By Aaron Glantz*, Inter Press Service (IPS), November 13, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov 13 (IPS) – Unlike most U.S. journalists who went to Iraq to cover a war, Dahr Jamail went to try to stop it.
In his new book, “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq”, Jamail writes of volunteering as a rescue ranger at Denali National Park in the U.S. state of Alaska while news of the invasion and occupation of Iraq played on the radio.
He had to get out of Anchorage, and in November 2003, Jamail got on a plane to Amman, Jordan, and then, a few days later, shared a taxi across Iraq’s Western desert to Baghdad.
“My going to Iraq was an act of desperation,” he wrote. “I was tormented by the fact that the government of my country illegally invaded and then occupied a country that it had bombed in 1991.”
Once in Iraq, Jamail set about reporting the stories of regular Iraqi people. He spent months in Iraq’s hospitals, morgues and mosques. His journalism covers some of the most mundane, but important, aspects of the U.S. occupation — like gas lines, checkpoints, and bombed out telephone switching stations. His stories appeared in numerous outlets around the world, including IPS.
Most significantly, Dahr Jamail is perhaps the only U.S. journalist to document firsthand the human costs of both U.S. sieges of Fallujah, in April and November 2004.
In covering those sieges, Jamail reported numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions, from the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus (which is similar to napalm) on densely populated civilian areas, to the blocking of relief supplies from reaching the city, to U.S. military raids into hospitals and shots fired at ambulances. So many Iraqi people were killed in the assault on Fallujah, he notes, that the municipal football stadium had to be turned into a graveyard for the dead.
Visiting the site, he wrote: “I tried hard to imagine a soccer field back in the United States being turned into a graveyard — headstones above ground and buried shrapnel-shredded bodies underneath, populating a dry field where children once laughed, ran and kicked soccer balls — but my imagination failed me.”
For Jamail, the sieges represent unpunished war crimes and his book is, in part, an effort to push the perpetrators a little bit closer to justice. The sieges also represent the climax of his book, which essentially ends when he leaves Iraq for the final time in February 2005.
“You don’t need current events to know what is going on,” he told IPS. “You need to know what set the conditions for all this.”
Since February 2005, there have been numerous developments in Iraq, including an election, a new prime minister, and perhaps most importantly, a much trumpeted “troop surge” which the George W. Bush administration maintains is leading to “progress” in Iraq, especially in western Anbar Province, home to Fallujah.
Jamail sees these current developments through the prism of the U.S. military’s previous efforts there.
“What I see in Anbar Province is a macro version of what they did in Fallujah after the failed April siege,” he said. “They got their asses kicked. They couldn’t take the city so they fund, arm and back the militias in the city and leave. So troop deaths go down, they get to pretend that they’ve turned over control to the Iraqis and things are getting better. The reality is now in Anbar they’ve gone back to funding and backing Sunni militias on a huge scale and it’s a ticking time bomb.”
“Beyond the Green Zone” is the latest entry in a crowded field of books by U.S. journalists attempting to present the Iraqi side of the war. While the stories that Jamail tells still rarely make the nightly news or the front pages of U.S. newspapers, they have been related in a series of books, the most well-known being “Night Draws Near” by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid.
A number of independent journalists, including this reporter, have also published books on the topic and several scathing documentary films have been released.
This combination of silence from the mainstream media and excellent reportage by the independent press has created a paradox. On one hand, most of the events that Jamail chronicles in “Beyond the Green Zone” have already been well-documented. On the other hand, most U.S. citizens remain oblivious to them.
“The media is not even beginning to show what’s really going on in Iraq,” Jamail told IPS, “and so most people here have no idea what’s happening.”
“People get that the war is not going well,” he said, “but that doesn’t show any of the gravity of the fact that today half the country of Iraq is either a refugee, in desperate need of emergency care, wounded or dead. What would the reporting look like if that was the situation here? It would be off the charts: ‘Just look at this catastrophe! People are suffering. Look what happened to this family’s children!’ But instead we have this type of reporting that just kind of touches on the fact that things are not going so well but it doesn’t really show how bad it really is.”
Reading as a journalist who has spent significant time reporting from Iraq under U.S. occupation, two aspects of “Beyond the Green Zone” particularly hit home. The first are the book’s photos, one of which appears before each chapter: from a cover image showing a young Iraqi boy standing nervously near a U.S. tank, to photos of dead bodies in a morgue, and anti-U.S. fighters holding a rocket launcher, Jamail’s photographs ring truer than any other images this reporter has seen of the Iraq war.
Jamail jokes that his photos are “amateurish” because they lack the compositional complexity of more experienced war photographers. But the fact is that the truth of the Iraq war is not all that complex. The main truth of the war is death. Jamail’s pictures provide that truth simply, showing how the occupation appears through the eyes of a normal person.
