I usually don’t get that interested in human biodiversity stories, unless they are about me:
“[T]he great majority of Ashkenazi maternal lineages were not brought from the Levant, as commonly supposed,” Dr. Richards and colleagues conclude in their paper. Overall, at least 80 percent of Ashkenazi maternal ancestry comes from women indigenous to Europe, and 8 percent from the Near East, with the rest uncertain, the researchers estimate.
Dr. Richards estimates that the four major lineages became incorporated into the Ashkenazi community at least 2,000 years ago. A large Jewish community flourished in Rome at this time and included many converts. This community could have been the source of both the Ashkenazim of Europe and the Sephardim of Spain and Portugal, given that the two groups have considerable genetic commonality, Dr. Richards said.
This is not actually particularly newsworthy. We’ve known for a very long time that there were a large number of converts to Judaism in the heyday of the Roman Empire. We’ve also known that this pool of converts skewed heavily female, presumably in part because mobile Jewish males sought brides where they migrated, and in part because Roman and Greek cultures alike were disgusted by circumcision (not to mention the procedure is riskier when performed on adults), which was a serious bar to conversion for interested men. (Note, however, that circumcision was not a Jewish innovation; it was common to the ancient Levant. The Philistines are singled out as “uncircumcised” because, coming from Greece, they did not circumcise their males. They stood out in this regard not only from the Israelites, but from the other tribes of the region: Canaanites, Ammonites, Moabites, Assyrians, etc. – none of whom are called “uncircumcised.”)
Does it matter? Yes, it does – to understanding Jewish history, and European history. And it matters to understanding Jewish genetics, which has medical implications. And it is consistent with the Cochran hypothesis that Ashkenazi intellectual achievement is due in part to severe selection pressures on a small founding population in early medieval Northern Europe that resulted in a higher average IQ for that population and its descendants. (If the Ashkenazi population were substantially derived from, say, Kazar converts who migrated west to Poland, or, alternatively, were genetically indistinguishable from the Jews of Yemen, this would pose serious problems for his hypothesis.)
But it doesn’t matter for the question of whether the Jewish people are a “nation” and whether Israel is that nation’s homeland. Because all nationalism is a political fiction, including the romantic notion of the nation as an organic family. And debates about origins only matter to the narrative of nationalism inasmuch as they can be pressed into service for specific ideological debates.
Thus, whether the French think of themselves as the heirs of Vercingetorix or Clovis does not in any way turn on whether their genes are more Gaulish (Celtic) or more Germanic (Frankish). Rather, that debate is a proxy for the place of religion in the concept of the French nation: Clovis was the first Catholic king of a united Frankish kingdom. Similarly, if the fact that Ashkenazi Jews are substantially Italian were to matter, politically, it would be because there was already a live ideological debate within the Jewish community, and this fact could be pressed into narrative service within that debate as a proxy for the real question. So, if we imagine a future in which Israeli entry into the EU is a live question, it’s easy to see how this genetic evidence could be pressed into service – but it would be objectively a meaningless addition to that hypothetical debate, as the active debate about possible Turkish entry proves. The real issue would be the degree to which Israel should try to maintain a distinct society and control over their economy, a debate for which genes are substantively irrelevant.
Zionism – Jewish nationalism – was an ideological response to the material and spiritual condition of Ashkenazi Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As a matter of fact, Zionism created a state, and a nation, that did not previously exist, but it created them out of existing material: a people that understood itself to be an organic entity in spite of divisions of language, geography and culture; and a religious longing for a particular strip of land that had lasted two millennia. That’s what every nationalism does, everywhere it operates: creates something new by refashioning existing human material.
Rod Dreher has a point, of course, that it’s appalling the degree to which the journalistic class is ignorant of religion – and, beyond being merely ignorant, many people can’t quite wrap their heads around the very idea of a religious mentality.
But by the same token, I think it behooves religious people to recall how deeply weird religious beliefs are – not just so they can communicate effectively with non-believers, but for their own sakes.
Here’s how a friend – a moderately observant friend, mind you, who keeps a kosher home – once described deciding to keep kosher to me:
It’s as if you got a phone call from your husband or wife, saying “Hon, I want you to go home right now and throw out all your dishes. Don’t ask why; there’s no time to explain. But if you love me, you’ll just do it.”
Of course, commentators within the Jewish tradition have come up with numerous apologetics for the laws of kashrut, some more plausible than others – but there’s this irreducible core of “if you love me, you’ll just do it” that can’t be escaped.
You can psychologize that impulse as well, of course – talk about the need for comfort, or for structure, or for a fatherly presence in one’s life. And that’s how, in my experience, many non-religious individuals understand a devotion to Judaism – or to the objectively odd practices of any religion. But if you treat the psychological explanation as sufficient, then you’ve drained the religious impulse of its emotional authenticity. It’s as if you explained your love for your wife in terms of evolutionary psychology; an explanation not only avoids addressing your love for her, a specific individual, it suggests that you don’t, in fact, love her, a specific individual.
But Christianity takes the weirdness to a whole ‘nother level.
Dreher snarks about journalists being ignorant of the miracle of transubstantiation, but think for a moment about that miracle, and what is being asked of believers in affirming its truth. The wine and bread are not merely taken “in remembrance” of Jesus; they are supposed to literally turn into the blood and body of the man who was also God, and you are supposed to affirm that this has happened against all the evidence of one’s senses that nothing has happened at all. Isn’t the most sane response to the fact that Christians have slaughtered each other over whether or not wine was really blood and bread was really flesh some version of Brobdingnagian incredulity?
But, more to the point, how is a believer supposed to approach this event? It’s supposed to be a miracle – a breach in the fabric of reality. Is it possible to treat a miracle as a commonplace? I should think that at the point you start to say, “yes, of course the wafer, once consecrated, is the flesh of God – everybody knows that” you have ceased to regard that transformation as miraculous; you have assimilated an absurdity that should require an extraordinary leap of faith into your mundane consciousness. That strikes me as far more insidiously sacrilegious than doubting the veracity of the miracle.
Personally, I share Dreher’s annoyance with people so closed-minded and judgmental they cannot seem to fathom the idea of a sincerely religious person. But I’m also creeped out by people who have, as they say, drunk the Kool-aid, who affirm absurdities as a matter of “faith” and have willfully abandoned any consciousness of the absurdity of what they are affirming. My comfort zone, I guess, ranges between the two poles Dreher talks about in the recent Malick film, poles of doubt and wonder, which share in common an openness to what one’s experience actually is, not what it is supposed to be.
I mean, how could I not? (Pun, by the way, very much intended.)
1. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
See, the best ones to meet aren’t necessarily the best ones to read. That we know so little about Shakespeare’s life strongly suggests that he wasn’t the most interesting person to meet (though I would love to engage him on the subjects of theater finance and how much re-writing he did). Marlowe was undoubtedly a better bar-mate. By contrast, some writer’s personalities – Tolstoy, say, or Wilde – were so large that one senses one already knows them well enough from reading them. Some – Joyce, say – I suspect would never let me get a word in edgewise. Others – Borges, say – I suspect wouldn’t say almost nothing. So if I’m picking a writer of titanic stature whom I would want to meet, and talk with, and learn something by talking to but also engage in a real conversation with, from which something new might grow – I vote for George Eliot. I would talk to her about everything – about love and faith and the loss of faith and what the point is of writing; but I would also talk about Zionism and archaeology and Shakespeare and the Greeks. And I would be very interested to fill her in on everything that has happened since her death.
