It is not widely recognized that there is more than one kind of racial attitude among whites in America. Not…
It is not widely recognized that there is more than one kind of racial attitude among whites in America. Some whites have since birth had extensive dealings with blacks, in a wide variety of situations. Some have come to these dealings without any personal, familial, or cultural involvement in the institution of slavery. Some, like the French and the Hispanics, have come from cultures in which intermarriage between races is a fairly common circumstance. But if in the pluralism of white cultures there are demonstrably different historical experiences with black cultures, our social analysts have not sufficiently noticed the extent to which the interpretation of the meaning of race in America has become “Southernized.” Not only do many of the most eminent blacks who have codified white-black relations derive from Southern culture-leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson, and Vernon Jordan; many of our most outspoken white liberals, too, those who are, as it were, almost fixated on this issue, have been Southerners: men like Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers, Garry Wills, Larry King, Willie Morris, Ramsey Clark, and Tom Wicker.
American culture is too often examined from the perspective of Massachusetts southward and westward, and so to some extent the voices of Southerners contribute an important counter-point in the national self-understanding. Yet on matters of race—and on moral questions, more generally—Southern perceptions of urban industrial society tend to distort reality in important ways.
It is characteristic of Southern liberals that they have come late to liberal attitudes on race; usually, they can date to the day and hour the time they first touched a black, embraced a black, or for the first time addressed a black as an individual like themselves. It is also characteristic that they approach the racial question in preeminently evangelical and moralistic terms. Finally, it is characteristic that, sensitive to the moral burden carried by every Southerner in entering the world of Northern white liberals, such Southerners almost unconsciously compensate by trying to give frequent evidences of their morality. The dominant symbols of morality in America are men of sterling character and impeccable family reputations—the “Massachusetts men” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., speaks so fondly of—the members of “blue-ribbon” panels, the Yankee brahmins. A Southerner like Lyndon Johnson, or even Terry Sanford, or Jimmy Carter, or J. William Fulbright, or Sam Ervin, is necessarily insecure in his moral standing on the national stage. Being Southern is almost like bearing an Italian name: watchfulness is stimulated among the guardians of the narrow gates; one can feel their skepticism.
And for a Southerner who would aspire to true national eminence there is a further obstacle to clear: in learning the ways of the Northern middle class, the liberal professionals, one must also avoid too fawning an approval of “middle-class procedures,” “middle-class mores,” and “middle-class values.” One must imitate the ways but learn to disdain the household gods; irreverence and skepticism are necessary proofs that one has caught the hang of it.
The way is made a little easier because the complexity and ambiguity of Northern industrial life have deprived even the guardians of our national moral symbols of their certainty as to what is right or wrong. The infusion of the fresh faith of converts is a Northern necessity, the justification for all those missionary forays down the years. And so they come: proper, neat, clean, highly purposive and moral young men to teach their jaded teachers the true faith again. Bill Moyers is the very voice of reason and virtue, Ramsey Clark the apostle, Tom Wicker the avenging scribe.
Their way has been especially smooth since the Kennedy era, and most of them, indeed, owe their national emergence to the Kennedy period. For that was the era when Lindisfarne and Camelot—the Celtic fires—replaced the mellower English abbeys as the sources of the nations moral rhetoric. “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Norman Mailer once perceived: the sudden wedding of arriviste professionals and moral fervor, when politics was seized from the hands of “mere politicos” and offered to the ambitions of the young, the tough, the willing, the new frontiersmen, the new generation come of age. As pragmatism, and wheeling-dealing, and new bureaucracies, and new techniques began to lose their moral luster, many “Kennedy liberals” moved rhetorically left-ward: i.e., they escalated their moral fervor (which was the very reason for their entrance into public life, along with their ambition to be famous men) exactly in proportion as the programs they championed met the ironies and tragedies inherent in every form of politics. They espoused withdrawal, not so much from Vietnam as from “centrist” politics, from liberalism, from a sense of ambiguity and that humane cynicism that must line the stomach of every successful political practitioner, and they began to flirt with “raised consciousness,” “radicalization,” and “revolution.” They did not become revolutionaries—or few did—but they denounced the “tough pragmatism” that was the backbone of the New Frontier, and in its place they embraced its high moral rhetoric, which for John Kennedy, at least, was only its outward magic: the poetry that gilds Irish crassness, the wit, the way with words, the famous blarney. They kept the blarney and abandoned the hardball. And, slowly, the Irish New Frontier gave way to political evangelism, the urban Irish toughness to Southern morality.
In their present state, the intellectual and moral underpinnings of what used to be the Northern Left have the consistency of hominy. Description, diagnosis, and analysis have been replaced by moral mush; outrage and sermonettes, doomsaying and paradisiacal vistas, have replaced pragmatic modesty. We are promised all—or nothing. “Middle” is a term of opprobrium. As one might imagine, in the background falls the splash of blood. For what the rhetorical revolutionaries cannot bring themselves to do, some who honor them do not hesitate to do.
The reception of Tom Wicker's odd account of Attica1 demonstrates conclusively the lust of Northern liberals to drink the Southern cup, to charge again their anger. outrage, and moral passion. The explicit confessions of the text and the experience of renewed commitment expressed by the book's reviewers tell us more than we need to know about the intellectual and moral state of mind of those of whom we used to hope so much: the readers of books, the literate and enlightened Left.
Wicker writes of himself, everybody knows by now, in an unnecessary third person. In Norman Mailer's hands, the device allows for multiple personas, ironic distance, a self-mocking and psychoanalytic point of view. In Wicker, it is merely theatrical: Wicker himself as the subject of a novel. The aim may be modesty, the avoidance of the “I”; the net effect is that of television journalism: Wicker's story towers over Attica's as on television Roger Mudd is larger than the capitol.
The structure of A Time to Die is rather tightly chronological, although a reflective and personal dimension is added through flashbacks to Wicker's past, occasional disquisitions on prisons in the United States, and sundry philosophical views. The prose, meant to suggest Melville or Faulkner, actually suggests James Jones and the genre of the tough guy with the heart of gold.
On Friday, September 10, 1971, the book begins, Tom Wicker sat “in the executive dining room of the Geographic” with celebrities and men of power, whose names are listed for a full paragraph, enjoying “the best talk in Washington.” Wicker “had a vivid sense of having come a long, long way” from his home town of Hamlet, North Carolina. There is a phone call, inviting him to Attica. He did not even know a riot had begun the day before; he hadn't paid attention to the story in the Times.
Former Nieman fellow, confidant of President Kennedy, former Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, and now a thrice-weekly columnist and associate editor of the Times, Wicker is as the call arrives one of a dozen most influential figures in one of the most powerful industries in America, the merchants of communications. As a highly paid journalist and as twice now a writer of best-sellers, he is richer, better known, and of greater political potency than most senators and governors. This is the person chosen as one of the twenty-seven “neutral observers” who were permitted by New York State at the scene of the Attica riot, fourteen of them, including Wicker. invited specifically by the rioting inmates.
The most important information in Wicker's book is about Wicker himself. On what he says about Attica at least three preliminary points must be made. First, Wicker never gives us fail criteria by which we might measure “conditions” (the inmates' code word) at Attica. The only prison of which Wicker offers us a first-person account is Attica. Some of the features that appall him are common to all those institutions that Erving Goffman calls “total institutions”—asylums, hospitals, prep schools, convents, monasteries—and some are common to crowded, lower-class urban areas. We do not learn from Wicker that the average term of incarceration at Attica is only seven years, nor that it is one of the most modern prisons in the U.S.; only in the pictures and diagrams do we discover how large, ample, and generous with space it is.
Wicker is shocked that inmates receive only 50 cents a day for their work, without adding in the $10,000 per prisoner it costs the state to keep a roof over their heads, teed them, keep them warm, and maintain their health. He does not note that the prisoners' only complaint about their food is that they receive “too much pork” (a legitimate sore point to the Black Muslims): he does not note that every day after lunch the inmates are handed an apple and cookies for an afternoon snack. (One demand of the rioters was “for fresh fruit daily.”) Wicker is not amazed, as the reader is, to find that each cell comes equipped with earphones, so that each inmate can listen to the radio and records without disturbing others. He is outraged that each cell is closed, so that prisoners cannot look down the corridor without mirrors; he is not surprised, as the reader is, that hand mirrors are permitted, and not gratified that the prisoners are not permanently locked in tiers of open cages instead of private rooms. The grievances of the prisoners are shockingly trivial, and remind one far more of Auberon Waugh's complaints about boarding schools in England than the prison in Arkansas where so many grisly corpses were found or conditions in the mines and mills of Pennsylvania circa 1920. Wicker shows not a speck of a tough reporter's cynicism about the complaints of inmates. He calls their neat cells, their daily life, “the lowest condition of existence.” Yet lack of personal liberty apart, the prisoners at Attica live better than a majority of people on this planet, not to mention most prisoners in history.
Secondly, Wicker's reporting gives us no clear sense of why the riot started. The prisoners were restive, he suggests, because they were the victims of injustice. Yet no one complained of having been improperly tried, sentenced, or jailed; nor even of illegal loss of life, injury, or brutal treatment. Indeed, compared to the brutality of homosexual rape, vendetta, debt “enforcement,” and other violence among the inmates themselves, the incidents Wicker reports of “police brutality” seem well within the range of the expectable amount of intimidation the vastly outnumbered guards would have to insist upon in order to survive. No one complained of being shot by a guard. Wicker quotes the leader of the riot: “In all the years I've been in prison . . . I'd never seen guns in the yard. I'd never seen a gun fired from the tower. . . . You never think of the guns as a thing that of itself could cause harm.” Prison society is not pleasant, and it can be improved, as no one more than the liberal Russell Oswald, the New York State Commissioner of Corrections, was working to accomplish. But having observed British police in Hong Kong, Italian police in Rome, and French police in Paris, knowing a little of police operations in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Vietnam, I found the behavior of the guards at Attica even as described by Wicker rather high on the scale of humane conduct in their circumstances.
The prisoners shouted later that they wanted to be treated “AS MEN,” in an appropriately upper-case voice. But it was precisely because they had failed to act accordingly that they found themselves in Attica. They had shown by their proven crimes that they did not deserve the society of men. They were being treated as prisoners, at heavy expense to taxpayers, because they could no longer be trusted with adult male responsibilities. Wicker writes as if their rhetoric of oppression were legitimate; as if rates of recidivism were a failure of the state rather than of individuals themselves—as if the state could do what God himself did not do: make all men good.
Roger Starr has pointed out (COMMENTARY, March 1973) that the McKay Commission, appointed by the state to investigate Attica, “found no evidence” that the riot had been planned, but that it didn't look very hard for evidence. Well, why did it start? My own theory is gleaned indirectly from Wicker (and similar accounts). A concerted effort was going on in the prisons to fill the heads of not terribly bright, uneducated, and uncritical minds with revolutionary illusions. Talking revolution in the ghettos was not very rewarding; people were too smart and even on the meanest streets too many had it better than they ever had, in the South, or in Latin America, or wherever. Thousands were going to colleges, “getting out” and “moving up.” In prison, the imagery at least had objective correlatives; inmates, by their own deeds, had indeed condemned themselves to a “police state,” even if not the most terror-ridden in the world. Wicker quotes a letter from Sam Melville, the white ex-con “radical” bomber and bank robber, written a month before the riot: “I can't tell you what a change has come over t[he] brothers in Attica. So much more awareness and growing consciousness of themselves as potential revolutionaries, reading, questioning, rapping all the time.” Most of the inmates were young; Champen, almost forty, was respected for his maturity. Herb Blyden, another leader, told the inmates in a D-yard speech: “They had never had a chance to rise in a racist and oppressive America . . . prison being no more than the actual representation of the life they were forced to lead even on the outside. . . . And we are the vanguard!” The inmates felt “liberated” by the mere capture of D-yard. It was a species of role-playing, a psychodrama, not meant to be taken seriously—surely, not meant to provoke counter-attack. No one boasted of being internally liberated, never again to commit crime; nor of having any revolutionary plan to help America or the rest of the “oppressed” world. They felt better in the sunlight and air of the familiar yard, with hostages. Revolution? Self-dramatization.
Finally, Wicker is ambivalently “charitable” toward Governor Rockefeller's refusal to go to Attica in person. In his long telephone conversation with the Governor, Wicker does not make, as he himself is obliged to recognize, a convincing case; the Governor has sound reasons which Wicker cannot meet. So Wicker then proceeds to whine and undercut by rhetoric what he could not meet with reason. The Governor, Wicker goes on in classical Southern rhetoric, ending every sentence with this phrase, prefers “the order of things.” But Wicker himself in his newspaper columns is, when it suits him, America's leading champion of moral and constitutional “order.” Order is not a “middle-class” concept but a condition absolutely essential to a government of laws; order is essential to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and democratic procedures. Unless human beings have internalized order, guards must be posted everywhere and everyone must be watched. Without order, neither democracy nor industry nor daily acts of trust are possible. Proper order is the basis for outrage over Watergate, for concern about CIA domestic surveillance, for worry over the rash of bombings, kidnappings, and taking of hostages on airlines and elsewhere. Without order, life is searches, force, a police state. Wicker doesn't have the courage to argue against Governor Rockefeller, or the intelligence to see precisely where the Governor's failure lay.
