Randy's Corner Deli Library

27 October 2006

9/11 Conspiracy at Public University

The goings-on at my alma-mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are enough to make me want to pull out the rest of my hair. Where does the free speech stop? Is it unconditional? Of course not. But what about this? It’s clearly political speech, isn’t it? Do I have to sit and listen to this nutjob’s wacked-out theories on the World Trade Center being an “inside job”? Certainly he is allowed to say whatever he wants as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody; but does this sort of speech cross that line? Methinks so…

-----Original Message-----
From: Campus Watch [mailto:CampusNews@campus-watch.org]
Sent: Friday, 27 October, 2006 11:06
To: irsslex@pacbell.net
Subject: [CW] 9/11 Conspiracy at Public University; Kevin Barrett May Be a Fool, but He's OUR Fool
The goings-on at my alma-mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, are enough to make me want to pull out the rest of my hair. Where does the free speech stop? Our Constitution is not, as noted by Judge Posner recently, a suicide pact. Is it unconditional? Of course not. But what about this? It’s clearly political speech, isn’t it? Do I have to sit and listen to this nutjob’s wacked-out theories on the World Trade Center being an “inside job”? Certainly he is allowed to say whatever he wants as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody and he is capable of fulfilling his agreement with the University to teach Islamic studies courses. Does this political speech have the impact of affecting nonpolitical action? (e.g., teaching?)

9/11 Conspiracy at Public University

By David White

Posted Oct 27, 2006

Earlier this month, the folklore department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison sponsored an event billed as "9/11: Folklore and Fact."

Held in the university's social sciences building, two leaders in what is known as the "9/11 Truth"—Kevin Barrett and James Fetzer—came to discuss their notion that 9/11 resulted not from the actions of al Qaeda, but from a Bush Administration conspiracy. As Barrett has claimed on many occasions, he doesn't "believe, but knows that 9/11 was an inside job."

Considering this event was sponsored and hosted by an institution that is funded by taxpayer dollars, the residents of Wisconsin have plenty to be angry about. But the story gets worse, for Barrett teaches a class on introductory Islam at the university. His continued presence at Madison illustrates the tendency of contemporary academe to protect its own, standards be damned.

For despite his crack-pot views, Barrett enjoys the full backing of the university's top administrators and his department colleagues. Indeed, it's likely he enjoys more support than if he held mainstream views. Earlier this year, after questions were raised, a panel consisting of the university's provost, the dean of the College of Letters and Science, and the chair of the department of languages and cultures of Asia pronounced Barrett fit for the classroom. As Provost Patrick Farrell explained to Madison's NBC affiliate, "He's welcome to his political opinions."

Calling Barrett's conspiracism a "political opinion" allows Farrell and Barrett's other supporters to depict the controversy as a matter of free speech, as if to demarcate his personal opinions from his professional knowledge. University administrators can thereby simultaneously disdain Barrett's views and defend his employment.

Although few professors agree with Barrett's "inside job" conspiracy theory, nearly all considered it extremely important to stand by his appointment while being interviewed for this piece. Their reasoning breaks down roughly into three camps:

The first rejects any judgment of professorial speech. Harold Scheub, Barrett's dissertation adviser in African languages and literature, argued that, "A university is a place for ideas, and when the question of speech and academic freedom becomes relevant, it's not with the normal, generally-accepted ideas, because these are seldom called into question. It's when you go to boundary issues and have ideas about them. That's when—as you can see—people start getting very nervous and upset.

And if you start putting barriers and building boundaries around ideas, I don't know where that stops."

Islamic studies professor Muhammad Memon—whose sabbatical precipitated Barrett's hiring—asserted that, "we're wasting our time, resources, money, energy on issues which really are not that important, and least important in a country which prides itself on freedom of thought and freedom of expression."

A second group sees the issue in terms of autonomy for the university—something all the more pertinent given that the University of Wisconsin is based in the state's capital of Madison: "We all look at this case and we wonder what's happened to the University of Wisconsin," explained a humanities professor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But on the other hand, we're really concerned about pressure from the state legislature. Once they get their foot in that door, how we're going to extract it I have no idea. I don't know if I'd say we stand by the guy, but we stand by the process."

A third group combines both these arguments. Surprisingly, it includes Donald Downs, president of UW-Madison's Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights—an organization that exists to confront political correctness on campus:

"I totally reject what Barrett stands for, and I haven't met any faculty here that agree with him in any way, but that is his belief," said Downs in a phone interview. "And sure, it's awful. It's immoral. And the outrage is certainly understandable. But Barrett has already gotten the contract to be a lecturer, so the question is whether or not he'll be able to teach the class in a responsible way. And the evidence suggests that that is the case."

"And the other issue," Downs added, "is the political pressure: the legislature dictating to us that you've got to fire this guy or proceed 'at your own peril.'

That raises a host of other kinds of questions. It doesn't mean that you don't fire the guy simply because you resist the legislature, but you should be very careful."

Because of these sentiments, eight other members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights joined Downs in publicly supporting the university in mid-July.

But there were dissenters, led by Marshall Onellion, another member of the committee who's currently finishing a book on ideology.

"In almost any other discipline," Onellion explained in an interview. "They'd regard the guy as a fruitcake. So when Donald asked the group for our thoughts, I said 'No way.' The reason for me is that I simply don't believe that he could possibly be able to teach a course on Islam in an objective fashion," Onellion continued. "It has nothing to do with his intellect; it's his passion. Any person who sincerely believes that the U.S. government plotted September 11 is entitled to his beliefs, but he's not entitled to pretend to possess an objectivity that he clearly doesn't have. Just as I wouldn't hire a Holocaust denier to teach a course on twentieth century European history, I wouldn't hire Barrett to teach a course on Islam. They'd be incapable of objectively going through the events. The analogy is precise."

Expanding Onellion's analogy, can one imagine any university hiring a professor of modern European history who denied the Holocaust or who taught that the French Revolution resulted from schemes hatched by Freemasons? One would hope that certain ways of thinking are too extreme even in today's rudderless university.

But that is not the case. Barrett benefits from the strength of the modern professoriate. Administrators don't so much lead faculties as appease them, the better to maintain their friendships and lucrative jobs (ask Larry Summers). Such faculty strength can lead to particularly noxious results in the field of Middle East studies, which is among the most radicalized in academe. In this context, what a fool believes is less important than where he believes it.

David White is a writer in Washington, D.C. This article was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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And I thought all the decent chaps had left the building...


TechnoLawyer wrote:
"If you contribute anything else, your Post will appear in our Fat Friday newsletter. Can't think of anything? How about reviewing a product you recently bought, sharing tips and techniques for widely-used products, responding to something you read in a TechnoLawyer newsletter or elsewhere, etc."


Brothers and sisters. I am one of you. I have broken bread with lawyers, clerks, paralegals, court reporters, sheriffs, politicians, and judges. I have won my share of cases and lost my share (probably more than my share, but who's counting?). But this year was a special time for me. It was the year I turned 40. Please, no applause. And hold your jeers until the end of our program. This is serious. On this momentous occasion I found that my routine had varied not a bit. That I was very much the same as I had been before my 40th year, and still in the middle of many things (c

ases, client disputes, you name it).

So in the midst of all this activity I did what any normal person would do. I cloistered myself away to think about our industry. Our calling. Our collective responsibility. It was either that or face reality ... and so it was that after much soul searching and self-actualization-style conferences in various exotic locales followed by cocktails and sashimi with sesame-wasabi puree on pumpkin-seed whole grain noodles over organic rice balls (but I digress), it's all come down to this: I want to believe.

I want to believe technology can save the profession from becoming an anachronism.

I want to believe we can embrace what's new, novel, and good for clients and the public.

I want to believe that the long tail reaches all the way to the courthouse.

I want to believe that we are not afraid.

I want to believe that I want to believe.

Why? Because the alternative is not acceptable. Because if we lawyers, lawmakers, judges, paralegals, and clerks cannot (or will not) meet the public half-way by using technology to share what we know then society has been right all along in thinking that we are a bunch of information-hording, do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do, profiteering impediments to progress.

Well I'm not going out like that. Are you?

I didn't defy my parents, thumb my nose at the odds, put myself through law school working full time at a firm where I was considered lower than dirt, stagger in exhausted to take my exams, compete against a class full of over-fed-financed-by-mommy-and-daddy-grade-grubbers, graduate to a stagnant job market, pass the bar, and labor under a mountain of debt that makes Argentina look economically solvent, to be humiliated now that I am a lawyer. In case anyone cares, while I was struggling to keep my head above water the med students across campus were busy congratulating themselves with their all-night parties and drinking games ("really baby I can prescribe anything you want, I'm a doctor") because they're the good guys.

So let me throw down this gauntlet right now. If you think you've got the stones, then let's make a difference. Let's use technology to create a friction-free legal marketplace that will blow away the establishment that wants to keep law as its little secret instead of society's tool for better living, and let's remind ourselves one more time that we ... are ... the ... good ... guys. Because we are.

Well that's my rant. Thank you for playing along at home. For those of you inclined to take up the challenge my e-mail address is mmhedayat@hotmail.com and I'm not afraid of a little criticism.

Mazyar M. Hedayat, Esq.
425 Quadrangle Drive, Ste. 101
Bolingbrook, Illinois 60440
PH (630) 378-2200
FX (630) 578-2878

16 October 2006

The Shahid

The Shahid
by Leon Wieseltier
Post date: 10.16.06
Issue date: 10.23.06

I am now in a catastrophic personal situation. Several death threats have been sent to me. ... On the websites condemning me there is a map showing how to get to my house to kill me, they have my photo, the places where I work, the telephone numbers, and the death warrant. ... There is no safe place for me, I have to beg two nights here, two nights there. ... I must cancel all scheduled events. The authorities urge me to keep moving." In the wake of an outrageous attempt to punish him for the views that he fearlessly writes and speaks, these desperate words were written last week by Tony Judt. No, wait, here comes the fact-checker. Sorry. Wrong martyr for truth. The words were written by Robert Redeker, a teacher of philosophy in a high school in Toulouse who wrote an article in Le Figaro in September claiming that there are aggressive and bigoted elements in the Koran and is living in hiding, under police protection, as a result. Last week also brought the news of the murder of the unimaginably valiant Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow. But here, where the fish are always jumpin' and the cotton is always high, the all-devouring controversy has been the cancellation of a talk by Tony Judt on "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" at the Polish Consulate in New York as a consequence of a communication from the Anti-Defamation League. "The phone calls were very elegant but may be interpreted as exercising a delicate pressure," the Consul General of Poland in New York told The Washington Post. Since I am satisfied that this was an attempt to interfere with the free expression of Judt's thinking, I have signed a high-minded letter of protest to the ADL. (The ADL's legitimate inquiry into whether the Polish government was endorsing the Mearsheimer-Walt view of the world could have been made after Judt's talk.) Judt has a perfect right to the expression of his opinion. But that is not the end of the matter. There remains the substance of his opinion, and the shabbiness of it.

