Prologue (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war, Luccheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

REBECCA WEST BEGINS her book and her journey justifying this eccentric visit to her husband, Henry Andrews, who she discovers is already sleep in the neighboring wagon-lit.  It is spring 1937.  Alone with her thoughts, she recalls “the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October the ninth, 1934.”

At that time she was recovering from surgery in a London hospital.  By chance she learns from a radio broadcast that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated while on a state visit to Marseilles.  As the king left the quai, the killer approached Alexander’s car and shot him four times with a semi-automatic pistol.  The fatal round pierced the king’s torso.  The French Foreign Minister, Louis Bartou, who had accompanied the king, picked up a ricochet and later died in hospital.  The assassin, a Bulgarian revolutionary named Vlado Chernozemski, was cut down by a French gendarme and beaten to death by the crowd in the street.  Several others were wounded in the ensuing pandemonium.  It was the first assassination captured in motion pictures:

This jolts West’s memory of another Balkan assassination, that of Austrian Empress Elizabeth, in 1898, when West was a girl.  Then 60 years old, Elizabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland, when her hotel tipped off a newspaper to her presence.  An Italian, Luigi Lucheni, was in town planning to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the pretender to the French crown, who had not actually come to Geneva.  Instead he attacked Elizabeth, who was with her lady-in-waiting and preparing to embark on a boat at the lakeside.  Lucheni stabbed Elizabeth in the chest with a sharpened file and ran off.  Elizabeth, who initially thought she had merely been knocked down, boarded the lake boat.  Her tightly corseted dress slowed and hid but did not stop the internal hemorrhage.  She collapsed on the boat and died shortly afterwards.

Luigi Lucheni attacks Austrian Empress Elizabeth in Geneva, 1898 (Wikipedia)

Both crowns were important figures in their day and both assassins represented revolutionary movements au courant at the time.  Elizabeth was noted for her intelligence and beauty and whose death was mourned in ways similar to the death of Diana Spencer in 1997.  Her assassin was an anarchist, an ideology that drew as much alarm at the fin de siècle as the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s.  Alexander, descended from rootless Serbian aristocracy, had been king of Yugoslavia for barely five years.  He became a target of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization.  If this appears confusing because Chernozemski was Bulgarian, it won’t be the last time.  Chernozemski remains a controversial figure in both Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Luigi Lucheni mug shot (Wikipedia)

To an observer in the 21st Century, these events appear obscure, their connections vague.  What could possibly link a stabbing in 1898 Geneva and a shooting in 1934 Marseilles?  They were, in fact, singular moments in the advance of the most disruptive political movement in European history:  the abandonment of hereditary monarchy as a system of rule and government in favor of republicanism and democratic parliaments.  World War I accelerated this collapse by breaking up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires.  World War II liberated nations, moved borders, and fatally weakened the remaining empires of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.  Most importantly, the war smashed the last vestige of ruling monarchies in Europe.  The only royalty to survive 1945 retained ceremonial titles only. They were eliminated entirely in eastern Europe.  In Western Europe, parliaments and ministers ruled.  The war finished what a long string of assassinations had started. In the late 1930s, with the second war not yet in prospect, West was reaching back to understand what would happen to her, her country, and Europe in the coming years.

To West, the revolutionaries, national movements, and assassins demonstrated not a violence unique to this small corner of the world (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” she admits) but the ruin and misery empires impose while dominating subject nations.  She is keen enough to foresee that the cruelty loosened by empire and exacerbated by the unaccountable political organizations that opposed them seeded the ground for state terror and fascism.  “Luccheni has got on well in the world,” she writes.  “But now Luccheni is Mussolini.”  Lucheni, a bastard abandoned as an infant and raised in orphanages and foster homes, took out his individual rage on the political system.  But this did not make it legitimate:

His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases…. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity.

In addition to a mordant summation of fascism’s appeal and agenda, West demonstrates a much more sophisticated historical understanding of actual events than she is normally given credit for.  The original sin, in her mind, was European imperialism that sought to divide and conquer, setting the weak off against one another rather than Rome.  That Cain slew Abel was its logical, if not inevitable, result.

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Clever Girl! (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“He does not so much split his infinitives as disembowel them.” (Rebecca West on Dr. Lionel Tayler, The Clarion, 1913) 

CONSIDER THIS INTERACTION recorded by Ian Parker about the late Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker:

And then the young doctor to [Hitchens’] left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”

“All politicians lie!” the women said.

“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.

“But he’s a politician.”

“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”

“That’s wrong!” they said.

“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”

“But Christopher . . .”

“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”

This is very confusing.  When Hitchens died ten years ago, his many friends heaped praise on the pyre.  So where in this boorish altercation is that “fine, funny orator,” “quietly self-parodying,” (Ian Parker)?  Is this an example of the “master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark” (William Grimes)? What happened to the “brilliant speaker and debater,” “in conversation incomparably interesting and engaging” (James Fenton)?  Did I miss the “elegance, wit, and brilliance” (Victor Navasky)?  The “mischievous laugh,” “mock outrage,” “devilishly clever,” “devastatingly pointed phrase,” “…striving for some conversational prize in erudition” (Meryl Gordon) must have passed over my head.   Did the transcriber fail to underline that this exchange was uttered in “that insouciantly charming tone of his” (Fred Kaplan)?  Were these women unaware that he was “the thinking woman’s crumpet” (Joanna Cole)?  Is this some hidden example of his “intense personal generosity and kindness” (Hussein Ibish)?  Did he pick a fight with two young women in the absence of “starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he doesn’t” (Alexander Chancellor)?

I cannot see any of that.  What I see is a mean drunk, the fuel for which has been amply and admiringly documented; a wolfish domesticate.  The misogyny is plain on the surface: The need to dominate, the dismissiveness triggered by disagreement, the sexist apodo, the abrupt fellatory vulgarism.  The constellation of logical fallacies (I count six) that must have been learned while studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College of Oxford University in the late 1960s.

New Yorker illustration by Ralph Steadman

Reading Christopher Hitchens after this very unnerving dust-up it is impossible not to see his sexism everywhere.  Visiting Afghanistan in 2004, he is “obsessed with women” which manifests itself in the actually common and prosaic revulsion that consumes Europeans confronting the veil.  “My sex obsession got the better of me again” meeting a female Afghan doctor who survived detention under the Taliban to become the only woman candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan.  He “made bold to inquire” about “a headscarf that didn’t seem all that comfortable”: “How long have you been wearing that?  Have you always worn one?”  He writes:

Her downcast-eyed yet stirring reply was that, in her days as a medical student, she had worn what she liked.  This was a nervous compromise.  Even her revolutionary candidacy was, in a sense, being conducted with male permission.

This would be very funny – “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad” (Mark Twain) – but for the wager Hitchens solemnly places at the very top: “the future of democracy may be at stake.”  These are abstract stakes for him but very much not so for the woman sitting in front of him.

Back in the gender-liberated citadel of American democracy he crumpets on. Asked “what’s it like to be a minority of one,” when it comes to his ill-considered stance on invading Iraq, he responds, “It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.”  To his wife: “Darling, you would be so much more convincing if you were dressed.”  About Ann Coulter: “If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch, then I shouldn’t be in this business.”  In Vanity Fair he wrote a thoroughly unnecessary and unconvincing paean to head and its alleged American character.  His opening salvo, as it were, was a complete misread of Lolita as an erotic novel – his commonplace error compounded by a shuddering appropriation of the world’s most famous book depicting child rape to rhapsodize about oral sex.  He stumbles forward (“Stay with me,” he begs the reader.  “I’ve done the hard thinking for you.”).  Rhetorically he asks why Nabokov refused to apply the English translation of souffler as if there were some profound Platonic form to be elided from the text.  In reality, the answer is easily available given Lolita’s colorful publication history: even when self-scrubbed of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, the first edition had to be printed by a French pornographer rather than an English or American publisher.  Hitchens considers the virtues of the gay hummer – he partially admits to such activity in English boarding school – which is not a very brave or original argument to make in 2006.

