The present essay, in expanded form, constitutes the introduction to a collection of David Bazelon's essays, "Nothing But a Fine…
I came to New York in the fall of 1943 when I was twenty to make my way as a writer. I was met by my college pal, Calder Willingham, who has since gotten rich writing good movies and better novels. In those days, Calder was just poor and eager and wild and daring—as, come to think of it, who was not? We had planned to leave school and meet in New York, thus to repeat the proven career-pattern of James T. Farrell, with whom we were both corresponding (I suspect that Farrell has written millions of words of advice to young writers over the years, including—as with me—which of the forty-odd volumes of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine to read first). I was on that classic thin gold thread from home, after my get-away money ran out; but Calder scrounged and bell-hopped and borrowed. I think I was envious, in a way: the list of odd jobs on the dust jacket of your first novel was, in those days, the equivalent of a graduate degree.
Calder and I had some excitement setting out in life and discovering New York and so on—we lived in a rooming-house on 58th Street near Sixth Avenue, a cultural beginner's neighborhood, and luckily stumbled upon a nest of female dance students—before he left town for jobs like putting out a camp newspaper in Georgia and bell-hopping in Beverly Hills. But mostly what happened to me in New York was that I looked up Isaac Rosenfeld a few days after I arrived. Like me (and Farrell), Isaac was from Chicago. Young men from the provinces; as I recall, there was a Lot of that in Balzac.
In many ways, Isaac was a very exceptional person. Exceptionally talented as a literary stylist and talker and performer (his imitations of friends were hilarious) and scene-maker and general doer. But most exceptional of all, with him you could take your own life seriously, any part of it you wanted, and he would really help—he really wanted to help. That was the great novelist in him that never got squared away—never got down to writing novels. (He died young, after writing a pretty good standard Ph.D. type family background novel and, for No. 2, a wild one called The General, written at the height of the Kafka wave and, in its ebb, not published.) All of Isaac's good friends, including myself, believed that he could and would one day write a great comic novel—maybe like Gogol—about Village intellectual life. That is, about us. With hindsight, 1 see now that we believed this so deeply not simply because of his unquestioned talent, but also because he had done so much, as a novelist merely marking time, to create the serio-comic scene he would one day memorialize. (We were all so devoted to The Word that each of us was willing to take his lumps, personally, in the course of its grand realization—unlike the inhabitants of some other Peyton Places.)
Anyway, Isaac introduced me to people—indeed, through him I met most of the population of my future life in New York, both the famous and the merely significant. He was a center; and his utterly undistinguished apartment on Barrow Street was a meeting-place. Isaac had come to New York, perhaps in 1940, to study philosophy with Sidney Hook (I think); by then, the Chicago Writers' Project of the WPA had folded, spreading unemployed talent, including his, in all directions. By that time, however, there were nearly jobs (that brief hiatus after WPA released, and before OWI saved, an important segment of mankind) and Isaac had occupied one on the trade journal, Ice Cream World. When I got to New York, he had already advanced in his editing-for-eating career to an editorial position with the New Republic. It was still a shame and a disgrace to work for the New Republic—because they had defended the Moscow Trials, and hadn't exactly done everything else right either—but what the hell, a job was a job, even if it was high class.
But more important, Isaac was writing for Partisan Review—and only a year or two away from becoming their golden boy of the newer generation. To characterize as much history as the PR Grouping represented in one or two sentences is at least impossible; so I will take three or four. First of all, the unplaced talent that for awhile found a place there: it would take too long to mention all the important names, but just a few years ago the two current major novels were written by graduates, Mary McCarthy and Saul Bellow (each of whom was firmly identified with the Grouping, from the beginning of his and her career, not merely passing through). Besides people, there was The Issue: to integrate literary modernism and the best in Marxist thought, thus to build yet another immigrant beachhead on the American shore. And The Method: chutzpah—directed againt the established academy, on both Marxist and modernist grounds. And finally, The Ethnic: everybody was Jewish, or acting that way—especially including Mary McCarthy and Dwight Macdonald, our most distinguished goyim. (It was a necessary badge of dishonor.) The PR Grouping served for its time as a great market-place of sensibility; a highly significant ad hoc or street university; and, all in all, one of our better European imports.
Isaac's gang—especially his boyhood pals, Oscar Tarcov and Saul Bellow, as well as some University of Chicago classmates—were known as the Chicago Dostoyevskians. Through them, an important provincial connection with the metropolitan center was established. I guess I was the last of the travelers from Chicago to join in. Anyway, I was always The Kid, the youngest by five years or more. And Isaac Rosenfeld, perhaps the brightest burned-out star of them all, provided me with a whole new life in the literary capital. He had me writing a book review for the New Republic within a few days of my arrival in New York; and not much later sent me around to see Dwight Macdonald who, in a breakaway from the reduced political emphasis of Partisan Review, was then getting ready to publish Politics—which became the only high-level critical voice during the remainder of the war.
To The Kid from Chicago, New York was an astoundingly bright new world, filled with Jews of marvelous variety: like a supermarket kind of candy store, with versions of heritage, row-upon-row, freely to be chosen from.
I was second-generation; they were not. It took me nearly twenty years to come to terms with the fact. I know a great deal about light mulattoes calling themselves “black.”
A couple of years ago I ran into a woman I had known in those early days—an authentic Bronx intellectual who in fact has since become something of a Jewish scholar. We had barely exchanged pleasantries when a special greedy smile appeared (after long study, I now know what this bit of intellectual femininity means: I am going to eat you alive—wait a minute, as soon as I find the horseradish), and she remarked, “For crissake, when did you become so Jewish?” I tried to explain how it happened, but she wasn't having any. “Come on, you had a clear midwestern accent; you didn't know a word of Yiddish; you can't fool me—I remember it.” See? Already I was “fooling” her. So, before she had a chance to explain my anti-Semitism to me, I smiled sheepishly, etc. (which, after equally long study, means: Lady, you'll never find the horseradish).
I am a self-created, phony Jew. I admit it—that is, I am willing and I still try, occasionally, to admit it. No go: the best I get is a forgiving glance. Gentiles think I am trying to “pass” in an unacceptably primitive fashion; Jews with genuine ethnicity in their upbringing are nonplussed, and simply deal with my implausible chatter as best they can. The only ones who understand and sympathize are the two or three second-generation Jews who have done what I did—and the numerous intellectual Gentiles who were tempted to do it.
It took years of effort to create this absurd situation. When it finally began to bore me a while back, however, I found that it was ineradicable. The me-inside-me I talk to all day long no longer had the youthful daring to learn to speak naked American (and, being a writer, I certainly could not fetter or forgo that essential me-to-me conversation).
What led me into this endeavor, apart from my own ambition and the loud voices of my friends, was my startled reading of Sartre's Qu'est-ce que le juif? when I was too young and too logical to resist it. Such a brilliant goy ! He convinced me that I faced the iron choice of existing as an authentic or an inauthentic Jew. Loaded at the time with chutzpah, I went for the jugular. And that's how I became such a fraud.
I try on occasion to admit that I am a phony Jew; but I refuse to apologize for it. The reason is that I have been living out this special life of mine in America; and here in America the Jew-as-metaphor—born, created, or merely borrowed—is peculiarly appropriate. Jews everywhere have always been Somebody Else: that was the Big Thing that God laid on them. And since (really) so many people in America were almost Somebody Else, anyone trained to the role was clearly starting ahead of the crowd—even if type-cast. There is no question: when the Jew and America came together, something very special happened. The Jews were it—rather than some other ethnic grouping—because something weird in that multi-millennial training stint of theirs set them up superbly for the mad American dash for Success. (My father, who failed, died of bitter embarrassment. In fact and finally, however, he spanned the generations: having flopped in plastic novelties and music boxes, at death's door he had a hit in modern educational materials.)
The Jews were it, but not just the Jews: it has been reported on good authority that Mike Quill's brogue was well rehearsed and retained. Someone, I am certain, will one day write a whole book illustrating the overall point with an Italian accent. Why not? It's an American story. With the Jews, however, there was more new-identity eagerness and capacity: after all, we had Al Jolson, Hollywood, sociology, General Sarnoff, and a substantial hunk of middle-management advertising—and that's leaving out the Sephardim and the fancy Germans from before the Civil War. Who else from steerage can claim that good? It all began with Show-Biz-out-of-Seventh-Ave.; and went from there to the Intellectual sons. And so quick in some instances—and the fathers so preoccupied—that the sons had to concoct traditions the same way sexual knowledge was gained: on the street.
So, to begin with, I became a Jewish intellectual—even if I had to scramble some to get there.
Here is my big point, merely introduced by the foregoing story (and to be elaborated later on): We Americans are a communityless nation. Consumerism—grabbing all those goodies, with the media pistol-whipping us from the home to the shopping center and back again—is our basic national community (or our substitute for it). I have lived in this absurd community, as weakness dictated, with the status of an ungrateful visitor. I never made very much money, so never really got caught up in the buying game; nor was I much interested. My father was like that, too: he never spent on anything except grabbing dinner-checks to which he was not entitled, and my education. (I'm not certain, but for the latter I think he actually stole a little.) For him, money-making was mostly a box-score kept by the natives.
Instead of the usual Consumerism and money-making, my life has been based on a magnificent effort to confuse ideas and community, mind and body, conversation and life. The energy and talent I have devoted to this absurd project! My excuse—no, my explanation (or the beginning of it)—is that this dominating impulse had very deep roots. My life as I know it began with a certain problem of the body, coming to awareness at age three or four or five. I had an accident and lost an arm. This problem stimulated my mind ahead of time, or out of sequence, which led almost immediately, I think, to two different but simultaneous distortions of emphasis: 1) I sought too much outside my own physical being for compensatory jurisdiction (control in fact and by right) of my own body; and 2) I became both internally and externally imperialist as to the jurisdiction of the mind, my own and others. (Please excuse this manner of stating the matter: as one consequence of what I am trying to describe, many people told me I should become a lawyer and, helplessly, I finally did. So now I talk like one.)
These two distortions came together, and set the pattern of my life, when I was seven. This did not happen inevitably, out of some merely self-generated dynamic. Its occurrence had to do with my family circumstance (the obvious hot-house of hot ideas about community). My parents screamed at each other—frequently, devotedly, as if the realest thing of all was then happening. I got the message; but I couldn't accept it. Instead, I mobilized my distortions, or they were mobilized for me (at that age, the difference is not important), to recreate the basic family community by digging into the source of the difficulty with the tin shovel of my own reason and need. (My older sister regularly slammed the door of her private room: what she did inside, no one ever knew.) For the next five or six years, until the advent of puberty, I refereed all quarrels between my mother and father: significantly, these were also the worst years of the Depression, and the family was on the road part of the time. Anyway, I was the youngest and most devoted marriage counselor in the history of our nation. Shortly after I retired, battle-worn and utterly defeated, Mayor Edward J. Kelly himself personally pinned the Eagle Scout medal on my deserving chest—right there in the actual Chamber of Thieves of the City of Chicago.
Veterans of Waterloo and Gettysburg lived out their lives recounting the glories of that defeat. Not less have I. This experience of the inner battleground has served as my basic training in community-building; the compulsive use of intellect in that process (I have not lost an argument or won anything important in my family since the age of seven); and the various techniques of controlling the terror and other emotion consequent upon having to be where one is in a communityless place like America, with whatever one has to make do with.
What was I, what would I have been apart from these distortions, and their particular mobilization? I don't know (and imagining is no fun). I guess I was or would have been gorgeous and perfect, like my father and my son before they, too, became somewhat over-involved in wilful community-mending here in America.
When I gave up on marriage counseling—following one last grand confrontation, which my sister sabotaged—the consequences, or at least the rapidly succeeding events, were extreme and fateful and seem to me to presage all the warring elements of my life-long personality. The major happenings were these:
- The choo-choo train that was to carry me from home was on the tracks and rolling. Many times I looked back; but never for a true return. Any salvation of mine could thereafter be initiated only by further escape. All this was accomplished more by instinct than reflection (although I was already an intellectual, lacking only the confirming experience of reading my first book as one).
- As if from nowhere, I suddenly discovered a comic talent. I became an appreciated performer, a leader in schoolroom hijinks, and shortly abandoned actual (not imagined) fist-fighting forever. Previously, my greatest social success had been in fighting; thereafter, it was all to be in word-performance, mostly comic—and the verbal fist-fighting kind.
- I made an initial effort at praying, waited the better part of a week for results, and have never again spoken seriously to any but an imagined God.
- After long reflection, I made the toughest judgment of my life. I closed out the counseling file by deciding that my ferocious father—who, in the absence of calculated self-interest, could speak reasonably to no one but me—had to bear the major responsibility for the interminable screaming and unlivable emotionality of the home; that I didn't love my mother as much after the counseling years as I had when they began, and that her mind and soul were unforgivably less available than my father's; and finally that, however much it shamed me, I preferred my father as a person and a presence, for his charm, quickness, ferocity, tobacco smell, and even (much later) his intelligence—all in all, for his magnificence as a life-performer, even though he never took the immediate family seriously as an audience, and would come home only to sulk and glower. In short, whatever its provocations, I despised my mother's martyrdom.
- Also, to speak quickly, I embarked on a course of ritual self-containment by collecting, trading, and stealing stamps; got a dumb answer from a teacher, and never trusted one again; joined the Boy Scouts as if it were the Foreign Legion, and ended my career several years later as a decorated cashiered colonel; agreed with The Powers to become a lawyer on the single condition that I be allowed to survive the public school system without adopting the hideous notion that I in any way belonged there; and, of course, suffered the eternal earthquake of puberty—with its marvel of masturbation, and the overwhelming dream of redemption through love of a female stranger.
But mainly I stumbled into the public library. Or, more exactly, I finished the last of their Tom Swift books and, for the first time, stayed on to look at the other shelves. I haven't any genuine recollection why I chose two yellow books both with the title Boston. The reason could have been the redundancy, or a desire to travel; it couldn't, then, have been emerging snobbery. I do recollect, however, that the reading was very much different from what I expected, whatever that was. The two volumes were first a fictional and then a factual recounting of the Sacco-Vanzetti story by Upton Sinclair. So, at an appropriate moment, I had stumbled upon a perfect metaphor of injustice. (I must have been somewhere between eleven and thirteen at the time.)
Then I read other political books—Stuart Chase and George Soule's The Coming American Revolution; and I even took out a subscription to the New Republic. Until I finally escaped to the University of Illinois at seventeen, I argued New Deal economics with my father and his friends. What a wonderful way of bitching him: You're in business, you believe in justice, well then, etc., etc. After my initial effort in counseling, my second intellectual career was as a political street-fighter in the home. It served to fill time; but in the end was strangely as frustrating as my first effort. My father, however, did end up switching party allegiance and voting for Roosevelt, because of the Nazis; my New Deal arguments mostly helped him to justify that changeover. My mother always responded by affirming that she had always been a Southern Democrat. So, to fill my time with her, and for my own convenience, I taught her to listen to radio reports of baseball games. I succeeded marvelously (“I don't care what happened, they're my Cubbies!”) and she has ever since been addicted to radio baseball—even after television arrived.
People have called me “brilliant,” in order to dismiss me, since I was a boy. My mother created the pattern. Mostly, she wanted me to be somebody else; so did a lot of other people important in my life. It has taken me a lifetime of intellectuality to get the best of all of them by becoming truly me. But did I? They made me an intellectual, and I don't really like it.
What they did was to con me into taking on the toughest jobs at the lowest pay. In basic American terms, they threw me out of Boston and told me to go make another settlement in Ohio, because I was so brilliant and unwelcome. But, it must be admitted, all basic American effort is frontier effort of this kind. And, increasingly during my lifetime certainly, the American frontier is a mental and spiritual one.
