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Operation Firm Cliff

31 Jul

Peter Cole, “On the Slaughter“:

On the night of July 7, the gates opened, even as they were being closed, when the Israel Defense Forces launched what it calls for export Operation Protective Edge. (A more literal translation of the operation’s catchy Hebrew name would be Firm Cliff—with “cliff,” according to the Hebrew equivalent of the OED, evoking in its primary definition the high place in the wilderness off of which a scapegoat is cast each year on the Day of Atonement. Words, as we know, have powers often lost on those who speak them.)

My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

14 Jun

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another. International phone-calls were prohibitively expensive. There was no fax, only snail mail, as we called it then. Each morning the postino would, or might, drop something into the mailbox at the end of the garden. I listened for the sound of his scooter coming up the hairpins from the village. Sometimes when the box was empty I would hope I’d heard wrong, and that it hadn’t been the postino’s scooter, and go out and check again an hour later, just in case. And then again. For an hour or so I would find it hard to concentrate or work well. You are obsessed, I would tell myself, heading off to check the empty mailbox for a fourth time.

Imagine a mind like this exposed to the seductions of email and messaging and Skype and news websites constantly updating on the very instrument you use for work. In the past, having satisfied myself that the postman really had come and gone, the day then presented itself as an undisturbed ocean of potential—for writing (by hand), reading (on paper), and, to pay the bills, translating (on a manual typewriter). It was even possible in those days to see reading as a resource to fill time that hung heavy when rain or asphyxiating heat forced one to stay indoors.

Now, on the contrary, every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.

I, too, remember when reading was an effortless way to pass the time. And what my work routine looked like as a result. Writing in the morning, reading in the afternoon, writing in the evening. Reading was easy. It required less concentration and stamina, so I did it during the lazy hours after lunch. My most alert times—just after my morning coffee and during my insomniac hours—were reserved for writing.

Nowadays, it’s the reverse. Writing absorbs me, so I do it in the afternoons, maybe the evenings. But reading, as Parks writes, has to be planned for. I have to wrest my reading time from the come-hither arms of the internet, so I do it in the morning.

Here’s how I do it. After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

When I get back, I sometimes post about my little rides and what I’m reading on Facebook: Schumpeter in Queens, The Theory of Moral Sentiments in the Bronx, Hayek in Brooklyn. The more incongruous, the better, though sometimes I find some funny or interesting parallels between what I’m reading and where I’m riding and what I’m seeing.

But the joking on Facebook covers up my dirty little secret: I ride the rails to read because if I’m at home, and not writing, I’m on the internet. “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” as Park writes; “it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”

I’m not sure why it’s reading that requires these Odysseus-like acts of self-denial (sometimes I also use the Freedom program to read), while writing does not. I suspect it has something to do with what Parks says: “The mind, or at least my mind, is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication or, if that is too grand a word, to the back and forth of contact with others.” When I write, I feel like I’m in communication with others: not only my imagined readers, but also my imagined interlocutors—the people I’m arguing with, the theorists I’m arguing about, that professor in grad school whose comments still spark my imagination. It’s nothing as grand as what Machiavelli described in his letter to Vettori:

On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.

But it’s definitely company.

Reading feels much more solitary. It can be boring and passive, and when it’s not, when I find something interesting that excites me, I want to share it with everyone. If I’m reading at home, I rush to the computer, and post about it on Facebook or here on my blog. And then I don’t get off. For hours. When I’m on the train, there’s nothing to do, but note it on the back page, and stay on. For hours.

Has There Ever Been a Better Patron of the Arts Than the CIA?

27 Apr

Countering Thomas Piketty’s critique of inherited wealth, Tyler Cowen suggests that such dynastic accumulations of private wealth may be a precondition of great art:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

But the Belle Époque (and its predecessor) has got nothing on the CIA.

 The Central Intelligence Agency on Friday, April 11th posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.  The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958 a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.  By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc.

As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel  skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.

Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959.

These declassified documents about Doctor Zhivago are just the latest in a long line of revelations about how central the CIA was to the cultural and aesthetic life of the twentieth century. Was there a better patron of abstract expressionism—of Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, at least on the global scale—than the CIA? And while the Saunders thesis of the cultural Cold War (the thesis long predates her, of course, but she helped popularize it after the Cold War) has its problems and its critics, the CIA did fund literary magazines like Encounter, even Partisan Review when it seemed like it was going to go belly up, international tours of symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles, and art exhibits around the world.

And while we’re on the topic of government patronage of the arts, let’s not forget the Bolsheviks, who managed, before the full onset of Stalinism and Socialist Realism, to fund, support, and inspire some pretty damn good avant-garde art. (And some not so good art: Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I’ve held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.)

My most prized print is the poster of a 1971 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of “Russian Art of the Revolution.” It features El Lissitzky’s Sportsmen, which he did in 1923. (I managed to salvage it from the garbage after the office of a former colleague was cleaned out.) While eclipsed by the later exhibit at the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum show was the first of its kind, I believe, in the States. In any event, it gives a good sense of what Soviet support for the arts achieved.

