To the Editor:
It is hardly a “secret” that, during the first half of this century, American private higher education discriminated against virtually every minority group, including Jews. That fact does not excuse the involvement of any college, including Sarah Lawrence, in this practice. It does, however, raise questions about the purpose of Louise Blecher Rose’s supposed exposé “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence” [May]. It is regrettable that, in resorting to sensationalism, Mrs. Rose missed the opportunity to examine the larger issues surrounding this tragic policy and to address the more important question: why did this practice exist in the presumably most enlightened segment of society, our colleges and universities? In place of a serious discussion of what Mrs. Rose describes as “an important piece of social history,” the article blends historical fact with inference and innuendo, concluding with the absolutely false suggestion that the college deliberately tried to suppress its past.
This inaccurate and shallow treatment of an important issue is appended to a series of distortions and caricatures attacking a college Mrs. Rose has repeatedly and publicly professed to love and admire. The denial of tenure to a faculty member is always a painful process, both for the college and the individual. Nevertheless, Mrs. Rose’s pain does not justify this kind of attack and we cannot allow these distortions to stand uncorrected.
Sarah Lawrence is a thriving and vital educational community. The cornerstone of the college is a superb faculty, noted for its unqualified commitment to helping students discover and develop their potential. Sarah Lawrence students, 40 percent of whom are on financial aid, represent a rich diversity of economic, social, and religious backgrounds. Despite their differences, they are united in their intellectual zest, their creativity, and their unfailing decency and good humor.
Sarah Lawrence is well-known for having introduced the concept of individualized education to American education. Its seminar and tutorial system is made possible by a student-faculty ratio that is one of the lowest in the country. We continue to act on the belief that the cloth of education must be cut to fit the individual and that genuine learning engages both the intellect and the imagination in the service of truth, quality, and compassion.
We are sorry if this rich and unique education failed Mrs. Rose. Even more, we are sorry that, in both purpose and product, the article failed to meet the standard of scholarly excellence and integrity that Sarah Lawrence expects of its faculty, students, and alumni.
Alice Stone Ilchman
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I suppose Louise Blecher Rose wouldn’t want to join any tenured faculty that would have her as a member—and perhaps this is understandable.
Before inviting her to write a history of Sarah Lawrence, I had read some of her work and found it amusing. My hope was that she could produce a light-hearted send-up of the typically dull, self-congratulatory histories which surface when colleges find themselves at silver, gold, or other precious-metal anniversaries. Having read a goodly number of such I knew what I had in mind but, alas, obviously didn’t communicate it to her.
The submitted draft was a disappointment—neither witty nor funny, with a bland juvenile reminiscence of college days and a journalistically dull exposé of early-day anti-Semitism.
With respect to the last, who would deny that until well after World War II American private higher education was anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-Catholic—indeed almost anti-biotic, save for those special specimens extracted from North European life-stock? And who can deny that Sarah Lawrence, more than most, should have found these practices unacceptable to its educational principles?
But surely Mrs. Rose knew those principles grew from the ideas of Whitehead, Dewey, and Newman—ideas which were grafted by a few gifted teachers upon the gnarled rootstock of know-nothing primitive Americanism. The marvel is that the graft took so well, transforming a fledgling institution into a serious intellectual enterprise whose pioneering ventures are now replicated broadly throughout higher education. This is the story, and Mrs. Rose missed it.
Mrs. Rose’s recitation of the college’s inadequacies lies, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. That she did not develop a useful course of study, that she did not overexert, that she did not see a status in the future equal to the one she had “already achieved as a nineteen-year-old Sarah Lawrence student” are sad recognitions, but nonetheless of her own making. Perhaps Mrs. Rose would have been better served by attending a college where SAT’s are held in awe, and where exams can winnow the Gentile chaff from the Jewish wheat.
The life of a small college is perilous indeed, but from what I saw of it over a decade, I think Sarah Lawrence (even with a clay toe or two) has made a contribution to American education immeasurably larger than its size or foibles.
In sum, the cookie Mrs. Rose so righteously crumbles is stale and her grapes of wrath are sour.
Sarah Lawrence College
New York City
To the Editor:
As an Honorary Trustee of Sarah Lawrence College and a long-time reader of COMMENTARY, I was offended and angered by Louise Blecher Rose’s article. What would possess a responsible magazine to publish an outrageously mean-spirited, vengeful article by a teacher who was only recently denied tenure? Surely the information that Sarah Lawrence, along with most other colleges in the 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s, had quotas for Jews is not news, and the patently subjective diatribe of an employee with an ax to grind is unworthy of publication.
There is a distinction between censorship and the editor’s duty of self-restraint to forgo publishing material that can have as its only purpose not the enlightenment of the public but the defamation of an outstanding institution. You owe an apology.
Saul Z. Cohen
New York City
To the Editor:
Even though Louise Blecher Rose’s quotation from my letter of some three decades ago, found in the college’s records, portrays me in a favorable light, I am deeply concerned that a less than attentive reader might form the impression that I share in the many disparaging remarks made about the standards, the practices, the aims, and values of the college.
If Mrs. Rose’s sweeping indictment had merit, I would hardly have encouraged three of my daughters to graduate from Sarah Lawrence. I would not, myself, have spent eighteen most fulfilling and rewarding years there.
Carla Pekelis Seitz
Sarah Lawrence College
New York City
To the Editor:
Jewish quotas in the past of prestigious colleges? Disgraceful, but scarcely a closely-held secret. Perhaps more worthy of scrutiny is the actual experience of Jewish students who attended these schools so many years ago.
I was a Jewish student at Sarah Lawrence from 1950 to 1954. Unlike my Jewish friends at other colleges, I found at Sarah Lawrence a very high proportion of Jews and, even more important, an atmosphere completely free of institutionally-fostered anti-Semitism. While my friends at other colleges told me nasty tales of exclusionary practices, I enjoyed a campus that on principle had no sororities, no exclusive clubs, no secret ceremonies. While my friends at many of these prestigious colleges felt they had to blend in by pretending to be Gentile in their speech, their manner, and their clothing, I was encouraged to be myself, valued for who and what I was and could become.
The commitment to civil liberties the college preached was practiced daily on its own campus. I was editor of the college newspaper. My closest friend, also Jewish, was president of the student government. Indeed, in the early 1950s, when Sarah Lawrence was one of the few institutions actively defending its teachers against McCarthyism, we were often labeled with opprobrium as “that Jewish school.” Therefore, it seems particularly ironic to me that Sarah Lawrence should be singled out for censure on the quota issue and that we should have to defend ourselves today against charges of anti-Semitism for that same period of history.
Both Louise Blecher Rose and I are alumnae who returned to Sarah Lawrence—she eight years ago to join our distinguished writing faculty, I this past fall to join the administration. Given her scathing characterization of the college, I don’t know why Mrs. Rose returned and stayed, but I know why I have. Once again, I have found an institution that practices what it preaches—respect for individual difference and demand for individual excellence—an institution quite unlike the one Mrs. Rose describes in COMMENTARY. But then, administrators are on yearly contracts; thus their view is unclouded by questions of tenure.
Dean of Studies and Student Life
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
This year I have been teaching a former student of Louise Blecher Rose, a fine, hard-working, serious young woman who valued her year with Mrs. Rose and decided to stay on at the college because of that good experience and because Mrs. Rose herself urged her to stay. I had heard this from a number of students, and I regret that Mrs. Rose did not mention in her piece how very satisfying it is to teach in our tutorial-conference system, so special to Sarah Lawrence.
As I look back at my own thirty-five years at the college, I find that most of my students were serious about their studies. I can name many who have achieved outstanding careers in academic and other fields, and a very much longer list of people whose lives undeniably have been enriched by their four years here. Of course, there were some few like those who warranted Mrs. Rose’s caricaturing pen. Such students may exist at any private college, but as I think about it, we have had surprisingly few at Sarah Lawrence.
I regret that Mrs. Rose did not do credit to those of her students who appreciated her teaching and, through her, came to appreciate the college’s unique education.
Member, Psychology Faculty
Sarah Lawrence College
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
What a scoop! Anti-Semitism during the 1930’s in American colleges!
Congratulations on upholding courageously the proud tradition of yellow journalism. In “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence” Louise Blecher Rose manages to meet all the criteria listed in the American Heritage Dictionary as characteristic of “yellow journalism”: she “exploits, distorts,” and “exaggerates” the facts “to create sensations and attract readers.” In addition, she pulls things grossly out of context, makes a number of rather nasty, completely unfounded generalizations about the character of everyone associated with Sarah Lawrence, and, best of all, she chooses to invent much of her material herself. It’s much more fun that way!
It is a shame that Mrs. Rose is so immature that she cannot distinguish between her own personal shortcomings and those of her school, so immature that when she fails to receive tenure she must throw an adult temper tantrum in the print media (despite Mrs. Rose’s bitter feelings to the contrary, the last thing a school would do if it wanted to hide information would be to deny tenure to the holder of that information). Perhaps her “history of the college” was rejected for being too completely an account of her personal experience, just like her COMMENTARY article.
Why, after eight years of teaching there, did Mrs. Rose suddenly decide to go public with the pathetic absurdity of Sarah Lawrence? Why did she wait so long to let the world know just how dirty Sarah Lawrence students are, just how Marxist the faculty is? Could it possibly have something to do with bad feelings she harbors as a result of being denied tenure?
As a student at Sarah Lawrence, I applaud Mrs. Rose’s apparent goal of exposing hypocrisy in the school. I am sure some exists, and pointing out hypocrisy wherever it turns up, is very important in formulating philosophies and policies—whether in one’s own life, in government, or whatever. However, Mrs. Rose has failed completely in her attempt at expose, and instead has come up with a vicious intermingling of some terrible historical facts, some truths about the present, and a cauldron full of outright lies and unjustified innuendoes about Sarah Lawrence. I do hope she finds a new and personally satisfying job very soon. Perhaps as a staff writer for the National Enquirer. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I am a freshman at Sarah Lawrence and find it a complete disgrace that you would allow Louise Blecher Rose’s article to be published.
Mrs. Rose lashes out at virtually everything imaginable and consequently leaves the reader wondering why the article was written in the first place. Is she attacking the admittedly discriminatory practice of admitting only a certain percentage of Jews to the college (a practice, by the way, embraced by the majority of academic institutions at the time and disbanded by Sarah Lawrence in 1958) or is she protesting the fact that one of her students happened to write about a homosexual experience in her fiction-writing class?
It’s interesting to note that despite Mrs. Rose’s “horrifying” research into “the secret life of Sarah Lawrence,” she applied for tenure here this past year. Alas, she was denied her wish, and the hurt arising from such a denial appears to have resulted in this woman’s frenzied bit of yellow journalism.
Jennifer L. Douglas
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
As a Sarah Lawrence student, I was angered and saddened by the view of the students and administration taken by Louise Blecher Rose. . . .
It is very hard to respond rationally to such allegations, especially when the impact is so personally felt. Yet I know that the majority of students on campus do not fit into the stereotype into which Mrs. Rose is trying to pigeonhole us. One of the reasons Sarah Lawrence students may at times appear disheveled in our personal and environmental appearances is that we have been up all night finishing what we feel is important work for our professors, and our first concern is to finish our work and attend class—as well it should be, for we are at Sarah Lawrence to get an education.
If we are neurotic, it is because we are learning more and more about ourselves and the world—and the assimilation of this knowledge is not an easy thing. The process of maturation is not a simple one, and Mrs. Rose, more than anyone else, should be able to understand that. Aside from learning about ourselves, it is very difficult to continue working and learning in a world like ours. We live with the ever-present horrors of countries like Chile, South Africa, and Kampuchea on our television screen. We are constantly confronted with both physical and emotional violence on the news and in our own lives. And we are nearly paralyzed by the fear that we will one day all be blown up by situations that we feel are beyond our control. If we are neurotic, it is because we care and are concerned about these issues. . . .
I am also surprised to hear Mrs. Rose say that she all but floated through her career here at Sarah Lawrence. If she did, then it was her loss. Speaking as both an academic student and a performing artist, I don’t feel that there are any easy courses here—nor should there be. All the departments try to challenge the student to want to learn, to want to do more. I also strongly disagree with the idea that people who concentrate on the performing arts have an easier time of it. We spend more time in individual and ensemble rehearsals, are required to do technical work for shows, and have more components in our courses. This is all done in addition to our academic course-work, which is accorded a position of equal importance. . . .
As for the last section of the article, I, as a black woman, did not find it at all surprising that Sarah Lawrence once had admissions quotas for Jewish students. I was more surprised—and proud—to discover that Sarah Lawrence had been among the first to drop quotas as a means of discrimination. . . .
Bronxville, New York
To the Editor:
In her article, Louise Blecher Rose mentions a film shown at a gay film festival at Sarah Lawrence. She calls the film Dyketectics. The correct spelling is Dyketactics, and it is an aesthetic, upbeat, four-minute masterpiece by lesbian avant-garde film-maker Barbara Hammer . . . whose work has been critically compared to that of Maya Deren. If one were to look at this film—one in a body of work of some thirty exquisite experimental films—with some sense of artistic appreciation rather than with a preconceived prejudice against lesbians, one might find oneself aesthetically enriched by it. I rather suspect that Mrs. Rose never even viewed the film.
Barbara Hammer is a serious film-maker of enormous talent and energy. It is a reflection on the integrity of Mrs. Rose that she did not research the film before so offhandedly mentioning it in a snide and pejorative way. Dyketactics is about as far from “sunburned penises and unhappy childhood memories . . .” as one could imagine. Dyketactics, as many of Barbara Hammer’s other erotic women’s films, is proof that there is a difference between pornography and eroticism, art and vive la difference! Barbara Hammer’s films exemplify segments of women’s culture which are freed from patriarchal and masculinist propaganda which suppress, negate, trivialize, and revile it. Her films are uplifting and life-affirming, and Dyketactics is a fine example of what one woman’s and one lesbian’s artistic sensibility can create when eschewing patriarchal influence.
New York City
To the Editor:
Over the years, although I have found COMMENTARY’s editorial policy a great deal too conservative for my moderate philosophy, and I have disagreed more than agreed with it, at least the positions and the views expressed in the articles you chose to print had some intellectual basis. Such can certainly not be said for “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.”
Perhaps this diatribe by an ex-Sarah Lawrence professor, venting her dismay at being refused tenure by the college, gave you a certain amount of indignant satisfaction because it accused Sarah Lawrence, well-known for its liberal policies, of moral hypocrisy. In other words, because it gave you a chance to really “give it to those liberals.”
This, however, . . . is no excuse to . . . print a dishonest piece which smacks of “yellow journalism”; and in doing so to strike a low blow at a fine academic institution which, like so many other small, private, liberal-arts colleges, is having a tough enough time these days struggling for its existence.