The reason I don't much care for the life and work that was thus “chosen” for me—being an intellectual—is simply that it is too strenuously lonely on this frontier. The United States is a very lonely place in any event. Given our “thin” communal beginnings, and the generational transfer of these inadequate “traditions” occurring at a nearly unbearable pace, we are all excessively self-created: so many Americans live their lives as if they were mostly writing a novel about it. So it seems an untoward exaggeration of this dangerous national condition that one's own circumstance be endlessly elaborated in image and idea, as a matter of daily work. In America perhaps no one should engage in thinking as a full-time occupation. Thinking in general terms, I mean: the usual conniving and brokerage and other immediately instrumental thought ought, if anything, to be multiplied. It constitutes the essential twine and glue that hold our flimsy social forms together, and is much to be preferred to the numerous revivalist ideologies and enthusiasms and other bursts of fashion that typically compete with our despicable practicality in this national adhesive function.
Thick communal beginnings and a tight generational passage are the required conditions of happy intellectuality. Along with most Americans, I can only imagine these. Even a rich world of symbol-reference, in the absence of such conditions, is inadequate: no language or other art-form can make up for the absence. But the burden to do so nevertheless has fallen traditionally upon the communicator; and the modern attempt of the artist to make his language account for the absent conditions is killing. It is only the devilish temptation to satisfy oneself with an artificially trained elite audience that has kept us in business at all during the endless decades since the 18th century introduced our modern complexity—and traduced the ultimate problem of human communication.
Hence the modern power of critics, who create audiences for favored communicators. What Mencken alone did for Dreiser in establishing the latter's reputation, teams of scholars were later recruited to accomplish for Eliot, Joyce, Pound, etc. Out of my own historical moment, I remember a writer who had been so completely prepared for by highbrow critics that the reading was quite superfluous: she wrote and wrote and rewrote a silly butch novel that, if it had not derived from Flaubert and had not been sentimentally ugly throughout, would have been studied by scholars only. In the 1940's, we were properly prepared as an audience, so we read it avidly. This is not a period of great expression: it is a period of exceptionally shrewd workmanship—and occasional genius-thrusts (e.g., Norman Mailer) in the transcendent business of discovering or creating audiences.
Without tradition or common experience, there is no language. That is the awful truth too long ignored. There is no final magic in words. The occasional zoom is in meaning unexpectedly come alive—and that has reference to commonality of experience, condition, fantasy, identification: reference, newly recognized. Words are just words: they are the instruments of meaning, not the thing itself. Also with other symbols—and paint, and sound, and so on. There is a forgotten reality of the relation between artist and audience that has now been fudged-over with high-class conversation for nearly two centuries. Enough. Unless we get back in touch with the reality of communicator/audience, the entire intellectual endeavor is in basic jeopardy. We could end up talking nonsense to each other, in highly fashionable terms.
A pause is indicated here, to connect up some of the strands that have been and will be—and can only be—adumbrated in this brief essay about my experience of having been an intellectual in this eccentric country during the recent very busy and noisy quarter-century. I choose the theme of “community” as primary because, despite its difficulty, it is. Primary for understanding this country, modern life, and the potentials of intellectuals in relation thereto. Please note the similarity of root—“community” and “communication.” Community is assumed for purposes of language. This assumption is no longer justified—not for all language, not for any particular meaning to be conveyed by language. Please note, also, the current incredible use of the word “meaningful”—revoltingly recurrent in the usage of our people, all the way from President to recently reformed drop-outs. One says “meaningful” when one does not know or does not dare to say what one means—as in, “meaningful program for the cities,” etc. So this non-word has now become one of the more meaningful ones in our current language: because of the lack of tradition and other commonality of experience.
Perhaps the biggest burden in being an intellectual is that you are called upon to direct and delimit your own thoughts—to keep them from running away with you—without enough help from the outside. Some measure of thought-control of this kind is of course essential to existence: the utterly examined life is un-livable. But the presumption of high-flown intellectuality is that we all think fully and freely about everything and anything; our thought is also supposed to be intensely individualistic—hardly even borrowed at all. The fancy working-out of these presumptions provides the key to how it was and is to be an intellectual in this country, where there is no given community to save us from the infinitude of our own potential absurdity.
If I said that all reasonably successful intellectuals detest the American circumstance, neglecting few opportunities to revile it, while all reasonably successful businessmen adore and constantly celebrate it, I would certainly be overstating the matter. But by how much? Think of confirming examples in your acquaintance: each, you will note, is lying. The business of celebration is strained and unbelievable; and the intellectual's catalogue of detestation not only is monotonous, but also omits mention of considerable gratification (much of it even machine-fed).
Why these heady distortions?
I think we are simply confronted with two different forms of American thought-control—and no American life without one or another. Style is of the essence. That of the businessman derives from boosterism (a special form of “nationalism” invented for the non-nation)—the religious belief in rising land-values, along with other imperatives of salesmanship; and the proper care and feeding of profit-and-loss statements. I have always been fascinated by the fact that business borrowed the language of psychology in naming economic conditions—most notably in calling an economic downturn a “depression,” and terming the insistence on immediate payment in gold a “panic” (not to mention a windfall as “a killing”). But the decisive psychological word in business has always been “confidence”—a thought-control category clear and simple. A businessman/salesman has confidence when he cons himself into the rosy view, that is, strictly limits his thought to the perspective of clearing inventory at the named price.
So also the intellectual, except that his inventory is ideational, of course; and he never really gets around to naming his price. He ought to, but he just doesn't. The reason, I think, is that the intellectual is our current frontiersman—the new frontier of American endeavor being spiritual Nightmare and no longer materialistic Dream. And frontier pricing—of either variety—partakes more greedily of far-horizon perspective (being, by definition, the measure of exchange in a not-yet-organized market). The world of ideas is underdeveloped, much less well-organized than that of the distribution of goods; and its importance only recently recognized.
To be an intellectual nowadays is not at all what it used to be: today, it involves one in a form of class struggle. Intellectuality is now an economic fact, in addition to (instead of?) whatever else it used to be. College degrees are important pieces of paper—some even as valuable as 1,000 shares of IBM, maybe (with the advantage over the latter that they are inalienable; you can't lose them as you can lose other “property,” through bad judgment or lousy luck or excessive daring). But the newly affluent intellectual in America, trading upon his academic qualification and organizational position, has only now reached a stage of development comparable to the loud grabbiness of businessmen in the post-Civil War period; next, I fear, comes the pious rapacity of the 20's.
In my quarter-century view, the intellectual is now the purest expression and profoundest victim of “Americanism”—if the term is properly conceived as the ideology of the “thin” society abjectly dependent, for lack of anything more substantial, on moralistic symbols. So, just as those earlier foreigners, rushing blindly off the boat to embrace their own frontier infinity, readily became the most fully realized victims of capitalist metaphysics, our intellectuals are “doing their own thing” in just about the same American way as their forebears.
The quintessential Americanism of the New Class intellectual is identified by his tropistic negativism—an inverted boosterism derived from Good Guy/Bad Guy moralism. This folk material taken from frontier Protestantism has now, moreover, been made widely available on network television. Just as the rosy view can be a terrible tyranny, so also this Hey-another-boil! outlook. But it is a drag to have to detest everything irrespective of race, creed, or color. Especially as one becomes aware that the underlying point of this greedy general disparagement is that the New Class is not yet in control of the country: they are knocking the other guy's real estate, and will boost it better than he did—be assured—once it is theirs. (So many New Class intellectuals, after all, earn their livings in advertising and related booster-industries.)
To be short about it, certified conformity as to opinion and language is regularly chosen by intellectuals as the favored means of community-building. The factual America, now, is a mess of job-oriented consumers—who hardly know what they are doing, much less remember where they came from—enjoying merely spatial contiguity. So little of substance outside the media (and other similarity of life based on product-use), and the job (and other shared formative experiences like college, the army, the gang) is given to us—that all of it can be classed as debris more or less useful in community-creation. The only American community we really believe in and accept is that of The Successful. But this belief works only for those who persist in seeing themselves as failures. For the annointed ones, this Believed Community is a grisly parody of the real, friendly thing.
The runaway trend at the moment—especially among intellectuals, but not only them—is community according to principle, especially by virtue of political principle. This kind of sloganeering effort at community is so utterly American—deriving so obviously from the slogan-culture of media advertising—that the blatant anti-Americanism of those leading the parade seems weirdly similar to Jewish or other ethnic self-hatred. It is almost as if we had decided that the only way to stick together was to enforce small-town or ethnic conformism on a national scale—naturally using the only natural materials available, namely, simple moralistic ideas. E.g.: The best educated people in the United States were not able to disavow the Vietnam war policy without attacking historical blood-letting in general. A technological advance over lignite called “napalm” (lignite was widely used in World War II, and was much more destructive even than the atom bomb as used in that war), providing for limited rather than uncontrolled burning, became the ferociously moral symbol for the resistance to the war itself, the policy leading to it, and the refusal to discuss any other discussable issue conceivably related thereto. This wilful insistence on the horror of one means of horror out of scores of possible ones, was exquisitely American in forcing a single aspect of technology to represent infinite spirit.
But this kind of coercive equality, among individuals ostensibly striving for uniqueness and excellence, is disastrous: indeed, an absolute contradiction in terms. Intellectuals absolutely require community not only allowing for, but based on, difference and variety; yet they are impelled to sustain their fragile community by ideational conformity—coerced similarity of opinion.
From the outside, intellectuals seem to be freer than other groups—exacty because they are pointedly disengaged from those very groups observing them. But from the inside, exactly the same freedoms can be tyrannous. For example, at Village parties in the past there was always one intellectual girl escorted by a businessman she might have to marry to support her artistic endeavors. The poor bastard never had anybody to talk to, except me. Others would come over only to favor him with a few moments of benign contempt. I, of course, suffered demerits for low taste in thus revealing my interest in money-making and job-holding (which for me have always been exotic objects of study).
To base community on conformity of consciousness is a very dangerous ploy, as the history of any orthodoxy will attest. If indulged (it will be: it is irresistible to intellectuals whose existence is devoted to the content of minds), its extreme daring should be acknowledged, and the whole endeavor subjected to continuous criticism of a sharply self-conscious kind. Since we are nearly communityless, it may be that we must be daring in just this way. But in this dangerous effort to create community even with slogans and ideological prescriptions and other mood-medicine, we should retain perspective. Mine is this: Community is the home the body finds. The mind does not, deeply, need a home (except to justify its own limitations, which should instead be acknowledged without justification). That is, the mind does not need a home if the body has one. If it does not, then inevitably the mind is conscripted to provide a make-believe one. My point is that this inevitable conscription must be submitted to with cunning, candor, and contempt—toward self and others. (One way or another, the body's home will certainly give the mind much to think about.)
I make no brief here for the non-intellectual who, to ensure his own community, is able and willing to dispense with mind altogether. He merely finds, too late, that it is indispensable; and that his body, certainly as it ages, is equally un-homed with all the other bodies—and with no adequate mind left as guide through that special purgatory.
An intellectual is someone who emphasizes and exaggerates intellect and ideas—for whatever reason, and with whatever result, and wherever in his life.
Any such emphasis and exaggeration will consequentially create difficulties in any of the many non-intellectual areas of the intellectual's existence. This is the lock of the problem of intellectuality: the key is a fancy piece of metal called body/mind dualism. Or, more simply (I do not intend a technical philosophical argument), the great contradiction between idea and emotion.
In my generation, we believed in some kind of higher sexuality to preserve the “natural” animal against aging existence. The youth today, with no memories uncorrupted by television, believe only in immediate physical movement—whether or not sexual, even as the idiot Pepsi Generation—or the farthest fantasies of such physicalism, when the actual thing is impossible: i.e., violence. The violence of affluent radicals (the spearhead of what we are talking about) is not traditional violence, however: it is immediate physical action merely accompanied by fantasies of violence—done by or to be done upon them—and this is the source of the new politics of escalated disruption (which derives imitatively as well from more ominous theories of the modern psychology of escalation).
It is this existential difference in body knowledge and direction that creates and constitutes the now-notorious Generation Gap. This is what it means, specifically, to say that they are younger: they believe in their immediate possibilities of action, rather than our ideas of possible action now-and-later. We need their action, they need our ideas. But the lines of communication are down. So, age-old issues in the life of awareness now center on this particular body difference. Apposite categories like romanticism/classicism, radical/conservative, content/form, new/old were always, at bottom, various ways of stating one's personal perspective on the Grand Problem of conflicted emotion and intellect. Now these, too, are conscripted to war upon or make peace with this great generational thing.
We can see farther than we can feel. Also, with age, the emphasis naturally and inevitably shifts from feeling to seeing. All men die; good ideas, never. The body, and whatever relies upon the body, must lose. But not ahead of time; and no loss to dying ideas is justified. That is the ideal. D. H. Lawrence, our last great romantic Christian, could not accept this fact. He aged badly; luckily, he died young. And he hated Jews for their prior sense of age. He knew, and was willing to learn, nothing about age. I say that is as foolish as never having been young. All men are both—except those who are more symbol than man, like a Kennedy brother or a G. B. Shaw. (The farthest importance of the Kennedys is that they represent the early demise of eternal youth, like Keats.)
Now that I feel old, I believe in the rights of age. And I speak for them. And I fight for space of my own on this basis, just as I did when I was different kinds of kid. So to the youth: If you are an age autocrat, I am your enemy. You want to make a deal? Good enough. But I have bad news for you: You are not in my class when it comes to deal-making knowledge. Sorry, I'm on top of that: I've been around longer.
We live by seeing and feeling: by being both young and old. But the need for animal/human connection, for modes of feeling, is deeper—deep enough to drown our best-aged ideas: nearly lemming-like. This conflict is not to be resolved (nor are any great ones). It is to be endured and expressed, at higher and higher levels; and—eventually and hopefully—with growing mutual appreciation of either generation's good work well-done. The battle between youth and age is a misdirected war against death, which neither can win. The war against death can be “won” only by living-together.1
I was in my own youth a Lawrencian—sex was everything to me, to whom everything was intellectual. Physical embrace was the sacrament of my existence, which was (with ultimate will) intellectual. It was a very strenuous and dangerous form of life. Please understand me: I was not playing a chaser's game—I needed those girls. And not as an end, but as a means.
I can state this clearly: I always wanted conversation with women, primarily with women; and then to bed. Since women always take conversation as a form of weakness on the man's part—and, this weakness coining from a “him,” therefore status on their part—I was early in life called upon, painfully, to interrupt my own most desired conversation with women in a brutal manner, in order to get laid at all. (It was so easy for me to talk myself out of initial good luck.) This was then held against me as exhibiting excessive carnal appetite and untoward lack of interest in Them-As-People. Apparently there are a few women who like both activities equally, and need misuse neither; and I just never met them. That is my idea of really lousy luck.
It seems an irresistible conclusion that, for intellectual men, the practical “resolution” of body/ mind dualism—an essential for continued fruitful existence as an intellectual—is in the utterly historical keeping of willing women (that's a double entendre). To have to have something like a real conversation before you can safely get an erection is a spiritual tyranny beyond description, and vice versa. If you are serious about both. It is set up here, in the United States, that to want either is to lack seriousness about the other. Hetero-sexuality will not survive this challenge. (Sometimes I worry about conversation itself.) There will be homosexuals and talkers here like England only had nightmares about. Unless some shrewd women decide to put an end to the awful drift by encouraging an easy flow, back and forth, between carnal and verbal conversation.
Let's discuss intellectual method. Whether or not, when, and the way in which you get laid, if you are an intellectual, is frightfully important: but how you think—painful as it is to say this—is even more so.
