Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chava Rosenfarb by Jeff Sharlet

For years after the war and after the camps, Chava Rosenfarb woke up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write. She’d open her eyes in the darkness and slip out of bed without waking her husband, make herself a cup of coffee, and sit down in her study, still wearing her nightgown. The study was even smaller than her kitchen – barely large enough for the table she had bought from a doctor’s office for ten dollars. On it she kept her notebooks. Sipping coffee, she’d start with the one on the top, and by the light of the table lamp, beneath a portrait of the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz, she’d review yesterday’s stories. Rereading drew her back like a current, not into her pages but into the world to which she wanted to return. When she felt that world thickening around her, she’d skip ahead to where she’d left off the night before, pick up a pencil, and begin to write, slipping from her apartment in Montreal back to the last days of the Lodz ghetto.

First to greet her there was always her favorite creation, Samuel Zuckerman. Born of Chava’s memories of the rich men of Lodz, Samuel was a “salon Zionist” and heir to a fortune, a Polish patriot who dreamed of Israel for other, poorer people, he couldn’t bear to think of leaving Lodz. His passion was writing – a history of the Jews of Lodz, 250,000 of them, living in a city then known as the Manchester of Poland for its forest of smokestacks.

But Samuel never got to tell the story. The war always came, and the barbed wire of the ghetto always crept up around him, and Samuel always betrayed Chava. Every day Chava wrote, he betrayed her. He joined the Judenrat, the Nazi-controlled Jewish government of the ghetto. He gave in so easily that Chava – sitting in a pool of dim light before dawn, speaking aloud as if Samuel was before her- wondered if she’d ever really known him, if her creation was really her own. That raised an interesting question, one that made Chava’s pencil pause on an alef or a beyz or a giml. If she, the creator, had no power over her creation, what was the good of being an author?

The novel she was writing, Dern boym fun lebn (The Tree of Life) would chronicle the five and a half years leading up to the ghetto’s final “liquidation” in 1944; other than that unavoidable end, Chava had no clear plans for what might happen to any of her characters. She knew she could not save them, from themselves any more than from the Germans. One day, though, Samuel abandoned the Judenrat and its privileges, and joined his fellows' suffering. He rescued himself. For that Chava loved him.

After Samuel came Adam Rosenberg. A pig to Samuel’s peacock, he was even richer than Samuel, his mouth “filled with a treasure of gold teeth.” But he was hollow, an obese man stuffed with nothing. “Puffing and panting,” wrote Chava of Adam at the ball, “he pressed his immense belly to the frame of his skeletal wife, as her protruding shoulder blades moved in and out, up and down, like parts of a machine.” Adam loved machines more than people. And he hated his fellow Jews, their flesh his flesh, nearly as much as he did the Nazis. But Chava spoke with him as she did with Samuel, and she listened to him attentively as she listened to Rachel Eibushitz, a tall, handsome teenage girl with wide, gray-green eyes, the same color as Chava’s. It was Rachel who allowed Chava to write about all the others. Like Chava, Rachael realized early on that she was different; while others simply suffered in the ghetto, she watched. She was fascinated by their suffering and by her own, as alert as Adam to all the symptoms of humanity, but entranced, not revolted.

At first Rachel wrote poems about the people around her. When poetry seemed to delicate, her lines too easily broken, like bones grown brittle, she wrote stories. And when those became ashes, she wrote only in her mind, words without form. After it was all over – the ghetto, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belson – in a tiny room in a small, warm apartment during the cold mornings of Montreal, Rachel – Chava- wrote The Tree of Life

As much as The Tree of Life plumbs the depths of collaboration, it explores the ethics of art in the presence of atrocity. Even artists – or, maybe, especially artists – face charges of betrayal. A painter is disdained by his colleagues because he makes portraits for the Nazis; he responds that his work hardly differs from that of a doctor: “Let’s not kid ourselves, by bringing a Jew back to health, you only fix a machine that works for the Germans.” A teacher finds herself denounced by her students for participating in musical events sponsored by Rumkowski. “Culture in the Ghetto is a sin!” they shout. Rachel, still in school, finds every literature class turned into an argument over literature’s right to exist at all. The lesson of the ghetto, insists one classmate, is that art is nothing more than a refuge for those who crave predictability, an alternative to real resistance. “Art is rebellion,” Rachel counters. “A desire to correct life.”

But Rachel has her own doubts. “Take the form of the novel,” she says:
The fact that it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Life is not like that. Beginning and end are birth and death. But in between, life flows sometimes in waves, sometimes in circles, sometimes it moves forward, sometimes it’s still…there’s a lot of non-narrative in life, while in the novel the story must keep going.

By 1940 the German occupiers had squeezed the city’s quarter million Jews into a small slum, the new Lodz ghetto. Henekh Morgentaler’s father had been among the first taken by the Nazis; his sister escaped to Warsaw. His family gone, he spent most of his time with the Rosenfarbs. But even as the ghetto pressed Chava and Henry together, it began pulling them apart. Henry despaired. Chava flourished even as her once full body grew bony and spare.

“Usually when you’re hungry you don’t talk about art,” she remembered, echoing a line in her book, ‘Inter arma silent musae,’ as they say. And its true. But not for the Jews. The Jews could discuss poetry and art on an empty stomach.” And politics. Chava followed her father’s lead into the socialist Bund. She compiled a secret library for her comrades, going from door to door asking for books she would then loan out from her parents’ apartment. She collected more than three hundred volumes. Poets and historians and novelists and musicians were all reduced to the same simple genre, survival. They’d gather in small rooms and sit close for heat and chant their works like lamentations.

To the Bund “Jewish” was a nationality, not a religion, but Chava wanted that, too. The Germans had imposed on a Czech rabbi the job of creating a museum of the Jewish life they were strangling. They gave him the art and books they’d looted and a building to put everything in. Then they left him alone. The rabbi decided to bring the Torah to the ghetto. Beore the war the Torah was a book for educated men who knew Hebrew. Now, the rabbi thought, everyone needed it. He would begin with Psalms, 150 poems that contained all the states of the soul: gratitude and despair, joy and fury, vengefulness and mournfulness and sorrow and endurance and awe. But ordinary people, the men who were workers, not rabbis or rich men, and all the women, couldn’t read them. Hebrew was a holy tongue; they only knew Yiddish, dismissed as jargon, a poor man’s stew of German and Russian and Polish and some Hebrew. So, the rabbi decided, the Psalms must go into the stew. He began translating them.

But the rabbi was a refined man, his knowledge of mameloshn, “ the mother tongue”, rooted in German. He needed a real Yiddish writer to help him. A Yiddish writer? They were all dead or dying. “I could do this for you,” Chava said, her voice wary and her tone that of a businesswoman, speaking the language of starving people. In exchange for her help, the rabbi would give her a few hours a week in his warm office and all the coffee she could drink, supplied by the Germans. Deal. He would also teach her, a girl, Torah. She would accept that, too…

At the rabbi’s museum Chava met writers and artists, wraiths who gathered to make dioramas of prewar Jewish life and sip the rabbi’s German coffee. Among them was Shayevitch, author of an epic poem of the ghetto. Shayevitch introduced Chava to the secret circles of artists who met in the home of a serene woman who wrote loving verses about the Sabbaths of her childhood, fictionalized in The Tree of Life as Sara Samet.

After the Germans deported the Sabbath poet, the group met in the hut of a painter who made pictures of Lodz before the war. When he was taken away, Chava and Shayevitch continued their discussions on their own, at first walking through the ghetto streets, then, after Shayevitch’s wife and daughter were deported, by the stove in his barren home. Finally they talked about whatever art they still believed in as they hid in a tiny room of the Rosenfarb’s apartment, where they and Chava’s family and a few others hoped to wait out the liquidation of the ghetto. They lasted ten days before the Germans discovered them.

Chava took her poems and stories with her to the camps. As soon as she arrived, a Jewish capo, a collaborator, seized them and threw them in the mud. Shayevitch, who Chava had urged to bury his epic poems as others had buried documents and treasures, clutched his writing to him. It died with him in Dachau.

Chava’s mother was named Sima, and she was one of the few older women in the camps. Those who survived the ghetto and all the deportations of the old, the sick, the unlucky – shot in the woods of Chelmno and shoveled into mass graves – had been weeded out at Auschwitz. Sima arrived there with her two daughters. Leaning on their arms she had slowly moved forward in the line that forked like a snakes tongue: Left to work, right to gas and ashes. In between life and death stood Mengele; or at least that’s what Chava remembers now. Sima and her daughters came before him. Mengele pointed at Sima: the crematoria.