The facts are, of course (if you had bothered to check them), that during the 20’s, the 30’s, and the 40’s (the period the author selected), there was hardly any private college in this country which did not have a “Jewish quota.” In other words, why pick on Sarah Lawrence? What about Harvard, Princeton, Williams, Bennington, Swarthmore, etc., etc., etc.? Secondly, Sarah Lawrence was, in fact, one of the first private colleges to recognize that the policy of religious or ethnic discrimination was morally wrong and eliminated all discriminatory practices in admissions more than a generation ago. The very fact (quoted by the author) that between the 30’s and the 50’s the percentage of Jewish students admitted to the college increased from 1 percent to 10 percent to 50 percent attests to this.
I suggest that your indiscriminate acceptance of Louise Blecher Rose’s emotional outburst has left you and your editorial staff in a highly compromising position, and that you owe Sarah Lawrence a public apology.
Frank M. Goldsmith
White Plains, New York
To the Editor:
As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I am shocked at the editorial irresponsibility your publication exhibited in the article alleging anti-Jewish discrimination at Sarah Lawrence College. . . .
As one of the finest, if not the finest, private fine-arts college in the New York City area, the obvious truth is that Sarah Lawrence has drawn students of Jewish background since the 1930’s and 40’s. Many Jewish graduates of the college have distinguished themselves in the arts. . . .
Some years ago the New York Times ran a poisonous article by the novelist Anne Roiphe accusing Sarah Lawrence of being a hotbed of gay student activity. The article was a venomous and pathetic example of a writer of mediocre talent attempting to promote herself by making a splash at the expense of her alma mater. . . .
How dare you publish such a piece of obvious trash which impugns the integrity of this quiet, excellent little campus? . . .
To the Editor:
What great bunches of sour grapes Louise Blecher Rose tosses about. Indeed, what a hypocrite she must be if she went through the college doing nothing but sunbathing, talking to classmates and teachers, wandering around Bronxville staring at mansions, never staying up late to study or exert herself. If she believed Sarah Lawrence was on another planet, that academic life did not relate to the outside world, that her college years were an extended vacation, more is the pity that Sarah Lawrence chose her as a member of its faculty. The college is to be censured for this—rather than for its quota policy.
Why did she stay for eight years? Clearly the tone of her article is that of the injured Jew, and I grow weary and sick of this sort of attitude among Jews.
It is strange, but when I attended Sarah Lawrence from 1945 to 1948, I did not have time for sunbathing. Indeed, I didn’t know that Bronxville had mansions. I knew that Sarah Lawrence was very much a part of the world and the community; its instructors (unlike those in other universities) were a part of the American scene. Rudolf Arnheim, Marc Slonim, Horace Gregory, Robert Fitzgerald, Helen Merrill Lynd had much to teach and impart. The divergent groups on campus were exciting to me, the most important part of a liberal education, and I found friends in all groups—friendships I maintain to this day.
Sarah Lawrence was anything but “implausible.” It gave me the background, the impetus, the wherewithal to give back to the many communities where I have lived a small portion of what it gave me. Nor does it need to “redeem its own past.” It should be grateful that Mrs. Rose has left; that can be its redemption, if one is needed.
Myra Cohn Livingston
Beverly Hills, California
To the Editor:
. . . Those who were at Sarah Lawrence in the 50’s, when I was, experienced a generous Jewish population, a Jewish dean who later became president, and better opportunities than in many other colleges (perhaps any) for blacks. We lived through the McCarthy period, which was a nightmare for most educational institutions, and during which special prejudicial attention was given to Sarah Lawrence.
We, like most of our peers, chose to go to the college because of an intellectual atmosphere which gave us the opportunity to study with professors who wrote definitive social histories (Robert and Helen Lynd) and did definitive work on religion and mythology (Joseph Campbell). Other scholars have become giants in their fields, like William Rubin who, as director of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, developed the Picasso exhibition of recent years. Our dean, Esther Rauschenbush, conceived of the programs which laid the base for Continuing Education as we know it today.
The issue of discrimination is part of the history and guilt of all American institutions, and Sarah Lawrence shared some of the burden in its early years. But taking it out of historical context is both poor reporting and poor judgment. . . .
Nina Freedlander Gibans
Shaker Heights, Ohio
To the Editor:
It must have taken a great deal of courage for Louise Blecher Rose to write and for COMMENTARY to publish “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.” Congratulations on an extraordinary piece of work.
For those in my generation, the article inevitably revived unhappy memories of the ordeal of seeking admission to colleges and graduate schools in America in the 20’s and 30’s. The “quotas” and “geographical-distribution” techniques for discrimination were rampant—and it hurt deeply for Jewish and other minority youngsters to know they were rejected while applicants with lower grades and poorer scores were accepted.
After the war, when I was in a position to do something about it, as a young staff lawyer, I vented my feelings to Charles D. Breitel, who was then chief counsel to Governor Dewey of New York. Breitel listened quietly. He understood the situation thoroughly. The governor listened too, and in a special message to the legislature . . . courageously proposed legislation to establish a commission to study the need for a state university. The word “courageously” is used in its proper sense. The idea of a state university was anathema to the private colleges and other powerful groups, including the New York Board of Regents.
The legislation to create the commission was introduced and enacted. . . . Two years of discussion and “studies” followed. After a tremendous effort by the Association of Private Colleges to derail the recommendations of the commission, a bill was enacted to prohibit discrimination in the selection of applicants for admission to colleges and universities. It was this antidiscrimination legislation which turned the tide. The new law, the first of its kind, prohibited inquiry into race and religion. Suddenly it became unlawful to demand photographs and to press seemingly innocuous questions—i.e., “Where were your parents born?” Within a short period of time, Columbia and other universities were handling admissions on a computerized basis reflecting objective criteria—grades, SAT scores, etc. . . .
But the struggle was not yet over. In the years ahead, the battle would rage over the appropriation of monies to create new four-year liberal-arts colleges and to take over and enlarge medical-school facilities in Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Syracuse.
Mrs. Rose has written an article on one of the darker sides of American academic history. Sarah Lawrence was not alone. Many other colleges were equally guilty—but Sarah Lawrence held itself out as a citadel of liberalism. John Sloan Dickey of Dartmouth, if I recall correctly, spoke of the need to maintain the traditional character of Dartmouth’s student body, and I believe that William Wallin, later chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, spoke at the 1938 New York State Constitutional Conventon on the “right” to be selective. The evil lay in the fact that decent people remained silent in the face of the hypocrisy and cant of institutions which were regarded as centers of learning and truth.
George M. Shapiro
New York City
To the Editor:
From the perspective of my research on the history of Swarthmore College, the issue of the existence of a Jewish quota at Sarah Lawrence seems hardly surprising, much less shocking. Effectively all good, small, private colleges during the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and into the 50’s used various forms of “restrictive principles” to limit the numbers of Jews in their student bodies. At Swarthmore, this became an open issue, under student pressure to abandon the quota system, between 1947 and 1951.
In 1949, the student newspaper reported the then dean of men as saying that “approximately one-third of the applicants to this college are Jewish; that the percentage at present of Jewish students in the college is approximately 14, and that this figure has risen from a onetime 6.” The dean added that “these figures show the existence of a ‘restriction principle,’ but denied that there is any set quota governing the acceptance of Jewish applicants” (Swarthmore Phoenix, December 14, 1949).
Whether the intent of the differential application of admissions criteria to different cases was specifically to exclude Jews, or whether such exclusion was merely an artifact of an attempt to produce a heterogeneous campus community, was and is a matter of sharply divided opinion. However, the idea that the removal of religion as an admissions criterion would rapidly result in a predominantly Jewish student body was repeatedly put forth.
The controversy ended in 1951, when the administration announced to the Board of Managers its decision to discontinue asking the religious preference of applicants on the admissions-application form. (The question of membership in the Society of Friends was maintained.) At present, though it is impossible to say with certainty, it is commonly reported that about one-third of Swarthmore students come from Jewish families. Preference in admissions is still given to qualified Quakers and children of alumni.
Perhaps the acute embarrassment of the Sarah Lawrence administration over this issue stems from two facts: (1) that they continued the quota system up to at least 1956, several years after Swarthmore and other institutions had done away with its more blatant manifestations; and (2) that they never (apparently) took a formal policy stand against it.
By the way, my own alma mater, Antioch, had already ceased using religion as a criterion in admissions when it was still a hot issue at Swarthmore.
Regina Smith Oboler
Swarthmore Oral History Project
To the Editor:
“The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence,” sadly, is a shared secret. Wellesley has its own file of documents that testifies to a persistent pattern of discriminatory admissions that still keeps the proportion of Jewish students shockingly low.
Precise statistics were kept between 1936 and 1967. Before World War II, 9-11 percent of Wellesley students were Jewish. The college president conceded: “I presume there is a sense in which it is true that we have a quota. . . . We try to keep the number [of Jewish students] within approximately 10 percent of the number of students admitted.” In 1946, the college denied any “absolute quota of Jewish students,” but noted “a conscious effort on the part of the Board of Admissions to keep the percentage of Jewish students small enough so that segregation and prejudice will be at a minimum within the college.” Lest the logic of this position be elusive, amplification was provided: “Any group characterized by identifiable physical features” required reduction in size so that its members “become individual,” rather than targets of prejudice.
The largest spurt in Jewish admissions was during the 1950’s, when between 15 and 20 percent of Wellesley students were Jewish. By Massachusetts law—which the president of Wellesley opposed—it was no longer legal to request information about race or religion from applicants. After admission, however, “church preferences” were still tabulated. Asked for the figures, the college president claimed not to know “the exact percent of Jewish students,” despite the careful records that were maintained.
From 1960 to 1967 the percentage of Jewish students declined from 17 to 13 percent; according to current “guesstimates” it is now 10-12 percent. The attitude of Wellesley presidents also declined. One of them, contemplating a Jewish chaplain on campus, wondered about Jewish weddings in the college chapel (denominationally Protestant). The “canopy problem,” she observed, required “experience in merchandising so that we can get full value.” Even more compelling was “the ritual smashing of glassware.” “Will the floor of chapel have to be resurfaced,” she asked, “in order to provide the resistant surface on which such breakage can be achieved?”
By now, neither quotas nor principles of geographical distribution are necessary. Jewish high-school girls go elsewhere. The current low percentage of Jewish students at Wellesley probably reflects the applicant pool, which surely reflects the college’s history. Jewish freshmen, with their classmates, usually attend convocation, the first formal academic event of the year. It is always held in the college chapel. When I last inspected, the floor surface was very resistant.
Jerold S. Auerbach
To the Editor:
It is no secret that geographical quotas were adopted by prestigious colleges in the 1920’s in order to keep down the number of Jews (see Stephen Steinberg, “How Jewish Quotas Began,” COMMENTARY, September 1971). But it was quite surprising to learn that as recently as 1956 administrators at Sarah Lawrence College knew that their admissions quotas concerned Jews and not geography. If Sarah Lawrence knew what it was doing in 1956, did Harvard, Brown, Princeton, and Yale? Do they today?
I find it strange that geographical balance is considered to be inherently desirable. Why should it be? Is a school any worse if New Yorkers—or Jews, for that matter—are overrepresented? After all, nobody cares whether there are disproportionate numbers of Orientals or New Englanders.
Private universities are quasi-public institutions. They are partially funded with government money and fulfill a recognized public function. A school that maintains policies established for anti-Semitic reasons must be considered suspect, even if the justifications for such practices are entirely innocent today. Colleges with geographical admissions quotas are the only institutions in the United States that officially preserve measures once designed to discriminate. It is illegal for them to receive public support.
New York City
To the Editor:
Why did Sarah Lawrence attempt to suppress Louise Blecher Rose’s discovery of its old admissions quotas for Jewish students? Did Sarah Lawrence naively imagine that Mrs. Rose’s dismissal would assure the secrecy of its discriminatory policies?
In the past, the college’s former faculty and alumni have indeed gone to the press rather than keep their criticisms “in the family.” Sarah Lawrence’s pretensions provide an easy target for those eager to aim barbs at its hypocrisies, and it seems that those pretensions made the college inflexible in coping with Mrs. Rose’s discovery and unwilling to look frankly at its past.
Last year, an article in Harvard’s alumni magazine written on the occasion of the reopening of the university’s Semitic Museum included an account of the troubled decades in the relationship between the museum and Harvard (Janet Tassel, “The Semitic Museum Rises Again,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 1982). The Semitic Museum, founded in 1903, was neglected and almost destroyed between 1926 and 1970. It had been founded with donations from Jacob Henry Schiff who expressed the hope that it would help fight “anti-Semitism in Europe, social prejudice and ostracism in free America.” This unhappy chapter in the Semitic Museum’s history was correctly placed in the past and given perspective by the policy changes that have made it possible for the museum to function again.
Sarah Lawrence might well envy Harvard’s public-relations savoir-faire in dealing with a problem that is all too common.
New York City
To the Editor:
Louise Blecher Rose and I were classmates, so I can offer personal . . . testimony to her description of the Sarah Lawrence experience. As Mrs. Rose suggests, that experience relied heavily on the pleasure of deploring everything outside the campus boundaries—an activity which did indeed go on ceaselessly and without fear of real-world contradiction or collegial exasperation.
We deplored everything: from small things—like the petit-bourgeois values on TV sit-coms—to larger things—like haut-bourgeois posturing in the arts. And, of course, the 60’s were particularly heady: we deplored racism in the United States and genocide in Southeast Asia. We never doubted that we occupied the highest moral ground. We never doubted that our mission sprang from the purest imperative and signified at the most profound level.
Thus Louise Rose’s account of the deplorable-yet-undeplored Jewish quota is a thunderbolt. But not, I’m afraid, the kind of thunderbolt an innocent reader might think. The horrifying truth is that we all knew Sarah Lawrence had restrictive quotas. More horrifying was our response. No concern was voiced, no protests were made. Instead, we joked about the students who had eluded the quotas and the exactness of the quotas themselves—how droll and harmless, we thought.
Simply put, the quotas were not considered a serious issue. If anybody had posed the question in a serious way, we would have seriously answered that the quotas were necessary to maintain the heterogeneity of the student body. The mix, after all, was important; it lent a certain richness and sophisticated diversity to our deploring.
The fatal hubris was thinking that our preoccupation with all manner of moral shadings gave us license to be different. It wasn’t just one standard for the benighted world, another for the enlightened community of Sarah Lawrence. It was also the conceit that we could separate the deed from the thought: the act of restricting Jews to achieve a good purpose was—wasn’t it?—different from thinking that restricting Jews was its own good purpose.
The real thunderbolt, then, finds its mark with people like me: there is, after all, nothing droll about anti-Semitism. There is no joke in reading that the admissions committee worried about nervous instability and a tendency to steal displayed by Jews. There is, plain and simple, no such thing as enlightened anti-Semitism. And there is no such thing as “knowing better” but acting worse. To know better must be to act better.