(I was tempted to say Euripides, but I’m afraid his talk would all be Greek to me.)
2. If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?
What a tough one! My immediate instinct was to say: Leopold Bloom, from Ulysses. But so much of what makes him so delightful is happening inside his head – could any actual meeting hold a candle? Then I thought, what about Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays? I’ve always been fascinated by him, and it would be delightful to be Poins for a while, and watch the young prince go at it with Falstaff. But that’s not really the assignment – I’m not supposed to be putting myself in the work; I’m supposed to be taking the character out. And can you even do that? What would it mean to “meet” Gregor Samsa in our world?
So I’ve settled on a character I loved as a child: “Mike” (Mycroft), the computer from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Interacting with a machine that clearly passed the Turing test would be an experience in itself, but he was also such a delightful personality. I identified more with him than with any of the human characters in the book, and I was sure he’d understand me better than any of my friends did. And I cried when he “died” during the final bombardment of the moon. I want him back.
3. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed not to have read?
Oh, this list is very, very long. I’ll have to pull down my old copy of The Western Canon to do it justice.
To begin with, I am acutely embarrassed never to have read the Christian scriptures in their entirety. I’ve read all four Gospels multiple times (in English translation, of course), but my knowledge of Acts, of Paul’s letters, and so forth is patchy at best. I’m somewhat less embarrassed at having read only snippets of the Quran and the Mahabharata, but still pretty embarrassed. I am not ashamed that I couldn’t get through the Analects of Confucius. I’ve also never read Augustine. I’ve also basically never studied Talmud, though that’s something that used to embarrass me more than it does these days.
After that, I’m probably most embarrassed by my near-comprehensive ignorance of the French literary tradition. I have not read Montaigne or Rabelais or Pascal or Rousseau or Diderot, and I’ve read only snippets of Voltaire. I’ve read no Hugo, no Zola, no Balzac, no Flaubert, and I couldn’t get into Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I’ve read a couple of stories by de Maupassant and a bit of Baudelaire; no Mallarmé, no Verlaine, no Rimbaud. And I’ve read no Proust. There’s really no excuse for this – I feel reasonably educated in the Russian canon in an amateur sense, and achieved that education entirely on my own, and could certainly do as well for the major French literary landmarks. I just haven’t.
After that I’m probably most embarrassed by my weakness in poetry in my own language; if I could take a year out of my life, and know that the world would not go on without me – that I could resume my life where I left off, a year older and closer to death, but not “miss out” on my son growing up or the ongoing march of less-personal events – I would spend it immersed in English poetry with an idealized tutor (Alan Jacobs would do very nicely). But as it happens, it has proven extraordinarily difficult to integrate poetry – which I never studied – into my life as I live it, and so I basically don’t do it.
But none of this is really what the question is getting at. The point is to pick out a particular work that you’ve always meant to read, but haven’t gotten around to, and that you’re appalled to have avoided because this book in particular is something everyone would just assume you, of all people, would have read.
I’m not sure it’s actually necessary to read de Tocqueville, but you would think that someone like me, with my interests, would have read him. Particularly since Democracy In America has been sitting on my shelf for more than 20 years, waiting for me to pick it up.
Your turn, readers.
In his short story, “Funes El Memorioso,” Jorge Luis Borges describes a man who is incapable of forgetting anything. As a consequence, he is completely incapacitated, capable only of cataloguing in excruciating detail all the facts that he remembers, but unable to derive meaning from any of them. He can’t make sense of reality, because making sense of reality means emphasizing some facts, some events in the narrative thread, more than others. It involves, in other words, selective forgetting.
I thought about Borges’s character, crippled by perfect recall, last night at a performance of Tennessee Williams’s play, The Glass Menagerie, currently running at New York’s Booth theater.
The Glass Menagerie, Williams’s first masterpiece, is narrated by its protagonist, Tom (Zach Quinto), an obvious stand-in for Williams himself. Tom lives at home with his mother, Amanda (Cherry Jones) and his sister, Laura (Emily Keenan-Bolger). His mother is a faded Southern belle who married ill-advisedly and, abandoned by her husband, has fallen on very hard times. His daughter, Laura, well – Laura is special, and whether she is special in the sense of being extraordinarily valuable, or merely special in its modern condescending meaning is one of the deeper mysteries of the play.
The time is the depths of the Depression, and Tom is the primary breadwinner for the family, working long and tedious hours at a shoe warehouse, increasingly desperate to escape, see the world, have experiences that would be the basis for the poetry that he desperately needs to write, before his very life bleeds out. But he can’t leave, says his mother, until some provision has been made for his sister, who cannot stomach a job (I mean that literally), and doesn’t seem very likely ever to marry, given her painful shyness, her gimpy leg, and her preference for tiny glass animals over human contact.
Described like that, it sounds like a quaint period piece. But Williams – and, indeed, Tom himself, in the prologue to the play – make it clear that this is not a kitchen sink drama, but a play about memory itself. And this production, directed by John Tiffany, which began its life at Boston’s American Repertory Theater last year, takes that authorial mandate very seriously. Over and over again, the production makes it very clear that this is not a “realistic” drama, but something far more expressionist. The efforts begin before the curtain (which is nonexistent), with an exceptionally striking set (designed by Bob Crowley).
That set is dominated by the steps and platforms of a fire escape that tilts upward at a rakish angle towards infinity, like a parodic version of Jacob’s ladder on which the angels ascended and descended. Or, alternatively, like a mast, the ladder leading to the crow’s nest – a match for the similarly slanted bottom floor of the fire escape, whose pointed railing distinctly recalls the prow of a ship. These are, perhaps, allusions to Tom’s ambition to join the merchant marine and sail out of a life and a family that had become a trap; if not, then certainly a powerful way to communicate the sense of this little community’s isolation, the distance one would have to travel to get from here to the “real” world.
But this is not the only nor even the most distinctive scenic element that expresses that distance. The action takes place on a group of platforms that hover above an inky black pool. I mean that literally: black liquid covers the bulk of the stage. During the action, little points of light periodically wink into existence within the black, and one character or another (most frequently Laura) gazes out into what may be cold stars, or only shards of shining glass.
As I say, this may also be a metaphor for the distance – in space and time – that Tom has traveled, and put between him and the home he loved and hated. But I read another meaning into it. More unequivocally and emphatically than in the other productions of Glass Menagerie that I have seen, this is Tom’s play. This is his memory we are seeing. And the blackness that surrounds this home read to me not primarily as distance traveled, but as what his mind has selectively forgotten. This scene, of the home he abandoned, is what he remembers. The other scenes of his life take place in blackness – they are what he has forgotten, which is what gives this scene prominence. Which is what gives his life meaning.
The first character to join him on-stage, his sister, Laura, enters in such a way as to remove any ambiguity about whether we are to understand her as “really” there. She emerges – is pulled out by Tom, actually – from inside the living room sofa. Even if you know it’s coming, it’s a very startling image. His mother, Amanda, enters in a more common manner, but not in a common style – she is summoned by him, and stands in readiness to play her scene, rather than entering as a personality already in motion. This play, then, is the play Tom has written in his mind, made of the elements of his past that he cannot forget, and that we are privileged to see staged because we have intruded on that mind – or, better, because Tom has finally become a writer, and has chosen to invite us in.