Rockefeller should not have talked to the inmates, as Wicker wanted, for the reasons the Governor gave: no deals with kidnappers and hostage-holders, no conferring of credibility on confused and illusory revolutionary theater. But Rockefeller should not have used surrogates to do the dirtiest work of the state. Rockefeller's habitual style is to do his deeds through hired agents. In a private citizen, the style is contemptible enough; in an executive officer, it is inexcusable. The broken figure of Commissioner Oswald is proof enough that the Governor burned up his subordinates to save himself. The fact that no one on the scene thought to have medical units ready to enter the prison yard after the troopers' assault indicates that the Governor could have played an important role as overall administrator of the restoration of order. If Rockefeller had been there. the citizens of New York would not have felt leaderless or suffered from his cowardice. Attica was about responsibility; the Governor failed his.
On Attica, then, Wicker sheds little useful light. The true story of A Time to Die is the story of Tom Wicker's testing as a man. There is no mistaking this as the dramatic center of the book. Wicker sees himself leaving for Attica already on page 6 as having an opportunity that “might make him think better of his work, even of his life,” and as he leaves, his important lunch companions are “moving to and fro, talking no doubt of Michelangelo.” Later, he recalls: “It had occurred to him within minutes of entering the prison . . . that perhaps the time had arrived for his life to be put to the challenge.” Before Attica, “his fiction seemed no more promising than it had been a decade earlier. Nor did he think his newspaper work had had enough value to sustain his passionate desire to signify as a writer. His personal life was breaking up and falling away. . . . [R]eflecting on Attica, he discovered that he had arrived at an age and time—his divorce, the shattering of the stability he had come to depend on, was a large part of it—when neither his profession nor his sense of self yielded him an essential feeling of worth. He liked and believed in his work; but its aloof, critical onlookers' ethic, valid professionally, could not sustain his life.” Exhausted later, “he realized how tired he was, how old, how inadequate, how disappointed in himself.” Later, in action: “He was caught up in the euphoria of decision, leadership, action. He felt bigger, stronger, better than he ever had. He thought he could handle anything, and he was prepared to try. He felt true to himself.” Attica was therapy, Attica was a time of testing, Attica was real life.
By his own account, Wicker failed the challenge of Attica. His role, as one of the observers, was to see to it that “Nobody gets killed.” But in the event—although he is still less than willing to face this squarely—what he and his fellow observers did was help to bring the massacre about. Instead of telling the inmates the truth about the troops outside, or challenging their illusions about what the state was prepared to do, or trying to persuade them to put their demands on a realistic basis which might have led to a peaceful settlement, Wicker and the other observers chose not to make recommendations, but rather to serve as conduits of the rioters' story to the outside world. When Commissioner Oswald says plaintively, “A committee as powerful as this ought to have been able to swing that group around to meeting with me on neutral grounds,” he summarizes the observers' achievements fairly. The observers had been loath to swing the inmates on anything, had acted like non-directive therapists awaiting insight. What came instead was bloodshed.
The name of Wicker's hometown in North Carolina is Hamlet, and it is in the role of Hamlet that the reader sees his efforts to avert that bloodshed defeated, not by the cosmos, but by his own moral and intellectual flaws. Since these flaws are common to many “decent, liberal, progressive” persons in our midst, Wicker's greatest service is to have exhibited them—even if without full awareness of what he has done—for public judgment.
The most immediately striking of these flaws is the desire to have everything both ways. On the one hand Wicker represents himself as a naive person, a “middle-class product of a system lie regarded as fundamentally rational.” In this character he can express anger and outrage at every indication that society is not “fundamentally rational.” On the other hand, he is a realist, too tough-minded to be a revolutionary, to believe in dramatic change; and whenever it suits his convenience, especially his professional convenience as a journalist, he can slip into this character too. Wicker doesn't really believe in reason and order; yes, he does. “Wicker, at one level, agreed with the skeptics. . . . On a more intellectual plane, however, Wicker found himself, as have so many liberals and intellectuals in times of challenge to liberalism and reason, unable to concede the futility of sensible conciliation of interests.” He gives many little sermons on the inevitable corruption in human nature: “Well, there'll always be an Attica.” Wicker “believed human nature would prevail over any system, that justice would flag and power assert itself in any company of men; and that in all societies, the fight for justice and a limit to power would go on, indomitably. inevitably, the cycle dominating the generations, the struggle never ceasing, the victory never won.”
Is the cosmos indifferent, as indifferent as the silent Potomac that one day, fifteen years earlier, swept Wicker helplessly along and threw him over a 76-foot falls? Death and life seemed equally significant, then. Or does the cosmos favor progress through struggle? “He wanted to help men and things be better, for once, than they might have been. If he did not really believe that likely, he nevertheless hoped it could happen.” Philosophically, Wicker has not decided if he is an existentialist, a progressive pragmatist, a stoic, a Scotch Calvinist. It's all mixed up. He pulls out whichever strand is rhetorically needed for his posture of the moment.
Secondly, Wicker's perspective on America is innocent of history: “Orangeburg, the cities' riots, the Tet offensive, the Chicago convention, My Lai, Cambodia, Kent State, Jackson State—these and other shocks to his conventional understanding of things had carried Tom Wicker, by September 1971, a long way from the comfortable place in the mainstream of action and acceptance that he once had relished. He had suffered professional and social opprobrium for his developing view of a society gone seriously astray from proclaimed ideals; his ‘constituency’ was made up substantially of alienated and protesting blacks, young people, the disadvantaged.” One marvels before anything else at the stance taken in this passage, in which one of America's most successful and influential journalists manages to turn himself into a lone prophet crying in the wilderness. (Is the “constituency” he refers to intended to describe readers of the Times?) More important, Wicker either displays ignorance of or vastly underestimates the bloodshed, violence, and continuing degradation experienced by the white immigrants who settled in the urban industrial centers—and even in rural towns like Batavia and Warsaw and, yes, Attica—and hence he sentimentalizes the sufferings of blacks. He forgets the bloodshed required to end child labor, to make labor organizing legal, to permit strikes, and to make strikes effective. He forgets the hundreds of thousands who perished in the mines or who were burned to ashes in the mills or mangled by machinery.
For example, exactly seventy-four years before Attica, on September 10, 1897, a sheriff's posse of seventy men armed with rifles fired on an unarmed group of “Hungarian” strikers at Lattimer, Pennsylvania, killing twenty-eight and wounding at least forty (many were dragged off by relatives and never became part of the official count). The New York Times, informed later that the shooting had not been provoked, editorialized on September 19, 1897: “Now this is merely incredible. . . . America's sheriff's posses do not behave in that way.” George McGovern's doctoral thesis recounts the Rockefeller massacres of immigrant miners in Colorado in 1914. Eric Sevareid's autobiography tells of a massacre of strikers in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was a reporter for the University of Minnesota Daily. In 1936, mounted troops bloodied heads and hired thugs tarred and feathered union organizers in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Nor does all this show anything especially evil about America; the fate of peasants and serfs in Europe at the time of immigration was even worse.
Thirdly, Wicker has an easy solution to complicated moral problems: the exploited, especially if they are black, are always right. He attributes his virtue to the “class sense he had absorbed from his father, the obligation to side with the underdog, the downtrodden, the poor, and the exploited.” Given Wicker's own stated “constituency,” his source of power and his moral imperative coincide, which is convenient. But what if the “poor and the exploited” at Attica were in the wrong? Could it have happened that way? What would the inmates have had to do to be wrong? “Honor and heritage required of him that he stand for the underdog, that the place of man was with the workers and the poor against the powerful and the greedy.” But some workers see him, precisely, as one of the “powerful” and the “greedy.” Coming out of prison the first day, “Wicker suddenly realized he had thought nothing at all about the hostages.” He never visits correction officers or their families. The truly invisible people in his book, outside Wicker's vision, and deeply betrayed by him, are the working-class whites of the prison staff. They figure in his book exactly as he describes blacks in Hamlet during his youth: all he hears is their footsteps; all he vaguely feels is their presence.
Wicker is profoundly ambivalent about his own Southern heritage and about the liberalism for which he has exchanged it. Like many Southerners, he openly believes Southern liberals are better than Northern liberals—see to the heart of things quicker. Yet it is required that he disown the South. So on a troop train for ten days in 1946 with twenty-seven blacks and two other whites, “he set the face of his life away from the South.” A convert to Northern liberalism, he keeps trying to prove himself worthy. He “envies” those, like William Kunstler, the radical attorney (a fellow observer at Attica), who are more to the Left than he. Above all, he admires men who have “paid the price,” who have “earned their right” to liberalism; he always feels unworthy.
Wicker's most profound ambivalence, of course, concerns race. The first time he ever shook hands with a black was at the age of nineteen, at the university; his first human exchange with a black appears to have been on that troop train—a highly charged moment to him, a moment in which the direction of his life changed. “In 1946, he had made the great discovery that blacks were as human and individual as anyone. It was not much to learn, yet it was more than some people learn in a lifetime.” It is difficult for those of us brought up in Northeastern industrial cities to believe Wicker can be serious. Our earliest fist-fights were with blacks; we played ball with and against each other. We are not without our own forms of racism, but we have long since done blacks the honor of liking or disliking what we see in them, whether one by one or in solidarity. And we have tried to resist attributing all problems, including all the problems of the blacks themselves, to race alone.
Not so Wicker. “Racism, its consequences, the modern attack on it both legal and intellectual, and its endurance in so many forms had been the central public concern of Tom Wicker's life—and one that, in his life's pattern, had set him apart from many of his contemporaries and his peers.” And again: “There had been no moment in his adult, professional life when ‘the race question’ had not been prominent in his mind and work. Its effect upon him and what he had written, he supposed, was responsible for his presence at Attica.”
Thus on page after page, Wicker reduces the issues of Attica to race, to “whiteness,” to “blackness.” He seems to think of the Latino prisoners as black, and he slides over the whites among the inmates as a kind of embarrassment to the thesis he really wants to sell. “At the heart of the matter was the fear of blackness.” Governor Rockefeller “did not appear to realize, even months later, the implications of two cardinal facts—that the attack force was all white and that the rebelling inmates were heavily black and Puerto Rican.” But what are these implications? Europeans are not notoriously gentle to other Europeans. Officials have seized farmhouses at point of gun from penniless white farmers. Massacres have happened in every decade in American history, and as likely as not whites were the victims of whites. Only 54 per cent of the inmates at Attica were black (9 per cent were Latino), figures not inconsistent with crime rates among young males in New York State, particularly among the amateurs most likely to be caught.
To imagine every misunderstanding, hardship, injustice, and even brutality done to a black as prompted solely or chiefly by his race is a wretched disservice both to truth and to those who suffer. It is another form of putting them in their place. When in the intense emotion of parting from the inmates, Wicker was called “brother” by a black, and hugged him, “for the first time in his life he sensed that nothing racial stood between him and a human being who happened to be black. He felt himself free, for once . . . free at last free at last. . . .” Wicker's mystique of blackness and whiteness may possibly be Scotch-Irish and it is certainly Southern; it is not part of every white culture, and the emotion he describes here does not seem as attractive as he may imagine.
Even the most destructive form of Wicker's racism seems at first glance like exquisite sympathy. After a former prisoner, “G.I.” Paris, spoke of “the conditions” in the prison and asked “You unnerstan'?,” Wicker writes: “But how could the gap between ‘the conditions’ of G.I.'s life and his own—let alone those of the truly affluent—be really understood if it had not been lived? How could he fully know what ‘the conditions’ did. . .? . . . He sensed the profound inadequacy of his understanding. . . .” How can this be? Wicker is not hesitant about understanding poor whites, or Vietnamese, or characters in fiction or in history books. Only when it comes to blacks and Latinos do his powers of understanding fail. But it is not necessary to live someone else's life in order to understand “the conditions” under which that life is lived. “Gaps” among humans can be crossed by understanding—indeed, with a little healthy cynicism, one can sometimes see others more clearly than they see themselves. It is condescending not to face others with the normal amount of cynicism.
Such cynicism deserts Wicker when it comes to blacks, but not as he deals with whites, especially when he believes them gullible or susceptible of emotional blackmail. Wicker's public detestation of threats of a “bloodbath” in Vietnam are well-known; one expects the “bloodbath” newspaper column yearly. Yet through four days of negotiation at Attica, Wicker and the other observers invoke the image of a “bloodbath” repeatedly in order to shock the Governor and state officials. They do not warn the inmates of a bloodbath, however; they protect the inmates' naiveté.