I think Louise Rose threw her thunderbolt too gently.
New York City
To the Editor:
Sarah Lawrence has always been a human institution, subject to the full array of errors to which every institution is prone—that anti-Semitism is among them is no surprise. But I am indeed sad to see that Sarah Lawrence has rejected the opportunity given it to come to terms with itself, to come to its own maturity. Sarah Lawrence gave its students a unique opportunity to take stock of themselves. It it with a sense of wonder that I learn that it cannot or will not now do as much for itself.
During the time I was at Sarah Lawrence, I was given all the free time I needed to stitch together the wounds of my youth. I rolled along with the myth of the college’s academic rigor, but I never thought I had found the Harvard of the Hudson Valley. And I was not alone. There were always teachers and students at Sarah Lawrence who would, at least among themselves, distinguish between the college’s reputation and its reality. It was one thing to benefit from the fruits of favorable public relations, it was quite another to be deceived oneself. My friend Louise Blecher Rose was among those who were not and would never permit themselves to be deceived.
I suppose it was inevitable that Sarah Lawrence would have to choose between appearance and reality, fact and fantasy. The choice it has made is disheartening, at best. A college which turns its back on self-knowledge and rejects an honest appraisal of itself has no place in the academic world.
To the Editor:
As a 1971 alumna of Sarah Lawrence College, I greatly admire Louise Blecher Rose’s courage in writing “The Secret Life of Sarah Lawrence.” The college certainly does try to discourage internal and external criticism, as I found when I sent a letter to the alumni magazine charging that the school was not intellectually demanding and failed to give its students direction. I was subsequently told by the alumni office to “write another letter” since my original had been “lost.”
. . . I too believe the college is not as committed to liberal values as it claims to be. For example, the “change-the-world” attitude inculcated by the college fits in very nicely with the sort of philanthropic activities expected of upper-middle-class women without serious career commitments. Even its purported leftism is not a serious commitment to discussing issues like (in my experience) the political and strategic reasons for being in Vietnam, but rather a “life-style” leftism of drugs, sex, and “do-your-own-thing.”
But the most telling proof of the college’s lack of commitment to liberal values lies in its refusal now to make a clean and open denunciation of its past quota system.
Bronx, New York
To the Editor:
As a 1982 graduate of Sarah Lawrence, I read with great interest the article by Louise Blecher Rose.
After much reading and rereading of this and other articles on the subject and consideration of my own experiences at the school, I am forced to conclude that the lady, though stern, is not unjust in her assessment.
While it is certainly true that Sarah Lawrence, as Mrs. Rose herself asserts, “still passes as being academically sound,” and the teachers I had there could not have been better, it is also true that “moralizing” and “deploring” go on in lieu of social and athletic activities known elsewhere.
For a group that perceives itself as divinely appointed dissenters from, and moral commentators on, the codes and behavior of the inhabitants of “Everywhere Else, USA” (as Mrs. Rose puts it), the community displays an astonishingly low tolerance for dissenters within its own ranks. But this is true of all theocracies.
A very few, saddled with an awkward puzzlement on any of a number of issues ranging from human sexuality to nuclear war, fail, due no doubt to shortcomings of character and mind, to cash in their clunky, unwelcome question mark for a sleek designer slogan. These may find themselves shunted into the Sarah Lawrence closet along with, if Mrs. Rose’s findings are a reliable sample, any number of skeletons so old that their stench reaches only the most sensitive nostrils. Or they may come out of that closet to face the ensuing salvo of threats and accusations, an alternative almost entirely unchosen, until now. Touché, Louise Rose.
Jane Harrison Maybank
New York City
Louise Blecher Rose writes:
My critics say I wrote about the Jewish file as a way of “getting back” at Sarah Lawrence College for denying me tenure last year. The correct chronology is this: I wrote about the Jewish file years before my tenure decision, and my original version was a lot angrier than the one I eventually submitted to COMMENTARY. I have not suddenly concocted opinions I never before held—as everyone at the college knows. The temptation is strong to argue back in kind—that most of my critics are so bound to Sarah Lawrence either economically or socially that they are hardly unbiased—but I will resist. Focusing on motives, and calling me a variety of names, as so many of these letters do, is simply a way of evading or camouflaging a very embarrassing subject: not only the existence of a quota at Sarah Lawrence but a cover-up of that quota which continued for at least thirty years, a silence unbroken until I first broke it in the original manuscript. Whatever my motives, they are irrelevant to the substantive issue of a restrictive quota which was neither publicly denounced nor publicly renounced at a college that has set itself up as a moral guide to the universe.
A second point made by my critics is that Sarah Lawrence, unlike other academic institutions, is “open, tolerant, and trusting.” In reality Sarah Lawrence proceeds now and—if the Jewish file is any indication—has always proceeded via secrecy and the suppression of criticism. It cannot bear even to look into the mirror.
My manuscript was not alone in suffering the fate it did. A movie about the college that was also commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary opened and closed in a single evening, although it had been intended for coast-to-coast promotional showings. The college now says the film was not what it wanted—virtually the same formula that was applied in rejecting my manuscript. In fact the movie horrified faculty and administration. It was a fair, funny picture of the college: theater students cavorting on the main lawn, teachers solemnly discussing the special art and craft of teaching at Sarah Lawrence, the usual bouncy enthusiasm (one of my students shouted into the camera, “I LOVE my don!”). The movie was the real live college, a place which faculty and administration would prefer not to see, and certainly not to show to the world.
This perennial reluctance to take a good look at itself was nowhere more evident than in the brouhaha over Anne Roiphe’s 1977 New York Times Magazine article, “The Trouble at Sarah Lawrence College,” which reported, among other things, a high incidence of lesbianism on campus. The commotion generated by my article is mild compared to the half-million-dollar lawsuit the college initiated against the Times to stop publication, the strategy sessions, the campus meetings, the attempt to change the article once the college discovered it could not have it suppressed. Greta Litchenstein’s fulminations are gentle compared with the storm that broke over Anne Roiphe’s head for daring to come to Sarah Lawrence and describing what she actually found there.
One wonders, indeed, upon what basis Sarah Lawrence lays claim to openness—upon the way it dishes out criticism (i.e., smears) of others? At the 1983 graduation ceremonies, the novelist E.L. Doctorow termed Ronald Reagan “the most foolish and insufficient President in our history,” and then said of neo-conservative intellectuals, “There is a strong presumption among them that if writers can’t say anything good about the country, they shouldn’t say anything at all. Worse, that our social critiques are not acts of love but acts of treason.” While this is the usual misrepresentation of what neoconservatives think, it is evidently an accurate description of how Sarah Lawrence feels about its critics.
In this connection, perhaps the most disturbing feature of these letters is their unanimity, that plague of conformist boosterism which is so characteristic of Sarah Lawrence. Several letters express outrage at the thought that I could actually have continued to teach at a place which I no longer believed to be the greatest educational institution on earth. How many intelligent adults feel entirely at one with any institution with which they are connected? Such a fervent demand for unquestioning identification strikes me as intellectually crippling, even if the institution in question were truly the mecca of the spirit my critics allege it to be.
Alas, it is not. At about the time I was commissioned to write the book, President DeCarlo was warning faculty against openly discussing the declining quality of students, lest word get around and hasten still further the downward trend. Faculty were encouraged to espouse a myth of self-selection—apparently the same wizards were applying as before, only fewer, which meant that undesirable scholars were saving the college the task of weeding them out by doing so themselves, in advance.
What Sarah Lawrence has to conceal, and why it has to surround itself with hype, can be gleaned from Fiske’s Selective Guide to Colleges, 1982-83. According to this guide, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of applicants accepted by Sarah Lawrence are on average about 100 points below those accepted at comparable schools like Barnard, Reed, Wesleyan, Wellesley, Middlebury, and Bryn Mawr. What is more, whereas these other institutions accept only about one-third to one-half of applicants, Sarah Lawrence takes about 80 percent. Fiske’s sums up most of the colleges it lists with a brief descriptive quotation, often from a member of the student body. Sarah Lawrence is described as “not for anyone dismayed by bohemia, gayness, sarcasm, foreigners, brilliance, fringe lunacy, or any form of mental illness.”
My critics make two further points about the quota system: first, that it is unfair to single out Sarah Lawrence, since most other private colleges also had quotas in this period, and secondly, that Sarah Lawrence was a leader in getting rid of its quotas. As to the first, I find it startling, to say the least, that spokesmen for a college that has always prided itself on being “different” should suddenly take refuge in conformity. This aside, however, I certainly agree that Sarah Lawrence was not alone, either in having a quota or in keeping silent about it. There are obviously many institutions that could be written about in this connection. I wrote about a case I knew, using documents I believed, and still believe, to be immensely illuminating.
I never found any evidence that the quota at Sarah Lawrence had been eliminated by any conscious decision (such as by vote or in open discussion). My own guess is that it withered away through inanition—and much later than Sarah Lawrence now claims. (On this point, the letter by Regina Smith Oboler, reporting on Swarthmore, offers an enlightening contrast.) That there are now lots of Jews at Sarah Lawrence means nothing more than what it always meant—they are occupying places nobody else is clamoring for.
As for Sarah Lawrence’s claims to leadership, these cannot be proved by the usual grandiose assertions. The college never openly acknowledged it had a quota, never acknowledged removing it, and never spoke out in principle against restrictive quotas in general. Some leadership.
Finally, I would like to thank all those who have written to corroborate the gist of my argument, even if only inadvertently (see Batya Bauman).
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Sarah Lawrence’s Secret
Must-Reads from Magazine
A monstrous regime's rational statecraft
ne of the more improbable geostrategic surprises of recent years has been the revival of the North Korean economy under the direction of Kim Jong Un. Just to be clear, that economy remains pitiably decrepit, horribly distorted, and desperately dependent on outside support. Recent estimates suggest that its annual merchandise exports do not reach even 1 percent of the level generated by its nemesis, South Korea. Even so, the economic comeback on Kim Jong Un’s watch has been sufficiently strong to permit a dramatic ramp-up in the tempo of his nation’s race to amass a credible nuclear arsenal and develop functional intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. That is, of course, the express and stated objective of the program. Pyongyang today appears to be perilously close to achieving its aim—much closer now, indeed, than complacent Western intelligence assessments had presumed would be possible by this juncture. But then, North Korea is full of surprises for foreign observers.
The difficulty with analyzing the country’s weaknesses and strengths comes from the fact that the North Korean system—which is made up of the Kim dynasty, the North Korean state, and the economy constructed to maintain them both—is unlike any other on earth. By now, its brand of totalitarianism (“our own style of Socialism,” as Pyongyang calls it) is sufficiently distinctive that children of the Soviet or Maoist tradition also commonly find themselves at a loss to apprehend its logic and rhythms.
North Korea is no longer even a Communist state, if that term is to have any meaning. The once-prominent statues of Marx and Lenin in Kim Il Sung Square were removed some years ago. Mention of Marxism-Leninism has reportedly been excised from the updated but still currently unpublished Charter of the Korean Workers’ Party. The 2016 version of its constitution excises all references to Communism, extolling instead only the goal of “socialism”—and its two “geniuses of ideology and theory,” Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (the grandfather and father of the current dictator). Small wonder that the world routinely misjudges—and very often, underestimates—the North Korean state and its capabilities.1
Despite its suffocating ideology, for example, North Korea is capable of highly pragmatic adaptation and economic innovation. Notwithstanding its proclaimed “self-reliance” and its seeming isolation, it is constantly finding new sources of foreign cash through ingenious and often remarkably entrepreneurial schemes overseas. And despite all the international sanctions, Kim Jong Un really has overseen a North Korean economic upswing of sorts since assuming power in 2011, the signal fact that best helps explain the acceleration in Pyongyang’s push for a credible nuclear and ballistic arsenal. Thanks to these and other apparent paradoxes, an economy seemingly always on the knife edge of disaster somehow manages to stay on course, methodically amassing the military might for what it promises will be an eventual nuclear face-off with the world’s sole superpower.
Though the hour is late, given all the progress that North Korea has been permitted over the past generation, it nevertheless looks as if there may still be time left to prevent Pyongyang from completing and perfecting its nuke and missile projects through “non-kinetic means”—that is to say, through international economic pressure as opposed to military action. For such an approach to work, however, we will need an informed and robust strategy—not the feckless, episodic, and intellectually shoddy interventions we have mainly witnessed up to now.
Indispensable to such a strategy must be an understanding of the North Korean economy—the instrument that makes the North Korean threat possible. In particular, we need to understand 1) how that economy functions, and to what ends; 2) how the “Dear Respected Comrade” Kim Jong Un brought to it a limited but critical measure of economic revival; and 3) how America and others might use the considerable financial and commercial options at their disposal to impair the North Korean regime’s designs, before Pyongyang wins what is now a race against time.
Despite the information blackout that North Korean leadership has striven to enforce for generations, we already know much more about all these things today than the Kim family regime could possibly want—more than enough to begin purposely defanging the North Korean menace.
One: The Economy of Command
Given its longstanding reputation as a basket case, it may startle readers to learn that there was actually a time when North Korea was regarded as a dynamic and rapidly advancing economy. Back in 1965, the eminent British economist Joan Robinson wrote that North Korea’s achievements put “all the economic miracles of postwar development…in the shade.”2
In those days, if Western intellectuals happened to talk about the “Korean miracle,” they weren’t discussing anything going on in the South. And it wasn’t just dreamy academics and well-hosted foreign visitors who seemed to hold North Korea’s economic prospects in high esteem. Between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Japan witnessed an exodus of ethnic Korean residents—in all, roughly 80,000 people—who packed up and steamed off under their own free will to the North, voting with their feet to join the Korean state they deemed to offer the greater promise.
Despite the devastation North Korea suffered during the war it launched against the South in 1950, and despite the blazing economic takeoff in South Korea that commenced in the early 1960s under the Park Chung-Hee junta, North Korea may have been ahead of South Korea in per capita output for two full decades after the 1953 armistice. A CIA study in the late 1970s, for example, concluded that South Korea did not catch up with North Korea until 1975.3 Contemporaries at South Korea’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) concurred that the North was well ahead of the South on a per capita basis throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though they argued that the South caught up with the North a few years earlier than the CIA believed.
In retrospect, the wonder is that North Korea’s economy worked as well as it did for as long as it did. For from its 1948 founding onward, North Korea was not just another Cold War Soviet-type economy: It was a Stalin-style war economy on steroids.
As fate had it, the Japanese colonial overlords who controlled Korea from 1910 until 1945 constructed a heavy industrial base in its northern half—a forward supply zone to support their own greater Asian war efforts. Unlike the South, the North had major deposits of coal, iron, and other minerals, along with plenty of natural hydropower. “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung—the onetime guerrilla fighter and later Red Army officer who started North Korea’s Kim family dynasty—inherited this infrastructure when he took over the northern part of the divided peninsula in 1945 and used it as a base camp from which he directed an upward climb toward the summit to which he aspired: an economy set on permanent total-war footing.