Jamail’s section on his return home is also particularly insightful. After witnessing the second siege of Fallujah, Jamail returned to the United States in the winter of 2004.
“The differences thrust in my face on returning home to America were glaring,” he wrote. “There were no checkpoints in the United States. People didn’t have to stop their cars, have guns aimed at them and their children, get out to be searched, and have their vehicles searched. No military vehicles roamed the streets, carrying soldiers who aimed their weapons at powerless civilians who watched them pass. There was mail service and the phones worked on the first try. You could order take-out and have it delivered to your door. There were employees of the city who cleaned the streets, watered the trees and grass, and kept the parks clean.”
This disconnect between the destruction in Iraq and peace on the home front is universal. You can hear it from nearly every journalist and soldier who has been to the war zone. Jamail goes a step further and links U.S. apathy about the war to its continuation.
“The front lines of American imperialism were frightening,” he wrote. “In Iraq, there was no hiding the raw, ugly face of corporations profiting from the blood and suffering caused by the brutal occupation of Iraq. Yet, back in the United States — the country that launched the invasion and now supported the occupation — people were going about their daily lives, to my amazement. If news got too intense, people were able to simply turn it off and take a walk, or go to a movie, or call a friend.”
“Beyond the Green Zone” is an effort to break through that apathy.
“As journalists, it’s our moral obligation to talk about what’s actually going on,” he told IPS, “and if people see that and decide to turn off the TV that’s their call, but I’ve got to do my job. I want to tell people ‘Sorry, your government just invaded another country and totally eviscerated it. Deal with it.'”
*IPS Correspondent Aaron Glantz worked as an unembedded journalist in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. He is the author of the book “How America Lost Iraq” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2005) and is currently working on his second book about U.S. veterans of the Iraq war.
Republished from AlterNet, By Clayton Collins. November 8, 2007.
Even as companies both large and small digitize print, books exhibit a remarkable resilience to the forces of technology.
Caitlin Lyons labors in the towering stacks as bibliophiles trickle into Boston’s Brattle Book Shop. Many are repeat customers, here to browse an eclectic collection — hundreds of thousands of loosely categorized tomes that spill from these two floors onto outdoor shelves in an empty lot.
It’s an avalanche of paper, concedes Ms. Lyons, a recent English major with an ecosensitive streak. She acknowledges that this vast inventory, digitized, could shrink dramatically into an easily managed series of reads on a PC, PDA, or some dedicated device’s screen. That, she says, would represent a loss. “Way too many things are becoming technological,” she says, cradling a fragile-looking hardback copy of Benjamin Disraeli’s “Sybil.” “A bookshelf and a study? You can’t do that on a disc.”
Digital evolution has long since swept the audio and video realms, leaving holdout purists clinging to tubes, vinyl, and film. Holding back the broad digitization of books — besides the special sensory experience they deliver in their traditional form — has been a spotty digital inventory and the lack of a dominant device for displaying them.
But as habits change and content inventory nears critical mass (Google, to name one prospective repository, is still wrangling with copyright issues), digital books might finally gain a foothold, observers say — not as a replacement format, but as an alternative delivery system not unlike the audiobook. Both the publishing industry and the reading public appear to be shaking the notion that for the beloved book, digital equals death.
“Around 2000, I think [publishers] thought there was going to be a brave new world and they were going to have a whole new thing, and I think that’s part of what went wrong,” says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. What’s clearer now, she says, is “there will be plenty of niches and plenty of space for books in digital form, not so much as a direct competitor, [but] as an added format.”
In fact, digital loomed very large in the book-publishing world back at the beginning of this decade. No less than Bill Gates was referring to paper as a “reading ‘technology'” nearing obsolescence. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab was dabbling in “electronic ink.” Booths at BookExpo America were crammed with devices from firms of all sizes. Partnerships bubbled.
“There was an enormous outpouring of messianism,” says Richard Curtis, president of his eponymous literary agency and founder and president of E-Reads, a publisher of both print and electronic books. “In the next five years there was a backlash as the people involved realized that it was far more complicated than they thought — technically, in terms of digital-rights management, and culturally.” Even big firms such as Warner, with its ipublish, were left with little to show for their investments.
Today, more quietly and with adjusted expectations, the push for digital books has been renewed. Sony is tweaking its 10-month-old Portable Reader tablet. Giant book e-tailer Amazon is plotting its own move into digital sales, with a prototype product in testing.
Year-over-year growth at fictionwise.com, a leading digital-books retailer, moved from a fairly flat 20 percent in 2005 to a projected 28 percent this year, according to Steve Pendergrast, a spokesman. His firm markets its own reader: the eBookwise 1150.