For 300 pages, Wicker tells us the inmates had no trust in the state; in the end he tells us they never wavered in their trust in the state, never imagined the troopers would come in shooting. And why should they? In earlier uprisings at Rochester and at Auburn the state sent troopers in with sticks rather than with guns. One might even argue that at Attica, too, instead of feeding the prisoners and allowing them to organize and to play at revolutionary theater, the state should immediately have sent in a large force without guns and taken back the prison, if not bloodlessly, at least with fewer dead. Why, then, did Wicker and the other observers—who knew that the state was serious—confirm the inmates in the illusions of revolutionary theater?
Underlying everything, more important to his tale than abstract discussion, is this failure to tell the inmates the truth. On Sunday, September 12, Wicker realizes that no one has told the inmates about the guns outside, about the pressures for attack; no one has warned them that the state is serious. “If,” he says to himself, “the faintest possibility existed that a blunt speech of warning might avoid calamity, he ought to take the microphone and state the truth as plainly as he could.” Ashamed of his vulnerability as a Southerner, Wicker rationalizes. Time slips. “But the straw lay there to be grasped at . . . Wicker saw it clearly. He did not doubt the imperative to speak that had been placed upon him by the realization. . . . He knew what was expected of him, what he expected of himself. The moments passed. More hostages came forward. But he did not speak.” These lines come at the end of a chapter. Even here, Wicker cannot bear to face his failure. He closes the quoted sentence with a qualifier: “. . . it seems.” No seeming about it. He did not speak.
Later, he comes back to it:
Obviously, a clear understanding of the real alternatives facing them might have made a great difference in D-yard that Sunday afternoon. “Why didn't someone say, ‘Listen . . . their position is that they will not move another inch and they're going to come in with guns and shoot you people to death’?” Three years later, Roger Champen [an inmate leader] still was asking himself that question, and Tom Wicker could give no better answer than “you should have known.” He knew that was hardly an answer at all.
And, still later, Wicker cannot accept the reassurance of his fellow observer, Congressman Herman Badillo: “We did all we could.” “Wicker was not sure about that. He had not spoken in D-yard the afternoon before. But that was his to live with, not Badillo's.”
Great moral failures do not happen suddenly; a thousand small surrenders prepare the way. In Wicker's case it was a long series of surrenders to rhetoric—revolutionary rhetoric and black rhetoric—that deprived him first of the ability to see the saving truth clearly and then the courage to speak it when lives were hanging in the balance.
Earlier, on first hearing the inmates' rhetoric, Wicker is fascinated as “a Southerner who responded to eloquence.” When Herb Blyden assures his “rapt audience” that the prison is “no more than the actual presentation of the life they were forced to live on the outside,” Wicker congratulates him warmly afterward, and writes: “He was a man who spoke with the cutting edge of an essential truth that his hearers knew from their lives to be a truth.” Clarence Jones later tells Wicker “how much an institution like this is a microcosm of the outside society. . . . Malcolm X used to tell blacks they were all in prison—that America meant prison for blacks.” Wicker in “his evasive Southern way” concedes the point of Clarence Jones and Malcolm X “without anything to do or say that would change or answer it.” Instead of conceding, he might have asked Jones, the publisher of the Amsterdam News, if he were being rhetorical, self-pitying, or merely manipulative of a poor Southern boy.
The inmates continually boasted of their readiness to die, and “Wicker, at least, had taken it almost literally.” Later, however, Champen “explained that the speeches were really dramatizing how bad conditions are.” It turned out, that 46.8 per cent of the inmates did not expect guns to be used. But Wicker accepted black rhetoric at face value: “The pig only answered to the knife; The Man only yielded to the gun. That was what the brothers believed, what life had taught most of them.” Yet in the final test, despite the predictions that hundreds and possibly thousands would be killed, 43 died, counting the guard and two prisoners killed earlier by the inmates. A horrible waste, but nothing approaching the picture drawn by the inmates and spread by the observers. On the one side, of the 211 troopers who stormed D-yard, only 74 men actually fired; and on the other side, the inmates did not kill the hostages when D-yard was attacked. (This does not seem as hard to understand as Wicker makes out. About to be overwhelmed, suddenly choking with tear gas, those who held the hostages had a chance of surviving only if they did not murder; murder when immediate retribution is on its way is not impossible to deter.)
Wicker's attitude toward the leaders at Attica was as uncritical as his attitude toward their rhetoric. He did not know that two prisoners had been executed in some orderly fashion, and that the leaders had more reasons than he suspected for resisting any demand short of amnesty. The leaders played on the crowd like fundamentalist preachers, and the crowd passively responded. Wicker does not explore the dark side of the leaders' personalities; he does not seek out their moral or emotional weaknesses; he accepts them, not quite at face value, but as symbols of revolution, as metaphors for materials locked up in his own psyche. He rails several times at “normal citizens” who saw in these inmates only “murderers, thieves, and rapists,” and not their decency and their impressive talents. But here Wicker has things exactly backward. It is he who trivializes the inmates by taking their illusions seriously, by being amazed at their talents, and by averting his eyes from their pathologies, their ignorance, and their flirtations with destruction.
Every human being has enormous capacity for evil and also for good: Wicker included. Cleaving to the “moral rigor” his mother expected him to live up to, Wicker does not imagine that people like his mother—the mothers in Batavia, ordinary citizens—might be subtler than he. Of the troops at the prison he says, trying to be “charitable,” that they were “unschooled in the subtleties of the situation.” One wonders. Had they not understood the situation exactly, from the first? Did they not know that the sooner the assault was launched, the less bloodshed there was likely to be? Had they not done this before? Had they not already surmised full well that no “revolution” was beginning in Attica, and that meaner motives lay behind the posturing? Were they not thinking that, if further Atticas arose, they might be the next hostages? For all his “subtlety,” Wicker by his own testimony was wrong at every step of the unfolding drama.
Indeed, it seems amazing that a professional journalist should have cared so little about, inquired so weakly into, the masses of people who are constantly at the edges of this text, almost never seen, but experienced as an ominous and hateful presence: the new niggers of America. Wicker hugged black inmates in his farewell; he could not look the white hostages in the eye.
Nothing could better symbolize the distortions which the Southern perspective has introduced into our understanding of race relations. The North is not the South, nor the South the North. Attica is not the Arkansas State Prison; Cicero, Illinois, is not Birmingham, Alabama; South Boston is not Little Rock. The North is a different, harsher world, and blacks who were churchgoing and gentle in the South are often gravely wounded by the amoral, hostile, and fiercely competitive working world of Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Toledo, and New York. The whites they meet are not from Southern culture, do not have Southern guilts. The rules are different. The game is different. Ideology abounds.
The inmates picked the wrong game at Attica. the game of revolution, and forty-three human beings lost their lives. It is not a game limited to blacks: this particular disease is free of racial bias. Southernized, however, revolution signifies “the blacks”; “oppressed” means black; “minority” means black; “poor” means black; “underdog” means black. All problems are defined as racial problems. But racial mysticism, applied to Northern neighborhoods and towns, will not alleviate the scarcity of jobs; the abuse of the civil right to life and limb by muggings, robbery, and rape; the downward slide of stable communities; the economic competition; the bias of the media in dividing black from white; the scramble for scholarships and decent schools. Racial illusions kill: that is the lesson of Attica, and of Tom Wicker's book.
1 A Time to Die, Quadrangle, 342 pp., $10.00.
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Tom Wicker’s Attica
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Can it be reversed?
Writing in these pages last year (“Illiberalism: The Worldwide Crisis,” July/August 2016), I described this surge of intemperate politics as a global phenomenon, a crisis of illiberalism stretching from France to the Philippines and from South Africa to Greece. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I argued, were articulating American versions of this growing challenge to liberalism. By “liberalism,” I was referring not to the left or center-left but to the philosophy of individual rights, free enterprise, checks and balances, and cultural pluralism that forms the common ground of politics across the West.
Less a systematic ideology than a posture or sensibility, the new illiberalism nevertheless has certain core planks. Chief among these are a conspiratorial account of world events; hostility to free trade and finance capital; opposition to immigration that goes beyond reasonable restrictions and bleeds into virulent nativism; impatience with norms and procedural niceties; a tendency toward populist leader-worship; and skepticism toward international treaties and institutions, such as NATO, that provide the scaffolding for the U.S.-led postwar order.
The new illiberals, I pointed out, all tend to admire established authoritarians to varying degrees. Trump, along with France’s Marine Le Pen and many others, looks to Vladimir Putin. For Sanders, it was Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where, the Vermont socialist said in 2011, “the American dream is more apt to be realized.” Even so, I argued, the crisis of illiberalism traces mainly to discontents internal to liberal democracies.
Trump’s election and his first eight months in office have confirmed the thrust of my predictions, if not all of the policy details. On the policy front, the new president has proved too undisciplined, his efforts too wild and haphazard, to reorient the U.S. government away from postwar liberal order.
The courts blunted the “Muslim ban.” The Trump administration has reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend treaty partners in Europe and East Asia. Trumpian grumbling about allies not paying their fair share—a fair point in Europe’s case, by the way—has amounted to just that. The president did pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but even the ultra-establishmentarian Hillary Clinton went from supporting to opposing the pact once she figured out which way the Democratic winds were blowing. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into being nearly a quarter-century ago, does look shaky at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it won’t survive in some modified form.
Yet on the cultural front, the crisis of illiberalism continues to rage. If anything, it has intensified, as attested by the events surrounding the protest over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The president refused to condemn unequivocally white nationalists who marched with swastikas and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Trump even suggested there were “very fine people” among them, thus winking at the so-called alt-right as he had during the campaign. In the days that followed, much of the left rallied behind so-called antifa (“anti-fascist”) militants who make no secret of their allegiance to violent totalitarian ideologies at the other end of the political spectrum.
Disorder is the new American normal, then. Questions that appeared to have been settled—about the connection between economic and political liberty, the perils of conspiracism and romantic politics, America’s unique role on the world stage, and so on—are unsettled once more. Serious people wonder out loud whether liberal democracy is worth maintaining at all, with many of them concluding that it is not. The return of ideas that for good reason were buried in the last century threatens the decent political order that has made the U.S. an exceptionally free and prosperous civilization.F or many leftists, America’s commitment to liberty and equality before the law has always masked despotism and exploitation. This view long predated Trump’s rise, and if they didn’t subscribe to it themselves, too often mainstream Democrats and progressives treated its proponents—the likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn—as beloved and respectable, if slightly eccentric, relatives.
This cynical vision of the free society (as a conspiracy against the dispossessed) was a mainstay of Cold War–era debates about the relative merits of Western democracy and Communism. Soviet apologists insisted that Communist states couldn’t be expected to uphold “merely” formal rights when they had set out to shape a whole new kind of man. That required “breaking a few eggs,” in the words of the Stalinist interrogators in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Anyway, what good were free speech and due process to the coal miner, when under capitalism the whole social structure was rigged against him?
That line worked for a time, until the scale of Soviet tyranny became impossible to justify by anyone but its most abject apologists. It became obvious that “bourgeois justice,” however imperfect, was infinitely preferable to the Marxist alternative. With the Communist experiment discredited, and Western workers uninterested in staging world revolution, the illiberal left began shifting instead to questions of identity. In race-gender-sexuality theory and the identitarian “subaltern,” it found potent substitutes for dialectical materialism and the proletariat. We are still living with the consequences of this shift.
Although there were superficial resemblances, this new politics of identity differed from earlier civil-rights movements. Those earlier movements had sought a place at the American table for hitherto entirely or somewhat excluded groups: blacks, women, gays, the disabled, and so on. In doing so, they didn’t seek to overturn or radically reorganize the table. Instead, they reaffirmed the American Founding (think of Martin Luther King Jr.’s constant references to the Declaration of Independence). And these movements succeeded, owing to America’s tremendous capacity for absorbing social change.
Yet for the new identitarians, as for the Marxists before them, liberal-democratic order was systematically rigged against the downtrodden—now redefined along lines of race, gender, and sexuality, with social class quietly swept under the rug. America’s strides toward racial progress, not least the election and re-election of an African-American president, were dismissed. The U.S. still deserved condemnation because it fell short of perfect inclusion, limitless autonomy, and complete equality—conditions that no free society can achieve given the root fact of human nature. The accidentals had changed from the Marxist days, in other words, but the essentials remained the same.
In one sense, though, the identitarians went further. The old Marxists still claimed to stand on objectively accessible truth. Not so their successors. Following intellectual lodestars such as the gender theorist Judith Butler, the identity left came to reject objective truth—and with it, biological sex differences, aesthetic standards in art, the possibility of universal moral precepts, and much else of the kind. All of these things, the left identitarians said, were products of repressive institutions, hierarchies, and power.
Today’s “social-justice warriors” are heirs to this sordid intellectual legacy. They claim to seek justice. But, unmoored from any moral foundations, SJW justice operates like mob justice and revolutionary terror, usually carried out online. SJWs claim to protect individual autonomy, but the obsession with group identity and power dynamics means that SJW autonomy claims must destroy the autonomy of others. Self-righteousness married to total relativism is a terrifying thing.