Russian Art of the Revolution

Cowen’s argument has a long history, but it’s not clear to me why he believes it’s dispositive. When it comes to funding for the arts, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

On Writerly Historians

25 Apr

I’ve been reading a work of American history for the last few weeks, and it’s making me crazy. I really think history took a wrong turn when its practitioners decided to opt for narrative over analysis. Not because that’s a methodologically unsound choice—it’s not—but because most of the people who’ve made it are just not up to the job. You’ve got these self-styled writerly historians, writing stories that are larded with “the telling detail” that doesn’t tell you anything at all. It’s just page after page of chazerai. Guys, if you’re going to be a Writer, take this lesson from a guy who knew a thing or two about writing:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Update (April 25)

On Facebook, Josh Mason made a good observation: “The problem isn’t so much that most historians aren’t Balzac, as that they’ve chosen a form that you need to be Balzac to pull off.” Is that too much to ask?

On the death of Gabriel García Marquez

23 Apr

Greg Grandin writes in The Nation:

Born in 1927, Gabriel García Márquez was 87 when he died last week. According to his younger brother, Jaime, he had been suffering from complications caused by chemotherapy, which saved his life but accelerated his dementia, a disease that apparently ran in his family. He’d call his brother and ask to be reminded about simple things. “He has problems with his memory,” Jaime reported a few years back.

Remembering and forgetting are García Márquez’s great themes, so it would be easy to read meaning into his senility. The writer was fading into his own solitude, suffering the same fate he assigned to the inhabitants of his fictional town of Macondo, in his most famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Struck by an insomnia plague, “sinking irrevocably into the quicksand of forgetfulness,” they had to make signs telling themselves what to remember. “This is a cow. She must be milked.” “God exists.”

The climax of One Hundred Years of Solitude is famously based on a true historical event that took place shortly after García Márquez’s birth: in 1928, in the Magdalena banana zone on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, not far from where the author was born, the Colombian military opened fire on striking United Fruit Company plantation workers, killing an unknown number. In the novel, García Márquez uses this event to capture the profane fury of modern capital, so powerful it not only can dispossess land and command soldiers but control the weather. After the killing, the company’s US administrator, “Mr. Brown,” summons up an interminable whirlwind that washes away not only Macondo but any recollection of the massacre. The storm propels the reader forward toward the novel’s famous last line, where the last descendant of the Buendía family finds himself in a room reading a gypsy prophesy: everything he knew and loved would be “wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men…because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

It’s a powerful parable of imperialism. But the real wonder of the book is not the way it represented the past, including Colombia’s long history of violent civil war, but how it predicted the future.

One Hundred Years of Solitude first appeared in Spanish in Buenos Aires in May 1967, a moment when it was not at all clear that the forces of oblivion had the upper hand. That year, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, in exile in Chile and working with that country’s agrarian reform, published his first book, Education as the Practice of Freedom, which kicked off a revolution in pedagogy that shook Latin America’s top-down, learn-by-rote-memorization school system to its core. The armed and unarmed New Left, in Latin America and elsewhere, seemed to be in ascendance. In Chile, the Popular Unity coalition would soon elect Salvador Allende president. In Argentina, radical Peronists were on the march. Even in military-controlled Brazil, there was a thaw. Che in Bolivia still had a few months left.

In other words, the doom forecast in One Hundred Years was not at all foregone. But within just a few years of the novel’s publication, the tide, with Washington’s encouragement and Henry Kissinger’s blessing, turned. By the end of the 1970s, military regimes ruled the continent and Operation Condor was running a transnational assassination campaign. Then, in the 1980s in Central America, Washington would support genocide in Guatemala, death squads in El Salvador and homicidal “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua.

Political violence was not new to Latin America, but these counterinsurgent states executed a different kind of repression. The terror was aimed at eliminating not just opponents but also alternatives, targeting the kind of social-democratic solidarity and humanism that powered the postwar Latin American left. Hundreds of thousands of people were disappeared and an equal number tortured. Hundreds of communities were, like Macondo, wiped off the face of the earth.

It is this feverish, ideological repression, meant to instill collective amnesia, that García Márquez so uncannily anticipates in One Hundred Years. “There must have been three thousand of them,” says the novel’s lone survivor of the banana massacre, referring to the murdered strikers. “There haven’t been any dead here,” he’s told.

A year and a half after García Márquez published that dialogue, a witness to the October 2, 1968, Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City cried, “Look at the blood… there was a massacre here!” To which a soldier replied, “Oh lady, it is obvious that you don’t know what blood is.” Hundreds of student protesters were killed or wounded that day by the Mexican military, though for years the government denied the extent of the slaughter. Even the torrential downpour in One Hundred Years is replicated at Tlatelolco: as Mexican tanks rolled in to seal off the exit streets, one witness recalls that “the drizzle turned into a storm…and I thought that now we are not going to hear the shooting.”