“Sony’s marketing grows the entire e-book market and gets people thinking about buying a device,” Mr. Pendergrast says. “They shop around, and some percentage of them opt for ours instead of theirs.”
Nearly half of his firm’s e-book sales are now in romance titles, Pendergrast says, a category that was in low single digits as recently as 2004. Other areas likely to be well served, Ms. Nelson and others say: books with perishable information that are candidates for one-time use — travel books, for example. The advantages are clear.
“There’s portability, flexibility,” says Mr. Curtis, who allows that he still likes an old-fashioned book before bed. “Can’t read the 10-point type [of an e-book]? Bump it up to 12 points. Load 40 books into a device and carry it to Frankfurt or wherever.” Still missing, says Curtis, is that “explosive spark” device that will appeal to a fast-fingered generation.
That means a device ripe for iPod ubiquitousness, industry-watchers say — perhaps an efficient convergence device served by a content aggregator like audiobook giant Audible.com.
It might involve Apple. Last month, HarperCollins announced a pilot project in which samples of more than a dozen fiction titles could be accessed by users of the iPhone. The publisher said the move would gauge demand for a cellphone format. There are other pockets of promise. E Ink, in Cambridge, Mass., for example, has made recent strides in flexible plastic display screens.
Curtis’s small, independent firm has persevered since 1998, he says, kept in the game through sales of print books. “Now the [e-book] industry seems to be established on enough of a basis for us to go on,” he says. “We’re moving forward aggressively.”
Review of Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx. From the Guardian, Saturday June 16, 2007.
In a speech, President JF Kennedy said that if only Karl Marx ‘had remained a foreign correspondent, history might have been different’. How wrong he was, argues Christopher Hitchens. Much of Marx’s writing during his years as a hack was a passionate defence of the values that were to inform his political philosophy.
Commenting acidly on a writer whom I perhaps too naively admired, my old classics teacher put on his best sneer to ask: “Wouldn’t you say, Hitchens, that his writing was somewhat journalistic?” This lofty schoolmaster employed my name sarcastically, and stressed the last term as if he meant it to sting, and it rankled even more than he had intended. Later on in life, I found that I still used to mutter and improve my long-meditated reply. Émile Zola – a journalist. Charles Dickens – a journalist. Thomas Paine – another journalist. Mark Twain. Rudyard Kipling. George Orwell – a journalist par excellence. Somewhere in my cortex was the idea to which Orwell himself once gave explicit shape: the idea that “mere” writing of this sort could aspire to become an art, and that the word “journalist” – like the ironic modern English usage of the word “hack” – could lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent.
PG Wodehouse’s 1915 novel, Psmith, Journalist, was a great prop and stay to me in this connection. The near-unchallenged master of English prose sets this adventure in New York, where Psmith pays a social visit that acquires significance when he falls in with the acting editor of the floundering journal Cosy Moments. The true editor being absent on leave, Psmith beguiles the weary hours by turning the little weekly into a crusading organ that comes into conflict with a thuggish slumlord. Threats and violence from the exploiters (which at one point lead to bullets flying and require Psmith to acquire a new hat) are met with a cool insouciance. A fighting slogan is evolved. “Cosy Moments,” announces its new proprietor, “cannot be muzzled.” He addresses all his friends and staff by the staunch title of “Comrade”. At the close, the corrupt city politicians and their gangland friends are put to flight, and Psmith hands back the paper to its staff. Some years ago, when I wrote a book for Verso (the publishing arm of the New Left Review), we were sued by some especially scabrous tycoons and our comradely informal slogan became, to the slight bewilderment of our lawyers, “Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled”.
Wodehouse often shows a fair working knowledge of Marxist theory (the locus classicus here being the imperishable Mulliner short story “Archibald and the Masses”), and it isn’t as far as you might think from Psmith, Journalist to Karl Marx, journalist extraordinaire. Let us begin the tale where Francis Wheen began it in his admirable Marx biography. The great Spanish republican militant Jorge Semprun is being taken by cattle truck through Germany in the early days of the Nazi conquest of Europe. His fictionalised memoir The Long Voyage has the death train to Buchenwald stopping at the town of Trier, in the Moselle valley. When he sees the station sign through the window, the Semprun character reacts rather as Charles Ryder does when he realises that he’s pulled to a halt at Brideshead, or as Edward Thomas does when he sees the name “Adlestrop”.