Kim Il Sung came perilously close to consummating his vision. By the mid-1970s, the Great Leader would observe that “of all the Socialist countries, ours bears the heaviest military burden.”4 Even by comparison with places like the Soviet Union and East Germany, his North Korea was a garrison state. By the late 1980s, this country of barely 20 million was fielding an army of more than 1.2 million—a ratio comparable to America’s in the middle of World War II. Those military-manpower estimates, by the way, are derived not from U.S. or South Korean intelligence, but rather from unpublished population figures Pyongyang transmitted to the UN in 1989 (data that inadvertently revealed the size of the country’s non-civilian male population).5
Today, two Kims later, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports that North Korea currently maintains the world’s fourth-largest standing army in terms of sheer manpower—ahead of Russia and behind only the globe’s demographic giants (China, India, the United States). For more than half a century—since 1962, the year Kim Il Sung decreed the “all-fortress-ization” of the nation—North Korea has been the most exceptionally and unwaveringly militarized country on the face of the planet.
But why? What possessed North Korean leadership to commit their country, decade after decade, to such an extraordinarily expensive and irrational economic posture? There was a method to this seeming madness. Kim Il Sung’s grand design for unending super-mobilization served many logical purposes, given the first premises of his North Korean state.
Enforcing permanent war-economy discipline comported nicely with perfecting the domestic totalitarian order the Great Leader desired. Further, given the unhappy realities of geography and 20th-century Korean history, having the might to stand up to any and all foreign powers—including his nominal Communist allies in Moscow and Beijing—may also have seemed an imperative. But above all else, North Korea’s immense military economy reflected Kim’s overarching obsession with unifying the divided Korea, and doing so unconditionally—that is to say, to finishing up that Korean War he had started in 1950, and finishing it up on his own terms this time.
In the eyes of North Korea’s rulers, the South Korean state was (and still is) a corrupt, illegitimate, and inherently unstable monstrosity, surviving only because of the American bayonets propping it up. The Great Leader wanted to be able (when the right opening presented itself) to strike a knockout punch against the regime in Seoul and wipe it off the face of the earth—“independent reunification,” in North Korean code language. This he could not do without overwhelming military force—and without an economic system straining constantly to provide that muscle.
As early as 1970, the Great Leader was warning that “the increase in our national defense capability has been obtained at a very great price.”6 And by the late 1980s, Kim Il Sung’s “economic miracle” was all but dead in the water. Decades of crushing military burden and systemic suppression of consumer demand had taken their predictable toll. And North Korean planners had compounded these difficulties with additional unforced errors of their own.
Their idiosyncratic application of the Great Leader’s Juche (“self-reliance”) ideology, for example, included a general injunction against importing new foreign machinery and equipment. This ensured that the country would have to maintain a high-cost, low-productivity industrial infrastructure. Juche also apparently meant never having to pay your foreign debts, whether to fraternal socialist states or to “imperialist” creditors in Western countries foolish enough to lend money to Pyongyang. By the 1980s, global financial markets had caught on to the game, and North Korea found itself almost completely cut off from international capital. And the longstanding “statistical blackout” North Korean leadership enforced to facilitate international strategic deception also inadvertently impaired economic performance by blinding domestic decisionmakers and requiring them to “plan without facts.”
But it was the ending of the Cold War that pushed the North Korean economy out of stagnation, and into disaster. Juche ideology notwithstanding, North Korea had never been self-reliant; sustaining its severely deformed economy required constant inflows of concessionary resources from abroad. Pyongyang was (and remains) consummately imaginative in devising schemes for extracting aid and tribute from overseas. In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Kim Il Sung procured the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars in support from Beijing, Moscow, and the Kremlin’s Warsaw Pact satellites, expertly playing the Kremlin off against China, gaming aid out of each while aligning with neither.
In 1984, Kim Il Sung made a fateful error: He leaned decisively toward Moscow, a tilt signaled by his unprecedented six-week state visit to the USSR and Eastern Europe that same year. The gamble paid off initially: Between 1985 and 1989, the Kremlin transferred around $7 billion to Pyongyang, twice as much as the amount transferred over the entire previous 25 years, much of it in military matériel. In 1988, North Korea relied on the Soviet bloc not only for almost all its net concessionary foreign-resources transfers, but also for roughly two-thirds of its international trade, most of it arranged on political, highly subsidized, terms.
Then the came the Soviet bloc’s collapse. By 1992—the year after the collapse of the USSR—both trade and aid from the erstwhile Soviet bloc had plummeted by nearly 90 percent. North Korea’s worldwide overall supplies of merchandise from all foreign sources consequently plunged by more than half over those same years.
These sudden devastating shocks sent North Korea’s economy into a catastrophic free fall from which it would not manage to recover for decades. The socialist planning system essentially collapsed. Famine was just around the corner.
Two: A Man-Made Horror and Its Surprising Aftermath
The North Korean famine of the 1990s was a catastrophe of historic proportions. No one outside North Korea’s leadership knows just how many people died in that completely avoidable man-made tragedy, but the toll was certainly in the hundreds of thousands and could possibly have exceeded a million.7 It arguably qualifies as the single worst economic failure of the 20th century. It was the only time in history that people have starved en masse in an urbanized, literate society during peacetime.
It is noteworthy that the famine—usually dated from 1995 to 1998—did not commence until after the death of the Great Leader and the ascension of his son and heir, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il. This was no coincidence. Economic failure was the Dear Leader’s stock-in-trade. His political rise almost perfectly corresponds to the decline and fall of the North Korean economy. It happens that the Dear Leader did succeed in what was arguably his primary political objective: to die of natural causes, still safely and securely in power. But economic progress worthy of the name would not be possible in North Korea so long as he was its supreme ruler.
Though both father and son were totalitarian tyrants enthused with their hereditary total-war machine, the differences in their economic inclinations and impulses were nonetheless striking. Dogmatic as he was, the Great Leader still possessed a peasant’s sense of practicality. Proof of his pragmatism is the singular fact that North Korea, alone among all Asian Communist states (and including Russia in this roster), avoided famine during its 1955–57 collectivization of agriculture.
On the other hand, the Dear Leader, from his sheltered Red Palace upbringing onward, was every bit the paranoid, secluded ideologue. He not only disapproved of any concessions to economic pragmatism but feared these as positively counterrevolutionary and potentially lethal to his rule. He likewise regarded ordinary commercial interactions with the world economy as “honey-coated poison” for the North Korean system. At home, he wanted total mobilization but without any material incentives; from abroad, he sought a steady inflow of funds unconstrained by any reciprocal obligations. Kim Jong Il’s preferred economic model, in short, was to enforce Stakhanovite fervor at home through propaganda and terror while financing his war-economy state through military extortion abroad. He called this approach “military-first politics.”
Unwilling as he was to address the country’s newly dire economic circumstances with reforms—in his view, there was nothing to reform—Kim Jong Il’s North Korea was trapped in deepening depression for most of the 1990s. We will know how close the place came to total economic collapse—to the sort of breakdown of the national division of labor that Germany and Japan suffered at the very end of World War II—only when the archives in Pyongyang are finally opened. Throughout the 1990s, in any case, heavy industry was largely shut down, with inescapable consequences for conventional military forces. The death spiral for the war-making sector redoubled the importance to the regime of the nuke and missile programs, both as an insurance policy for regime survival and as the last viable military instruments for forcing the South into capitulation in some future unconditional unification.
In retrospect, it is clear that Pyongyang had no intention of desisting from its quest for nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, even as it played Washington and her allies for aid for years by pretending its nuclear program might be negotiable. Yet also in retrospect, the slow tempo of nuke and missile development under Kim Jong Il’s rule has to be considered a surprise. Any serious weapons program requires testing to advance—yet Pyongyang managed just one long-range missile launch in the 1990s and only three during his 17-year reign. The Dear Leader also oversaw two nuclear tests before his death in 2011—but only toward the end of his tenure, in the years 2006 and 2009.
Why this hesitant tempo if nukes and missiles were a central priority for the North Korean war economy? Although other possible explanations come to mind, the obvious one has to do with financial and economic constraints. Ironically, despite his vaunted “military-first politics,” North Korea’s nuke and missile programs may also have been inadvertent casualties of Kim Jong Il’s gift for stupendous economic mismanagement. (True, North Korea could undertake expensive nuclear projects internationally, such as the undeclared plutonium reactor in Syria that was nearing completion when the Israelis leveled it in 2007—but that was apparently a cash-and-carry operation, bankrolled by the Dear Leader’s friendly customers in Iran.)
There is considerable evidence that the North Korean economy hit bottom around 1997 or 1998. That bottom was very low indeed: Rough estimates suggest that, by 1998, North Korea’s real per capita commercial merchandise exports were barely a third their level of just a decade earlier, while real per capita imports, including supplies indispensable to the performance of key sectors of the domestic economy, were down by about 75 percent.
North Korea appears to have turned the economic corner not on the strength of new or better domestic economic policies, but rather on breakthroughs in international aid procurement. Pyongyang figured out how to work the West’s international food-aid system: Between 1997 and 2005, the year before its first nuclear test, it was bringing in an average of over a million tons of free foreign cereal each year, ending the food crisis. It is tempting to regard this as “military-first politics” in action, for military menace played an important role in the international community’s solicitude. It is impossible to imagine a helpless and stricken sub-Saharan population obtaining “temporary emergency humanitarian aid” on such a scale, for such an extended duration and with so very few conditions attached.
Central to this upswing in food aid and other freebies from abroad was the fact that North Korea got lucky with the alignment of governments in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. For a while, the leaders of this consortium of states were commonly willing to underwrite an exploratory policy of “sunshine” or “engagement” with the Dear Leader by offering him subventions and financial transfers. To secure his June 2000 Pyongyang Summit with the Dear Leader, for example, South Korea’s then-president had hundreds of millions of dollars secretly wired to special North Korean accounts—thereby committing crimes under South Korean law (for which he later issued pardons).
In the event, the “sunshine”-aid influx that may have rescued North Korea at its darkest moment would wane after its clandestine uranium-processing project surfaced in 2002—but the nuclear crisis that revelation triggered also made possible the next big round of North Korean international aid-harvesting.
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Beijing—alarmed by the possibility that the U.S. might also engage in a similar military confrontation with neighboring North Korea—organized and convened a “six-party talks” diplomatic process, ostensibly for deliberations over North Korean denuclearization, to cool things down. While the subsequent years of talking quite predictably led nowhere, North Korea’s price of attendance was apparently a steep increase in economic support from China. Between 2002 and 2008, China’s annual net balance of shipments of goods to North Korea—its exports to Pyongyang minus corresponding imports—more than quintupled, rocketing upward from less than $300 million to more than $1.5 billion. By then, North Korea had become just as economically dependent on Chinese largesse as Pyongyang had been on Soviet-bloc blandishments two decades earlier—but these inflows, and the politically subsidized trade they came with, were evidently sufficient to help at least partially revive the Dear Leader’s broken economy. From Chinese trade statistics, for example, we can infer that Chinese investments were instrumental in a resuscitation of North Korea’s mining and metallurgy sectors in the last years of Kim Jong Il’s life. (We must rely on inference here since Beijing to this day remains almost totally opaque about its economic relation with Pyongyang.)
All in all, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea took in more than $1 billion from its enemies in Washington, and nearly $4 billion from the “puppet regime” in Seoul (not including the South’s additional expenditures on “off-the-books” transfers and special economic or tourist zones in the North). And from China, North Korea scored more than $12 billion of net merchandise inflows under the Dear Leader—a sum that would look even greater if valued in today’s dollars. All the while, North Korea was also earning invisible revenues from a whole network of highly enterprising if generally illicit overseas endeavors: its “nuke-and-missile homework club” with Iran; à la carte weapons sales and military services provided to a host of dictatorships and terror groups; counterfeiting of U.S. currency; drug racketeering; insurance frauds perpetrated against firms in London’s City; and more. The Dear Leader was extensively involved in the world economy, after all—just in a Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Villains sort of way.
Thanks to highly skilled aid-wheedling, international shakedowns, and financial gangsterism, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea clawed its way back from famine to a low but acceptable new economic normal—all the while forswearing domestic economic reforms or genuinely commercial contacts with the outside world. North Korea did not completely avoid potentially fraught economic changes under Kim Jong Il, of course—that was beyond the powers even of the Dear Leader. Domestic cellphone use began during the Dear Leader’s reign, for example, as did a tentative marketization of private consumption (about which more in a moment). But these and other analogous economic changes during the Kim Jong Il era are best understood as “transition without reform,” to borrow an apt term from North Korea watcher Justin Hastings.8
The economy’s “new normal” in the Dear Leader’s final days was still at a miserable level. Although North Korean scientists could launch long-range missiles and test atomic weapons, and although North Korea’s population had reportedly achieved a fairly high level of educational attainment (higher than China’s, if North Korean figures are believed), the country’s international economic profile was Fourth World. According to the World Trade Organization, North Korea’s per capita merchandise trade levels in 2010 approximated Mali’s. Its share of world merchandise trade that same year was roughly the same as that of Zimbabwe, a country with half of North Korea’s population—and despite its measure of recovery after 1998, North Korea’s global trade share fell by more than two-thirds between 1990 and 2010, even more than Zimbabwe’s under Mugabe’s misrule in that same period.
The world is a moving target and, generally, an improving one—so national stagnation also means continuing relative decline. Although the Dear Leader bequeathed his son Kim Jong Un a system that had avoided total collapse, there was little else that could be said to commend his economic legacy.
Three: The Economic Upturn
Dear Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un faced formidable odds when he took over in late 2011. The twentysomething was a novice manager at the time of his father’s demise. Unlike the Great Leader, who had groomed his son to rule from an early age, Kim Jong Il himself put off the whole business of naming a successor for as long as he possibly could, designating the child of one of his mistresses as the next Supreme Leader only after an incapacitating stroke made the naming of an heir an unavoidable matter of state.
As Kim Jong Un took office, the planned economy was no longer functioning, and to make matters worse, North Korea’s limited market sector was beset by galloping and seemingly unstoppable inflation. His father had experimented with a limited monetization of North Korea’s tiny consumer sector in 2002 but botched it—and only made matters worse with a surprise 2009 “currency reform” that effectively confiscated private holdings above $100, drastically degrading the already low credibility of the won.
From this unpromising beginning, Kim Jong Un has proved a relative success in delivering economic results in North Korea. There is evidence that the North Korean economy has enjoyed some measure of growth, macroeconomic stabilization, and even development under his aegis.