“No,” said one daughter. “She’s my sister.”

“Our older sister,” said the other daughter.

Mengele stared at the three women. “How old?”

“She’s thirty-nine,” Chava said, shaving enough years off her mother’s age.

“He looked at her and let her go,” Chava remembered decades later. “And that’s how we saved our mother.”

Herman, a German overseer, saved Chava. He gave her a pencil. It was the most precious gift she ever received, a dangerous thing to have and a dangerous thing to give. She asked him for it, and he had given it to her. No paper to write on, just the pencil. She hid it in her shoe, and when she returned to the barracks she kept it in her shoe, each step reminding her of her treasure until nightfall. Then she slipped the pencil out and took it to bed with her. She had an upper bunk, close to the ceiling. While the other prisoners froze, starved, and dreamed nightmares no worse than their days, Chava scribbled across the planks of the ceiling. When there was no more pencil left, she read the words she’s written. She read them every night before she slept. Slowly they crept into her mind. Each word became a part of her, until she no longer had to think to remember them. She hid them deep inside herself, and when the Germans sent her to Bergen-Belson, there to starve among corpses because the crematoria no longer worked, the words recited themselves within her, the beginning of the story of how Chava survived.

Chapter Six, “For Every Life Saved” in Sweet Heaven When I Die; Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country Between by Jeff Sharlet; W.W. Norton & Company, N.Y., 2011

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Coal Country by Eric Enno Tamm

The smog was thick and blue like cotton candy. I could barely see the aerated sewage ponds along the south bank of the Yellow River. It was early morning. I was on the T58 train crossing a steel bridge over the murky “mother river” on my way from Zhenzhou to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province.

I was traveling on the historic Peking-Hankow Railway, the first major trunk line in China, connecting Peking with the populous Central Plains and Hankow in the southern Yangtze River basis. Built in 1905, it is 12,212 kilometers long. A three-kilometer steel bridge traversed the Yellow River and, according to Baron Mannerheim, in 1907, was the “most remarkable part” of an otherwise monotonous journey. He mentioned that the scenery was “slightly enlivened” by a rugged granite range running “at a considerable distance” to the west, but these mountains never materialized during my morning ride. I could barely see beyond a half-kilometer of cotton and wheat fields. The sooty haze was just too thick. I was heading into coal country.

The Taihang mountains are the Great Smokies of China, separating the loess plateau of Shanxi from the delta region of the coast. Whereas the name of America’s famed massif is taken from the natural haze rising from lush forests, Taihang gets its smokiness from burning coal.

Our train passed numerous rail wagons heaped with coal. I sat in a compartment with two Chinese businessmen and stared out at the bleak landscape. The autumn foliage had disappeared. Dark granite peaks loomed over barren farm plots and soot-stained villages trapped in deep gorges. Everything looked blackened. The train creaked and groaned as it rumbled along a serpentine line. Winter was nearing – in was October 30 – the Shanxi’s coal would soon be stoking furnaces across China. It was the largest coal-producing province in the country, with 270 billion tons in proven reserves. As a result Shanxi has the ignominy of having sixteen cities on the State Environmental Protection Administrations “black list” for air quality below grade 3, meaning they suffer serious pollution.

I arrived in Taiyuan at 10PM and stayed at a business hotel across from the train station. I went for a stroll the next morning. Taiyuan is the most blighted city that I have ever visited. South of the train station, I came across a temple complex with twin soaring pagodas, then wandered along a river the color of bile. Garbage was everywhere. Heaps smouldered on the streets. So many torn bits of plastic hung in trees that they looked like fall foliage. The roads were horrendously dusty, potholed and cracked. I saw a teenage boy crawling on the sidewalk, dragging his deformed legs behind him and begging for change. A sooty film covered everything.

By day three I was ill with a sore throat and plugged nose. I felt so lethargic I could barely get out of bed. I lay wheezing the entire morning and only mustered enough energy to call the State Key Lab of Coal; Conversion, the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Company and the Institute of Coal Chemistry to arrange interviews. Of course, everyone refused to talk to me…

Taiyuan hasn’t always been a blighted industrial town. When he traveled there at the beginning of the 20th century Mannerheimm was charmed by its old temples, medieval city wall, macadamized streets, public garden and pond, and shops decorated with beautiful, brightly colored designs. Taiyuan, he wrote, had “an unusually attractive appearance” and “looked pretty in its verdant surroundings against a grey background of mountains. The town sparkled in the sunshine then but has since fallen on hard times.

“In the spring, there are rolling clouds of dust that pick up junk and that move at thirty or forty miles and an hour,” said my American guide. “Big, gigantic dust storms roll over the city.” He pointed to fine yellow dust caking a parked car. During his first two-year stay in the 1990s, the city was so dirty and polluted that after a day outside his blond hair turned black. He came down with asthma. “I couldn’t hack it – the dirt and all,” he said. Now, a decade later, he always wore a hat and carried wraparound sunglasses that, like goggles, kept airborne grit out of his eyes.

“Here it is”, Stern said, slipping on his sunglasses and putting a hoodie over his son’s head. He pointed down the street. I turned and saw a massive yellow dustball rolling over the rooftops. It started barreling down the narrow street towards us. Stern quickly hailed a taxi. We dove into the car just as the dustball descended on us. I got some grit in my mouth and had difficulty breathing. On the street, people frantically dashed about searching for shelter as a fierce wind blasted a barrage of dirt, twigs, newspapers and garbage down the street.

Taiyuan felt like purgatory. After four days in the city, a gloom overcame me. I fell ill with the flu: aching bones, sinus problems, sore throat, fatigue, a nagging cough. My spirits lifted only when I stepped aboard a bus to leave.

The bus was old and filthy, its windows smeared with dirt. I sat one row from the very back - a safe seat, I figured- in case of a head-on collision with a coal truck, a common occurrence in Shanxi. A peasant sat across the row and spat on the floor. Three other swarthy nongmin (country folk) sat behind me and began smoking non-stop. I waved my arms angrily to clear the smoke and cracked opened the window. I had hoped the bus ride would be a reprieve from Taiyuan’s horrendous air quality but the bus quickly filled with a blue haze as the smokers fell into nicotine bliss. No matter where I went in Shanxi, coal dust, grit and cigarette smoke followed but I knew that salvation lay just ahead. I was leaving polluted Taiyuan for one of Buddhism’s holiest mountains. I imagined dramatic vistas, whimsical golden temples and invigorating alpine air. Paradise. I could almost smell it.

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds by Eric Enno Tamm

Friday, February 24, 2012

Chang Cheng by Eric Enno Tamm

Despite its name, the Great Wall of China is not great. It is certainly long – some ten thousand kilometers – which is why the Chinese dub it Chang Cheng, the Long Wall. China’s first emperor unified the country through its construction. The Qin Dynasty (221 -206 BC) began building the wall after all else failed to deter “barbarian” invaders. However, a chink soon developed ion the dynasty’s armour. “The strength of walls depends on the courage of those who guard them,” Genghis Khan once said. Indeed, the wall failed to keep out the marauding Mongols, who conquered China in 1279.

After routing the Mongols, the Ming Dynasty revived wall building. The fortress Jiayuguan was completed in 1372, during a period when the Ming rapidly expanded the wall westward to protect against another invasion. But by the end of the dynasty, the wall had become of military weakness and ineptitude. “Up went the Long Wall and down came the empire,” wrote one seventeenth-century official.

Yet the wall wasn’t just defensive. In the museum at Jiayuguan, I saw not just bows, battleaxes, spears and swords but a rich collection of farming implements too: iron ploughs, stone mills, hoes, ceramic jugs. “The Qin Dynasty saw the start of farming garrisons,” states a display, “when a large number of peasants were immigrating to border areas for both cultivation and defense of the frontiers. The Ming Dynasty expanded this system on a “vast scale” in the Hexi Corridor. Through irrigation and sheer tenacity, Han Chinese farmers turned steppe, alpine forest and desert – traditional territories of Mongol, Tibetan and Turkic peoples – into settled agricultural lands. The Great Wall fortified these farming garrisons. “These walls look less land-protecting than land-grabbing,” writes one historian, “designed to enable the Chinese to police peoples whose way of life differed from their own, and to control lucrative trade routes.”

The Jiayuguan fortress is practically empty now. Outer ramparts protect an Old Town that consists of a few tourist shops, restaurants and a dim, smoky temple dedicated to the God of War, a red-faced deity whose crazed expression looks like something out of Japanese manga. Inside the fort, I wandered an expansive gravel yard where barracks and warehouses once stood. Only a replica yamen (office and residence) of the military commander remains. It was nearly closing time, and so the massive fort was unusually devoid of visitors.