As a young writer, García Márquez felt constrained by the two genre options available to him: either florid, overly symbolic modernism or quaint folklorism. But Gaitán offered an alternative. Upon hearing that speech, García Márquez “understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.” García Márquez describes the style as a distinctly Latin American vernacular that, by focusing on his country’s worsening repression and rural poverty, opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Marxism.

García Márquez flung himself through that breach, developing a voice that, when fully realized in One Hundred Years, took dependency theory (a social-science argument associated with the Latin American left that held that the prosperity of the First World depended on the impoverishment of the Third) and turned it into an art form.

If Castro is autumn’s patriarch, Allende is the democratic lost in history’s labyrinth. Drawing on his by then finely tuned sense of historical existentialism, García Márquez presents Allende as a fully realized Sartrean anti-hero, alone in the presidential palace, “aged, tense and full of gloomy premonitions.” The Chilean embodied and confronted an “irreversible dialectic”: Allende’s life proved that democracy and socialism were not only compatible but that the fulfillment of the former depended on the achievement of the latter. Over the course of his political career, he was able to work though democratic institutions to lessen the misery of a majority of Chileans, bringing them into the political system, which in turn made the system more inclusive and participatory. But his life, or, rather, his death, also proved the opposite: democracy and socialism were incompatible, because those who are threatened by socialism used democratic freedoms—subverting the press, corrupting opposition parties and unions, and inflaming the military—to destroy democracy.

Read it all here, at The Nation, and then make sure to buy Grandin’s latest book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World—the true story behind Melville’s Benito Cereno. That old cliché about truth being stranger than fiction? There’s a reason it’s a cliché…

Being in Egypt: When Jews Were a Demographic Time Bomb

13 Apr

From the Haggadah:

And they did us evil, those Egyptians. They made us seem malevolent, as it is written: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel has become too many and too massive for us. Let us find a solution for this before they further multiply.

Two points. First, the evil that the Egyptians did to the Jews was to construe them as malevolent, as wicked. Second, their wickedness consisted in becoming a massive nation within a nation. The Egyptians understood the wickedness of the Jews, in other words, by virtue of the demographic challenge they posed to the Egyptian nation.

I’m not big on readings of the Haggadah that seek to extract contemporary political instruction from the text. Often those sorts of exercises seem more facile than fertile. But it’s hard for me not to see a kind of parable of contemporary Israel/Palestine in this passage.

Where a generation ago the Palestinians were construed as wicked primarily in terms of the terrorism they were supposed to threaten Israel with, nowadays the threat is understood to be almost entirely demographic. Even if every Palestinian were to lay down his or her arms, their mere existence as a people within the borders of Israel is understood to be a malignant growth within the nation. Actually, according to Wikipedia, that understanding of the demographic threat has always been there; it just has become more prominent in recent years, perhaps because of the cessation of most forms of violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This understanding of the demographic time bomb—itself a revealing phrase—is something that unites Zionists of all stripes. A few years ago, writing in Commentary, Michael Oren identified “the Arab demographic threat” as one of “seven existential threats” facing Israel.

 

Estimates of the Arab growth rate, both within Israel and the West Bank and Gaza, vary widely. A maximalist school holds that the Palestinian population on both sides of the 1949 armistice lines is expanding far more rapidly than the Jewish sector and will surpass it in less than a decade. Countering this claim, a minimalist school insists that the Arab birthrate in Israel is declining and that the population of the territories, because of emigration, is also shrinking.

Even if the minimalist interpretation is largely correct, it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population—one-quarter of the population under age 19–and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs.

Israel, the Jewish State, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.

Ideally, the remedy for this dilemma lies in separate states for Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The basic conditions for such a solution, however, are unrealizable for the foreseeable future. The creation of Palestinian government, even within the parameters of the deal proposed by President Clinton in 2000, would require the removal of at least 100,000 Israelis from their West Bank homes. The evacuation of a mere 8,100 Israelis from Gaza in 2005 required 55,000 IDF troops—the largest Israeli military operation since the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and was profoundly traumatic. And unlike the biblical heartland of Judaea and Samaria, which is now called the West Bank, Gaza has never been universally regarded as part of the historical Land of Israel.

Notice the stress Oren puts on “ideally”—even he thinks a two-state solution to the “demographic threat” isn’t likely— and the challenge he sees in removing the settlers from the West Bank (and the small numbers of settlers he mentions).

Now here’s the more liberal Peter Beinart speaking recently at Columbia:

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

And it is because of my fear of that that I write much of what I do on this very subject.

Beinart’s more optimistic, I think, about the prospects of a two-state solution. But the same understanding of a demographic time bomb is there.

Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

12 Apr

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it easy to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we have to think of emancipation in terms of possession at all. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:

—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;

—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;

—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.

1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she sometimes gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.

2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone who is no longer useful off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….

The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?

3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.

4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.

In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

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