Pyongyang, “the shrine of Juche,” may be a Potemkin showpiece—but is showpiece-ier today than in the past. Construction cranes are whirring, and whole new sections of the city have risen up. Traffic jams now sometimes clog “Pyonghattan’s” vast, previously empty boulevards. Expensive restaurants and shops purveying luxury goods increasingly dot the capital, and their customers are mainly locals, not foreigners. The upsurge in prosperity and living standards evident in Pyongyang is reportedly reflected, albeit to a more modest degree, in other urban centers as well.
Furthermore, in sharp contrast to previous North Korean trends, or other earlier Soviet-type economies, the country today not only displays considerable marketization but also market stability. This much is demonstrated by cereal prices and foreign-exchange rates in informal markets across North Korea. Over the decade between mid-2002 and mid-2012, North Korea’s won depreciated against the U.S. dollar in such markets by a factor of more than 5,000 (no, that is not a typo). But that depreciation abruptly stopped a little over five years ago, and since then the won has traded around 8,000 to the dollar (fluctuating within a band around that average). In other words, North Korea now has a stable currency that is convertible into hard currencies. Likewise, the domestic price of rice in North Korean markets suddenly stopped soaring five years ago and has been in the vicinity of 5,000 won per kilogram ever since. Whatever else one may say of these new domestic price signals from Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, they are not what one would expect to see from an economy in mounting crisis and disarray.
Finally and by no means least important: In the military realm, nuke and missile testing has accelerated. In the 13 years between Kim Jong Il’s first Taepo Dong test and his death, North Korea launched three long-range rockets and detonated two atomic devices. Kim Jong Un has been in power just over six years; his regime has already set off four nuclear tests and shot off more than a dozen long-range missiles. Some of the speed-up could reflect long-term strategic choices and might in part be affected by improvements in efficiency (cost reduction) within the WMD industrial sector. All other things being equal, though, this sharp acceleration would seem to betoken a major new infusion of resources into programs already long accorded a top priority by the North Korean state. Without a bigger economic pie and substantially greater funding sources, it is hard to see how Pyongyang could have pulled this off.
All this said, North Korea is still shockingly unproductive, still punching far below its weight, still nowhere near self-sustaining growth. Kim Jong Un’s boundless self-indulgence is manifest in costly vanity projects like a spanking-new “ski lift to nowhere” resort, Masikryong, a venture otherwise inexplicable save perhaps for the memories of childhood days in Switzerland that it might elicit.
But by distancing himself from his father’s most economically destructive policies and practices, and navigating into previously uncharted waters of economic pragmatism, Kim Jong Un has opened up heretofore ungraspable opportunities for raising living standards and building military power at one and the same time. Thus the name of his signature policy: byungjin, or “simultaneous pursuit.”
In short order after his ascension, Kim Jong Un demoted—or killed—most of the Dear Leader’s closest cadres and confidants. And less than five months after assuming power—at a ceremony commemorating his grandfather’s 100th birthday in April 2012—he made an astounding declaration, coming as it did from North Korea’s supreme ruler: “It is our party’s resolute determination to let our people…not tighten their belts again.” Translation: This is no longer your father’s dictatorship; aspiration for personal betterment is no longer a counterrevolutionary act of treason.
Dear Respected has deliberately and steadily reshaped the economy under his command. The fundamental strategic difference between Kim 2 and Kim 3 was this: Whereas the Dear Leader saw “reform” and “opening” as deadly “ideological and cultural poison” pure and simple, Dear Respected believes that North Korea could withstand a bit of that poison—actually, quite a bit—and even end up stronger for taking it.
Pyongyang’s new policy directives have been informed by this insight. In agriculture, Kim Jong Un promulgated the “June 28 Instructions” (2012), which permitted family-level work units and allowed farmers to keep 30 percent of their surplus—a bonanza compared with all previous official rules. For enterprises and industry, there were the “May 30 Measures” (2014), which allowed managers to hire and fire workers, pay them according to their productivity, and keep a portion of any profits they earned. People were, increasingly, paid with money for their work—and it was real money, as in, money that could buy things people wanted. The gradual marketization and monetization of North Korea’s civilian economy over the past two decades is a major transformation, and one critical to understanding the country today.9
By the late 1980s, North Korean leadership had fashioned a consumer sector that would have turned Stalin green with envy. No country on the planet had so tiny a share of total national output flowing to personal consumption as late Cold War North Korea—and no country had so low a fraction of its personal consumption accruing to citizens on the basis of their own market choices. By the late 1980s, North Korean planners had come closer to completely demonetizing their economy than any modern polity this side of the Khmer Rouge. Most goods, services, and supplies that North Korean families consumed were provisioned to them directly by the state, with no “interference” by actual consumer preferences. North Korean planners wished to cede as little control over their command economy as humanly possible.
Pyongyang’s near-total control of the consumption basket, however, presupposed that the state would be supplying its subjects with their daily necessities in the first place. That collapsed in the mid-1990s when the Public Distribution System simply stopped providing the full promised daily food rations to most of the population—and stopped supplying any food at all to some of the population. A terrible number of those who trusted the government to take care of them ended up perishing. To survive the famine, North Koreans had to learn to buy and sell in informal markets that began to spring up—even though such activity was against the law, and some “economic crimes” were punishable by death. The Kim Jong Il government loathed these new private markets, but it needed them to forestall wholesale calamity. Thus commenced the two-steps-forward-one-step-back dialectic of marketization that lasted the rest of the Dear Leader’s life—and after his death, marketization and monetization of the civilian economy gained further steam.
Today it is all but impossible to get by in North Korea on state-supplied provisions alone—and a wide array of goods and services, both foreign and domestic, are available for money in North Korean markets. Although formally prohibited, even real estate is for sale throughout the country, with a vibrant market for private flats in Pyongyang. And a wealthy marketeering caste has arisen: donju, or “money masters,” stereotypically a well-connected official and his enterprising wife, who use political influence as well as entrepreneurial savvy to enter this nouveau riche North Korean elite.
In case you were wondering: Yes, corruption is rife in North Korean markets. It is the necessary lubricant for all North Korean private commerce. In addition, the government expects a big cut, and such funds have been integral to the recovery of the North Korean state.
The marketization and monetization of its consumer economy, in conjunction with new agricultural and commercial incentives and a more tolerant official attitude toward informal activity, laid the groundwork for a domestic-production upswing in North Korea (and a veritable boom in private consumption, although from a very low starting point).
Unlike Asia’s “reform socialism” states, China and Vietnam, North Korea has never made a serious effort to attract private investment from abroad from real live capitalists. Pyongyang prefers large-scale foreign projects that are political in nature. Such projects are bankrolled by governments indifferent to profit, which is to say by the foreign taxpayers who can ultimately be left holding the bag. Examples include the ill-fated Kaesong Industrial Complex paid for by South Korea, as well as its doomed Kumgang Tourist Resort. For international trade and finance, the overwhelming bulk of North Korean activity still falls into two categories: 1) politically predetermined, highly subsidized economic relationships, or 2) what we might call “guerilla warfare” or “outlaw” finance.
Four: North Korea’s Friends
Preferential trade ties with China are pretty much the only game in town for Pyongyang these days. With the virtual shutdown of South Korea’s politically subsidized inter-Korean trade in 2016 following accusations that money from the Kaesong project was being used to fund the North’s missile program, China may now account for close to 90 percent of North Korea’s international commercial-merchandise trade turnover. And North Korea always receives much more than it gives in its arrangement with China, year after year.
There is, to be sure, an element of harsh capitalist bargaining within this overall relationship—but most of that is in the “people to people” bartering and petty trading at the border, largely for consumer goods. At the national level, judging by Chinese customs statistics, North Korea raked in well over a billion dollars a year in net merchandise shipments from China from 2008 through 2014—with no transparency on Beijing’s part about the mechanisms by which this ongoing transfer is financed, much less about the Chinese government’s objectives and intentions in extending this lavish lifeline.
Since 2015, official Chinese numbers suggest that Beijing’s de facto aid is down—but these look like figures deliberately fudged in the face of mounting international demands for sanctions against North Korea. It is at the very least possible that important aspects of Chinese support for the North Korean economy or its defense industries have not yet come to light. Given what is already known, though, it is indisputable that deals with China under the two latest Kims have been key to reviving North Korea’s heavy industrial sector. (For the year 2016, China reported shipping over three-quarters of a billion dollars of machinery and transport equipment to North Korea, 10 times the volume in 2003, when the six-party talks commenced.)
Vital as Chinese support may be to North Korea’s survival and economic revival, North Korea evidences no gratitude for Beijing’s largesse. Pyongyang does not “do” gratitude. Moreover, leadership in Pyongyang knows very well a bitter truth about Chinese aid that they can never utter: namely, that capricious cutbacks in free food from China in the year 1994 were the trigger for the Great North Korean Famine, which became impossible to conceal by 1995.
Apart from its Chinese lifeline, North Korea’s other main sources of international support come from “outlaw” forays into the world economy—including activities tantamount to state-sponsored organized-crime operations. These shady dealings typically attempt to generate revenues for the state that avoid international detection, often relying on the special protections and prerogatives of a sovereign state for cover.
One cannot help but be struck by the industry, ingenuity, and sophistication that have generally kept such schemes one step ahead of international authorities. Koreans in the North can be world-class innovators, too—it’s just that their chosen fields of excellence happen to be in smuggling, drug-running, money-laundering, and the like.
Some of these inventive schemes have been in the news. In recent years, for example, Pyongyang has made unknown millions abroad from what we might call its own style of human trafficking: profiting off the tens of thousands of workers in labor gangs it has sent to China, Russia, the Middle East, and even parts of Europe. No less inventive has been Pyongyang’s apparent monetization of its growing capacity for cyberwarfare through international bank robbery. In 2016, “unknown” hackers relieved the Central Bank of Bangladesh of $81 million in a spectacular heist; in late 2017, similar cyber-fingerprints were detected in a theft of $60 million from a bank in Taiwan. These are just two of many “hit and runs” orchestrated under the Kim Jong Un crime family. And as the WannaCry ransomware attack last year demonstrated by infecting hundreds of thousands of computers the world over, vastly greater dividends from cybercrime may lie just over the horizon.
Then there is North Korea’s signature global service industry: WMD proliferation. For obvious reasons, most of this work never makes the news. No one outside Kim Jong Un’s court probably knows just how much this nefarious business is bringing in these days. These unobservable flows, however, may be consequential. Consider this: Barely weeks after Tehran inked its September 2012 Scientific Cooperation Agreement with Pyongyang, the won suddenly ended its decade-long freefall and finally achieved exchange-rate stability. North Korea may have had additional, still concealed, operations that were also paying off at the same time as that Iranian deal, of course. But either way, the deal clearly marked a turning point in North Korea’s macroeconomic fortunes, and the stabilization of exchange rates and domestic cereal prices probably could not have occurred without an open spigot of foreign cash.
In sum, the hallmarks of Jong-Un-omics economics would appear to be new revenues from foreign sources, along with the new flows of funds derived from privatization and growth at home. These monies have apparently sufficed not only to stabilize North Korea’s previously toxic currency, and to bring an end to runaway inflation in North Korean key private markets, but also to abet Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions. This, at least, would seem to be the most plausible reconstruction of the limited but meaningful evidence from the jigsaw puzzle that is the North Korean economy today.
To repeat: While we should recognize the existence of this economic upswing we should also keep its scale in perspective. All one need do is consider the sad, stunning space photos of North Korea at night—the satellite shots revealing a territory almost pitch-black, while the rest of Northeast Asia is glowing with light. They attest better than any available statistics to the limits of economic recovery under Kim Jong Un.
Among the other implications of that space imagery, the North simply does not have the pocketbook for a wholesale modernization of its conventional army and a nuke-missile program. For now at least, most of the military’s equipment, apart from critical nuclear-related pockets like submarine production, remains outdated and ill-suited for the tasks originally assigned. Today, Kim Jong Un cannot credibly threaten to roll in and occupy South Korea. But Kim Jong Un is on track to manufacture enough nuclear matches to burn the place down, with Tokyo and Washington thrown in for good measure, in the foreseeable future.
Five: How to Put Pressure on Pyongyang
Given what we know about the North Korean economy, can America and the world community keep Pyongyang from reaching its ultimate nuclear objectives through a real economic-pressure campaign?
We do not know just how close North Korea is to perfecting its weaponization of ballistic missiles, or how many nuclear weapons the North currently possesses. We also do not know as much as we need to about North Korea’s strategic inventories and reserves. If Pyongyang were stopped in its tracks today, its nuclear and missile work would require unwavering vigilance and far-reaching containment for the remaining life of the regime. That said, a serious international campaign of trade and financial sanctions—led by America, ruthlessly executed, and starting immediately—could very significantly slow the pace of Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear-ballistic march. And if we are in it for the long haul, a serious sanctions campaign could eventually promise the effective suffocation of the entire North Korean military economy.
An international economic campaign of this sort won’t be easy (though America has many more cards in her hand than many now appreciate). It probably won’t be pretty, either. But in any case, it is the world’s last chance to thwart North Korea’s nuclear ambitions by nonmilitary means.
Let’s start with the unpleasant truths. We must recognize that economic pressure will not alter the intentions of the Kim family regime—ever. We must dispense with the fantasy, still inexplicably maintained in various esteemed diplomatic circles and Western universities, that Pyongyang can somehow be pressured—or bribed—at this late stage into changing its mind about its multi-decade march to a credible nuke and missile arsenal. There is no “bringing North Korea back to the table” that ends with CVID—comprehensive, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization. Period.
So much for the bad news. The rest of the news about the outlook for sanctions against North Korea, fortunately, is better than we usually hear.
Many authoritative voices seem to think sanctions have little chance of influencing North Korea’s nuclear trajectory. Economic historians note that the record for coercive economic diplomacy is poor and has been for centuries. Policy wonks and foreign-affairs experts add that successive rounds of UN and international economic sanctions seem to have had no real bite so far against North Korea. These pessimistic assessments, however, misread the prospects for international economic pressure against North Korea on two important counts.
As poor as the general record of coercive economic diplomacy may be, North Korea is not exactly a typical economy. It is an outlier—it’s world-class dysfunctional, recent changes under Dear Respected notwithstanding. The economy is incapable of growth (or for that matter, even stagnation) without steady inflows of financial support from abroad to keep it on its feet. Remember: When net aid from abroad sharply dropped (but did not end) in the 1990s, that was enough to send North Korea spiraling downward into paralysis and mass famine. The North Korean regime in short, is a poster child for a successful international campaign of economic strangulation. Despite Pyongyang’s nonsense about “self-reliance,” it is uniquely vulnerable to the cutoff of foreign money and subvention.
Kim Jong Un has not yet faced anything even remotely resembling an international campaign of “maximum economic pressure.” The continuing stability of North Korea’s foreign exchange rate and domestic food prices pointedly suggest international sanctions have not yet greatly impacted North Korea. But few foreign-policy experts, and even fewer general readers, seem aware of how flimsy were the array of sanctions imposed on North Korea by the UN and U.S. during the George W. Bush and Obama years.