It isn’t enough to have legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S. via judicial fiat; the evangelical baker must be forced to bake cakes for gay weddings. It isn’t enough to have won legal protection and social acceptance for the transgendered; the Orthodox rabbi must use preferred trans pronouns on pain of criminal prosecution. Likewise, since there is no objective truth to be gained from the open exchange of ideas, any speech that causes subjective discomfort among members of marginalized groups must be suppressed, if necessary through physical violence. Campus censorship that began with speech codes and mobs that prevented conservative and pro-Israel figures from speaking has now evolved into a general right to beat anyone designated as a “fascist,” on- or off-campus.
For the illiberal left, the election of Donald Trump was indisputable proof that behind America’s liberal pieties lurks, forever, the beast of bigotry. Trump, in this view, wasn’t just an unqualified vulgarian who nevertheless won the decisive backing of voters dissatisfied with the alternative or alienated from mainstream politics. Rather, a vote for Trump constituted a declaration of war against women, immigrants, and other victims of American “structures of oppression.” There would be no attempt to persuade Trump supporters; war would be answered by war.
This isn’t liberalism. Since it can sometimes appear as an extension of traditional civil-rights activism, however, identity leftism has glommed itself onto liberalism. It is frequently impossible to tell where traditional autonomy- and equality-seeking liberalism ends and repressive identity leftism begins. Whether based on faulty thinking or out of a sense of weakness before an angry and energetic movement, liberals have too often embraced the identity left as their own. They haven’t noticed how the identitarians seek to undermine, not rectify, liberal order.
Some on the left, notably Columbia University’s Mark Lilla, are sounding the alarm and calling on Democrats to stress the common good over tribalism. Yet these are a few voices in the wilderness. Identitarians of various stripes still lord over the broad left, where it is fashionable to believe that the U.S. project is predatory and oppressive by design. If there is a viable left alternative to identity on the horizon, it is the one offered by Sanders and his “Bernie Bros”—which is to say, a reversion to the socialism and class struggle of the previous century.
Americans, it seems, will have to wait a while for reason and responsibility to return to the left.T
hen there is the illiberal fever gripping American conservatives. Liberal democracy has always had its critics on the right, particularly in Continental Europe, where statist, authoritarian, and blood-and-soil accounts of conservatism predominate. Mainstream Anglo-American conservatism took a different course. It has championed individual rights, free enterprise, and pluralism while insisting that liberty depends on public virtue and moral order, and that sometimes the claims of liberty and autonomy must give way to those of tradition, state authority, and the common good.
The whole beauty of American order lies in keeping in tension these rival forces that are nevertheless fundamentally at peace. The Founders didn’t adopt wholesale Enlightenment liberalism; rather, they tempered its precepts about universal rights with the teachings of biblical religion as well as Roman political theory. The Constitution drew from all three wellsprings. The product was a whole, and it is a pointless and ahistorical exercise to elevate any one source above the others.
American conservatism and liberalism, then, are in fact branches of each other, the one (conservatism) invoking tradition and virtue to defend and, when necessary, discipline the regime of liberty; the other (liberalism) guaranteeing the open space in which churches, volunteer organizations, philanthropic activity, and other sources of tradition and civic virtue flourish, in freedom, rather than through state establishment or patronage.
One result has been long-term political stability, a blessing that Americans take for granted. Another has been the transformation of liberalism into the lingua franca of all politics, not just at home but across a world that, since 1945, has increasingly reflected U.S. preferences. The great French classical liberal Raymond Aron noted in 1955 that the “essentials of liberalism—the respect for individual liberty and moderate government—are no longer the property of a single party: they have become the property of all.” As Aron archly pointed out, even liberalism’s enemies tend to frame their objections using the rights-based talk associated with liberalism.
Under Trump, however, some in the party of the right have abdicated their responsibility to liberal democracy as a whole. They have reduced themselves to the lowest sophistry in defense of the New Yorker’s inanities and daily assaults on presidential norms. Beginning when Trump clinched the GOP nomination last year, a great deal of conservative “thinking” has amounted to: You did X to us, now enjoy it as we dish it back to you and then some. Entire websites and some of the biggest stars in right-wing punditry are singularly devoted to making this rather base point. If Trump is undermining this or that aspect of liberal order that was once cherished by conservatives, so be it; that 63 million Americans supported him and that the president “drives the left crazy”—these are good enough reasons to go along.
Some of this is partisan jousting that occurs with every administration. But when it comes to Trump’s most egregious statements and conduct—such as his repeated assertions that the U.S. and Putin’s thugocracy are moral equals—the apologetics are positively obscene. Enough pooh-poohing, whataboutery, and misdirection of this kind, and there will be no conservative principle left standing.
More perniciously, as once-defeated illiberal philosophies have returned with a vengeance to the left, so have their reactionary analogues to the right. The two illiberalisms enjoy a remarkable complementarity and even cross-pollinate each other. This has developed to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish Tucker Carlson from Chomsky, Laura Ingraham from Julian Assange, the Claremont Review from New Left Review, and so on.
Two slanders against liberalism in particular seem to be gathering strength on the thinking right. The first is the tendency to frame elements of liberal democracy, especially free trade, as a conspiracy hatched by capitalists, the managerial class, and others with soft hands against American workers. One needn’t renounce liberal democracy as a whole to believe this, though believers often go the whole hog. The second idea is that liberalism itself was another form of totalitarianism all along and, therefore, that no amount of conservative course correction can set right what is wrong with the system.
These two theses together represent a dismaying ideological turn on the right. The first—the account of global capitalism as an imposition of power over the powerless—has gained currency in the pages of American Affairs, the new journal of Trumpian thought, where class struggle is a constant theme. Other conservatives, who were always skeptical of free enterprise and U.S.-led world order, such as the Weekly Standard’s Christopher Caldwell, are also publishing similar ideas to a wider reception than perhaps greeted them in the past.
In a March 2017 essay in the Claremont Review of Books, for example, Caldwell flatly described globalization as a “con game.” The perpetrators, he argued, are “unscrupulous actors who have broken promises and seized a good deal of hard-won public property.” These included administrations of both parties that pursued trade liberalization over decades, people who live in cities and therefore benefit from the knowledge-based economy, American firms, and really anyone who has ever thought to capitalize on global supply chains to boost competitiveness—globalists, in a word.
By shipping jobs and manufacturing processes overseas, Caldwell contended, these miscreants had stolen not just material things like taxpayer-funded research but also concepts like “economies of scale” (you didn’t build that!). Thus, globalization in the West differed “in degree but not in kind from the contemporaneous Eastern Bloc looting of state assets.”
That comparison with predatory post-Communist privatization is a sure sign of ideological overheating. It is somewhat like saying that a consumer bank’s lending to home buyers differs in degree but not in kind from a loan shark’s racket in a housing project. Well, yes, in the sense that the underlying activity—moneylending, the purchase of assets—is the same in both cases. But the context makes all the difference: The globalization that began after World War II and accelerated in the ’90s took place within a rules-based system, which duly elected or appointed policymakers in Western democracies designed in good faith and for a whole host of legitimate strategic and economic reasons.
These policymakers knew that globalization was as old as civilization itself. It would take place anyway, and the only question was whether it would be rules-based and efficient or the kind of globalization that would be driven by great-power rivalry and therefore prone to protectionist trade wars. And they were right. What today’s anti-trade types won’t admit is that defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a proposed U.S.-European trade pact known as TTIP won’t end globalization as such; instead, it will cede the game to other powers that are less concerned about rules and fair play.
The postwar globalizers may have gone too far (or not far enough!). They certainly didn’t give sufficient thought to the losers in the system, or how to deal with the de-industrialization that would follow when information became supremely mobile and wages in the West remained too high relative to skills and productivity gains in the developing world. They muddled and compromised their way through these questions, as all policymakers in the real world do.
The point is that these leaders—the likes of FDR, Churchill, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Bill Clinton—acted neither with malice aforethought nor anti-democratically. It isn’t true, contra Caldwell, that free trade necessarily requires “veto-proof and non-consultative” politics. The U.S., Britain, and other members of what used to be called the Free World have respected popular sovereignty (as understood at the time) for as long as they have been trading nations. Put another way, you were far more likely to enjoy political freedom if you were a citizen of one of these states than of countries that opposed economic liberalism in the 20th century. That remains true today. These distinctions matter.
Caldwell and like-minded writers of the right, who tend to dwell on liberal democracies’ crimes, are prepared to tolerate far worse if it is committed in the name of defeating “globalism.” Hence the speech on Putin that Caldwell delivered this spring at a Hillsdale College gathering in Phoenix. Promising not to “talk about what to think about Putin,” he proceeded to praise the Russian strongman as the “preeminent statesman of our time” (alongside Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan). Putin, Caldwell said, “has become a symbol of national self-determination.”
Then Caldwell made a remark that illuminates the link between the illiberalisms of yesterday and today. Putin is to “populist conservatives,” he declared, what Castro once was to progressives. “You didn’t have to be a Communist to appreciate the way Castro, whatever his excesses, was carving out a space of autonomy for his country.”
Whatever his excesses, indeed.T
he other big idea is that today’s liberal crises aren’t a bug but a core feature of liberalism. This line of thinking is particularly prevalent among some Catholic traditionalists and other orthodox Christians (both small- and capital-“o”). The common denominator, it seems to me, is having grown up as a serious believer at a time when many liberals—to their shame—have declared war on faith generally and social conservatism in particular.
The argument essentially is this:
We (social conservatives, traditionalists) saw the threat from liberalism coming. With its claims about abstract rights and universal reason, classical liberalism had always posed a danger to the Church and to people of God. We remembered what those fired up by the new ideas did to our nuns and altars in France. Still we made peace with American liberal order, because we were told that the Founders had “built on low but solid ground,” to borrow Leo Strauss’s famous formulation, or that they had “built better than they knew,” as American Catholic hierarchs in the 19th century put it.
Maybe these promises held good for a couple of centuries, the argument continues, but they no longer do. Witness the second sexual revolution under way today. The revolutionaries are plainly telling us that we must either conform our beliefs to Herod’s ways or be driven from the democratic public square. Can it still be said that the Founding rested on solid ground? Did the Founders really build better than they knew? Or is what is passing now precisely what they intended, the rotten fruit of the Enlightenment universalism that they planted in the Constitution? We don’t love Trump (or Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, etc.), but perhaps he can counter the pincer movement of sexual and economic liberalism, and restore a measure of solidarity and commitment to the Western project.
The most pessimistic of these illiberal critics go so far as to argue that liberalism isn’t all that different from Communism, that both are totalitarian children of the Enlightenment. One such critic, Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, summed up this position in a January essay in First Things magazine:
The stock distinction between the Enlightenment’s twins—communism is violently coercive while liberalism allows freedom of thought—is glib. Illiberal citizens, trapped [under liberalism] without exit papers, suffer a narrowing sphere of permitted action and speech, shrinking prospects, and increasing pressure from regulators, employers, and acquaintances, and even from friends and family. Liberal society celebrates toleration, diversity, and free inquiry, but in practice it features a spreading social, cultural, and ideological conformism.1
I share Vermeule’s despair and that of many other conservative-Christian friends, because there have been genuinely alarming encroachments against conscience, religious freedom, and the dignity of life in Western liberal democracies in recent years. Even so, despair is an unhelpful companion to sober political thought, and the case for plunging into political illiberalism is weak, even on social-conservative grounds.
Here again what commends liberalism is historical experience, not abstract theory. Simply put, in the real-world experience of the 20th century, the Church, tradition, and religious minorities fared far better under liberal-democratic regimes than they did under illiberal alternatives. Are coercion and conformity targeting people of faith under liberalism? To be sure. But these don’t take the form of the gulag or the concentration camp or the soccer stadium–cum-killing field. Catholic political practice knows well how to draw such moral distinctions between regimes: Pope John Paul II befriended Reagan. If liberal democracy and Communism were indeed “twins” whose distinctions are “glib,” why did he do so?
And as Pascal Bruckner wrote in his essay “The Tyranny of Guilt,” if liberal democracy does trap or jail you (politically speaking), it also invariably slips the key under your cell door. The Swedish midwives driven out of the profession over their pro-life views can take their story to the media. The Down syndrome advocacy outfit whose anti-eugenic advertising was censored in France can sue in national and then international courts. The Little Sisters of the Poor can appeal to the Supreme Court for a conscience exemption to Obamacare’s contraceptives mandate. And so on.
Conversely, once you go illiberal, you don’t just rid yourself of the NGOs and doctrinaire bureaucrats bent on forcing priests to perform gay marriages; you also lose the legal guarantees that protect the Church, however imperfectly, against capricious rulers and popular majorities. And if public opinion in the West is turning increasingly secular, indeed anti-Christian, as social conservatives complain and surveys seem to confirm, is it really a good idea to militate in favor of a more illiberal order rather than defend tooth and nail liberal principles of freedom of conscience? For tomorrow, the state might fall into Elizabeth Warren’s hands.