The production indulges in some expressionism in the acting as well – characters staring off into the blackness, losing their place in the moment; characters pointing in odd directions and following their fingers; eating or clearing the table with sweeping gestures unrelated to food or cutlery, and without props to anchor their actions – that didn’t do much for me. But the larger conceit in which those motions (choreographed by movement director Steven Hoggett) are embedded – that this is not how it was; this is how Tom has constructed it in his memory, what he has made important by recalling it – is a powerful interpretive lens indeed.
And how does Tom remember it? Well, he has certainly put his mother in her place in his memory. Cherry Jones’s Amanda is probably the funniest I’ve ever seen, and is consequently a powerful presence, but the humor is substantially at her expense. I thought about some of the women in John Guare or Christopher Durang who were born in Williams’s shadow, and felt that this Amanda shared more than a passing kinship with them. (I also – and I know this is shallow of me – could not get away from the fact that Cherry Jones, in shapeless baggy ’30s dresses and hair in short curls, looked alarmingly like Jonathan Winters in drag.) Tom rolls his eyes at her extravagant absurdities, and we roll our eyes with him. It’s not until near the end of the first act, when Tom reveals that he actually has invited a gentleman caller to dinner (as his mother begged him to do), that we see how deep the well of genuine affection is between mother and son – and I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
And Laura? Well, Laura doesn’t have very much to do in Act I of the play – she is, after all, pathologically shy. But Amanda tells us that “still waters run deep” – that she notices things others might not. I didn’t quite see that, I admit (and the line is played purely as a laugh line by Jones, because one of the things she notices is that Tom is unhappy, which is so obvious, someone shallow as a puddle would have noticed). But more to the point, I didn’t see what Tom saw when he saw Laura. The choice not to have an actual menagerie of glass figurines on stage means there’s no opportunity to watch Laura lavishing attention on them, or to watch Tom watching her. We see her, but we don’t see her as Tom sees her.
Keenan-Bolger doesn’t come into her own until Tom leaves the stage, and she’s left alone, after dinner in Act II, with her Gentleman Caller (Brian J. Smith), one James O’Connor. Her one date turns out to be the only man she ever had any interest in, her high school crush whom she hasn’t seen for years, and who vaguely remembers her but can’t place her. James was the hero of the school, a scholar, athlete, singer and debater, universally acclaimed as most-likely to succeed. And he’s also, the prologue tells us, the most “real” person in the play – somebody, in other words, that Tom hasn’t had to shape and mold in memory in order to derive meaning from him. Well, life hasn’t turned out like James thought, whether because of the Depression or because, well, life doesn’t turn out like you think, and he’s stuck in a job almost as crushingly depressing as Tom’s.
But Laura still sees him as the high-school hero, and, realizing this, he warms to her, and to the opportunity to be that hero again. Before he knows it, he’s incipiently falling in love, and has to stop himself before he goes to far. Because he’s already engaged to another girl – a more normal and appropriate girl, but for that very reason less special than Laura is.
The whole scene between the two of them is beautifully executed. I believed fully in James’s sincerity (Smith does a fine rendition of Midwestern can-do optimism barely covering a deep fear of failure), and Keenan-Bolger’s Laura blossomed ever so gently, almost without us noticing – and then there she is, speaking almost confidently about her lack of confidence. There’s no “oh, brave new world” moment where she realizes she might actually have the man of her dreams – she’s still herself, behaving completely naturally, and he’s responding, and she’s responding to that response, and something is growing. And then it dies, and we see her die in response, but oh, so quietly. It redeems much of what felt to me too invisible in the first act.
But here’s the thing about the play itself: Tom didn’t see that scene. He wasn’t there to see it – it happened while he was out of the room. It can’t, be definition, be his memory. What does it mean, then, that we see it, and that so much of our understanding of Laura, who she is down there in the depths, comes from it?
I mentioned earlier that one of the mysteries of the play is just how “special” Laura is. How pathological is her shyness? Is it something that, today, we would medicate? I suspect – for better or worse – that it is, and that if a play were written about a character like Laura today, her narrative of recovery – and she would have a narrative of recovery – would be a medicalized one. That’s an anachronistic perspective to impose on the play, but it’s a question that a production has to answer up front. Is Laura just really shy because of her limp? If so, then isn’t James O’Connor right that she just needs a bit more self-confidence? But he isn’t right, is he – there’s something deeper that keeps her apart from people, something not so easily overcome. What is it? How do we show it onstage without reducing Laura to a condition?
I’ve seen Laura played as someone on the autism spectrum, and it’s a problematic choice for a variety of reasons. I’m glad Keenan-Bolger didn’t go that route, even though I was frustrated by what I perceived as an opacity in her Act I scenes. But this scene, between Laura and her Gentleman Caller, is the answer, I think, to my question of how to show who Laura is inside without contradicting what we know about who she is outside. This scene must be Tom’s creation, what he has interpolated between when he left the room and when he returned, to learn that his friend has left early, and that all their efforts were in vain. Because he created it, he can take us inside the still waters and show us their depths, show us what he sees that we have not, can even make James see it, unlikely as that may seem.
The scene is a beautiful gift to Laura, but a thoroughly inadequate one next to the gift of his actual presence in her life. But Tom can’t rewrite history; he can only fill in the gaps. James does leave, never to return. Amanda blames Tom for the fiasco, and that blame is what precipitates his flight from the family, from what, belatedly, in the present of the play in which Tom is the narrator, he has learned he cannot escape. All the “experiences” he accumulates won’t matter next to the experience of growing up with his sister, Laura, loving her, fearing for her, fearing for his own inability to do anything for her. And then abandoning her. That’s all he really has to write about. It’s all he really remembers.
The sorrow and pain of that knowledge comes through sharply in Quinto’s last monologue before the candles go out. And that’s the play.
The Glass Menagerie runs through February 23rd at the Booth Theater in New York.
As a former high school debater, my eyes had to light up at this Steve Sailer post using high school debate resolutions to track changes – and continuities – in intellectual fashions. So I wondered: what would we see if we looked at the complete list, from 1928 down to the present?
1928 Resolved: That a federal department of education should be created with a secretary in the president’s cabinet.
1929 Resolved: That the English cabinet method of legislation is more efficient than the committee system is in the United States.
So far we’re still in the Progressive Era – worrying about how to make our government more effective and efficient.
1930 Resolved: That installment buying of personal property as now practiced in the United States is both socially and economically desirable.
1931 Resolved: That chain stores are detrimental to the best interests of the American public.
Strangely disconnected from the catastrophe of the Depression, but not for long.
1932 Resolved: That the several states should enact legislation providing for compulsory unemployment insurance.
1933 Resolved: That at least one half of all state and local revenues should be derived from sources other than tangible property.
1934 Resolved: That the United States should adopt the essential features of the British system of radio control and operation.
Hello – wonder what that one was about.
1935 Resolved: That the federal government should adopt the policy of equalizing educational opportunity throughout the nation by means of annual grants to the several states for public elementary and secondary education.
Education is perennially interesting to high school students – and, more to the point, teachers, who are also debate coaches.
1936 Resolved: That the several states should enact legislation providing for a system of complete medical service available to all citizens at public expense.
Fascinating how we’re still talking about the “several states” enacting legislation to tax something other than real property (presumably means: enact an income tax), enact compulsory unemployment insurance, and provide medical service. It’s already 1936 – the New Deal is in full swing. Why aren’t we debating whether the Federal Government should do these things?
1937 Resolved: That all electric utilities should be governmentally owned and operated.
There – now we’re talking.
1938 Resolved: That the several states should adopt a unicameral system of legislation.
Still obsessed with Progressive-era government reform.