In a series of hot-headed e-mails sent to a variety of e-mail chains, one of which included myself and the rest of which were forwarded to me in the spirit of the free exchange of ideas, Judt misreported some of the facts of the case. Abraham Foxman, whom he insanely calls a "fascist," did not speak to anybody at the Polish consulate, as Judt claims he did, and neither Foxman nor anybody else at the ADL promised to "smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israeli anti-Semites all over the front page of every daily paper in the city." In one e-mail Judt paranoically maintains that The New York Sun learned of the incident within ten minutes, in another e-mail within seven minutes. Also, the newspaper is not owned by Rupert Murdoch--but the fascists are all alike, aren't they? Here is Judt on October 4: "Maybe you really do have to have grown up under Communism to recognise the house style of a demagogic rag like the New York Sun ... and yes, it helps to have read Kafka to know what it feels like to go to bed a liberal, secular historian of Jewish background and wake up the next morning an anti-semitic Israel-denier." Only somebody who did not grow up under communism and did not read Kafka could have written that sentence, or someone romantically involved with himself. Similarly, on October 3: "the public space for non-conforming opinion in this country is closing down." And "whatever your views of the Middle East I hope you find this as serious and frightening as I do. This is, or used to be, the United States of America." Amerika! So let us be clear. The censorship of Tony Judt is not working. He is one of the least suppressed, repressed, and oppressed intellectuals who ever lived. If there is life on Mars, it knows what he thinks. The fact that a position is unpopular does not mean that it is unknown. Dissidents should have thicker skins. (Many years ago, after I wrote something especially vicious against the Israeli settlers, I received in the mail a package of feces in aluminum foil. It stunk.) Anyway, Judt exaggerates his dissidence, the unpopularity of his anti-Bush, anti-war, and anti-Israel views, which are by now banalities. And his suggestion that he is not an "Israeldenier" is, quite simply, a lie. "When and where did I ever negate Israel's right to exist?" he indignantly asks Omer Bartov, just about the only one in this orgy of digital piety who refused to preen and insisted upon the factual basis of opinion. October 23, 2003, is when, The New York Review of Books is where. I have never met anybody of any persuasion who believes that Judt's call for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in "Israel: The Alternative" was not a call for the abolition of the Jewish state.

I wonder whether the shahid of Washington Square and his champions have spoken or signed anything against the boycotts of Israeli academics; but I will leave the double-standards research to others. The more significant point is that what Judt was prevented from delivering at the Polish consulate was a conspiracy theory about the pernicious role of the Jews in the world. That is what the idea of "the Lobby" is. It is Mel Gibson's analysis of the Iraq war. It is not just an analysis of the impact of aipac on particular resolutions and policies: such an analysis requires a detailed knowledge of American government, specifically of Congress, that I suspect Judt does not possess and that his fellow heroes Mearsheimer and Walt have been shown to lack. It is a larger claim, a historical claim, a claim about a sinister causality, about the power of a small group to control the destiny of a large group. And it is a claim with a sordid history. Is it an anti-Semitic claim, or just a claim with an anti-Semitic past? I am told that at the recent debate about "the Lobby" at Cooper Union in New York, the moderator, Anne-Marie Slaughter, began by stipulating that the question of anti-Semitism was off the table, which was an attempt to inhibit the discussion. Tony Judt is not an anti-Semite, and bully for him. But here he is, on October 6, describing Joe Lieberman as "very ostentatiously Jewish." What the hell does that mean? Is Barack Obama very ostentatiously black? A person's politics is not just a reflection of a person's origins, of course; but Judt's writing about Israel and its Jewish supporters is icily lacking in decency, in hesed, a word that even an unostentatious Jew can understand. No amount of sympathy for the interests of the Palestinians requires this amount of antipathy to the interests of the Israelis.

There are more scrupulous, more humane, more complex, and more helpful things to do with one's freedom.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

14 October 2006

Pamuk's Politicized Prize

Bravo to the LA Times' Editorial Board. For a Tribune company paper, this is bold stuff indeed.


Pamuk's Politicized Prize
The Nobel Committee may honor lefty politics as much as it honors literature, but it's France, Turkey and the U.S. that really play politics with language.

October 14, 2006

'THERE IS NO SUCH THING," George Orwell once said, "as a genuinely nonpolitical literature." That probably comes as news to millions of Danielle Steel fans. Still, if Orwell had only tacked on the word "award" to his aphorism, that 1946 statement would have been as eerily prescient as his novel "1984."

Take Thursday's awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Though the secular storyteller has been a rumored Nobel candidate since his lyrical 2002 novel, "Snow," he is perhaps best known for being charged in his native country last year for "denigrating" the Turkish identity. His crime consisted of pointing out, in an interview with a journalist, that the Ottoman Empire killed 1.2 million Armenians nine decades ago and that its successor has killed 30,000 Kurds over the last two.

Although charges against him were eventually dropped, Pamuk becomes the third consecutive literature laureate with heavy political baggage. Last year's winner, British playwright Harold Pinter, is equally well known for his strident leftist politics. The 2004 honoree, Elfriede Jelinek, is a fierce critic of Austria's conservative establishment.

As tempting as it is to poke fun at political moralizing from the Nobel committee, the ones truly deserving of criticism are the governments — not just of Turkey but also of France and the United States — that twist language into politics by criminalizing speech and denying the truth.

Turkey continues to demonstrate its unreadiness to join the ranks of mature democracies with its many attacks on free expression, most of them springing from laws against insulting the state or its institutions. And the list of jokes that insecure Ankarites can't take is long: suggesting that troops be withdrawn from Cyprus; criticizing Kemal Ataturk, the long-dead father of modern Turkey; even having a fictional character in a novel speak of the Armenian genocide. The country is consistently ranked about 100th in the world by global nonprofit groups that measure press freedom, and the European Union has insisted on easing these restrictions as a precondition to Turkey's membership.

During that process, France has taken the lead in pushing Turkey to join the 21st century instead of squabbling over the 20th. But as is too often the case in Europe, the state's zeal to promote the truth has manifested itself in a prohibition against the individual's right to state falsehoods. On Thursday, as Pamuk was winning his prize, the French National Assembly passed a bill making it an imprisonable offense to deny that the Armenian genocide took place. This matches similar laws across the EU criminalizing Holocaust denial. Both notions exhibit an unseemly lack of confidence in the free competition of ideas and leave European governments open to charges of hypocrisy.

France has a partly questionable motivation — anti-Turkish animus — for coming down on the side of truth. The U.S., which is motivated by a desire to please its most important Muslim ally, has come out on the other side — refusing to call the Armenian genocide by its proper name. Proving again that nothing corrupts language more than politics. "Political speech and writing," to quote Orwell again, "are largely the defense of the indefensible."

13 October 2006

The Good Soldier, A Review of _Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell_ by Karen DeYoung

Volume 53, Number 17 · November 2, 2006

The Good Soldier
By Joseph Lelyveld
Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
by Karen DeYoung

Knopf, 610 pp., $28.95

In September 1990, as the first President Bush was making up his mind to dispatch a large force to the Persian Gulf to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait, the powerful chairman of the Joint Chiefs was given a chance to make a case to his commander in chief that options short of all-out war had yet to be exhausted. The gist of Colin Powell's argument was that a decision on war could wait, that economic sanctions, combined with a steady buildup of American forces in Saudi Arabia, might be enough to force Saddam Hussein to back down. That encounter in the Oval Office was set up and witnessed by Dick Cheney, the ever-taciturn defense secretary.

Just shy of twelve years later, sensing that another Bush administration was heading for war with the same old enemy, Powell stayed on after a meeting at the White House in August 2002 to make a hauntingly similar case to the second Bush in what proved to be the longest conversation they'd had, or ever would have, on an issue of foreign policy. This time, of course, Powell was in civvies, a secretary of state who'd flirted with the idea of making a run for the presidency himself a couple of election cycles earlier, when George W. Bush was a neophyte governor. Cheney, now his nemesis, was absent from this session but, as always, lurking in the White House wings, having turned the vice-presidency into something approaching a prime ministership. The Vice President was sure to scoff at the notion that the diplomatic case against Saddam as an actual or potential ally of terrorists, ready to slip them weapons of mass destruction if he hadn't already done so, had to be carried to the United Nations before any decision to go to war could be called necessary. Cheney, who'd helped place his friend Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon as a counterweight to his former underling, would see this reprise, the general had to know, as a sign of softness.

And yet Powell won that round. Bush overruled Cheney, a rare but not unprecedented event, whether because of Powell's own persuasiveness or because the case for diplomacy was reinforced by the British prime minister, Tony Blair, who felt he couldn't sign on to the American campaign to make the Arab world safe for democracy minus the cover of a UN resolution. Powell's tactical victory, which came on a matter of procedure rather than the larger strategic question of whether Iraq had anything to do with the so-called "war on terror," was to prove to be his undoing as a member of the administration and, to some degree, as a public figure, for Bush only seemed to be listening when Powell said, as he later recalled, that Iraq was "like a crystal glass...it's going to shatter. There will be no government. There will be civil disorder."

To an extent the secretary hadn't yet grasped, a course had already been set; he hadn't grasped it because he and the department he led hadn't been told that they'd already been cut out of war planning. That was something they would have to infer in the coming weeks and months. Powell knew as well as anyone in the country how policymaking was supposed to work, and that grasp, gained through the three previous administrations he'd served, starting with Ronald Reagan's, sometimes seemed to blind him to the way it was actually working in the fourth. And, of course, he had no way of knowing in that summer of 2002 how he was setting himself up, how his prevailing on the question of going to the UN would lead ineluctably, in a matter of months, to the absolute low point in his own life of worthy public service. I'm speaking, of course, of his speech to the Security Council on February 5, 2003, setting out our purported and now notorious "intelligence" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction in painful detail (its mobile labs for making biological weapons, its dual-use chemical weapons plants, its aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment)—painful because, detail by detail, they'd never be corroborated. This was a man who'd said in his Senate confirmation hearings two years earlier that Iraq was "fundamentally a broken, weak country." Now he was contending that "in a post–September 11th world," Saddam Hussein's possession of "the world's most deadly weapons" had to viewed as a menace.

"These are not assertions," the secretary told the Security Council, but "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence." He knew he was putting his reputation on the line to advance a cause he'd initially hoped to deflect. Cheney had known it too, and seemed to derive a measure of private gratification from the prospect. He'd always felt that the smooth, briskly efficient four-star general he met daily in his Pentagon years cared too much about his own reputation. "You've got high poll ratings," he'd told Powell as his date with the Security Council loomed. "You can afford to lose a few points."

There's more nuance than news in Karen DeYoung's diligent, sympathetic, but not uncritical full-scale biography of Colin Powell, which was written with Powell's cooperation but not apparently subject to his review. The news she chooses to showcase in a flash-forward first chapter concerns the sorry climax—or, rather, anti-climax—of her subject's four years as diplomatic front man for an administration that had scant regard for allies and even less for diplomacy: a week after Bush's reelection in 2004, Powell was unceremoniously dismissed by a White House that had no further use for him or his now depleted prestige. The call didn't come from the President; that's not how these things are done. It came from his chief of staff, Andrew Card, who said simply, "The President wants to make a change." Later it was said that Powell and Bush had discussed his wish to leave after one term; in fact, no such discussion had taken place and Powell would have stayed on, at least for some months, DeYoung tells us, if asked to do so. He would have liked, it seems, to have outlasted Donald Rumsfeld, an indication that he could still misread the inner dynamic of an administration that, even after the Security Council speech, viewed him as a sometimes useful but unreliable outsider, not a team player, someone with priorities (the mission of his department, his own sense of duty, and, yes, his reputation) that did not dependably coincide with those of his president.