I climbed a wide brick staircase to the three-storey pagoda over the main gate. Like a sentry, I stood looking out over the parapet into the desert valley. A soft, orange sun was slipping toward the hazy horizon. The earthen ramparts turned tangerine in the glow. A train shooting in from Xinjiang reminded me of the long, bobbing camel caravans of yore laden with melons, spices, jade and gold. I squinted into the sunset and imagined the processions of the old Silk Road trotting toward me over the undulating plain.

I then turned around to look at modern Jiayuguan. The contrast was jarring. The scene was out of a Charles Dickens novel: clouds of steam, inky trails of smoke and brown smog oozed up over concrete apartments, a forest of brick chimneys, power plants and industrial mills.

Back in my room I pulled out Baron Mannerheim’s journal for bedtime reading. In 1907 Mannerheim stayed in a caravanseri below a corner tower inside the fortress. His Uyghur cooked prepared pilaf and murmured his evening prayer over a gurgling pot. As the sun began to set, the Baron heard the “monotonous drawn-out notes” of the evening tattoo, an army drum call, echoing in the night. “These were followed by gunfire warning honest folk to hasten home,” he wrote, “and then I heard the Chinese Empire being locked up securely behind five massive iron gates, and there we all were safe and sound under lock and key.”

The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds; A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China by Eric Enno Tamm; Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nec Spe Nec Metu by Hans Goerg Moeller

On, a reader of my book Luhmann Explained wrote "Niklas Luhmann was a student of Talcott Parsons, from whom he apparently learned only how to write impossibly vague and convoluted prose. I have found reading Luhmann extremely soporific, so I thought this book [Luhmann Explained] might be refreshingly lucid and penetrating. Perhaps, I thought, if I could only stay awake, I could learn a lot from Luhmann. Alas, such does not appear to be the case…if your teenager is bad, don’t ground him; make him write an essay on the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann.”

I sympathize with this reader’s point of view. Having read texts by Luhmann for about twenty years, I have increasingly asked myself why, even though I find the theory very appealing, its inventor did not manage to express it in a reasonably enjoyable manner. Sometimes, particularly in his later works, Luhmann’s irony and humor interrupt his otherwise extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing texts. The irony and humor are refreshing, but do not suffice to rescue most of his books and many of his articles from being, generally speaking, “extremely soporific” reading material. I readily admit, the material sometimes made me fall asleep.

[Hans-George explains, rather than excuses, why Luhmann was such a bad writer in Chapter Two.]

Sigmund Freud set up a famous list of the three insults to human narcissism, namely Copernicus’s proof that the earth was not the center of the Universe (the cosmological insult), Darwin’s discovery that man was not the crown of creation (the biological insult), and his own findings regarding the insignificant powers of the ego compared to drives and unconscious forces such as the libido (the psychological insult). [In the author’s view] Luhmann now adds another insult to this list – one that could be called the sociological insult. If Luhmann’s analysis is correct, then human society cannot steer itself. Just as we cannot control the universe, our bodies, or our minds, we are also unable to shape the social world we inhabit according to our ideals, wishes or intentions.

We try to cope with this insult by creating utopias such as “the liberal free market order, socialist welfare justice, social market economy, and the welfare state”; the gestures and promises of which Luhmann compares to the rain dances of the Hopi Indians and ascribes the same important function: to spread the impression that something is being done rather than merely waiting until things change by themselves.

In Luhmann’s immediate social environment, that is, post World War II Germany from the 1960s to the 1990s, the new left, both in academia and in politics, tended to apply “shock and awe” rhetorical strategies as their primary communicative tools. First, moral outrage was created – about the Nazi background of the parent generation; about the Vietnam war and American imperialism; about the capitalist Schweinesystem (pig system); about the nuclear arms race; about unfair trade mechanisms; about human rights violations; about nuclear power plants, the dying of the forests, other environmental disasters and so forth. Then, beautiful counter-visions were suggested: political and sexual liberation, an economy based on fairness and nonprofit orientation, political justice and equal rights for all, pacifism and disarmament, wind and solar power, a green conscience, and so on. The most prominent German leftists were Jurgen Habermas, the proponent of a ‘discourse without domination", and Ulrick Beck with his reflections on “risk society”, are good examples of these communicative techniques. Moral communications of this sort function by highlighting the scandalous and by contrasting it, at least implicitly, with a cathartically relieving remedy. In this way nonironical ethics and nonironical reason produce a lot of social and psychological heat: they are exciting. People will be shocked, be enraged, and feel threatened by being alerted to all the bad and catastrophic things around them that they hadn’t really been aware of, as well as awed, enamored, and passionate about the wonderful solutions that are just around the corner if society would only complete its own enlightenment. Nonironic shock and awe morality, in other words, operates by fueling both fears and hopes. It depicts an image of hell, but also offers a Kuschelecke (“cuddling corner”) for relaxation.

The Luhmannian attitude towards society, with all its pain and joy, with its perils and consolations, is strikingly different. Luhmann is not blind to the suffering that “exists on a massive scale and in such forms that are beyond description” in today’s world but, rather than following the impulse to react to these circumstances with shock and awe, theory (as opposed to philosophy and ideology) takes on an alternative stance: nec spe nec metu ( neither hope nor fear), an ancient Latin phrase that Luhmann somewhat playfully uses to advocate “a kind of stoic attitude” in social theory, and thus, if such an extension may be allowed, towards the world in general.

The Stoic aspect of Luhmann theory allows the theoretician to develop a potential for tolerating the otherwise intolerable. The insight of theory into its inability to take control in the world and steer society towards a land of milk and honey does not lead to mental paralysis or defeatism, but to relaxation and alleviation. Dramatically put, one can say that nonironic reason hardens whereas ironic reason lightens. It is not tragic that political decisions cannot essentially decide anything about the future of society or mankind; it is rather a form of pressure release. That no ultimately decisive decisions are possible makes coming to a decision less difficult, not more so. “Stoic politics” will hardly become fundamentalist; there is not enough at stake. Room for contingency leaves, metaphorically speaking, some breathing room. Or, ironically speaking, theory helps us to see – and do- things more philosophically.

Given the non-ecstatic equanimity that theorists may enjoy in their theoretical communication, they are well positioned to enrich society with the same. Theory operates with a radical Gelassenheit, or intellectual and communicational ease. It is, after all, only theory. This may be called its Daoist aspect. Thus, if Luhmann is not able to come up with a Kuschelecke, he at least offers a sort of yoga mat.

The Radical Luhmann by Hans-Georg Moeller, Columbia University Press, N.Y. 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Time of Chaos and Paranoia by Geoffery Gray

The topic is "D.B. Cooper", who hijacked of Northwest Flight 305 shortly after it left Portland en route to Seattle the day before Thanksgiving in 1971. After picking up a ransom of $200,000 he parachuted out of the back of the 727 and was never seen again. He became a famous American outlaw, the legendary Robin Hood of the sky, the subject of poems, ballads and rock songs; up there in the criminal annals with Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Bigfoot.

Cooper spurred one of the biggest manhunts in law enforcement, as spy planes orbited over search areas, and soldiers and generations of FBI agents on the ground waded through snow, mud and rain in one of the most remote forests in the nation. For four decades, agents, detectives, reporters, treasure hunters, amateur sleuths and others have hunted for clues that might reveal who the hijacker was. But no effort has yielded definitive results. His identity is still a mystery

Cooper’s was a transcendent crime. In one jump the hijacker was able to make the good guys root for the bad guys; his crime came to symbolize one individual overcoming technology, the corporation, the establishment, the system. Even lawmen were impressed with the cleverness and courage of the getaway and hoped Cooper would never be caught. “You can’t help but admire the guy.”

He developed his own cult following, several websites that continue to follow the investigation and every year on the anniversary of his crime worshippers toast his feat and keep the legend going at a party in forest of southwest Washington State.

Like quests to find the Holy Grail and the Lost Dutchman Mine, however, the hunt for D.B. Cooper is an odyssey that tests the boundaries of obsession, and the farther along the path one gets, the stranger and stranger things happen. It’s called the “Cooper Curse” by those who’ve felt it. Is it real or something we create then blame when we fail to find out what happened? Or is it the by-product of a moment in time defined by chaos and paranoia?