1939 Resolved: That the United States should establish an alliance with Great Britain.
War looming. But also just another bit of Anglophilic sentiment (see 1929, 1934).
1940 Resolved: That the federal government should own and operate the railroads.
1941 Resolved: That the power of the federal government should be increased.
Not to do anything in particular. Just increased, for the sake of increasing it.
1942 Resolved: That every able-bodied male citizen in the United States should be required to have one year of full-time military training before attaining the present draft age.
We’re definitely at war now.
1943 Resolved: That a federal world government should be established.
1944 Resolved: That the United States should join in reconstituting the League of Nations.
Guess the negative won too many rounds in 1943, so they watered down the sentiment for 1944.
1945 Resolved: That the legal voting age should be reduced to eighteen years.
1946 Resolved: That every able-bodied male citizen of the United States should have one year of full-time military training before attaining age 24.
Cold War looming. Time to dust off 1942 for another round of debate.
1947 Resolved: That the federal government should provide a system of complete medical care available to all citizens at public expense.
1948 Resolved: That the federal government should require arbitration of labor disputes in all basic American industries.
And we’ve definitely stopped talking about the “several states” enacting legislation.
1949 Resolved: That the United States now be revised into a Federal World Government.
More appealing in 1949 than in 1943?
1950 Resolved: That the president of the United States should be elected by the direct vote of the people.
These Progressive government-reform resolutions keep coming back.
1951 Resolved: That the American people should reject the welfare state.
Birth of the conservative movement.
1952 Resolved: That all American citizens should be subject to conscription for essential service in time of war.
1953 Resolved: That the Atlantic Pact nations should form a federal union.
1954 Resolved: That the President of the United States should be elected by the direct vote of the people.
I’m sensing a real lack of creativity here in the 1950s.
1955 Resolved: That the federal government should initiate a policy of free trade among nations friendly to the United States.
1956 Resolved: That governmental subsidies should be granted according to need to high school graduates who qualify for additional training.
1957 Resolved: That the federal government should sustain the prices of major agricultural products at not less than 90% of parity.
I’m guessing the coach of the Ottumwa high school team chaired the resolution committee that year.
1958 Resolved: That United States foreign aid should be substantially increased.
1959 Resolved: That the United States should adopt the essential features of the British system of education.
You have got to be kidding. Anglophilia + obsession with education = parodically indefensible resolution.
1960 Resolved: That the federal government should substantially increase its regulation of labor unions.
1961 Resolved: That the United Nations should be significantly strengthened.
1962 Resolved: That the federal government should equalize educational opportunity by means of grants to the states for public elementary and secondary education.
1963 Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the western hemisphere.
We keep coming around to various formulations for how to embed the United States in a larger, supra-national structure, whether a World Government or a federation based on the Atlantic Alliance or a Common Market for the western hemisphere.
1964 Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.
1965 Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization.
1966 Resolved: That the federal government should adopt a program of compulsory arbitration in labor-management disputes in basic industries.
Isn’t it quaint, how once we worried about the power of industrial unions?
1967 Resolved: That the foreign aid program of the United States should be limited to non-military assistance.
Good morning, Vietnam.
1968 Resolved: That Congress should establish uniform regulations to control criminal investigation procedures.
The age of Miranda.
1969 Resolved: That the United States should establish a system of compulsory service by all citizens.
We’re still in Vietnam, so we’re no longer debating whether we need compulsory military service, but rather compulsory “service.”
1970 Resolved: That Congress should prohibit unilateral United States military intervention in foreign countries.
We are definitely still in Vietnam.
1971 Resolved: That the federal government should establish, finance, and administer programs to control air and/or water pollution in the United States.
The birth of the environmental movement.
(1971–1972) Resolved: That the jury system in the United States should be significantly changed
(1972–1973) Resolved: That governmental financial support for all public and secondary education in the United States be provided exclusively by the federal government
(1973–1974) Resolved: That the federal government should guarantee a minimum annual income to each family unit.
Steve Sailer notes how ’70s this resolution is, but it’s worth recalling that Milton Friedman favored a GMI as an alternative to welfare, as did Hayek before him, and that Charles Murray wrote in favor of such an approach within the last few years.
(1974–1975) Resolved: That the United States should significantly change the method of selecting presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
I hate these “significantly change” resolutions. Give us a direction, at least!
(1975–1976) Resolved: That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization.
Sailer finds this one “from Mars” but it is just the latest in a long line of resolutions to create institutions of global governance, going back to 1943.
(1976–1977) Resolved: That a comprehensive program of penal reform should be adopted throughout the United States.
(1977–1978) Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to regulate the health care system in the United States.
You can tell we’re in the late ’70s because we’re no longer trying to provide health care, we’re just trying to regulate it.
(1978–1979) Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive program to significantly increase the energy independence of the United States.
And now you can really tell it’s the late ’70s.
(1979–1980) Resolved: That the United States should significantly change its foreign trade policies.
(1980–1981) Resolved: That the federal government should initiate and enforce safety guarantees on consumer goods.
(1981–1982) Resolved: That the federal government should establish minimum educational standards for elementary and secondary schools in the United States.
God, these were boring resolutions. Wasn’t anything interesting happening in the world around 1980?
(1982–1983) Resolved: That the United States should significantly curtail its arms sales to other countries.
(1983–1984) Resolved: That the United States should establish uniform rules governing the procedure of all criminal courts in the nation.
(1984–1985) Resolved: That the federal government should provide employment for all employable United States citizens living in poverty.
I’ve got a soft spot for this one, because this was my freshman year resolution. But it’s also useful for showing how radical the disconnect can be between where the debate world is and where the real world is. This resolution sounds like it’s from 1937. But it’s actually from 1984, the high tide of the Reagan revolution. I can’t imagine where this came from, honestly.
My debate partner and I proposed employing the poor fixing the roads and bridges, so that we could debate the importance of infrastructure to economic growth rather than the validity of guaranteed public employment as an approach to poverty reduction.
(1985–1986) Resolved: That the federal government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.
This year, our arch-rivals came out with the greatest debate case ever. They banned Ice Nine, the fictional form of ice from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle. We thought they were cooler than the Ramones.
(1986–87) Resolved: That the federal government should implement a comprehensive long-term agricultural policy in the United States.
And so, the next year, we responded with our own effort at awesomeness: time capsules. We first argued that human civilization was doomed: climate change, nuclear war, AIDS – something was going to wipe out civilization as we knew it, and there was no way to prevent the cataclysm. The only hope was to not make the same mistakes next time around. So: we would conduct a comprehensive study of agriculture, and the conclusion of the study would be that agriculture was a mistake and that we should remain hunter-gatherers. And we would bury this study in multiple locations across the United States deemed most likely to survive the various cataclysms, and hope future generations would not make the same mistakes we did.
It was way big fun.
Actually, we only rolled out that case at the Tournament of Champions at the end of the year. For much of the year, our case was to adopt a new rule whereby all agricultural policies needed to be pre-cleared through negotiations with our NATO allies, so as to prevent tensions over agricultural subsidies from leading to a break in the alliance, which would lead to a Soviet invasion of Iran through Turkey and World War III.
As you can see, we loved debating agricultural policy.
(1987–88) Resolved: That the United States government should adopt a policy to increase political stability in Latin America.
Remember the Contras?
(1988–1989) Resolved: That the federal government should implement a comprehensive program to guarantee retirement security for United States citizens over age 65.
You mean, something like this? Another resolution displaced from the ’30s.
