith in sources who were telling her what she wanted to hear. Strikingly, in both cases, the chain of command in the CIA and the New York Times failed to ask critical questions, which only became utterly obvious–and the subject of much sanctimonious handwringing–in the incandescent glow of hindsight.
Ironically, one of the factors underpinning such maladaptive behavior is that both institutions operate behind a veil of secrecy. The CIA assiduously keeps both its methods of intelligence gathering and its internal deliberations under wraps: sources and methods, in particular, are treated as ultra-sensitive matters, disclosure of which is punishable by law.
So too with the New York Times, which, even as it calls for greater openness by the U.S. government jealously conceals its own internal workings. As with the CIA, sources and methods are treated by the Times as a matter of extraordinary sensitivity, with some of its operatives ready and willing to go to jail (Judith Miller once again!) rather than reveal who has told them what.
All of which makes the Scooter Libby trial so very compelling. A window is being opened into the internal operations of news- and intelligence-gathering at once. It is only confirming that in many of their essentials, and despite the loud protestations such a claim would elicit from both sides, the iron law of emulation holds. The Times and the CIA are becoming more similar with each passing year.
To apply for employment with the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, click here.
To apply for employment as a New York Times‘s reporter, editor, or deliveryman, click here.