From the point of view of those in the White House whose job it is to calibrate loyalty (notably Karl Rove), Powell's dismissal was appropriate payback to a man who always trounced the President in poll matchups designed to measure public trust, a man who wouldn't allow his speeches to be vetted, who back in the 2000 campaign had rationed his appearances with candidate Bush and fussed over his place in the program. Also, although he'd always been careful to say he served at the President's pleasure, the frustrated secretary of state had let the impression get around that he wasn't interested in staying into a second term so what, after all, was there to discuss? The way policy was made? What had gone wrong in Iraq? In the White House view, the voters had just settled those questions. So it took two months for him to be invited to the Oval Office for a "farewell call." The President seemed unprepared for the meeting and a little miffed at finding himself without "talking points." Powell had to tell him the session's purpose. "Is that why Condi ain't here?" he asked, in Powell's recounting. He'd almost never talked to his secretary of state without his national security adviser sitting in. Now Andy Card had to be summoned to save Bush from having to sit alone with Powell at their last official encounter.

Powell himself had told the story of his exemplary rise from Kelly Street and Morris High School in the South Bronx to the pinnacles of Washington power in his best-selling 1995 memoir, My American Journey, which carried him to the point of departure from military service. Although it retraces that journey, fully half of DeYoung's book dwells on the civilian years and, therefore, overwhelmingly, on his life in the second Bush administration. (All her interviews with her subject, she tells us, focused on those years.) In that context, it may not be a stretch to see its title—Soldier—as suggestive of a view she attributes at different points in her narrative to a French diplomat and a high State Department official who dealt with Powell the diplomat: that the military culture of obedience down the chain of command was too deeply ingrained for him to challenge major decisions taken by anyone in the office he'd sworn as an officer to obey. Clearly, like most high officials, only more so, he wasn't the resigning type.

More to the point, it's not a stretch to see DeYoung's book as something of a sequel to Powell's; that's to say, his willingness to talk to this veteran Washington Post correspondent and editor, in conversations that seem mostly to have been on the record—as he'd regularly cooperated on what's called "deep background" with her colleague Bob Woodward—obviously has something to do with a need he still feels to justify himself, to leave a record of the back-stabbing he endured and to get rid of whatever sour aftertaste was left from his years as secretary of state, which were to have capped his career. (Describing Powell's expectations at the outset, DeYoung writes: "The job was the perfect fit; it would utilize all of his strengths yet required no political pandering.")

In the new administration, it would prove not so simple. Following his exit, he wasn't inclined to go along with another book over his own name; his victories, perhaps, had been too obscure, his losses too obvious. "Never let them see you sweat" had been his motto. If he was not prepared to come forward with candid (and, inevitably, harsh) appraisals of those who survived him in power—Cheney, Rumsfeld and, ultimately, George W. Bush—there was no obvious story line. But at one remove, providing his guarded answers to Karen DeYoung's probing questions, he could still comment, salve his wounds, and occasionally vent.

From the evidence in this book, Powell still agonizes over what went wrong, just as he agonized over the question of whether the two Gulf wars were necessary; and, indeed, just as he vacillated over the temptation to run for the highest office at a time when even Bill Clinton feared that a Powell candidacy could make him a one-term president. Confident and articulate as Powell is, he is not a man given to intuitive judgments or leaps of faith. The famous Powell Doctrine—demanding overwhelming manpower in any military encounter—was all about shortening the odds, pushing down uncertainty. Translated into the arena of domestic politics, the Powell Doctrine had been immobilizing. The possibility of losing was itself a reason for not running.

As the battle for Iraq loomed, neo-cons mocked him as a reluctant warrior, casting him, in his words, as "the Anti-Christ." Powell had to watch from the State Department as Donald Rumsfeld set out to demonstrate that laser weaponry and computer tracking had eliminated the need for very large numbers of troops; that preemptive war could be cheap and easy for the one superpower; that there was no risk of getting bogged down; in effect, to repeal the Powell Doctrine: The troops would start coming home by summer. No longer at the Pentagon, no longer the nation's top military officer, Powell went no further than to make a couple of back-channel calls to General Tommy Franks questioning his force estimates. He believed in departmental boundaries and only wished that Rumsfeld believed in them too. So, like the issue of whether it was the right war in the right place, the issue of whether force levels were adequate was never really joined. "I did not die on my sword over it," he tells DeYoung.

A careful reporter, DeYoung largely sticks to the facts, laying them out in chronological order without ranging back and forth between one phase of Powell's career and another to establish patterns and themes. Yet she doesn't pull punches. When she comes upon a severe judgment with which she agrees, she gives it straight. Summarizing the retrospective conclusions of a senior State Department official, she goes a bit further in her own voice to hammer the point home: "The secretary had tried to play for time and erect roadblocks to slow the march to war, in hopes that something would stop it. But the administration hard-liners, in their hurry to get to Baghdad, had rolled right over him."

That's about as judgmental as she's prepared to be. Her journalistic restraint, verging on self-effacement, is a virtue as well as a limitation. It allows the reader to see events as Powell saw them when they were happening. In this perspective, his resilience becomes a kind of flaw. Time and again Powell regains his footing and optimism after the White House has cut the ground out from under him on the Kyoto treaty, on talks with North Korea, or on just about anything to do with Palestinians; he convinces himself he's still in the game, still has the President's ear.

"To Powell," DeYoung writes, "life was a series of challenges to be dealt with and then balled up like pieces of wastepaper. You threw each one over your shoulder and moved on to the next." It's not clear whether the figure of speech is hers or her subject's. In either case, it's something less than a worldview, a recipe for bureaucratic survival. Which is not necessarily a weakness: as we've seen, worldviews come easily, especially to those who have never had to be present when blood is spilled. Powell had exceptional leadership abilities and a belief in service but no particular ideology beyond a conventional urge to manage the problems he faced as pragmatically as possible. In the end, the battles he fought and lost do him more credit than the skirmishes he won. His prudence about going to war can be seen as timidity. It can also be seen as an asset his president squandered.

Perhaps his finest hour came in January 2002, when he struggled to get Bush to take a second look at a new policy for the detention and treatment of alleged Muslim militants who were to be declared "enemy combatants," exempted from the protections of the Geneva Conventions, held beyond the reach of any court (except military tribunals governed by newly promulgated rules), and interrogated as heavily as deemed necessary. The secretary of state hadn't been consulted. State Department officials thought it no coincidence that the decision and an-nouncement came while he was traveling abroad. In Powell's view, as expressed by DeYoung, Bush's "decision on a matter of international importance seemed to have materialized out of thin air." Powell said he needed to see the President.

"Bush was notoriously unwilling to reconsider any decision he had already made. He didn't like being second-guessed," DeYoung writes, "and he made his annoyance clear to Powell." Nevertheless, he agreed the policy would be reconsidered. The reconsideration took two weeks, yielding the infamous memo signed by Alberto Gonzales declaring "the new paradigm" to have rendered Geneva and its protections "obsolete" and "quaint."

When the discussion moved on to the grittier subject of actual interrogation methods, the general and his department were excluded. If he was not at the table, he'd have less opportunity to complain that the deck was stacked. On abusive interrogation and the binding obligations of the Geneva Conventions, he never bent to the Bush administration's line. In public pronouncements he skirted the subject, taking umbrage at suggestions that torture could be condoned. Later, within a year of leaving office, he privately urged Senator John McCain to step forward on the issue. Finally in September, he sent McCain a letter intended to be made public during the debate over the Geneva Conventions and whether the President had final say on how they should be interpreted. "The world is beginning to doubt," Powell wrote, "the moral basis of our fight against terrorism." Nothing further was heard from him after Mc-Cain and two Republican colleagues reached a "compromise" with the White House on a bill that left a president's decisions on permissible forms of interrogation subject to no judicial or legislative oversight so long as it was the CIA, rather than the military, that was doing the interrogating.

Sometimes, while still at the State Department, he'd rail against a "broken" apparatus for policymaking; on other occasions, he'd blame his frustration on Cheney, who had practically unlimited access to Bush. (Again, here's DeYoung paraphrasing her subject: "The president tended to pay most attention to the last person to whisper in his ear, Powell thought, and that person was usually Cheney.") The Cheney he'd thought he knew, thought he could handle, was now under the influence of what Powell derided as "the JINSA crowd," a reference to the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a Washington think tank that saw Israel as a key military ally rather than a party to a dispute that the United States had a responsibility to broker. (Cheney, in fact, had served on the institute's advisory board along with Douglas Feith, the number-three man in Rumsfeld's Pentagon.)

The recurring thump of the Vice President's sharp elbows becomes a leitmotif. On one occasion, when Powell called over to Bush's staff to say he was hastening to the White House to write some diplomatic language into a letter on the Kyoto treaty that was about to be dispatched to Capitol Hill, Cheney hand-carried the letter himself up to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue before the secretary could go to work on it. On another, Cheney dictated an ultimatum to Turkey to a desk officer at State, ordering him to transmit it without showing it to his boss. Another time he and Bush drafted new instructions to the ambassador at the North Korea talks without bothering to tell their top diplomat that they'd substituted their directive for his. Powell had to assume these slights were intended to put him in his place.

Three times in the space of fifteen months the President declared his commitment to finding a path to peace for Israel and the Palestinians. "I expect results," he said in April 2002, having just called on Israel to freeze its settlements and halt incursions into Palestinian territory. Three months later he promised that the United States would "actively lead" an effort to get a "final status agreement" between the two sides by 2005. A year later, at Sharm-el-Sheik, he offered what he termed "my commitment that I will expend the effort and energy necessary to move the process forward." Each time the words were hardly out of his mouth before the effort faltered, leaving his secretary of state in the embarrassing position of having to explain why. The first round was humiliating for Powell. Bush gave him a Rose Garden send-off to Israel, then changed his marching orders. Almost daily Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, was on the phone, passing along White House objections to something he'd said, telling him what he could not say. They were "ten of the most miserable days of my life," Powell tells DeYoung.

Only later, when he was out of office, did he allow himself to ponder the question of whether his problem might have gone beyond Dick Cheney, whether the basic defect was in his relationship to a president with whom he'd never had a serious talk before signing on to serve him. The Bush campaign had made free use of the general's name in 2000 when asked whom the conspicuously untraveled candidate would consult in foreign affairs. But Powell held himself aloof, waiting to endorse Bush until Senator John McCain was out of the running. Later, allowing himself to be used for image purposes, he sat next to Laura Bush when her husband debated Al Gore on foreign affairs. His appointment as secretary of state became a political inevitability, based on assumptions that had never been spoken. The President stood uneasily by the day it was announced while Powell discoursed at length on what the policies of the new administration would be. Six weeks passed before they finally had a serious talk over dinner, a conversation that did nothing, it seems, to dent Powell's confidence that Bush was inclined to embrace his counsel.

The White House inner circle would not have known that Powell had sometimes referred to Bush as "Sonny" in private chats with people he trusted. But they saw enough to sense a touch of condescension, enough to suspect that civilian life had enlarged Colin Powell's expectations as well as his bank account. Having faced adoring audiences, having been implored to run for president, he may have been a little slow to get an accurate reading on his role and influence in the new regime. He'd declared himself a Republican in 1995, at a time when the party was already tacking sharply to the right, imagining he could help reset its course, though he was in his own estimate only "55 percent Republican." In a similar misjudgment, he'd persuaded himself that George Bush was the moderate "compassionate conservative" portrayed in the campaign, that he would use Powell not merely to bask in his popularity but also to draw on his experience.

In fact, the two men turned out to be temperamental opposites. The cautious Powell made lists of options, broke decisions down into manageable small bits. Bush was a risk-taker with great confidence in his own intuitions, so much that he habitually interrupted foreign leaders who tried to present other views. No wonder they seemed to speak past each other; their conversations, DeYoung writes, remained "stiff and formal." Only in his second retirement did Powell gain the necessary distance to ask himself whether the secretive, seemingly impulsive way policy came into being in the administration he served derived not merely from Cheney's machinations but the President's own character and wishes. "He didn't check it or stop it or change it in any way," Powell finally tells DeYoung. "You don't go to the president and say, 'Is this the way you want it?' The president was always in charge.... It's the president who decides all this."