Penal reform has been bubbling beneath the surface for a couple of decades in the debate community, but the resolutions are always framed in a liberal direction, even as, out there in the real world, the trend has been toward tougher policing and, especially, tougher sentencing. All through the high-crime ’70s and ’80s, there was never a resolution that we should take more stringent action to fight crime, even though this was a huge topic of debate in society at large.
(1990–1991) Resolved: That the United States government should significantly increase space exploration beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.
The Cold War has officially ended. It’s time to integrate our former enemies into a new world order, and boldly go where no man has gone before.
(1991–1992) Resolved: That the federal government should significantly increase social services to homeless individuals in the United States.
(1992–1993) Resolved: That the United States government should reduce worldwide pollution through its trade and/or aid policies.
(1993–1994) Resolved: That the federal government should guarantee comprehensive national health insurance to all United States citizens.
A Democrat has been elected President!
(1994–1995) Resolved: That the United States government should substantially strengthen regulation of immigration to the United States.
I am amazed Steve Sailer didn’t notice this one. Back in the mid-1990s, immigration was a legitimate topic for debate, with pro-union Democrat Barbara Jordan and moderate Republican Pete Wilson both in the restrictionist camp.
(1995–1996) Resolved: That the United States government should substantially change its foreign policy toward the People’s Republic of China.
Delayed reaction to Tiananmen Square, and the first evidence that the liberal hawkish outlook has replaced the post-Vietnam outlook among the people who frame debate resolutions.
(1996–1997) Resolved: That the federal government should establish a program to substantially reduce juvenile crime in the United States
(1997–1998) Resolved: That the federal government should establish a policy to substantially increase renewable energy use in the United States
(1998–1999) Resolved: That the United States government should substantially change its foreign policy toward Russia.
Interesting how many foreign policy resolutions are cropping up in the ’90s, isn’t it? We debaters always preferred to change the topic to foreign policy (see my comments on the 1986-1987 agriculture policy resolution above), but the debate resolutions rarely complied – and when they did, they often talked about embedding America in global institutions. Not so much, anymore. The folks in debate land are feeling bored, and itchy to do something in the world.
(1999–2000) Resolved: That the federal government should establish an education policy to significantly increase academic achievement in secondary schools in the United States.
Note the change in tenor of education resolutions. We’re not resolving to increase resources. We’re resolving to get better results.
(2000–2001) Resolved: That the United States federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy in the United States in one or more of the following areas: employment, medical records, consumer information, search and seizure.
I have a funny feeling this new topic won’t be going away any time soon.
(2001–2002) Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Compare with the resolution of 1965, and you see how much the world has changed with the end of the Cold War.
(2002–2003) Resolved: That the United States federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental healthcare in the United States.
(2003–2004) Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy substantially increasing protection of marine natural resources.
(2004–2005) Resolved: That the United States federal government should establish a foreign policy substantially increasing its support of United Nations peacekeeping operations.
We’re not feeling so good about where the resolution of 2001-2002 has gotten us.
(2005–2006) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority either to detain without charge or to search without probable cause.
I told you that new topic wasn’t going away.
(2006–2007) Resolved: The United States federal government should establish a policy substantially increasing the number of persons serving in one or more of the following national service programs: AmeriCorps, Citizen Corps, Senior Corps, Peace Corps, Learn and Serve America, and/or the Armed Forces.
This also appears to be a perennial topic, basically the combination of 1946 and 1969.
(2007–2008) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its public health assistance to Sub-Saharan Africa.
(2008–2009) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States.
Once again, a sense of exhaustion of creativity. And I’m surprised we haven’t seen a serious climate change resolution by now. It’s a strange omission.
(2010–2011) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.
Hello! A pretty rapid and massive turnaround from the tenor of late-’90s and early 2000s resolutions. In fact, the last time we had so clear a resolution to reduce America’s military presence abroad was 1970.
(2012-2013) Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.
Hey – we can roll out our old case from 1984-1985!
I don’t have any brilliant conclusions to draw. Education and poverty are perennial topics, and the resolutions are drawn more sharply sometimes and more vaguely at other times. Environmentalism emerged in the 1970s and never went away (which is why I think it’s so weird there’s never been an explicit climate change resolution). By contrast, I think it’s ideologically telling that there was no resolution about fighting crime all through the 1970s and 1980s.
But the most obvious trend is away from world-government-ism and towards American hegemonism. Especially in the 1940s, but continuing all the way down to the 1970s, you would get resolutions about America embedding itself in global or at least supra-national institutions – establishing a world government, reviving the League of Nations; merging with our European allies in a new federation, or forming a common market with other western hemisphere nations; handing over nuclear weapons or vital natural resources to a global authority. Whereas, with the end of the Cold War, you start getting more and more foreign policy resolutions that assume American “leadership” over the whole globe: we should “change” our foreign policies towards other major powers (China and Russia), presumably in response to their behavior, and our national policies should reduce global pollution, protect the oceans, prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, improve health in sub-Saharan Africa, and, through the United Nations, keep the peace.
We’ll see whether the resolution of 2010-2011 presages yet another new direction on that front.
And speaking of Stepin Fetchit and Des McAnuff, there’s an interesting play on now at New York Theatre Workshop called Fetch Clay, Make Man, about the unlikely friendship between Fetchit and Muhammad Ali, directed by Mr. McAnuff, that’s well-worth a look.
The action of the play revolves around Ali’s rematch bout with Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Ali had formally joined Elijah Muhammad’s Black Muslims and changed his name (from Cassius Clay) in between the two fights. The fight was conducted in an atmosphere of fear of violence – of retribution against Ali for the murder of Malcolm X (whom he had shunned after the latter’s break with Elijah Muhammad), and of retribution against Liston by Elijah Muhammad’s followers should he defeat their champion. The fight turned out to be one of the shortest in heavyweight boxing history, as Ali knocked out Liston almost as soon as the fight began, with a punch that almost nobody saw. Ali claimed that this “phantom” or “anchor” punch was a charmed move taught to him by his friend, Stepin Fetchit, who in turn learned it from the first African American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.
This much is history. The play takes this history and hones it to an ideological point. Rather than being a long-time friend of Ali’s (and already a convert to Islam), in the world of the play Fetchit, still a Catholic, was summoned by the champion precisely to teach this mysterious “anchor punch” that Ali feels he needs to defeat Liston. The Muslims, personified by Brother Rashid, are none too pleased by this new addition to Ali’s entourage, who drinks near beer and flirts with Ali’s wife, Sonji – and, most importantly, who created a lazy, cringing black clown character that represents the antithesis of everything the Black Muslims stood for, and a character that was so popular, and made him so wealthy, that Fetchit was essentially consumed by it, becoming unable to play any other part. He’s the last man they would ever want their cause and their champion associated with (unless he renounced his former self and became a Muslim).
The first delight of the play is the title, a play on the two main characters’ names whose meaning is decidedly ambiguous. Where the boxer shed his “slave name” of Clay to become Muhammad Ali, the actor shed his given name of Lincoln Perry to voluntarily assume the “slave” name of Stepin Fetchit, the name by which he was known for the rest of his life. And yet, per the action of the play, Ali (Clay) needs to fetch Perry (Fetchit) to gain the power to overman Liston.