Nor, finally, is political liberalism alone to blame for the Church’s retreating on various fronts. There have been plenty of wounds inflicted by churchmen and laypeople, who believed that they could best serve the faith by conforming its liturgy, moral teaching, and public presence to liberal order. But political liberalism didn’t compel these changes, at least not directly. In the space opened up by liberalism, and amid the kaleidoscopic lifestyles that left millions of people feeling empty and confused, it was perfectly possible to propose tradition as an alternative. It is still possible to do so.N one of this is to excuse the failures of liberals. Liberals and mainstream conservatives must go back to the drawing board, to figure out why it is that thoughtful people have come to conclude that their system is incompatible with democracy, nationalism, and religious faith. Traditionalists and others who see Russia’s mafia state as a defender of Christian civilization and national sovereignty have been duped, but liberals bear some blame for driving large numbers of people in the West to that conclusion.
This is a generational challenge for the liberal project. So be it. Liberal societies like America’s by nature invite such questioning. But before we abandon the 200-and-some-year-old liberal adventure, it is worth examining the ways in which today’s left-wing and right-wing critiques of it mirror bad ideas that were overcome in the previous century. The ideological ferment of the moment, after all, doesn’t relieve the illiberals of the responsibility to reckon with the lessons of the past.
1 Vermeule was reviewing The Demon in Democracy, a 2015 book by the Polish political theorist and parliamentarian Ryszard Legutko that makes the same case. Fred Siegel’s review of the English edition appeared in our June 2016 issue.
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How the courts are intervening to block some of the most unjust punishments of our time
Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.
Beginning in 2011, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a series of “guidance” documents pressuring colleges and universities to change how they adjudicated sexual-assault cases in ways that increased the likelihood of guilty findings. Amid pressure from student and faculty activists, virtually all elite colleges and universities have gone far beyond federal mandates and have even further weakened the rights of students accused of sexual assault.
Like all extreme victims’-rights approaches, the new policies had the greatest impact on the wrongly accused. A 2016 study from UCLA public-policy professor John Villasenor used just one of the changes—schools employing the lowest standard of proof, a preponderance of the evidence—to predict that as often as 33 percent of the time, campus Title IX tribunals would return guilty findings in cases involving innocent students. Villasenor’s study could not measure the impact of other Obama-era policy demands—such as allowing accusers to appeal not-guilty findings, discouraging cross-examination of accusers, and urging schools to adjudicate claims even when a criminal inquiry found no wrongdoing.
In a September 7 address at George Mason University, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stated that “no student should be forced to sue their way to due process.” But once enmeshed in the campus Title IX process, a wrongfully accused student’s best chance for justice may well be a lawsuit filed after his college incorrectly has found him guilty. (According to data from United Educators, a higher-education insurance firm, 99 percent of students accused of campus sexual assault are male.) The Foundation for Individual Rights has identified more than 180 such lawsuits filed since the 2011 policy changes. That figure, obviously, excludes students with equally strong claims whose families cannot afford to go to court. These students face life-altering consequences. As Judge T.S. Ellis III noted in a 2016 decision, it is “so clear as to be almost a truism” that a student will lose future educational and employment opportunities if his college wrongly brands him a rapist.
“It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking in wisdom or compassion.” So wrote the Supreme Court in a 1975 case, Wood v. Strickland. While the Supreme Court has made clear that colleges must provide accused students with some rights, especially when dealing with nonacademic disciplinary questions, courts generally have not been eager to intervene in such matters.
This is what makes the developments of the last four years all the more remarkable. The process began in May 2013, in a ruling against St. Joseph’s University, and has lately accelerated (15 rulings in 2016 and 21 thus far in 2017). Of the 40 setbacks for colleges in federal court, 14 came from judges nominated by Barack Obama, 11 from Clinton nominees, and nine from selections of George W. Bush. Brown University has been on the losing side of three decisions; Duke, Cornell, and Penn State, two each.
Court decisions since the expansion of Title IX activism have not all gone in one direction. In 36 of the due-process lawsuits, courts have permitted the university to maintain its guilty finding. (In four other cases, the university settled despite prevailing at a preliminary stage.) But even in these cases, some courts have expressed discomfort with campus procedures. One federal judge was “greatly troubled” that Georgia Tech veered “very far from an ideal representation of due process” when its investigator “did not pursue any line of investigation that may have cast doubt on [the accuser’s] account of the incident.” Another went out of his way to say that he considered it plausible that a former Case Western Reserve University student was actually “innocent of the charges levied against him.” And one state appellate judge opened oral argument by bluntly informing the University of California’s lawyer, “When I . . . finished reading all the briefs in this case, my comment was, ‘Where’s the kangaroo?’”
Judges have, obviously, raised more questions in cases where the college has found itself on the losing side. Those lawsuits have featured three common areas of concern: bias in the investigation, resulting in a college decision based on incomplete evidence; procedures that prevented the accused student from challenging his accuser’s credibility, chiefly through cross-examination; and schools utilizing a process that seemed designed to produce a predetermined result, in response to real or perceived pressure from the federal government.C olleges and universities have proven remarkably willing to act on incomplete information when adjudicating sexual-assault cases. In December 2013, for example, Amherst College expelled a student for sexual assault despite text messages (which the college investigator failed to discover) indicating that the accuser had consented to sexual contact. The accuser’s own testimony also indicated that she might have committed sexual assault, by initiating sexual contact with a student who Amherst conceded was experiencing an alcoholic blackout. When the accused student sued Amherst, the college said its failure to uncover the text messages had been irrelevant because its investigator had only sought texts that portrayed the incident as nonconsensual. In February, Judge Mark Mastroianni allowed the accused student’s lawsuit to proceed, commenting that the texts could raise “additional questions about the credibility of the version of events [the accuser] gave during the disciplinary proceeding.” The two sides settled in late July.
Amherst was hardly alone in its eagerness to avoid evidence that might undermine the accuser’s version of events; the same happened at Penn State, St. Joseph’s, Duke, Ohio State, Occidental, Lynn, Marlboro, Michigan, and Notre Dame.
Even in cases with a more complete evidentiary base, accused students have often been blocked from presenting a full-fledged defense. As part of its reinterpretation of Title IX, the Obama administration sought to shield campus accusers from cross-examination. OCR’s 2011 guidance “strongly” discouraged direct cross-examination of accusers by the accused student—a critical restriction, since most university procedures require the accused student, rather than his lawyer, to defend himself in the hearing. OCR’s 2014 guidance suggested that this type of cross-examination in and of itself could create a hostile environment. The Obama administration even spoke favorably about the growing trend among schools to abolish hearings altogether and allow a single official to serve as investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury in sexual-assault cases.
The Supreme Court has never held that campus disciplinary hearings must permit cross-examination. Nonetheless, the recent attack on the practice has left schools struggling to explain why they would not want to utilize what the Court has described as the “greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” In June 2016, the University of Cincinnati found a student guilty of sexual assault after a hearing at which neither his accuser nor the university’s Title IX investigator appeared. In an unintentionally comical line, the hearing chair noted the absent witnesses before asking the accused student if he had “any questions of the Title IX report.” The student, befuddled, replied, “Well, since she’s not here, I can’t really ask anything of the report.” (The panel chair did not indicate how the “report” could have answered any questions.) Cincinnati found the student guilty anyway.1
Limitations on full cross-examination also played a role in judicial setbacks for Middlebury, George Mason, James Madison, Ohio State, Occidental, Penn State, Brandeis, Amherst, Notre Dame, and Skidmore.
Finally, since 2011, more than 300 students have filed Title IX complaints with the Office for Civil Rights, alleging mishandling of their sexual-assault allegation by their college. OCR’s leadership seemed to welcome the complaints, which allowed Obama officials not only to inspect the individual case but all sexual-assault claims at the school in question over a three-year period. Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis has estimated that during the Obama years, colleges spent between $60 million and $100 million on these investigations. If OCR finds a Title IX violation, that might lead to a loss of federal funding. This has led Harvard Law professors Jeannie Suk Gersen, Janet Halley, Elizabeth Bartholet, and Nancy Gertner to observe in a white paper submitted to OCR that universities have “strong incentives to ensure the school stays in OCR’s good graces.”
One of the earliest lawsuits after the Obama administration’s policy shift, involving former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, demonstrated how an OCR investigation can affect the fairness of a university inquiry. The accuser’s complaint had been referred both to Xavier’s Title IX office and the Cincinnati police. The police concluded that the allegation was meritless; Hamilton County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Deters later said he considered charging the accuser with filing a false police report.
Deters asked Xavier to delay its proceedings until his office completed its investigation. School officials refused. Instead, three weeks after the initial allegation, the university expelled Wells. He sued and speculated that Xavier’s haste came not from a quest for justice but instead from a desire to avoid difficulties in finalizing an agreement with OCR to resolve an unrelated complaint filed by two female Xavier students. (In recent years, OCR has entered into dozens of similar resolution agreements, which bind universities to policy changes in exchange for removing the threat of losing federal funds.) In a July 2014 ruling, Judge Arthur Spiegel observed that Xavier’s disciplinary tribunal, however “well-equipped to adjudicate questions of cheating, may have been in over its head with relation to an alleged false accusation of sexual assault.” Soon thereafter, the two sides settled; Wells transferred to the University of Maryland.
Ohio State, Occidental, Cornell, Middlebury, Appalachian State, USC, and Columbia have all found themselves on the losing side of court decisions arising from cases that originated during a time in which OCR was investigating or threatening to investigate the school. (In the Ohio State case, one university staffer testified that she didn’t know whether she had an obligation to correct a false statement by an accuser to a disciplinary panel.) Pressure from OCR can be indirect, as well. The Obama administration interpreted federal law as requiring all universities to have at least one Title IX coordinator; larger universities now employ dozens of Title IX personnel who, as the Harvard Law professors explained, “have reason to fear for their jobs if they hold a student not responsible or if they assign a rehabilitative or restorative rather than a harshly punitive sanction.”A mid the wave of judicial setbacks for universities, two decisions in particular stand out. Easily the most powerful opinion in a campus due-process case came in March 2016 from Judge F. Dennis Saylor. While the stereotypical campus sexual-assault allegation results from an alcohol-filled, one-night encounter between a male and a female student, a case at Brandeis University involved a long-term monogamous relationship between two male students. A bad breakup led to the accusing student’s filing the following complaint, against which his former boyfriend was expected to provide a defense: “Starting in the month of September, 2011, the Alleged violator of Policy had numerous inappropriate, nonconsensual sexual interactions with me. These interactions continued to occur until around May 2013.”
To adjudicate, Brandeis hired a former OCR staffer, who interviewed the two students and a few of their friends. Since the university did not hold a hearing, the investigator decided guilt or innocence on her own. She treated each incident as if the two men were strangers to each other, which allowed her to determine that sexual “violence” had occurred in the relationship. The accused student, she found, sometimes looked at his boyfriend in the nude without permission and sometimes awakened his boyfriend with kisses when the boyfriend wanted to stay asleep. The university’s procedures prevented the student from seeing the investigator’s report, with its absurdly broad definition of sexual misconduct, in preparing his appeal. “In the context of American legal culture,” Boston Globe columnist Dante Ramos later argued, denying this type of information “is crazy.” “Standard rules of evidence and other protections for the accused keep things like false accusations or mistakes by authorities from hurting innocent people.” When the university appeal was denied, the student sued.
At an October 2015 hearing to consider the university’s motion to dismiss, Saylor seemed flabbergasted at the unfairness of the school’s approach. “I don’t understand,” he observed, “how a university, much less one named after Louis Brandeis, could possibly think that that was a fair procedure to not allow the accused to see the accusation.” Brandeis’s lawyer cited pressure to conform to OCR guidance, but the judge deemed the university’s procedures “closer to Salem 1692 than Boston, 2015.”
The following March, Saylor issued an 89-page opinion that has been cited in virtually every lawsuit subsequently filed by an accused student. “Whether someone is a ‘victim’ is a conclusion to be reached at the end of a fair process, not an assumption to be made at the beginning,” Saylor wrote. “If a college student is to be marked for life as a sexual predator, it is reasonable to require that he be provided a fair opportunity to defend himself and an impartial arbiter to make that decision.” Saylor concluded that Brandeis forced the accused student “to defend himself in what was essentially an inquisitorial proceeding that plausibly failed to provide him with a fair and reasonable opportunity to be informed of the charges and to present an adequate defense.”
The student, vindicated by the ruling’s sweeping nature, then withdrew his lawsuit. He currently is pursuing a Title IX complaint against Brandeis with OCR.
Four months later, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals produced an opinion that lacked Saylor’s rhetorical flourish or his understanding of the basic unfairness of the campus Title IX process. But by creating a more relaxed standard for accused students to make federal Title IX claims, the Second Circuit’s decision in Doe v. Columbia carried considerable weight.