Hitchens was at least as famous for his enemies as for his friendships.  He emigrated to the United States in 1982 and quickly ingratiated himself with the ruling class of Washington, D.C.  It is telling that most of those who wrote eulogies for Slate’s Hitchens tribute tell banal anecdotes rather than assess the character of the man.  This suggests to me that Hitchens didn’t have friends so much as potential adversaries.  As Meryl Gordon describes him, in “Washington society these days, he’s like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.”  In other words, a very dangerous man.  In his career he managed to estrange Eric Alterman, Colin Robinson, Alexander Cockbridge, Michael Kinsley, his own brother Peter (for four years), his first wife (until after the baby), and most famously, Sidney Blumenthal.  In most of these cases the split was the result of personal or political differences, which means Hitchens was willing to abandon friends and family over his opinions.  That is the very essence of the fanatic whom Hitchens insisted he hated.

Never mind. Hitchens was an acolyte of George Orwell, who like Hitchens was not a uniquely gifted or capable writer. Still, profundity can emerge from prose but only if the source itself is pure. Orwell’s canny judgment – of the reality in front of him and its moral implications – distinguished him among his generation.  It also separates Hitchens most starkly from his hero.  Hitchens was wrong about almost everything he ever wrote about.  Orwell was right about fascism and communism at the same time.  He was right about socialism.  He was right about the Soviet Union.  By contrast Hitchens was wrong about communism, Trotsky, Iraq (twice!), “Islamofascism,” Mother Teresa, Paris Hilton, female humor, and atheism.  On those subjects where he coincided with historical judgment, he was late to join an already crowded field.  So he discovered The Clintons were corrupt the year after the president was impeached.  Henry Kissinger was deemed a war criminal 26 years after the end of the Vietnam War.  George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were good men and very smart.  In other words, all of his opinions about important public subjects were wrong, tardy, or commonplace.  And this is because instead of being a moralist, which is the role of a great writer like Orwell, Hitchens was mercenary.  He had no moral core beyond the fight itself.  He was a pugilist.  Fighting was all he knew how to do, and if he was not fighting, the vacuum was plain.  And like a boxer taking too many roundhouses to the skull, the constant fight did not improve his judgment.

Still, I continue to search for this reputed rhetorician, the “easiest job in journalism” (June Thomas), “who didn’t need much editing” (Jonathan Karp), the sharp insight, cutting moral judgment, or mordant summary that define a keen observer and vital journalist.  Or at least that is what very many other writers publishing in legacy media insist is there.  What I find instead is slack prose, literary cliché, and astonishing ignorance.  While Hitchens accurately if obviously describes Kabul in 2004 as “battered and filthy” he also reads too much meaning in a restaurant sign titled “Shame,” ignorant of the anglicization of the Dari word for “dinner”.  He cites “David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia” for no apparent purpose, in addition to Harry Flashman and Rudyard Kipling, the default settings to any discussion of colonialism.  What on earth does this mean: “A Kuwaiti woman, who hadn’t wanted to dismount from the bus, found her privacy and modesty invaded by a small lad who nevertheless proffered a sharp knife.” In 1992, he asked the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ilija Izetbegovic – while under active mortar fire – his opinion on the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued in 1988.

To borrow a phrase, I now know what his standards are and that’s all the difference in the world.

It was this Christopher Hitchens who was asked, for reasons unknown, to write an introduction to the 2007 Penguin single-volume edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  All the precipitate pugilism, simmering misogyny, masculine toxicity, and inattention are manifest here.  On the surface, at least, it appears that he knows what he is doing, which is a hachet job disguised as an encomium.  By treating a clear superior as an equal, he boosts himself up a notch by taking her down.  But given his record outlined above, I cannot confidently say that’s what he meant to do.

I will give Hitchens one point: he was right about Bosnia and the whole of Yugoslavia during the 1990s.  And he was courageous, at least, visiting the country during the war in addition to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Romania in 1989.  He wrote compellingly, if not originally, about the siege of Sarajevo as early as 1992.  But while his reportage crossed the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels, he reported what better observers than he – Samantha Power, Christiane Amanpour, Pierre Hazan, Roy Gutman, among many others – were seeing at the same time.  And then he made his career-ending error, also quite common among ex-leftist interventionists, by extrapolating what should have been done in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Rwanda (in the last country a fait accompli by the time he writes about it) to Iraq in 2003.  Here again his judgment is not just poor but unoriginal.

By contrast Rebecca West, like Orwell, did not lack for good judgment in anything other than her personal life.  She was right about feminism, suffrage, socialism, fascism and communism (at the same time), Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, World War II, the meaning of treason, and Margaret Thatcher.  Unlike Hitchens, her astute observation came from a moral core.  While he kept looking for the fight and adapting his sophistry to the argument, she argued for what she truly believed in. She was also intensely loyal to friends, even those (like H.G. Wells and her own sisters) with whom she had difficult relationships over the course of her tumultuous life.

In his introduction, Hitchens logs a small handful of the standard panegyrics to build rapport with the reader and establish that West is worth his time.  From this low mezzanine he slowly descends into his very English oblique reproach.  While no author is beyond scrutiny – although, ironically, Hitchens’ literary estate does not apparently believe that – introductory writers do not normally disparage their subjects.  Whether Hitchens saw this opportunity or not, he took to it with his patent combination of latent misogyny and misapprehension as amply documented above.

One of the strange and irrelevant strands Hitchens picks up stems from his hackneyed student days as a “Baillol Bolshevik” at Oxford. That is when he realized Joseph Stalin’s genocidal paranoia was no longer socially acceptable in polite company. So he shifted allegiance to the original communist martyr, Leon Trotsky, who did not live long enough to direct the repressive and failed political and economic experiment of the Soviet Union.  Like a tic from the old days, he lays Stalinist sympathies at West’s feet.  This is bizarre and untrue. Hitchens quotes a vague reference to Soviet agriculture policy to pin on West support for its murderous collectivization. Additionally, he rather specifically notes “her complete failure to anticipate the rise of Yugoslav communism during the Second World War. This is nonsense. Following her British Council visit in 1936, as part of the official report to her sponsors she warned of that Yugoslavia risked being “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” West in fact denounced Stalin, the Soviet Union, and communism. More importantly, she helped regime apostates like Emma Goldman, who came to England following her departure from the Soviet Union and her deportation from the United States.

Hitchens continues to descend.  He attacks West’s work as “not history.  It is not even journalism.  It is passion.”  Elsewhere, he accuses her of “gushing” romantically about the peoples of the region.  While there is certainly an argument to be made about Orientalism and the Western Gaze, he does not make it here.  And in any event, Hitchens might know more about gushing passion than he would let on.  As his friend Martin Amis wrote about him (while he was still alive):  “Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars.  Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.”  Gushing indeed.

Hitchens takes as easy bait West’s preoccupation with sex and gender.  He luridly focuses on West’s use of “impotent,” a word that appears very rarely in the book.  He revels in her account of the homespun trousers of Macedonian Albanian men adorned with exaggerated representations of the male member.  His sexism then precipitates.  He gleefully touts West’s “ability to detect a pure bitch at twenty paces” in her criticism of Austrian Archduchess Sophie.  “Against this woman,” he writes, West “deploys a rhetorical skill that is perhaps too little associated with feminism”.  With the viscera of modifiers slip-sliding across the butcher’s table it is not precisely clear exactly what he means.  In any event he appears to be set off by West’s ultimate cut: “[Sophie] was also a great slut”.  I will skip the etymology of this term but it is likely it meant something completely different in 1941 than Hitchens thought it did in 2007. All of this was purely unnecessary, the result of scratching at some subdural burr. I would not dare to suggest it has anything to do with his mother abandoning his father and committing suicide with her lover in Athens in 1973.

Hitchens’ creepiness extends and pervades.  He blames West, as did so many men during the 1990s, for influencing Western inaction in Yugoslavia. He blasts her sincere defense of English-ness, a plaint she also shares with Orwell.  This, Hitchens argues, “must count as one of the most halting and apologetic proclamations of patriotism ever uttered.” This is extremely hard to take given his own, very English, overreliance on modifier mash-ups, meandering subordinate clauses, and maddening imprecision. He states “the book fails certain tests as a history, and even as a travelogue, and …it has little predictive value…and it shows some ‘unreliable narrator’ characteristics.”   “[W]hy should it remain a classic?” he asks rhetorically.  His own “tentatively offer[ed]” (halting?) response is that Rebecca West is very very smart, and she “makes a sincere and admirable effort,” and that she “understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.”  In other words: clever girl!  But it is hard to stomach that epithet as applied by a dilettante who was neither.