The second is the performances. K. Todd Freeman anchors the play with a rendition of Stepin Fetchit that is wise and crafty and resentful and bitter – a brilliant portrait of a Lincoln Perry who has grown so used to wearing the Stepin Fetchit mask that he can’t quite take it off even when invited to. He is not Fetchit – but neither can he alienate himself from him. But he is almost upstaged by John Earl Jelks as a smoldering Brother Rashid, whose very limbs seem to itch to become weapons to strike down the unworthy, and yet who visibly forces himself into an attitude of submission when confronted by Ali, in all his majesty. Ray Fisher’s Ali, meanwhile, is effortlessly charming while being almost completely opaque – the perfect mask fitted to his beautiful face, which is just as it should be. Completing the central quartet, Nikki James walks a fine line as Sonji, revealing her need to be honest about her sexual nature without ever ceasing to seem fundamentally wholesome. She senses the inevitability of her exile very early, and that deepens rather than blunting her, and our, pain. (Richard Masur, Anthony Gaskins and Jeremy Tardy round out the cast as, respectively, William Fox, the studio boss behind Stepin Fetchit, and two mute Fruit of Islam guarding Ali.)
There is a powerful human drama playing out in this story, but the author, Will Power, has chosen to subordinate that human drama to an intellectual one. The mission of the Black Muslims, most fundamentally, is to restore African American men to Manhood with a capital “M.” But do they fail to realize that they need some power that Fetchit has, the power to survive and thrive within ambiguous history, in order to achieve their aims of forcefully overthrowing that history? That’s the question the play is asking.
It’s an interesting question – but not fundamentally a dramatic one. It’s a debating topic. To Power’s credit, he does not stage the debate directly, in the style of Inherit the Wind. Fetchit makes the “case” for his own dignity a number of times, but he isn’t sparring with Ali, who, after all, has invited him in. But precisely because Ali will not debate him, the central relationship in the play has the quality of a dance. For much of the play, both characters are using each other – Ali is using Fetchit to learn this secret “anchor punch” while Fetchit is using Ali to regain respectability in the eyes of a world now embarrassed by the character he created, and (potentially) even to get back into making movies. And, as neither character wants to give the other what he wants, they just keep dancing. (McAnuff and his designers, Riccardo Hernandez and Peter Nigrini, have staged the play in a crisply abstract white space with minimal furniture, no walls and one door – the design is clearly intended to evoke the boxing ring, which adds to the sensation that Ali and Fetchit are dancing around each other as a preliminary to a fight that never exactly takes place.)
The drama, therefore, comes primarily from the peripheral characters. From the moment Fetchit meets Sonji, he sees that she is merely playing the part of a dutiful Muslim wife; a consummate actor himself, he can see through the mask. And Sonji responds immediately by shedding her modest garb and returning to the slinky dresses, the made-up face and hair – the sexual display that she reveled in before her husband’s conversion. This is who she is, and while she loves Ali, she isn’t going to show that love by conforming to his fantasies. He’s going to love her as she is. And he can’t do that.
Brother Rashid, meanwhile, spends the entire play trying one tactic after another to drive Fetchit out of Ali’s inner circle. He’s a man with a violent past and who continues to have a violent temperament – Sonji has his number from the first as a former pimp (like Malcolm X) who hasn’t really changed at all, either in his attitudes towards women or his ability to control his temper. Rashid won’t deign to defend himself to her because of his contempt, but he will to Ali, to whom he protests that joining the Black Muslims was the one thing that got him out of a life of crime and degradation, and that this is why he is so zealous on their behalf.
As I thought about the play afterwards, it occurred to me that there is a close kinship with Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays – but with a crucial inversion. In Shakespeare, Hal is caught between two father figures: his actual father, King Henry IV, who wants him to sober up, toughen up and become more like Hotspur, his antagonist; and Falstaff, his surrogate father, who teaches him craft and sees through the pretensions of the court figures. Similarly, Ali is caught between the Muslims and Fetchit. Like Hal, Ali is an opaque figure, playing his cards close to his chest; like Hal, he tries to keep ties to both fathers as long as he can dance.
But in Shakespeare, Hal must, in the end, brutally reject Falstaff in order to become king. He’s learned whatever he had to learn from him; now he has to cast him aside in order to play his proper role in history. The rejection kills Falstaff, of course – and prepares us for the disturbing ambiguities under the surface of the patriotic Henry V. In Fetch Clay, Make Man, Ali not only doesn’t reject Fetchit, he explicitly claims him, permanently, even though he has already learned the secret of the “anchor punch” and therefore no longer “needs” him in the way he did at first. But Brother Rashid intervenes, without Ali’s knowledge, to drive Fetchit out, and permanently.
This change has no basis in history, and I wondered at the choice, which I suspect was made to end us on a note of sympathy with Ali. And it certainly makes for a dramatic moment between Fetchit and Rashid. But the sympathy for Ali is won at a cost – the cost of reducing him to a pawn of the Muslims. I thought more of him as a man, for deciding to keep Fetchit in his entourage. But I thought less of him as a champion for being so easily out-maneuvered.
And in the context of the ideological debate that is at the heart of this play, Fetchit’s exile feels like a tragic mistake. If Ali had exiled him, as he did Sonji, this would move us to see him as a tragic figure. Exiled by Rashid, it just convinces me that the Black Muslims were a tragically misguided movement as a whole. Which is pretty much what I thought when I came in.
The knockout I expected to end the dance turned out to be a phantom punch, that the champ never delivered. But while it lasted, the dance sure was entertaining.
Fetch Clay, Make Man plays at the New York Theatre Workshop through October 13th.
Waiting For Godot isn’t the only show at Stratford this year that made me think of Gilbert and George. Indeed, the first connection I made was with the production of Tommy, directed by Des McAnuff (who, with Pete Townsend, created the original Broadway production).
Tommy, of course, is the story of a deaf, dumb and blind kid (played by Arden Couturier as a four-year-old, Joshua Buchwald as a ten-year-old, and Robert Markus as a young adult) who plays a mean pinball. That is to say: it’s the story about discovering rock music as a teenager in emotionally-repressed post-war middle-middle-class England, and suddenly waking up to the music and color of what had previously felt like an empty reality where the only thing you saw was your own reflection, and the only voice you heard was your own, because nobody else looked at or listened to you. And it’s a story about discovering one’s natural gift, and the disorientation that ensues when everyone else starts treating you very differently on account of that gift.
Structurally, the play is a bit problematic. In the movie, Tommy’s father doesn’t kill his wife’s lover – he is killed, accidentally. This Hamlet-ification was a change from the original album, but a felicitous one if you’re trying to motivate Tommy’s profound isolation. The stage version restores the original album’s story choice, but this leaves Captain and Mrs. Walker without much to do but fret about their son (since they don’t have nearly as serious a burden of guilt). The meaning of Tommy’s awakening remains obscure to me. His mother finally loses patience and smashes the mirror – and he wakes up. That’s it? So if she hadn’t been so solicitous all those years, he might have woken up earlier? And, finally, after his awakening, we get the rise and fall of the rock star – a story we’ve seen many times before. I appreciate that McAnuff doesn’t go all-in on the messianic overtones of the movie – his story stays at the level of celebrity culture – but the fact remains that this is an entirely new story arc that begins halfway through the second act and so needs to wrap up very quickly. We travel that story arc so quickly that we never really feel what Tommy is feeling.