A magic place-name has been pronounced, one that exorcises all the banality and evil of the surrounding circumstances. Here Karl Marx – the Jewish internationalist name that haunts the demented Nazis – was born in 1818. And here, this son of an exhausted rabbinical line abandoned all belief in religion and began a career in radical writing for marginal campaigning newspapers. His first effort, for a Dresden sheet called the Deutsche Jahrbücher, was a blast against the evils of censorship as practised by the Prussian monarch Friedrich Wilhelm IV; an essay that was unsmilingly banned by those it lampooned. The closure of the Jahrbücher itself was not long delayed. Marx thereupon applied to the Rheinische Zeitung, a Cologne publication, which in May 1842 printed his very first published effort: another assault upon censorship and on those in the Prussian parliament who did not abhor it. As he phrased matters, expressing the feelings of every writer who has had to submit his prose to the sub-literate invigilations of state hirelings: “The defenders of the press in this assembly have on the whole no real relation to what they are defending. They have never come to know freedom of the press as a vital need. For them, it is a matter of the head, in which the heart plays no part.”
Wheen adds: “Quoting Goethe, who had said that a painter can only succeed in depicting a type of beauty which he has loved in a real human being, Marx suggested that freedom of the press also has its beauty, which one must have loved in order to defend it.”
But his attachment to the forms of free expression was something more than merely platonic. On becoming the editor of the Rheinische Zeitung a little while later (and how many promising writers have we lost as a result of their being promoted to the editorial chair?) he embarked on a piece of exposé journalism that connected the ideal of free inquiry to the material circumstances of the dispossessed. The inhabitants of the Rhineland had for generations been allowed to gather fallen branches for firewood, but now – in an assault on tradition that reminds one of the enclosures – they were told that this scavenging for elementary livelihood would become a crime against private property. The penalties would depend on the assessed “value” of what had been free timber, and would be determined by the putative “owners” of what nature and weather had let fall to the ground.
As with Newton’s apple and Darwin’s finches, Marx’s early polemics on this injustice were germinal. They contain the seed of his later views on the material superstructure of society, and the distinction between use value and exchange value. Another spasm of suppression was to follow their publication. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia became annoyed at the general tone of the newspaper and asked his Prussian monarchical counterpart to silence it in early 1843. Marx was then 24, and obscure. It gives one a distinct frisson to think that the tsar’s later namesake and descendant Nicholas II was to lose his throne and his life to Marx’s less tender-minded Bolshevik disciples, but we need not dwell upon that too much for now. The point was that the young man had declared, in his heart, that the Rheinische Zeitung could not be muzzled.
He was true to this promise when he moved back to Cologne after the revolutionary upsurge of 1848, after his co-authorship with Friedrich Engels of the Communist Manifesto, to edit the revived Neue Rheinische Zeitung. There he met an inquisitive and intelligent young American editor named Charles A Dana, an energetic member of Horace Greeley’s staff at the New York Tribune who seems to have been a talent-spotter. But this time the Prussian authorities were taking no chances and, after arresting the staff of his paper, served Marx with an order of deportation, which was arguably the biggest mistake any reactionary government made in the whole of that year. In 1850, Marx took the route that many asylum-seekers have taken before and since, and came to London. The full flourishing of his journalistic career, and of his other careers as well, begins with that enforced exile, and with the approach that the Tribune made to him shortly after.
I have been both a Marxist and a journalist, and in some eclectic ways still am both of these things, and I can’t decide which is the most interesting fork in the road to follow at this point. Let’s take journalism. It is a profession full of vagaries and insecurities, and any of its practitioners will sympathise with Marx’s familiar dilemma, and to a lesser extent with Greeley’s: the spirited and ambitious author is caught in a trap of potboiling and hack-work in order to pay the rent, while the proprietor is locked in a cost-cutting war with (in this case) the New York Times. Of the toil he had to perform to make ends meet, Marx self-hatingly wrote that it amounted to “grinding bones and making soup of them like the paupers in a workhouse”. Meanwhile, Greeley is bitching about the cut-throat and race-to-the-bottom tactics of the New York Times: “crowding us too hard … conducted with the most policy and the least principle of any paper ever started. It is ever watching for the popular side of any question that turns up, and has made lots of friends by ultra abuse of Abolitionists, Women’s Rights …” I never myself walk through midtown Manhattan, past the Greeley Square that so few now notice, and towards the headquarters of the city’s now dominant flagship paper, without thinking of this old circulation war that so impoverished the future author of Das Kapital.