Consider first the successive rounds of UN Security Council sanctions lodged against the regime since its first atomic test in 2006. China and Russia flagrantly and routinely violate the very sanctions their own Security Council representatives voted to impose. Most countries around the world still ignore them, too. In early 2017, the UN’s Panel of Experts on the sanctions reported that 116 of the UN’s 193 members had not yet bothered even to file implementation reports on the then-latest round (UNSC 2270, levied in response to Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear blast). The previous year, the Panel noted that 90 countries had never reported on any of the sanction resolutions against North Korea (eight at that time, the first of them ratified a decade before that report). And filing a report on these sanctions resolutions is not the same thing as enforcing them. Several countries with whom Washington enjoys ostensibly friendly relations have turned a blind eye to illicit North Korean activities on their soil for many years (Malaysia, Singapore, and some of the Gulf States being among the more egregious examples).
When it comes to Washington’s own economic measures, furthermore, North Korea is still far from being “sanctioned out,” no matter the received wisdom. In the final year of the Obama administration, according to Anthony Ruggiero of the Defense of Freedom Foundation, fewer entities and individuals from North Korea were under U.S. Treasury Department sanction than those from seven other countries, including Zimbabwe and Sudan. While the Trump administration has been much more serious about sanctioning North Korea, Ruggiero testified that as of late summer 2017, North Korea nonetheless remained less sanctioned than either Syria or Iran. For some mystifying reason, moreover, North Korea was not put back on the State Department’s list of strictured “state sponsors of terrorism” until the end of 2017, after enjoying a nearly decade-long holiday off that roster.
As 2018 commences, three big changes augur well for the prospect of devastating “shock and awe” sanctions against the North Korean system. First: At the end of 2017, the Security Council endorsed a broad new writ and scope for sanctions against North Korea, dispensing with the earlier “marksman” approach of picking off particular military-related firms or individuals and embracing instead the “blockbuster” approach of crippling North Korea’s entire military-industrial complex. The new sanctions, among other things, ban all industrial imports by North Korea, severely cut permitted energy imports, and require UN member governments to “seize, inspect, and freeze” vessels violating some of the new restrictions.
Second: In late 2017, the U.S. Treasury announced new and much more sweeping authority for North Korea sanctions, granting U.S. officials wide discretion to impose what are known as “secondary sanctions.” Henceforth any business or person engaging in any kind of commercial or financial transactions with North Korea could be severely penalized, with punishments including fines, seizure or forfeiture of assets, prohibition against any commerce in or with the U.S., and being cut off from the worldwide clearing system for dollar-based financial settlements.
Finally, and by no means unrelated to these other changes, is the third change: the advent of the Trump administration. Under President Trump and his team, there appears to be a qualitative change in America’s North Korea policy—one that accords the North Korean threat a higher priority, and more unblinking attention, than it has been granted by any of Trump’s predecessors. The White House calls this new approach to North Korea a policy of “maximum pressure.”
Six: The American Role
Trump’s address before South Korea’s National Assembly last November on the North Korea problem was the most incisive, and moving, statement on the topic ever delivered by an American president. Whatever else may be said of him, Trump is keenly aware that the North Korean threat he inherited was allowed to fester and worsen under each of the four men in the Oval Office immediately before him. He appears to have no intention of continuing that tradition.
The Achilles’ heel of the North Korean economy—and thus, of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs—is its existential dependence on foreign aid and outside money. The fortress-prison country is an operation that cannot be sustained on its own. To date, North Korea has skillfully extracted wherewithal and extorted financial concessions out of a largely unfriendly world. To jam the gears of the North Korean war machine, the international community must recognize, and finally begin systematically exploiting, Pyongyang’s unique economic weakness. This will require a campaign of economic pressure worthy of the name—and the pieces for such a campaign are already falling into place.
In broad strokes, what would this “maximum economic pressure” campaign look like? It must be Washington-led, since it will not coalesce spontaneously. To carry it out most effectively, diplomacy will be crucial: Alliance coordination and the building and maintenance of motivated coalitions are obvious force multipliers for this exercise. But the U.S. has unique international strengths that allow us to act unilaterally and with great consequence when necessary.
For starters, now that we ourselves have relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, we have a stronger case for pressing governments around the world to shut down the regime’s embassies, trade missions, and other facilities located on their soil. Not necessarily to sever diplomatic ties, much less end all communication, with Pyongyang: just to deprive North Korea of safe havens for their illegal rackets on foreign shores. Given North Korea’s standard operating procedure overseas, affording Pyongyang an embassy in one’s country is like offering diplomatic immunity to the Mafia. The Trump administration has begun some of this advocacy already and has some initial results to show for its troubles. In conjunction with a consortium of like-minded states (including Japan), a full-court press could gain true international momentum. At the very least, this would disrupt some of North Korea’s illegal rackets and reduce the take from them.
Washington can also take the lead in lobbying governments to shut down the North Korean work crews operating within their own countries—these are too close to slave labor for comfort. This need not be quiet diplomacy. The complicit governments in question, including Beijing and Putin’s Kremlin, deserve to be called out publicly if they are intransigent. (The wording of the latest round of Security Council sanctions calls for shutting down such arrangements within 24 months, an amendment Moscow negotiated for—but there is no reason that the U.S. or independent human-rights groups should not try to speed up that timetable.) The U.S. also has options for penalizing trading partners who violate internationally recognized labor standards, which is to say we can affect the cost-benefit calculus for governments that tolerate North Korea’s odious practices in their own backyards.
This brings us to a rather larger diplomatic task: confronting China and Russia about their continuing financial malfeasance on North Korea. The scope and scale of China’s furtive support for North Korea dwarfs Russia’s, of course—but that is no reason to give the Kremlin a pass. These two states have long been playing a double game—one that must come to an end starting now.
Seven: The Russians and the Chinese
Contrary to some hand-wringing in Washington and elsewhere, the U.S. is by no means devoid of options in facing down China and Russia for their economic enablement of the Kim family regime. As already noted, Washington possesses an extraordinarily powerful tool for inducing their compliance: the U.S. dollar—the most important reserve currency in the world economic order. America gets to decide who can, and who cannot, engage in the dollar-denominated financial transactions with the myriad of correspondent banks serving the globe, for which the Federal Reserve Bank is the clearing house. Existing legislation and executive orders already provide the U.S. government with a panoply of instruments for inflicting nuanced and escalating economic penalties and losses on financial institutions, corporations, and private individuals who rely upon U.S. correspondent banks but engage in illegal or forbidden commerce with North Korea.
So far, the United States government has used only minor pinpoint-pinprick secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian parties that violate restrictions on dealings with North Korea. Both nations face potentially major economic costs if they do not address and control such violations, should we choose to impose them.
It is no secret, for example, that the Chinese banking system is highly leveraged and that some of China’s largest banks are in what we might call a financially delicate situation. Does Beijing really want to find out whether one of these major concerns can survive a Treasury Department-Justice Department inquiry for North Korea infringements, much less the weight of actual secondary sanctions—or to find out what happens at home and in international financial markets if it looks as if a major Chinese bank might fail on that account?
If the Kremlin and Beijing believe we mean business, they will have reason to suppress illicit deals with North Korea—but convincing them we mean business is our responsibility. Washington has been curiously hesitant here, possibly for fear that Beijing or the Kremlin, or both, would respond by sabotaging any further UN sanctions. But we now have pretty much what we need from UN resolutions for a campaign of “maximum economic pressure” on North Korea—so the time for horse-trading and slow-walking is over. And while we are at it, these governments’ official economic support for North Korea shouldn’t be off the table. Isn’t it time to spotlight and track those flows, too?
As we work to rein in China and Russia, we should not lose sight of the money that North Korea receives through arrangements with other governments—including states in Africa and the Middle East that receive U.S. foreign aid. Yet much of what Washington needs to do in this economic campaign, alas, is currently unknown. This is a failure of our intelligence community that must be immediately addressed if “maximum economic pressure” is to stand a chance of ending up as more than just a slogan.
By the very nature of intelligence activity, spy agencies cannot take credit for many of their successes. But the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t deserve a slap on the back for its performance in this particular area. It should be something of an embarrassment, for example, that some of the best work mapping out the connections between Chinese front companies and the North Korean military these days should apparently come from a small think tank, C4ADS, that relies entirely on open sources. And that is just one small example of intelligence insufficiency. Our government also appears to know much less than it should about the financial relations between Pyongyang and its backers in Tehran, North Korea’s money ties with terrorist groups, and its adventures in crypto-currencies and other harder-to-trace instruments of finance.
Much of what is currently unknown—by our government—about North Korea’s covert international financial networks and overseas holdings is in fact knowable, given better legwork and intelligence. The story of the U.S. government’s interagency Illicit Activities Initiative (2001–6), which methodically mapped out North Korea’s money trails before being derailed by bureaucratic infighting under the George W. Bush administration, provides an “existence proof” that such research can be done. North Korea’s overseas financial networks have had more than a decade since the demise of IAI to evolve and hide their tracks—so a new IAI-style effort would have to play catch-up.
With the information we could gather from a well-funded and coordinated intelligence initiative, we can help shut down North Korea’s worldwide criminal enterprises, arrest their international accomplices, freeze and seize violators’ overseas assets (not just Kim Jong Un’s assets: think Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and the rest), and levy potentially devastating fines against commercial and financial concerns that willfully aid North Korea in violating the law. We can also improve the efficacy of existing proliferation-security efforts.
With better intelligence, better international coordination, and the will to get the job done, an enhanced “maximum economic pressure” policy could swiftly and severely cut both North Korea’s international revenues and the vital flows of foreign supplies that sustain the economy. An enhanced Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), indeed, could use interdiction not only to monitor the goods entering North Korea but also to regulate and, as necessary, suppress that level. (UN sanctions, by the way, make provisions for humanitarian imports into North Korea a matter the U.S. and others must attend to faithfully.) Yes, this is economic warfare, and it can be conducted with much more sophisticated tools than were available in the 1940s. In fact, it should be possible through such a campaign to send the North Korean economy—and the North Korean military economy—into shock, possibly even in fairly short order.
Eight: Success and Its Failures
If comprehensive sanctions and counter-proliferation against North Korea fail, we enter into a new world with darker and much less pleasant options. But what if, by some measure of success, they turn out to succeed? What then?
In addition to their intended consequences, successful policies always have unintended ones. Three potential consequences of an effective economic-pressure campaign against the North Korean regime deserve special consideration in advance.
The first concerns the role of North Korea’s donju elite in a future where North Korea is increasingly squeezed economically. These “money masters,” who until now have enjoyed waxing wealth and have lived with rising expectations under Kim Jong Un, would stand to suffer very sharp financial loss. What would a serious reversal in the fortunes of this privileged element in North Korean society mean for elite cohesion and for regime dynamics? Even North Korea has domestic politics. Poorly as we may be able to apprise North Korean politics, it would behoove us to try to understand in advance how such a change would alter the realm of the possible within the country—and what new opportunities such internal developments might present.
Second is the all-too-likely possibility that North Korea would careen back into famine under an effective sanctions campaign—and not because Pyongyang would be incapable of purchasing or procuring sufficient food to feed its populace. The reason North Koreans starved last time was the government’s dreadful songbun system, still very much in force today. Songbun is a unique North Korean instrument of social control that carefully subdivides the North Korean populace into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes, lavishing benefits and meting out penalties according to one’s station. Life chances in North Korea—and no less important, death chances—turn on one’s assigned class. Just as it is a safe bet that virtually no one outside the “core classes” has amassed great donju riches, so too death from starvation is almost entirely consigned to the state’s designated enemies from the “hostile classes.” Only “intrusive aid” (provided on site by impartial outsiders) and public diplomacy, including calling out Dear Respected on this vile practice, stand to mitigate the toll of the impending humanitarian-cum-hostage crisis should “maximum economic pressure” work.
Finally, there are the countermeasures Pyongyang will surely adopt if the economic-pressure campaign is attaining a measure of success. These will be intended to terrify and to break the will of the sanctioners. North Korean leaders are practiced masters of white-knuckle, bared-fang diplomacy—and they would naturally regard the stakes in this contest as particularly high. No national directorate is so expert in brinkmanship or so consummate at carefully gaming through seeming “outbursts” well in advance.
North Korea will test the stomach and the will of the pressure alliance, threatening what sees as the campaign’s weakest and the most exposed elements and ranks. These probes and tests may be military in nature, with a range of options that could well include threats of nuclear war. Pyongyang will try to make Washington and the international community fear that they are facing a “Japan 1941 moment,” with a cornered Kim family regime: a déjà vu of the drumroll that led to World War II in the Pacific, only this time against a nuclear-armed adversary.
This would be a point of incalculable danger. There are good reasons to think North Korea would not resort to first use of nuclear weapons, most compelling among them, its own state-enshrined doctrine known as “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideology.” (The essence of this doctrine: The Hive must keep the Queen safe, and at all cost.) But there is no sugarcoating the terrible risks, including risks of miscalculation, inherent in North Korea’s most likely countertactics.
Any way you look at it, North Korea’s adversaries are in for a long and bumpy ride. The alternative to thwarting North Korea’s war drive now is permitting Pyongyang to prepare to fight and win a limited nuclear war in the future, at a time and place of its own choosing, when the situation for America and her allies may be even more perilous.
Like it or not, Pyongyang plays for keeps, and we are in this with them for the long game. The next move is ours.
1 Full disclosure: I am one of those who seriously underestimated North Korea’s resilience in the 1990s. Twenty years ago, I would have thought it almost unimaginable for the North Korean state to survive to this day. Needless to say, subsequent events have proved otherwise, and studying my own mistakes has led to the analysis under way here.
2 Joan Robinson, “Korean Miracle” Monthly Review, January 1965, Vol. 16, No. 8, pp. 541–549.
3 Korea, the economic race between the north and the south: a research paper, ER 78-10008, January 1978, CIA.
4 Kim Il Sung, Works, Vol. 31 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1987), p.76.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt and Judith Banister, The Population of North Korea. (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1992).
6 Kim Il Sung, Selected Works, Vol. 5 (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1972), p. 431.
7 On this man-made, and completely unnecessary, tragedy, see Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
8 Justin V. Hastings, A Most Enterprising Country: North Korea in the Global Economy. (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).
9Perhaps the best analysis of this transformation is Kim Byung-Yeon, The North Korean Economy: Collapse and Transition. (New York: Cambridge Univer sity Press, 2017)
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s I write, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has become a mere husk of a book, emptied of everything consumable and tasty. And it’s only been out a week! In the hinterlands, the book is selling briskly, but here in Washington, we already find ourselves in the final phase of a mass hysteria, a hangover that we would call the Woodward Detumescence.