To be succinct, any way at all that one can manage to bring off the mutual interpenetration of ideas and experience is good intellectual method. We should be willing to pay high prices for this, even including distortions of experience and inadequate scholarship. Personally, I have always preferred to talk about abstract ideas with businessmen and about money with highbrow intellectuals. But I am extreme. (I am told that in France they have a category for me—primitif. I wish to hell they had it here: I think we need it more.) I didn't start out in life intending any such daring perverseness, I can assure you. I read footnotes so long and so devotedly that to this day I have to put my hand over my eyes to interrupt operation of the tropism. But it's not so much of a problem because I don't read so much any more. (Twenty-five years ago, however, I dropped out of the University of Chicago because attendance there was interfering with my studies.) I have ended up with this rather unlivable method for simple but compelling reasons: I can't stop thinking speculatively and in general, or else I would have submerged myself in American experience by becoming a businessman long ago; and I cannot abide the standard graduate student game of accumulating books-read, and using ideas and other culture mostly for adornment of self and disparagement of others. I believe in using big critical notions to analyze one's own nest and neighborhood.
There was a very nice professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, where I happened to be stopping in 1941. He offered to take care of me if and while I became a sociologist (which I rather wanted, then). To this day, I do not know why I went to Jefferson's university in the first place or, in the second, did not accept the professor's kind offer. He said I wouldn't have to bother with classes, or pay any more money for the privilege of not going to them. That was one of the best offers I ever had from anyone. Naturally, I am compelled to speculate why I was merely complimented, but not really interested. I couldn't, then, merely have been prescient about the future of sociology: my instinct must have run more deeply. I think I knew that I needed the opportunity of non-definition. That was a big thing in my day: not having a career or much of a job, as the Depression ended, was a marvelous way of getting down to growing up.
I am now forty-five, still non-defined—that is, defined by nothing more exact than the concatenation of my particular events. And I have had so many opportunities to come out otherwise! Not that I haven't tried. Once I tried very hard, and became a fancy lawyer. At the height of my conformist endeavor, I worked on Madison Avenue for an elite firm. I used to have the strongest sensation—walking firmly from the subway to the office—that the past was all gone and the future was all there, and I qualified in that hurrying crowd. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, the only time I really felt I belonged to anything. (I was submerged in American experience, not then merely an intellectual.) It was damn good fun while it lasted. But I couldn't figure out what to do with the money I was making; inadvertently I allowed it to accumulate in the bank; in 1958 the federal government generously added thirteen weeks to the state's twenty-six weeks of unemployment compensation; and my seal of acceptance was doomed. A year without working—financed on my own!
My extended vacation started out deliciously. I would get up in the morning, look out the window at everyone going to work, and get back in bed. Then I filed everything in sight. Then I had a fight with my girlfriend. Then I began to revise and retype my poetry (a deadly sign, I have since discovered); why not write a book review or two; some notes on a few essays I might get around to after I retired on social security and other winnings; and I was off again, all unknowingly, on my one and only Everything-and-Nothing career. Today, ten years later, I sit alone in a lower-middle-class dump, as it ever was, still trying to get myself organized by the strenuous use of language. My father's son.2
If I had possessed the good sense to accept the kind professor's offer at the University of Virginia, I would have become a scholar, reading endlessly in libraries. When history finally caught up with me after sputnik, I would have experienced money, status, and the same delicious sensations I tasted briefly on Madison Avenue. Scholars live good now: you don't have to go out into the brothels of lawyering anymore. But—and I say this in all seriousness—so what? Traditional academic scholarship is no longer an adequate way of conducting man's primary intellectual business.
For one thing, the scholarly mode is accumulative, and in no hurry to get back into the flux of life. For another, it assumes that the truly useful books have already been written and need only to be discovered, read, and understood. And it confuses data and quotation collection with important ideas. It is possible to repeat every idea Freud had without having one of your own. Summarizing Freud and making his thought more readily available than he did, may well be significant work. But it must not be misunderstood as the most central intellectual work (that it has often been in the past). Take the characteristic yes-I-read-it-carefully function away from scholarship, and you will have some difficulty defining (and glorifying) what remains.
There are now so many books, and so much data, and so many educated people—too many, for the present level of organization. It is impossible to grasp it all. It is so horribly misorganized; that is, not genuinely available for use in true work or real living.
But I don't want to persist in belaboring the greatly reduced significance of traditional scholarship. The tragic truth is that there are no adequate intellectual traditions for our time—no clearly effective and comprehensive modes of finding and using ideas, and the presentation of ideas, and relating this basic intellectual work to feasible action: what John Dewey called “solving problems.” The closest approach to such a modality would be that of the White House staff, if the President is interested; or all the training-and-staff of a wealthy man like a Kennedy or a Rockefeller, especially if that man is interested in being President. After these, we have some pretty good institute and faculty-department and high-power magazine arrangements. Division of labor has arrived on the intellectual scene3—displacing the grandiose one-man scholarship of the past—and very few practicing intellectuals are ready to acknowledge, much less deal imaginatively with, the fact. In short, we were trained in handicraft and are now called upon to manage the Chevrolet Division of General Motors.
In the meantime, fashion and mere style have replaced weightier traditions and modes of procedure: it is a revolting period for the old-timers. One only hopes that a new tradition is being born, in that messy way most births occur.
Perhaps the single most certain source of the modern intellectual “method” (if there is any) is literary criticism—the analysis of language-idea-image, all in close combination, all as standing for some kind of current essence of life itself. So many people started out as literary critics. For one thing, book reviews are the Catskills of literary journalism. For another, we still hankered after the great catharsis of One Big Novel, even after that impulse to tell one perfect story of the times had been transformed into the shrewd revivalism of psychoanalysis—everyone telling his own imperfect story. Like so many others, I started out writing book reviews and autobiographical fiction. But with my lawyer/accountant's mind, I soon became bogged down in self-accusatory detail—from which I have never recovered. So I began to write about other people and other things, somewhat novelistically. There is just too much fiction in life for us to write novels—or try to see life without novelistic understanding.
As to method, intellectuality has become groupish, institutionally activist, devoted to the present although slanted toward the future, and all-in-all quite different from the scholarly mode of long ago when a few people learned Greek and Latin in order to read, during a leisured lifetime, all of the really important books.
The literary intellectual I am describing and became is only the most extreme (and extremely self-conscious) example of the metropolitan professional: the biting edge of the New Class. He is by no means the king-pin of New Class position. More like a historian to an audience actively interested in everything but history. Slowly, however, the New Class (despite its greedy devotion to the future) is discovering that what-is-to-come is equally as much a creation of history as the let's-forget-it past—and not so easily overcome by the usual arbitrary effort of will.
This New Class—any new class—is abjectly dependent upon history for its models and for all the other stray materials out of which the newness of the future is constructed. The literary intellectual has a special part to play in the New Class drama of institutionalizing intellect—not in the old manner of putting it away in an institution, but in the new mode of giving it institutional power with which to intervene in historical process. Some intellectuals must provide disinterested analysis in the service of class interest.
The question of New Class style is critical. Here it may be worthwhile to compare the intellectual's pursuit of purity when I was young, and today. At twenty-one, I possessed the sappiest super-ego ever. I was so pure that I took a job in a factory just to be near the Working Class (one week) and refused to see a very kind and helpful friend because he supported the war (several months). Mostly we pursued doctrinal purity—Marxist, Freudian, or whatever—while emotionally we encouraged each other to anguish out loud. We suffered competitively in identifying with the victims and heroes of Spain, the Soviet purges, the Nazi camps, the Warsaw fighters, the French Resistance, and all the mounds of corpses and the millions of DP's.
The New Youth seem more simpleminded to me—more convinced in their anti-intellectualism even than the middlebrow Stalinoids of my day—and absurdly devoted to primitive moral categories (which facilitate activism). Most of all, I don't see them yearning. We were soreheads, too; but filled with ambition and yearning. How are the new kids going to make it without that?
Their main purpose, apparently, is to rock the boat. Within limits, I welcome this (but I cannot find it appealing—maybe for reasons of taste, perhaps because my own impulse to do so is much depleted). If this activity startles some captain somewhere to get with it—which would certainly include foreclosing any further rocking of the boat—well and good. But Luddite rebellion, even if useful, is an act of helplessness. These kids, however, horrify me mostly for two factors (and many others in my generation fairly well disposed toward them): 1) Their mindless, wilful moralism; and 2) their foolish misunderstanding of the reasons for the absence of severe coercion in the society generally and (as yet) against them specifically, which makes their disruptionist tactics feasible. So often—from the sit-ins on—they have used as-if power just as if it were real power. They should be honored for their daring and inventiveness, and then treated as the political infants they are by serious men who take politics as something more than testing the limits of authority. (Mayor Daley is not the only vicious father in our midst.)
Whatever finally comes of the recent inter-generational shock of misrecognition—and whatever much or little is achieved in starting up the conversation with our sons once more on some more feasible and better basis—two things are very clear to me: 1) However we did it, we created them; and 2) apologetic pandering on our part will only compound the original (and still unknown) felony. Fatherhood is tragic, particularly ours. Especially in America.
For here, it is not merely our inadequate creation of the new technological order—and our even more inept, nearly filiocidal directions to our sons for living in it—but also because fatherhood never got a very firm footing on these shores. And now, confronted with an established matriarchy affecting everything except big-organization hierarchy, it is more badly situated than ever before.
The current generational passage is not the first seriously difficult one in this country's history; it is only the most surprising one. (We thought that with affluence everything would be hunky-dory.) The passage from immigrant father to first-generation son—decade after decade for the better part of a hundred years—has always been portrayed as one of tragic fulfillment, at best (the son's growth upended the father spiritually as well as biologically). I can personally speak for the immense frustration of a second-generation intellectual son succeeding a first-generation businessman father. And then there is the legendary drama of the farm boy who survives the merciless exploitation of dirt-farm life to the physical maturity of late adolescence, bestows a farewell beating on his father, and is never heard from again; or the more ordinary rural-urban transition getting tangled up in the generational succession. No, this is not the first time; by no means.
Still, the Atlantic voyage-or the train ride from an Iowa cornfield to Chicago—was never so far as that from the Depression to the postwar world (no matter where you started, so long as you ended up in a suburb). The transformation has been astounding. Go back home sometime and take a look—a real look. Most of the buildings are gone, almost all of the homes have been gutted—and then refurbished with the contemporary paraphernalia of Consumerism. Most striking of all, this is a national fact. North, South, East, and West, inside the home and on the street—all the same. The fact of the matter is that several hundred national corporations have remade this nation physically since the war, and on standard patterns. With their advertising culture, especially as purveyed through street signs and television, they have gone far to remake us spiritually as well. Imagine a human being who never knew anything but this perfected order of life; imagine your son.
Technology does not change society; it destroys it. We didn't know this; we were determined to ignore it so as to enjoy our affluence; and we had our memories to help us distort unwelcome perception. None of this suffices for the youth as it did for us. Indeed, they take our “show” of a way-of-life as a big put-on. Leslie Farber suggests that they have seen the inner despair we were trying to hide even from ourselves—certainly from our sons. So the con game is over: we played hard, but we lost for lack of confidence. (If only the youth were real winners, and possessed the amount of confidence that, finally, we lacked!) We built a magnificent technological order—and strained ourselves ultimately to make believe it was also a society. The youth inherited the unbearable strain along with the new wealth.
We should have challenged them more with the work ahead of them, that of reconstituting a destroyed social order. Probably the Spock-fed women wouldn't let us; perhaps we didn't dare. Now they are going about just this job—but without most of what we could have given them in preparation. And from the reservoir of fatherly despair, they draw much reason for destructiveness. Moreover, they presume to imagine that we destroyed a full, rich society actually worth preserving.
They are groupish, that's the main thing. There is not one old-fashioned headstrong individualist in the whole lot. In order to create some kind of community for themselves, the hippies are willing to get stoned and stay stoned. Just so they can cohabit, even as somnambules. What an incredible price to pay! (And what a lesson for us that they pay it.) This hunger for community—the basic human/animal connection—that we neglected to build into our shiny new world of rationalized home-and-office life, this need is now unleashed upon our barren productivity. We must make room for it; it is here to stay. The building of community—that connection for the sake of connection—is a fundamental item on the order of the day, for all of us. No livability, no health, no relief from wilful productivity—nor from the malaise of affluence which is its real result—without new beginnings in community-making. That is the lesson the New Youth are teaching us.
I cannot abide their groupishness—I am an old-fashioned headstrong individualist, I am sorry to say—but I have no doubt whatsoever that, as for basic social agenda, they are right in that and I am wrong. So I will Moses it along, only offering, in my cantankerous way, special observations on the putative nature of their Promised Land—and which step first, which step second, if we really do expect ever to get out of this goddamn desert.
I am even willing to admit that the reason I cannot abide their groupishness is that I am a sorehead. I am still sore, thirty years later, about what happened and what didn't happen to me when I went to Senn High School in Chicago.
Let me explain myself to the youth: There used to be a thing, long ago, called “the rumble seat.” In red leather, with long blonde hair flying out of one side of it, zipping along at thirty-five or even forty miles an hour, it was one of the most gorgeous bits of social landscape ever invented. Actually to be seen in one was the apex of the social order of high school. Much desired, seldom achieved: I was a social flop. An entire evening could be turned wistful if I happened to see a rumble seat sweep by . . . and on into the fading perspective of a twilight street. (Goddamn them!)
Experiencing the social system of high school turned out to be an eternal shock to my spirit. Nothing I had known was any preparation for this marvelous mystery of the wider world: it was community beyond family and gang. That's the size of the shock it was. The rumble-seat society seemed all so gorgeous and distant: a superordinate fact of life. The truth, now I know, is that it was the most intimate fantasy, more in me (much more) than out there. If only that had made it less important! But no, this was—unmistakably and once-and-for-all—the transcendent order of existence. Everything led into the wider world: each thought, and every hunger, only another rung on the ladder to intimacy with that infinity—just a half a block away. I have not solved this problem; nor have I ever betrayed it. (I may never find out which side my bread is buttered on; but I know what buttered bread is.) Although subject to the widest interpretation, this problem would never change; and it has not. The inner life of the wider world is where Americans must live. One becomes an American simply by discovering this; for me it is a dashing rumble seat, with long blonde hair flying out of one side of it.
This high-school thing was particularly shocking because I thought I had already discovered the truth about Social Life. At the end of grade school, with puberty immediate and graduation imminent, all of a sudden there were kissing parties one after another, week after week. This posed some problems, but nothing so difficult as touch football; and by the time graduation occurred, I felt expert enough to get by forever. During the long summer before entering high school, I went to Boy Scout camp for a couple of weeks, was elected to the Order of the Arrow, got a Bird Study merit badge and tied the Carrick bend (thus assuring I would become an Eagle Scout), and even saw my way to making Senior Patrol Leader. Everything was going well.
What a delusion! There were 4,000 students in that high school, hardly one of whom would admit that he had been a Boy Scout. It was scramble, scramble, scramble—not just to win the game but, even more, to discover the rules. You had to learn to dance, get an athletic letter, walk up to pretty girls and ask them for a date, pass but not excel in classwork, and join a clique. Join a clique! I couldn't even find one. And for four years, month after month, getting more and more hard-up.
I became a socialist because the bourgeoisie invented American adolescence in order to make us all miserable enough to work for them. It was all quite clear. Still, being a socialist—while it felt good on occasion—didn't really solve anything. The real problem was how to get into a rumble seat and stop being so hard-up.