Impoverished him, in fact, to the point where he wrote to Engels that “I have written nothing for Dana because I’ve not had the money to buy newspapers.” The sheer Grub Street indigence of this to one side, it points up something that the great Murray Kempton noticed in his brilliant essay (“K Marx: Reporter”) in a very early number of the fledgling New York Review of Books in 1967. Marx was not at all ashamed to derive his reportage and analysis from secondary sources. “He was,” wrote Kempton, “the journalist of the most despised credentials, the one who does not have access.” In a witty speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association, again in Manhattan, at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in April 1961 (probably suggested by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr), the newly inaugurated President John F Kennedy could perhaps be forgiven for getting the significance of this point so wrong. “We are told,” he said to his audience of print magnates, “that foreign correspondent Marx, stone broke, and with a family ill and undernourished, constantly appealed to Greeley and managing editor Charles Dana for an increase in his munificent salary of $5 per instalment, a salary which he and Engels ungratefully labelled as the ‘lousiest petty- bourgeois cheating’. But when all his financial appeals were refused, Marx looked around for other means of livelihood and fame, eventually terminating his relationship with the Tribune and devoting his talents full time to the cause that would bequeath to the world the seeds of Leninism, Stalinism, revolution and the cold war. If only this capitalistic New York newspaper had treated him more kindly; if only Marx had remained a foreign correspondent, history might have been different.”
A president is not on his oath when trying to amuse a publishers’ convention, but this is about as far from the truth as one might easily get. Marx’s family was a bit more than “ill and undernourished” (his firstborn son, Heinrich Guido, had died in the year he moved to London) but, as the record of the Rheinische Zeitung showed, there was no persuasion of any kind, moral or material, that could have reconciled him to social and political conditions as they actually were. And in any case, and despite the wretched pay and conditions, he continued to churn out first-rate copy for Greeley and Dana for a decade after complaining that they didn’t pay enough to keep up his daily subscriptions. Yet the point that JFK missed – and that almost everyone else has gone on to miss – is that much of this journalism was devoted to upholding and defending the ideas not of the coming Russian and Chinese or (as Kennedy failed to appreciate at the time) Cuban revolutions, but of the earlier American one.
If you are looking for an irony of history, you will find it not in the fact that Marx was underpaid by an American newspaper, but in the fact that he and Engels considered Russia the great bastion of reaction and America the great potential nurse of liberty and equality. This is not the sort of thing they teach you in school (in either country). I beseeched Wheen to make more of it in his biography, and his failure to heed my sapient advice is the sole reproach to his otherwise superb book. Now James Ledbetter, himself a radical American scribbler, has somewhat redressed the balance by reprinting some of Marx’s most lucid and mordant essays on the great crisis that preoccupied Greeley and Dana: the confrontation over slavery and secession that came near to destroying the United States.
In considering this huge and multi-faceted question, Marx faced two kinds of antagonist. The first was composed of that English faction, grouped around the cotton interest and the Times newspaper, which hoped for the defeat of Abraham Lincoln and the wreckage of the American experiment. The second was made up of those Pharisees who denied that the union, and its leader Lincoln, were “really” fighting a war for the abolition of slavery. Utterly impatient with casuistry, and as always convinced that people’s subjective account of their own interests was often misleading, Marx denounced both tendencies. Henry Adams, the direct descendant of two presidents and at that time a witness of his father’s embattled ambassadorship to London, wrote in his celebrated memoirs that Marx was almost the only friend that Lincoln had, against the cynical Tories and the hypocritical English Gladstonian liberals. Surveying the grim landscape of the English industrial revolution, he wrote, in The Education of Henry Adams, that it “made a boy uncomfortable, though he had no idea that Karl Marx was standing there waiting for him, and that sooner or later the process of education would have to deal with Karl Marx much more than with Professor Bowen of Harvard College or his Satanic free-trade majesty John Stuart Mill”.
Marx himself, in reviewing a letter of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s to Lord Shaftesbury (and how splendid to have the author of “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” seconding the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), ridiculed the smarmy arguments of papers such as the Economist, which had written that “the assumption that the quarrel between the North and South is a quarrel between Negro freedom on the one side and Negro Slavery on the other, is as impudent as it is untrue”. The Lincolnians, it was generally asserted, were fighting only for the preservation of the union, not for the high-sounding cause of emancipation. Not so, said the great dialectician. The confederacy had opened hostilities on the avowed basis of upholding slavery, which meant in turn that the union would be forced to tackle emancipation, whether its leadership wanted to or not. See how he makes the point in so few sentences, and shows that it is the apparently hard-headed and realistic who are in practice the deluded ones: “The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Southern Confederacy, declared in the Secession Congress that what essentially distinguished the Constitution hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that now for the first time slavery was recognised as an institutional good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the 18th century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time. Another matador of the South, Mr Spratt, cried out: ‘For us, it is a question of founding a great slave republic.’ If, therefore, it was indeed only in defence of the Union that the North drew the sword, had not the South already declared that the continuance of slavery was no longer compatible with the continuance of the Union?”