Bush didn't consult Powell on his decision to go to war. In early January 2003, he simply told him: "I really think I'm going to have to take this guy out." Powell thought it still too early for a decision. ("It wasn't time.... It just wasn't," he told his biographer. "He didn't have Blair yet. He didn't have a coalition yet.") But he knew he was being told, not asked, so he just said, "You realize the consequences of this?" Bush said he did, then asked if he could count on Powell's support. Ever the good soldier, Powell said he could, thereby stopping a long way short of the example set by one of his predecessors, Cyrus Vance, who opposed the attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in 1980 but withheld the announcement of his resignation until the mission fizzled. Powell's session with Bush lasted twelve minutes. "I didn't need his permission," the President later said.

In the intervening few weeks before he appeared in the Security Council, Powell echoed the line on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction with a vehemence that sounded Cheneyesque, driving through a flashing red light raised by his own department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. The idea that the weapons might not be there had crossed his mind. ("I wonder what we'll do," he said offhandedly one day to his chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, "when we put half a million troops on the ground in Iraq and search it from one end to the other—and find nothing.") But, like virtually every senator and commentator in Washington, he didn't really consider that a serious possibility.

Only when his UN speech had been firmly scheduled did he go to CIA headquarters to look closely at the evidence. He threw out a tendentious forty-eight-page report drafted in the Vice President's office that depended heavily on unconfirmed raw intelligence; threw out anything provided by the Pentagon's favorite exile, Ahmed Chalabi; threw out a reference to uranium cake imported from Niger that the President himself had just used in the State of the Union address. But he fudged the question of whether Saddam had ties to al-Qaeda and on the say-so of George Tenet, the CIA chief, kept in the mention of mobile biological warfare vans, even though its source, known as "Curveball," had already been discredited by German intelligence. Rationalization was possible: surely something would be found, even if some of his assertions proved wide of the mark.

The speech was meant to have the impact of Adlai Stevenson's address in the same forum in 1962 on Soviet missiles in Cuba. It was initially hailed in the United States—a Washington Posteditorial called it "irrefutable"—but those in the best position to judge knew at once that the evidence was shakier, even shiftier, than Powell had made it seem.

In a little more than two months, since resuming inspections in Iraq, United Nation teams had gone to more than three hundred sites—dozens of them suggested by the United States —and had found nothing (proof in itself, American true believers then claimed, of Iraq's duplicity). Hans Blix, the Swedish head of the UN effort, said the inspectors could complete their work in two months and leave behind a monitoring regime capable of discovering renewed Iraqi cheating. Speaking diplomatically the week after Powell's address, he noted drily that "intelligence"—what he would later deride as "faith-based intelligence"—was not synonymous with "evidence." Making the same point in a less oblique way in his 2004 book Disarming Iraq, Blix asked a common-sense question Americans, including Powell, might have asked the year before: "Could there be 100-percent certainty about the existence of weapons of mass destruction but zero-percent knowledge about their location?" By the Blix account, five hundred sites had been inspected by the time one of Powell's assistant secretaries called him to say "it was time to withdraw our inspectors."

Powell had believed from the start that the war could be avoided. If he mustered a certainty he didn't feel for purposes of advocacy, it was because he knew an invasion to be inevitable. The President had made his decision, in effect claiming the right to act unilaterally to enforce UN resolutions without UN authorization, on the strength of a suspicion that had hardened into a belief. When the "liberation" gave rise to the havoc he'd predicted, Powell allowed himself to be further marginalized, as if to say he wasn't the one who got us into this. He failed to take an active interest in the work of his own State Department team cataloging the issues that would have to be faced in any occupation of Iraq; something between an analysis and a plan, it eventually ran to thirteen volumes. Nor did he challenge the President's directive giving the Pentagon total charge of what was supposed to be a reconstruction phase.

Powell points his biographer to a quotation from George Catlett Marshall, a soldier-statesman in whose footsteps he tried to walk. "I never haggled with the president...never handled a matter apologetically," Marshall said, describing his relation with Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. The general doesn't need to be told the analogy has shortcomings. "Colin Powell isn't George Marshall," he observes wryly, "and George Bush isn't Franklin Delano Roosevelt."

The Worst of Times? _A Review of The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West_ by Niall Ferguson

Volume 53, Number 17 · November 2, 2006

The Worst of Times?
By Paul Kennedy
The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West
by Niall Ferguson

Penguin, 808 pp., $35.00

The time has not yet come—and especially not as we crawl through our present Baghdad, Lebanon, Darfur, and Pyongyang mires—for us to obtain a balanced assessment of how the human species performed during the course of the twentieth century. Economists will tell us that it was the best of all centuries, in terms of sheer economic growth and advances in standards of living. Historians, joined by human rights lawyers, will argue that it was the worst of all historical periods, as measured by the number of human beings killed and mutilated by other human beings. Thus simultaneously amazed by our technological triumphs and ashamed by our self-inflicted wounds, we cannot but be daunted by the very idea of evaluating the impact and the import of the past hundred years. If, as Zhou Enlai once famously told Henry Kissinger, it is too early yet to assess the consequences of the French Revolution, how can we plausibly offer judgments on the effects of more recent convulsions, from Auschwitz to the airplane, from the Internet to Muslim intifadas?

Yet we cannot of course wait that long, even if we were immortal. While the chaos and dust of the twentieth century have not yet subsided, scholars and public alike feel a primal urge to make some sense of what went on; to grasp, and locate in their historical setting, the events that transformed our grandparents' generation, such as the Great Depression and the onset of World War II; Nazism and the Holocaust; and the later age of cold war bomb shelters, Eisenhower prosperity, and Elvis songs. Then there are the challenges of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, third-world upheavals, and the weakening of the West.

This is not the place for a survey of various "histories of the twentieth century" that have been written, but it has to be said immediately that most of them are too hasty, unbalanced, and breathlessly one-sided (or bland and textbookish, which is even worse). Still, several of them already stand out by their sweep and originality, and before discussing the work under review it may be worthwhile to recall a few titles—the better to reflect upon Niall Ferguson's long new study, and understand what it is and is not trying to do. All shortlists are artificial creations— "What Are the Five Most Original History Books on the Twentieth Century?" sounds like an after-dinner game —but the exercise is instructive in itself. I remain deeply impressed by Geoffrey Barraclough's An Introduction to Contemporary History (what were the most important changes in our world condition since the fall of Bismarck?), William H. McNeill's The Pursuit of Power (how society, technology, and war interacted over time in the modern age), Theodore von Laue's The World Revolution of Westernization (on the destabilizing effects of borrowing Western technology but not Western liberal practices), Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes (on the destructive and creative twentieth century), and John McNeill's Something New Under the Sun (on what we have done to our planet between 1900 and 2000).[1] A book with a strong argument will always be more challenging, and better, than a mere distillation of common knowledge.

Onto this crowded, contested field now strides Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and a teacher at the Harvard Business School. Ferguson is what the British press dubs a "telly don," hosting successful television shows like Empire and American Colossus. He is also a prolific columnist on contemporary international affairs for magazines, and may be best known to some readers for his many forays (in the Los Angeles Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal) into the debate over the Iraq war and the limitations of US global policies. It is amusing to watch how his success with the editors of those publications, plus his carefully cultivated public persona, drives more traditional members of the academy in Britain quite nuts. It is easy to forget that his first two books were the truly impressive Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927 (1995) and The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild(1998), in which he demonstrated a mastery of the intricacies of international bond markets and private capital flows. And that his next two works, The Pity of War (1999) and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 (2001), moved him into the consideration of power politics, imperial conflicts, and the face of battle. Four large works in six years is enough to produce unease in the minds of most fellow academics.
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Still, it is not Ferguson's productivity that is important here—Simon Schama, Geoffrey Parker, David Cannadine, and others, including Ferguson's idol, the late A.J.P. Taylor, have all been able to write many books within a single decade—but the fact that, his journalistic opinions about George Bush's fate in Iraq notwithstanding, he is a scholar with substantial credentials to write a major study on twentieth-century conflict.

So what is Ferguson saying? The key, as is so often the case, lies in the subtitle of this book and in particular in the Spenglerian phrase "Descent of the West." That term has two separate though related meanings, related because the first meaning leads inexorably, at least in his view, to the second manifestation of the West's decline. In his first and principal usage of this phrase, Ferguson is intent upon exploring why the twentieth century was so bloody, and not just as a result of the tens of millions of combatants and civilians slaughtered during the two world wars but also the many other conflicts—he counts a dozen or more —in which over a million people perished. What was more, these struggles brought with them ever-greater levels of atrociousness and barbarity, so that the "descent" was also a downward spiral toward beastly cruelties and genocides, a falling away from liberal Enlightenment "laws of war," and a complete disregard for the Hague Conventions: mankind descending into animals.

The second meaning of the subtitle is indeed a play upon Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes, not just in its wording but in its meaning—the decline of the West relative to the concurrent rise of the non-Western world, especially Asia. In 1900 Europe and the United States dominated the "Orient," and the general expectation was that their dominion over that vast region would only increase as the twentieth century unfolded—all of Asia would become something like the British Raj. By 1945, and despite the Allied victories, that assumption was fading fast. By the year 2000 it was hard to believe that people ever thought that way. Thus, Ferguson argues, the longer-term and global consequence of the West's self-mutilation, quite unintended of course, was to swing the world's power balances closer to where they were around 1500, before the invention of the long-range sailing ship and the steam engine enabled the West to eclipse the non-Western world. General de Gaulle often used to remark that the twentieth century had not been kind to Africa; nor, ironically, had it been particularly kind to much of Europe from the viewpoint of hard-power politics.

Ferguson is smart enough not to make his long work one-dimensional, a saga of an unremitting descent into the abyss. After all—and here the economists' brighter arguments cannot be denied—humankind as a whole witnessed a far greater surge in productivity and prosperity during the twentieth century than in any other period in history. Now, rising standards of living, amazing technological breakthroughs, and remarkable and sustained growth rates may seem commonplace to many people in today's fast-globalizing world economy. But it is worth reminding ourselves that such complacent assumptions also existed in the years around 1900 and were held perhaps with even greater conviction because economic growth was equally amazing at that time and, what was more, seemed likely to last forever. In Keynes's memorable words, an English gentleman of that time

could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could dispatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement.[2]

What is to explain this apparent twentieth-century paradox: bloodshed and the obliteration of people and cities occurring at the same time as transnational prosperity, higher living standards, and much greater interconnectedness? Perhaps, on closer inspection, these two contradictory phenomena did not occur at the same time. Perhaps the explanation is simply a chronological one: there was peace and prosperity until 1914; then followed world war, interwar turbulences, another world war, and the grim cold war—Eric Hobsbawm's "short twentieth century" of 1914– 1991[3] ; and then the post–cold war tilt toward global money-making once again. There is surely a lot to be said for dividing the last hundred years into periods, and it is worth noting that Ferguson arranges his arguments within strong chronological segments: the first 185 pages or so advance the tale to 1919; slightly more pages (193) analyze the interwar years; a full 210 pages go through World War II; then an epilogue of 58 pages takes the reader on a giddy survey through some of the worst events (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda) of the past half-century.