Nonetheless, McAnuff tells the story he has very effectively. The music, which gets you out of your seat as well as it ever did, does a lot of the work. But he is also particularly blessed with three members of his cast: Jeremy Kushnier, as a frustrated and pained Captain Walker; Paul Nolan, channeling Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange” (in attitude if not in costume) as Cousin Kevin; and, especially, Steve Ross, who delivers a tortured portrait of the dipsomaniac child molester Uncle Ernie that moves us to genuine sympathy for the poor man even as our skin crawls. His staging of both Cousin Kevin’s and Uncle Ernie’s abuse of Tommy remains very much on the PG-side, which blunts the horror of Tommy’s situation, but Nolan and Ross’s acting and singing are powerful enough to carry their respective moments nonetheless.
And then there’s the staging. My connection was Gilbert and George was visual first and foremost. McAnuff’s stage is dominated by a mammoth screen upstage on which he projects a variety of bold-colored images keyed to the themes of the play: doors, eyes, Union Jacks, etc. And the set and costumes are similarly bold and flat: Uncle Ernie in green, Captain Walker in blue, Cousin Kevin in red, the Walker house and furnishings all white (and Tommy attired all white as well). I think the intent was to echo the ’60s pop of Roy Liechtenstein, but what I saw was Gilbert and George’s faux stained glass windows – particularly when face after yellow face appears on the screen, crowded around Tommy’s house (for the “Come to This House” number). The key difference is that Gilbert and George took the pop aesthetic and turned it on themselves to transform themselves into pop icons.
I think that says something about our relationship with this material. The original album is very much an artifact of its time, utterly self-serious in the manner of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” It isn’t cool like pop art – it doesn’t have that ironic distance. But we do. We cannot think of rock (sublimated as pinball) as a revelation in and of itself; we’ve been living with this music for nearly fifty years now. When we act out this story, we’re self-consciously re-enacting a story that is now well-worn. We’re turning ourselves into icons.
We’re doing, in fact, what Tommy tells us not to do: trying to be like him. When all he wants is to be like us.
Tommy plays at the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theater through October 19th.
Something like twenty years ago, I saw a film of the British artists Gilbert and George doing their Singing Sculpture act. In case you’re not familiar with the piece, which they debuted in 1970, the pair of artists painted their faces and hands with metallic paint, climbed up on a small platform, and “danced” (and lip-synched) to an old 1930′s-era number called “Underneath the Arches” in which a homeless fellow sings about sleeping under bridges.
In the particular incarnation I saw, which was staged for the camera, their clothes as well as their faces and hands were painted with metallic paint, and the cane one of them (I can’t remember if it was Gilbert or George) carried was a plastic child’s toy with a squeak on the end. He used the squeak to punctuate the song as he danced. When the song ended, one of them would get off, rewind the tape on the tape recorder, press play, climb back up and start again. On the film they kept this up for maybe twenty minutes. In real life, as I understand it, they would do it for hours.
The film affected me deeply – terrified me, in fact. Probably I was just young, but it felt like an expression of a kind of primal truth of the meaninglessness repetition of life, and the comical absurdity of art. I had dreams – nightmares, really – about it for months after.
I told people at the time that it reminded me of Beckett, and of Waiting for Godot in particular. But in maturer years, I came to wonder about that identification. Beckett wrote Godot in part in response to his experiences in the French resistance. He abstracted from his experiences to something universal, but that sensation of waiting in a bleak landscape for a message, a job to do, that might well never come – that began with something specific. And behind that is Beckett’s Irishness, and the endemic poverty that, back then, afflicted the emerald isle. Vladimir and Estragon are stage vaudevillians, but they are also classic Irish poor-mouth types, and the narrow social horizons of their world – they are free, but penniless; Lucky is lower, a slave; Pozzo higher, a landowner, and wealthy, but largely because he owns a slave – mirror the relatively simple (compared to England) class system in Ireland.
By contrast, Gilbert and George appropriating a song about homelessness are highly suspect. They are a pair of famously elegant gentlemen. Inasmuch as they are making a work of art about privation, it’s a spiritual privation – quiet desperation rather than urgent physical need. Are they not possibly taking something with a social history and, well, mocking it? Or are they commenting on the original song, on the process of making art out of human misery? If we’re going to have lip-synching homeless men, wouldn’t this be a better start?
I thought about all these things the two times I saw this season’s marvelous Stratford production of Waiting For Godot. (Which, by the way, I am very sorry not to have reviewed until now, though it seems to have sold very well without any help from me.) It is hard for me to imagine a better treatment of the play. Jennifer Tarver is one of my favorite directors, and Beckett is right smack in the middle of her wheelhouse. Tom Rooney and Stephen Ouimette are perfectly paired as Vladimir and Estragon, Rooney all long limbs in too-short pants and jacket, Ouimette’s face turned into the mask of a sad clown to match his baggy pants and unlaced boots. Every vaudeville trick is done to a turn, even the hat-swapping bit in the second act. Brian Dennehy makes a genuinely imposing Pozzo, secure in his natural right to rule in the first act, Lear-like in his ruined dignity in the second. And Randy Hughson nearly walks off with the show with his rendition of Lucky’s incoherent stemwinder speech, delivered like a demented Presbyterian preacher from someone out on the Canadian plains. Designer Teresa Przybylski even figured out how to liven up the simple set, traversing the stage with an undulating white ribbon of road on which the action plays out, bordered on both sides by a slick fathomless black.
I had a marvelous time at the show, laughing ’til I cried, then coming up short over and over as the essential horror of their situation came straight home.
But the more I meditated on the piece, the more I worried about it, and about my reaction. Not about the production, which was really just about flawless, but with my – our – relationship with the play. Theirs is a very comfortable existential crisis for us to experience vicariously, because when we see Vladimir and Estragon, we see stage tramps. That’s not a consequence of the performances, which are completely sincere (they have to be, or they wouldn’t be so funny); it’s a consequence of social change since Beckett’s day. We – the theater-going audience – are just much further away from real tramps than a mid-century audience might have been. George Orwell could go “tramping” and it could play as an eccentricity. Today, that level of eccentricity makes you William T. Vollmann – or, worse, a reality-television star.
There is plenty that we do share with Didi and Gogo, from Vladimir’s desperate need to be seen, and recognized, by the boy messenger of Godot, to Estragon’s inability to remember anything that happens to him (except being beaten); and from Estragon’s shoes that won’t fit to Vladimir’s desperate need to urinate. But we – a typical theater audience – don’t share their fundamental privation. Can we still laugh at them in good conscience and feel that privation as real? Or do we laugh at them in good conscience because we spiritualize their physical situation, turn them into friendlier symbols?
I wonder what would happen if we played them, not as stage types, but as types from life. If we tried to bridge the gap between these tramps and the fellows who actually do lie underneath the arches. Would we be awakened to pity? Or would we see something a bit, well, Stepin Fetchit about their vaudevilles?
This is probably not the most important topic to get back to now that I’m at the keyboard again, but I’ve been fascinated by the debate about Calhoun that has taken place in TAC‘s (virtual) pages. Scott Galupo touched on the topic in February, and last week Daniel McCarthy returned to it with a fascinating post on Willmoore Kendall and his views of Calhoun’s political thought.
What I’m interested in is separating three questions. One is a political science question about optimal constitutional design. A second question relates to the nature of the American constitution specifically – what the ratifiers thought they were doing and how that understanding evolved among the American people over time. And a third question relates to the specific sectional conflict that afflicted the American republic – over slavery.
Without getting too far into the weeds, it’s pretty clear that, whatever the ratifiers intended, by the 1850s the constitutional understanding that obtained in much of the South was different from that which obtained elsewhere in the country. The South’s self-consciousness as a distinct society with distinct interests was not matched by a similar self-consciousness in, say, the Midwest – and there was a sense of common interest between Southern states like Georgia and North Carolina that transcended any abstract notion of state sovereignty. The states that ultimately seceded felt that preservation of their way of life required a giving them a functional veto over certain national policies. Preservation of the Union would require an asymmetrical relationship between the sections.