Written in 1861, this cut like a razor through the cant of the pseudo-realists, while not omitting a good passing slap at the luckless Mr Spratt (remember that Marx was teaching himself English as he went along). As war progressed, Marx and Engels were to predict correctly that the North would be able to exert industrial power as against Dixie feudalism, that ironclad ships would play an important role, that the temporising union generals such as George McClellan would be fired by an impatient Lincoln, and that an emancipation proclamation would be required as a war-winning measure. For good measure, Marx helped organise a boycott of southern slave-picked cotton among British workers, and wrote and signed a letter from the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864, congratulating Lincoln on his re-election and his defeat of the anti-war Democrats. No other figure of the time even approached his combination of acuity and principle on this historic point, which may contain a clue as to why the American revolution has outlasted the more ostensibly “Marxist” ones.
Marx’s appreciation of the laws of unintended consequence, and his disdain for superficial moralism, also allowed him to see that there was more to the British presence in India than met the eye. No doubt the aim of the East India Company had been the subordination of Indian markets and Indian labour for selfish ends, but this did not alter the fact that capitalism was also transforming the subcontinent in what might be called a dynamic way. And he was clear-eyed about the alternatives. India, he pointed out, had always been subjugated by outsiders. “The question is not whether the English had a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton.” If the conqueror was to be the country that pioneered the industrial revolution, he added, then India would benefit by the introduction of four new factors that would tend towards nation building. These were the electric telegraph for communications, steamships for rapid contact with the outside world, railways for the movement of people and products, and “the free press, introduced for the first time to Asiatic society, and managed principally by the common offspring of Hindus and Europeans”. His insight into the Janus-faced nature of the Anglo-Indian relationship, and of the potential this afforded for a future independence, may be one of the reasons why Marxism still remains a stronger force in India than in most other societies.
His belief that British-led “globalisation” could be progressive did not blind him to the cruelties of British rule, which led him to write several impassioned attacks on torture and collective punishment, as well as a couple of bitter screeds on the way in which Indian opium was forced upon the defenceless consumers of foreign-controlled China. As he wrote, reprobating Victorian hypocrisy and religiosity and its vile drug traffic, it was the supposedly uncivilised peoples who were defending decent standards: “While the semi-barbarian stood on the principle of morality, the civilised opposed to him the principle of self.”
And in writing about another irony – the fact that the Indian “mutiny” of 1857 began not among the wretched peasants, but among the sepoy soldiers whom the British had themselves trained and clothed and armed – he hit upon a powerful formulation: “There is something in human history like retribution; and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended but by the offender himself.”
This recalls his more general proposition that, by calling into being a skilled working class concentrated in huge cities and factories, capitalism itself had given birth to its own eventual gravedigger. Of course, it goes without saying that this concept of his was in turn to fall prey to its own unintended consequences.
Like many a journalist before and since, Marx was not shy of recycling his best lines. Writing about Lord Palmerston’s parliamentary effusions, he said: “He succeeds in the comic as in the heroic, in pathos as in familiarity, in tragedy as in farce, although the latter may be more congenial to his feelings.”
Probably almost every literate person knows that Marx made a famous crack – derived from Hegel – about the first episode in history being tragic and the second time being farcical. (Like many of his memorable lines, it also comes from the opening of his best ever essay, “The Eighteenth Brumaire”.) He obviously liked it enough to keep on giving it further workouts, as in the following account of still another British parliamentary occasion, this time on the opening of the Crimean war: “A singularity of English tragedy, so repulsive to French feelings that Voltaire used to call Shakespeare a drunken savage, is its peculiar mixture of the sublime and the base, the terrible and the ridiculous, the heroic and the burlesque. But nowhere does Shakespeare devolve upon the Clown the task of speaking the prologue of a heroic drama. This invention was reserved for the Coalition Ministry … All great historical movements appear, to the superficial observer, finally to subside into farce, or at least the common-place. But to commence with this is a feature peculiar alone to the tragedy entitled ‘War With Russia’ … ”
Again – and as sometimes with writers such as Joseph Conrad and Isaac Deutscher, who came to mastery of it late in life – one notices that Marx is only just acquiring his magnificent hold on the English tongue. (“Peculiar alone” is a tautology, or maybe a pleonasm.) This makes it the more remarkable that he was able to lay bare the awful background to the no less awful war in the Crimea; a war that was launched over a stupid quarrel about great-power stewardship in Jerusalem, and thus a war that is still, in our own day, continuing to be fought. His essay “On the History of the Eastern Question” has the same penetrating quality as some of his writings on France and Russia, combining an eerie prescience about the consequences of imperialist “holy” war with a fine contempt for all theocracies and all superstitions, whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic. If ruling elites and powerful states only squabbled over identifiable interests and privileges, there would have been no need for Marxist analysis. The genius of the old scribbler was to see how often the sheerly irrational intruded upon the material and utilitarian world of our great-grandfathers. That he knew and loved the classical texts as much as his despised antagonists was no disadvantage to his muscular prose style. Murray Kempton, indeed, puts him second only to Edmund Burke in this and other respects.