When Cooper jumped in the fall of 1971, the nation was at war with itself. In government buildings and on college campuses, bombs went off. In cities, looters roamed as riots raged and buildings burned. At demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, protestors were arrested by the tens of thousands. A defeat in Vietnam was imminent. The nation was also mired in recession. Labor strikes crippled the workforce. Unemployment soared. So did the crime rate. Prisons were overcrowded and taken over in riots. Communes were built. Cults formed. Otherwise normal teenagers ran away from home, and had to be “deprogrammed” after they were brainwashed.

“The music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment,” Charlie Manson said during his trial for murder. “Why blame me? I didn’t write the music.”

Mobs had formed. The underground was rising. Terrorists were homegrown. Communist fears were were born. Inside J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI a campaign was afoot to compile information on protestors and expose the anarchists. Phones were tapped. At the center of the spookfest was President Nixon. “I just want to ask you one favor,” Nixon told top aide H.R. Halderman. “If I am assassinated, I want you to have them play Dante’s Inferno, and have Lawrence Welk produce it.”

Skyjacking was then a national epidemic. Throughout Nixon’s term, there had been roughly a hundred hijackings of American airplanes, and over half the attempts had been successful. The airplane had become the next stagecoach, a crime scene for dangerous jet-age robberies.

Like no other innovation, the invention of the airplane and the evolution of American airpower were testaments to the nation’s technological virility and ethos. Air-power had been instrumental in winning the World Wars, in ushering in a new horizon and a new age. Boeing had built the 747, the jumbo jet. And yet, in one impulsive action, the lone skyjackers was able to show the fallibility of the costly flying machines. What good was the power of the Air Force in a country like Vietnam where American soldiers were slaughtered under the canopy of the jungle? What good was flying a jet to vacation in Miami when so many flights were getting rerouted to Castro’s Cuba?

The skyjacker himself was a kind of schizo-transcendentalist. On board a jet, taking all the passengers and crew as hostages, the skyjacker was able to create his own society. He became his own head of state, directing others- the pilots, stewardesses, the lawmen, the mayors, the governors, the C.E.O.’s - to act upon his whims. In one flight, the skyjacker went from nobody to somebody. And with reporters from newspapers, radio and television stations monitoring the drama, the culprits achieved celebrity.

Dr. David Hubbard, a psychiatrist interviewing nearly a hundred airplane hijackers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, described taking over an airplane as a holy experience,. “The skyjackers”, he wrote, “seemed intent to stand on their own feet, to be men, to face their God, and to arise from this planet to the other more pleasing place.” Hundreds of skyjackers and terrorists have taken over airplanes.

Only one remains unknown: D.B. Cooper.

Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper: Crown Publishers, N.Y.C., 2011

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger

Whatever else lies in their hearts, virtually all American jihadists share an urgent feeling that Muslims are under attack. The most important religious and political justification for jihad are based on the idea of self-defense, striking back against aggressors and protecting the members of the Muslim community. Therein lies a sticky, painful problem. The narrative of victimization does not originate with al Qaeda. It is a pervasive theme that is deeply entrenched in mainstream Muslim thought, both in America and abroad.

In preparing for this book, I read nearly two hundred issues of the monthly English-language magazine published by the Saudi-supported Muslim World League, arguably the single most influential Muslim organization in the world. Month after month, the magazine trumpets the alarm: Islam is under attack from enemies everywhere. Islam is misunderstood because of vicious lies by its enemies. Muslims are persecuted and discriminated against on the global stage and in individual countries.

This isn’t only a Saudi predilection. It can be found, to a greater and lesser extent, around the world. In the United States, the most vivid example is the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit whose daily e-mail newsletter enumerates grievance after grievance, from workplace discrimination to alleged hate crimes, which can be anything from a nasty word to murder or arson. CAIR’s message is more carefully calibrated that that of the MWL, but it contributes to the echo chamber.

CAIR follows in the footsteps of the American Muslim Council, founded by Abdurrahman Alamoudi. AMC was, in its day, as prominent as CAIR is today, but it faded from the scene after Alamoudi’s arrest for trying to assassinate the Saudi crown prince Abdullah. During his time in the spotlight, Alamoudi gave voice to the same litany of grievances and the same sometimes-explicit argument that America, as it currently exists, is fundamentally inhospitable to Muslims. This dynamic is made more complicated by the fact that all three of these organizations have meaningful ties to jihadist movements. The Muslim World League was Abdullahah Azzam’s employer, and its personnel have been linked to al Qaeda and a number of terrorist plots. Alamoudi was funneling money from Osama bin Laden to Omar Abdel Rahman even as he advocated for American Muslims as head of the AMC. And CAIR’s incorporators can be found in the personnel rolls of Hamas support groups in North America during the early 1990s.

Some of the specific complaints aired by these organizations are entirely valid. Muslims in the United States and around the world suffer their share of travails and persecutions. It is also true that prominent mainstream U.S. politicians on the right have compared the organizers of the Islamic Center in New York City to Nazis and other historic wartime enemies of the United States in comments that too often went unchallenged by members of the media and other politicians. Newt Gingrich was the most visible and most mainstream voice to make this comparison:

Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington…We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor…There is no reason for us the accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.

Muslim advocates absolutely deserve to have a voice, but they must asked themselves how they may be helping to perpetrate a counterproductive narrative about how the United States collectively treats Muslims. But Americans should also understand that extreme and indiscriminate anti-Muslim rhetoric helps validate the worldview of our enemies- the premise that America’s wars are indeed wars against Islam. Muslims who perpetuate a victimization mentality must accept some responsibility for the result. Non-Muslims who wish to define the entire religion of Islam as America’s enemy must also carry their share of the burden.

But accepting that someone, or everyone, is engaged in a war with Islam is only a precondition to the radicalization process. To complete the transaction American jihadists will usually need one or more of the following traits:

Idealism/altruism: In the beginning at least, many act out of good intentions and the simple belief that their actions can bring about positive change in the world. For both Ismail Royer and Abdullah Rashid the complexity of the real world outpaced the simplicity of the do-good stories they liked to tell about themselves. Idealism burned brightly in their hearts, impervious to reality.

Violent tendencies or an obsession with violence: In certain cases- like those of Tarek Mehanna and Isa Abdullah Ali, violent impulses are the primary driver that leads someone to jihad. Adoption of jihad seems at times like an effort to ennoble a preexisting attraction to violence. Sometimes people seek out a convenient rationalization for their worst impulses, and sometimes that rationalization happens to be jihad.

Ideology: The role of ideology has changed in the last thirty years. During the 80s people were recruited to jihad out of a sense of adventure (legitimized by the foreign policies of their government) or due to the personal charisma of leaders such as Abdullah Azzam, and only became indoctrinated with religious rationales after they arrived in Afghanistan, or other fields of jihad. Today, the Internet offers a path to ideological radicalization before action.

Identity politics: On paper, Islam is color blind. In practice Muslims can be as racist as anyone else, and radical American movements like Al Fuqra – whose members are mostly black separatists – have a strong component of racial and social politics. Islam itself can also be experienced as an exclusive political or social identity. Some American Jihadists, such as Jose Padilla, have a history of gang identification prior to converting to Islam. The allure of joining a seemingly empowered social network should not be underestimated.

Alienation: In Europe, social alienation is seen as a significant driver of radicalization among Muslims, but American Muslims tend to be more assimilated. Nevertheless, some American Muslims- such as Daniel Maldonado- felt they could not practice Islam in the United States due to social pressures. Millions of American Muslims would disagree with Maldonado on this point, but it should be recognized as a potential risk factor ( especially in areas where Christian fundamentalism predominates).

Fetishization of sex and women: The psychology of sex and gender is incredibly complicated, and I will not attempt a detailed deconstruction here. Yet it is worth noting that sex often makes an appearance in the stories of American jihadists. Nidal Hasan and Omar Hammami were described by friends as “desperate” to get married but only to extraordinarily chaste women. Some jihadist clerics even allow followers to have sex outside of marriage as part of their recruitment pitch. Jihadists can also show clear signs of sexual dysfunction, such as Anwar Awaki’s penchant for hanging around schoolyards and patronizing teenage prostitutes. The ubiquitous use of rape stories in jihadist propaganda also points in a suspicious direction: the recurring tales of jihadists whose dreams are haunted by the screaming of Muslim women raise some questions worthy of deeper consideration than the admirable goal of preventing rape and assisting its victims.

The ready availability of sometimes shockingly brutal jihadist propaganda on the Internet also attracts a large cheering section of bottom feeders: violence junkies, anti-Semites, and small men gripped by hate and self-loathing who lack the will to act themselves but are willing to provide a social context for those who would.

Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger; Potomac Books, Washington, D.C. 2011

Mr. Berger runs the investigative journalism website from his office in the greater Boston area.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Plastic Ocean by Capt. Charles Moore

A ground- breaking study by five Japanese researchers at Tokyo University produced the first real proof, not mere evidence, that plastic floaters in near-shore waters were adsorbing ( being coated by) wayward toxic chemicals. In their multifaceted and cleverly designed study (“Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment”, Environmental Science & Technology, 2001), the researchers focused on polypropylene (PP) nurdles, the preproduction pellets that are the raw material for most plastic products. As such, they’re a major international commodity, shipped everywhere. PP –aka #5 – is a strong plastic used to make bottle caps, food and sauce containers, stain resistant carpeting, floating ropes, all-weather gear, and the like. Using sterilized stainless-steel tweezers, the research team collected nurdles from both industrial shorelines and recreational beaches in Japan. These were ‘feral” nurdles, coming from shipping spillage and escaped from processing facilities, inhabitants of the marine environment before washing ashore. A separate nurdle group consisted of “virgin” pellets secured from Grand Plastics in Japan. These were divided among several submersible baskets and secured to a wharf in industrial – that is- polluted Tokyo Harbor. Each week a basket was removed until all had been collected, so that direction of exposure and rates of contamination could be gauged.

In their lab, pollutants were extracted from the pellets with hexane, a powerful solvent, and measured using advanced instruments. The basic results were this: the longer the nurdles remained in the pollutant bath – Tokyo Harbor- the more contaminated they became. They were pollutant sponges. But even the most contaminated of the once virgin nurdles weren’t nearly as toxic as the shore-harvested nurdles. Those taken from industrial shorelines had toxic loads a million times stronger than toxic levels in nearby coastal water. Nurdles from the cleaner beach sites were less contaminated but still dangerously polluted.

One of the special problems with nurdles is their strong resemblance to fish eggs – seabird caviar. Wildlife biologists like Peter Ryan had already established that preproduction plastic pellets were virtual staples in the diets of several seabird populations. A toxified nurdle hanging out for several months in a seabird’s gut would not be a good thing. The Japanese researchers also discovered that as the nurdles decayed, they released a toxic chemical identified as nonylphenol, a common additive that slows oxidation and has been proved a potent disruptor of cell function in lab experiments.

The author discovered that minute plastic particles have penetrated into marine environment at the lowest levels of the food chain, among myctophids, commonly known as lantern fish because they are bioluminescent. Lurking in the oceans’ “twilight” zone by day – the mesopelagic zone, 650 – 3,000- feet deep – they rise at night to feast on zooplankton. Many and small, these fish are rarely longer than several inches but they make up about 65 percent of deep-sea fisg biomass. They populate every marine ecosystem as 254 distinct species. At night they literally rise and shine in a vertical migration which is the largest daily biomass shift on the planet. Lanternfish are food for creatures we eat – tuna, cod, salmon, and shark as well as whales, dolphins, pinnipeds , and penguins.

The author’s study found that 35% of the lanternfish they collected in the middle of the Pacific Ocean contained plastic bits. The larger specimens contained more plastic. Cumulatively, the 670 fish they collected yielded a total of 1,375 plastic flecks, averaging one millimeter in size. A single fish contained 83 fragments. The larger fish contained on average 7 pieces. The vast majority were fragments, with film and bits of line and rope together adding up to less than 6 percent.

Now we know, as if there’d been any doubt, that lots of different creatures accidentally eat plastics. We also know incalculable quantities of plastic litter – two hundred thousand homes and their contents were swept out to sea, for starters- by the March 2011 tsunami in Japan. Ocean currents and winds will widely disperse this debris throughout the ocean and much of it will be mistaken for food and consumed. Tons of plastic litter are washed into the sea from rivers every year. We are beginning to have a sense of the mechanical harm plastic litter can cause in the guts of living things. It’s time to consider whether the world and its inhabitants, including people, are also being poisoned by plastics.
Sustainability Lecture with Captain Charles Moore Discussing his book "Plastic Ocean", Boston University, 2011

Monday, February 13, 2012

Closure by Nancy Berns

The concept of closure taps into a desire to have things ordered and simple, but experiences with loss and grief are typically messy, complicated, and not easily resolved. Still, we long for peace, order, and resolution. The appeal of closure rests in large part on the hope that pain will lesson and healing will come. Yes, of course we long for healing and we should seek it. But healing came come without closure. Even if you don’t want to give up the concept of closure, at least know that it is subjective and may take a long time to “find” and that no one particular ritual, product, service, or politician’s promise can guarantee closure.

Shaped through social interactions in arenas such as politics, law, media, self-help, and the funeral industry, closure has emerged as a dominant narrative in our everyday talk about grief and loss. How people use the word “closure” varies widely; it carries multiple and often contradictory definitions and interpretations. Rhetoric about closure reflects six typologies: closing a chapter, remembering, forgetting, getting even, knowing, and confessing or forgiving. In spite of the differences among these six visions of closure, they all assume closure is possible, good, desired, and necessary. This has led to all sorts of people promising closure as a way to sell products, services and politics. Closure has emerged as a “need” that people are told that they can fulfill through services such as executions, autopsies, funerals, private cremations, ash scatterings, wrongful death lawsuits, and public memorials, to say nothing of psychic readings, private investigations, and divorce parties.

[For Example]

Although the use of the term “closure” may be more recent, vengeance has a rich history. Seeking closure through vengeance after bad relationships is rooted in beliefs about aggression and anger. A cultural belief often referred to as the catharsis theory claims that anger, pain and frustration can be relieved through acting aggressively. The word “catharsis” comes from the Greek word katharsis, which means cleansing or purging. The belief is that view aggression or acting out aggressively will purge you of negative feelings. But is this true?

Not according to those who study it. Social psychologists say that there is no research to support the catharsis theory. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that aggression does not reduce anger but is likely to increase it. Scholars report that people who participate in activities that are aggressive or focused on vengeance are likely to have further thoughts, emotions and behaviors that focus on aggression and anger. Although revenge may be sweet for a brief time, regret, fear of retaliation, and shame are some of the negative emotions that follow acts of revenge long term.

People punish others, in part, to repair their negative mood and to provide psychological closure to the precipitating event, but the act of punishment often yields precisely the opposite outcome. To quote Sir Francis Bacon, “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which would otherwise heal, and do well.”

Prosecutor Kelly Singer is an advocate of the death penalty. Successfully prosecuting high-profile cases in Texas has earned her the reputation as a “giant killer.” She is known for her courtroom theatrics, reenacting murder scenes and referring to potentially forgiving jurors as “screwballs and nuts.” Her record backs up her reputation. She has tried over 150 jury trials, is considered a national expert on capital punishment and an advocate for the victims of crime. Although eighteen of her nineteen capital cases resulted in the death penalty, she is not one to argue that closure exists:

The truth is that there is no closure. Sure, you hear it all the time. You hear that closure is what we should be seeking on behalf of victims everywhere. You hear experts and psychologists and even law enforcement officials all over the country talking about closure as if it is some “state of mind” that we can help mommy and daddy, who have learned they will never see their baby again, obtain. But when you ask those same victims if any of that – the arrest, the conviction, the sentencing, the execution – ever truly helped them gain “closure,” you know what they all say? They all say no. They all say there is no such thing. They all say they are glad that phase of the process of the criminal justice system is complete. They all say thank you, and then go back to having to figure out how to get up again the next morning and live another day in the world that no longer has the same color and light and joy in it that it did “before”.

Not only did Brooks Douglas witness the execution of one of his parents’ killers but he also met face to face with the other offender. In 1994, as a Oklahoma state senator, Brooks took a tour of the prison where both the men who murdered his parents were being held. For reasons he said he did not understand, Brooks “suddenly had a strong urge to meet them.”

For two or three hours, Brooks sat face to face with only a glass partition separating him from the man who critically injured him, raped his sister, and killed his parents:

As I unloaded on him about Leslie, who suffered far more than me, I felt as if my body was full of water and my head full of poison. Then as I got up to put my hand on the door, I turned around and looked back at him and thought, “There is more to this.” I went back to the table, as if pulled by a magnet, and after an eternity of silence, something completely unexpected came out of my mouth. “I forgive you.” It was not at all what I was there to do. I had told Ake, “My father was a minister and he taught me that I was always to forgive. I can’t It’s not in me to do that.” But when the words “I forgive you” were spoken, I just fell back on my chair, suddenly feeling as if the bottoms of my feet opened up and the water and hatred were pouring out over the floor. I can almost see it. At the same time, it felt like a clamp was taken off my chest and I could breathe again for the first time in 15 years. I remember walking out the doors of the prison and feeling like the sky was bluer, the trees greener. All my senses were just extraordinarily heightened. It was a life-changing experience.