Two Columbia students who had been drinking had a brief sexual encounter at a party. More than four months later, the accuser claimed she was too intoxicated to have consented. Her allegation came in an atmosphere of campus outrage about the university’s allegedly insufficient toughness on sexual assault. In this setting, the accused student found Columbia’s Title IX investigator uninterested in hearing his side of the story. He cited witnesses who would corroborate his belief that the accuser wasn’t intoxicated; the investigator declined to speak with them. The student was found guilty, although for reasons differing from the initial claim; the Columbia panel ruled that he had “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the [accuser] over a period of weeks,” leaving her unable to consent on the night in question. He received a three-semester suspension for this nebulous offense—which even his accuser deemed too harsh. He sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jesse Furman.
Furman’s opinion provided a ringing victory for Columbia and the Obama-backed policies it used. As Title IX litigator Patricia Hamill later observed, Furman’s “almost impossible standard” required accused students to have inside information about the institution’s handling of other sexual-assault claims—information they could plausibly obtain only through the legal process known as discovery, which happens at a later stage of litigation—in order to survive a university’s initial motion to dismiss. Furman suggested that, to prevail, an accused student would need to show that his school treated a female student accused of sexual assault more favorably, or at least provide details about how cases against other accused students showed a pattern of bias. But federal privacy law keeps campus disciplinary hearings private, leaving most accused students with little opportunity to uncover the information before their case is dismissed.
At the same time, the opinion excused virtually any degree of unfairness by the institution. Furman reasoned that taking “allegations of rape on campus seriously and . . . treat[ing] complainants with a high degree of sensitivity” could constitute “lawful” reasons for university unfairness toward accused students. Samantha Harris of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education detected the decision’s “immediate and nationwide impact” in several rulings against accused students. It also played the same role in university briefs that Saylor’s Brandeis opinion did in filings by accused students.
The Columbia student’s lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, appealed Furman’s ruling to the Second Circuit. The stakes were high, since a ruling affirming the lower court’s reasoning would have all but foreclosed Title IX lawsuits by accused students in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. But a panel of three judges, all nominated by Democratic presidents, overturned Furman’s decision. In the opinion’s crucial passage, Judge Pierre Leval held that a university “is not excused from liability for discrimination because the discriminatory motivation does not result from a discriminatory heart, but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages that might result from unbiased action. A covered university that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination, notwithstanding that the motive for the discrimination did not come from ingrained or permanent bias against that particular sex.” Before the Columbia decision, courts almost always had rebuffed Title IX pleadings from accused students. More recently, judges have allowed Title IX claims to proceed against Amherst, Cornell, California–Santa Barbara, Drake, and Rollins.
After the Second Circuit’s decision, Columbia settled with the accused student, sparing its Title IX decision-makers from having to testify at a trial. James Madison was one of the few universities to take a different course, with disastrous results. A lawsuit from an accused student survived a motion to dismiss, but the university refused to settle, allowing the student’s lawyer to depose the three school employees who had decided his client’s fate. One unintentionally revealed that he had misapplied the university’s own definition of consent. Another cited the importance of the accuser’s slurring words on a voicemail, thus proving her extreme intoxication on the night of the alleged assault. It was left to the accused student’s lawyer, at a deposition months after the decision had been made, to note that the voicemail in question actually was received on a different night. In December 2016, Judge Elizabeth Dillon, an Obama nominee, granted summary judgment to the accused student, concluding that “significant anomalies in the appeal process” violated his due-process rights under the Constitution.niversities were on the losing side of 36 due-process rulings when Obama appointee Catherine Lhamon was presiding over the Office for Civil Rights between 2013 and 2016; no record exists of her publicly acknowledging any of them. In June 2017, however, Lhamon suddenly rejoiced that “yet another federal court” had found that students disciplined for sexual misconduct “were not denied due process.” That Fifth Circuit decision, involving two former students at the University of Houston, was an odd case for her to celebrate. The majority cabined its findings to the “unique facts” of the case—that the accused students likely would have been found guilty even under the fairest possible process. And the dissent, from Judge Edith Jones, denounced the procedures championed by Lhamon and other Obama officials as “heavily weighted in favor of finding guilt,” predicting “worse to come if appellate courts do not step in to protect students’ procedural due process right where allegations of quasi-criminal sexual misconduct arise.”
At this stage, Lhamon, who now chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, cannot be taken seriously when it comes to questions of campus due process. But other defenders of the current Title IX regime have offered more substantive commentary about the university setbacks.
Legal scholar Michelle Anderson was one of the few to even discuss the due-process decisions. “Colleges and universities do not always adjudicate allegations of sexual assault well,” she noted in a 2016 law review article defending the Obama-era policies. Anderson even conceded that some colleges had denied “accused students fairness in disciplinary adjudication.” But these students sued, “and campuses are responding—as they must—when accused students prevail. So campuses face powerful legal incentives on both sides to address campus sexual assault, and to do so fairly and impartially.”
This may be true, but Anderson does not explain why wrongly accused students should bear the financial and emotional burden of inducing their colleges to implement fair procedures. More important, scant evidence exists that colleges have responded to the court victories of wrongly accused students by creating fairer procedures. Some have even made it more difficult for wrongly accused students to sue. After losing a lawsuit in December 2014, Brown eliminated the right of students accused of sexual assault to have “every opportunity” to present evidence. That same year, an accused student showed how Swarthmore had deviated from its own procedures in his case. The college quickly settled the lawsuit—and then added a clause to its procedures immunizing it from similar claims in the future. Swarthmore currently informs accused students that “rules of evidence ordinarily found in legal proceedings shall not be applied, nor shall any deviations from any of these prescribed procedures alone invalidate a decision.”
Many lawsuits are still working their way through the judicial system; three cases are pending at federal appellate courts. Of the two that address substantive matters, oral arguments seemed to reveal skepticism of the university’s position. On July 26, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit considered a case at Boston College, where the accused student plausibly argued that someone else had committed the sexual assault (which occurred on a poorly lit dance floor). Judges Bruce Selya and William Kayatta seemed troubled that a Boston College dean had improperly intruded on the hearing board’s deliberations. At the Sixth Circuit a few days later, Judges Richard Griffin and Amul Thapar both expressed concerns about the University of Cincinnati’s downplaying the importance of cross-examination in campus-sex adjudications. Judge Eric Clay was quieter, but he wondered about the tension between the university’s Title IX and truth-seeking obligations.
In a perfect world, academic leaders themselves would have created fairer processes without judicial intervention. But in the current campus environment, such an approach is impossible. So, at least for the short term, the courts remain the best, albeit imperfect, option for students wrongly accused of sexual assault. Meanwhile, every year, young men entrust themselves and their family’s money to institutions of higher learning that are indifferent to their rights and unconcerned with the injustices to which these students might be subjected.
1 After a district court placed that finding on hold, the university appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
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Review of 'Terror in France' By Gilles Kepel
Kepel is particularly knowledgeable about the history and process of radicalization that takes place in his nation’s heavily Muslim banlieues (the depressed housing projects ringing Paris and other major cities), and Terror in France is informed by decades of fieldwork in these volatile locales. What we have been witnessing for more than a decade, Kepel argues, is the “third wave” of global jihadism, which is not so much a top-down doctrinally inspired campaign (as were the 9/11 attacks, directed from afar by the oracular figure of Osama bin Laden) but a bottom-up insurgency with an “enclave-based ethnic-racial logic of violence” to it. Kepel traces the phenomenon back to 2005, a convulsive year that saw the second-generation descendants of France’s postcolonial Muslim immigrants confront a changing socio-political landscape.
That was the year of the greatest riots in modern French history, involving mostly young Muslim men. It was also the year that Abu Musab al-Suri, the Syrian-born Islamist then serving as al-Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe, published The Global Islamic Resistance Call. This 1,600-page manifesto combined pious imprecations against the West with do-it-yourself ingenuity, an Anarchist’s Cookbook for the Islamist set. In Kepel’s words, the manifesto preached a “jihadism of proximity,” the brand of civil war later adopted by the Islamic State. It called for ceaseless, mass-casualty attacks in Western cities—attacks which increase suspicion and regulation of Muslims and, in turn, drive those Muslims into the arms of violent extremists.
The third-generation jihad has been assisted by two phenomena: social-networking sites that easily and widely disseminate Islamist propaganda (thus increasing the rate of self-radicalization) and the so-called Arab Spring, which led to state collapse in Syria and Libya, providing “an exceptional site for military training and propaganda only a few hours’ flight from Europe, and at a very low cost.”
Kepel’s book is not just a study of the ideology and tactics of Islamists but a sociopolitical overview of how this disturbing phenomenon fits within a country on the brink. For example, Kepel finds that jihadism is emerging in conjunction with developments such as the “end of industrial society.” A downturn in work has led to an ominous situation in which a “right-wing ethnic nationalism” preying on the economically anxious has risen alongside Islamism as “parallel conduits for expressing grievances.” Filling a space left by the French Communist Party (which once brought the ethnic French working class and Arab immigrants together), these two extremes leer at each other from opposite sides of a societal chasm, signaling the potentially cataclysmic future that awaits France if both mass unemployment and Islamist terror continue undiminished.
The French economy has also had a more direct inciting effect on jihadism. Overregulated labor markets make it difficult for young Muslims to get jobs, thus exacerbating the conditions of social deprivation and exclusion that make individuals susceptible to radicalization. The inability to tackle chronic unemployment has led to widespread Muslim disillusionment with the left (a disillusionment aggravated by another, often glossed over, factor: widespread Muslim opposition to the Socialist Party’s championing of same-sex marriage). Essentially, one left-wing constituency (unions) has made the unemployment of another constituency (Muslim youth) the mechanism for maintaining its privileges.
Kepel does not, however, cite deprivation as the sole or even main contributing factor to Islamist radicalization. One Parisian banlieue that has sent more than 80 residents to fight in Syria, he notes, has “attractive new apartment buildings” built by the state and features a mosque “constructed with the backing of the Socialist mayor.” It is also the birthplace of well-known French movie stars of Arab descent, and thus hardly a place where ambition goes to die. “The Islamophobia mantra and the victim mentality it reinforces makes it possible to rationalize a total rejection of France and a commitment to jihad by making a connection between unemployment, discrimination, and French republican values,” Kepel writes. Indeed, Kepel is refreshingly derisive of the term “Islamophobia” throughout the book, excoriating Islamists and their fellow travelers for “substituting it for anti-Semitism as the West’s cardinal sin.” These are meaningful words coming from Kepel, a deeply learned scholar of Islam who harbors great respect for the faith and its adherents.
Kepel also weaves the saga of jihadism into the ongoing “kulturkampf within the French left.” Arguments about Islamist terrorism demonstrate a “divorce between a secular progressive tradition” and the children of the Muslim immigrants this tradition fought to defend. The most ironically perverse manifestation of this divorce was ISIS’s kidnapping of Didier François, co-founder of the civil-rights organization SOS Racisme. Kepel recognizes the origins of this divorce in the “red-green” alliance formed decades ago between Islamists and elements of the French intellectual left, such as Michel Foucault, a cheerleader of the Iranian revolution.
Though he offers a rigorous history and analysis of the jihadist problem, Kepel is generally at a loss for solutions. He decries a complacent French elite, with its disregard for genuine expertise (evidenced by the decline in institutional academic support for Islamicists and Arabists) and the narrow, relatively impenetrable way in which it perpetuates itself, chiefly with a single school (the École normale supérieure) that practically every French politician must attend. Despite France’s admirable republican values, this has made the process of assimilation rather difficult. But other than wishing that the public education system become more effective and inclusive at instilling republican values, Kepel provides little in the way of suggestions as to how France emerges from this mess. That a scholar of such erudition and humanity can do little but throw up his hands and issue a sigh of despair cannot bode well. The third-generation jihad owes as much to the political breakdown in France as it does to the meltdown in the Middle East. Defeating this two-headed beast requires a new and comprehensive playbook: the West’s answer to The Global Islamic Resistance Call. That book has yet to be written.
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resident Trump, in case you haven’t noticed, has a tendency to exaggerate. Nothing is “just right” or “meh” for him. Buildings, crowds, election results, and military campaigns are always outsized, gargantuan, larger, and more significant than you might otherwise assume. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he wrote 30 years ago in The Art of the Deal. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
So effective, in fact, that the press has picked up the habit. Reporters and editors agree with the president that nothing he does is ordinary. After covering Trump for more than two years, they still can’t accept him as a run-of-the-mill politician. And while there are aspects of Donald Trump and his presidency that are, to say the least, unusual, the media seem unable to distinguish between the abnormal and significant—firing the FBI director in the midst of an investigation into one’s presidential campaign, for example—and the commonplace.
Consider the fiscal deal President Trump struck with Democratic leaders in early September.