And I think it is with Kempton’s compliment that I ought to close. How can it be, he asked, that Marx knew so much about countries he had never visited and politicians he had never interviewed? How was it that we can read his scornful dismissal of the British government that was elected in 1852, and then turn to the memoirs of the statesmen who were directly involved and discover that they privately feared the very same paralysis and inanition that Marx had diagnosed?
Part of the answer involves a compliment to the Victorians, who compiled honest statistics about death rates and poverty and military spending (and even torture in India), and who published them for all to read. Like the late IF Stone, one of Washington’s greatest muckrakers, Marx understood that a serious ruling class will not lie to itself in its own statistics. He preferred delving in the archives to scraping acquaintance with the great and the good. When it came to the ghastly twin trades of slavery and opium, he was “a moralist with every stroke of his pen”, as Perry Anderson once phrased it. But he never lost his anchorage in the material world, and never ceased to understand that a purely moral onslaught on capitalism and empire would be empty sermonising. Isaiah Berlin, contrasting the two Jewish geniuses of 19th-century England, preferred Benjamin Disraeli to Karl Marx because the former was a hero of assimilation and accommodation and the latter was a prickly and irreconcilable subversive. Well, you may take your pick between the Tory dandy who flattered the Queen into becoming the Queen-Empress and the heretical exile who believed that India would one day burst its boundaries and outstrip its masters. But when journalists today are feeling good about themselves, and sitting through the banquets at which they give each other prizes and awards, they sometimes like to flatter one another by describing their hasty dispatches as “the first draft of history”. Next time you hear that tone of self-regard, you might like to pick up Dispatches for the New York Tribune and read the only reporter of whom it was ever actually true.
Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, edited by James Ledbetter with a foreword by Francis Wheen, is published by Penguin Classics.
Christopher Hitchens is the author of Karl Marx and the Paris Commune. His new book, God Is Not Great, is published by Atlantic Books.
By Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, November 5, 2007
There are so many ways to be interested in Frida Kahlo, who was bor a hundred years ago and died forty-seven years later, in 1954, tha simply to look at and judge her paintings, as paintings, may seem narrow-minded. No one need appreciate art to justify being a Kahlo fan or even Kahlo cultist. (Why not? The world will have cults, and who better merit one?) In Mexico, Kahlo’s ubiquitous image has become the counter-Guadalupe, complementing the numinous Virgin as a deathless icon o Mexicanidad. Kahlo’s ascension, since the late nineteen-seventies, the feminist sainthood is ineluctable, though a mite strained. (Kahlo struggle not in common cause with women but, single-handedly, for herself.) An her pansexual charisma, shadowed by tales of ghastly physical an emotional suffering, makes her an avatar of liberty and guts. However Kahlo’s eminence wobbles unless her work holds up. A retrospective a the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, proves that it does, and the some. She made some iffy symbological pictures and a few perfectl awful ones—forgivably, given their service to her always imperille morale—but her self-portraits cannot be overpraised. They are sui generi in art while collegial with great portraiture of every age. Kahlo is amon the winnowed elect of twentieth-century painters who will never be absen for long from the mental museums of future artists.
The Blue House.
She was born Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in the house where she would die, in Coyoacán, then a prosperous suburb and later a district of Mexico City. She was the third child of a Hungarian-German immigrant photographer, who was an atheist Jew, and a pious mestiza from Oaxaca. Polio, at age six, withered her right leg and foot. She was among the rare girls admitted to the sterling National Preparatory School, in Mexico City, where she grew from an effervescent tomboy into a brilliant young woman, during the creative tumult of the nineteen-twenties. When she was eighteen, a bus crash left her with spinal and pelvic damage that would entail many surgeries, some of them probably unnecessary. (Was she masochistic? Anyone doomed to a lifetime of pain will find veins of sweetness in it.) While convalescing, she began to paint, depicting herself, in styles influenced by Renaissance and Mannerist masters, with the aid of a mirror set in the canopy of her bed. In 1928, she took up with Mexico’s chief artist, Diego Rivera, who was twenty years her senior. They married in 1929, divorced for a year in 1939, then remarried. They were the loves of each others’ lives, though with innumerable supplements. Their semi-public affairs (her amours included Leon Trotsky and numerous women); their dealings with famous figures in America and Europe, from John D. Rockefeller to Pablo Picasso; and their political adventures, as Communists subject to sectarian pushes and pulls, make Hayden Herrera’s hugely consequential biography, “Frida” (1983), a delirious read. (Herrera is a co-curator, with Elizabeth Carpenter, of the Walker show.) Kahlo died, probably of a complication of pneumonia, the last in a cascade of deteriorative maladies, a year after the opening of her first solo exhibition in Mexico.