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Not too late to seek a newer world (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all.  But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter.  It will all be quite clear once we are in Yugoslavia.”  (Prologue)

The journeys of Rebecca West in Yugoslavia, 1936-1938. From the front leaf of the 1st US Edition.

Rebecca West made three trips to Yugoslavia in the late 1930s but never again visited the country, even after the end of World War II.  The single volume treats these three journeys as one long meditation.  She first visited for a lecture tour organized by the British Council in the spring of 1936, which explains in part her delight in Orthodox Easter while she visited Skopje and Ohrid in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia.  She was seriously ill in Yugoslavia and sought treatment outside the country.  It was during this travel to and from Yugoslavia through Central Europe that she witnessed the cultural shift and aggressive preparation in Germany in particular that presaged World War II.

West made her second visit, this time with husband Henry Andrews accompanying her, in spring of 1937, returning that May.  He is not named but provides quiet observation and mordant commentary throughout the narrative. Under deadline pressure for an opus that was ballooning into two volumes, West returned a third time in 1938.  The book was published shortly after the Battle of Britain during World War II, the result of five years’ writing and research.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has always been classified as a travel book or travelogue since it describes itself as “a journey through Yugoslavia.”  As I and other authors have noted, it remains indispensable as an accompaniment to visiting the region because it describes with such clarity what still remains there.  But it is evident from the start that the story is not really about a journey, country, or even history.  She is working on something much larger.  The place in time and the journey through it are framing devices for expansive interrogations of politics, identity, gender, historiography, religion, the nature of good and evil, empire, life, pleasure, pain, liberty, and death.  These were all topics West spent much of her life thinking and writing about, and they all came together in this book.  “It was much more than a travel book,” writes biographer Victoria Glendenning.  “It turned out to be the central book of her life.”

Nevertheless, without recourse to an established genre it is difficult to explain the book at all.  I borrowed prosopography as the closest, if unfamiliar, descriptor: a history of a people as a collective, particularly in contrast to other groups.  In any event, the term helps explain how West categorizes people according to (currently outdated) notions of race or nation.  In West’s Europe there are Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, Jews and Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, Turks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, and so on.  Using this sorting tool, she draws lessons from the experiences of individual nations, for this is how millennia of conquerors, colonizers and empires viewed them.  It is also how they saw themselves.

Yugoslavia was at the time of her first visit not even 20 years old.  The idea of a federated polity of Slavic-language speakers in Southern Europe dates to the late 17th century, but it was created only in 1918 from the possessions of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and included the independent Serbia in the aftermath of World War I.  The ethnic, religious, and linguistic regions had existed for centuries and throughout its tortured history regional and global powers exploited those fractures.  Over time the area late known as Yugoslavia was occupied, annexed, colonized, or conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Turks.  This explains in part the Yugoslav experiment: a modern federation was stronger than any of its individual member republics against the predations of its more powerful neighbors.

Historical Yugoslavia from the back leaf 1st US Edition.

Some of those constituent republics West visited don’t really exist.  At least one country she didn’t visit at all.  In the book’s table of contents West lists, in order, Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro.  Today Macedonia is officially North Macedonia.  Herzegovina is an historic region of Bosnia but has never been geographically defined and serves no administrative purpose.  The Croatian peninsula of Dalmatia is similarly an undefined historical region and former kingdom.

Old Serbia is Kosovo, which for most of its modern history was part of Serbia.  It was an eyalet, or province, under Ottoman rule.  Socialist Yugoslavia declared Kosovo an autonomous area, a status that was revoked after 1989.  Following the federal campaign against Kosovo in 1999, NATO secured the territory, which declared itself an independent state in 2008.  West visited Kosovo but not Albania, which while not part of Yugoslavia shared the language and religion, Islam, of the majority of Kosovars then as now.

But as we will soon see, West’s omnivorous appetite for detail provides her a critical tool that even many academics and certainly most journalists do not possess.  From this book, West is often quoted that she “had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.”  That serves certain easily digested narratives.  Her real agenda is more comprehensively summarized by a story she recounts in the prologue.  She discovers to her horror and despair that a Viennese laundry has completely destroyed the Macedonian peasant dresses she had brought with her.  This acts as a parable about how the West broadly and imperialism in particular devalue and degrade small vibrant cultures and communities.  Oppressive reign ruins those it rules.  West’s husband does not understand her emotional reaction and wonders what Macedonia could possibly have that could upset her so much.  “Well, there is everything there,” she says.  “Except what we have.  But that seems very little.”  This is a powerful display of empathy that is the root and branch of all great writing.

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The Bridge on the Neretva (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

THE COVER OF nearly every edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon prominently features the same extraordinary architectural, cultural, and pontine monument found in Mostar, Herzegovina (see page banner above).  Rebecca West called it “one of the most beautiful bridges in the world,” which to me only suggests she hadn’t seen every bridge in the world.  Elegant in its simplicity, its centrality on the Neretva river, dramatically emphasized by its towering height over the deep and narrow culvert, and its rustic setting, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of the bridge.  It is virtually impossible to take a bad picture of the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) and it is hard to imagine the city without its signature span.  (Although the words Mostar and Stari Most are clearly related, they do not mean the same thing.  Mostar is derived from mostari, “bridge-keeper”.)

Stari Most (cc) National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, date unknown.

It may have been this bridge on the cover, more than anything else, that drew my attention to the book initially and eventually to the tortured history of Yugoslavia.  It appeared to me ancient, alien and alluring, staggeringly beautiful, unreachable.  It was a goal for years to see it and stand on it myself.

Stari Most is a pedestrian bridge in both senses of the word: it simply joins the two sides of the city straddling the Neretva and was designed for foot traffic.  Motor bridges came later.  Walking it can be a challenge especially if you are, like me, prone to vertigo.  (I had the same heart-pounding experience walking the Stari Most as I have driving the high, narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.)  The Stari Most deck itself is graded at a steep 10 degrees, cobbled and ribbed.  The walk feels precarious (at 6’4”, my center of gravity towers over the low parapet) but is worth the experience.

1999 study by Prof.dr. Milan Gojkovic, Belgrade.

The bridge’s signature feature—what accentuates its height, position, and weightless feeling—is also its central structural element: the pointed arch.  On first glance, the arch may appear to be a true semi-circle, a commonplace of Roman architecture. It is created, in fact, by the superimposition of a smaller circle at the top of the arc of a larger circle.  As a result, the deviation of the curve from a true circle is extremely subtle

While a familiar architectural feature today, the pointed arch – sometimes called an ogive arch – is an Islamic engineering innovation first exhibited at Qusayr ‘Amra in present-day Jordan in the early 8th Century CE and most famously known from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.  The pointed arch distributes load more efficiently and allows for the construction of tall, lightweight, open structures.  Although the precise means and time of transmission are unclear, there is no doubt that the European gothic arch, the hallmark of Christian medieval engineering, is derived directly from the pointed arch of Islamic provenance.

Goat’s Bridge, Sarajevo. (cc) Julian Nyca

As unique as the Stari Most is, its basic elements are common throughout the former Ottoman lands.  While visiting Sarajevo in 2010, I walked to the “Goat’s Bridge” upriver on the Miljacka: simple, utilitarian, sturdy (see above).  The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic bridge (below) in Visegrad, Bosnia – arguably more famous than the Stari Most as the centerpiece of Nobel Prize-winning Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina – exhibits the same feature over ten arches.

The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River, ca. 1900. Library of Congress

The history of the Stari Most is straightforward.  Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned the bridge, attributed to Mimar Hayruddin, in 1557 CE.  Replacing a wooden span, it was completed by 1567 CE.  (Legend has it Hayruddin was so apprehensive of the arch’s structural integrity that he planned his own funeral in advance of what he was sure would be a complete collapse of the span.)  There it remained a lovely architectural jewel to be encountered by adventurers from Evliya Çelebi and Joseph Hammer to Rebecca West.

During the wars of succession of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar became the battleground of two consecutive conflicts: the Croat/Bosnian war against Serb-dominated federal Yugoslavia and, following Croat gains from that battle, the siege of Mostar by Croatian national forces and local irregulars.  As a symbol that also physically linked the Catholic Croatian right bank to the Muslim Bosnian left bank of the Neretva, the bridge became a primary target for Croatian gunners on November 8, 1993.

You can see its destruction here:

It is hard to watch something so beautiful destroyed.  There is some satisfaction, to me at least, that something that looks so light and delicate withstood such pounding as long as it did.