Woodward is Bob Woodward, of course. Every few years, for more than 30 years, Woodward has sent Washington reeling with a book-length, insider account of one administration after another, presenting government as high drama, with a glittering cast of villains and heroes.
The sequence of the symptoms seldom varies. First comes the Buildup. We hear premonitory rumblings: Freshly minted Woodward revelations are on the way! His publisher declares an embargo on the book, mostly as a tease. Another reporter writes an unauthorized report guessing at what the revelations might be. Washington can scarcely breathe. At last the first excerpts appear in a three-part serial in Woodward’s home paper, the Washington Post.
We enter the Swoon.
The excerpts tell of betrayals and estrangements, shouting matches and tearful reconciliations, tough decisions and disappointing failures of nerve, all at the highest levels of government. Woodward goes on TV shows to explain his findings. Sources attack him; he stands by his book. The frenzy intensifies, the breathing is labored, until, at last, comes the Spasm, as all the characters from the book refuse to comment on a “work of tabloid fiction.”
Then the newspaper excerpts end, there is a collapsing sigh, a dying fall, and the physical book, the thing itself, appears. The text seems an afterthought, limp as a wind-sock and, by now, even less interesting. If there were more revelations to be found in its pages, after all, we would have read them already. We skulk back to the routines of what passes for normal life in Washington, slightly abashed at our momentary loss of self-control. This is the Woodward Detumescence. Shakespeare foresaw it in a sonnet: “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.”
The Fire and Fury frenzy omitted some of these steps, prolonged others. It was touched off by an excerpt in New York, appearing a week before the book’s original publication date. Running to roughly 7,000 words, the excerpt was densely packed and so juicy it should have come with napkins. The article’s revelations about White House backbiting and self-loathing are by now universally known, and have been from the moment the excerpt hit the Web. One thing they make plain is that Michael Wolff bears little resemblance to Bob Woodward. Over a long career, our Bob has shown himself to be a tireless and meticulous reporter. He is a creature of Washington, besotted by government; Woodward never found a briefing paper he wouldn’t happily read, as long as it was none of his business.
Wolff, on the other hand, is an incarnation of Manhattan media. He’s a 21st-century J.J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist in the great New York movie Sweet Smell of Success, although, unlike J.J., he has a pleasing prose style and a sense of irony. His curiosity about the workings of government and the shadings of public policy is nonexistent. “Trump,” Wolff writes with typical condescension, “had little or no interest in the central Republican goal of repealing Obamacare.” Neither does Wolff. Woodward would have given us blow-by-blow accounts of committee markups. Wolff mentions Obamacare only glancingly, even though it was by far the most consequential failure of Trump’s first year.
If you want to learn how Trump constructs that Dreamsicle swirl that rests on the top of his head, or the skinny on Steve Bannon’s sartorial habits, then Wolff is your man. He tries to tell his story chronologically, but he occasionally runs out of things to say and has to vamp until the timeline lets him pop in a new bit of shocking gossip. Early in the book, for example, after he has established that Trump is reviled and mocked by nearly everyone who works for him, Wolff leads us into a tutorial on The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam’s doorstop on the 1960s White House wise men and whiz kids who thought it would be a great idea to get in a land war in Southeast Asia. He calls Halberstam’s book a “cautionary tale about the 1960s establishment.” Wolff’s chin-pulling goes on for several hundred words. Apparently, Steve Bannon had had the book on his desk.
This is interesting, I guess, and so are the excessive digressions about New York real estate, Manhattan’s media culture, the evolution of grande dames into postfeminist socialites, and many other subjects that are orthogonal to the book’s purpose. If you’ve bought Fire and Fury, chances are, you wanted to learn things you didn’t know about the first year of the Trump administration. The New York excerpt was chockablock with such stuff, told in sharply drawn scenes and vivid, verbatim quotes. But the book dwells much more on general impressions, flecked here and there with scandalous asides. In these longeurs—most of the book—Wolff writes at an odd remove, from the middle distance. The prose loses its immediacy and becomes diffuse.
He’s not so much padding his book as filibustering his readers, perhaps hoping to deflect a reader’s attention from another revelation: He really hasn’t delivered the goods. All of Wolff’s most scandalous material was filleted and packed into the New York excerpt. Listening to discussions among friends and colleagues, I keep hearing the same items, all from the magazine: Staffers think Trump might be (literally) illiterate, Steve Bannon thinks the Mueller investigation puts Trump’s family in legal jeopardy, the president uses vulgar language when talking about women. He is a child, Wolff wants us to know, and the disorder of his government is directly traceable to that alarming fact.
And it is indeed alarming, but nobody who has followed Trump’s Twitter feed or watched his news conferences will think it’s news. Wolff wrote a scintillating 7,000-word magazine article; the problem is that he spread it over a 328-page book. The rumor has gone around (hey, if he can do it, so can I) that before submitting his manuscript, Wolff warned his publisher that it didn’t contain much that was new.
This explains a lot. Wolff clearly was unprepared for the explosion set off by the magazine article. You could see it in his halting explanations of his journalism techniques. When his quotes were questioned, he let it be known that he had “dozens of hours” of tapes. (Other news reports inflated the number to hundreds.) When quotes continued to be questioned, he was asked, by colleagues and interviewers, to release the tapes. He refused. Wolff said his book threatens to bring down the president—on evidence that he alone has and won’t produce.
Spoken like a true journalist! Much has been made of this modern Hunsecker’s techniques. One explanation for the candor of his sources is that Wolff gained their confidence by misleading them about his intentions; they had concluded he was writing a book that would show the administration in a kinder light. “I said what I had to to get the story,” he proudly told one interviewer. Many of his colleagues in the press have shrugged at his willful misdirection—his deception, in fact—as a standard trick of the trade.
They’re probably right. But they demonstrated again the utter detachment of journalists from normal life. Whole professions are generally and rightly maligned—trial lawyers, car salesmen, lobbyists—because ordinary people see that prevarication is built into their work. When it comes to the people who write the books they read, they have a right to ask how far the deception goes. If a writer will mislead his sources, how can we be sure he won’t he do the same to his readers?
“My evidence is the book,” Wolff responds. I’m not sure what he means. In any case, as the Detumescence recedes, it becomes clearer that his evidence is thin. The book isn’t particularly good journalism, but it’s a triumph of marketing. Our Trump hatred has been targeted with such precision that we’ll lower any standard to embrace Fire and Fury, even if the tale as told signifies nothing, or nothing much.
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An uncontroversial museum still manages to offend the ignorant
t one point during his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush gave his listeners a folksy admonition: “Don’t be takin’ a speck out of your neighbor’s eye when you got a log in your own.” This amused Frank Bruni of the New York Times, who called it “an interesting variation on the saying about the pot and the kettle.” Bruni’s words in turn amused the substantial portion of Americans who knew that Bush was actually quoting Matthew 7:3. To them it was simply unimaginable that someone could graduate Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in English and subsequently study at the Columbia School of Journalism, as Bruni did, without having once encountered the Sermon on the Mount. The anecdote revealed the extent to which, in the space of a few generations, America went from habitual Bible reading to biblical illiteracy, and of the most abject and utter kind. This is the justification for the Museum of the Bible.
The Museum of the Bible, which opened in Washington, D.C., in November, is an enterprise of appropriately pharaonic ambition. At a capacious 430,000 square feet, it cost half a billion dollars to build, all of it contributed privately. It is the brainchild of Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, the chain of arts-and-crafts supply stores that successfully challenged the contraception mandate of Obamacare. Indeed, to those who felt the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby decision was a catastrophic setback to the separation of church and state, the coming of the Museum of the Bible seemed nothing less than the physical manifestation of that threat—an unwelcome expression of evangelical political power standing in plain sight of the Capitol. Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has loomed large in the coverage of the museum, as has the Green family—as well as the $3 million fine levied on Hobby Lobby for illegally importing cuneiform tablets from Iraq.
But those who looked forward to exposing the museum as a bigoted and ignorant enterprise, with a laughably literal view of biblical truth, have been bitterly disappointed. Its exhibitions are conspicuously even-handed and scholarly, and not at all sectarian. The Museum of the Bible is no vehicle of theological indoctrination. If anything, it errs in the other direction. When it was first incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2010, it pledged itself “to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” It has quietly lowered its sights since, and now seeks only “to invite all people to engage with the history, narrative, and impact of the Bible.” This makes the museum less objectionable (who can object to an invitation?), but a less incendiary Bible is also a less interesting one. The danger of the Museum of the Bible is that by sidestepping the question of biblical truth it might downgrade the Good Book, as it were, into one of the Great Books.W
ith all their resources, the Green family might easily have commissioned a celebrity architect to build a prodigy of a museum. But they did not want a building that would compete with its contents. Instead, they bought a 90-year-old cold-storage warehouse two blocks south of the Mall, and into its windowless brick shell they inserted six stories of exhibition and administrative space. The interior is intelligently planned but hardly remarkable, and nothing about its materials, finishes, or details speaks of the Bible or antiquity. If anything, it has the glossy impersonal cheeriness of contemporary hotel architecture.1
The heart of the museum is in the exhibitions of the third floor (The Stories of the Bible) and the fourth (The History of the Bible). These are utterly different in texture and tone, but they work in tandem—one delivering sensation and the other information. This is hardly a new distinction; it is the difference between the stained-glass window and the sermon.
The Stories of the Bible are told through crowd-pleasing “immersive” galleries—the fashionable term for displays in which a coordinated battery of sound effects, musical cues, dramatic lighting, and moving forms are combined to induce an overwhelming sensory experience in the viewer. These were devised by BRC Imagination Arts, a design firm that specializes in corporate branding—as they put it, in “creating emotionally engaging experiences that generate lasting brand love.” When it comes to emotionally engaging material, the exhibits Genesis and Exodus offer at least as much as the Heineken Experience (another recent BRC creation) and here the designers have outdone themselves. Noah’s Ark presents “a unique, stylized representation of the great flood, they tell us.”
“Stacks of boxes tower over them. Inside each box are artistic representations of animals—two by two—lit by flickering candlelight. Guests hear the raging of the storm outside and the creaking of the wooden ship.”
Somewhat later, although not until they have seen “a hyssop bush bursting into flames from the story of Moses,” visitors themselves can part the Red Sea, or an abstraction thereof, created by a web of taut metal cables shimmering under blue light. (It is curious how the highly cinematic events of the Hebrew Bible lend themselves to abstract expression.)
By contrast, the World of Jesus is rendered in literal terms, by means of a realistic re-creation of a first-century village complete with actors in period costume. In the Galilee Theater, visitors can watch a short film and see John the Baptist confronting King Herod (as played by John Rhys-Davies). Even those of us who are allergic to historic reenactments will see that it is carried through with extreme competence and attention to detail. What is there is done well; it is what is not there that has caused a good detail of quiet grumbling. To the bafflement of many, the central events of the Christian Bible—the Crucifixion and Resurrection—are not represented. Were there fears that a scene of unspeakable horror would disturb the museum’s upbeat, family-friendly ambiance? Or is it that its academic advisors come from the mainstream of contemporary Biblical studies, for whom the Resurrection is not a truth but a trope? Perhaps both factors are at play.
Another curious aspect of the display, though unhappy, is understandable: The Hebrew and Christian Bibles are rendered as two segregated and self-contained experiences, and like oil and vinegar, the exhibition paths are not allowed to mix. Unfortunately, the visitor who has waited for the one is unlikely to stand in line again for the other. One can appreciate that the organizers wanted to avoid a linear sequence in which the Hebrew Bible serves as mere prelude to the New, but in the process, the relationship between the two is lost. Surely a compromise might have been found, perhaps with the occasional physical passage between the two, so that the viewer might move back and forth and make his own connections—alas, a proposition that is heretical in today’s world of manipulative museology.
If the third floor gives us the stories in the Bible, the fourth gives us the book itself—not only the text itself but its translations, copies, orthography, printing, binding, illustrations and all else that is associated with a literary artifact. The oldest objects here (although of disputed authenticity) are tiny fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and from them to the most recent translations, one is struck by the fastidious probity with which the text was transmitted. Here we learn the high stakes of tampering with the Bible in the story of how the 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe was posthumously excommunicated for daring to make the first English translation. We also learn how the Bible acted to codify and order regional dialects into a national language; Martin Luther’s translation did this for the German language just as the King James translation did a century later for English. A remarkable display shows the innumerable phrases from the Bible that have entered vernacular speech in the world’s languages, some of which I did not know (e.g., “den of thieves,” “suffer fools gladly,” “at their wit’s end,” etc.
Here one senses a certain reservation—a curatorial suspicion, perhaps, that vellum manuscripts and printed books are intrinsically boring. There is nothing an exhibition designer fears more than a bored visitor. This would account for the rather plaintive effort to provide visual relief in the form of arresting objects: a facsimile of the Liberty Bell with its inscription from Leviticus, a tableau of books burned by the Nazis, and statues of Galileo and Isaac Newton. These diversions suggest that the designers did not trust the words themselves and their hotly disputed variants and interpretations to generate interest on their own.
This is a lost opportunity. For instance, the history of the English translations would have been far more effective with a comparison of representative examples. One might illustrate various renderings of the 23rd Psalm, juxtaposing the lapidary King James version (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) with the explanatory translation of the International Standard Version (“The Lord is the one who is shepherding me; I lack nothing”) or the willful flatness of the Good News Bible (“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need”). A few examples from the recent push to purge the Bible of any and all sexist language would also have been eye-opening. To refer to this trend blithely in passing, as the wall labels do, without confronting the viewers with the sobering reality of a gender-neutral Bible is a sign of either haste or indifference.
And for those who are not fascinated by the fact that the neuter possessive its appears just once in the entire King James translation, they still have the chance to take a peek at Elvis Presley’s personal copy of the Bible.T
he truth is, the Museum of the Bible is as innocuous, gregarious, multifaceted, and congenial an institution as one might have hoped. It certainly does not preach biblical inerrancy; the attentive reader will see that Noah’s flood is anticipated by the much older flood story in the epic of Gilgamesh, complete with divine instructions on building the ark.
Nonetheless, the museum has been greeted with extraordinary hostility, although of a strangely unfocused sort. It has hardly been “dogged by scandal,” as Business Insider charged, apart from the importation of antique materials with a false provenance (something of which the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Museum have both been guilty). The real objection is not its business practices or its theology (which it wears so lightly as to be invisible), but rather that it comes from the wrong side of the cultural tracks. One has the sense that the museum is a social faux pas, that the wrong guests have crashed the party, blundering uninvited into Washington and violating rules of which they are ignorant. CityLab, the digital magazine of the Atlantic, expressed this attitude most pithily when it called the museum “pure, 100 percent, uncut megaplex evangelical white Protestantism…megachurch concentrate.”