Rivera often remarked, correctly, that Kahlo was a better painter than he was. Picasso confessed himself incapable “of painting a head like those of Frida Kahlo.” André Breton praised her art—with enthusiasm marked by condescension—as “a ribbon around a bomb.” In point of fact, the ribbons and other feminine adornments that she renders are, themselves, rhetorically explosive. Breton also claimed her as an exemplar of international Surrealism. Wrong again. At her best, she is a better artist than any of the Surrealists except Salvador Dali at his best, unless early Giorgio de Chirico may be deemed Surrealist before the letter. Besides, the avant-garde most germane to Kahlo’s development in the twenties is that of German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), which mined heightened realism for psychological drama. To this, she added fecund inspirations from Mexican pre-Columbian and folk art and Spanish-colonial and Creole portraiture. No swoons into the supposed unconscious—even most of her dream pictures are wide awake. She was terrific at still-lifes of fruit and flowers and at picturing animals—she intermittently maintained a menagerie of dogs, cats, parrots, and monkeys—all of which channel her consciousness. Kahlo’s self-portraits are about her gaze, as subject matter, technique, and content. They dramatize sheer attentiveness. They tell us exactly what it’s like to be Frida Kahlo, with, I believe, a superbly indifferent confidence that we will not understand. She confides, but she won’t plead. She makes eye contact not with the viewer but with herself—watching herself watch herself, in an extended but closed loop. T. S. Eliot articulated the truth, regarding all successful art, of a dissociation of “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Make the man a woman, and Kahlo becomes singular for having engaged both parties at once—and only them. Looking at the pictures, you’re not there.
The meaning of Kahlo’s art comes across in reproductions, but not its full dynamic, which involves brooding subtleties of surface and color. The reproduced images are shiny and bright. The paintings are matte and grayish, drinking and withholding light. (Their display calls for intense illumination—that of the Mexican sun, say. They should not be hung on white walls, as they are at the Walker, where the contrast makes them look like holes in a snowbank.) The lovely, highly varied, blushing colors (even Kahlo’s browns and greens blush) don’t radiate. Fused with represented flesh, foliage, fabrics, and, yes, ribbons and jewelry, they turn their backs to us. The payoff of this reticence is an absorption in the artist’s touch. It’s easy to fantasize that Kahlo’s brushes were fingertips, able to mold her own more than familiar features in the dark. The tactility of certain self-portraits is, among other things, staggeringly sexy. In “Me and My Parrots” (1941), it combines with sharp tonal contrasts of warm color to convey invisible moistness, as of a summertime, full-body, delicate sweat. Elsewhere, the felt oneness of sight and touch stirs harrowing empathy, as in “The Broken Column” (1944). Kahlo’s nude body is split open to reveal a crumbling pillar, nails penetrating her flesh everywhere. Tears flow from her eyes, but her face is dispassionate, as always. Her pain is not her. It just won’t let her mind stray to anything else, for the moment. The work belongs to a category of images with which Kahlo confronted and endured episodes of agony, including heartbreak and rage. (Most piercing are laments of her disastrous pregnancies; she longed for children but physically could not bring a baby to term.) They aren’t great art, but they are moving testaments of a great artist.
Blisteringly scornful of self-importance—in a letter from Paris, in English, she lauded Marcel Duchamp as “the only one who has his feet on the earth, among all this bunch of coocoo lunatic sons of bitches of the surrealists”—Kahlo would surely raise her prodigious eyebrow to behold what has been made of her. But immortal fame rarely meshes with the temperament of those it befalls. It is about the wishes of others. In Kahlo’s case, the ways that she has been used by feminists, multiculturalists, bisexualists, and whatnot are readily defensible. Each catches the glint from one of her facets. Most of all, Kahlo is authentically a national treasure of Mexico, a country that her work expresses not merely as a culture but as a complete civilization, with profound roots in several pasts and with proper styles of modernity. She didn’t accomplish this by trying to, as Rivera did. She simply did it. For confirmation, visit her house, the Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, whose contents and décor are as vibrant with her presence as if she had just stepped outside. I should disclose that I’m nearly a Kahlo cultist, myself. Much that is hurt and disappointed in me feels momentarily allayed, and almost healed, when I am in the spell of her art. Like the serene Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini, with their hints of the coming Crucifixion, her self-portraits assure me of two things: first, that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they’re all right.
The Heart of Frida exhibition in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico showcasing recently discovered letters and artwork.