Despite Ferguson's sporadic accounts of horrible conflicts outside the Old World, such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, The War of the World is undoubtedly a Eurocentric book. And that is how it should be, its author argues, because it was in Europe and its eastern borderlands—Poland, the Ukraine, the Balkans, Turkey, Armenia—that the bloodletting and holocausts were so relentless and repeated. A story that begins at Sarajevo in 1914 ends, fittingly enough, not too far away in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992. If Latin America had been the scene of such holocausts during the twentieth century, then Ferguson's focus would have been upon that continent instead.

How, then, is one to understand why extremes of violence occurred chiefly in certain regions, and at certain times? They were caused, Ferguson argues—persuasively, to this reviewer —by an explosive mix of three elements: "ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline." None of these elements is new, and each of them has often been advanced to explain wars, past and present. The first reason is so ubiquitous that it scarcely requires explanation. Ethnicity or, if you like, racism, has been the cause of many of the heartless massacres of one group by another since time immemorial. And the ethnic mix across the lands running eastward from the Elbe River in eastern Germany to Smolensk in western Russia, and from the Adriatic to Baku on the Caspian Sea, was probably more racially and linguistically heterogeneous than across any similar stretch of land elsewhere on the planet. Ferguson seems to me particularly good in describing, with ample statistics and maps, the distribution of polyglot populations. Every land in the regions he discusses east of the Elbe possessed large religious, racial, and linguistic minorities; and everywhere, hated by most people apparently, there were Jews. Everywhere, also, there were Jew-baiters and rabble-rousers.

But had not these disparate ethnic groups lived literally alongside one another for hundreds of years, interrupted by occasional pogroms but without full-scale genocides? Yes, says Ferguson, but that is where the other two elements come in. On top of their intense anxieties about national and religious identity, many of these peoples were affected by economic worries. They were affected, that is, by precisely those pressures for commercial and industrial and technological change that were forcing backward, agrarian societies, with much turmoil and resistance, into the ever-modernizing world of the twentieth century.

On this point, of course, Ferguson is advancing no great new theory. No less an observer than Lenin was excited by the potential for turbulence and revolution that emerged whenever hitherto stable social groups were upset by capitalism's habit of disrupting traditional ways of life. And while the anti-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described these processes as "creative gales," they were gales nonetheless, destroying economies like a Caribbean hurricane before new structures emerged. In the lands of east-central Europe especially, patterns of everyday life were disrupted not just by invasions, destruction of crops, and looting of towns, but also by loss of markets, changed boundaries (with new tariff walls), and new competitors. Unemployment, the slide into poverty, and rootlessness became the order of the day, as did of course the blaming of the "Other"—the bourgeoisie, the Jewish merchants, the foreigner.

Even so, these seething discontents were long held in check by powerful state enforcement agencies. When uprisings occurred, shops were looted, farm machinery smashed, Jewish settlements attacked, and minorities plundered...until the troops arrived. But what if, as happened at the end of the World War I, four great, multiethnic, autocratic empires—the Habsburg, Turkish, Hohenzollern, and Romanoff—collapsed at the same time, leaving utterly chaotic conditions right across the lands that feature in Ferguson's study? The end of empire is all too often accompanied by bloody internecine struggles for land and power, with even single villages split into two hostile camps, and with ethnic cleansing an almost inevitable result: witness the bloodshed that attended the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the ferocious regular and irregular wars that have taken place in the Palestinian and Iraqi lands since that same time, and the horrors that have occurred—and still occur—in the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi since the end of Belgian imperial rule. The collapse of hitherto strong regimes can produce mayhem and strife as easily as peaceful democratic transitions. Little wonder that the current Chinese and Saudi governments are not attracted by naive American urgings to loosen the reins of power. And little wonder that the end of European and Turkish imperial authority brought chaos and purges to places like Bukovina, Lodz, Vilna, Armenia, and Visegrad.

So far, this review has concentrated upon those events, the major events described in The War of the World,that led, slowly but surely, to the death camps and mass murders throughout Europe's eastern marches between 1939 and 1945; here was war without mercy, with no regard being paid to the Hague and Geneva distinctions between soldiers and civilians. But there is another aspect to Ferguson's story of the "descent" in the standards and conduct of war that readers are likely to find equally significant, and probably just as disturbing, although for a different reason. This is not just a story of the burning of villages, the death camps, the widespread rapes and pillagings. It is also about how so many soldiers themselves—American, British, and Empire soldiers as well as Germans, Russians, and Japanese— slid further and further away from the internationally agreed rules of engagement in their treatment of enemy combatants as the fighting intensified. It is about how total war also barbarized the good guys—Allied infantry platoons, Allied bombing commanders— even as it gave German Einsatzgruppen the chance to do their filthy work.

To develop this argument, Ferguson has to go back to the killing fields of World War I. He returns, then, to themes he first developed in The Pity of War eight years ago, where he argued that months, then years, in the trenches reduced the troops of each side from their pre-1914 civilian norms to an animalistic struggle for survival, with the predominant emotion being loathing of the foe and a conviction that he was subhuman, swine, vermin, scum. Ferguson's accounts in that earlier book of battlefield atrocities, which resurface in the present work, are chilling enough. During the fighting between 1939 and 1945 we know much already from John Dower's War Without Mercy regarding the Pacific campaigns, and Christian Streit's Keine Kameraden regarding the war of extermination between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.[4] What Ferguson suggests is that this dehumanization was a more general phenomenon, and readers who demur at this might do well to read the many firsthand accounts he gives from the Allied troops after 1945 who admit to their enraged elimination of the surrendered foe. It was little wonder—another powerful Ferguson argument in both books— that soldiers continued to fight even when outnumbered and outgunned; for why surrender, just to be shot by your capturer? Allied commanders often tried in vain to stop this habit, since what it did, obviously, was to increase the enemy's resistance. But the killings of prisoners went on, right to the end of the war.

Meanwhile, the "descent" from human standards occurred in another sphere, in the increasingly indiscriminate aerial bombings of civilian populations. The Germans, as Ferguson points out, were first to venture down this slippery slope, disregarding international conventions; they were responsible for the first unrestricted U-boat warfare against merchant shipping; the first Zeppelin bombings of enemy towns; the first use of gas in the trenches. During World War II they were also the first to break loose of conventions, whether in the bombings of Warsaw, Amsterdam, Coventry, and London, or in the strafing of streams of retreating civilian refugees throughout Poland, Belgium, and northern France. Did not Churchill himself, in speech after speech in the House of Commons between 1940 and 1942, warn the German nation that as it sowed, so would it reap? He did indeed, though it is doubtful whether Churchill, even with his great imagination, could foresee the devastation that would be wrought upon Germany's cities and towns by 1944 and 1945, from Hamburg to Berlin to Dresden. And in truth, for many who ordered and fought in those aerial campaigns, the revolutionary new weapons that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, as Truman put it, just another big bomb.

Ferguson pays attention to the story of aerial bombing, not because he is on some desperate search for moral equivalency; there is no doubt, in his mind, that Adolf Hitler dragged humanity down into its worst-ever period of beastliness, and that Joseph Stalin came close after him, even if Mao and Pol Pot are serious also-rans. His point is that a steady, downward progression occurred on almost all fronts. During the first few months of World War II, the RAF Bomber Command was dropping only pamphlets over such German port cities as Bremen and Hamburg. Four years later—and following a tortured story of technological failures and successes—it was able to reduce Dresden to crumbled limestone and shattered marble. It was an ugly story because, somewhere along its telling, the strategic bombing campaign descended beneath the thin line which separates discriminate from indiscriminate warfare.[5] But it is an integral part of Ferguson's account of how advanced human societies came ever closer to the barbarities envisioned in H.G. Wells's 1898 classic The War of the Worlds, except that in that novel the mass extermination of mankind was carried out by Martians. During the twentieth century, it was carried out by human hands and the killing instruments they controlled, against other humans.

Thus, in the author's words, "the victory of 1945 was a tainted victory— if indeed it was a victory at all." That seems to me, though, to be confusing two things. To be sure, the pursuit of Allied victory over the Nazi-Fascist world had seen deviations from the norm; the story is indeed tainted. But to offer this entire sentence without some further reflection on the war's meaning runs the risk of forgetting that the young men who fought their way through North Africa, Burma, Italy, Normandy, and the Pacific Isles did so because they had been attacked and were threatened with defeat and conquest, and because they were determined to restore the liberties of others. Their deviations from the moral codes on warfare were the exceptions, not the rule. And it is no surprise that some of those who had fought, for example, the young British army captain Brian Urquhart were shocked to their knees when they entered Nazi concentration camps in May 1945, and then thrilled when they learned of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco only a month later.[6] In most respects, the US, the British, and their smaller Western allies had not descended into the pit, and it was a victory. The same could not be said for the Soviets.

It would have been better had this book ended in 1945, with the gates to the concentration camps being opened and with large numbers of the Nazi elites committing suicide along with their Führer. The epilogue is simply too brief to be of use, a sort of flickering flashlight upon a number of grim and unusual episodes of the postwar world, from the involvement of the CIA in Guatemala's dirty wars to Richard Nixon's approach to China. Mingled in all this is Ferguson's opinion, not at all developed, that the real winner of the twentieth century is Asia. That, it seems to me, is a subject for a separate book (and, of course, a very debatable proposition) and not an idea that should be tacked on at the end of a vast, formidably argued work.[7]

The War of the World is wonderfully produced by the Penguin Press, which seems better than most other publishers to have grasped the basic truth that a book, even a large and relatively expensive book, is going to attract readers who appreciate fine layout, a great index, a superb bibliography and footnote apparatus, as well as a challenging text. They ought to be pleased with this production.

This is Ferguson's best work, by far, since The Pity of War. In many respects, from the dust jackets of both works (each one shows a dead soldier on a muddy, devastated battlefield) to his reflections on everything from bond markets to the face of battle, he has returned to the themes of his earlier book and to his strengths. By comparison, the intervening books, Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003) and American Colossus: The Price of America's Empire(2004), are lightweight. His new production is a learned and difficult work; it is also extremely selective, in time and space, and there are places where the "descent" theme slips from the deterioration of the rules of combat to an analysis of civilian atrocities and comes back to the battlefield again, testing the reader's sense that he has got the main argument right. Ferguson's concluding thesis that "Asia was the winner" is more a distraction than a conclusion; but his book as a whole left this reader deeply troubled by his reminders of what humankind had repeatedly inflicted upon itself over the past hundred years, and not a little scared at what we might manage to do in the decades to come. And that, no doubt, is what its author intended from the beginning.

[1] Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Basic Books, 1964); William H. McNeill, The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society Since AD 1000 (University of Chicago Press, 1982); Theodore H. von Laue, The World Revolution of Westernization: The Twentieth Century in Global Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1987); Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991(London: Michael Joseph, 1994); J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (Norton, 2000).

[2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (written and published immediately after the Treaty of Versailles was signed; Transaction, 2003 edition, pp. 11–12, is used here). Ferguson quotes and paraphrases on page4 of The War of the World.

[3] As in the subtitle of his book Age of Extremes (see note 1 above).

[4] John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War(Pantheon, 1986); Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die Sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen 1941– 1945 (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1978). Both books are equally grisly, although dealing with campaigns that could not be more geographically and, in a major way, historically different.

[5] The classic account remains Sir Charles K. Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany, 1939–1945, four volumes (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1961), but there is also a remarkable, succinct summary of this evolution in Sir Basil Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War (Putnam, 1970), Chapter 33.

[6] Brian Urquhart, A Life in Peace and War (Harper and Row, 1987). Pages 81–84 cover Urquhart's encounter with the atrocities at Bergen-Belsen; Chapter 7 his going to work for the fledgling UN.