Mostly, I made do with gangs and pals. Gangs are the best—the richest American mode of community—especially gangs with a purpose, like some literary or political or university ones I have known: that is, even after the first street gang of adolescence, devoted to sex and prowess. But I always felt like a hanger-on, and could never with certainty discover the center of the gang. This was especially the fact when the gang turned out to be, or threatened to become, a clique genuinely connected with the wider world—the kind I could never discover in high school.
My early experience of Social Life just before high school, when I thought I had found the handle, was—I now see—nothing but an extension of the street gang to include some girls. Not yet, truly, the wider world. But still I know that the gang, when it retains the animal virtues of the first street gang while rising to the social connection of the later clique, is the one most creative form of community in America (and, I imagine, places like it, if there are any). But this realest gang of my dreams must account for income, sex, and purpose—all necessary support and direction. This is the Apostolic Gang, which can both change the world and fulfil the individual. Here is where I sign on with the New Youth—to the extent that this is their interest—even though I can never belong. And the failure of the apostolic gangs of my youth . . . well, that might have been my fault. Or we might have been ahead of our times, which were still devoted to lower-middle-class ambition.
Here, we mostly discover or create gangs, or exchange one for another: there is, as yet, no wider world. Not out there in America. But in my generation, no one knew this—deeply enough, or in time. We kept trying all the closed-up avenues. The new kids know better: they are devoted, in their seriousness, solely to experimenting with Apostolic Gangs—even the Squares, who concentrate their search throughout the length of bureaucratic corridors.
1 Unfortunately, this is also true of the still unresolved war between the sexes.
2 Whenever one of his millionairing projects flopped, he would go nervous all over, and stay that way until his one-shot-item gun was reloaded. His phrase for this state of non-being was perfect; he would later say that he had had “a breakdown standing up.” Me, too. I wouldn't know what to do with a normal life if it walked up to me on the street and begged me to go home with it. No more than him. (My mother did not with him and will not with me find such reflections in the slightest amusing.)
3 Quite different from merely dividing the labor of tending the Flame of Truth, long practiced by academic departments, in which the product remains as divided as the labor that produced it: inadequate assembly, where any one fact/ truth is equal to any other. There is literally no department in a university devoted to using or integrating the selected best of what the other departments produce: science dismissed theology—a previous integrative department—and philosophy, another one, decided to become technical.
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A Writer Between Generations
Must-Reads from Magazine
Sex and Work in an Age Without Norms
In the Beginning Was the ‘Hostile Work Environment’
In 1979, the feminist legal thinker Catharine MacKinnon published a book called Sexual Harassment of Working Women. Her goal was to convince the public (especially the courts) that harassment was a serious problem affecting all women whether or not they had been harassed, and that it was discriminatory. “The factors that explain and comprise the experience of sexual harassment characterize all women’s situation in one way or another, not only that of direct victims of the practice,” MacKinnon wrote. “It is this level of commonality that makes sexual harassment a women’s experience, not merely an experience of a series of individuals who happen to be of the female sex.” MacKinnon was not only making a case against clear-cut instances of harassment, but also arguing that the ordinary social dynamic between men and women itself created what she called “hostile work environments.”
The culture was ripe for such arguments. Bourgeois norms of sexual behavior had been eroding for at least a decade, a fact many on the left hailed as evidence of the dawn of a new age of sexual and social freedom. At the same time, however, a Redbook magazine survey published a few years before MacKinnon’s book found that nearly 90 percent of the female respondents had experienced some form of harassment on the job.
MacKinnon’s views might have been radical—she argued for a Marxist feminist jurisprudence reflecting her belief that sexual relations are hopelessly mired in male dominance and female submission—but she wasn’t entirely wrong. The postwar America in which women like MacKinnon came of age offered few opportunities for female agency, and the popular culture of the day reinforced the idea that women were all but incapable of it.
It wasn’t just the perfect housewives in the midcentury mold of Donna Reed and June Cleaver who “donned their domestic harness,” as the historian Elaine Tyler May wrote in her social history Homeward Bound. Popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, McCall’s, and Redbook reinforced the message; so did their advertisers. A 1955 issue of Family Circle featured an advertisement for Tide detergent that depicted a woman with a rapturous expression on her face actually hugging a box of Tide under the line: “No wonder you women buy more Tide than any other washday product! Tide’s got what women want!” Other advertisements infantilized women by suggesting they were incapable of making basic decisions. “You mean a -woman can open it?” ran one for Alcoa aluminum bottle caps. It is almost impossible to read the articles or view the ads without thinking they were some kind of put-on.
The competing view of women in the postwar era was equally pernicious: the objectified pinup or sexpot. Marilyn Monroe’s hypersexualized character in The Seven Year Itch from 1955 doesn’t even have a name—she’s simply called The Girl. The 1956 film introducing the pulchritudinous Jayne Mansfield to the world was called The Girl Can’t Help It. The behavior of Rat Pack–era men has now been so airbrushed and glamorized that we’ve forgotten just how thoroughly debased their treatment of women was. Even as we thrill to Frank Sinatra’s “nice ’n’ easy” style, we overlook the classic Sinatra movie character’s enjoying an endless stream of showgirls and (barely disguised) prostitutes until forced to settle down with a killjoy ball-and-chain girlfriend. The depiction of women either as childish wives living under the protection of their husbands or brainless sirens sexually available to the first taker was undoubtedly vulgar, but it reflected a reality about the domestic arrangements of Americans after 1945 that was due for a profound revision when the 1960s came along.
And change they did, with a vengeance. The sexual revolution broke down the barriers between the sexes as the women’s-liberation movement insisted that bourgeois domesticity was a prison. The rules melted away, but attitudes don’t melt so readily; Sinatra’s ball-and-chain may have disappeared by common consent, but for a long time it seemed that the kooky sexpot of the most chauvinistic fantasy had simply become the ideal American woman. The distinction between the workplaces of the upper middle class and the singles bars where they sought companionship was pretty blurred.
Which is where MacKinnon came in—although if we look back at it, her objection seems not Marxist in orientation but almost Victorian. She described a workplace in which women were unprotected by old-fashioned social norms against adultery and general caddishness and found themselves mired in a “hostile environment.” She named the problem; it fell to the feminist movement as a whole to enshrine protections against it. They had some success. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced elements of MacKinnon’s reasoning when it ruled unanimously in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that harassment that was “sufficiently severe or pervasive” enough to create “a hostile or abusive work environment” was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued rules advising employers to create procedures to combat harassment, and employers followed suit by establishing sexual-harassment policies. Human-resource departments spent countless hours and many millions of dollars on sexual-harassment-awareness training for employees.
With new regulations and enforcement mechanisms, the argument went, the final, fusty traces of patriarchal, protective norms and bad behavior would be swept away in favor of rational legal rules that would ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The culture might still objectify women, but our legal and employment systems would, in fits and starts, erect scaffolding upon which women who were harassed could seek justice.
But as the growing list of present-day harassers and predators attests—Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Michael Oreskes, Glenn Thrush, Mark Halperin, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, et al.—the system appears to have failed the people it was meant to protect. There were searing moments that raised popular awareness about sexual harassment: (Anita Hill’s testimony about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991; Senator Bob Packwood’s ouster for serial groping in 1995). There was, however, still plenty of space for men who harassed and assaulted women (and, in Kevin Spacey’s case, men) to shelter in place.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Why did it?
Sex and Training
What makes sexual harassment so unnerving is not the harassment. It’s the sex—a subject, even a half-century into our so-called sexual revolution, about which we remain deeply confused.
The challenge going forward, now that the Hollywood honcho Weinstein and other notoriously lascivious beneficiaries of the liberation era have been removed, is how to negotiate the rules of attraction and punish predators in a culture that no longer embraces accepted norms for sexual behavior. Who sets the rules, and how do we enforce them? The self-appointed guardians of that galaxy used to be the feminist movement, but it is in no position to play that role today as it reckons not only with the gropers in its midst (Franken) but the ghosts of gropers past (Bill Clinton).
The feminist movement long ago traded MacKinnon’s radical feminism for political expedience. In 1992 and 1998, when her husband was a presidential candidate and then president, Hillary Clinton covered for Bill, enthusiastically slut-shaming his accusers. Her sin was and is at least understandable, if not excusable, given that the two are married. But what about America’s most glamorous early feminist, Gloria Steinem? In 1998, Steinem wrote of Clinton accuser Kathleen Willey: “The truth is that even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” As for Monica Lewinsky, Steinem didn’t even consider the president’s behavior with a young intern to be harassment: “Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant to sexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one.”
The consequences of applying to Clinton what Steinem herself called the “one-free-grope” rule are only now becoming fully visible. Even in the case of a predator as malevolent as Weinstein, it’s clear that feminists no longer have a shared moral language or the credibility with which to condemn such behavior. Having tied their movement’s fortunes to political power, especially the Democratic Party, it is difficult to take seriously their injunctions about male behavior on either side of the aisle now (just as it was difficult to take seriously partisans on the right who defended the Alabama Senate candidate and credibly accused child sexual predator Roy Moore). Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s initial hemming and hawing about denouncing accused sexual harasser Representative John Conyers was disappointing but not surprising. As for Steinem, she’s gone from posing undercover as a Playboy bunny in order to expose male vice to sitting on the board of Playboy’s true heir, VICE Media, an organization whose bro-culture has spawned many sexual-harassment complaints. She’s been honored by Rutgers University, which created the Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. One of the chair’s major endowers? Harvey Weinstein.
In place of older accepted norms or trusted moral arbiters, we have weaponized gossip. “S—-y Media Men” is a Google spreadsheet created by a woman who works in media and who, in the wake of the Weinstein revelations, wanted to encourage other women to name the gropers among us. At first a well-intentioned effort to warn women informally about men who had behaved badly, it quickly devolved into an anonymous unverified online litany of horribles devoid of context. The men named on the list were accused of everything from sending clumsy text messages to rape; Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker confessed that she didn’t believe the charges lodged against a male friend of hers who appeared on the list.
Others have found sisterhood and catharsis on social media, where, on Twitter, the phrase #MeToo quickly became the symbol for women’s shared experiences of harassment or assault. Like the consciousness-raising sessions of earlier eras, the hashtag supposedly demonstrated the strength of women supporting other women. But unlike in earlier eras, it led not to group hugs over readings of The Feminine Mystique, but to a brutally efficient form of insta-justice meted out on an almost daily basis against the accused. Writing in the Guardian, Jessica Valenti praised #MeToo for encouraging women to tell their stories but added, “Why have a list of victims when a list of perpetrators could be so much more useful?” Valenti encouraged women to start using the hashtag as a way to out predators, not merely to bond with one another. Even the New York Times has gone all-in on the assumption that the reckoning will continue: The newspaper’s “gender editor,” Jessica Bennett, launched a newsletter, The #MeToo Moment, described as “the latest news and insights on the sexual harassment and misconduct scandals roiling our society.”
As the also-popular hashtag #OpenSecret suggests, this #MeToo moment has brought with it troubling questions about who knew what and when—and a great deal of anger at gatekeepers and institutions that might have turned a blind eye to predators. The backlash against the Metropolitan Opera in New York is only the most recent example. Reports of conductor James Levine’s molestation of teenagers have evidently been widespread in the classical-music world for decades. And, as many social-media users hinted with their use of the hashtag #itscoming, Levine is not the only one who will face a reckoning.
To be sure, questioning and catharsis are welcome if they spark reforms such as crackdowns on the court-approved payoffs and nondisclosure agreements that allowed sexual predators like Weinstein to roam free for so long. And they have also brought a long-overdue recognition of the ineffectiveness of so much of what passes for sexual-harassment-prevention training in the workplace. As the law professor Lauren Edelman noted in the Washington Post, “There have been only a handful of empirical studies of sexual-harassment training, and the research has not established that such training is effective. Some studies suggest that training may in fact backfire, reinforcing gendered stereotypes that place women at a disadvantage.” One specific survey at a university found that “men who participated in the training were less likely to view coercion of a subordinate as sexual harassment, less willing to report harassment and more inclined to blame the victim than were women or men who had not gone through the training.”
Realistic Change vs. Impossible Revolution
Because harassment lies at the intersection of law, politics, ideology, and culture, attempts to re-regulate behavior, either by returning to older, more traditional norms, or by weaponizing women’s potential victimhood via Twitter, won’t work. America is throwing the book at foul old violators like Weinstein and Levine, but aside from warning future violators that they may be subject to horrible public humiliation and ruination, how is all this going to fix the problem?
We are a long way from Phyllis Schlafly’s ridiculous remark, made years ago during a U.S. Senate committee hearing, that “virtuous women are seldom accosted,” but Vice President Mike Pence’s rule about avoiding one-on-one social interactions with women who aren’t his wife doesn’t really scale up in terms of effective policy in the workplace, either. The Pence Rule, like corporate H.R. policies about sexual harassment, really exists to protect Pence from liability, not to protect women.
Indeed, the possibility of realistic change is made almost moot by the hysterical ambitions of those who believe they are on the verge of bringing down the edifice of American masculinity the way the Germans brought down the Berlin wall. Bennett of the Times spoke for many when she wrote in her description of the #MeToo newsletter: “The new conversation goes way beyond the workplace to sweep in street harassment, rape culture, and ‘toxic masculinity’—terminology that would have been confined to gender studies classes, not found in mainstream newspapers, not so long ago.”
Do women need protection? Since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been considered unacceptable to declare that women are weaker than men (even physically), yet, as many of these recent assault cases make clear, this is a plain fact. Men are, on average, physically larger and more aggressive than women; this is why for centuries social codes existed to protect women who were, by and large, less powerful, more vulnerable members of society.
MacKinnon’s definition of harassment at first seemed to acknowledge such differences; she described harassment as “dominance eroticized.” But like all good feminist theorists, she claimed this dominance was socially constructed rather than biological—“the legally relevant content of the term sex, understood as gender difference, should focus upon its social meaning more than upon any biological givens,” she wrote. As such, the reasoning went, men’s socially constructed dominance could be socially deconstructed through reeducation, training, and the like.
Culturally, this is the view that now prevails, which is why we pinball between arguing that women can do anything men can do and worrying that women are all the potential victims of predatory, toxic men. So which is it? Girl Power or the Fainting Couch?
Regardless, when harassment or assault claims arise, the cultural assumptions that feminism has successfully cultivated demand we accept that women are right and men are wrong (hence the insistence that we must believe every woman’s claim about harassment and assault, and the calling out of those who question a woman’s accusation). This gives women—who are, after all, flawed human beings just like men—too much accusatory power in situations where context is often crucial for understanding what transpired. Feminists with a historical memory should recall how they embraced this view after mandatory-arrest laws for partner violence that were passed in the 1990s netted many women for physically assaulting their partners. Many feminist legal scholars at the time argued that such laws were unfair to women precisely because they neglected context. (“By following the letter of the law… law enforcement officers often disregard the context in which victims of violence resort to using violence themselves,” wrote Susan L. Miller in the Violence Against Women journal in 2001.)
Worse, the unquestioned valorization of women’s claims leaves men in the position of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Consider a recent tweet by Washington Post reporter and young-adult author Monica Hesse in response to New York Times reporter Farhad Manjoo’s self-indulgent lament. Manjoo: “I am at the point where i seriously, sincerely wonder how all women don’t regard all men as monsters to be constantly feared. the real world turns out to be a legit horror movie that I inhabited and knew nothing about.”
Hesse’s answer: “Surprise! The answer is that we do, and we must, regard all men as potential monsters to be feared. That’s why we cross to the other side of the street at night, and why we sometimes obey when men say ‘Smile, honey!’ We are always aware the alternative could be death.” This isn’t hyperbole in her case; Hesse has so thoroughly internalized the message that men are to be feared, not trusted, that she thinks one might kill her on the street if she doesn’t smile at him. Such illogic makes the Victorian neurasthenics look like the Valkyrie.