The charge that the museum presents a narrow and exclusively white version of Protestantism is undercut by a single visit; the audience is comprehensively ecumenical and international. But it has been repeated endlessly nonetheless, in part because of the recent publication of Bible Nation: The United States of Hobby Lobby, by Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden—a furiously ambitious attempt to discredit the museum, its theology, its founders, and Hobby Lobby itself. (This may be the first time a book has been published condemning a museum before it was built.) Moss first came to public attention in 2013 with The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, which charges early Christians with forging accounts of their suppression. Bible Nation is written in a similarly debunking spirit. For her, the “thousands of fragments of contradictory material” in the Bible make it pointless to try to make of it a coherent or meaningful document. The insights of contemporary biblical scholarship, she says with conspicuous exasperation, ought to be “a faith killer.”
Clearly they have been for her. But if anything, the museum’s fourth floor testifies to the opposite: This is a building built by believers for whom the analysis of the materials contained within is a noble task. The curators have taken painstaking efforts to get it right, as did those scribes who through the millennia worked to reconcile the discrepancies, to choose among the contradictory variants the ones that are most rigorously supported. And where the conflicting documents are irreconcilable—as between the two opening chapters of Genesis, or between the four Gospels—the procedure has always been to preserve multiple sources rather than impose an arbitrary uniformity. In the end, the Museum of the Bible pitches it about right.
Its greatest surprise is that it makes no truth claim. The central propositions of the Hebrew Bible (God’s covenant with his chosen people) and the Christian Bible (Christ’s Resurrection) are subordinated to the existence of the Books that carry those propositions. One might imagine that a museum devoted to other monumental culture-shaping books, say The Iliad and The Odyssey, would look similar in approach.
And of course they are right to have done so. The place to make claims to the truth in these cases is a church or synagogue, not a museum. But even the lesser claim that the Museum of the Bible makes, that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization, is to many an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it. And for those who know it only as a “Bronze Age document” (one of Christopher Hitchens’s favorite epithets) and from some of the livelier passages in Leviticus, it is an offensive absurdity.
Writing in the Washington Post, the novelist and art historian Noah Charney asserted that “in Washington, separation of church and state isn’t just a principle of governance, it’s an architectural and geographic rule as well.” It’s unclear who established such a rule, and in any case, the “principle” of the “separation of church and state” does not originate in the Constitution. Rather, its source is to be found in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” We all carry a stock of mental habits and moral values, and a language with which to express them, that ultimately derives from the Bible, whether we have read it or not. The Museum of the Bible merely proposes that we read it. And for all its shortcomings and missed opportunities, and all its fits of cuteness (there’s a Manna Café), it does so with refreshing sincerity and surprising effectiveness.
1 The building has one passage of real brilliance. The entrance portal on Fourth Street is flanked by a pair of immense bronze panels, nearly 40 feet high, that call to mind Boaz and Jachin, the mighty bronze pillars that guarded Solomon’s Temple. In fact, they are panels of text inscribed with the opening lines of Genesis, as printed in the Gutenberg Bible of 1454, the first mass-produced book to use moveable metal type. The letters are reversed, confusingly, until one realizes that this aids in making souvenir rubbings that themselves embody the printing process. The genesis evoked here is that of universal literacy and the cultural transformation wrought by the printed book.
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Review of '(((Semitism)))' By Jonathan Weisman
Now, two years later, Weisman has published a book about anti-Semitism—and, more specifically, about the supposedly grave threat to Jews springing from the alt-right and the Trump administration. (((Semitism))), for such is the book’s title, suffers from two grave ills. First, Weisman believes that political leftism and Judaism are identical. Second, he knows little or nothing about the political right, in whose camp he places the alt-right movement. Combine these two shortcomings with a heavy dose of self-regard, and you get (((Semitism))): a toxic brew of anti-Israel sentiment, bagels-and-lox cultural Jewishness, and unbridled hostility toward mainstream conservatism, which he lumps together with despicable alt-right anti-Semitism.
According to Weisman, Judaism derives its present-day importance from the way it provides a religious echo to secular leftism. This is his actual opening sentence: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Thus does he describe a people whose binding glue over the millennia is a faith tradition literally designed to separate its adherents from those who are not their co-religionists.
This ethnic-Jew-centric perspective leads Weisman to reject not merely Jewish observance, which he finds parochial and divisive, but the tie between Judaism and Israel, which he subtly titles “The Israel Deception.” He laments: “The American Jewish obsession with Israel has taken our eyes off not only the politics of our own country, the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the rising tide of nationalism but also our own grounding in faith.” He sneers at Jews who promote the “tried and true theme of the little Israeli David squaring off against the giant Arab Goliath.” Weisman believes, like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that members of both parties are guilty of “kissing the ring” at AIPAC, of “turn[ing] to mush when the subject was Israel.” In fact, Weisman says, the anti-Semitic BDS movement on college campuses “is worrisome as much for what it says about the American Jew’s inextricable links to Israel as for what it says about anti-Semitism.” In his view, “Barack Obama was the apotheosis of liberal internationalism.…The Jew thrived.”
Thus Weisman has this to say about his infamous Iran-deal chart: “I had my own brush with fratricidal Jew-on-Jew violence during that heated debate.” Was Weisman attacked? Assaulted? No, he received some nasty notes in response to running a chart. Weisman says he found the uproar “absurd” and laments that he is “still hearing about it.” Poor lamb.W eisman gets it right when he writes about the mainstreaming of the alt-right—the winking and nodding from Breitbart News and Donald Trump himself, the willingness of many in the mainstream to reward alt-right popularizers like Milo Yiannopoulos. (I left Breitbart in March 2016 due to differences regarding our coverage of the presidential campaign). Weisman is at his best when describing the origins of the alt-right and their infiltration of more well-read outlets.
But he can’t stop there. Instead, he seeks to impute the alt-right to the entire conservative movement and builds, Hillary Clinton–style, a fictitious basket of deplorables amounting to half the conservative movement. He cites “Christian fundamentalist” Israel supporters, to whom he wrongly attributes universally apocalyptic End of Times motivation. He condemns anti-immigration advocates, whose opposition to importation of un-vetted Muslim refugees he likens to anti-Semitic anti-immigrant movements of years past. He reviles “anti-feminists,” those who oppose political correctness in video games, Republican Jewish Coalition members who laughed at Trump making a Jewish joke, and free-speech advocates supposedly engaged in “forcible seizure of the free-speech movement” (a weird charge to level, considering that it cost Berkeley $600,000 to prevent Antifa from burning down the campus when I visited). In other words, pretty much anyone who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton gets smeared with the alt-right brush, outside of those specifically targeted by the alt-right.
The problem of alt-right anti-Semitism, Weisman thinks, is just a problem of anti-leftism. If we could all just give money to the notoriously left-wing propaganda-pushing Southern Poverty Law Center, watch Trump-referential productions of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at the Edinburgh National Festival (yes, this is in the book, and no, it is not parody), ignore anti-Semitic attacks at the Chicago Dyke March (I am not making this up), slap some vinyl signs on synagogues (no, I am still not making this up), and “not get too self-congratulatory” (seriously, guys, this is all real), all will be well. In the end, Weisman’s goal is to build a coalition of ethnic and political groups, cobbled together in common cause against conservatives—conservatives, he says, who represent the alt-right support base.
As the alt-right’s chief journalistic target in 2016, I’m always happy to see them clubbed like a baby seal. And there is a good book to be written about the alt-right. At times, Weisman borders on it, particularly when he seeks to investigate the bizarre relationship between Trump and the trolls who worship him.
But Weisman’s ardent allegiance to leftism leads him to misdiagnose the problem, to ignore the rising anti-Semitism of his own side (the DNC nearly elected anti-Semite Keith Ellison its leader last year), to prescribe the wrong solutions, and, most of all, to react in knee-jerk fashion to the alt-right by flattering himself as the epitome of everything the alt-right hates. Thin as the paper it was printed on, (((Semitism))) is a failure of imagination.
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Review of 'The People vs. Democracy' By Yascha Mounk
The save-democracy writers have generally taken two tacks in answering it. Some see a simple replay of the previous century: The West’s authoritarian spirit has resurfaced, they say, and seduced the multitudes once more. It is up to heroic liberals to fight back, as their forebears in the 1940s did. But others have tried to trace today’s crack-up to liberal missteps or even to flaws in the liberal-democratic idea. This is a more useful avenue for those of us concerned with the preservation of self-government.
Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy wants to be the latter kind of (subtle, thoughtful) book but too often ends up making the cruder arguments of the former. The author, a lecturer on government at Harvard, argues that while liberals took liberalism’s permanence for granted, voters became “fed up with liberal democracy itself.” Elections across the developed world, in which fringe characters and populists routed mainstream establishments, provide the main evidence. Mounk has also collected mountains of public-opinion data, mainly from the World Values Survey, which shows a deeper transformation: People in the U.S. and Europe increasingly reject democratic principles and even hanker for strongman authority.
Fewer than a third of U.S. millennials “consider it essential to live in a democracy.” One out of 4 believes that democracy is a bad form of government. One-third of Americans of all ages now favor some sort of strongman rule, without checks and balances, and 1 of 6 would prefer the strongman to don a military uniform. Similarly, a third of German respondents and an astonishing half of those from Britain and France support strongman rule. Parties of the far right and far left are rapidly expanding their appeal, particularly among young people. There are many more depressing statistics of the kind, presented in numerous charts and graphs throughout.
Mounk thinks there are two factors at play in these attitudes. The first is the emergence of illiberal democracy, or “democracy without rights,” as a serious rival to the current order. Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narenda Modi in India, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, among others, exemplify this model. Once elected, these leaders chip away at individual rights and independent institutions until democracy is all but hollowed out and it becomes nigh impossible to remove the ruling party from office. Mounk strongly suspects that the Trump administration plans to pull something like this on the American public, though thus far the president’s illiberal bluster has proved to be just that.
The second factor is undemocratic liberalism, or “rights without democracy.” Here Mounk has in mind technocratic liberalism’s drive to remove an ever-growing share of policy decisions from the purview of voters and their elected representatives. This has been necessitated by the complexity of contemporary problems such as climate change and international trade, Mounk contends. Yet rights without democracy has generated mistrust and cynicism. Liberals, he says, should aim to “strike a better balance between expertise and responsiveness to the popular will.”
Mounk’s sections on the damage wrought by undemocratic liberalism should be instructive to his fellow liberals. But conservatives have for years stamped their feet and pulled their hair over the same phenomenon, only to be ignored by elite liberals on both sides of the Atlantic. Right-of-center readers might be forgiven for sarcastically muttering “no kidding” as Mounk takes them on a guided tour of liberal folly.
Conservatives have been warning about administrative bloat, for example, since at least the first half of the 20th century. It turns out that they had a point. Writes Mounk: “The job of legislating has been supplanted by so-called ‘independent agencies’ that can formulate policy on their own and are remarkably free from oversight.” Ditto activist judges: “The best studies of the Supreme Court do suggest that its role is far larger than it was when the Constitution was written.” And ditto the European Union’s democratic deficit: “To create a truly ‘single market,’ the EU has introduced far-reaching limitations” on state sovereignty.
He also strikes upon the idea that nations really are different from one another, and in politically significant ways. “After a few months living in England,” the German-born author confesses, “I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I imagined.” No kidding. What about the anti-Western monoculture that lords over most college campuses? Here, too, the right was on to something. “Far from seeking to preserve the most valuable aspects of our political system,” Mounk writes, liberal academe’s “overriding objective is, all too often, to help students recognize its manifold injustices and hypocrisies.”
Mounk’s discovery of these core conservative insights, however, doesn’t spur a rethink of his reflexive disdain for conservatives. This is most apparent in his coverage of American politics. The book is supposed to be a battle cry for democracy to rally left and right alike. Yet, with few exceptions, conservatives and Republicans are cast as cynical operators who rely on underhanded tactics and coded racism to undermine democracy and ultimately abet the populists. (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama receive adulatory treatment.)
He describes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland, Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, and GOP filibustering of Democratic legislation as “abuse[s] of constitutional norms” (they weren’t). But he pooh-poohs popular outrage at Clinton’s unlawful use of a private email server and elides the Obama Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of conservative nonprofits ahead of the 2012 election.
He also underestimates a third development of recent years—liberal illiberalism (my term, not his)—a liberalism that not only lacks democratic legitimacy but seeks to destroy, in the name of tolerance, the fundamental rights of those who stand in the way of full-spectrum progressivism. This is the kind of liberalism that compels nuns to pay for contraceptives and evangelical bakers to bake gay-wedding cakes, silences conservative speakers on campus, and denounces sushi restaurants as “cultural appropriation.”
Mounk isn’t ignorant of these tendencies, and he wants liberals to ease up (a bit). Yet, because he maintains that the censorious left’s heart is in the right place, he can’t seem to reach the necessary conclusion: that much illiberalism today comes, not from the right, but from ostensibly liberal quarters, and that this says something about the nature of contemporary liberal ideology. The true illiberal villains, for Mounk, are only ever the Modis, Trumps, and Orbáns—plus the troglodytes down South. Well-intentioned liberals who back censorship, he writes at one point, “ignore what would happen if the dean of Southern Baptist University…were to gain the right to censor utterances” he dislikes.
In fact, there is no such institution as “Southern Baptist University.” According to the most recent rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, however, four of the 10 worst U.S. colleges for free speech last year were public schools located in blue states, while five were blue-state private or religious schools with longstanding reputations for progressivism (Mounk’s own Harvard among them).
His quickness to frame Southern Baptists as illiberal bogeys is telling and suggests that, for all its exhortations against liberal highhandedness, Mounk’s book comes from the same high-handed place. It colors the author’s approach to questions of nationalism and immigration that are at the heart of the current ferment. He concedes that liberal democracy is compatible with voter demand for limits on mass migration. But he can’t help but attribute those demands to irrational “resentment,” eschewing completely the—perfectly rational—fear of Islamist terrorism.
He sees the nation-state as an “imagined community” to which too many of our fellow citizens remain attached. Ideally for Mounk, the empire of rights and procedural norms would thrive independently of nationhood, civilizational barriers, and sacred communities. For now, he allows, liberals unfortunately have to contend with these anachronisms. His view is an improvement over the liberal transnationalism that is still committed to doing away borders altogether, even after the popular counterpunch of 2016. Still, why should Poles or Hungarians or Britons remain politically attached to Polish, Hungarian, or British democracy? What is it about Polishness as such that matters to Poland’s democratic character? Mounk has no answers.
No wonder, finally, that the author never satisfactorily links liberalism’s turn against democracy and the rise of illiberal democrats. He can never bring himself to say outright that the one (rights without democracy) is begetting the other (democracy without rights). Liberals, of the classical and the contemporary varieties, badly need a book that offers such uncomfortable reckonings. Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy is not it.