[7] Compare the brevity in this work with the central place "the rise of Asia" plays in Barraclough's An Introduction to Contemporary History, Chapters 3, 4, and 6.

The American Way of Secrecy

October 8, 2006
The American Way of Secrecy

A RECENT article in The Washington Post described how researchers at George Washington University’s National Security Archive were surprised to find 1970’s statistics on the size of the American nuclear arsenal blacked out in documents they had obtained. This was surprising because the figures had been published many times in the past; more detailed ones had in fact been given directly to the Soviets in various arms control talks. And yet bureaucrats in the Defense and Energy Departments, acting under new post-9/11 rules, deemed the airing of this historical information dangerous in a world of terrorists and rogue nations.

It has become a cliché to say that “everything changed” after 9/11, but for two great American intellectuals — the sociologist Edward Shils and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator — recent events would have represented the eternal return of the same. Both argued that in the past, the United States has taken real foreign threats and vastly exaggerated the menace they represented, spinning out conspiracy theories. These justified the creation of a state based on secrecy that undermined American liberties and the free exchange of information, the fundamental sources of success for the United States as a society.

Shils, one of the founders of modernization theory and a longtime professor at the University of Chicago, wrote “The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies” in 1956, in the immediate aftermath of the McCarthy era. Shils accepted the reality of the Soviet threat and the existence of conspiracies against the American way of life. But he also argued that American democracy, in contrast to the historically aristocratic orders in Europe, was based on a principle of publicity in public affairs — indeed, it “luxuriated” in its wide-open culture. That openness made the idea of external threat and internal subversion especially shocking: “In America, more excitable temperaments and a tradition of violence in expression and energy in action have prompted a passionate response to the threat of secret machinations.” A weaker sense of privacy than that of the Europeans, as well as a “flimsier attachment to corporate bodies,” made Americans seek their identity in great national symbols, leading to a hyperpatriotism and a tendency to see things in black and white.

In the early days of the cold war, the government’s response to these fears was to grant the executive branch a huge degree of discretion in security affairs. The most visible manifestation of this tendency was the development of a classification system that suddenly removed a large amount of information from public scrutiny, and a system of loyalty checks that, in Shils’s words, “hurt the delicate tissue which binds our society together.”

Shils had no more ardent disciple than Moynihan, who wrote an introduction to a 1996 reissue of “The Torment of Secrecy.” Moynihan used his perch on the Senate Intelligence Committee to make a sustained attack on the government’s penchant for secrecy, and for his fellow Americans’ willingness to tolerate restrictions on their liberties in the name of security. In his book “Secrecy: The American Experience,” published in 1998, he argued that “secrecy enables a constitutionally weak executive to bypass the legislature in making decisions that the legislature will not support when things go wrong.”

Moynihan pointed out that the Venona intercepts of decrypted Soviet communications from the late 1940’s, declassified only after the cold war ended, showed without a doubt that there had been a major Soviet spy network in the United States. The intercepts proved that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of atomic espionage, and that Whittaker Chambers’s charges that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent were correct. Defense of Hiss had of course become a cause célèbre among the liberal intelligentsia of the 1950’s. And yet security officials within the government all along had conclusive evidence of his spying, and of the true scope of the Soviet conspiracy. But they failed to reveal what they knew, even to President Truman. This failure, Moynihan said, allowed the public imagination to supplement real knowledge with destructive fantasies, which in turn called into being a generation of anti-anti-Communists. This is a polarization with which we are still living today.

The creation of a national security bureaucracy walled off from public scrutiny produced other malign effects as well. Assumptions about the economic strength of the Soviet Union generated by the intelligence community were not scrutinized against what many people who had actually visited the country knew about its condition. This led to a consistent overestimating of the Soviet threat and the failure to predict the largest event of the late-20th century, the collapse of Communism. All bureaucracies seek to enlarge their missions, and in true form the end of the cold war led not to a decrease in the number of official secrets, but to a vast increase.

Rereading these books in the light of 9/11, the Iraq war and the Bush administration’s current efforts to extend executive power makes one realize the extent to which our current situation is not in the least new. While the nihilistic murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on American soil was unprecedented, the fact remains that both the actual and perceived threat of the late 1940’s was much more acute than the one presented by Islamist terrorism today. The Communists controlled a huge nation-state — the Soviet Union — and conquered half of Europe. In 1949 they came to power in the most populous country in the world. The awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons was new; experts at the time confidently predicted that many states would acquire them in short order and that future wars would be nuclear. Americans lived in the shadow not of the destruction of a single city, but of their entire society. And the enemy had agents who could potentially penetrate the country’s most elite institutions, something few jihadists can aspire to do today.

All new threats entail huge uncertainties. Then, as now, there was a pronounced tendency to assume the worst, and for the government to claim enormous discretion in protecting the American public. The Bush administration has consistently argued that it needs to be protected from Congressional oversight and media scrutiny. An example is the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of telephone traffic into and out of the United States. Rather than going to Congress and trying to negotiate changes to the law that regulates such activities, the administration simply grabbed that authority for itself, saying, in effect, “Trust us: if you knew what we know about the threat, you’d be perfectly happy to have us do what we’re doing.” In other areas, like the holding of prisoners in Guantánamo and interrogation methods used there and in the Middle East, one can only quote Moynihan on an earlier era: “As fears of Communist conspiracies and German subversion mounted, it was the U.S. government’s conduct that approached the illegal.”

Even if we do not at this juncture know the full scope of the threat we face from jihadist terrorism, it is certainly large enough to justify many changes in the way we conduct our lives, both at home and abroad. But the American government does have a track record in dealing with similar problems in the past, one suggesting that all American institutions — Congress, the courts, the news media — need to do their jobs in scrutinizing official behavior, and not take the easy way out of deferring to the executive. Past experience also suggests that the government would do far better to make public what it knows, as well as the limits of that knowledge, if we are to arrive at a balanced view of the challenges we face today.

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the author of “America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy.”

'The Inheritance of Loss,' by Kiran Desai

This book won the Man/Booker Prize for the best British Novel of 2006. I look forward to reading it as it arrived today from Amazon.


February 12, 2006
'The Inheritance of Loss,' by Kiran Desai
Wounded by the West

ALTHOUGH it focuses on the fate of a few powerless individuals, Kiran Desai's extraordinary new novel manages to explore, with intimacy and insight, just about every contemporary international issue: globalization, multiculturalism, economic inequality, fundamentalism and terrorist violence. Despite being set in the mid-1980's, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel.

"The Inheritance of Loss" opens with a teenage Indian girl, an orphan called Sai, living with her Cambridge-educated Anglophile grandfather, a retired judge, in the town of Kalimpong on the Indian side of the Himalayas. Sai is romantically involved with her math tutor, Gyan, the descendant of a Nepali Gurkha mercenary, but he eventually recoils from her obvious privilege and falls in with a group of ethnic Nepalese insurgents. In a parallel narrative, we are shown the life of Biju, the son of

Sai's grandfather's cook, who belongs to the "shadow class" of illegal immigrants in New York and spends much of his time dodging the authorities, moving from one ill-paid job to another.

What binds these seemingly disparate characters is a shared historical legacy and a common experience of impotence and humiliation. "Certain moves made long ago had produced all of them," Desai writes, referring to centuries of subjection by the economic and cultural power of the West. But the beginnings of an apparently leveled field in a late-20th-century global economy serve merely to scratch those wounds rather than heal them.

Almost all of Desai's characters have been stunted by their encounters with the West. As a student, isolated in racist England, the future judge feels "barely human at all" and leaps "when touched on the arm as if from an unbearable intimacy." Yet on his return to India, he finds himself despising his apparently backward Indian wife.

The judge is one of those "ridiculous Indians," as the novel puts it, "who couldn't rid themselves of what they had broken their souls to learn" and whose Anglophilia can only turn into self-hatred. These Indians are also an unwanted anachronism in postcolonial India, where long-suppressed peoples have begun to awaken to their dereliction, to express their anger and despair. For some of Desai's characters, including one of the judge's neighbors in Kalimpong, this comes as a distinct shock: "Just when Lola had thought it would continue, a hundred years like the one past — Trollope, BBC, a burst of hilarity at Christmas — all of a sudden, all that they had claimed innocent, fun, funny, not really to matter, was proven wrong."

There is no mistaking the literary influences on Desai's exploration of postcolonial chaos and despair. Early in the novel, she sets two Anglophilic Indian women to discussing "A Bend in the River," V. S. Naipaul's powerfully bleak novel about traditional Africa's encounter with the modern world. Lola, whose clothesline sags "under a load of Marks and Spencer's panties," thinks Naipaul is "strange. Stuck in the past. . . . He has not progressed. Colonial neurosis, he's never freed himself from it." Lola goes on to accuse Naipaul of ignoring the fact that there is a "new England," a "completely cosmopolitan society" where "chicken tikka masala has replaced fish and chips as the No. 1 takeout dinner." As further evidence, she mentions her own daughter, a newsreader for BBC radio, who "doesn't have a chip on her shoulder."

Desai takes a skeptical view of the West's consumer-driven multiculturalism, noting the "sanitized elegance" of Lola's daughter's British-accented voice, which is "triumphant over any horrors the world might thrust upon others." At such moments, Desai seems far from writers like Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, whose fiction takes a generally optimistic view of what Salman Rushdie has called "hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs."

In fact, Desai's novel seems to argue that such multiculturalism, confined to the Western metropolis and academe, doesn't begin to address the causes of extremism and violence in the modern world. Nor, it suggests, can economic globalization become a route to prosperity for the downtrodden. "Profit," Desai observes at one point, "could only be harvested in the gap between nations, working one against the other."

This leaves most people in the postcolonial world with only the promise of a shabby modernity — modernity, as Desai puts it, "in its meanest form, brand-new one day, in ruin the next." Not surprisingly, half-educated, uprooted men like Gyan gravitate to the first available political cause in their search for a better way. He joins what sounds like an ethnic nationalist movement largely as an opportunity to vent his rage and frustration. "Old hatreds are endlessly retrievable," Desai reminds us, and they are "purer . . . because the grief of the past was gone. Just the fury remained, distilled, liberating."

Unlike Gyan, others try to escape. In scene after scene depicting this process — a boarding house in England, derelict bungalows in Kalimpong, immigrant-packed basements in New York — Desai's novel seems lit by a moral intelligence at once fierce and tender. But no scene is more harrowing than the one in which Biju joins a crowd of Indians scrambling to reach the visa counter at the United States Embassy: "Biggest pusher, first place; how self-contented and smiling he was; he dusted himself off, presenting himself with the exquisite manners of a cat. I'm civilized, sir, ready for the U.S., I'm civilized, mam. Biju noticed that his eyes, so alive to the foreigners, looked back at his own countrymen and women, immediately glazed over, and went dead."

Desai's prose has uncanny flexibility and poise. She can describe the onset of the monsoon in the Himalayas and a rat in the slums of Manhattan with equal skill. She is also adept at using physical descriptions to evoke complex states of mind, as when Biju gazes at a park while celebrating the great luck of being granted his American visa: "Raw sewage was being used to water a patch of grass that was lush and stinking, grinning brilliantly in the dusk."

Poor and lonely in New York, Biju eavesdrops on businessmen eating steak and exulting over the wealth to be gained in the new markets of Asia. Not surprisingly, he eventually becomes "a man full to the brim with a wish to live within a narrow purity." For him, the city's endless possibilities for self-invention become a source of pain. Though "another part of him had expanded: his self-consciousness, his self-pity," this awareness only makes him long to fade into insignificance, to return "to where he might relinquish this overrated control over his own destiny."