But while most reasonable people agree that women and men both need to take responsibility for themselves and exercise good judgment, what this looks like in practice is not going to be perfectly fair, given the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual behavior. In her book, MacKinnon observed of sexual harassment, “Tacitly, it has been both acceptable and taboo; acceptable for men to do, taboo for women to confront, even to themselves.”
That’s one thing we can say for certain is no longer true. Nevertheless, if you begin with the assumption that every sexual invitation is a power play or the prelude to an assault, you are likely to find enemies lurking everywhere. As Hesse wrote in the Washington Post about male behavior: “It’s about the rot that we didn’t want to see, that we shoveled into the garbage disposal of America for years. Some of the rot might have once been a carrot and some it might have once been a moldy piece of rape-steak, but it’s all fetid and horrific and now, and it’s all coming up at once. How do we deal with it? Prison for everyone? Firing for some? …We’re only asking for the entire universe to change. That’s all.”
But women are part of that “entire universe,” too, and it is incumbent on them to make it clear when someone has crossed the line. Both women and men would be better served if they adopted the same rule—“If you see something, say something”—when it comes to harassment. Among the many details that emerged from the recent exposé at Vox about New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush was the setting for the supposedly egregious behavior: It was always after work and after several drinks at a bar. In all of the interactions described, one or usually both of the parties was tipsy or drunk; the women always agreed to go with Thrush to another location. The women also stayed on good terms with Thrush after he made his often-sloppy passes at them, in one case sending friendly text messages and ensuring him he didn’t need to apologize for his behavior. The Vox writer, who herself claims to have been victimized by Thrush, argues, “Thrush, just by his stature, put women in a position of feeling they had to suck up and move on from an uncomfortable encounter.” Perhaps. But he didn’t put them in the position of getting drunk after work with him. They put themselves in that position.
Also, as the Thrush story reveals, women sometimes use sexual appeal and banter for their own benefit in the workplace. If we want to clarify the blurred lines that exist around workplace relationships, then we will have to reckon with the women who have successfully exploited them for their own advantage.
None of this means women should be held responsible when men behave badly or illegally. But it puts male behavior in the proper context. Sometimes, things really are just about sex, not power. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat bluntly noted in a recent debate in New York magazine with feminist Rebecca Traister, “I think women shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which male sexual desire is distinctive and strange and (to women) irrational-seeming. Saying ‘It’s power, not sex’ excludes too much.”
Social-Media Justice or Restorative Justice?
What do we want to happen? Do we want social-media justice or restorative justice for harassers and predators? The first is immediate, cathartic, and brutal, with little consideration for nuance or presumed innocence for the accused. The second is more painstaking because it requires reaching some kind of consensus about the allegations, but it is also ultimately less destructive of the community and culture as a whole.
Social-media justice deploys the powerful force of shame at the mere whiff of transgression, so as to create a regime of prevention. The thing is, Americans don’t really like shame (the sexual revolution taught us that). Our therapeutic age doesn’t think that suppressing emotions and inhibiting feelings—especially about sex—is “healthy.” So either we will have to embrace the instant and unreflective emotiveness of #MeToo culture and accept that its rough justice is better than no justice at all—or we will have to stop overreacting every time a man does something that is untoward—like sending a single, creepy text message—but not actually illegal (like assault or constant harassment).
After all, it’s not all bad news from the land of masculinity. Rates of sexual violence have fallen 63 percent since 1993, according to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and as scholar Steven Pinker recently observed: “Despite recent attention, workplace sexual harassment has declined over time: from 6.1 percent of GSS [General Social Survey] respondents in 2002 to 3.6 percent in 2014. Too high, but there’s been progress, which can continue.”
Still, many men have taken this cultural moment as an opportunity to reflect on their own understanding of masculinity. In the New York Times, essayist Stephen Marche fretted about the “unexamined brutality of the male libido” and echoed Catharine MacKinnon when he asked, “How can healthy sexuality ever occur in conditions in which men and women are not equal?” He would have done better to ask how we can raise boys who will become men who behave honorably toward women. And how do we even raise boys to become honorable men in a culture that no longer recognizes and rewards honor?
The answers to those questions aren’t immediately clear. But one thing that will make answering them even harder is the promotion of the idea of “toxic masculinity.” New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently argued that “we have to re-examine our toxic, privileged, encroaching masculinity itself. And yes, that also means on some level reimagining the rules of attraction.” But the whole point of the phrase “rules of attraction” is to highlight that there aren’t any and never have been (if you have any doubts, read the 1987 Bret Easton Ellis novel that popularized the phrase). Blow’s lectures about “toxic masculinity” are meant to sow self-doubt in men and thus encourage some enlightened form of masculinity, but that won’t end sexual harassment any more than Lysistrata-style refusal by women to have sex will end war.
Parents should be teaching their sons about personal boundaries and consent from a young age, just as they teach their daughters, and unequivocally condemn raunchy and threatening remarks about women, whether they are uttered by a talk-radio host or by the president of the United States. The phrase “that isn’t how decent men behave” should be something every parent utters.
But such efforts are made more difficult by a liberal culture that has decided to equate caddish behavior with assault precisely because it has rejected the strict norms that used to hold sway—the old conservative norms that regarded any transgression against them as a seriousviolation and punished it accordingly. Instead, in an effort to be a kinder, gentler, more “woke” society that’s understanding of everyone’s differences, we’ve ended up arbitrarily picking and choosing among the various forms of questionable behavior for which we will have no tolerance, all the while failing to come to terms with the costs of living in such a society. A culture that hangs the accused first and asks questions later might have its virtues, but psychological understanding is not one of them.
And so we come back to sex and our muddled understanding of its place in society. Is it a meaningless pleasure you’re supposed to enjoy with as many people as possible before settling down and marrying? Or is it something more important than that? Is it something that you feel empowered to handle in Riot Grrrl fashion, or is getting groped once by a pervy co-worker something that prompts decades of nightmares and declarations that you will “never be the same”? How can we condemn people like Senator Al Franken, whose implicit self-defense is that it’s no big deal to cop a feel every so often, when our culture constantly offers up women like comedian Amy Schumer or Abbi and Ilana of the sketch show Broad City, who argue that women can and should be as filthy and degenerate as the most degenerate guy?
Perhaps it’s progress that the downfall of powerful men who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior is no longer called a “bimbo eruption,” as it was in the days of Bill Clinton, and that the men who harassed or assaulted women are facing the end of their careers and, in some cases, prison. But this is not the great awakening that so many observers have claimed it is. Awakenings need tent preachers to inspire and eager audiences to participate; our #MeToo moment has plenty of those. What it doesn’t have, unless we can agree on new norms for sexual behavior both inside and outside the workplace, is a functional theology that might cultivate believers who will actually practice what they preach.
That functional theology is out of our reach. Which means this moment is just that—a moment. It will die down, impossible though it seems at present. And every 10 or 15 years a new harassment scandal will spark widespread outrage, and we will declare that a new moment of reckoning and realization has emerged. After which the stories will again die down and very little will have changed.
No one wants to admit this. It’s much more satisfying to see the felling of so many powerful men as a tectonic cultural shift, another great leap forward toward equality between the sexes. But it isn’t, because the kind of asexual equality between the genders imagined by those most eager to celebrate our #MeToo moment has never been one most people embrace. It’s one that willfully overlooks significant differences between the sexes and assumes that thoughtful people can still agree on norms of sexual behavior.
They can’t. And they won’t.
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The U.S. will endanger itself if it accedes to Russian and Chinese efforts to change the international system to their liking
A “sphere of influence” is traditionally understood as a geographical zone within which the most powerful actor can impose its will. And nearly three decades after the close of the superpower struggle that Churchill’s speech heralded, spheres of influence are back. At both ends of the Eurasian landmass, the authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are carving out areas of privileged influence—geographic buffer zones in which they exercise diplomatic, economic, and military primacy. China and Russia are seeking to coerce and overawe their neighbors. They are endeavoring to weaken the international rules and norms—and the influence of opposing powers—that stand athwart their ambitions in their respective “near abroads.” Chinese island-building and maritime expansionism in the South China Sea and Russian aggression in Ukraine and intimidation of the Baltic states are part and parcel of the quasi-imperial projects these revisionist regional powers are now pursuing.
Historically speaking, a world made up of rival spheres is more the norm than the exception. Yet such a world is in sharp tension with many of the key tenets of the American foreign-policy tradition—and with the international order that the United States has labored to construct and maintain since the end of World War II.
To be sure, Washington carved out its own spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere beginning in the 19th century, and America’s myriad alliance blocs in key overseas regions are effectively spheres by another name. And today, some international-relations observers have welcomed the return of what the foreign-policy analyst Michael Lind has recently called “blocpolitik,” hoping that it might lead to a more peaceful age of multilateral equilibrium.
But for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own. And a reversion to a world dominated by great powers and their spheres of influence would thus undo some of the strongest traditions in American foreign policy and take the international system back to a darker, more dangerous era.I n an extreme form, a sphere of influence can take the shape of direct imperial or colonial control. Yet there are also versions in which a leading power forgoes direct military or administrative domination of its neighbors but nonetheless exerts geopolitical, economic, and ideological influence. Whatever their form, spheres of influence reflect two dominant imperatives of great-power politics in an anarchic world: the need for security vis-à-vis rival powers and the desire to shape a nation’s immediate environment to its benefit. Indeed, great powers have throughout history pursued spheres of influence to provide a buffer against the encroachment of other hostile actors and to foster the conditions conducive to their own security and well-being.
The Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta, and Rome all carved out domains of dominance. The Chinese tribute system—which combined geopolitical control with the spread of Chinese norms and ideas—profoundly shaped the trajectory of East Asia for hundreds of years. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the British Empire, Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Soviet bloc.
America, too, has played the spheres-of-influence game. From the early-19th century onward, American officials strove for preeminence in the Western Hemisphere—first by running other European powers off much of the North American continent and then by pushing them out of Latin America. With the Monroe Doctrine, first enunciated in 1823, America staked its claim to geopolitical primacy from Canada to the Southern Cone. Over the succeeding generations, Washington worked to achieve military dominance in that area, to tie the countries of the Western Hemisphere to America geopolitically and economically, and even to help pick the rulers of countries from Mexico to Brazil.
If this wasn’t a sphere of influence, nothing was. In 1895, Secretary of State Richard Olney declared that “the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition.” After World War II, moreover, a globally predominant United States steadily expanded its influence into Europe through NATO, into East Asia through various military alliances, and into the Middle East through a web of defense, diplomatic, and political arrangements. The story of global politics over the past 200 years has, in large part, been the story of expanding U.S. influence.
Nonetheless, there has always been something ambivalent—critics would say hypocritical—about American views of this matter. For as energetic as Washington has been in constructing its geopolitical domain, a “spheres-of-influence world” is in perpetual tension with four strong intellectual traditions in U.S. strategy. These are hegemony, liberty, openness, and exceptionalism.
First, hegemony. The myth of America as an innocent isolationist country during its first 170 years is powerful and enduring; it’s also wrong. From the outset, American statesmen understood that the country’s favorable geography, expanding population, and enviable resource endowments gave it the potential to rival, and ultimately overtake, the European states that dominated world politics. America might be a fledgling republic, George Washington said, but it would one day attain “the strength of a giant.” From the revolution onward, American officials worried, with good reason, that France, Spain, and the United Kingdom would use their North American territories to strangle or contain the young republic. Much of early American diplomacy was therefore geared toward depriving the European powers of their North American possessions, using measures from coercive diplomacy to outright wars of conquest. “The world shall have to be familiarized with the idea of considering our proper dominion to be the continent of North America,” wrote John Quincy Adams in 1819. The only regional sphere of influence that Americans would accept as legitimate was their own.
By the late-19th century, the same considerations were pushing Americans to target spheres of influence further abroad. As the industrial revolution progressed, it became clear that geography alone might not protect the nation. Aggressive powers could now generate sufficient military strength to dominate large swaths of Europe or East Asia and then harness the accumulated resources to threaten the United States. Moreover, as America itself became an increasingly mighty country that sought to project its influence overseas, its leaders naturally objected to its rivals’ efforts to establish their own preserves from which Washington would be excluded. If much of America’s 19th-century diplomacy was dedicated to denying other powers spheres of influence in the Western Hemisphere, much of the country’s 20th-century diplomacy was an effort to break up or deny rival spheres of influence in Europe and East Asia.
From the Open Door policy, which sought to prevent imperial powers from carving up China, to U.S. intervention in the world wars, to the confrontation with the Soviet Empire in the Cold War, the United States repeatedly acted on the belief that it could be neither as secure nor influential as it desired in a world divided up and dominated by rival nations. The American geopolitical tradition, in other words, has long contained a built-in hostility to other countries’ spheres of influence.
The American ideological tradition shares this sense of preeminence, as reflected in the second key tenet: liberty. America’s founding generation did not see the revolution merely as the birth of a future superpower; they saw it as a catalyst for spreading political liberty far and wide. Thomas Paine proclaimed in 1775 that Americans could “begin the world anew”; John Quincy Adams predicted, several decades later, that America’s liberal ideology was “destined to cover the surface of the globe.” Here, too, the new nation was not cursed with excessive modesty—and here, too, the existence of rival spheres of influence threatened this ambition.
Rival spheres of influence—particularly within the Western Hemisphere—imperiled the survival of liberty at home. If the United States were merely one great power among many on the North American continent, the founding generation worried, it would be forced to maintain a large standing military establishment and erect a sort of 18th-century “garrison state.” Living in perpetual conflict and vigilance, in turn, would corrode the very freedoms for which the revolution had been fought. “No nation,” wrote James Madison, “can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Just as Madison argued, in Federalist No. 10, that “extending the sphere”—expanding the republic—was a way of safeguarding republicanism at home, expanding America’s geopolitical domain was essential to providing the external security that a liberal polity required to survive.
Rival spheres of influence also constrained the prospects for liberty abroad. Although the question of whether the United States should actively support democratic revolutions overseas has been a source of unending controversy, virtually all American strategists have agreed that the country would be more secure and influential in a world where democracy was widespread. Given this mindset, Americans could hardly be desirous of foreign powers—particularly authoritarian powers—establishing formidable spheres of influence that would allow them to dominate the international system or suppress liberal ideals. The Monroe Doctrine was a response to the geopolitical dangers inherent in renewed imperial control of South America; it was also a response to the ideological danger posed by European nations that would “extend the political system to any portion” of the Western Hemisphere. Similar concerns have been at the heart of American opposition to the British Empire and the Soviet bloc.
Economic openness, the third core dynamic of American policy, has long served as a commercial counterpart to America’s ideological proselytism. Influenced as much by Adam Smith as by Alexander Hamilton, early American statecraft promoted free trade, neutral rights, and open markets, both to safeguard liberty and enrich a growing nation. This mission has depended on access to the world’s seas and markets. When that access was circumscribed—by the British in 1812 and by the Germans in 1917—Americans went to war to preserve it. It is unsurprising, then, that Americans also looked askance at efforts by other powers to establish areas that might be walled off from U.S. trade and investment—and from the spread of America’s capitalist ideology.
A brief list of robust policy endeavors underscores the persistent U.S. hostility to an economically closed, spheres-of-influence world: the Model Treaty of 1776, designed to promote free and reciprocal trade; John Hay’s Open Door policy of 1899, designed to prevent any outside power from dominating trade with China; Woodrow Wilson’s advocacy in his “14 Points” speech of 1918 for the removal “of all economic barriers and the establishment of an equality of trade conditions among all nations”; and the focus of the 1941 Atlantic Charter on reducing trade restrictions while promoting international economic cooperation (assuming the allies would emerge triumphant from World War II).