The Croatian-Bosnian war ended with a ceasefire in 1994.  Yugoslavia broke up into sovereign constituent republics and plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge.  A multinational and multilateral coalition raised the money and recovered original building materials from the riverbed for reconstruction that started in 2001.  The new bridge was inaugurated on July 24, 2004.  It was this span that I visited and crossed in 2010.

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Working Titles (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)

FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.

My working volume published by Penguin in 1994.

I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.

After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself.  When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops.  Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union.  As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning

My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.

That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.

There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.

That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

The 2007 Kindle edition with Christopher Hitchens’ emetic foreword

Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)

I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017.   It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary.  Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way.  So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.

Viking Press US 1st Edition 1941

With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.

Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK.  It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.

Canongate’s 2020 edition.

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Blogging ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’

“What is Kaimakshalan?  A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty?  This part of it is called South Serbia.  And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria?  And what has happened there?  The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length.  Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

Rebecca West by Madame Yevonde (cc)

THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.

Nobody, it seems, but me.  In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition.  That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.

This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth.  In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region.  The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions.  I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria.  My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.

I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point.  As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe.  Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries.  West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies.  “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”

Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy.  But history has no end.  The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011.  Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran.  Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.”  Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.

West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us.  We should listen.

I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey.  Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.

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Don’t worry, Emily Bazelon, you’re wrong

It’s hard to explain why Emily Bazelon’s New York Times Magazine article, sarcastically titled “Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy,” bothers me, so let me start here: Hannah Arendt was not a political philosopher.  Hannah Arendt was a political theorist.  She made this clear in an interview with journalist Günter Gaus on West German television in 1964.  “I am afraid I have to protest,” Arendt says, not even answering his first question. “I do not belong to the circle of philosophers.  My profession, if one can even speak of it at all, is political theory.”  This exchange is reprinted on the first page of The Portable Hannah Arendt.

The impact of media censorship in China: 1984 or Brave New World? | VoxDev

This may seem a peculiar way to start a critique of an earnest article about the implications of public lying, deceit, misinformation, facts, alternative facts, and the truth.  But I mention it because Bazelon asserts as fact, not opinion, that Arendt was a political philosopher in order to use her writing to frame her disinformation jeremiad.  This is something Bazelon clearly believed and found important.  But her own subject disagreed with her and not secretly.

An author writing about the dangers of misinformation should show considerably more humility when talking about what constitutes fact.  Or, as she quotes John Stuart Mill, “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”

Bazelon begs this scrutiny by arguing, in effect, that something must be done about all these people saying things that aren’t true.  And also by quoting the children of George Orwell who write or say ear-ringing ouroboros like, “[U]se of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with,” and “Free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing,” and “Campbell Soup Company can’t experience democratic legitimation,” and “The First Amendment value of individual autonomy means we should know who is speaking to us and why,” and “[T]he First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” and “[D]emocracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” and (Bazelon’s contribution to Newspeak), “[I]t’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free.”  Neither Hannah Arendt nor Donald Trump wrote or said any of these things.

Bazelon starts with an obscure viral phenomenon.  Earlier this year, comments made by think tank types wargaming a 2020 election scenario that included secessionist threats in the Pacific Northwest showed up in an obscure conservative intellectual journal before jumping from YouTube into the gutter of the right-wing infoverse and then vaulting to Fox News.  This is a strange place to start given the most obvious, and dangerous, consequences of misinformation surrounding COVID-19.  Bazelon makes two mistakes almost immediately, one trivial and one much more concerning.  She claims the original intellectual journal article titled “The Coming Coup?” wrote “without evidence” that Democrats were “laying the groundwork for revolution”.  The is easily disproven: the author cites publicly available comments about contingencies for a Trump loss transition made by Joe Biden, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton.  (And that sets aside the many presumably non-partisan military officers the author cites in opposition to the president.)  She clearly sees “coup fabrication” (her words) as a disingenuous distortion of the original intent of the wargame.  But that’s not what the conservative commentator was writing about and in any case, “coup” is broadly defined as “a sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government,” which includes secession.

The second error is much more concerning.  Bazelon’s narrative unfolds as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, an implied chain of cause and effect with words taken out of context weaponized by partisans and then spread through a network of right-wing online sites, private organizations, social media outlets, and traditional broadcasters.  “By the end of [September 2020],” Bazelon writes, “the fraction of Republicans who were not ‘confident’ that the ‘election will be conducted in a fair and equal way’ hit 65 percent”.  This suggests a direct relationship between the misinformation and evolving public opinion.  This is not true.  In fact, the number was stable at 65 percent from the same question asked in August, before this information water spout spiraled upwards and the second poll was taken.  Moreover, there are no other data points that I could find to suggest this number has been growing.  And without that comparison, these numbers are worthless, because a single poll is simply a coordinate: alone it tells you nothing about distance, speed and direction.  It is true that this number is higher for Democrats and Independents, but without more data determining that relationship, too, is impossible to define.

Bazelon also entertains a hoary myth about the effect of Fox News on political behavior.  Known as the Fox News Effect, it hypothesizes that the new appearance of Fox News shifts voting patterns toward  Republicans.  Unfortunately, the initial study she appears to be referring to, The Fox News Effect: Media Bias and Voting, published in 2005, dismisses this effect in its abstract:

We find no significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000. We can rule out an effect of Fox News larger than 0.5 percentage points. The results are robust to town-level controls, state and county fixed effects, and alternative specifications. We also find no significant effect of Fox News on voter turnout. Our results imply that Fox News convinced between 0 and 2.1 percent of its viewers to vote Republican. The evidence is consistent with the view that voters are sophisticated and filter out media bias. Alternatively, voters may display a form of confirmatory bias.

Bazelon’s scatter-shot approach obscures her intent.  Much of the article feels like an expanded listicle of dumb things people have said that Bazelon doesn’t like.  (This is a tic presenting in writers of the era who seem to have to repeat the insane things we have all witnessed together simply to recognize them as insane.  I do the same thing so I am sympathetic.)  She interrupts her inventory with a comparative legal brief on censorship and freedom of expression in the U.S. and Europe before ending it with a series of anemic policy proposals.  She attacks, among others, big data companies, Donald Trump, Fox News, right-wing fringe web sites, the Supreme Court, and Joel Kaplan.  (Never heard of him?  Bazelon has only three data points: he participated in a protest against the Florida recount in 2000, serves as Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, and sat behind his friend Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation.)   The only throughline for these disparate rivals is bad information.  Which returns us to the initial question: what is going on here?   Is Bazelon trying to raise awareness?  I think we’ve reached saturation point about the toxic maw of digital culture.  Sound the alarm?  Same.  Find solutions?  In part, yes, but nothing too radical, maybe the low-cal censorship favored by Europeans.  All of these arguments have been made better by other authors in other fora.

Bazelon provides a précis of American jurisprudence and its protections of free speech from government interference.  These are invariably clear and eloquent defenses not just of political expression but also the right to err, even to lie.  “As a Nation we have chosen…to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote recently.  It is a shame Bazelon doesn’t take up the case of coal magnate Bob Murray against HBO targeting John Oliver of Last Week Tonight.  This slander and defamation suit was dismissed with prejudice.  After winning the case, Oliver and what looks like an entire Broadway musical chorus line then sang obscene and completely untrue accusations about the vanquished.

But that leads her to a strange Straw Man argument that dissolves itself without much scrutiny:

The First Amendment doesn’t have a formal role in these situations [decisions made by private companies like newspapers to publish or censor material] but the principle that it’s paramount to protect dissident speech makes them difficult to untangle.  If people have the right to peacefully protest against the police, don’t neo-Nazis have the same right to peacefully demonstrate?  Why is Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed beyond the pale but not an October by Regina Ip, a legislator in Hong Kong, who defended police officers’ filling the streets and arresting hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators?

This is not difficult to untangle at all. The answer is obvious: Yes. Yes, people have the right to protest peacefully regardless of what they say.  Yes, people have the right to express opinions about the rule of law.  Yes, the same goes for a Russian troll engaging in disinformation and a satirist sending up a public figure.  Because sometimes you can’t tell the two apart, as China routinely does with The Onion, or Bob Murray does with John Oliver and HBO.