Is that inherently wrong, or inherently bad constitutional design? I don’t see why we should conclude that. Consider the gentle giant to our north. Canada is a confederation rather than a unitary state, and the provinces retain very substantial powers – larger powers, in many ways, than American states. But one of those provinces – Quebec – has, for at least a generation, understood itself as a “distinct society” with rights and powers that other provinces lack because of that distinction (most prominently, the right to maintain the formal primacy of a single language – French – as against the functional primacy of English and formal bi-lingualism that obtains elsewhere in Canada). The Meech Lake Accord and subsequent Charlottetown Accord were failed attempts to forestall Quebec secession by constitutionally formalizing this asymmetric relationship.
I call them failed attempts because the accords were rejected. But they succeeded in the sense that Quebec has not moved on to pursue secession. The constitutional issue hasn’t been resolved, but neither has it been brought to a head. Ultimately, formal resolution of these constitutional questions will likely require acceptance of some degree of asymmetry. But it’s not clear how vital it is that these questions be resolved, as opposed to continuing to muddle through with constitutional disagreement.
A similar debate obtains with respect to devolution in the UK – the West Lothian Question is what it’s known as over there. Now that Scotland has its own Parliament to legislate matters peculiar to Scotland, why should Scottish MPs get to vote on exclusively English matters in Westminster? Right now, the situation is asymmetric – Scotland has rights that England lacks. But ready-to-hand solutions are potentially risky in terms of the integrity of the Union. For example, if Scottish MPs were barred from voting on English matters, it would more deeply entrench a sense that Scotland was no longer integral to the Union. If a separate English Parliament were set up, meanwhile, that would be a huge boost to English (as opposed to British) nationalism.
What, I’m curious, would be Kendall’s views of these matters? Because it seems to me that the constitutional difficulties of Britain and Canada reflect genuinely difficult-to-negotiate asymmetries that exist on the ground, and that therefore we should have a certain amount of respect for “creative” constitutional arrangements (or for mere muddling-through) that might not pass muster in terms of democratic theory. (The same might be said for the existence of the U.S. Senate, which grants a coalition of small states an effective veto, and would therefore, I should think, be as incompatible with self-government as any other such minority veto – and yet this institution was bequeathed to us from the Philadelphia Solons themselves.)
The American Republic came to the point of civil war not merely because compromise was difficult but because of the gravity of the question at issue. The South’s aim in initiating hostilities was not merely to secure their sovereign rights but to secure the continuation of their slaveholding society in perpetuity. Quite apart from their desire to preserve the Union, many in the North understood that aim to be incompatible with their own flourishing as a free republic. Nothing similar can be said about either an independent Scotland or Quebec, should either come to pass, nor about an asymmetric constitutional arrangement that preserves the British or Canadian unions, should one come to be resolved.
I’m afraid I have to throw cold water on Scott McConnell’s fantasies:
So imagine: the nuclear diplomacy track gets going, and Iran makes it clear that it will trade transparency and inspections to ensure non-weaponization. Obama does what he can strip away the sanctions, encouraged by Europe, which is eager to trade and invest in Iran. And suddenly Americans realize there is this large, sophisticated Muslim country, with a large middle class and a huge appetite for American culture and business. It is not a U.S.-style democracy, far from it—but no country in the Middle East is. At worst it is in third place. Compared to the state of political freedom in China in 1971, contemporary Iran is a New England town meeting.
Recall: in 1971, American elites fell in love with China. The “China Lobby”—that large complex of anti-communist Chinese and Americans with personal and professional ties to China who felt jilted by the Revolution and which had prevented any rapprochement until then—proved to be a proverbial “paper tiger” once President Nixon decided to reach beyond it. American elites were suddenly enthralled by ping pong and pandas. New York Times columnist James Reston had an appendectomy with no anesthetic beyond acupuncture, and it worked out wonderfully—and became the source of hundreds of respectful news stories about Chinese medicine. For years, China was the new flavor on the block. Growing ties with China were the backdrop to everything: America could be humiliated in Vietnam and the world hardly noticed. . . .
My guess is that many Americans will fall in love with [Iran] —or at least with the combination of exoticism and profits that detente with Iran promises. Yes, there will be blind and naive aspects to the love—when is there not?—but it will unleash powerful forces that governments cannot control.
So who loses? Obviously we aren’t talking about a reversal of alliances. Israel will remain one of the cornerstones of American Middle East policy. But note: “one of.” Israel has grown accustomed to a weirdly disproportionate role in Washington, as the one country to which America looks for interpretation and guidelines to action in the Mideast. Normalcy with Iran would almost certainly muddle that. . . .
[Iran] would be a self-reliant and independent power, not a military threat but certainly a state wielding considerable cultural and economic “soft power.” A procession of American tourists into Teheran, followed shortly by students and businessmen, would change American perspectives on the region. Israel’s ability to act as America’s ears and eyes and ultimate interpreter of regional events would almost certainly be diminished, perhaps radically.
Reality check time:
First of all, Iran has no reason to want to be perceived as allied with America. The United States and China had very substantial common interests. China had fought a border war with the Soviet Union and with Soviet-friendly India; America, exhausted by the war in Vietnam, badly needed to shake up the geopolitical map. By contrast, to the extent that Iran has any limited influence in a region where anti-Shia extremism is rising, it’s because of its opposition to the Great Satan. And close ties with Iran would create more problems for America with its Arab partners (and with Pakistan) than they would solve. I’ve complained about the China analogy before, and my objections still stand.
Second, the opportunities for Americans to profit from trade with Iran are limited. Their economy is too small relative to America’s, and Europeans will be more logical partners in most areas. Opening up their economy is enormously important to Iran – because they are on the cusp of the democratic dividend. Iran risks missing a historic opportunity to jump to semi-first-world status, which is the reason the regime might just take the ideological risk of coming to some kind of agreement with America on the nuclear issue. But America as a whole will barely notice whether they make the jump or not.
Third, there’s already a large, well-educated, relatively prosperous Muslim country with close ties to America, and which is increasingly critical of Israel’s approach to the region. It’s called Turkey. I haven’t noticed that Turkish complaints have had any effect at all on the Washington discourse. Why assume that Iran will be able to influence America at all?
Fourth, while it’s true that every American I know who’s been to Iran has loved the place, and I would love to visit myself, only the narrowest slice of Americans would have any interest in traveling somewhere like Iran. And the press is no longer the monolith that it was in 1971. Can you imagine the conservative media apparatus participating in a pro-Iran love-fest in the wake of successful nuclear negotiations? Right.
Finally, these kinds of fantasies can be quite destructive as we approach the diplomatic process, because by raising expectations they invite the perception of failure. Our goal is not “flipping” Iran from the enemy to the allied column. We should not be surprised or offended if Iran continues to posture against America in international forums, or even take more concrete actions to frustrate our aims in the region. We should expect them to want to drive a wedge between us and our allies, and to spin any agreement as our defeat. We should keep our eye on our primary objectives. Our goals are avoiding war and neutralizing the destabilizing threat of Iranian nuclearization. Their goals are avoiding war and ending the sanctions regime. We have concrete goals and interests, and so do they. That’s what we should be talking about – and getting to a deal on. If love follows in its season, well and good. But we don’t need it.