Fourth and finally, there’s exceptionalism. Americans have long believed that their nation was created not simply to replicate the practices of the Old World, but to revolutionize how states and peoples interact with one another. The United States, in this view, was not merely another great power out for its own self-interest. It was a country that, by virtue of its republican ideals, stood for the advancement of universal rights, and one that rejected the back-alley methods of monarchical diplomacy in favor of a more principled statecraft. When Abraham Lincoln said America represented “the last best hope of earth,” or when Woodrow Wilson scorned secret agreements in favor of “open covenants arrived at openly,” they demonstrated this exceptionalist strain in American thinking. There is some hypocrisy here, of course, for the United States has often acted in precisely the self-interested, cutthroat manner its statesmen deplored. Nonetheless, American exceptionalism has had a pronounced effect on American conduct.
Compare how Washington led its Western European allies during the Cold War—the extent to which NATO rested on the authentic consent of its members, the way the United States consistently sought to empower rather than dominate its partners—with how Moscow managed its empire in Eastern Europe. In the same way, Americans have often recoiled from arrangements that reeked of the old diplomacy. Franklin Roosevelt might have tolerated a Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after World War II, for instance, but he knew he could not admit this publicly. Likewise, the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which required Washington to acknowledge the diplomatic legitimacy of the Soviet sphere, proved controversial inside the United States because they seemed to represent just the sort of cynical, old-school geopolitics that American exceptionalism abhors.
To be clear, U.S. hostility to a spheres-of-influence world has always been leavened with a dose of pragmatism; American leaders have pursued that hostility only so far as power and prudence allowed. The Monroe Doctrine warned European powers to stay out of the Americas, but the quid pro quo was that a young and relatively weak United States would accept, for a time, a sphere of monarchical dominance within Europe. Even during the Cold War, U.S. policymakers generally accepted that Washington could not break up the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe without risking nuclear war.
But these were concessions to expediency. As America gained greater global power, it more actively resisted the acquisition or preservation of spheres by others. From gradually pushing the Old World out of the New, to helping vanquish the German and Japanese Empires by force of arms, to assisting the liquidation of the British Empire after World War II, to containing and ultimately defeating the Soviet bloc, the United States was present at the destruction of spheres of influence possessed by adversaries and allies alike.
The acme of this project came in the quarter-century that followed the Cold War. With the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself, it was possible to envision a world in which what Thomas Jefferson called America’s “empire of liberty” could attain global dimensions, and traditional spheres of influence would be consigned to history. The goal, as George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed, was to “create a balance of power that favors human freedom.” This meant an international environment in which the United States and its values were dominant and there was no balance of power whatsoever.
Under presidents from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama, this project entailed working to spread democracy and economic liberalism farther than ever before. It involved pushing American influence and U.S.-led institutions into regions—such as Eastern Europe—that were previously dominated by other powers. It meant maintaining the military primacy necessary to stop regional powers from establishing new spheres of influence, as Washington did by rolling back Saddam Hussein’s conquest of Kuwait in 1990 and by deterring China from coercing Taiwan in 1995–96. Not least, this American project involved seeking to integrate potential rivals—foremost Russia and China—into the post–Cold War order, in hopes of depriving them of even the desire to challenge it. This multifaceted effort reflected the optimism of the post-Cold War era, as well as the influence of tendencies with deep roots in the American past. Yet try as Washington might to permanently leave behind a spheres-of-influence world, that prospect is once again upon us.B egin with China’s actions in the Asia-Pacific region. The sources of Chinese conduct are diverse, ranging from domestic insecurity to the country’s confidence as a rising power to its sense of historical destiny as “the Middle Kingdom.” All these influences animate China’s bid to establish regional mastery. China is working, first, to create a power vacuum by driving the United States out of the Western Pacific, and second, to fill that vacuum with its own influence. A Chinese admiral made this ambition clear when he remarked—supposedly in jest—to an American counterpart that, in the future, the two powers should simply split the Pacific with Hawaii as the dividing line. Yang Jiechi, then China’s foreign minister, echoed this sentiment in a moment of frustration by lecturing the nations of Southeast Asia. “China is a big country,” he said, “and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Policy has followed rhetoric. To undercut America’s position, Beijing has harassed American ships and planes operating in international waters and airspace. The Chinese have warned U.S. allies they may be caught in the crossfire of a Sino-American war unless Washington accommodates China or the allies cut loose from the United States. China has simultaneously worked to undermine the credibility of U.S. alliance guarantees by using strategies designed to shift the regional status quo in ways even the mighty U.S. Navy finds difficult to counter. Through a mixture of economic aid and diplomatic coercion, Beijing has also successfully divided international bodies, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through which the United States has sought to rally opposition to Chinese assertiveness. And in the background, China has been steadily building, over the course of more than two decades, formidable military tools designed to keep the United States out of the region and give Beijing a free hand in dealing with its weaker neighbors. As America’s sun sets in the Asia-Pacific, Chinese leaders calculate, the shadow China casts over the region will only grow longer.
To that end, China has claimed, dubiously, nearly all of the South China Sea as its own and constructed artificial islands as staging points for the projection of military power. Military and paramilitary forces have teased, confronted, and violated the sovereignty of countries from Vietnam to the Philippines; China is likewise intensifying the pressure on Japan in the East China Sea. Economically, Beijing uses its muscle to reward those who comply with China’s policies and punish those not willing to bow to its demands. It is simultaneously advancing geoeconomic projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and Regional Comprehensive Economic Project (RCEP) that are designed to bring the region into its orbit.
Strikingly, China has also moved away from its long-professed principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic politics by extending the reach of Chinese propaganda organs and using investment and even bribery to co-opt regional elites. Payoffs to Australian politicians are as critical to China’s regional project as development of “carrier-killer” missiles. Finally, far from subscribing to liberal concepts of democracy and human rights, Beijing emphasizes its rejection of these values and its desire to create “Asia for Asians.” In sum, China is pursuing a classic spheres-of-influence project. By blending intimidation with inducement, Beijing aims to sunder its neighbors’ bonds with America and force them to accept a Sino-centric order—a new Chinese tribute system for the 21st century.A t the other end of Eurasia, Russia is playing geopolitical hardball of a different sort. The idea that Moscow should dominate its “near abroad” is as natural to many Russians as American regional primacy is to Americans. The loss of the Kremlin’s traditional buffer zone was, therefore, one of the most painful legacies of the Cold War’s end. And so it is hardly surprising that, as Russia has regained a degree of strength in recent years, it has sought to reassert its supremacy.
It has done so, in fact, through more overtly aggressive means than those employed by China. Moscow has twice seized opportunities to humiliate and dismember former Soviet republics that committed the sin of tilting toward the West or throwing out pro-Russian leaders, first in Georgia in 2008 and then in Ukraine in 2014. It has regularly reminded its neighbors that they live on Russia’s doorstep, through coercive activities such as conducting cyberattacks on Estonia in 2007 and holding aggressive military exercises on the frontiers of the Baltic states. In the same vein, the Kremlin has essentially claimed a veto over the geopolitical alignments of neighbors from the Caucasus to Scandinavia, whether by creating frozen conflicts on their territory or threatening to target them militarily—perhaps with nuclear weapons—should they join NATO.
Military muscle is not Moscow’s only tool. Russia has simultaneously used energy exports to keep the states on its periphery economically dependent, and it has exported corruption and illiberalism to non-aligned states in the former Warsaw Pact area to prevent further encroachment of liberal values. Not least, the Kremlin has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through political subversion and intervention in Western electoral processes. And while Russia’s activities are most concentrated in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, it’s also projecting its influence farther afield. Russian forces intervened successfully in Syria in 2015 to prop up Bashar al-Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean, and demonstrate the improved accuracy and lethality of Russian arms. Moscow continues to make inroads in the Middle East, often in cooperation with another American adversary: Iran.
To be sure, the projects that China and Russia are pursuing today are vastly different from each other, but the core logic is indisputably the same. Authoritarian powers are re-staking their claim to privileged influence in key geostrategic areas.S o what does this mean for American interests? Some observers have argued that the United States should make a virtue of necessity and accept the return of such arrangements. By this logic, spheres of influence create buffer zones between contending great powers; they diffuse responsibility for enforcing order in key areas. Indeed, for those who think that U.S. policy has left the country exhausted and overextended, a return to a world in which America no longer has the burden of being the dominant power in every region may seem attractive. The great sin of American policy after the Cold War, many realist scholars argue, was the failure to recognize that even a weakened Russia would demand privileged influence along its frontiers and thus be unalterably opposed to NATO expansion. Similarly, they lament the failure to understand that China would not forever tolerate U.S. dominance along its own periphery. It is not surprising, then, to hear analysts such as Australia’s Hugh White or America’s John Mearsheimer argue that the United States should learn to “share power” with China in the Pacific, or that it must yield ground in Eastern Europe in order to avoid war with Russia.
Such claims are not meritless; there are instances in which spheres of influence led to a degree of stability. The division of Europe into rival blocs fostered an ugly sort of stasis during the Cold War; closer to home, America’s dominance in the Western Hemisphere has long muted geopolitical competition in our own neighborhood. For all the problems associated with European empires, they often partially succeeded in limiting scourges such as communal violence.
And yet the allure of a spheres-of-influence world is largely an illusion, for such a world would threaten U.S. interests, traditions, and values in several ways.
First, basic human rights and democratic values would be less respected. China and Russia are not liberal democracies; they are illiberal autocracies that see the spread of democratic values as profoundly corrosive to their own authority and security. Just as the United States has long sought to create a world congenial to its own ideological predilections, Beijing and Moscow would certainly do likewise within their spheres of dominance.
They would, presumably, bring their influence to bear in support of friendly authoritarian regimes. And they would surely undermine democratic governments seen to pose a threat of ideological contagion or insubordination to Russian or Chinese prerogatives. Russia has taken steps to prevent the emergence of a Western-facing democracy in Ukraine and to undermine liberal democracies in Europe and elsewhere; China is snuffing out political freedoms in Hong Kong. Such actions offer a preview of what we will see when these countries are indisputably dominant along their peripheries. Further aggressions, in turn, would not simply be offensive to America’s ideological sensibilities. For given that the spread of democracy has been central to the absence of major interstate war in recent decades, and that the spread of American values has made the U.S. more secure and influential, a less democratic world will also be a more dangerous world.
Second, a spheres-of-influence world would be less open to American commerce and investment. After all, the United States itself saw geoeconomic dominance in Latin America as the necessary counterpart to geopolitical dominance. Why would China take a less self-interested approach? China already reaps the advantages of an open global economy even as it embraces protectionism and mercantilism. In a Chinese-dominated East Asia, all economic roads will surely lead to Beijing, as Chinese officials will be able to use their leverage to ensure that trade and investment flows are oriented toward China and geopolitical competitors like the United States are left on the outside. Beijing’s current geoeconomic projects—namely, RCEP and the Belt and Road Initiative—offer insight into a regional economic future in which flows of commerce and investment are subject to heavy Chinese influence.
Third, as spheres of influence reemerge, the United States will be less able to shape critical geopolitical events in crucial regions. The reason Washington has long taken an interest in events in faraway places is that East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East are the areas from which major security challenges have emerged in the past. Since World War II, America’s forward military presence has been intended to suppress incipient threats and instability; that presence has gone hand in glove with energetic diplomacy that amplifies America’s voice and protects U.S. interests. In a spheres-of-influence world, Washington would no longer enjoy the ability to act with decisive effect in these regions; it would find itself reacting to global events rather than molding them.
This leads to a final, and crucial, issue. America would be more likely to find its core security interests challenged because world orders based on rival spheres of influence have rarely been as peaceful and settled as one might imagine.
To see this, just work backward from the present. During the Cold War, a bipolar balance did help avert actual war between Moscow and Washington. But even in Europe—where the spheres of influence were best defined—there were continual tensions and crises as Moscow tested the Western bloc. And outside Europe, violence and proxy wars were common as the superpowers competed to extend their reach into the Third World. In the 1930s, the emergence of German and Japanese spheres of influence led to the most catastrophic war in global history. The empires of the 19th century—spheres of influence in their own right—continually jostled one another, leading to wars and near-wars over the course of decades; the Peace of Amiens between England and Napoleonic France lasted a mere 14 months. And looking back to the ancient world, there were not one, but three Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage as two expanding empires came into conflict. A world defined by spheres of influence is often a world characterized by tensions, wars, and competition.
The reasons for this are simple. As the political scientist William Wohlforth observed, unipolar systems—such as the U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order—are anchored by a hegemonic power that can act decisively to maintain the peace. In a unipolar system, Wohlforth writes, there are few incentives for revisionist powers to incur the “focused enmity” of the leading state. Truly multipolar systems, by contrast, have often been volatile. When the major powers are more evenly matched, there is a greater temptation to aggression by those who seek to change the existing order of things. And seek to change things they undoubtedly will.
The idea that spheres of influence are stabilizing holds only if one assumes that the major powers are motivated only by insecurity and that concessions to the revisionists will therefore lead to peace. Churchill described this as the idea that if one “feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
Unfortunately, today’s rising or resurgent powers are also motivated—as is America—by honor, ambition, and the timeless desire to make their international habitats reflect their own interests and ideals. It is a risky gamble indeed, then, to think that ceding Russia or China an uncontested sphere of influence would turn a revisionist authoritarian regime into a satisfied power. The result, as Robert Kagan has noted, might be to embolden those actors all the more, by giving them freer rein to bring their near-abroads under control, greater latitude and resources to pursue their ambitions, and enhanced confidence that the U.S.-led order is fracturing at its foundations. For China, dominance over the first island chain might simply intensify desires to achieve primacy in the second island chain and beyond; for Russia, renewed mastery in the former Soviet space could lead to desires to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel, as well. To observe how China is developing ever longer-range anti-access/area denial capabilities, or how Russia has been projecting military power ever farther afield, is to see this process in action.T he reemergence of a spheres-of-influence world would thus undercut one of the great historical achievements of U.S. foreign policy: the creation of a system in which America is the dominant power in each major geopolitical region and can act decisively to shape events and protect its interests. It would foster an environment in which democratic values are less prominent, authoritarian models are ascendant, and mercantilism advances as economic openness recedes. And rather than leading to multipolar stability, this change could simply encourage greater revisionism on the part of powers whose appetite grows with the eating. This would lead the world away from the relative stability of the post–Cold War era and back into the darker environment it seemed to have relegated to history a quarter-century ago. The phrase “spheres of influence” may sound vaguely theoretical and benign, but its real-world effects are likely to be tangible and pernicious.
Fortunately, the return of a spheres-of-influence world is not yet inevitable. Even as some nations will accept incorporation into a Chinese or Russian sphere of influence as the price of avoiding conflict, or maintaining access to critical markets and resources, others will resist because they see their own well-being as dependent on the preservation of the world order that Washington has long worked to create. The Philippines and Cambodia seem increasingly to fall into the former group; Poland and Japan, among many others, make up the latter. The willingness of even this latter group to take actions that risk incurring Beijing and Moscow’s wrath, however, will be constantly calibrated against an assessment of America’s own ability to continue leading the resistance to a spheres-of-influence world. Averting that outcome is becoming steadily harder, as the relative power and ambition of America’s authoritarian rivals rise and U.S. leadership seems to falter.
Harder, but not impossible. The United States and its allies still command a significant preponderance of global wealth and power. And the political, economic, and military weaknesses of its challengers are legion. It is far from fated, then, that the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe will slip into China’s and Russia’s respective orbits. With sufficient creativity and determination, Washington and its partners might still be able to resist the return of a dangerous global system. Doing so will require difficult policy work in the military, economic, and diplomatic realms. But ideas precede policy, and so simply rediscovering the venerable tradition of American hostility to spheres of influence—and no less, the powerful logic on which that tradition is based—would be a good start.