Of course Bazelon would refer to the great bête noire of political speech, Citizens United v. FEC, in which the U.S. Supreme Court loosened restrictions on corporate money given to political causes. She quotes Harvard law professor John Coates that this, and a series of preceding cases, constituted a “radical break with the history and traditions of U.S. law”.  In Bazelon’s words, this falsely equates corporate political activity as “akin to the shouting of protesters”.

The shot is so easy to make you might miss it: Emily Bazelon is a paid staff writer of The New York Times Magazine, owned by The New York Times Company, a publicly traded S&P 400 corporation with nearly $1.8 billion in annual revenue. Published, her article reaches more than two million Americans. The New York Times itself engages in direct political advocacy by endorsing candidates for federal, state, and local office and taking editorial positions on a myriad of political issues. It does not act like a corporation giving money to a non-profit Political Action Committees because it doesn’t have to: its business model is built in part on political advocacy. The Campbell Soup Company can’t do that. (I will note here that I have published twice with The Times and was compensated for one of those opportunities.)

Bazelon does not help her case by referring to the Seth Rich case, a conspiracy theory that was broadcast as a news story on Fox News and then spread from there.  Fox News retracted the story but other segments on the network did not.  Again, this feels like too easy a shot:  Emily Bazelon is writing this in The New York Times, which famously spread the baseless conspiracy theory that Iraq was actively developing unconventional weapons in 2002.  The same New York Times that is reviewing, but not caveating, its flagship podcast “Caliphate” after Canada arrested the primary source for fraud in connection with The Times’ reporting.  The same New York Times that apologized for assigning Bazelon to a news story about Brett Kavanaugh after she had published opinions critical of him.

Nonetheless, Bazelon argues we are in a clear crisis without precedent.  So what to do?  Bazelon turns first to Europe.  She expresses admiration for a kind of censorship lite, a latter-day reincarnation of the paternal benevolence used by old monarchs to quash class conflict.  But she cites only two examples of prohibited speech: incitement to racial violence and Holocaust denial.  (She somehow misses the notoriously loose libel laws in many commonwealth countries.)  I can’t believe I’m checking a Yale-educated lawyer, but incitement and hate crimes are illegal in the United States.  They are not protected speech.

We can continue our petty exposure of further error as we examine Europe’s enlightened censorship model.  Bazelon quotes Miguel Poaires Maduro, a disinformation observer based in Italy.  “Much of the recent authoritarian experience in Europe arose out of democracy itself,” he says.  “The Nazis and others were originally elected.” 

Let’s stop here.  It is not exactly clear which epoque he’s referring to, but since he mentions the Nazis, let’s start there: Nazis were not popularly elected in Germany and neither were the fascist or communist governments that came to power in Spain, Austria, Italy, Russia, Hungary, Poland or Romania during the first half of the 20th century.

Boaires Maduro continues to channel Orwell:  “In Europe, there is basically an understanding that democracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas,” he says.  “It’s because of the different democratic ethos of Europe that Europe has accepted more restrictions on speech.”  That is plainly absurd.   Speech is democratic when it is free and anyone can use it for any reason.  When speech is restricted, it is no longer democratic, because the national authority chooses who gets to say what, when, why, where, and how.

Bazelon’s primary evidence for Europe’s enlightened view of censorship is a comparison between the media reaction to the email hacks of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and that of Emmanuel Macron’s party En Marche! in France in 2017.  She approvingly notes the French law imposing a blackout on political news 24 hours before polls open—we’ll leave aside Bazelon’s astonishing endorsement of a government ban on political reporting a day before a national election—meant when the emails were dumped, hours before the deadline, the French media simply ignored them.  

This argument falls apart before we can finish the story.  French law had nothing to do with this outcome: no good news organization would publish unsubstantiated and uncorroborated information with just hours available and in any event 36 hours later the information was effectively irrelevant to the election outcome.  The 2016 dump in the United States, by contrast, occurred months before the November election, giving news organizations much more time to report it.

Again it’s important to note something that could easily be missed: in both the French and U.S. cases there were no substantial allegations that the information released by the hacks was false.  Here, Bazelon has precipitously overreached: She approves of both French law and media practice restricting political reporting even when the facts are not in dispute.  That should disturb everyone.  It also demonstrates the slippery slope falling away from our decision to censor things that are not strictly true to a point far below where we can simply dispose of information we don’t like.

As for solutions, beyond an endorsement of vague European restrictions, outright censorship clearly makes Bazelon uneasy.  After railing about the right-wing media universe, public lies, viral disinformation, and all the rest, the best solution she can come up with is…more information.  She proposes public investment in local news outlets and online sources.  She argues for more financial transparency in political ad microtargeting.  She doesn’t argue for more “citizen journalists,” a recent phenomenon encouraged by nonprofit news organizations like WNYC, perhaps because she can’t stomach amateurs not getting paid for what The Times pays her to do.

This is not to say that conspiracy theories are acceptable forms of political discourse.  But in the end, speech is speech is speech is speech.  It is the only thing we have to change minds and thus alter the course of human events.  Bazelon’s promoted alternative is the opposite of speech: it is coercion.  Even a civil action resulting in mere monetary damages for defamation is reinforced by the police powers of the state.  It is extremely disturbing to argue that an untrue thing is worse than the violence required to enforce the truth.  Too many people believe that those they disagree with should lose their livelihood for something said, written or thought.  That they should be exiled because of words.

In the end, Bazelon is clearly and sincerely worried about the rapid spread of things that are not true. She should reconsider her concern given the glaring untruths evident in her own argument for combating misinformation. Because, thankfully, the American tradition protects her right to err, too. “Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more” than speech, she writes. That is true but for the exact opposite conclusion Bazelon draws from exposing the workings of totalitarianism: that the destruction of free speech enables all the destruction that follows.

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“A Means of State Control” (Part Two)

In the first part of this post I dismantled the consensus definition of propaganda, arguing that in part and in total “propaganda” is indistinguishable from any other form of political expression.  The only obvious distinguishing aspect between the two definitions is the essential subjectivity of favoring political expression I agree with and opposing propaganda I do not agree with.

This being the case, propaganda needs to be redefined.  I propose that propaganda be defined not as the product of a state’s political agenda but the control of the means of that agenda itself.  In effect, propaganda is not what you see, but how you see it.  States engage in propaganda as they seek to control and dominate communications between the government and the people as well as nations abroad as a tool to secure and extend their political power.

Joseph Goebbels, never a man anyone wishes to acknowledge, bluntly stated in a 1928 speech the true purpose of propaganda.  The key phrase is variously translated as “the forerunner,” or “means,” of state control, but it is easy to see how the various uses of propaganda can be caught up in this definition: it helps parties achieve government control, maintains authoritarian political control, and aids those governments’ needs to control both the population and foreign adversaries.  This was written before Hitler came to power but Goebbels’ emphasis on “seizing” and holding government power anticipates the totalitarian control they eventually exerted over all of Germany.

I recognize this is a departure from the conventional and academic definition of propaganda.  That is entirely the point.  In order both to recognize propaganda for what it truly is, and to protect legitimate political expression from repression, I must make the argument here that propaganda and legitimate political expression are opposites.

  1. All Political Speech Is Equal

This is a difficult point to argue primarily because the subjectivity of political expression is so deeply ingrained in most people.  It is impossible to argue that the speech of, say, Donald Trump, and that of Bernie Sanders, are effectively equal.  For all practical matters nobody would agree to this proposition.  So in order to make this argument, I need to break political expression down to its essence, that of thesis and antithesis.

As an example I will use an extraordinary piece of artwork I saw once more than 15 years ago.  During the Cold War a former Western European ambassador to the Soviet Union quietly collected the art made by prisoners of the Gulag.  One older artist had made his living restoring Russian Orthodox Church icons several hundreds of years old.  In his spare time he painted his own icons.  One of those this ambassador purchased:  at the center of a series of portraits of the saints of the orthodox church he painted Ronald Reagan.

The political meaning of this portrait could not be mistaken.  The artist canonized the American president with the holiest figures in the history of the church.  He risked his freedom or life to do so in a state that would treat this expression as a double heresy: an expression of faith in a power other than the Communist Party and the reification of the enemy of the Soviet Union.  The thesis would be “Ronald Reagan is a saint.”  The antithesis would be “Ronald Reagan is not a saint.”  As political propositions both require the other, in which case they are essentially equal.  It is impossible to argue the proposition without stating the fundamental basis of the argument and its opposite.