Arriving back in India in the climactic scenes of the novel, Biju is immediately engulfed by the local eruptions of rage and frustration from which he had been physically remote in New York. For him and the others, Desai suggests, withdrawal or escape are no longer possible. "Never again," Sai concludes, "could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it."

Apart from this abstraction, Desai offers her characters no possibility of growth or redemption. Though relieved by much humor, "The Inheritance of Loss" may strike many readers as offering an unrelentingly bitter view. But then, as Orhan Pamuk wrote soon after 9/11, people in the West are "scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world's population," which "neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom." This is the invisible emotional reality Desai uncovers as she describes the lives of people fated to experience modern life as a continuous affront to their notions of order, dignity and justice. We do not need to agree with this vision in order to marvel at Desai's artistic power in expressing it.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of "An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. " His latest book, "Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond," will be published this spring.

A Cross-Cultural Saga Wins the Booker Prize

A Cross-Cultural Saga Wins the Booker Prize

LONDON, Oct. 10 — The novelist Kiran Desai won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday for “The Inheritance of Loss,” a novel that examines identity, displacement and the indissoluble bonds of family.

At 35, Ms. Desai is the youngest woman ever to win the Booker, Britain’s best-known literary award. The prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country, comes with a check for £50,000, or about $93,000, and a guaranteed increase in visibility and sales.

This year’s roster of six finalists was considered surprising because the Booker judges, led by the writer Hermione Lee, chose relative unknowns from a list of 112 books over authors like Peter Carey, Nadine Gordimer and Barry Unsworth. But in a speech at the Booker Prize ceremony at the Guildhall in London’s business district, Ms. Lee said the judges had merely selected “the six we were most passionate about.”

She called Ms. Desai’s book “a magnificent novel of humane breadth and wisdom, comic tenderness and powerful political acuteness.”

“The Inheritance of Loss,” published by Grove Press in the United States, is set in a remote corner of India against the backdrop of growing Nepalese unrest, and in the streets of Manhattan, where illegal immigrants try to make a living while eluding the authorities. It is Ms. Desai’s second book and concerns itself with what she calls “the enormous anxiety of being a foreigner.”

Ms. Desai’s mother, Anita Desai, has been a Booker finalist three times, but has not won. They are the first mother-daughter team of nominees in the prize’s 37-year history.

Accepting the award, Kiran Desai said she owed a great deal to her mother, to whom “The Inheritance of Loss” is dedicated, not least because she had written much of the book at her mother’s house. “She’s a very sweet mother, and a very kind mother,” Ms. Desai said. “I owe her such an enormous debt that I can’t express it in any ordinary way.”

The five runners-up each receive £2,500. Other authors on the shortlist of finalists who also wrote about immigration and exile this year included Hisham Matar, whose novel “In the Country of Men” tells the story of a 9-year-old boy grappling with the violence and secrets of Libya in 1979; and Kate Grenville, whose book “The Secret River” describes a British convict’s journey to a new life in Australia in the 19th century.

Also on the shortlist were Edward St. Aubyn for “Mother’s Milk,” a tragicomic novel about addiction and the struggles of raising children in an aristocratic British family fallen on hard times; M. J. Hyland for “Carry Me Down,” whose protagonist is a boy in 1970’s Ireland who believes he has an uncanny gift of intuiting truthfulness; and Sarah Waters for “The Night Watch,” which follows the entwined lives of four Londoners during and after the Blitz.

The Schizophrenic Sufi A Review of _Snow_ by Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature yesterday. This is a review from TNYRB on his last novel, _Snow_.


The Schizophrenic Sufi
By Christian Caryl
Orhan Pamuk
(click for larger image)Orhan Pamuk by David Levine
by Orhan Pamuk

Knopf, 426 pp., $26.00

The hero of Orhan Pamuk's latest novel has a long charcoal-colored coat, a weakness for porno movies, and a melancholic longing for the god of the Koran. We never find out whether the man called Orhan Pamuk in the novel shares these attributes, but, speaking as the narrator, he does inform us that he and his main character, who is also his friend, have a lot else in common. Both are Turks. Both come from good bourgeois Istanbul families of decidedly secular outlook. Both are literary aesthetes with strikingly similar taste in women. And both are authors of works called Snow.

Pamuk's work is the novel at hand, and it tells the story of the creation and loss of the second book, a volume of poetry written by Pamuk's alter ego, who goes by the name of Ka. As Pamuk is at pains to explain, the name is actually a cipher, formed from the two initials of Ka's official name: acronym as pseudonym.[1] But one suspects that its real origins lie in poetic logic. The Turkish word for snow is kar—suggesting a peculiarly intimate fusion of author and subject. It's a nuance that's lost in translation, but, as we will see, the relationship between Ka and snow is so much a part of the texture of the novel that we don't really need the reminder.

Pamuk and Ka also share a destination. It is the provincial city of Kars, on Turkey's far eastern border, and, though their trips are separate, both men visit it in winter, when its harsh contours vanish beneath heavy snowfall. Ka, kar, Kars. The story opens with Ka's arrival there at some point in the mid-1990s; Pamuk will follow four years later in an attempt to recreate his friend's experiences. Kars proves the perfect setting for these mirrored journeys, for it is a place—like so many frontier regions that have shifted from one state to another in the course of history—that embodies doubleness. For many years it was part of the Russian Empire, becoming part of the newborn Turkish republic in 1921, and Pamuk rhapsodizes about the European character of its old buildings.

The persistent references to this point in the novel amount to something of a geopolitical joke when we consider that we are 740 miles to the east of the Bosphorus, usually regarded as the border between Europe and Asia. Kars has its Hotel Asia, to be sure, but it is the city's "elegant Baltic buildings" that linger in the minds of the author and his hero. The irony—one travels deep into Asia only to end up in Europe—is especially clear to Ka, who is returning to Turkey after long years in political exile in Germany. For the residents of Kars that charcoal-colored coat, purchased in a Frankfurt department store, marks him as a would-be "European" just as surely as his cultivated Istanbul speech and his Western-style education.

Not that he ever felt European in Europe, of course. Ka seems to have spent his twelve years in Frankfurt mainly by himself, in almost complete isolation from the society around him. At one point he boasts that he doesn't know a word of German. Ka, it will turn out, is even estranged from the other Turkish political refugees in Frankfurt. And that, in fact, is entirely appropriate for a political exile who, as Pamuk notes, "had never been very much involved in politics." Ka's banishment, moreover, actually hinged on a case of mistaken identity. During one of Turkey's intermittent spells of military rule, Pamuk explains, in an aside, that Ka had to flee his homeland, thanks to an antigovernment article that was incorrectly attributed to him. In short, Ka is not just your ordinary returning prodigal. He is an outsider even among outsiders.

Yet it is surely no accident that he feels drawn to Kars, a place that is still deeply divided in spirit. In the early years of the Turkish republic, we learn, it was a redoubt of Kemal Atatürk's program of militant Western-style modernization. By the time of Ka's visit, however, those days are little more than a subject for the nostalgia of the elderly; the city has fallen mysteriously into decline, and politics has come full circle. The secularists are in retreat, and Kars, battered by poverty and a pervasive sense of diminished possibilities, is on the verge of electing its first Islamist mayor. (Yet another hint of the failure of Kemalist ideology lurks in the background: the flickering presence of Kurdish guerrillas, belying the founder's embrace of Turkish ethnic nationalism as the moving force of his new state.)

Ka does not have to go looking very far in order to confront these tensions. They are built into his ostensible reason for making the trip to Kars in the first place. He has come on assignment from an Istanbul newspaper to investigate the case of the "headscarf girls" —a group of pious young Muslim women who have been committing suicide rather than obey the official dictate that they must remove all outward attributes of religion when participating in public life. It's an issue that strikes to the heart of the conflict between the Islamic revival in modern-day Turkey and the still-enduring principles of the Kemalist political legacy, which are rooted in a rigorous separation of faith and state, and it quickly brings Ka into contact not only with the families of the dead girls, but also with Islamist circles in the city, both open and covert, as well as their equally resolute opponents.

Small wonder, then, that Ka is soon immersed in countless conversations about the nature of Turkish identity and its oscillations between the imagined poles of East and West. The subject is a familiar one to all Turkish intellectuals, who live in a country that has never quite overcome an inborn sense of civilizational schizophrenia, but here in Kars—where political violence has been frequent through the years—the debate has an urgency that belies the appearance of sleepy provinciality. It is no coincidence that the city turns out to be suffering from a bad case of divided loyalties. Spies and informers abound. Government agents turn out to be pursuing personal agendas rather than official ones. A visitor from the terrorist underground is at large. You can get killed if you end up on the wrong side of the identity question, and in the course of the story that is exactly what will happen, more than once. And even Ka—the innocent bystander, the aesthetically minded loner, the instinctive sympathizer with the underdog—may prove capable of lethal betrayal in the pursuit of love.

For all the density of its real-world detail Snow is really a book about a quest, and a miracle that grows out of it. Ka's quest is not inspired by politics, and the mystery it engenders belongs to an entirely different category altogether. Ka's reporting job about the headscarf girls—the professed motive for his trip to Kars—is just a cover story. The real reason for his visit is a woman named Ipek, an old love from his university days. Having left Istanbul years before, she has now returned to her hometown of Kars, where she is living with her father, a former leftist political activist who, now resigned to the torpor and apathy of late middle age, is managing the Snow Palace Hotel.

The beautiful Ipek is divorced from her husband Muhtar, the head of the local, relatively moderate Islamist political party that now appears poised to win the coming elections, and Ka is eager to exploit her availability. And, sure enough, he is successful—at least at first. She responds to his entreaties, and he convinces himself that Ipek is willing to return with him to Frankfurt, and that they will live together there in bliss. But the dim prospects for this unlikely liaison are made clear by the events on their first date, when the local minister of education is gunned down by an assassin in retaliation for enforcing the state's policies against the headscarf girls. It also soon becomes clear that both Ipek and her sister Kadife, a believer who sympathizes with the suicides, are more deeply implicated in the political crisis in Kars than either will initially admit —albeit through romance as much as through ideology. That complication has catastrophic effects for Ka, and for his prospects for happiness, once it becomes clear that the Islamists' foes are preparing a counterblow.

Throughout it all the snow keeps falling—thick, muffling snow. We know that Ka has seen plenty of snow during his years in Frankfurt, but this particular brand—the snow of Kars, of Ipek, and of the locals' tortuous search for redemption, whether it be in faith or politics—somehow strikes home in the most literal sense. It sets off memories, reminding him of the winters of his Istanbul childhood, but also suggests the oblivion imposed by time, replete with melancholy and regret. It summons up both beauty and boredom. At another moment the snow triggers a sudden surge of religious yearning:

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Mesut asked, with some annoyance. "Aren't you an atheist too?"

"I don't know," said Ka.

"Then tell me this: Do you or don't you believe that God Almighty created the universe and everything in it, even the snow that is swirling down from the sky?"

"The snow reminds me of God," said Ka.

"Yes, but do you believe that God created snow?" Mesut insisted.

There was a silence....

This encounter resounds like a tuning fork, and a few paragraphs later, as a myriad of details from his past converge on the unifying paradox of the snow, Ka hears

the call deep inside him: the call he heard only at moments of inspiration, the only sound that could ever make him happy, the sound of his muse. For the first time in four years a poem was coming to him; although he had yet to hear the words, he knew it was already written; even as it waited in its hiding place, it radiated the power and beauty of destiny.