On September 6, the president held an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Pence, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, and congressional leaders of both parties. He had to find a way to (a) raise the debt ceiling, (b) fund the federal government, and (c) spend money on hurricane relief. The problem is that a bloc of House Republicans won’t vote for (a) unless the increase is accompanied by significant budget cuts, which interferes with (b) and (c). To raise the debt ceiling, then, requires Democratic votes. And the debt ceiling must be raised. “There is zero chance—no chance—we will not raise the debt ceiling,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in August.
The meeting went like this. First House Speaker Paul Ryan asked for an 18-month increase in the debt ceiling so Republicans wouldn’t have to vote again on the matter until after the midterm elections. Democrats refused. The bargaining continued until Ryan asked for a six-month increase. The Democrats remained stubborn. So Trump, always willing to kick a can down the road, interrupted Mnuchin to offer a three-month increase, a continuing resolution that will keep the government open through December, and about $8 billion in hurricane money. The Democrats said yes.
That, anyway, is what happened. But the media are not satisfied to report what happened. They want—they need—to tell you what it means. And what does it mean? Well, they aren’t really sure. But it’s something big. It’s something spectacular. For example:
1. “Trump Bypasses Republicans to Strike Deal on Debt Limit and Harvey Aid” was the headline of a story for the New York Times by Peter Baker, Thomas Kaplan, and Michael D. Shear. “The deal to keep the government open and paying its debts until Dec. 15 represented an extraordinary public turn for the president, who has for much of his term set himself up on the right flank of the Republican Party,” their article began. Fair enough. But look at how they import speculation and opinion into the following sentence: “But it remained unclear whether Mr. Trump’s collaboration with Democrats foreshadowed a more sustained shift in strategy by a president who has presented himself as a master dealmaker or amounted to just a one-time instinctual reaction of a mercurial leader momentarily eager to poke his estranged allies.”
2. “The decision was one of the most fascinating and mysterious moves he’s made with Congress during eight months in office,” reported Jeff Zeleny, Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh, and Jeremy Diamond for CNN. Thanks for sharing!
3. “Trump budget deal gives GOP full-blown Stockholm Syndrome,” read the headline of Tina Nguyen’s piece for Vanity Fair. “Donald Trump’s unexpected capitulation to new best buds ‘Chuck and Nancy’ has thrown the Grand Old Party into a frenzy as Republicans search for explanations—and scapegoats.”
4. “For Conservatives, Trump’s Deal with Democrats Is Nightmare Come True,” read the headline for a New York Times article by Jeremy W. Peters and Maggie Haberman. “It is the scenario that President Trump’s most conservative followers considered their worst nightmare, and on Wednesday it seemed to come true: The deal-making political novice, whose ideology and loyalty were always fungible, cut a deal with Democrats.”
5. “Trump sides with Democrats on fiscal issues, throwing Republican plans into chaos,” read the Washington Post headline the day after the deal was announced. “The president’s surprise stance upended sensitive negotiations over the debt ceiling and other crucial policy issues this fall and further imperiled his already tenuous relationships with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.” Yes, the negotiations were upended. Then they made a deal.
6. “Although elected as a Republican last year,” wrote Peter Baker of the Times, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” The title of Baker’s news analysis: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.” One hundred and fifty years? Why not 200?
The journalistic rule of thumb used to be that an article describing a political, social, or cultural trend requires at least three examples. Not while covering Trump. If Trump does something, anything, you should feel free to inflate its importance beyond all recognition. And stuff your “reporting” with all sorts of dramatic adjectives and frightening nouns: fascinating, mysterious, unexpected, extraordinary, nightmare, chaos, frenzy, and scapegoats. It’s like a Vince Flynn thriller come to life.
The case for the significance of the budget deal would be stronger if there were a consensus about whom it helped. There isn’t one. At first the press assumed Democrats had won. “Republicans left the Oval Office Wednesday stunned,” reported Rachael Bade, Burgess Everett, and Josh Dawsey of Politico. Another trio of Politico reporters wrote, “In the aftermath, Republicans seethed privately and distanced themselves publicly from the deal.” Republicans were “stunned,” reported Kristina Peterson, Siobhan Hughes, and Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal. “Meet the swamp: Donald Trump punts September agenda to December after meeting with Congress,” read the headline of Charlie Spiering’s Breitbart story.
By the following week, though, these very outlets had decided the GOP was looking pretty good. “Trump’s deal with Democrats bolsters Ryan—for now,” read the Politico headline on September 11. “McConnell: No New Debt Ceiling Vote until ‘Well into 2018,’” reported the Washington Post. “At this point…picking a fight with Republican leaders will only help him,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal. “Trump has long warned that he would work with Democrats, if necessary, to fulfill his campaign promises. And Wednesday’s deal is a sign that he intends to follow through on that threat,” wrote Breitbart’s Joel Pollak.
The sensationalism, the conflicting interpretations, the visceral language is dizzying. We have so many reporters chasing the same story that each feels compelled to gussy up a quotidian budget negotiation until it resembles the Ribbentrop–Molotov pact, and none feel it necessary to apply to their own reporting the scrutiny and incredulity they apply to Trump. The truth is that no one knows what this agreement portends. Nor is it the job of a reporter to divine the meaning of current events like an augur of Rome. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And a deal is just a deal.
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Remembering something wonderful
Not surprisingly, many well-established performers were left in the lurch by the rise of the new media. Moreover, some vaudevillians who, like Fred Allen, had successfully reinvented themselves for radio were unable to make the transition to TV. But a handful of exceptionally talented performers managed to move from vaudeville to radio to TV, and none did it with more success than Jack Benny, whose feigned stinginess, scratchy violin playing, slightly effeminate demeanor, and preternaturally exact comic timing made him one of the world’s most beloved performers. After establishing himself in vaudeville, he became the star of a comedy series, The Jack Benny Program, that aired continuously, first on radio and then TV, from 1932 until 1965. Save for Bob Hope, no other comedian of his time was so popular.
With the demise of nighttime network radio as an entertainment medium, the 931 weekly episodes of The Jack Benny Program became the province of comedy obsessives—and because Benny’s TV series was filmed in black-and-white, it is no longer shown in syndication with any regularity. And while he also made Hollywood films, some of which were box-office hits, only one, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942), is today seen on TV other than sporadically.
Nevertheless, connoisseurs of comedy still regard Benny, who died in 1974, as a giant, and numerous books, memoirs, and articles have been published about his life and art. Most recently, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has brought out Jack Benny and the Golden Age of Radio Comedy, the first book-length primary-source academic study of The Jack Benny Program and its star.1 Fuller-Seeley’s genuine appreciation for Benny’s work redeems her anachronistic insistence on viewing it through the fashionable prism of gender- and race-based theory, and her book, though sober-sided to the point of occasional starchiness, is often quite illuminating.
Most important of all, off-the-air recordings of 749 episodes of the radio version of The Jack Benny Program survive in whole or part and can easily be downloaded from the Web. As a result, it is possible for people not yet born when Benny was alive to hear for themselves why he is still remembered with admiration and affection—and why one specific aspect of his performing persona continues to fascinate close observers of the American scene.B orn Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago in 1894, Benny was the son of Eastern European émigrés (his father was from Poland, his mother from Lithuania). He started studying violin at six and had enough talent to pursue a career in music, but his interests lay elsewhere, and by the time he was a teenager, he was working in vaudeville as a comedian who played the violin as part of his act. Over time he developed into a “monologist,” the period term for what we now call a stand-up comedian, and he began appearing in films in 1929 and on network radio three years after that.
Radio comedy, like silent film, is now an obsolete art form, but the program formats that it fostered in the ’20s and ’30s all survived into the era of TV, and some of them flourish to this day. One, episodic situation comedy, was developed in large part by Jack Benny and his collaborators. Benny and Harry Conn, his first full-time writer, turned his weekly series, which started out as a variety show, into a weekly half-hour playlet featuring a regular cast of characters augmented by guest stars. Such playlets, relying as they did on a setting that was repeated from week to week, were easier to write than the free-standing sketches favored by Allen, Hope, and other ex-vaudevillians, and by the late ’30s, the sitcom had become a staple of radio comedy.
The process, as documented by Fuller-Seeley, was a gradual one. The Jack Benny Program never broke entirely with the variety format, continuing to feature both guest stars (some of whom, like Ronald Colman, ultimately became semi-regular members of the show’s rotating ensemble of players) and songs sung by Dennis Day, a tenor who joined the cast in 1939. Nor was it the first radio situation comedy: Amos & Andy, launched in 1928, was a soap-opera-style daily serial that also featured regular characters. Nevertheless, it was Benny who perfected the form, and his own character would become the prototype for countless later sitcom stars.
The show’s pivotal innovation was to turn Benny and the other cast members into fictionalized versions of themselves—they were the stars of a radio show called “The Jack Benny Program.” Sadye Marks, Benny’s wife, played Mary Livingstone, his sharp-tongued secretary, with three other characters added as the self-reflexive concept took shape. Don Wilson, the stout, genial announcer, came on board in 1934. He was followed in 1936 by Phil Harris, Benny’s roguish bandleader, and, in 1939, by Day, Harris’s simple-minded vocalist. To this team was added a completely fictional character, Rochester Van Jones, Benny’s raspy-voiced, outrageously impertinent black valet, played by Eddie Anderson, who joined the cast in 1938.
As these five talented performers coalesced into a tight-knit ensemble, the jokey, vaudeville-style sketch comedy of the early episodes metamorphosed into sitcom-style scripts that portrayed their offstage lives, as well as the making of the show itself. Scarcely any conventional jokes were told, nor did Benny’s writers employ the topical and political references in which Allen and Hope specialized. Instead, the show’s humor arose almost entirely from the close interplay of character and situation.
Benny was not solely responsible for the creation of this format, which was forged by Conn and perfected by his successors. Instead, he doubled as the star and producer—or, to use the modern term, show runner—closely supervising the writing of the scripts and directing the performances of the other cast members. In addition, he and Conn turned the character of Jack Benny from a sophisticated vaudeville monologist into the hapless butt of the show’s humor, a vain, sexually inept skinflint whose character flaws were ceaselessly twitted by his colleagues, who in turn were given most of the biggest laugh lines.
This latter innovation was a direct reflection of Benny’s real-life personality. Legendary for his voluble appreciation of other comedians, he was content to respond to the wisecracking of his fellow cast members with exquisitely well-timed interjections like “Well!” and “Now, cut that out,” knowing that the comic spotlight would remain focused on the man of whom they were making fun and secure in the knowledge that his own comic personality was strong enough to let them shine without eclipsing him in the process.
And with each passing season, the fictional personalities of Benny and his colleagues became ever more firmly implanted in the minds of their listeners, thus allowing the writers to get laughs merely by alluding to their now-familiar traits. At the same time, Benny and his writers never stooped to coasting on their familiarity. Even the funniest of the “cheap jokes” that were their stock-in-trade were invariably embedded in carefully honed dramatic situations that heightened their effectiveness.
A celebrated case in point is the best-remembered laugh line in the history of The Jack Benny Program, heard in a 1948 episode in which a burglar holds Benny up on the street. “Your money or your life,” the burglar says—to which Jack replies, after a very long pause, “I’m thinking it over!” What makes this line so funny is, of course, our awareness of Benny’s stinginess, reinforced by a decade and a half of constant yet subtly varied repetition. What is not so well remembered is that the line is heard toward the end of an episode that aired shortly after Ronald Colman won an Oscar for his performance in A Double Life. Inspired by this real-life event, the writers concocted an elaborately plotted script in which Benny talks Colman (who played his next-door neighbor on the show) into letting him borrow the Oscar to show to Rochester. It is on his way home from this errand that Benny is held up, and the burglar not only robs him of his money but also steals the statuette, a situation that was resolved to equally explosive comic effect in the course of two subsequent episodes.
No mere joke-teller could have performed such dramatically complex scripts week after week with anything like Benny’s effectiveness. The secret of The Jack Benny Program was that its star, fully aware that he was not “being himself” but playing a part, did so with an actor’s skill. This was what led Ernst Lubitsch to cast him in To Be or Not to Be, in which he plays a mediocre Shakespearean tragedian, a character broadly related to but still quite different from the one who appeared on his own radio show. As Lubitsch explained to Benny, who was skeptical about his ability to carry off the part:
A clown—he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian—he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.
To Be or Not to Be also stands out from the rest of Benny’s work because he plays an identifiably Jewish character. The Jack Benny character that he played on radio and TV, by contrast, was never referred to or explicitly portrayed as Jewish. To be sure, most listeners were in no doubt of his Jewishness, and not merely because Benny made no attempt in real life to conceal his ethnicity, of which he was by all accounts proud. The Jack Benny Program was written by Jews, and the ego-puncturing insults with which their scripts were packed, as well as the schlemiel-like aspect of Benny’s “fall guy” character, were quintessentially Jewish in style.