It can be argued that what separates this individual act of political expression from propaganda is the state in terms of both scale and legitimacy.  Yet if we acknowledge the right or duty of the state to express, exert, or defend its authority or principles – in the event of war, disease, or national emergency – then there is no fundamental difference between the two.  Even if we acknowledge state expression in the absence of a national emergency, we fall back on the thesis/antithesis dichotomy: the argument and its counterargument cannot exist in the public domain without each other.

2. Propaganda Is the Control of the Means of Political Expression

But it is within that dichotomy we find the essence of true propaganda: the elimination of the antithesis, an artificial state of affairs where no contradiction of a state-endorsed political statement may be contradicted.  The only way to accomplish this, in practice, is for the state to control the means of political expression and enforce compliance with that expression.  True propaganda cannot exist without both of these elements.

In this case we have multiple examples.  Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are defined as totalitarian because they controlled all aspects of individual life.  Both exerted a “party line” that was brutally enforced by the police state.  And yet, as the Holocaust Memorial’s catalogue of Nazi propaganda demonstrates, we are often distracted more by the product of that propaganda outlet than we are by the sheer ubiquity of it.

This control limits, in a concrete way, the public space for debate that Hannah Arendt outlines.  Politics and political freedom are healthy when the town commons is open to all to debate, argue, find consensus, form alliances.  The control of the means of political expression closes the commons, leaving behind only the state’s position with no method of counterargument.  This is why I argue that propaganda and political expression are opposites: a closed commons against an open one, censorship countering creativity, conformism versus diversity.

3)  Propaganda Is Coercive

As I noted in Part One, Nazi Germany’s control of the means of political expression was indeed totalitarianism: all church, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artistic and literary guilds, medicine, and sports were dominated by the government.  The Soviet Union also controlled all these means while destroying the church, suppressing minority languages and religious faiths, limiting travel both domestically and internationally, turning family and community members into informants, exiling or executing dissidents, and blocking foreign communications into the Soviet Union.

This is not mere censorship.  It is the active harnessing of the means of communication to broadcast a single political agenda.  But the pervasiveness of this propaganda is only one part of the apparatus for complete political control.  Both states combined total control with violent enforcement through a mammoth and powerful secret police.  In practice, these states told the people what to think and brutally punished anyone who did not think as they were told.  This is the essence of totalitarianism: they have more in common with the Thought Police than with the Office of Censorship.

The practice of total political control is often and mistakenly considered a fundamentally modern concept.  It is argued that totalitarianism and the mass organization and violence required for it to survive would not be possible without the tools available only in the 20th century.  This is not true: the aspect of totalitarian control of political expression has existed for hundreds of years.  As in many cases, we strangely miss this fact hiding in plain sight.  Most scholars of propaganda date the term to the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, established by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 16th century.  The church established this office primarily to spread the Gospel among the newly discovered territories of the Americas but it was useful in the Counter-Reformation as well to oppose the spread of Lutheranism and other heretical ideas.

But what is regularly omitted from propaganda’s origin story is the Holy Inquisition.  The inquisition was developed in the late medieval period but made notorious during the Spanish and Roman periods of the 16th century.  The Spanish Inquisition imposed conversions on the Muslim and Jewish populations of the territories formerly ruled by the Andalus caliphate.  The Roman Inquisition attacked political heretics like Galileo Galilei.  The inquisition, then, acted as the enforcement mechanism of the church’s propaganda of the faith.  Hitler and Stalin would have immediately recognized the control and enforcement of political expression as the essence of their rule.  That essence is fundamentally coercive.  The Inquisition and the Congregation together are the origin for totalitarian propaganda as we know it.

This is the “means of state control” discussed earlier.  Totalitarian countries control the means of political expression primarily to maintain control the state itself and to achieve its political goals.   The ramifications of this understanding are obvious: it is difficult if impossible to communicate opposition within a regime when all the means to communicate are controlled by the state.  Today, authoritarian regimes use this kind of control, while short of being absolute, to dominate, distort, or close the political commons.  This may feel like a very contemporary tool, but hey are building on a tradition that has dates back hundreds of years to the earliest modern states.

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“A Means of State Control”

The Origins of Propaganda (Part One)

 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held an exhibition titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” in Washington, D.C., from 2009 and 2011.  This dramatic collection of German National Socialist state artifacts included photos, posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, film productions, even children’s games and toys.  It was a frightening, lurid, and claustrophobic display of the most puerile, racist, warmongering politics witnessed during the 20th century.

Germany’s propaganda program was deep and vast.  It left virtually no aspect of life uncontrolled by the regime.  Over the course of its 14 years, the National Socialist regime exerted control over not just the entire government but the churches, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artist guilds, medicine, and sports.  No other regime besides the Soviet Union wielded such totality over the daily lives of its citizens.

If there were a single, accepted definition of propaganda, then, it would be found in this definitive collection of propaganda’s greatest horrors.  Helpfully, the Memorial published a guidebook to the exhibition using the same title.  Propaganda, it explains,

as used in this book refers to the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior.  Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.  In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strength his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.  Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.  It is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.  Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

That is a comprehensive definition of a complex but dangerous phenomenon of contemporary political life and one whose effects we live with every day.  It represents the general consensus of experts in the field.  Its examples are easy to identify in the exhibition and the book.  I do not doubt, in any way, that the examples on display and catalogued in the hardbound guidebook are examples of Nazi propaganda.

Unfortunately the definition falls apart almost immediately on any close or critical inspection.  This definition, in whole and in part, can precisely describe not just propaganda but all political expression—the latter of which I’m sure the authors and experts would agree encompass much more than propaganda itself.  This is dangerous ground.  If we could hypothesize banning propaganda by fiat based on this definition, we would find ourselves banning all political expressing or legitimizing all propaganda.  This definition, then, is a logical cul-de-sac from which political speech—the most important and therefore most protected of type of expression—cannot escape.  If propaganda is political speech, and political speech is propaganda, then everything we say or think has the same taint.  Common sense tells us this cannot be true.  Propaganda and political speech are different things.  If they were the same we would have one word to describe them both.

It is important to start with a definition because, unfortunately, the word propaganda needs one.  In popular use, it has been abused so much that it has lost practically all intrinsic meaning:  A satirical talk-show is propaganda.  News is propaganda.  An advertising campaign is propaganda.  A public health announcement is propaganda.  Scientific studies are propaganda.  A newspaper editorial is propaganda.  A child’s television program is propaganda.  A radio call-in show is propaganda.  A social media meme is propaganda.  The President’s speech is propaganda.  An art exhibition is propaganda.  A music concert is propaganda.

Propaganda, in this context, is not a positive connotation (and certainly begs the question of whether the accusers read and applied the sophisticated definition quoted above).  It concerns leave us to distill this already utterly denatured word into something far simpler and clearer than the official understanding recorded above: propaganda is political speech I do not like.

Let us examine the Memorial definition line by line to demonstrate convincingly that propaganda, as defined here, can easily be applied to virtually any other sort of political expression.

1)   [D]issemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior

The sole purpose of political speech is to shape public opinion and behavior.  If I nail a poster to a wall that reads only VOTE FOR SMITH, I am disseminating information about a political candidate.  Let us presume that Smith actually exists, so it is truthful.  I aim to shape public opinion – to support Smith – and behavior: I want people to VOTE FOR SMITH.  Under this definition, then, the most elemental political speech – advocating a candidate for political office – is propaganda.

Let us suppose that instead of a poster reading VOTE FOR SMITH I post a sign that reads VOTE FOR FIDO.  Presuming I am not running a dog for office, this is blatantly false.  And yet it, too, is political speech: it suggests that voting for a dog would be better than voting for somebody else.  I am still disseminating information.  I am still aiming to shape public opinion – questioning their faith in the electoral system or the candidates themselves – and their behavior: who knows whether they will vote at all?

This is not hypothetical at all, as this antique Yippie poster from the Chicago Convention of 1968 demonstrates:

yippie

2)   Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.

I could write a letter to the editor of my local newspapers arguing that climate change requires immediate policy changes to avoid hurting people.  This would summarize an immensely complex issue in about 200 words.  It is for mass consumption, since I have written the newspaper and not my friend across town.  It is prima facie biased: I am not going to make the argument of my detractors for them.  And it is geared, perhaps naively, to a particular end: the change in policy to avoid the consequences of climate change.  And yet under this definition, the staple of popular political speech – the humble letter to the editor, used by newspapers for a century to reflect and reach their democratic readership – is propaganda.