The concept of closure resonates with a desire to have things ordered and simple, with easy access to right and wrong. But life is messy and the future unknown. Our hope comes in knowing we can carry complicated combinations of emotions as we journey through grief and loss. We can still grieve the loss of a loved one while learning to once again engage in joyful events. The language of closure does not easily capture this complexity. We can survive a loss even when there are questions or grief that remain. We do not have to find an emotional state of closure to make progress in transcending a loss or in integrating a loss into our lives. By recognizing the tangled web of closure and the reasons behind the rhetoric (be they political or commercial), we can help ourselves and others navigate the emotion and feeling rules that come with grief and loss. Closure is best considered subjective, elusive, and optional. However, progress towards healing is possible, hope remains intact even as we untangle the story of closure.

Nancy Burns is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University. She is also the author of Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media and Social Problems.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie

What Did Mrs. Nixon Think of Mr. Nixon?

That’s the question. She did not want a public life, so, beyond a certain point, she didn’t want RN involved in politics at all. He reentered the race despite her desires. Consider this: She was an actress. I’m not suggesting that because she appeared as Daphne Martin in the play The Dark Tower, her character described as “a tall, sullen beauty of twenty,” Mrs. Nixon glided on stage at the Republican National Convention with equal ease, being – as I would describe her – “a woman of average height, light-haired, attractive but no beauty, in her forties.” But, because of training, she was accustomed to ignoring stage fright and simply proceeding. Also, the plays she had acted in or was aware of, such as The Glass Menagerie, had some things in common, and it seems reasonable to assume the play’s ideas affected her, as well. Our literature defines us, and, in those days, I think plays were generally considered more important than they are now.

Mrs. Nixon also had a role in the movie version of Becky Sharp (though she was cut from the final version.) Becky Sharp was published with the subtitle “A Novel Without a Hero” – a common concept now, but less usual when Thackeray published his novel. Becky’s rise in society has to do with climbing the social ladder, marrying well, traveling. She is primarily interested in being a well-off, notable person…a woman having to work within social constraints, but willing to do any number of things, go any number of places, to get ahead. Becky Sharp has entered the vocabulary to describe a particular kind of ambitious woman, the same way Kato Kaelin awakened people to the fact that there are people who are not exactly servants, who have vaguely defined roles in wealthy people’s lives while sponging off them.

The Dark Tower is set in the France of the Sun King, and Act I requires two props of Richelieu: “Richelieu hat and gloves under a glass dome” and “Picture of- Richelieu – on stairs.” World War II is the backdrop of The Glass Menagerie. All have in common families as the dominant social reality, subtexts of unhappiness or even despair, the theme of unrequited love, as well as the idea of the enterprising woman who takes charge of her own life – or its flip side: the woman or women (The Glass Menagerie) who literally or metaphorically collapse, done in by their frustration.

As people know, if their older relatives lived through the Depression, that generation learned to live frugally and never forgot doing without; therefore, they do not make long-distance phone calls (except sometimes to report a death) and have a very strange reaction when looking at restaurant menus. Thelma Ryan’s family was poor. Her father died of tuberculosis contracted in the mines. They barely had enough of anything. There was, however, a piano that had come with the farm Mrs. Nixon’s parents bought, and in mentioning her grandmother’s piano playing, Julie Nixon Eisenhower remembers the following song: “The music she most often chose was the plaintive song of the Indian maid Red Wing, who ‘…loved a warrior bold, this shy little maid of old. But brave and gay, he rode one day to battle far away.”

Lyrics like these get instilled in children’s minds: the nobility involved, but also the sadness and inevitability of the beloved going off to war. Every girl must identify with Red Wing (unless she is the one doing the leaving – and those song lyrics don’t leap to mind). Mrs. Nixon was left alone by people she loved (who left her by dying.) Mr. Nixon left, too, enlisting in World War II and going to the South Pacific. Our civilization carries countless variations on the theme: every woman a Penelope, every man Ulysses. Women are expected to be strong. Mrs. Nixon, like so many wives, wrote her husband daily and worked for the war effort. She was patriotic, recognizing our flag, rather than the man-in-the-moon face, in the moon, and she could not understand young people who didn’t share her version of patriotism, who marched against the war in Vietnam, who waved signs at the White House urging an end to the war, who wore crazy-looking clothes not because they were poor but because they had enough money to cut holes in their jeans when they didn’t have time to wear out the material, who had enough time to tie-dye T-shirts into smashed kaleidoscopes of color because they didn’t have to do the weekly wash, and to take over universities in their copious spare time.

Youth’s counterculture never made sense to a lot of people of Mrs. Nixon’s generation. Perhaps if she had reflected on her reading of, and performance in, plays, such rebellious youths would have been more accessible. Becky Sharp fights her way out of society’s expectations, and the women of The Glass Menagerie pay a terrible price for not questioning the prescribed roles of men and women. It might have helped Mrs. Nixon to see Mr. Nixon as a Williamsesque “gentleman caller”; not necessarily reliable, or who he claimed to be, and certainly not a knight in shining armor. When she resisted him initially, it was because she was interested in going against the script and and making a life for herself: to act; to travel; to do whatever seemed compelling. Socially, things were beginning to open up a bit –especially because women were needed to work during the war – so there was a little less emphasis on marriage and motherhood. Though she had to work, she must still have thought that she had quite a bit of autonomy. Didn’t Becky Sharp, and the other women she knew from plays?

It was to her workplace that Mr. Nixon sent the engagement ring. Instead of putting it on and dancing in circles, we have Julie Eisenhower’s report:" For a few seconds, she started at it blankly. All morning she had anticipated her future husband’s arrival, the unveiling of the ring, the romantic moment when he would put it on her finger. And now, here it was, in a May basket. Impulsively, she shoved the offering a few inches away from her.” Another teacher is described as entering the classroom: “Look, you are going to put on that ring and right now” How much did Mrs. Nixon intuit about her future husband by the gesture he made? Did she want more romance (his presence), or merely a conventional scenario (a personal presentation), or might she have wanted none of it and reacted spontaneously in a very significant way? The possibility is skipped over, as if anyone might have such a reaction.

What happened in those moments between Mrs. Nixon seeing the ring and the friend’s walking into the classroom, seeing the basket, seeing the ring, and putting it on Mrs. Nixon’s finger?

That’s where we may have our answer, but no one’s talking.

In a way we are always dressing up and dressing down political figures. The press takes note of anything out of the ordinary, whether it be a belt buckle or a slightly different haircut. As a public figure, Mrs. Nixon knew she was being scrutinized, and her response was to scale everything down to make sure her clothes were never worthy of comment: conservative; well pressed; well chosen. She hoped to hide behind her attire, to seem proper and invisible at the same time. This is how she proceeded generally as First Lady. She did things behind the scenes when possible. She did not search out the camera lens like Princess Di. She appeared proper- always proper. She let herself be defined by her acts, whether she was a representative of the United States or simply a housewife visiting schoolchildren. She wanted to be able to do what she did more or less unnoticed…She opted for protective coloration. She was the generic president’s wife, suited, modestly slipping into sensible shoes, conservatively coiffed. Yet her husband, when asked what he would like for his wife’s birthday, responded: “A walk on the beach, with a breeze in her hair.” He knew that she loved the breeze, representing freedom.

If the Nixons came to my house in Maine, they would be over-dressed. Thin people, they would be cold on the back porch and sweaters would have to be brought out, some quite ratty. Music they did not recognize would be playing in the boom box in the kitchen (Music I do not recognize, either.) There would be a lot of food, but they wouldn’t be able to figure out the majority of the ingredients. There would be mismatched plates, and wine would be served in the wrong glasses. The ice bucket would be holding a plant, rather than ice. The view would be of a lovely field that is zoned commercial, with only two restrictions on its use: no head shops; no auto dump. The Nixons would take off their shoes, as we do, and when it is time for dinner, they could sit at our square picnic table, with its so-bad-it’s-hip sixties tablecloth (more sedate than Edward Cox’s underwear, but still pretty deranged). I would of course know to pour superior French wine for Mr. Nixon, though the rest of us could drink plonk.

My mother used to rock me to sleep. One of the songs was about paper dolls: “I’m gonna but a paper doll that I can call my own, a doll that other fellows cannot steal.” She had quite a repertoire of old songs. A nice voice, too. Once, she got so enthusiastic we rocked over backward. That same rocker – the one she’d sat in while pregnant, the one she later rocked me in – is still rocking on my back porch, badly in need of repair.