Ka returns to his hotel room and immediately writes down the poem in "the green notebook he had brought with him from Frankfurt."

He calls the poem "Snow," and it serves as the overture to a series of other poems—nineteen in all—that soon fill the notebook. We never get a look at its contents; for reasons that become clearer later on, the poems are merely evoked. Though they have many images and motifs (titles include "Stars and their Friends," "Chess," and "The Chocolate Box"), they turn out to form a mysterious whole. Later Ka will be "able to see" (as Pamuk puts it) that they can be plotted on a pattern in the form of a snowflake according to axes "inspired by the classifications in Bacon's tree of knowledge." At first glance this seems like just the sort of postmodern artifice we have come to expect from practitioners of literary formalism in the mode of Borges and Nabokov. But one could just as easily see it as a crystalline riddle in the grandest traditions of Sufi mysticism. (An Islamist calls Ka "a modern-day dervish.") One of the book's most moving scenes comes when Ka meets the local Sufi sheikh:

"May God bless you for accepting my invitation," said the sheikh. "I saw you in my dream. It was snowing."

"I saw you in my dream, Your Excellency," said Ka. "I came here to find happiness."

Ka explains to the sheikh his own paradox: he longs for faith but finds it impossible to accept the strictures and backwardness of Islam. "I want to believe in the God you believe in and be like you, but because there's a Westerner inside me, my mind is confused." The sheikh gently consoles him (at one point he says, jokingly, "Do they have a different God in Europe?" and soon "a feeling of peace rose up inside Ka." The poem that results from this encounter will be titled "Hidden Symmetry"—a phrase that harks back to an earlier reflection:

Much later, when he thought about how he'd written this poem, he had a vision of a snowflake; this snowflake, he decided, was his life writ small; the poem that had unlocked the meaning of his life, he now saw sitting at its center. But— just as the poem itself defies easy explanation—it is difficult to say how much he decided at that moment and how much of his life was determined by the hidden symmetries this book is seeking to unveil.

Though he never quite manages to find God, Ka encounters these symmetries all around him during his stay, and embraces the otherworldly origins of the poems that they seem to inspire. Inspiration, he notes, is something that comes from outside, almost in spite of him: "Later he would point to the speed with which this happened as proof that this and all the poems that followed it were—like the world itself —not of his own creation." Elsewhere he recalls the note at the start of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," and concludes: "Imagine, a magnificent poem that had created itself, without the poet's having exerted any mental energy!" Yet the poems are not a tonic; they provide no solutions. "He hoped the poem had been sent to console him, to give him hope. But when it was done, he still felt crushing pain throughout his body, so he left the National Theater in distress." Art offers transcendence; in the end it will be as close to belief as Ka is ever going to get. But it will not save him. Neither will love.

The reasons for that lie in yet another twist in the narrative. It turns out that snow has a more mundane role to play in this story. When Ka arrives in town, the falling snow soon builds into a blizzard that cuts Kars off from the outside world. The opportunity is seized upon by an intriguing character named Sunay Zaim, an itinerant actor who has come to Kars with his avant-garde theater company, which is planning to put on a performance of a 1930s-era work of Kemalist propaganda entitled My Fatherland or My Scarf. The play, which depicts the modernizers' triumph over the backwardness of Islam, is a calculated provocation aimed at the enthusiasts of religious politics in the city.

But it soon becomes apparent that this, too, is a cover story. What Sunay actually has in mind is no less than a temporary coup d'état, with himself at the helm, designed to eliminate the Islamist threat and make him a secularist hero. (Though the precedent is never explicitly mentioned, both his plans and his high-modernist aesthetics seem to owe a lot to the Italian writer Gabriele D'Annunzio and his founding of an early fascist mini-state in Fiume after World War I.) Sunay, in a self-described "Jacobin mode," finds plenty of allies among the local military and a couple of renegade right extremists, all of whom are happy to seize upon the chance to settle scores with the religious camps. One particular target of their anger is Blue, the ultra-conspiratorial Islamic militant who has settled in Kars out of sympathy with the headscarf girls. They will win in the end—but not before Ka has been drawn deeply into both sides of the conflict.

Like Pamuk and Ka, Sunay and Blue are twins of a kind (even if they are ideologically opposites). Both are charismatic political extremists who want to remake the world; and both understand the power of culture as a political weapon. Sunay, like many of his fascist predecessors, views politics as a work of art, not vice versa; as part of a game of political blackmail he will force Ipek's sister to remove her headscarf on stage as part of a play, a symbolic annihilation of the ideals of his opponents. Blue, for his part, first gained notoriety for his threats against the "un-Islamic" behavior of a game show host, and he treats Ka to a long rant about the importance of the Shakh nameh, the thousand-year-old classic of Persian literature. There is very little that is Islamic about the work, but Blue seems to be making a point about protecting "one's own" cultural traditions. He challenges Ka to consider whether "this story is so beautiful that a man could kill for it."

Despite their pretensions, though, both men are deadly serious. Both Sunay and Blue are artists, in their way, but unlike the mystical Ka both are convinced that they know how secular mystery is to be solved. And in contrast to Ka, whose imagined snowflakes come to exemplify the "singularity" of individual experience, both Blue and Sunay are obsessed with enforcing visions of conformity that leave little room for innocents. Neither is particularly worried about the prospect of hurting anyone. But both will be casualties themselves by the end of the tale.

Where Pamuk really excels in this novel is in the deftness with which he allows these forces to tug at one another. Like Dostoevsky, the literary forebear whose spirit haunts this book most palpably, Pamuk appears to value politics, among other things, as a great opportunity to let his characters rant in all sorts of productive ways.[2] The simplicity and coherence of ideology are seductive, but the principles they contain rarely stand up to social reality. In their place we are treated to a blizzard of motives. One of my favorite chapters brings together a host of the city's political radicals for a "secret meeting" (every word of which is being monitored by the state) on how to respond to the coup. Grand debate about issues of global concern mingles with personal vendettas, comical small talk, and inside gossip. One of the "old-wave socialists" will be informing on the meeting to the relevant authorities:

His intentions weren't malign; he did this to help the associations head off police harassment. He would inform the state of any activities he didn't like—most of which seemed unnecessary in retrospect anyway—but in his heart of hearts, he was proud that there were rebels out there fighting for the cause, so proud, in fact, that he would brag about the shootings, the kidnappings, the beatings, the bombings, and the assassinations to anyone who would listen.

Ka is capable of listening with sympathy to representatives of even the most extreme views. Yet he also has no illusions about the ends to which politics can lead:

By his thirties, he'd seen too many of his friends and classmates tortured for the sake of foolish, even malign principles; then there were those who were shot dead in the attempt to rob banks and those who made bombs that wound up exploding in their hands. Seeing the havoc of his lofty ideas put into action, Ka deliberately distanced himself from them.

If activism can change the world we are still mistaken if we believe that we can always predict the results of our actions (like the bullets that ricochet indiscriminately through the audience when Sunay stages his coup de théatre). We think we understand cause and effect, but the actual links may be inscrutable. When Ka arrives in Kars, he is told about the assassination of the former mayor; by the end of the novel he will have heard three different versions of the death, and the enigma—a favorite Pamuk word—is never resolved.

Human beliefs are not just rich with multiplicity; in Pamuk's world they are also in constant flux. Some of the novel's Islamists, like Ipek's former husband, began as Marxists; the same applies to a few of the right-wingers as well. By the end of the novel several of the Islamic radicals have abandoned political activity altogether, joining earlier generations' utopians among the ranks of the resigned. Moreover, ideological labels that initially seem so clear turn fuzzy under scrutiny. The more that Pamuk's characters obsess over the binary opposition of East and West, for example, the more they undermine the very notion. The Westernizers are by no means all "atheists." Blue has been weaned not only on the Koran and the twentieth-century radical Islamist theorist Sayid Qutb, but also on somewhat dated Western traditions of third-world liberation ideology and Hollywood movies. During the "secret meeting" he turns out to be the only one who's been to Europe.

For his part, Ka says, "I wanted to be a Westerner and a believer." It never works, of course, for Ka can't really commit himself to either. Nor does love offer much of a panacea; it is yet another brand of belief, predicated on trust between two people who can never know everything about each other. When Sunay's henchmen try to enlist Ka as an ally in their hunt for Blue, they reveal, along the way, that Ipek once had an affair with the alleged terrorist mastermind. Ka will betray Blue in turn—and lose Ipek forever as a result. Ejected from Kars by the coup plotters, he returns to Germany and lives there in solitude for another few years until he is killed by an assassin—apparently in retaliation for informing on the Islamist leader. We will never know the precise circumstances of the matter, of course. But one thing is eminently clear. Here, too, Ka has failed to become a believer.

But perhaps Ka can find posthumous redemption, of a sort, in art—through the mystical unity, without religion, he has found in his own work called Snow. Toward the end of the novel Pamuk arrives in Kars on a quest of his own: to recover at least something of his dead friend's work, and to write a book memorializing it. Pamuk has already searched Ka's belongings in Frankfurt and found no trace of the little green notebook of poems, which appears to have been lost forever—probably stolen by the killer. In Kars Pamuk hopes to reconstruct the genesis of the poems, and possibly even find a recording of Ka's reading of one of the poems in the local TV archives. He ends up retracing Ka's steps, visiting the scenes of the events we know so well from what has gone before.

Along the way he encounters many of the same talismanic details that once affected Ka: the black dog, a poster warning that suicide is an offense against Islam, little wheels of "famous Kars cheese." Pamuk writes, "That morning, as I walked the streets of Kars, talking to the same people Ka had talked to, sitting in the same teahouses, there had been many moments when I almost felt I was Ka." And just like Ka, he comes together with Ipek for the first time over walnut pastries in the New Life Café—where Pamuk is similarly "undone by her beauty" and falls in love, to the same futile end. He leaves by train, just as his predecessor has done—but not before the locals have had a chance to warn us readers not to trust the author's portrayal of them.

As we find ourselves retracing Ka's steps, in more or less reverse order, we realize that we are in a palindrome, a crystalline mirroring. The symmetry may be only half-hidden, but it is all the more singular for that. We may not know what axis of the snowflake we now find ourselves on. But the sense remains that somehow the mystical unity sought by Ka and traced and evoked by Pamuk has survived the murder of the poet, and the loss of his poems; while, along the way, Pamuk the novelist illuminates his country's quandaries of identity, and the crisis of confidence between Islam and the West, with an imaginative depth we had not known before.

[1] There is an echo or two as well of Kafka's hero K. Note, for example, Pamuk's observation that his normally mild-mannered central character has always stubbornly insisted on using this made-up name in official documents, "even if it meant conflict with teachers and government officials."

[2] Here, too, the pages are crowded with febrile youth; revolutionaries morphed into reactionaries; obsessive talk of suicide, atheism, and political terror; politics as deadly serious theater or scandal; and breathless musings about the relationship of the home country to ideals of "Europe" and "European civilization." The Possessed, driven by the moral quandaries posed by terrorism and political extremism, is a particularly strong influence. The proto-Leninist Nikolai Stavrogin finds his analogy in the charis-matic Islamofascist Blue. Ipek's father Turgut Bey, the disillusioned leftist, seems a sly recasting of Stepan Ver-khovensky, once radical, now contemptible liberal. Blue's demand to be executed as an "individual act," thereby mocking Western worship of the self, sounds like a Dostoevskian conundrum. He gets his wish.