As Benny explained in a 1948 interview cited by Fuller-Seeley:
The humor of my program is this: I’m a big shot, see? I’m fast-talking. I’m a smart guy. I’m boasting about how marvelous I am. I’m a marvelous lover. I’m a marvelous fiddle player. Then, five minutes after I start shooting off my mouth, my cast makes a shmo out of me.
Even so, his avoidance of specific Jewish identification on the air is noteworthy precisely because his character was a miser. At a time when overt anti-Semitism was still common in America, it is remarkable that Benny’s comic persona was based in large part on an anti-Semitic stereotype—yet one that seems not to have inspired any anti-Semitic attacks on Benny himself. When, in 1945, his writers came up with the idea of an “I Can’t Stand Jack Benny Because . . . ” write-in campaign, they received 270,000 entries. Only three made mention of his Jewishness.
As for the winning entry, submitted by a California lawyer, it says much about what insulated Benny from such attacks: “He fills the air with boasts and brags / And obsolete, obnoxious gags / The way he plays his violin / Is music’s most obnoxious sin / His cowardice alone, indeed, / Is matched by his obnoxious greed / And all the things that he portrays / Show up MY OWN obnoxious ways.” It is clear that Benny’s foibles were seen by his listeners not as particular but universal, just as there was no harshness in the razzing of his fellow cast members, who very clearly loved the Benny character in spite of his myriad flaws. So, too, did the American people. Several years after his TV series was cancelled, a corporation that was considering using him as a spokesman commissioned a national poll to find out how popular he was. It learned that only 3 percent of the respondents disliked him.
Therein lay Benny’s triumph: He won total acceptance from the American public and did so by embodying a Jewish stereotype from which the sting of prejudice had been leached. Far from being a self-hating whipping boy for anti-Semites, he turned himself into WASP America’s Jewish uncle, preposterous yet lovable.W hen the bottom fell out of network radio, Benny negotiated the move to TV without a hitch, debuting on the small screen in 1950 and bringing the radio version of The Jack Benny Program to a close five years later, making it one of the very last radio comedy series to shut up shop. Even after his weekly TV series was finally canceled by CBS in 1965, he continued to star in well-received one-shot specials on NBC.
But Benny’s TV appearances, for all their charm, were never quite equal in quality to his radio work, which is why he clung to the radio version of The Jack Benny Program until network radio itself went under: Better than anyone else, he knew how good the show had been. For the rest of his life, he lived off the accumulated comic capital built up by 21 years of weekly radio broadcasts.
Now, at long last, he belongs to the ages, and The Jack Benny Program is a museum piece. Yet it remains hugely influential, albeit at one or more removes from the original. From The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Danny Thomas Show to Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, and The Larry Sanders Show, every ensemble-cast sitcom whose central character is a fictionalized version of its star is based on Benny’s example. And now that the ubiquity of the Web has made the radio version of his series readily accessible for the first time, anyone willing to make the modest effort necessary to seek it out is in a position to discover that The Jack Benny Program, six decades after it left the air, is still as wonderfully, benignly funny as it ever was, a monument to the talent of the man who, more than anyone else, made it so.
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Review of 'The Transferred Life of George Eliot' By Philip Davis
Not that there’s any danger these theoretically protesting students would have read George Eliot’s works—not even the short one, Silas Marner (1861), which in an earlier day was assigned to high schoolers. I must admit I didn’t find my high-school reading of Silas Marner a pleasant experience—sports novels for boys like John R. Tunis’s The Kid from Tomkinsville were inadequate preparation. I must confess, too, that when I was in graduate school, determined to study 17th-century English verse, my reaction to the suggestion that I should also read Middlemarch (1871–72) was “What?! An 800-page novel by the guy who wrote Silas Marner?” A friend patiently explained that “the guy” was actually Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819, died in 1880. Partly because she was living in sin with the literary jack-of-all-trades George Henry Lewes (legally and irrevocably bound to his estranged wife), she adopted “George Eliot” as a protective pseudonym when, in her 1857 debut, she published Scenes from Clerical Life.
I did, many times over and with awe and delight, go on to read Middlemarch and the seven other novels, often in order to teach them to college students. Students have become less and less receptive over the years. Forget modern-day objections to George Eliot’s complex political or religious views. Adam Bede (1859) and The Mill on the Floss (1860) were too hefty, and the triple-decked Middlemarch and Deronda, even if I set aside three weeks for them, rarely got finished.
The middle 20th century was perhaps a more a propitious time for appreciating George Eliot, Henry James, and other 19th-century English and American novelists. Influential teachers like F.R. Leavis at Cambridge and Lionel Trilling at Columbia were then working hard to persuade students that the study of literature, not just poetry and drama but also fiction, matters both to their personal lives—the development of their sensibility or character—and to their wider society. The “moral imagination” that created Middlemarch enriches our minds by dramatizing the complications—the frequent blurring of good and evil—in our lives. Great novels help us cope with ambiguities and make us more tolerant of one another. Many of Leavis’s and Trilling’s students became teachers themselves, and for several decades the feeling of cultural urgency was sustained. In the 1970s, though, between the leftist emphasis on literature as “politics by other means” and the deconstructionist denial of the possibility of any knowledge, literary or otherwise, independent of political power, the high seriousness of Leavis and Trilling began to fade.
The study of George Eliot and her life has gone through many stages. Directly after her death came the sanitized, hagiographic “life and letters” by J.W. Cross, the much younger man she married after Lewes’s death. Gladstone called it “a Reticence in three volumes.” The three volumes helped spark, if they didn’t cause, the long reaction against the Victorian sages generally that culminated in the dismissively satirical work of the Bloomsbury biographer and critic Lytton Strachey in his immensely influential Eminent Victorians (1916). Strachey’s mistreatment of his forbears was, with regard to George Eliot at least, tempered almost immediately by Virginia Woolf. It was Woolf who in 1919 provocatively said that Middlemarch had been “the first English novel for adults.” Eventually, the critical tide against George Eliot was decisively reversed in the ’40s by Joan Bennett and Leavis, who made the inarguable case for her genuine and lasting achievement. That period of correction culminated in the 1960s with Gordon S. Haight’s biography and with interpretive studies by Barbara Hardy and W.J. Harvey. Books on George Eliot over the last four decades have largely been written by specialists for specialists—on her manuscripts or working notes, and on her affiliations with the scientists, social historians, and competing novelists of her day.
The same is true, only more so, of the books written, with George Eliot as the ostensible subject, to promote deconstructionist or feminist agendas. Biographies have done a better job appealing to the common reader, not least because the woman’s own story is inherently compelling. The question right now is whether a book combining biographical and interpretive insight—one “pitched,” as publishers like to say, not just at experts but at the common reader—is past praying for.
Philip Davis, a Victorian scholar and an editor at Oxford University Press, hopes not. His The Transferred Life of George Eliot—transferred, that is, from her own experience into her letters, journals, essays, and novels, and beyond them into us—deserves serious attention. Davis is conscious that George Eliot called biographies of writers “a disease of English literature,” both overeager to discover scandals and too inclined to substitute day-to-day travels, relationships, dealings with publishers and so on, for critical attention to the books those writers wrote. Davis therefore devotes himself to George Eliot’s writing. Alas, he presumes rather too much knowledge on the reader’s part of the day-to-day as charted in Haight’s marvelous life. (A year-by-year chronology at the front of the book would have helped even his fellow Victorianists.)
As for George Eliot’s writing, Davis is determined to refute “what has been more or less said . . . in the schools of theory for the last 40 years—that 19th-century realism is conservatively bland and unimaginative, bourgeois and parochial, not truly art at all.” His argument for the richness, breadth, and art of George Eliot’s realism—her factual and sympathetic depiction of poor and middling people, without omitting a candid representation of the rich—is most convincing. What looms largest, though, is the realist, the woman herself—the Mary Ann Evans who, from the letters to the novels, became first Marian Evans the translator and essayist and then later “her own greatest character”: George Eliot the novelist. Davis insists that “the meaning of that person”—not merely the voice of her omniscient narrators but the omnipresent imagination that created the whole show—“has not yet exhausted its influence nor the larger future life she should have had, and may still have, in the world.”
The transference of George Eliot’s experience into her fiction is unquestionable: In The Mill on the Floss, for example, Mary Ann is Maggie, and her brother Isaac is Tom Tulliver. Davis knows that a better word might be transmutation, as George Eliot had, in Henry James’s words, “a mind possessed,” for “the creations which brought her renown were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back-shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.” No data-accumulating biographer, even the most exhaustive, can account for that “incalculable . . . mystery.”
Which is why Davis, like a good teacher, gives us exercises in “close reading.” He pauses to consider how a George Eliot sentence balances or turns on an easy-to-skip-over word or phrase—the balance or turn often representing a moment when the novelist looks at what’s on the underside of the cards.
George Eliot’s style is subtle because her theme is subtle. Take D.H. Lawrence’s favorite heroine, the adolescent Maggie Tulliver. The external event in The Mill on the Floss may be the girl’s impulsive cutting off her unruly hair to spite her nagging aunts, or the young woman’s drifting down the river with a superficially attractive but truly impossible boyfriend. But the real “action” is Maggie’s internal self-blame and self-assertion. No Victorian novelist was better than George Eliot at tracing the psychological development of, say, a husband and wife who realize they married each other for shallow reasons, are unhappy, and now must deal with the ordinary necessities of balancing the domestic budget—Lydgate and Rosamund in Middlemarch—or, in the same novel, the religiously inclined Dorothea’s mistaken marriage to the old scholar Casaubon. That mistake precipitates not merely disenchantment and an unconscious longing for love with someone else, but (very finely) a quest for a religious explanation of and guide through her quandary.
It’s the religio-philosophical side of George Eliot about which Davis is strongest—and weakest. Her central theological idea, if one may simplify, was that the God of the Bible didn’t exist “out there” but was a projection of the imagination of the people who wrote it. Jesus wasn’t, in Davis’s characterization of her view, “the impervious divine, but [a man who] shed tears and suffered,” and died feeling forsaken. “This deep acceptance of so-called weakness was what most moved Marian Evans in her Christian inheritance. It was what God was for.” That is, the character of Jesus, and the dramatic play between him and his Father, expressed the human emotions we and George Eliot are all too familiar with. The story helps reconcile us to what is, finally, inescapable suffering.
George Eliot came to this demythologized understanding not only of Judaism and Christianity but of all religions through her contact first with a group of intellectuals who lived near Coventry, then with two Germans she translated: David Friedrich Strauss, whose 1,500-page Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835–36) was for her a slog, and Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) was for her a joy. Also, in the search for the universal morality that Strauss and Feuerbach believed Judaism and Christianity expressed mythically, there was Spinoza’s utterly non-mythical Ethics (1677). It was seminal for her—offering, as Davis says, “the intellectual origin for freethinking criticism of the Bible and for the replacement of religious superstition and dogmatic theology by pure philosophic reason.” She translated it into English, though her version did not appear until 1981.
I wish Davis had left it there, but he takes it too far. He devotes more than 40 pages—a tenth of the whole book—to her three translations, taking them as a mother lode of ideational gold whose tailings glitter throughout her fiction. These 40 pages are followed by 21 devoted to Herbert Spencer, the Victorian hawker of theories-of-everything (his 10-volume System of Synthetic Philosophy addresses biology, psychology, sociology, and ethics). She threw herself at the feet of this intellectual huckster, and though he rebuffed her painfully amorous entreaties, she never ceased revering him. Alas, Spencer was a stick—the kind of philosopher who was incapable of emotion. And she was his intellectual superior in every way. The chapter is largely unnecessary.
The book comes back to life when Davis turns to George Henry Lewes, the man who gave Mary Ann Evans the confidence to become George Eliot—perhaps the greatest act of loving mentorship in all of literature. Like many prominent Victorians, Lewes dabbled in all the arts and sciences, publishing highly readable accounts of them for a general audience. His range was as wide as Spencer’s, but his personality and writing had an irrepressible verve that Spencer could only have envied. Lewes was a sort Stephen Jay Gould yoked to Daniel Boorstin, popularizing other people’s findings and concepts, and coming up with a few of his own. He regarded his Sea-Side Studies (1860) as “the book . . . which was to me the most unalloyed delight,” not least because Marian, whom he called Polly, had helped gather the data. She told a friend “There is so much happiness condensed in it! Such scrambles over rocks, and peeping into clear pool [sic], and strolls along the pure sands, and fresh air mingling with fresh thoughts.” In his remarkably intelligent 1864 biography of Goethe, Lewes remarks that the poet “knew little of the companionship of two souls striving in emulous spirit of loving rivalry to become better, to become wiser, teaching each other to soar.” Such a companionship Lewes and George Eliot had in spades, and some of Davis’s best passages describe it.
Regrettably, Davis also offers many passages well below the standard of his best—needlessly repeating an already established point or obfuscating the obvious. Still, The Transferred Lives is the most formidably instructive, and certainly complete, life-and-works treatment of George Eliot we have.