(3)   In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.

These two sentences taken together define the trial lawyer, defending an innocent person against a charge that may end their life.  The trial lawyer does not want to foster independent judgment and thinking: they want an acquittal.  They do not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it to the audience to determine which is correct: those are the jury instructions.  The defense attorney ignores or attacks the variety of viewpoints in order to make the most convincing case to the jury.  Under this definition, then, the defense attorney engages in propaganda.

(4)   Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.

When we take this into account, we probably think of something like this famous poster produced during World War II to encourage women in the workforce.  It remains fresh and the symbols are not hard to parse: a woman in coveralls rolling up her sleeves to take on what had been exclusively a man’s job in wartime production.  It is designed to focus attention and distract from any complex concerns about a woman’s place in the workplace.  It is easy to see this as propaganda since encouraging weapons production during wartime war is generally seen as an overriding concern of the state.  It is regularly described as such.

rosie

But, importantly, its bold and unmistakable iconography has been recycled many times over during the many iterations of the feminist movement.  It can still speak in new ways, challenging our understanding of propaganda as presented by the Memorial.  The appropriation this American icon to support the work of the Pakistani children’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, below, demonstrates the enduring power of visual imagery and symbols, no matter the cultural context.  Its goal, as seen in the text written next to the mural, couldn’t be clearer.  And yet under the definition outlined above, this image of a young girl shot in the head for trying to go to school would be defined as propaganda.

malala

As a practical matter, particularly in developing democracies, the use of symbols is important because illiteracy or a lack of a common language makes the printing of ballots particularly fraught.  In this example, Nigerian political parties have been distilled to their logo and party initials.  This is hardly propaganda but it is clear to see how bold, simple symbols and compelling graphics would help a candidate or party.

ballot

(5)   it is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.

This is a strange paragraph for its peculiar qualifications, vague definitions, and tenuous connection to related disciplines.  By tying together private institutions and governments it breaks down an important legal divide between people and those they elect to lead them.  If the First Amendment gives the people the right freely to assemble, to petition their government for redress of grievances, to publish and to speak, then this paragraph erases the moral distinction defining a group of people protesting on behalf of themselves.  “Cause” is a mushy synonym for what is properly called a political agenda.

And what do advertising and public relations have to do with this?  The weak language used here to tie them to propaganda suggests the authors recognize they are not the same thing but they are unclear about the nature of the relationship.  They are related because they use the same technical tools: various media (text, radio, television, etc.), language, images, audience surveys, targeted marketing, and so on.  But so, too, do news organizations.  Is propaganda “linked to the news media”?

This definition could have drawn a bright and important line if it had simply asserted that propaganda is the exclusive domain of the state.  But that would have legitimized the vile collection of Nazi paraphernalia collected for the purpose of defining propaganda: the National Socialist party, prior to taking government control, used the same tactics as the National Socialist government.  This Hobson’s Choice demonstrates that without the benefit of hindsight there is simply no bright line to be drawn dividing propaganda from political expression under this definition.

(6)   Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

What other weapons are there?  The Memorial’s definition does not define the actual means or media – the specific vehicles for delivering the propaganda product. Here we find the Memorial’s definition both overbroad and stunningly limited.  The definition refers to the “dissemination” and “transmit” of “information” and only later broadly identifies “written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms” to deliver desired emotional responses in an audience.  Presumably these must be delivered in some medium, which is left unidentified.  But there is no “dissemination” without a platform, whether that is a live performance, a publication, radio or television broadcast, web site, e-mail, or even a telephone call.  If we leave aside coercion – the threat of violence and the total control over all aspects of civic life – then there are no other means of mass persuasion.  But this definition does not consider the idea of total control of society.

While the Memorial has condensed the expert consensus defining propaganda, it does not parry other arguments that define propaganda.  One of the major modes of thought emerging in the last 100 years posits that propaganda is a product of both the technological era and the emergence of mass culture in the 20th century.  Mass literacy, improved living standards, and consumerism created a market for popular periodicals, radio, television, and movies that were the result of technological innovation.  World War I not only saw the wireless radio, mass newspaper distribution, basic literacy, and the strong central state converge on information “dissemination,” it also inaugurated mass organization as the belligerents mobilized tens of millions of young men for military service and their home fronts to support them.  Many observers believed that this was the only era in which propaganda could exist in pure form.

This argument is in one sense obvious but in another completely fallacious.  Political communication has always used all means available to it.  Those making political arguments did not simply ignore one medium in favor of another. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany emerged, their regimes took advantage of all these methods to reach a wide audience.  Many of them were very new, including motion pictures with soundtracks, and propaganda experts in the West conflated the emergence of these new media and technology with propaganda itself.

As I will argue later, the nature of propaganda is such that the state uses all means available to them.  It is control of the means of production – and not the produced means or messages by themselves – that define propaganda.  Any state that can control communication with the public engages in propaganda.  The means change, evolve, expand or become obsolete, but the aspect of control does not.

I do not mean to attack the Memorial and what remains an important exhibit at a critical moment in our political history.  We both have the same goal, in fact, which is to point out both the fundamental evil of Nazi ideology and the danger of unchecked and weaponized political speech.  My main concern is that the Memorial did not go far enough.  In addition to the racist bile and agitation, race-baiting and war-mongering, hate and lies and distortion, the root of Nazi propaganda was the control of all those things which meant that decent people could not reach the same audience and a subject population had no alternative means to learn the truth.  Additionally, as we’ll see later, Germany’s coercive state apparatus served as the stick to propaganda’s carrot to enforce political conformity and mobilization.

Moreover, propaganda distracts.  Calling something propaganda allows us to dismiss it.  It keeps us from understanding what is really being done.  Calling a Nazi poster propaganda doesn’t help us identify why it bothers us, why it challenges our conscience.  Other words work better because they are clear and precise: incitement, racist, subversive, disloyal, hysterical, divisive, hateful, false, incomplete, distorting, twisted.  That way we can really and honestly attack and respond to political expression that calls out our devils.

We have many ways and means of political expression: polemic, opinion, argument editorial; satire, parody, caricature; exaggeration, hyperbole, overstatement, embellishment; mockery, scorn, disdain, ridicule; judgment, verdict, condemnation; endorsement, praise, celebration.  All of these would be, and have been, swallowed by the single pejorative propaganda.  And if everything is propaganda, then there is no open and legitimate means of political expression.

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Garry Wills’ Qur’an (Part One)

Is Islam as American as apple pie?  Both are early imports from Asia Minor – Islam from the Arabian Peninsula by way of Africa and Iberia, apples from southern Kazakhstan by way of Europe – that have grown deep roots in the New World.  Islam has directly affected the New World in ways that have been obscured for generations but deserve better understanding today.

The history of Islam in the Western Hemisphere has long been debated in the Near East.  There are some interesting, if apocryphal, suggestions that early Muslim navies traveled to North America from the Mediterranean before Columbus, but evidence is scarce.  Islam definitively arrived in the Americas with the Spanish conquista.  With them the Spaniards brought tens of thousands of African slaves, a large plurality of whom were likely Muslims, as early as 1501.

The conquista was profoundly affected by the Spanish experience of both Moorish rule and the reconquista that expelled Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in the late 15th century. The pursuit of gold in the New World was motivated in part by the financial burden of the war and the sheer fact of reconquest in Spain drove a self-fulfilling narrative for the brigands and ne’er-do-wells who led the pillage.  In their minds the conquest of the New World was an extension of the liberation of the old.

What the quran meant

But the Spanish could not purge the cultural influence of Muslim rule as easily as it could the population that brought it to them.  Just to start, the entire Spanish language was heavily influenced by Arabic including hundreds of adopted words.  You may never view Arnold Schwarzenegger the same when you consider that his characteristic line, “Hasta la vista, baby,” is a direct Arabic import from hatta meaning “until”.  Likewise, Spanish speakers from Argentina to Canada still use the expression ojala, invoking God, meaning the same thing as the Arabic inshallah:  God willing.