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What does the man with the baton actually do?
Why, then, are virtually all modern professional orchestras led by well-paid conductors instead of performing on their own? It’s an interesting question. After all, while many celebrity conductors are highly trained and knowledgeable, there have been others, some of them legendary, whose musical abilities were and are far more limited. It was no secret in the world of classical music that Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from 1924 to 1949, found it difficult to read full orchestral scores and sometimes learned how to lead them in public by first practicing with a pair of rehearsal pianists whom he “conducted” in private.
Yet recordings show that Koussevitzky’s interpretations of such complicated pieces of music as Aaron Copland’s El Salón México and Maurice Ravel’s orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (both of which he premiered and championed) were immensely characterful and distinctive. What made them so? Was it the virtuosic playing of the Boston Symphony alone? Or did Koussevitzky also bring something special to these performances—and if so, what was it?
Part of what makes this question so tricky to answer is that scarcely any well-known conductors have spoken or written in detail about what they do. Only two conductors of the first rank, Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, have left behind full-length autobiographies, and neither one features a discussion of its author’s technical methods. For this reason, the publication of John Mauceri’s Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting will be of special interest to those who, like my friend, wonder exactly what it is that conductors contribute to the performances that they lead.1
An impeccable musical journeyman best known for his lively performances of film music with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Mauceri has led most of the world’s top orchestras. He writes illuminatingly about his work in Maestros and Their Music, leavening his discussions of such matters as the foibles of opera directors and music critics with sharply pointed, sometimes gossipy anecdotes. Most interesting of all, though, are the chapters in which he talks about what conductors do on the podium. To read Maestros and Their Music is to come away with a much clearer understanding of what its author calls the “strange and lawless world” of conducting—and to understand how conductors whose technique is deficient to the point of seeming incompetence can still give exciting performances.P rior to the 19th century, conductors of the modern kind did not exist. Orchestras were smaller then—most of the ensembles that performed Mozart’s symphonies and operas contained anywhere from two to three dozen players—and their concerts were “conducted” either by the leader of the first violins or by the orchestra’s keyboard player.
As orchestras grew larger in response to the increasing complexity of 19th-century music, however, it became necessary for a full-time conductor both to rehearse them and to control their public performances, normally by standing on a podium placed in front of the musicians and beating time in the air with a baton. Most of the first men to do so were composers, including Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, and Richard Wagner. By the end of the century, however, it was becoming increasingly common for musicians to specialize in conducting, and some of them, notably Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini, came to be regarded as virtuosos in their own right. Since then, only three important composers—Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez—have also pursued parallel careers as world-class conductors. Every other major conductor of the 20th century was a specialist.
What did these men do in front of an orchestra? Mauceri’s description of the basic physical process of conducting is admirably straightforward:
The right hand beats time; that is, it sets the tempo or pulse of the music. It can hold a baton. The left hand turns pages [in the orchestral score], cues instrumentalists with an invitational or pointing gesture, and generally indicates the quality of the notes (percussive, smoothly linked, sustained, etc.).
Beyond these elements, though, all bets are off. Most of the major conductors of the 20th century were filmed in performance, and what one sees in these films is so widely varied that it is impossible to generalize about what constitutes a good conducting technique.2 Most of them used batons, but several, including Boulez and Leopold Stokowski, conducted with their bare hands. Bernstein and Beecham gestured extravagantly, even wildly, while others, most famously Fritz Reiner, restricted themselves to tightly controlled hand movements. Toscanini beat time in a flowing, beautifully expressive way that made his musical intentions self-evident, but Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan often conducted so unclearly that it is hard to see how the orchestras they led were able to follow them. (One exasperated member of the London Philharmonic claimed, partly in jest, that Furtwängler’s baton signaled the start of a piece “only after the thirteenth preliminary wiggle.”) Conductors of the Furtwängler sort tend to be at their best in front of orchestras with which they have worked for many years and whose members have learned from experience to “speak” their gestural language fluently.
Nevertheless, all of these men were pursuing the same musical goals. Beyond stopping and starting a given piece, it is the job of a conductor to decide how it will be interpreted. How loud should the middle section of the first movement be—and ought the violins to be playing a bit softer so as not to drown out the flutes? Someone must answer questions such as these if a performance is not to sound indecisive or chaotic, and it is far easier for one person to do so than for 100 people to vote on each decision.
Above all, a conductor controls the tempo of a performance, varying it from moment to moment as he sees fit. It is impossible for a full-sized symphony orchestra to play a piece with any degree of rhythmic flexibility unless a conductor is controlling the performance from the podium. Bernstein put it well when he observed in a 1955 TV special that “the conductor is a kind of sculptor whose element is time instead of marble.” These “sculptural” decisions are subjective, since traditional musical notation cannot be matched with exactitude. As Mauceri reminds us, Toscanini and Beecham both recorded La Bohème, having previously discussed their interpretations with Giacomo Puccini, the opera’s composer, and Toscanini conducted its 1896 premiere. Yet Beecham’s performance is 14 minutes longer than Toscanini’s. Who is “right”? It is purely a matter of individual taste, since both interpretations are powerfully persuasive.
Beyond the not-so-basic task of setting, maintaining, and varying tempos, it is the job of a conductor to inspire an orchestra—to make its members play with a charged precision that transcends mere unanimity. The first step in doing so is to persuade the players of his musical competence. If he cannot run a rehearsal efficiently, they will soon grow bored and lose interest; if he does not know the score in detail, they will not take him seriously. This requires extensive preparation on the part of the conductor, and an orchestra can tell within seconds of the downbeat whether he is adequately prepared—a fact that every conductor knows. “I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do,” Bernstein once told an interviewer. “I work extremely hard and all the time.”
All things being equal, it is better than not for a conductor to have a clear technique, if only because it simplifies and streamlines the process of rehearsing an orchestra. Fritz Reiner, who taught Bernstein among others, did not exaggerate when he claimed that he and his pupils could “stand up [in front of] an orchestra they have never seen before and conduct correctly a new piece at first sight without verbal explanation and by means only of manual technique.”
While orchestra players prefer this kind of conducting, a conductor need not have a technique as fully developed as that of a Reiner or Bernstein if he knows how to rehearse effectively. Given sufficient rehearsal time, decisive and unambiguous verbal instructions will produce the same results as a virtuoso stick technique. This was how Willem Mengelberg and George Szell distinguished themselves on the podium. Their techniques were no better than adequate, but they rehearsed so meticulously that their performances were always brilliant and exact.
It also helps to supply the members of the orchestra with carefully marked orchestra parts. Beecham’s manual technique was notoriously messy, but he marked his musical intentions into each player’s part so clearly and precisely that simply reading the music on the stand would produce most of the effects that he desired.
What players do not like is to be lectured. They want to be told what to do and, if absolutely necessary, how to do it, at which point the wise conductor will stop talking and start conducting. Mauceri recalls the advice given to a group of student conductors by Joseph Silverstein, the concertmaster of the Boston Symphony: “Don’t talk to us about blue skies. Just tell us ‘longer-shorter,’ ‘faster-slower,’ ‘higher-lower.’” Professional musicians cannot abide flowery speeches about the inner meaning of a piece of music, though they will readily respond to a well-turned metaphor. Mauceri makes this point with a Toscanini anecdote:
One of Toscanini’s musicians told me of a moment in a rehearsal when the sound the NBC Symphony was giving him was too heavy. … In this case, without saying a word, he reached into his pocket and took out his silk handkerchief, tossed it into the air, and everyone watched it slowly glide to earth. After seeing that, the orchestra played the same passage exactly as Toscanini wanted.
Conducting, like all acts of leadership, is in large part a function of character. The violinist Carl Flesch went so far as to call it “the only musical activity in which a dash of charlatanism is not only harmless, but positively necessary.” While that is putting it too cynically, Flesch was on to something. I did a fair amount of conducting in college, but even though I practiced endlessly in front of a mirror and spent hours poring over my scores, I lacked the personal magnetism without which no conductor can hope to be more than merely competent at best.
On the other hand, a talented musician with a sufficiently compelling personality can turn himself into a conductor more or less overnight. Toscanini had never conducted an orchestra before making his unrehearsed debut in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the age of 19, yet the players hastened to do his musical bidding. I once saw the modern-dance choreographer Mark Morris, whose knowledge of classical music is profound, lead a chorus and orchestra in the score to Gloria, a dance he had made in 1981 to a piece by Vivaldi. It was no stunt: Morris used a baton and a score and controlled the performance with the assurance of a seasoned pro. Not only did he have a strong personality, but he had also done his musical homework, and he knew that one was as important as the other.
The reverse, however, is no less true: The success of conductors like Serge Koussevitzky is at least as much a function of their personalities as of their preparation. To be sure, Koussevitzky had been an instrumental virtuoso (he played the double bass) before taking up conducting, but everyone who worked with him in later years was aware of his musical limitations. Yet he was still capable of imposing his larger-than-life personality on players who might well have responded indifferently to his conducting had he been less charismatic. Leopold Stokowski functioned in much the same way. He was widely thought by his peers to have been far more a showman than an artist, to the point that Toscanini contemptuously dismissed him as a “clown.” But he had, like Koussevitzky, a richly romantic musical imagination coupled with the showmanship of a stage actor, and so the orchestras that he led, however skeptical they might be about his musical seriousness, did whatever he wanted.
All great conductors share this same ability to impose their will on an orchestra—and that, after all, is the heart of the matter. A conductor can be effective only if the orchestra does what he wants. It is not like a piano, whose notes automatically sound when the keys are pressed, but a living organism with a will of its own. Conducting, then, is first and foremost an act of persuasion, as Mauceri acknowledges:
The person who stands before a symphony orchestra is charged with something both impossible and improbable. The impossible part is herding a hundred musicians to agree on something, and the improbable part is that one does it by waving one’s hands in the air.
This is why so many famous conductors have claimed that the art of conducting cannot be taught. In the deepest sense, they are right. To be sure, it is perfectly possible, as Reiner did, to teach the rudiments of clear stick technique and effective rehearsal practice. But the mystery at the heart of conducting is, indeed, unteachable: One cannot tell a budding young conductor how to cultivate a magnetic personality, any more than an actor can be taught how to have star quality. What sets the Bernsteins and Bogarts of the world apart from the rest of us is very much like what James M. Barrie said of feminine charm in What Every Woman Knows: “If you have it, you don’t need to have anything else; and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t much matter what else you have.”
2 Excerpts from many of these films were woven together into a two-part BBC documentary, The Art of Conducting, which is available on home video and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube
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Not that he tries. What was remarkable about the condescension in this instance was that Franken directed it at women who accused him of behaving “inappropriately” toward them. (In an era of strictly enforced relativism, we struggle to find our footing in judging misbehavior, so we borrow words from the prissy language of etiquette. The mildest and most common rebuke is unfortunate, followed by the slightly more serious inappropriate, followed by the ultimate reproach: unacceptable, which, depending on the context, can include both attempted rape and blowing your nose into your dinner napkin.) Franken’s inappropriateness entailed, so to speak, squeezing the bottoms of complete strangers, and cupping the occasional breast.
Franken himself did not use the word “inappropriate.” By his account, he had done nothing to earn the title. His earlier vague denials of the allegations, he told his fellow senators, “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done.” How could he have confused people about such an important matter? Doggone it, it’s that damn sensitivity of his. The nation was beginning a conversation about sexual harassment—squeezing strangers’ bottoms, stuff like that—and “I wanted to be respectful of that broader conversation because all women deserve to be heard and their experiences taken seriously.”
Well, not all women. The women with those bottoms and breasts he supposedly manhandled, for example—their experiences don’t deserve to be taken seriously. We’ve got Al’s word on it. “Some of the allegations against me are not true,” he said. “Others, I remember very differently.” His accusers, in other words, fall into one of two camps: the liars and the befuddled. You know how women can be sometimes. It might be a hormonal thing.
But enough about them, Al seemed to be saying: Let’s get back to Al. “I know the work I’ve been able to do has improved people’s lives,” Franken said, but he didn’t want to get into any specifics. “I have used my power to be a champion of women.” He has faith in his “proud legacy of progressive advocacy.” He’s been passionate and worked hard—not for himself, mind you, but for his home state of Minnesota, by which he’s “blown away.” And yes, he would get tired or discouraged or frustrated once in a while. But then that big heart of his would well up: “I would think about the people I was doing this for, and it would get me back on my feet.” Franken recently published a book about himself: Giant of the Senate. I had assumed the title was ironic. Now I’m not sure.
Yet even in his flights of self-love, the problem that has ever attended Senator Franken was still there. You can’t take him seriously. He looks as though God made him to be a figure of fun. Try as he might, his aspect is that of a man who is going to try to make you laugh, and who is built for that purpose and no other—a close cousin to Bert Lahr or Chris Farley. And for years, of course, that’s the part he played in public life, as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live. When he announced nine years ago that he would return to Minnesota and run for the Senate—when he came out of the closet and tried to present himself as a man of substance—the effect was so disorienting that I, and probably many others, never quite recovered. As a comedian-turned-politician, he was no longer the one and could never quite become the other.
The chubby cheeks and the perpetual pucker, the slightly crossed eyes behind Coke-bottle glasses, the rounded, diminutive torso straining to stay upright under the weight of an enormous head—he was the very picture of Comedy Boy, and suddenly he wanted to be something else: Politics Boy. I have never seen the famously tasteless tearjerker The Day the Clown Cried, in which Jerry Lewis stars as a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi death camp, but I’m sure watching it would be a lot like watching the ex-funnyman Franken deliver a speech about farm price supports.
Then he came to Washington and slipped right into place. His career is testament to a dreary fact of life here: Taken in the mass, senators are pretty much interchangeable. Party discipline determines nearly every vote they cast. Only at the margins is one Democrat or Republican different in a practical sense from another Democrat or Republican. Some of us held out hope, despite the premonitory evidence, that Franken might use his professional gifts in service of his new job. Yet so desperate was he to be taken seriously that he quickly passed serious and swung straight into obnoxious. It was a natural fit. In no time at all, he mastered the senatorial art of asking pointless or showy questions in committee hearings, looming from his riser over fumbling witnesses and hollering “Answer the question!” when they didn’t respond properly.
It’s not hard to be a good senator, if you have the kind of personality that frees you to simulate chumminess with people you scarcely know or have never met and will probably never see again. There’s not much to it. A senator has a huge staff to satisfy his every need. There are experts to give him brief, personal tutorials on any subject he will be asked about, writers to write his questions for his committee hearings and an occasional op-ed if an idea strikes him, staffers to arrange his travel and drive him here or there, political aides to guard his reputation with the folks back home, press aides to regulate his dealings with reporters, and legislative aides to write the bills should he ever want to introduce any. The rest is show biz.
Oddly, Franken was at his worst precisely when he was handling the show-biz aspects of his job. While his inquisitions in committee hearings often showed the obligatory ferocity and indignation, he could also appear baffled and aimless. His speeches weren’t much good, and he didn’t deliver them well. As if to prove the point, he published a collection of them earlier this year, Speaking Franken. Until Pearl Harbor, he’d been showing signs of wanting to run for president. Liberal pundits were talking him up as a national candidate. Speaking Franken was likely intended to do for him what Profiles in Courage did for John Kennedy, another middling senator with presidential longings. Unfortunately for Franken, Ted Sorensen is still dead.