That might be a conversation starter. At least, with Mrs. Nixon.

We have to wonder if Mrs. Nixon’s phone was also tapped. It’s difficult to believe it wasn’t, just as a precaution, just for the hell of it. Though she was ignored as much as possible by Halderman and Ehrlichman, nothing could be lost listening in on her calls. When she died, her tombstone bore the epitaph “Even when people can’t speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart.” Tapping her phone might have revealed just how much love.

If Mrs. Nixon could have put one word into her husband’s vocabulary, it might have been Rashomon. It had a quality she understood: it’s a complex situation, I don’t know everything, no one knows everything. The movie had established itself as part of the culture: the part the President didn’t trust, though he still might appreciate it in his own defense. For a man who thought he knew exactly what had happened, and exactly what right and wrong were, it was a timely concept – one that could excuse him, if he could use it to generate enough uncertainty and confusion. Rashomon hadn’t already permeated his consciousness as a radical reappraisal of how to look at reality, but it was worth a try. Rashomon was one of those fancy concepts, probably out of the academy. Out of the movies, worse still. Not to dismiss movies altogether; he watched Patton over and over (Now there was a man who would have had nothing to do with Rashomon.) And true, he hired his staff from the academy, Kissinger came from Harvard, others from Yale, where probably unknown to Nixon, the pointy-heads – French pointy-heads! – were deconstructing the very idea of agreed-on truth. Rashomon theory!

Mrs. Nixon; A Novelist Imagines a Life by Ann Beattie; Scribner, 2011

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Deadly Monopolies by Harriet A. Washington

“I don’t see why special effort should be demanded from the pharmaceutical industry. Nobody asked Renault to give cars to people who haven’t got one.”-Bernard Lemoine, director of the French National Pharmaceutical Industry Association.

“The plea of impossibility offers itself at every step, in justification of injustice in all its forms.”- Jeremy Benthham

What has this book’s catalog of greed, imperiled health, failures, infuriating injustices, and inspiring visions taught that can help us forge a better system of incentives and rewards for needed medical research and healthcare? Perhaps we should first take a step back.

The monopolies enabled by the Bayh-Dole Act and related laws of the 1980s have successfully allied for-profit corporations and universities. This pharmaceutical-academic alliance through patents certainly did succeed by some measures. It provided a way to more quickly develop the university innovation that lay fallow by allowing academia to transfer patents and licenses to private corporations.* The number of these developed patents has soared beyond five thousand, and hundreds of biotechnology firms sprouted as technology-transfer offices proliferated and earned their institutions at least $45 billion. This innovation has been a huge financial success, making tens of billions in profits for both universities and corporations: until recently, pharmaceutical firms constituted the most profitable industry on the planet.

But the relationship proved asymmetrical: when corporations bought and licensed university patents and funded post-patent research and development, they also began to dictate the terms under which these patents were developed to generate income, giving for-profit corporations sway over the means, timing and methods of U.S. medical research itself, to say nothing of their ability to determine which research would be carried out and what research directions would be ignored. In this manner they usurped the traditional role – and the traditional cultural values, directed at the public weal – of university medical research.

The system has failed for U.S. patients, who pay more for health care and receive less. Too often, they cannot afford the industry’s very expensive medications. Moreover, the bodies and body parts of Americans have been appropriated for marketable tissues and mined for their genes. Recently, Americans have even been given over to non-consensual research with a profound lack of transparency.

In place of the collegial collaboration that marked pre-1980’s research, today’s investigators find silence imposed on them that strictly prohibits sharing data, theories and findings at conferences. Data sharing, which was once the norm, is even criminalized. Some researchers see their drug trials brought to an abrupt end by a drug maker’s insistence that the drug be a financial blockbuster as well as a medical success. Others, such as investigators seeking better breast cancer, Hepatitis C, and hemochromatosis treatments, are prevented by a patent from pursuing their research. Drug companies go to court to gain exclusive control of tissue samples vital to research on drugs to combat diseases such as Alzheimer’s, liver and prostate cancer.

Today, profit-driven medical monopolies also present problems for physicians and hospitals, who are sometimes sued for treating patients in strict compliance with the law but against the monopolistic interests of patent holders such as Bayer Healthcare. Other physicians cite a fear of lawsuits as a deterrent to giving necessary tests.

Monopolistic medical research has not worked out for the poor in the developing world, either, because the system has neither pursued nor provided remedies for the diseases of poor people. Instead, it profits hugely from its ability to conduct cheap, rapid research with relatively poorly informed subjects who live amid a health-care vacuum that causes them to grasp desperately at any proffered medical straw, even a medical-research study without the usual Western protections of informed consent and without the provision of standard treatment for control groups, risks usually unacceptable but sometimes practiced in minority communities in the developed world.

Frankly, though, aside from the very limited focus of preserving colonial subjects’ fitness for work, the medical needs of poor people in the developing world were never a priority of Western health care, even before 1980. However, the need to maximize patent profits and ‘intellectual’ property rights has spurred pharmaceutical firms to offer a legitimizing discourse for this long-standing indifference, blaming ‘poverty, not patents’ for the medical misery of those for whom it chooses not to develop desperately needed drugs.**

The current systems failures for all these groups should be quite enough to spur us to create a new paradigm, but there is one more group that seems to be faltering: the pharmaceutical companies themselves. They have lost their fiscal primacy. They still earn billions profits are falling despite their flouting of FDA laws and their perversion of the medical-publication process by ghost-writing, faux medical journals, payola to drug evaluators and prominent medical ‘thought-leaders’. The artificial “clinical trials” aimed at selling pills in volume, the courting of customers via direct-to-consumer advertisements, the churning out of cheap doppelganger “me too” drugs and other strategies to extend the life of their patents by decades have not saved the pharmaceutical companies from losing ground.

For years, the $1-billion-a-year blockbuster drugs have been drying up, falling off the ‘patent cliff’ with little innovation in the pipeline to replace them. Pharmaceutical firms’ widespread strategy of buying up biotechnology companies to supply the missing innovation is unproven, and, frankly, it smells of desperation. Whether most firms will admit it or not, this particular patent-based system is no longer working for them either.

So what will work to attain the dream of affordable medical innovation for all without rendering universities and pharmaceutical companies destitute and unable to function, and without sacrificing medical progress?

What has been abandoned in the wake of the Bayh-Dole Act is patient primacy and altruism. Researchers once derived their satisfaction from the prospect of becoming a famous benefactor by devising the means of healing many people. They also desired the intellectual challenge and the fame of achievement, and were motivated by such rewards instead of merely by money. To return such motivations to center stage we should uncouple the conduct of medical research from the pressure to protect monopolies at all costs that is exerted on researchers today by their institutions and sponsoring corporations.

Placing the welfare of patients first is the responsibility of the government that funds the initial research on which the drug makers’ patents rest. U.S. medical research is possible only because of the taxpayers’ huge investment in colleges and universities, so it is the business of the federal government to ensure this investment goes into generating medications that Americans really need – and can afford. We have a moral responsibility to the developing world to provide the same for them, especially because they now supply the means to conduct research that produces medications more cheaply and efficiently than we can do ourselves.

We must explore the remedy of eliminating the influence of corporate lobbyists in the development of health care legislation and explore the possibility of badly needed drug-price controls. We should also restructure the manner in which pharmaceutical companies contribute to the FDA budget in order to eliminate the obvious conflicts of interests that are currently embodied in that agency’s approval process. Pharmaceutical companies and medical investigators should be required to report all their data, not selectively cherry-pick positive findings so that ‘the appellation ‘peer-reviewed’ regains its authority.

The patent system itself could benefit from fine-tuning, for example, to curtail excessive patent protections which injure the public health or prevent important research from going forward. We could, for example, build in a six-month “comment period” during which anyone can criticize or applaud the awarding of a patent and make a case for its revocation or permanent adoption. This would free millions of dollars now gobbled up in patent suits for research and development.

In recent years some progress against the abuses of the last three decades has been made. Patents can only be obtained on materials and processes which are novel ( previously unknown) and this represents a significant opportunity for the practitioners of Open Medicine to publish their findings gratis on the internet and thus prevent their use in the construction of commercial monopolies. Alternative models to compensate drug companies in proportion to their products effect in ameliorating pressing health concerns and reducing disease are in development. Various groups like Harvard’s Partners in Health and the Gates Foundation have been instrumental in bringing health care to deprived counties. In fact, in 2011, following the Gates foundation Advanced Market Commitment initiative , major pharmaceutical firms shattered expectations when they announced that they were slashing prices on vaccines to save the lives of desperately poor children in countries such as Brazil, Nigeria and rural India. These reductions are estimated to save the lives or benefit as many as $250 million children by 2015.