Consequently, the Spanish left an Islamic-inspired legacy across the hemisphere.  The geometric tile mosaics of Seville, Spain, were inspired by Islamic art whose legacy can still be found as far away as Mexico and California.  The famously beautiful enclosed balconies of Lima, Peru, are a direct import from North African moucharaby latticed windows.  Place names influenced by Arabic terms proliferate.  Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, means “Valley of the Stones” in Arabic.  The Catholic patron saint of Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, has Arabic roots: Guadalupe is an Arabic-Latin mash-up meaning “Valley of the Wolves”.   The historical influence doesn’t stop there.  Matamoros, a Mexican border town opposite Brownsville, Texas, means “Moor-Slayer,” the epithet applied to Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, known to Muslims as el Cid (el sayid), a Spanish holy warrior of the reconquista.  Santiago de Chile and San Diego, California, are named for St. James, a mythical hero of that war.

This influence persists even in the United States.  There is strong if not conclusive evidence that California’s etymology is rooted in the term “caliph,” which applies to a Muslim leader descended from the prophet Muhammad.  Similarly, it is possible that Albuquerque stems from the Arabic term Abu al-Qurq, meaning “father of the oak”.  Andalucia, Alabama, may have adopted a residual place name from the Spanish colonialists who explored the south during the 16th century.  Al Andalus was the name of Islamic Spain.

African slaves poured into the hemisphere shortly after the conquista.  At least 10 percent of the 400,000 Africans kidnapped to the United States were Muslims.  This is a fair if low estimate for the rest of the Americas.  The most notable slave uprising in Brazil, to which the Portuguese brought three million Africans, was led by a Muslim community known as the Malê.  While most Africans were converted to Christianity, it is well-documented that many of these men and women retained their names indicating Islamic roots: Muhammad, Fatima, Ayisha.

Two African American slaves, Ibrahim Abd Al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, achieved modest fame in the 19th century when they demonstrated literacy in Arabic.  Through a dramatic political intervention, Al-Rahman was manumitted to Morocco with his wife.  (Sadly, not their nine children.)  Ibn Said remained property in the United States and died two years before the 13th Amendment was passed that would have freed him.

moors account

The Moor’s Account, a recent novel by Laila Lalani, tells the true story of Estevanico, a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Panfilo de Narvaes expedition to Florida in 1527.  Estevanico, whose real name was probably Mustufa Zemmouri, was one of four surviving members of the expedition whose numbers were decimated by shipwreck, disease, exhaustion, and native population raids on the invaders.  Before he died, probably in 1539 in what is now New Mexico, he traveled from Florida along the Gulf Coast, across what is now Texas and northern Mexico, all the way to Mexico City.  He was among the first non-natives to see what we now call the American southwest.

Muslims did not exist in individual vacuums in the United States: there were communities of Muslim believers, including one led by Bilali Muhammad in Georgia.  Muhammad was literate in Arabic and wrote a short treatise on Islamic law before his death.  He also commanded 80 men during the War of 1812.  Indeed, Muslim soldiers served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and the Union Army during the Civil War.

jeffersons quran

Separate from the faith of the African population, which did not interest their owners, Islam conceptually and politically affected the founders of the American republic.  In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, Denise Spellberg’s comprehensive survey of the influence of Islam on the Founders’ debate over religious freedom, tolerance, and political participation, she reveals a radical, if wholly theoretical, acceptance of plural belief in the early United States.  In contrast to Great Britain, whose monarch is also head of the Church of England, and most European countries with their own state church, the Americans imagined their new state purged of church influence and religious society protected from government action.  At that time, the country was utterly dominated by Protestant sects.  Catholics were a distinct Christian minority, except in Maryland (which they founded) and Jews were considered so rare as to be exotic.  The belief systems of the indigenous people of the Americas were barely acknowledged and the Islamic beliefs of the enslaved population virtually unknown.

The drafters, in sum, made an extraordinary concession to a future they only could imagine when writing the constitution to forbid religious discrimination explicitly.  The founders, in an extraordinary leap of faith, embraced the distinct possibility that future U.S. officeholders, including the president, may not be Christian.  At that time, in a country dominated by Protestants, Muslims were routinely lumped together with other religious and cultural minorities of the age, including Catholics, Jews, pagans, Hindus, Indians and “infidels”.  The political principle of religious inclusion is a cornerstone of revolutionary American democracy.  The vision of religious freedom appears, in retrospect, astonishingly clairvoyant – an almost science fiction vision of their country 200 years in the future that actually came to pass.  Today, in that envisioned future, Christians still predominate in the United States but Protestants do not.  Catholic justices now hold a majority in the Supreme Court.  Jewish Members of Congress serve at three times their representation in the population. And Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States.

While clearly none of the American founders was an Islamic scholar, they appear to have been better acquainted with Islam and the great Islamic civilizations than the contemporary generation.  The early Americans, in exalting “foundation,” placed the experimental United States alongside the world’s great civilizations, which included Rome and Athens but also the contemporaneous Ottoman Empire as well as ancient Egypt and Persia.  The founders knew their history and drew from the historical experience in crafting the government.

This homage is found in the physical structures that symbolize the republic.  A relief of Suleiman the Magnificent graces the chamber of the House of Representatives.  Islam is depicted as an allegory for physics on the ceiling of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  And the Prophet Muhammad himself is depicted in relief in the U.S. Supreme Court as a great lawgiver.

Unfortunately, an intellectual caesura has opened up between the revolutionary generation and today’s leaders and thinkers.  Indeed, a concerted collective attempt by the Christian majority to understand Islam only occurred after September 11, 2001.  The gap in knowledge unfortunately remains evident.

But it was not universal.  Today about half of the U.S. Muslim population consists of American-born converts, and the largest representation of those are African Americans.  This American Islamic tradition dates back more than a century to the founding of the Moorish Science Temple of America in 1913.  A follower known as Wallace Fard Muhammad broke from the temple to establish the Nation of Islam in 1930.  Both organizations were syncretic religious/political movements with roots firmly sunk in African American history and experience.  Nevertheless, the Nation of Islam reformed itself into an orthodox Sunni Muslim organization, still dominated by African American converts, following the death of Elijah Muhammad.  No American today can claim absolute ignorance of Islam if they know the names Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam’s two most famous converts.  But these movements have always been considered fringe, both politically and theologically.

How can we account for this collective loss of knowledge?  One way may be examining the vaunted Western Canon, that corpus of literature spanning back to Greece two thousand years before Jesus Christ.  The definition of the canon varies, which is what makes Harold Bloom’s definitive list so important.  In The Western Canon, Bloom specifically extols the Qur’an as a source of law, ethics, and poetry as part of the Western tradition.  (Strangely, this is his only other mention of Islam in the book.  The Qur’an isn’t even noted in the index.)  He includes the Arabian Nights, The Poem of the Cid, the apocryphal Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, William Shakespeare’s Othello, as well as Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose framing story involves finding the manuscript written in Arabic by an “Arab Historian”.  Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while not hospitable to Islam, nonetheless represents its core tenets accurately.  Goethe’s last work, West Eastern Divan, was inspired by the Muslim Persian poet Muhammad Hafez e Shirazi (and inspired Muhammad Iqbal to write an homage to Goethe in return).  Herman Melville’s character Ishmael in Moby-Dick (his name is the Biblical progenitor of the Arabs) describes the fasting and prayer of his harpooner bunk mate Queequeg as a kind of “Ramadan”.  Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, though not included in Bloom’s list, was widely read contemporaneously and involved descriptions of the Grand Tour that includes the Holy Land and Egypt.  Clearly, literate Americans were familiar with the Islamic world as late as the 19th century.

But all of that prologue is forgotten in the contemporary era.  The answers to why Islam’s cultural and philosophical influence in the United States fell away since can be explained in part by examining Bloom’s modern canon.  Not a single great 20th century American writer wrote on these themes.  This suggests a deterioration of collective knowledge and experience in American letters.  The Arabic writers Bloom cites, including the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, were largely secular in nature (a sin for which he was stabbed in the street by an Islamic extremist).  Other Europeans address these themes to a lesser extent: Albert Camus (The Stranger), Ivo Andric (The Bridge on the Drina), Amos Oz (The Perfect Peace), and Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet).  Still other writers aren’t included in the list but probably should be:  Rebecca West (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), T.E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Gertude Bell (The Desert and the Sown).

In the 20th century, American writers were grappling with modernity and affluence, war and peace, the immigrant experience and the African American struggle for justice.  After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 learned Americans had little reason to include the Islamic world in their thinking until that fateful second Tuesday in September 2001.  That is where the reckoning with our intellectual history began.

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