The final question raised by Franken’s resignation is why so many fellow Democrats urged him to give up his seat so suddenly, once his last accuser came forward. The consensus view involved Roy Moore, in those dark days when he was favored to win Alabama’s special election. With the impending arrival of an accused pedophile on the Republican side of the aisle, Democrats didn’t want an accused sexual harasser in their own ranks to deflect what promised to be a relentless focus on the GOP’s newest senator. This is bad news for any legacy Franken once hoped for himself. None of his work as a senator will commend him to history. He will be remembered instead for two things: as a minor TV star, and as Roy Moore’s oldest victim.
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Review of 'Lioness' By Francine Klagsbrun
Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, moved to Palestine from America in 1921, at the age of 22, to pursue Socialist Zionism. She was instrumental in transforming the Jewish people into a state; signed that state’s Declaration of Independence; served as its first ambassador to the Soviet Union, as labor minister for seven years, and as foreign minister for a decade. In 1969, she became the first female head of state in the Western world, serving from the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and through the nearly catastrophic but ultimately victorious 1973 Yom Kippur War. She resigned in 1974 at the age of 76, after five years as prime minister. Her involvement at the forefront of Zionism and the leadership of Israel thus extended more than half a century.
This is the second major biography of Golda Meir in the last decade, after Elinor Burkett’s excellent Golda in 2008. Klagsbrun’s portrait is even grander in scope. Her epigraph comes from Ezekiel’s lamentation for Israel: What a lioness was your mother / Among the lions! / Crouching among the great beasts / She reared her cubs. The “mother” was Israel; the “cubs,” her many ancient kings; the “great beasts,” the hostile nations surrounding her. One finishes Klagsbrun’s monumental volume, which is both a biography of Golda and a biography of Israel in her time, with a deepened sense that modern Israel, its prime ministers, and its survival is a story of biblical proportions.Golda Meir’s story spans three countries—Russia, America, and Israel. Before she was Golda Meir, she was Golda Meyerson; and before that, she was Golda Mabovitch, born in 1898 in Kiev in the Russian Empire. Her father left for America after the horrific Kishinev pogrom in 1903, found work in Milwaukee as a carpenter, and in 1906 sent for his wife and three daughters, who escaped using false identities and border bribes. Golda said later that what she took from Russia was “fear, hunger and fear.” It was an existential fear that she never forgot.
In Milwaukee, Golda found socialism in the air: The city had both a socialist mayor and a socialist congressman, and she was enthralled by news from Palestine, where Jews were living out socialist ideals in kibbutzim. She immersed herself in Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion), a movement synthesizing Zionism and socialism, and in 1917 married a fellow socialist, Morris Meyerson. As soon as conditions permitted, they moved to Palestine, where the marriage ultimately failed—a casualty of the extended periods she spent away from home working for Socialist Zionism and her admission that the cause was more important to her than her husband and children. Klagsbrun writes that Meir might appear to be the consummate feminist: She asserted her independence from her husband, traveled continually and extensively on her own, left her husband and children for months to pursue her work, and demanded respect as an individual rather than on special standards based on her gender. But she never considered herself a feminist and indeed denigrated women’s organizations as reducing issues to women’s interests only, and she gave minimal assistance to other women. Klagsbrun concludes that questions about Meir as a feminist figure ultimately “hang in the air.”
Her American connection and her unaccented American English became strategic assets for Zionism. She understood American Jews, spoke their language, and conducted many fundraising trips to the United States, tirelessly raising tens of millions of dollars of critically needed funds. David Ben-Gurion called her the “woman who got the money which made the state possible.” Klagsbrun provides the schedule of her 1932 trip as an example of her efforts: Over the course of a single month, the 34-year-old Zionist pioneer traveled to Kansas City, Tulsa, Dallas, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and three cities in Canada. She became the face of Zionism in America—“The First Lady,” in the words of a huge banner at a later Chicago event, “of the Jewish People.” She connected with American Jews in a way no other Zionist leader had done before her.
In her own straightforward way, she mobilized the English language and sent it into battle for Zionism. While Abba Eban denigrated her poor Hebrew—“She has a vocabulary of two thousand words, okay, but why doesn’t she use them?”—she had a way of crystallizing issues in plainspoken English. Of British attempts to prevent the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine, she said Britain “should remember that Jews were here 2,000 years before the British came.” Of expressions of sympathy for Israel: “There is only one thing I hope to see before I die, and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” And perhaps her most famous saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”
Once she moved to the Israeli foreign ministry, she changed her name from Meyerson to Meir, in response to Ben-Gurion’s insistence that ministers assume Israeli names. She began a decade-long tenure there as the voice and face of Israel in the world. At a Madison Square Garden rally after the 1967 Six-Day War, she observed sardonically that the world called Israelis “a wonderful people,” complimented them for having prevailed “against such odds,” and yet wanted Israel to give up what it needed for its self-defense:
“Now that they have won this battle, let them go back where they came from, so that the hills of Syria will again be open for Syrian guns; so that Jordanian Legionnaires, who shoot and shell at will, can again stand on the towers of the Old City of Jerusalem; so that the Gaza Strip will again become a place from which infiltrators are sent to kill and ambush.” … Is there anybody who has the boldness to say to the Israelis: “Go home! Begin preparing your nine and ten year olds for the next war, perhaps in ten years.”
The next war would come not in ten years, but in six, and while Meir was prime minister.
Klagsbrun’s extended discussion of Meir’s leadership before, during, and after the 1973 Yom Kippur War is one of the most valuable parts of her book, enabling readers to make informed judgments about that war and assess Meir’s ultimate place in Israeli history. The book makes a convincing case that there was no pre-war “peace option” that could have prevented the conflict. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was insisting on a complete Israeli withdrawal before negotiations could even begin, and Meir’s view was, “We had no peace with the old boundaries. How can we have peace by returning to them?” She considered the demand part of a plan to push Israel back to the ’67 lines “and then bring the Palestinians back, which means no more Israel.”
A half-century later, after three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state on substantially all the disputed territories—with the Palestinians rejecting each offer, insisting instead on an Israeli retreat to indefensible lines and recognition of an alleged Palestinian “right of return”—Meir’s view looks prescient.
Klagsbrun’s day-by-day description of the ensuing war is largely favorable to Meir, who relied on assurances from her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, that the Arabs would not attack, and assurances from her intelligence community that, even if they did, Israel would have a 48-hour notice—enough time to mobilize the reserves that constituted more than 75 percent of its military force. Both sets of assurances proved false, and the joint Egyptian-Syrian attack took virtually everyone in Israel by surprise. Dayan had something close to a mental breakdown, but Meir remained calm and in control after the initial shock, making key military decisions. She was able to rely on the excellent personal relationships she had established with President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, and the critical resupply of American arms that enabled Israel—once its reserves were called into action—to take the war into Egyptian and Syrian territories, with Israeli forces camped in both countries by its end.
Meir had resisted the option of a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria when it suddenly became clear, 12 hours before the war started, that coordinated Egyptian and Syrian attacks were coming. On the second day of the war, she told her war cabinet that she regretted not having authorized the IDF to act, and she sent a message to Kissinger that Israel’s “failure to take such action is the reason for our situation now.” After the war, however, she testified that, had Israel begun the war, the U.S. would not have sent the crucial assistance that Israel needed (a point on which Kissinger agreed), and that she therefore believed she had done the right thing. A preemptive response, however, or a massive call-up of the reserves in the days before the attacks, might have avoided a war in which Israel lost 2,600 soldiers—the demographic equivalent of all the American losses in the Vietnam War.
It is hard to fault Meir’s decision, given the erroneous information and advice she was uniformly receiving from all her defense and intelligence subordinates, but it is a reminder that for Israeli prime ministers (such as Levi Eshkol in the Six-Day War, Menachem Begin with the Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981, and Ehud Olmert with the Syrian one in 2007), the potential necessity of taking preemptive action always hangs in the air. Klagsbrun’s extensive discussion of the Yom Kippur War is a case study of that question, and an Israeli prime minister may yet again face that situation.
The Meir story is also a tale of the limits of socialism as an organizing principle for the modern state. Klagsbrun writes about “Golda’s persistent—and hopelessly utopian—vision of how a socialist society should be conducted,” exemplified by her dream of instituting commune-like living arrangements for urban families, comparable to those in the kibbutzim, where all adults would share common kitchens and all the children would eat at school. She also tried to institute a family wage system, in which people would be paid according to their needs rather than their talents, a battle she lost when the unionized nurses insisted on being paid as professionals, based on their education and experience, and not the sizes of their families.
Socialism foundered not only on the laws of economics and human nature but also in the realm of foreign relations. In 1973, enraged that the socialist governments and leaders in Europe had refused to come to Israel’s aid during the Yom Kippur War, Meir convened a special London conference of the Socialist International, attended by eight heads of state and a dozen other socialist-party leaders. Before the conference, she told Willy Brandt, Germany’s socialist chancellor, that she wanted “to hear for myself, with my own ears, what it was that kept the heads of these socialist governments from helping us.”
In her speech at the conference, she criticized the Europeans for not even permitting “refueling the [American] planes that saved us from destruction.” Then she told them, “I just want to understand …what socialism is really about today”:
We are all old comrades, long-standing friends. … Believe me, I am the last person to belittle the fact that we are only one tiny Jewish state and that there are over twenty Arab states with vast territories, endless oil, and billions of dollars. But what I want to know from you today is whether these things are the decisive factors in Socialist thinking, too?
After she concluded her speech, the chairman asked whether anyone wanted to reply. No one did, and she thus effectively received her answer.
One wonders what Meir would think of the Socialist International today. On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, the World Socialist website called it “a sordid deal” that launched “a nakedly colonial project.” Socialism was part of the cause for which she went to Palestine in 1921, and it has not fared well in history’s judgment. But the other half—
Zionism—became one of the great successes of the 20th century, in significant part because of the lifelong efforts of individuals such as she.
Golda Meir has long been a popular figure in the American imagination, particularly among American Jews. Her ghostwritten autobiography was a bestseller; Ingrid Bergman played her in a well-received TV film; Anne Bancroft played her on the Broadway stage. But her image as the “71-year old grandmother,” as the press frequently referred to her when she became prime minister, has always obscured the historic leader beneath that façade. She was a woman with strengths and weaknesses who willed herself into half a century of history. Francine Klagsbrun has given us a magisterial portrait of a lioness in full.
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Back in 2016, then–deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes gave an extraordinary interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he revealed how President Obama exploited a clueless and deracinated press to steamroll opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told journalist David Samuels. “They”—writers and bloggers and pundits—“were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes went on to explain that his job was made easier by structural changes in the media, such as the closing of foreign bureaus, the retirement of experienced editors and correspondents, and the shift from investigative reporting to aggregation. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” he said. “That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
And they haven’t learned much. It was dispiriting to watch in December as journalists repeated arguments against the Jerusalem decision presented by Rhodes on Twitter. On December 5, quoting Mahmoud Abbas’s threat that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem would have “dangerous consequences,” Rhodes tweeted, “Trump seems to view all foreign policy as an extension of a patchwork of domestic policy positions, with no regard for the consequences of his actions.” He seemed blissfully unaware that the same could be said of his old boss.
The following day, Rhodes tweeted, “In addition to making goal of peace even less possible, Trump is risking huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans. For no reason other than a political promise he doesn’t even understand.” On December 8, quoting from a report that the construction of a new American Embassy would take some time, Rhodes asked, “Then why cause an international crisis by announcing it?”
Rhodes made clear his talking points for the millions of people inclined to criticize President Trump: Acknowledging Israel’s right to name its own capital is unnecessary and self-destructive. Rhodes’s former assistant, Ned Price, condensed the potential lines of attack in a single tweet on December 5. “In order to cater to his political base,” Price wrote, “Trump appears willing to: put U.S. personnel at great risk; risk C-ISIL [counter-ISIL] momentum; destabilize a regional ally; strain global alliances; put Israeli-Palestinian peace farther out of reach.”
Prominent media figures happily reprised their roles in the echo chamber. Susan Glasser of Politico: “Just got this in my in box from Ayman Odeh, leading Arab Israeli member of parliament: ‘Trump is a pyromaniac who could set the entire region on fire with his madness.’” BBC reporter Julia Merryfarlane: “Whether related or not, everything that happens from now on in Israel and the Pal territories will be examined in the context of Trump signaling to move the embassy to Jerusalem.” Neither Rhodes nor Price could have asked for more.
Network news broadcasts described the president’s decision as “controversial” but only reported on the views of one side in the controversy. Guess which one. “There have already been some demonstrations,” reported NBC’s Richard Engel. “They are expected to intensify, with Palestinians calling for three days of rage if President Trump goes through with it.” Left unmentioned was the fact that Hamas calls for days of rage like you and I call for pizza.
Throughout Engel’s segment, the chyron read: “Controversial decision could lead to upheaval.” On ABC, George Stephanopoulos said, “World leaders call the decision dangerous.” On CBS, Gayle King chimed in: “U.S. allies and leaders around the world say it’s a big mistake that will torpedo any chance of Middle East peace.” Oh? What were the chances of Middle East peace prior to Trump’s speech?
On CNN, longtime peace processor Aaron David Miller likened recognizing Jerusalem to hitting “somebody over the head with a hammer.” On MSNBC, Chris Matthews fumed: “Deaths are coming.” That same network featured foreign-policy gadfly Steven Clemons of the Atlantic, who said Trump “stuck a knife in the back of the two-state process.” Price and former Obama official Joel Rubin also appeared on the network to denounce Trump. “American credibility is shot, and in diplomacy, credibility relies on your word, and our word is, at this moment, not to be trusted from a peace-process perspective, certainly,” Rubin said. This from the administration that gave new meaning to the words “red line.”
Some journalists were so devoted to Rhodes’s tendentious narrative of Trump’s selfishness and heedlessness that they mangled the actual story. “He had promised this day would come, but to hear these words from the White House was jaw-dropping,” said Martha Raddatz of ABC. “Not only signing a proclamation reversing nearly 70 years of U.S. policy, but starting plans to move the embassy to Jerusalem. No one else on earth has an embassy there!” How dare America take a brave stand for a small and threatened democracy!
In fact, Trump was following U.S. policy as legislated by the Congress in 1995, reaffirmed in the Senate by a 90–0 vote just last June, and supported (in word if not in deed) by his three most recent predecessors as well as the last four Democratic party platforms. Most remarkable, the debate surrounding the Jerusalem policy ignored a crucial section of the president’s address. “We are not taking a position on any final-status issues,” he said, “including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders. Those questions are up to the parties involved.” What we did then was simply accept the reality that the city that houses the Knesset and where the head of government receives foreign dignitaries is the capital of Israel.
However, just as had happened during the debate over the Iran deal, the facts were far less important to Rhodes than the overarching strategic goal. In this case, the objective was to discredit and undermine President Trump’s policy while isolating the conservative government of Israel. Yet there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical toward the disingenuous duo of Rhodes and Price. Trump’s announcement was bold, for sure, but the tepid protests from Arab capitals more worried about the rise of Iran, which Rhodes and Price facilitated, than the Palestinian issue suggested that the “Arab street” would sit this one out.
Which is what happened. Moreover, verbal disagreement aside, there is no evidence that the Atlantic alliance is in jeopardy. Nor has the war on ISIS lost momentum. As for putting “Israeli–Palestinian peace farther out of reach,” if third-party recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital forecloses a deal, perhaps no deal was ever possible. Rhodes and Price would like us to overlook the fact that the two sides weren’t even negotiating during the Obama administration—an administration that did as much as possible to harm relations between Israel and the United States.
This most recent episode of the Trump show was a reminder that some things never change. Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of the Jewish state. President Trump routinely ignores conventional wisdom and expert opinion. And whatever nonsense President Obama and his allies say today, the press will echo tomorrow.