The means to rectify the abuses of the past and initiate substantially positive reforms in the health and healthcare of people not only in the U.S. but through-out the developing world are at hand. It would be much better for the drug companies themselves if they got on the band-wagon instead of fighting tooth and nail to maintain their monopoly profits.

*Public Citizen, Merrill Goozner, and the TB Alliance accounting of the Research and Development costs for new drugs brought to the market between 1994 and 2000, based on PhRMA’s own data, range from $71 million to $150- million ($250 million for the atypical NMEs.) The $800 million figure so widely touted by the drug companies is just a thinly disguised advertisement for the pharmaceutical industry to justify continued price-gouging.

**While some analysts and virtually all pharmaceutical companies blame poverty, not their patents and the resulting high drug prices, for the preventable deaths and plummeting life expectancies of poor foreign nations, the data tell a different tale. To be sure, health improved and life expectancy first extended in developed countries as the result of the better nutrition and sanitation, such as cleaner water supplies that resulted from higher incomes. As a result, death rates in the U.S. fell most precipitously between 1700 and 1910, at an adjusted rate of 70 percent, before the advent of important medications. But poor countries today are governed by a different dynamic, where life expectancy has increased dramatically when access to medications and medical technology has improved, even while poverty has remained static.

Harriet Washington is the author of the award-winning (National Book Critics Circle, 2007 PEN Oakland, 2007 American Library Association Black Caucus Non-Fiction) Medical Apartheid

She has been a fellow at the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The End of Richelieu by Jean-Vincent Blanchard

With each day, Richelieu’s health deteriorated. Louis appeared to be as melancholic and sickly as ever. The question courtiers and diplomats asked was not so much who would have the upper hand, but, rather, which of the two would go first. Eventually, Richelieu left Rueil and came to Paris. He felt an urgent need to indulge in his cherished pastime, the theater. For a long time now, the cardinal had wanted to celebrate his political accomplishments in grand style. After months of collaboration and effort with his favorite playwright and producer, Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, he was ready to present a machine-play titled Europe. There could be no blazing gala at the Palais-Cardinal under such circumstances. On November 19, however, the cardinal asked his servants to lift him off his bed and transport him to his theater, where the comedians staged a dress rehearsal for him.

The play’s title character, Europe, is ravished by a prince named Ibere – an allegory of Spain – after she refuses his advances. Enter Francion, the French hero who will save the damsel from Ibere’s lurid designs.

[Ibere] can speak of peace, but I know how to procure it.
He runs away from peace and even fears it;
I seek peace and put my hopes in it.
He insists that all he desires is common repose,
Then suddenly his actions his intentions expose.
It is I, with no pretense of being a lover of peace,
Who will actually define common liberty.

Richelieu came back to Paris thinking that he could survive the king. This time, however, he would not have his way. A week after the performance of Europe, on Friday, November 28, he complained of a sharp pain in his side. A high fever took hold of him. Doctors diagnosed a kind of pleurisy. Both the pain and the fever grew through that Sunday. Fearing the worse, his relatives the Marechaux de Maille-Breze, de La Meilleraye, and Madame de Combalet decided to stay for the night at the Palais-Cardinal. On the following Monday the cardinal coughed blood and could hardly breathe. Doctors recognized there was nothing they could do.

Since the beginning of this illness, courtiers advised Louis that a visit to his dying minister would be appropriate. On Tuesday, December 2, at around two o’clock in the afternoon, the king entered Richelieu’s bedroom in the company of several captains of his guard. With Louis by his bedside, Richelieu declared that he would die with the satisfaction of leaving France at a high point. He asked the king to protect his relatives and recommended to him those he esteemed capable of helping him rule his kingdom after his passing, men such as Mazarin. Louis appeared genuinely moved. He fed the cardinal two egg yolks. To exit the Palace, as he returned to the Louvre, Louis crossed the grand gallery where the cardinal had hung his own portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, alongside that of the king, and of other illustrious men in French history. One of these figures was Sugar, an abbot-statesman who had been a regent of the kingdom. Louis took time to stroll through the gallery and observe the paintings. For some reason he burst into laughter, a laugh that was heard as far back as the chambers of his dying servant.

Cardinal Richelieu’s fever and pain in the chest worsened later that evening. He asked for communion, which the priest of the Church of Saint-Eustache delivered. “Here is the judge who will decide my fate,” said Richelieu before the Eucharist. “I pray with all my heart that He will convict me if I have ever had any other intention than the good of religion and the state.”

At three o’clock in the morning, the priest performed the last rites before a swell of onlookers, including the inconsolable Madame de Combalet, and many dignitaries of the Church and government. By all accounts, the cardinal showed courage, constancy, and genuine piety in his agony. He prayed constantly, worshiped, and kissed his crucifix.

On Wednesday, December 3, a doctor from Troyes who had a reputation as a wise man gave him a pill that improved his condition. The cardinal rallied. Enough to raise hopes for his recovery. But it was merely a sedative, probably an opiate concoction. Louis came to pay a last visit at the end of the afternoon. His words to the cardinal were gentle. He assured Richelieu that he would continue his minister’s work with diligence, that he would obtain a lasting peace with the Hapsburgs in terms honorable to France. The king, many Parisians thought, seemed liberated, and much less chagrined than one would have expected.

Cardinal Richelieu’s condition improved once more the next morning, enough for rumors to spread that he was out of trouble. Most of those who watched over him went to have their luncheon. But around eleven , Richelieu felt great dizziness and his body became drenched with cold sweat. The doctors, the relatives, and the priests came back at once and filled the room with sobs and prayers. The cardinal offered more signs of religious devotion. To Madame de Combalet, who was nearby, he said: “My niece, I am not well at all, I am going to die. Please excuse yourself. Your tenderness already touches me so much.”

Shortly after she left the room, he sighed and passed away. It was Thursday, December 4, 1642. Armand –Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu, was dead at the age of fifty-seven. He had been the principle minister of King Louis XIII for eighteen years.

On a night not long afterward, parents, friends, members of the clergy, and his entire household accompanied Cardinal Richelieu’s casket to the church of the Sorbonne. The procession made its way from the Palais-Cardinal to the Left Bank, through crowded streets. A six-horse carriage, decorated in black velvet with a chevron motif of white satin, representing the Richelieu arms, carried the casket Every marcher held a large white candle. The streets of Paris, says the Gazette de appeared as bright as if it were still daylight.

At the same time, for a large part of France’s population, Richelieu’s death came with relief, because they had come to associate him with public executions and the heavy tolls of a seemingly endless war. One eighteenth- century historian of Louis XIII’s reign, the Jesuit Henri Griffet, wrote of old men who remembered the joyous bonfires that lit up France when the news of the cardinal’s passing spread. But those who revered him – and even many who loathed him- understood that Richelieu was an exceptional statesman.

After the siege at La Rochelle, the Huguenots remained subdued. Visions of bloody scaffolds* discouraged rebellion in the high nobility. Perpignan in the Roussillon, Pinerolo and Susa in Savoy, Lorraine and Franche-Comte, Brisach in the Rhineland, Arras and Hesdin in Flanders – all these contested territories and outposts constituted a defensive belt from which the French King threatened the possessions of the Habsburg monarchs Philip IV and Ferdinand III. The French navy, which was non-existent when Louis came to power, was rebuilt, and a new generation of capable men of war had emerged.

In the context of a France made up of a mosaic of institutions and corporations, each with its own regional specificity and privileges, the minister had affirmed the king’s power with his extraordinary judicial commissions, or by laying the foundations of a national administration, notably when he increased the number and responsibilities of his intendants. These were crucial assets on which Mazarin could build to assert France’s influence in 1648, sic years after Cardinal Richelieu’s passing, when the Treatise of Westphalia delineated a new European map based less on religious orthodoxy than political sentiment, and in 1659, when the Treaty of the Pyrenees put an end to the war with Spain, to France’ advantage.

Cardinal Richelieu’s oeuvre might have been a work in progress when he died, so much so that his successor had to live through one last jolt of princely and parliamentary independence, the Fronde, but still, he allowed his countrymen to think of a grand future for themselves, and that is no small legacy for a leader

*Bloody scaffolds, no kidding! When it came time for high profile executions of princely rebels, Richelieu seemed always to lack, on one excuse or another, the services of a real professional; the result being grisly ‘hack-jobs’.

Eminence; Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (Swarthmore College); Walker Publishing,, N.Y. 2011